We Go To War With The Strategic Culture We Have

A common theme of writings about strategic culture is that the default American strategic culture is deficient in one (or all) of these various ways:

  • Technocenterism: Trust in technology over people, an teleological sense of history, and a belief that “engineering” and technocratic rationality can substitute for strategy.
  • Magic bullet-ism: A search for a simple one-shot kill for military and political problems. Exhibit A: The Army Air Corps Tactical School’s targeting philosophy and the “Industrial Web” theory of strategic bombing.
  • Insularity: A lack of knowledge or curiosity about foreign nations, manifesting in a propensity to be fooled by clever emigres or regime elites, mirror-imaging, and difficulties in stability operations in highly alien cultures.
  • Strategic planning deficits: Allergy to long-scale planning, lack of institutional continuity to carry out grand strategies, short attention spans, a preference for a “way of battle” over planning strategy, and hostility to “conservative realist” conception of war as political intercourse with added element of violence.
  • The US defense establishment, despite extensive experience in irregular operations dating back even before America was a nation, is optimize for one kind of war against a state opponent.

I’ve written about at least two of these bullets and I’ve seen nearly every critique voiced at least a dozen times. Most critiques are voiced with the implicit assumption that these defaults can be fixed (perhaps ironically falling into the trap of Bullet #1) through various radical institutional fixes. But what if we can’t change?

This is not to say that strategic change is always impossible. From the late 1700s up to World War II we always started from scratch in terms of training and force generation–and even for most of the 20th century we always tended to do poorly in the “first battle.” After Vietnam, a set of reforms and training revolutions (Red Flag, TOPGUN, and NTC being the foremost examples) ensured that we were prepared to hit the ground running.

But “getting a competent army prepared for war”–as big of a challenge as that may be in America–is another thing from “getting Americans to culturally accept that strategy does not equal gadgetry.” The former is a definable challenge with inputs and outputs, the latter entails a cultural revolution. If we’ve held to a consistent set of strategic behaviors for over 200 years, why would anyone expect us to change?

This does not mean that we shouldn’t do all we can to generate operational fixes to compensate for these difficulties–and we’ve done a great job of doing so in the last ten years. But it does mean that we should begin thinking about our strategy from a basepoint in which all of the bullet points are accepted as fundamentally unchangeable.

Rather, we should determine how much we need to “push” in these areas versus our capacity for doing so. An example is cultural awareness–what level of cultural awareness is actually necessary for success vs. what we can hope to generate? If there is a mismatch between what is required and our ability to generate it, perhaps the problem is not a lack of a technical fix but a problem with the required strategic missions themselves.

I’d also like to point out as an aside that each bullet has its upsides. Our advantage in artillery techniques in World War II on the tactical level over the Germans is a consequence of our technological ingenuity, and it was the very same quality that led to the convoy system on the operational level, and our production capacity to overwhelm the Axis on the strategic.


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