Center for Strategic Communication

(by Adam Elkus)

Lynn Rees pitied the geopolitical nerd. I pity the modern strategist. This is my attempt at expanding on Rees’ entry, now that it is back up on the Interwebs. And by expand, I will do (in my own way), an post that idiomatically draws on the style and ideas of the old Committee of Public Safety blogs that Rees used to write. So why do I pity the strategist? I pity the strategist because of his or her futile rage against the very institutions they operate within, a rage that I’ve expounded on in various ways in other writings. I differ from Rees in that I argue that the strategist is very much a prisoner of their own expectations, and a lot of strategic debate amounts to a futile attempt to reverse what might even be regarded by intellectual adversaries as a sorry state of affairs.

A Division of Strategic Labor

In olden times, policy, strategy, and tactics were all embodied in a singular (to borrow a fairly evocative image of a favorite game of mine) person of lordly caliber. Everything — from the operations and maneuvers of individual combat units to the destiny of nations — could be glimpsed from his directed telescope and directed with his Marshal’s Baton. It was fun while it lasted. But the immense scale of modern warfare (even Mao didn’t do all of it himself) and the impact of specialization on Great Power strategy ruined this dynamic (note that none of this necessarily applies, say, to a guerrilla band or a tinpot dictatorship where George Clooney is currently or may in the future testify[ing] in Congress about)

Now there were also some big downsides to this Great Strategic Man (and every so often, Woman) idea. When we look back on history to tell the bedtime stories of Good Strategy (in contrast to our tales of Bad Strategy woes), we read selectively. If you have an Alexander as your Great Captain, then awesome. If you don’t — let’s say you are one of the Romans to get annihilated in Cannae — well, the incompetence of one man or woman dooms the entire enterprise. This business model could not scale well, and as warfare industrialized it acquired one characteristic of capitalism — specialization and cost-cutting. We no longer expect full-service at our local Chevron– we pump our own gas. We no longer deal with a single, heroic travel agent when making trips — we patch our itinerary together via a variety of social media apps. Strategy is no exception, and the “mechanical” bonds that once united the strategic community have been replaced by a more amorphous anomie. Of course, if Durkheim is right this is only a sign of our progression into the modern era.

Capitalism and industrialization have led to increasing specialization, and disrupted many old and venerable industries. And strategy is no exception to the market’s “creative destruction,” which has ruined everything from the mightiest of car makers to the crappiest of other automotive rent-seeking interests. Instead of the capital-S Strategist, riding on his white horse and looking fashionable in his tricorne hat or pickelhaube, responsibility for strategy was diffused to a group of people that we might crudely regard according to the following organizational schema:

  • Political leaders (“we ought to invade the People’s Republic of Bumf***kistan because of X, Y, and Z totally subjective reasons which I will dress up as somehow being of objective national interest — even if I know in the back of my head that an non-subjective definition of the national interest is a fantasy of naive realists. Oh, and you strategy folks can get this done before the electoral cycle, amirite?”)
  • Strategic planners (“How many tanks, aircraft, nukes, etc do we need to overcome the Bumf**kistani army? How can we develop strategic options for the invasion? Do we have an exit plan? Do we even have a Grand Strategy (TM) for this? And who knows whether we’ll need an even Grander Than Grand Strategy? Wait, you aren’t going to actually listen to my Sound Strategic Suggestions? DON’T YOU KNOW THAT TACTICS WITHOUT STRATEGY IS THE NOISE BEFORE DEFEAT?!?!?! SUN TZU SAID IT, HE’S ANCIENT, WISE, AND SH*T! YOU WOULDN’T DISREGARD WHAT YODA SAID TO LUKE, RIGHT??? YOU NEED STRATEGISTS LIKE ME, MY MANAGEMENT HANDBOOK SAID SO!!! JUST BECAUSE I HAVE NO ACTUAL RESPONSIBILITY FOR IMPLEMENTING ANY OF MY AMBITIOUS IDEAS DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN JUST IGNORE THEM!!! *starts to cry profusely and retreats to the War Room to sulk and play a game with WOPR*.”
  • Strategic executors (“OK, I’ve set up the joint HQ at CENTCOM. I am in charge of a multinational army, much of which the Political Leaders bribed to help us invade Bumf**istan. I actually have to make this thing work. Oh and by the way, everything you other dudes say must be processed through my impenetrable, buzzword-laden jargon and doctrine that I cast as holy writ. I’ve created an impenetrable tree fort called Operational Art, and no one with cooties is allowed in! Don’t try – I’ll just knock down the ladder and throw rocks at you while you climb up the tree.”)

