December 15’s Sunday Washington Post featured a great review by Gerard DeGroot of the new book “Strategy, A History” by Lawrence Freedman, a British strategic analyst and former foreign policy analyst to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. What made this a great review was not just the reviewer's positive comments about the book (he convinced me that I want to read it), but I especially appreciated his comments illuminating the relationship between plans and strategy – which are far too often confounded by those discussing either or both.
At the conclusion of his review, Professor DeGroot writes, “All this strategizing is, in truth, an attempt to impose individual will upon a recalcitrant world…We convince ourselves that we are, in fact, architects of our own fate…much more palatable than having to admit that we might be mere flotsam in a turbulent sea of circumstance.” The latter reference resonates with me because it calls to mind the reality within which we work and struggle, especially at the level of national security and warfighting.
DeGroot’s statement resonated with some of the lessons I had learned from experience – enlightened at least equally by a number of tenets drawn from the pages of On War, written by the 19th Century Prussian officer Clausewitz (and cited by DeGroot in his review)-“everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”. Strategy is how you intend to conduct your war – plans are how you will make that strategy effective in your campaigns and battles.
During a 30 year career as an American diplomat, I found that of all the Secretaries of State under whom I served only Henry Kissinger thought and worked at the level of strategy, having a clear picture of the nation’s starting point as well as relative current situation while still keeping an eye on the intended eventual end state. By comparison, it seemed that his immediate predecessor and his successors were for numerous reasons focused intently upon whatever event had washed up into their inbox and there immediately burst into flames.
I suspect that Kissinger, DeGroot, myself, and possibly Clausewitz, share a metaphoric vision of the world in which time moves as a river, pushing us onward as we encounter events that are swallowed up by the forward momentum, are pushed aside by subsequent events or which on occasion force that forward flow from its seemingly intended direction and bursting these banks to move in new and unanticipated directions. A commander who relies upon a precisely executed sequence of actions is doomed to fail against this tide, but one who prepares and anticipates this reality in the knowledge that his plan serves primarily as the basis for whatever adaptation or improvisation will be forced him upon by events and circumstances will have every chance at success.
I have been a player of historically based war games and conflict simulations for more than 50 years, losing and winning innumerable battles, campaigns, and wars played out on a tabletop. I learned the hard way that in games which depended often upon chance (as does war according to Clausewitz), I had to make my plans in the expectation that my plan would not go perfectly or smoothly, but would be repeatedly disrupted either by my bad luck or my opponent's good luck. I had to make plans that were ‘luck-proof’, incorporating provisions against both the anticipated and unforeseen ‘what-ifs’ that might come. Napoleon himself, though an avid planner, also recognized this when he claimed that in battle “first I engage and then I see” – knowing as he did how chance events might derail his plans and how as soldiers say today, “the enemy gets a vote” on how, when, and where a battle will be conducted.
DeGroot’s review did not specifically draw drawn upon Clausewitz’ comments upon the role of chance in warfare, but the Professor does offer his own tale of the unforeseen events that converted his plan to read Freedman’s book in four days, draft his review on the fifth, revise and polish on the sixth, and (inevitably) on the seventh take his ease – into an event-driven reality that required seven days spent on just the reading. The Prussian general von Moltke the Elder famously wrote, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” The mythic iconic soldier, Sergeant Murphy, put it perhaps more succinctly but less elegantly when he reputedly said “shit happens.”