Strategists: The Next Generation

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Strategists evolve, shaped by the times they live in, prisoners of the problems of the day. And so, just as warfare constantly changes, so must strategists. So what will mold future strategists?

The task is to anticipate what future challenges might be on the horizon, and then connect them to the characteristics which might best contest them. This short essay thinks beyond today’s Millennial Generation to Generation Z, first born in the mid-1990s and running through the 2010s. As I was born at the tail end of Generation X, this is the generation of my two daughters, so I have a personal stake in contemplating their futures. Generation Z’s first strategists will enter positions of strategic military service about 2030 and by 2050 they will occupy the entirety of the national strategic decision making apparatus. What follows are five key characteristics which will differentiate them from us, today’s strategists, each tied to tidal trends in the strategic environment that will drive the next 35 years.

. . . future strategists will possess a blend of PT Barnum’s showmanship, Stephen King’s penmanship, and Don Draper’s salesmanship.

  1. Global. This is, perhaps, the easiest to gauge. All major American allies are in demographic decline, which over time will force countries to share the burdens of military expenditure. It’s one thing to not want to spend blood or treasure, it’s another thing entirely to not have enough young people to spend. In turn, this will mean more multinational operations, overseas assignments, and international engagement. Strategists will depend more on peers in other countries.
  1. Technical. As threats expand with technological advancement, so too will the need to possess requisite technical and scientific literacy. Nuclear weapons, precision strike, global pandemics, shifting climate, crop failure, water shortages – all require a working knowledge of what modern science can tell us about how these dangers function. Strategists will need to understand these.
  1. Command. Senior military command will be more meritocratic. Public belief in the old, experienced WASP male at the head of an institution has been shaken; the American people have grown comfortable with young leaders in positions of power through Silicon Valley’s start-up successes. Over time it will seem absurd that tactical prowess at the company, battalion, and brigade command-level necessarily means an officer will make a superior combatant commander. Some strategists will command at senior levels.
  1. Narrative. Traditionally, strategists focus on fighting and politics. But there’s a third area that’s gained steam in the information age: narrative. While the military creates a new monopoly on violence, and politicians certify this new monopoly, the people consecrate it by choosing a particular narrative that supports the monopoly’s continuance. Essentially, getting the other side to believe in and observe your story matters more than it used to when everybody has access to unlimited information. As such, future strategists will possess a blend of PT Barnum’s showmanship, Stephen King’s penmanship, and Don Draper’s salesmanship.
  1. Female. Two things are happening: first, women are out-graduating and outperforming men in nearly every important educational category; the officer corps will be more female. Second, the way women are perceived by society is changing, from the movies (nearly every major blockbuster has a female heroine), to elite military schools, to the selection of the first female combatant commander. My daughters could very well take up the family business (there’s a country song in that: “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Strategists”). And they’ll be better than their Dad ever was.

 

 

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

3 thoughts on “Strategists: The Next Generation”

  1. Hi Matt.

    Multimedia propaganda is likely to be an effective strategy.

    This is demonstrated in 602 Brigade by Musashi Miyamoto (Amazon). Set within the next decade China (PRC) invades Japan yet despite sixty million civilian deaths, the USA cannot intervene because China included a significant series of integrated propaganda releases. These neutralized any potential military support for Japan and gained substantial International support for China despite China being the aggressor.

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  2. I’ve always found Narrative to be a bit perplexing. Not in a vexing or opaque sense, but in the sense of why it was even a question. Why DON’T US plans account for narrative? Is it even possible for a political message to exist without narrative? Is it a matter of control of the narrative so that an unintended one does not evolve in the target population? And what makes control of the narrative qualitatively different from propaganda? Isn’t official narrative the very definition of propaganda? I believe it was Goebels who said that without good government there is no good propaganda, and without good propaganda there can be no good government (pretty sure he meant good in the sense of effective, not benevolent).

    My take on it is that US/Western military planners have shunted propaganda away into a niche skill of Psyop the same way control of the civil population has been into Civil Affairs, and effectively written both out of meaningful campaign plans. Net result, our campaigns of late have had a desperate need of narrative and civil control. But I don’t think there is anything novel or revolutionary about narrative. Our rediscovery of it is more like someone getting off of crutches and rediscovering how easy it is to walk on your own two feet than of someone getting wings implanted and discovering the miracle of flight heretofore unknown.

    I would also add that narrative is one thing I don’t think the information age has impacted all that much. What the average perception of a target narrative is in a target population has been the obsession of secret police services for generations. In other words, messages spread as fast as people do….our messages may be fast now, but our people can get there fast too. In 1776 it might have taken a few weeks for SC to hear about goings on in Boston, but they still heard it in advance or near the same time as the local British garrisons, which means it was no easier to control then than it is now. Just a lot more down time at the pub.

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  3. I found the command aspect of your piece to be very interesting. Being a cadet at the academy, all I see are the “old, experienced WASP males at the head of an institution.” It is hard to believe that junior leaders or strategist will ever hold the same respect or commands as their senior counterparts. I feel people today and in the future will always want the older, experienced leader over the young, innovative one.

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