Dr. Chet Richards
Editor, Defense and the National Interest
Military—that is, destructive—activities have the potential to provoke a backlash in public opinion (on both sides) and among allies and the uncommitted. Nightly newscasts of civilian casualties in Vietnam, for example, helped fuel public demands to end the war, as did reports of carnage along the "Highway of Death" out of Kuwait during the last days of the First Gulf War. In this age of instant worldwide communications, the potential for such adverse consequences, and even for their manipulation, has obviously increased. With the growth of satellite television and the Internet, censorship is not a realistic option.
One solution is a "grand strategy" that guides military actions not only to minimize these effects but to produce positive benefits on morale and public/world opinion. Such a grand strategy would also shape our alliance structure and form a key element in isolating adversaries from physical, mental, and moral support.
The late American strategist, John R. Boyd, suggested four functions of a "sensible" grand strategy:
Note Boyd's mention of the "uncommitted," a group often slighted (or even antagonized!) in modern warfare. Grand strategy seeks to "influence the uncommitted or potential adversaries so that they are drawn towards our philosophy and are empathetic toward our success." If they choose to join our cause, great; but at the very least they should refrain from any actions that furnish comfort, support, or information to our adversaries.
A tall order. Boyd does not provide a checklist for accomplishing it, but instead advises gaining "an appreciation for the underlying
that we as well as the uncommitted and any potential or real adversaries must contend with." In other words, to create a grand strategy that works, we must carry Sun Tzu's admonition to "know the enemy and know ourselves" at a step or two farther: to know potential opponents and the uncommitted as well as we know the enemy and ourselves.
Boyd suggested a three part approach:
During the Vietnam War, we committed every mistake in the grand strategic book. Instead of attracting the uncommitted, we repelled them by a perception of indiscriminate use of firepower (more tons of bombs than in all of WW II), we failed to negate Ho Chi Minh's claim that he was fighting a straightforward war for independence, we did not respect the ideals and culture of our allies ("gooks"), and our population came to believe that their government was not telling the truth about either the goals or the progress of the war (which is why our tactical victory in the 1968 Tet offensive resulted in a grand strategic defeat.) As a result, achievements on the battlefield were offset by our government's isolation first from its allies and then from its own people.
As a basis for a grand strategy, Boyd recommended a "unifying vision":
The U.S. Constitution represents such a theme for this country. The challenge of American grand strategy, therefore, is to uphold the ideals embodied in the Constitution, while showing that we respect the culture and achievements of our allies, the uncommitted, potential adversaries, and even the population of actual adversaries. Executing such a grand strategy would have the effect of limiting the support for—and so the options available to—violent ideological, trans-national "terrorist" groups.
Unlike military strategy, which must of necessity be kept secret and shrouded in ambiguity and misinformation, grand strategy must be well publicized and proclaimed by top leaders on a daily basis. Churchill defeated Hitler not because he was a great strategist (just one day after Churchill dismissed the blitzkrieg as merely a "scoop or raid of mechanized vehicles," German armor reached the English Channel, effectively deciding operations in France) but because he was perhaps the greatest grand strategist of the modern era:
Lincoln was his worthy equal in the previous century:
As the examples of Churchill and Lincoln show, successful wartime leaders place a high premium on grand strategy. During the early phases of a conventional conflict, when alliances are being formed, and throughout a fourth generation war, they have no more pressing responsibility. In any stage, however, it is not enough just to formulate and proclaim grand visions and noble ideals: Political leaders must also ensure that military commanders understand the grand strategy, enthusiastically support it, and harmonize their operations with it. They must remove commanders who cannot or will not maintain such harmony, while still achieving their missions, and promote those who can and do.