“Changing the Game” in Strategy

James Schneider’s book The Structure of Strategic Revolution is one of my favorite books and was a huge influence on my thinking about operational art and the growth of strategy. So I was pleased to see him write an op-ed for Tom Ricks’ blog.

He has an interesting comment on strategy:

Fourth, the very idea of strategy is little understood. Strategy is the art of creating a generating logic that rationalizes violent or competitive behavior. Strategy is about creating the rules of the game, not about playing the game. Lines and arrows, Xs and Os are the tactical expression of strategy, mediated through operational art. Think of James Naismith and his invention of basketball. His set of rules — the generating logic — rationalized the competitive behavior of players to create a viable sport — a strategy. The coaches (the “operational artists”) mediate the play by enforcing — coaching — the rules played by the players — tacticians. Strategy creates the rules for the games nations play. The strategist seeks to impose new logic — new rules — in a competitive, often violent environment, while disrupting the logic of his opponent. Lincoln, the first really modern strategist, changed the “game” of the American Civil War by introducing the “rule” of Emancipation.

This is, in essence, a more complex way of expressing Sun Tzu’s idea of “attacking the enemy’s strategy.” It also is the definition of peacetime strategy encompassed in the system of Net Assessment as practiced by Andrew Marshall–learning how to create a strategy for competition with the Soviet Union. This is highly desirable, and if a strategist can achieve a wholesale rule set he or she should not hesitate to do so. The American war on Japanese commerce during World War decisively “changed the rules” and sealed the Japanese empire’s long-term defeat, for example.

The trouble with this is that it requires a level of coordination and foresight is rare in practice. Often times we do not change the logic of the conflict onto our terms–nor does the opponent. Hence the utility of the idea–as expressed by Clausewitz–that the most effective route to victory is the defeat, destruction, or imposition of unacceptable costs on the enemy armed forces. While Lincoln certainly changed the rule, it also took Grant and the strategy of concentration in time to destroy the Confederacy.

The enemy also can adapt fairly quickly to the changing of the rules. The Egyptians “changed the rules” by using heavy artillery to embroil the Israelis in attrition warfare during the War of Attrition, only to have the IDF turn the tables in response with large-scale raiding into the interior of the Egyptian heartland. Similarly, the advantage gained by the Egyptian missile and anti-tank nets in the 1973 war was also short-lived.

Still, it’s a useful concept to strive towards, however difficult it may be.

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2 thoughts on ““Changing the Game” in Strategy

  1. Nice post Adam.

    I see strategy more as “experimenting while you play” than “Strategy is about creating the rules of the game, not about playing the game.” I have often thought what good would strategy, tactics or operations be in issolation, each standing alone? It appears to me one would be ineffective without the other. As the eb and flow of conflcit unfolds do not strategy, operations and tactics run parrell each dependant upon the other as the circumstances dictate? When we talk about these elements seperately they make little sense to me. Your thoughts!

  2. Pingback: Old School | Fear, Honor, and Interest

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