“Strategy” is in large part the result of whatever Political Leader needs to do to stay in power (the Bumf**istanis have just beheaded an American live on TV, the Leader has just been caught in bed with an unpaid intern, and the American public doesn’t care as long as the median voter preference is preserved). Yet this dream must be made into strategic reality. Thus, the Strategic Planner needs to develop an ambitious and far-reaching (yet also narrow-minded) scheme in isolation from the Political Leader’s actual motivations and concerns (in fact, the plan has been developed perhaps 10 years ago as a CONPLAN, and dusted off/decorated with some new stickers and decals for the present occasion). Finally,  the Strategic Executor can, well, actually try to implement the chaotic mishmash he or she has to work with on the ground. Often times they may just chuck the whole thing overboard and say they will use Design or some other doohickey to “frame the problem” in a manner that they are actually familiar with, regardless of necessity or utility. “You see, Sir, you shouldn’t be disregarding this option I came up with. It was crafted using My-Own-Assumption-Based-Planning, the latest in military planning methodologies! So what if it magically happens to be completely favorable to the Army/Navy/Air Force/Marines/Delta Force/Rainbow Six/TF 141′s organizational biases and interests?”

I am painting with extremely broad strokes, but it is fair to say that this does describe the broad parameters of the Strategic Division of Labor in Modern Society. Even if Danny Steed plausibly argues that it does not necessitate failure, this is not to say that this is a salve for the problem that strategists face. They once ran everything now they are split into three squabbling groups.

The Glorious Socialist Workers’ Struggle Against the Capitalist Running Dogs (Aka, Politicians)

The strategist, like a Russian ultranationalist, has dim memories of the glory that once was Mother Strategica.  These hazy memories add even more pain to the unfortunate reality of the Motherland’s current state. The capitalist imperialists have taken over and torn down the giant bust of Napoleon in Strategy Square. The city once called Strategygrad has now been renamed back to its original ancien regime era moniker. And worse yet — they, the once proud siloviki of strategy, have been reduced to vulgar technicians building the latest and greatest Strategy Widget for the heathen capitalist that has no appreciation for their unique talent and the cause of Sound Strategy (TM) they fought so hard to serve. Instead of one strategist Having It All, the strategist now supplies his or her Strategy Widgets to the Political Leader. Every day, he or she toils in the Strategy Factory, unable to own the means of production or benefit from the fruit of their own labor. They labor and labor to make Strategies for the Boss, and the Boss gets all of the credit for said strategies. If strategic labor is converted into political currency, that currency goes entirely into the Boss’s coffers.

So, what is a comrade to do once he or she is alienated from their labor? Marxian theory catalogs several potential responses:

0. The opium of the masses.  Strategists withdraw into their art and fetishize it with a religious fervor. There is a One True Strategy, and one day — after some cataclysm they perpetually warn of due to impure blasphemies of “idealists” and “tacticians,” the believers will be raptured into Strategy Heaven, the unbelievers will undergo a Great and Terrible Tribulation, and the forces of Strategy and Idealism/Tactical Fixation/Etc Etc will do battle (it’s strategy, what else would they do?) at Megiddo.

1. Commodity fetishism:

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. …

The “mist-enveloped regions of the religious world” descend upon Strategic Man or Woman. They fetishize strategy, treating it as an object with inherent value as opposed to a product of social relations between things, in the same way fetishes in cults endow lifeless objects with human properties. They ignore Marx’s warning that a commodity has no inherent value beyond social and economic relations, treating the value of Strategy writ large and any strategy they produced as inherent and obvious:

As Marx explains, “The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things” (164-65). What is, in fact, a social relation between people (between capitalists and exploited laborers) instead assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165).

Strategy has no value beyond what it does for the policy. That policy might entail exploitation and alienation of the strategist, but that’s inherent in the labor relationship. The Political Leader owns the means of production. He can hire and fire strategists as need be, as he can depend on an endless supply of ambitious men and women with an interest in producing Strategy Widgets, whether drawn from the crowd of Kennan Otakus that cosplay as the Mr. X article at Comic-Con every year or military strategists whose military expertise can be portrayed (sotto voice) as a so-called “threat to civilian control” if they should as much dare to disagree with the Political Leader in public.

