Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy

Justin Kelly and Michael James Brennan. Strategic Studies Institute, Army War College, 16 September 2009.


Recent western military exploits in Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and East
Timor, all represent, if not strategic failure, at least failures of strategy. The question we need to ask
ourselves is whether this weakness is endemic or at least partially a result of our own theoretical failings by
allowing operational art to escape from any reasonable delimitation and, by so doing, subvert the role of
strategy and hide the need for a strategic art?

Editor’s Comment:

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, there emerged in this country a revisionist narrative of “meddling” by civilian leaders such as Johnson and McNamara which had “prevented” the military from winning the war. Although this narrative was almost entirely counter factual, it has had enough resonance in a nation deeply troubled by the war’s outcome that subsequent civilian leadership has opted to effectively “hand-off” wars to their generals and step back from responsibility for key strategic decisions.

Generals are, for the most part, skilled operational practitioners, but only sometimes do they have well-developed strategic skills or wisdom. As the authors point out, handing-off responsibility for strategic decisions to the generals is an error in the practice of grand strategy… and we should not be surprised with how often our subsequent wars have gone badly.

My hope is that President Obama will read this essay before making his decision about what to do next in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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