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Best Defense

Mattis to Daddis: Strategy should come from civilians, not generals who execute

By Peter Mattis Best Defense guest respondent Colonel Gregory Daddis’ argument is that strategy is overrated: "Talented American generals can develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy and still lose a war." As sympathetic as watching a poorly executed strategy fail is likely to make someone to this argument, the argument itself rests on fallacious ...


By Peter Mattis

Best Defense guest respondent

Colonel Gregory Daddis’ argument is that strategy is overrated: "Talented American generals can develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy and still lose a war." As sympathetic as watching a poorly executed strategy fail is likely to make someone to this argument, the argument itself rests on fallacious assumption. In the United States, a general cannot develop and implement a comprehensive political-military strategy. That’s what civilian control of the military means. We are not the Prussians under Frederick the Great or the French under Napoleon, where civilian and military command was unified. A talented American general only may advise on creating such a strategy, because he/she — like almost everyone else in the room — lacks the standing and the comprehensive professional competence to establish the political ends. Something civilian commentators should remember when the national introspection and reflection begin, hopefully with more honesty.

Does a good strategy guarantee success? No. A good political-military strategy however does mean that individual operational and tactical successes (or failures) are far less important. 

The Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 provides a useful antidote to the focus on operational successes at the expense of thoughtful strategic planning. The Chinese suffered enormous losses for the number of troops engaged. Apart from the crossing the border with some level of operational surprise, it is hard identify what the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) did right. Beijing did however achieve its political objectives. As Vietnamese documents later showed, Hanoi learned that Moscow could not be depended upon to protect Vietnam from China. Vietnam’s potential expansion was stifled, because it had to maintain more forces closer to the northern border. Beijing earned the gratitude of Bangkok and Washington, while getting Moscow to back off in Asia. If there is a Chinese way of war, then focus on political outcomes of campaigns is a key element to how the use of force is measured. 

General Ulysses S. Grant’s peninsula campaign in 1864 also shows the value of operations within a sound strategic framework.  From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania to Cold Harbor and the failed amphibious move on Petersburg, Grant continued to have opportunities — irrespective of stalemate or defeat on the battlefield — to hurt Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and separate it from the Confederate political leadership. Because Grant understood this, he did not react the same way to defeat as the previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Lee may have been able to parry Grant’s individual and successive thrusts; however, he could not force Grant out. 

Although Andrew Bacevich’s charge that the U.S. military has failed in almost every conflict since becoming an all-volunteer force may be hyperbole, there is enough truth to warrant some critical introspection. The lack of a draft meant a U.S. administration did not have to think as critically about power, passion, and politics — even if the draft was not always a sufficient guard against supercilious "strategizing." Similarly, we should compare the record of the PLA’s operational competence against the record of it accomplishing Beijing’s objectives. That the former was poor while the latter superb should raise important questions for would-be U.S. strategists to consider about why and how to employ the U.S. military. 

On one score at least Clausewitz was unequivocal: "War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means." Although the military’s professional prerogative and special competence, victory on the battlefield and operational competence are only relevant if they advance political objectives. The focus on the war-fighting excellence of the U.S. military seems to distract those in the civilian world from understanding that that excellence means little without walking through the political steps of strategy long before the military becomes involved. 

Clausewitz was clear about war being simple, but he decried devotion to any simplistic notion of how to design and execute strategy. One of the analogies used was a comparison to chopping down trees with an axe. At first glance, the object is simple. Chop the tree down. However, it rapidly gets more complicated. Which direction does it need to fall? What about the knots in the trunk? Is it a hard- or soft-wood tree? Where to start making the cuts and at what height? Each tree grows in a different context — even if in the same forest — with different features. Thus, what is simple in concept rapidly becomes more difficult in execution. 

In his book The Logic of Failure, psychological researcher Dietrich Dorner highlighted how complex problems needed variable levels of planning for good strategic decision-making to occur. Many individuals had a marked tendency to plan too much or too little, based on how insecure they were facing uncertainty. Dorner’s experiments were not simplistic "games" of strategic choice, but rather continuing tests of people to manage the complex relationships — such as the interrelationships between healthcare, population, food supply, and more — over time where they had near dictatorial powers. Even people should know better by dint of training and experience still fail to set clear objectives, to treat strategies like testable propositions, and gather information related to the first two. Instead, most "muddle through" and a repair approach, which, although often better than nothing, is the result of a lack of clear objectives. In the face of such uncertainty, humans fall back on what they know and can deal with — no matter how trivial — to preserve their sense of competence.

Given these complexities and the difficulty of strategy, it is a wonder that people still think the Vietnam War was predestined to be lost and that Saigon was destined to fall. South Vietnam only capitulated after the North had launched one failed campaign when Saigon still had U.S. material support and succeeded only once that support was withdrawn. Although I am distant in both time and place, the Vietnam War is still personal. My father-in-law spent three years in reeducation camps for being a doctor and being mustered during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The morality or immorality of U.S. involvement does not change the fact that the North’s conquest of the South was conquest and the resulting feelings are still alive today. And not just in U.S. émigré enclaves where the three red stripes still fly. Hanoi itself has a large number of failures and had to revisit its strategy a number of times. Perhaps that was the biggest difference between Washington and Hanoi: The willingness to revisit and evaluate strategy as new information and events changed the circumstances. Accepting Eliot Cohen’s arguments about great wartime leadership, which country’s leadership most resembles the kind of learning behavior exhibited by Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill, and Ben Gurion among others? 

