by Aaron Bazin and Dan Sukman     •

Military Spending GIIf the ability communicate complex ideas in an easily understood way is a valuable skill to the strategic thinker, then first principles offer one possible point of departure from which to begin any discussion on strategy. A few months ago, we posed a question on various strategy-related email chains and Facebook pages asking interested parties what the first principles of military strategy were. We got numerous responses; some humorous, some vitriolic, but all very interesting.

Development of a first principle is akin to boiling down information to uncover the elemental truth that lies within. We culled through the responses and necked down the subject to consider only ‘American’ military strategy to add further clarity and context. Then we tried to synthesize, combine, and distill each one down to the core of its essence. Our final list includes eight, but there are undoubtedly many, many more. We offer the outline of the first principles below for your consideration:

Problem Statement: What are the first principles of American military strategy?

Thesis: America is successful when it aligns the use of force with first principles that reflect the essence of its national character. These first principles could include:

1) Have a Strategy. America is successful when it clearly defines success in terms of ends, ways, means, and risk. Failure occurs when policymakers have tactical fixation, lack as unifying vision, or cannot define achievable goals (e.g. McNamara and body counts). Americans love to win; therefore strategy must define what winning means.

2) American Ideals Matter. Fear, honor, and interest drive strategic decisions. The U.S. employs its military force to fight for its core interests; namely security, freedom, and economic prosperity.

3) Align National Will, Policy, and Military Strategy. Effective strategy making and execution by the U.S. requires a strong civilian-military relationship based in mutual respect and trust. Civilian leaders must find the right military leaders to achieve policy goals (e.g., Lincoln–Grant, FDR–Eisenhower). Likewise, policy goals should align with the depth and level of commitment of the American people.

4) Embark Only on Just Wars, and Then Fight Them Justly. The American people and the world will hold U.S. leaders accountable for taking the nation to war for the wrong reasons (e.g. Tonkin Gulf, Iraq WMD) and for fighting war in an unacceptable way (e.g. My Lai, Abu Ghraib).

5) Lead a Coalition, but Remain Ready to Act Alone. Successful unilateral action is possible in the short-term or covertly. Partners add legitimacy, diversity, and provide strategic access essential to any long-term vision (e.g. WWII, Iraq’s coalition of the willing, Libya, ISAF).

6) Remember that Strategy is Found in What is Funded. Money is the sinews of war. Any strategy or plan without funding is a mere hallucination (e.g. lack of U.S. follow through to Mujahedeen and Pakistan following Soviet-Afghan war).

7) Admit When a Strategy is Not Working and Change. Conflict is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and characterized by fog, friction, and chance. Policymakers must have the ability to assess when a strategy is not working and change accordingly (e.g. Iraq surge).

8) Change institutions in peace to win the next war. During conflict, overcoming the enemy equals success. Absent conflict, the ability of military institutions to change determines success (e.g. officer education prior to WWII, U.S. Army’s “Big Five” and AirLand Battle doctrine following Vietnam).

These are only some of the principles of American military strategy. This list is not comprehensive, and one could make academically defensible arguments for the inclusion of many others. Also, a risk of first principles is that actors that hold a belief too tightly in can become dogma, which could lead to hubris and poor decisions. Additionally, these first principles may be too simplistic for the well-educated strategist interested in the many nuances of strategic thinking.

Even with these shortfalls, first principles can help a strategist determine the “so what” bridging understanding with application and creation. The depth of strategic thought is daunting and is often difficult to explain. We’d be interested if you find value in these…and if you have first principles that we are missing.

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Aaron Bazin and Dan Sukman are US Army strategists. The views expressed in this piece are theirs alone and do not represent the US Army or the Department of Defense.

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