Four Moments of Warrior Wisdom from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

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

It’s here. Unless you’ve been slumming it on Dagobah or hanging around some empty desert planet, you probably noticed Star Wars: The Last Jedi consumed all of Earth’s attention this past weekend. Even the early returns indicate the movie will make a ton of money, and critics already love the show.

But for those responsible for real wars, there’s more to this picture than 153 minutes of eye candy. There are four moments, four lines, four quotations—embedded in the script—that would speak wisdom for those warriors willing to listen. What follows (don’t worry, no spoilers) is a brief recounting of these pockets of profound knowledge. Continue reading “Four Moments of Warrior Wisdom from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi””

It’s Time to End the Tyranny of Ends, Ways, and Means

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

A few years ago, I showed a senior officer a draft strategy. He looked at it, and then looked at me with a Christmas orphan’s unsatisfied disappointment: “We need to more clearly explain our ends, ways, means analysis,” he said, leaving silent the implied threat—or it’s not a real strategy. Underwhelmed but outranked, I grudgingly included the formula.

American strategists know the formula well. It’s Col. Arthur Lykke’s, published in Military Review in 1989, and since then widely taught and promulgated by the US Army War College: “Strategy equals ends (objectives toward which one strives) plus ways (courses of action) plus means (instruments by which some end can be achieved).” It is convenient and concise, short enough to fit cleanly onto a PowerPoint slide and clear enough to be expressed as an actual mathematical equation: ends + ways + means = strategy (less residual risk). This simplicity has driven universal adoption; nearly every single strategic document the American military generates is directly or indirectly influenced by Lykke’s formula.

But what if this dominant view is bad for American strategy, as Jeffrey Meiser points out in a recent essay? While he acknowledges “some value” to this method, Meiser also alleges the formula “has become a crutch undermining creative and effective strategic thinking” because it channels practitioners toward “viewing strategy as a problem of ends-means congruence” (e.g., do we have enough troops to do the job?). Is Meiser right? Is Lykke’s model a tyrannical mental straightjacket, constraining American strategists?

I think so. Lykke’s model is flawed on four counts: (1) it’s too formulaic, (2) “ends” don’t really end, (3) it minimizes the adversary, and (4) our strategic performance since widespread adoption has been unremarkable at best. Continue reading “It’s Time to End the Tyranny of Ends, Ways, and Means”

False Faith: The Third Offset Isn’t a Strategy and Won’t Win Our Next War

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

We’re past idea, beyond buzzword, and have shot right past cliché—overuse and overapplication has rendered the phrase “Third Offset” effectively meaningless. When I hear the term used, it’s akin to the dashboard warning light in my aging car, letting me know I’m approaching a serious deficiency. The fault is geographically diverse; in recent assignments from West Point to Korea to Space and Missile Defense, I’ve heard well-meaning military professionals automatically apply “Third Offset Strategy” as a solution for just about everything, from military education to Kim Jong Un to the Russians and Chinese. But a solution everywhere is a solution nowhere—the Third Offset faithful routinely misunderstand and misrepresent this otherwise valuable weapons and concept development program as a true strategy that will win the next war. That mistake is as dangerous as it is wrong. Continue reading “False Faith: The Third Offset Isn’t a Strategy and Won’t Win Our Next War”

A Straitjacket Strategy to Contain North Korea

*Note: This essay was originally published at The National Interest on February 8, 2017 (or PDF here). 

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis spent the tail end of last week in Seoul and Tokyo conferring with allies about the extreme challenge posed by a belligerently nuclear North Korea. When he gets back, Secretary Mattis should provide President Donald Trump with an option to straitjacket the rogue regime with consistently stiff military restraints to enable diplomacy. Pin down their arms and North Korea’s only option will be to talk.

North Korea is a uniquely vexing challenge with a rapidly closing solution window. Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, calls them his “most volatile and dangerous threat” because their violent mood swings endanger a key ally in South Korea, 25 million people in Seoul, and periodically hold hostage the critical economies of Northeast Asia. The so-called Doomsday Clock recently edged closer to midnight than any time since the unstable dawn of the nuclear age, an acknowledgement of today’s near-term nuclear risk, thanks in part to North Korea’s reckless behavior. And a recent high-level defector says subversive information is “crumbling” North Korea and the regime’s days are “numbered”; oppositely, widely-reported intelligence tells us North Korea will be capable of striking the U.S. homeland with a long-range nuclear missile by 2020. Continue reading “A Straitjacket Strategy to Contain North Korea”

The Watch and The Pen: The Strategist’s Two Tools

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

It was surreal to watch. Here I was, sitting near someone at a conference I’d admired from afar as a strategist, a titan in the academic and policy worlds—and there he was, plugged into every conceivable Apple product on the market: first, the laptop for emails; next, the iPad for news; third, the iPhone for immediate engagement with social media’s ceaseless drumbeat of dings. Continue reading “The Watch and The Pen: The Strategist’s Two Tools”

Clausewitz in Space: The Trinity for Trekkies

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

Author’s Note: If you don’t know Star Trek, click straight to iTunes and rent Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and/or Star Trek (2009)—immediately. Then come back and read this.

If you’re anything like me, you forget things. Car keys, Mom’s birthday—the forgetful frustration that comes from approaching airport security after failing (again) to sign up for TSA “Precheck” has become routine. The important thing is to find a mental model, some image to aid your memory’s ability to hold onto information for recall when needed. This matters the most with the most important knowledge. Continue reading “Clausewitz in Space: The Trinity for Trekkies”

What is Strategy?

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

Ever get the sense something isn’t quite right? A feeling, an inkling, a tremor. Mothers get them from distant children; animals get them from inbound weather; and, apparently, I get them from reading definitions of “strategy.”

Confusingly, there are a lot of these definitions to sort through. The text I used to teach at West Point, Strategy in the Contemporary World (Fourth Edition), is chock-full of varying versions of “strategy.” Continue reading “What is Strategy?”