To even accept the argument that Vietnamese nationalism made the war unwinnable requires a kind of historical amnesia and replacing the timeline of Vietnam’s struggle for independence with the timeline of direct U.S. military involvement in support of Saigon. The two timelines are not the same. It was not the Soviets or the Chinese who stood with Ho Chi Minh when he declared independence on September 2, 1945, but rather the United States, and Truman later rejected (or did not read) Ho’s personal appeals. We also called for national self-determination in 1919, but accepted locking Ho and other nationalists out of the Versailles Conference.

Maybe Ho was a communist first and a nationalist second; however, critics of the Vietnam War cannot have it both ways. If nationalism drove North Vietnam and made the war unwinnable, then it highlights the tragedy of that war — and arguably of the Cold War writ large. The United States allowed national self-determination to become a communist cause, allowing what should have been a democratizing and developing process to be hijacked by authoritarianism. 

It is true General Westmoreland and the civilian "best and brightest," like McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara, were not as foolish as they often look in hindsight. To go back to the tree chopping analogy, they identified that they needed to chop down a tree and maybe even which direction it needed to fall, but did not go further or continue to adapt to the knots in the wood or the wind over time. In unclear situations, as both Dorner and the late James Q. Wilson demonstrated, humans fall back on what they know and bureaucracies use metrics that end up defining the mission. 

Robert McNamara in his book, In Retrospect, said Washington lacked the expertise to understand what was taking place in Vietnam. But as CIA analysts Harold "Hal" Ford, in his scathing review of In Retrospect, and George Allen’s memoir, None So Blind, make clear, the leadership’s combination of objectives that were at minimum undeveloped and metrics that did allow for this expertise to move up the chain ensured Washington could not revisit and reevaluate strategy on the basis of new information. The order of battle controversy that pitted CIA versus MACV and DIA is but one example of this dissonance. General Cushman’s reflections are another. The U.S. leadership lacked the means for understanding the data, even if they had a useful or even apparently sound strategy.  

The other problem was that the ability to execute the strategy based on the limitations-such as trying to avoid a Chinese intervention, which was a possibility up to the late 1960s, based on Beijing’s material and military support for North Vietnam — was not necessarily reevaluated after the restraints were imposed. Nor is it clear that strategy was reevaluated after it became apparent that the Viet Cong were getting wiped out and being replaced by regular NVA forces. It was one thing to contain an insurgency that was mostly local with some foreign support and another to contain a foreign-based insurgency that was mustered, trained, and supplied outside where the campaign is being fought. 

The most interesting finding in Dorner’s study of decision-making was that performance had no correlation with intelligence as measured by IQ. The only distinction that made a real difference was practical decision-making experience. As Robert Komer said, "good judgment is usually the result of experience and experience is usually the result bad judgment." People can get experience vicariously through study; however, studying is requires a discipline most often confused with acquiring academic credentials. As one commenter on Col. Daddis’ post asked, did Westmoreland read Clausewitz, ask questions in the margins, and, then, go back research possible answers to those questions? It is a big job and a serious one, requiring a time that is rarely available and respected. 

Careerism — pursuing the "be" part of John Boyd’s famous "to be or to do"– is the enemy of such practical intellectual pursuits, but unfortunately is becoming more common. Rather than critiquing the military, the intelligence community, or any other part of the national security establishment, I simply point to my own experience on the job hunt. Despite still being in graduate school, the most common question (even in this economy) was why are you out of work, never what have you been doing with your time. Outside the military, it is even more difficult for civilian officials to have the experience of studying, teaching, and practicing. This is arguably the trinity of developing insightful strategists.  

Dismissing the value of strategy on the basis of poor execution is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The presumption that "the general" should develop and implement the political-military suggests the kind of omni-competence that raised the question of whether an American military coup was possible. Recent survey results have shown younger military officers now increasingly (and possibly alarmingly) think it is a military officer’s job to make civilian policymakers listen — how to do so is a completely different question. This is beyond their professional competence as managers of organized violence and standing as military advisors. Bernard Brodie’s solution (and seemingly General Cushman’s as well) to the tough dilemma was for military officers to resign in the face of civilian unwillingness to do the thinking necessary for strategy — not disagreements or a refusal to respect military judgment. Intellectual laziness about national interests and the employment of force to achieve specific political objectives was Brodie’s concern. This "unequal dialogue" requires civilians to be literate in military and strategic affairs-a situation made more difficult by fewer opportunities for vicarious experience and a smaller percentage of the American population having been engaged in the military during wartime. If the United States wants to get strategy and the use of force right, then studying and teaching need to become more fundamental parts of civilian advancement in government.

Peter Mattis is editor of China Brief at The Jamestown Foundation. The views here are his own and do not reflect those of the Foundation.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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