Center for Strategic Communication

I’ve followed Rosa Brooks’ excellent articles on the civil-military planning gap with great interest. In her follow-up, Brooks speculates whether or not civilian education in the culture of the military will help bridge the gap. While this might–under the right circumstances–be useful, I can’t help but wonder if the gap that Brooks describes is really one of misunderstanding. While lack of familiarity with the military is certainly a problem, the fault most likely lies in divergent ideas about war.

Certainly, there are a lot of things that civilian foreign policy and national security analysts do not understand about the military, and vice versa. But the conflict described in Brooks’ article sounded like a chapter from Micah Zenko’s work on civilian perceptions of “discrete military operations.” As Zenko points out, some political executives are powerfully attracted to the idea that limited (he uses the word “discrete,” which is probably more appropriate) amounts of force can create strategic outcomes. A unmanned aerial system here and no-fly zone there and events will sort themselves out.

What’s missing? The reality that we are attempting to violently impose our will on an adversary who will do his utmost to thwart us. Moreover, our efforts are always judged by other actors that have the power to interfere should it benefit them. The Iranians and the Pakistanis certainly interfered to the detriment of our warfighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also cannot underrate the role of chance on the battlefield and the effect that passion can have on sterile statecraft. The chaotic end of the Gulf War created a decade’s worth of policy problems, and the painting of Saddam Hussein as a Hitler-in-waiting constrained American postwar diplomatic options and fueled calls for his overthrow.

Military leadership are encultured through professional military education, study of military history, and command experience to view war in a more instrumental fashion. Moreover, they also have had personal experience of what it means to violently execute foreign policy at the tip of the spear. However, the military can also sometimes become too inwardly focused on its own professional-technical sphere to the detriment of the political plot. In the late 70s and early 80s, maneuver theorists doggedly pursued the idea of an “elastic defense” of Western Europe despite the fact that the Europeans themselves were deeply against anything except an active defense on the frontiers. Finally, civilian leaders with poor tactical and operational knowledge but sound strategic vision have won wars from the American Civil War to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict.

Both camps would benefit from considering strategy’s fundamentals: the necessity of a sound theory of victory composed of a just and viable political object and a plausible narrative of how it is enabled by organized violence. Both military and civilian need to answer General Petraeus’ famous question “tell me how this ends.” Civilian and military cultures will always see war differently, and the “unequal dialogue” of civil-military relations will always (rightly) privilege civilian command. But the strategy bridge is the key terrain that both sides need to share in order for America to secure its vital interests.