2. Collective action. The worker, through some combination of organization, threat, sit-ins, and other assertions of power, (or, to be more idiomatic, a “process of dialogue and negotiation“), the strategist can negotiate better working conditions and perks. Yet who is to guarantee these arrangements will persist? Much of 20th century American labor gains eroded in the intervening decades. From the worker’s perspective, this amounts to nothing less than a counterrevolution, an putsch from above. That very well be the case, but it is also important to note that one of the many reasons for this outcome was that the multi-national corporation and the post-WWII economic recovery of the rest of the world rendered arrangements gained through collective bargaining outmoded. Look at the US auto industry, for example.

Much as some idealize the post-WWII period of American labor relations and employment, many strategists (said Kennan Otakus) idealize a better, gentler time when there was  happiness and mutual understanding between Strategists and an enlightened boss. Every Strategist wasn’t just a cog in the Strategy Factory — they could live in a nice Strategy House, drive a Strategy Car, and go to work in their Pickehaulbe/Flannel Suit combo. They felt like their work had meaning. Perhaps they, like the stereotypical Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, had deeper or more existential concerns, but their material lot was (on surface) good enough to focus their attentions on “Meaning of Life” and “Why Are Those Damn Teenagers Sharing Milkshakes, Necking, and Riding Around on Motorcycles”-esque problems and questions.

Much like the aggrieved Michael Douglas in Falling Down, some react to the loss of their privileges with aggression. But instead of Douglas’ semi-automatic enabled shooting rampage, they react to this state of affairs with a fusillade of purely verbal ammunition. They’ll call their political masters flimflam men, neocons, neolibs, idealists, corrupt products of the military-industrial complex, and even beat up on political scientists too busy writing R/Python code to listen to their nonstop whining and whinging about why In the Ye Olde Days Security Studies Was Done Via Abacus and Dead Prussian Quotations. But while at least Douglas’s aggrieved former defense contractor caused enough trouble to taken become a media sensation and a police target, the Strategist is more yapping chihuahua than Big Dog. The Political Leader will withhold treats,  tug on the leash and say “bad doggy” in front of the press, or take our chihuahua-like Strategist to Cesar the Dog Whisperer  until the Strategist is fully domesticated from yapping chihuahua to purse puppy. The Strategist will go on to write an aggrieved tell-all memoir (“if they only listened to me, we would have won”) once they conclude their miserable stint in government or leak vindictively to reporters that will enable their vanity and self-serving comments in exchange for pageviews. But what, if anything, does it matter?

At the heart of the aggressive response is the idea that – as in a cliche Western or police movie — the Strategist throwing his Strategy Tools or Strategy Badge into the river and declaring “I quit!” is a meaningful moral statement that will shock the “corrupt” town the Sheriff has come to save into recognition of his sacrifice and value. In reality, the Strategist is only useful inasmuch as his or her departure in protest aids the opposition party’s attempt to portray the Political Leader as feckless in his or her dismissal of expert advice. Beyond that, it is fair to ask what difference it will make — the Political Leader may just replace the Strategist with another Strategist put on an even tighter leash, further centralizing control of strategy among the Political Leader’s immediate subordinates.

3. Gramscian Hegemony/CultureJamming/etc. While this may paint a hopeless picture, the Strategist is not without options. In theory, the oppressed Strategists, through development of their own “organic intellectuals,” can wage a “war of position” to break the hold of cultural hegemony that maintains the current base and superstructure. Over the long term, they will create the conditions for the revolutionary class struggle in which Strategists will finally overthrow the hated superclass that oppresses them. One does not necessarily have to take a Gramscian interpretation of this as much as acknowledge a general, well, strategy that hews to the following maxims:

  • Politics is war by other means.
  • Only through the political and cultural field can the Class Struggle be won.
  • We will seek to raise the consciousness of Strategists everywhere and build solidarity among them. It does not matter if they work for the Army, Navy, Marines, NSC, or a Think-Tank. A Strategist is a Strategist.
  • We will utilize the principle of Repressive Tolerance — the beliefs of our enemies must not be tolerated. Disagreement with us is not just difference of opinion — it is truly hate speech, oppressive in its own right. To disagree with us is to Not Have a Strategy, or even worse, to practice Tactics exclusively.
  • When the time is right, and Strategists have overcome the forces of counter-reaction, the revolution will truly begin. In the People’s Republic of Strategika, everyone must honor the great icons of the people (insert War College curriculum favorite/structural IR realist/hilariously over-idealized Cold Warrior here) and all Class Enemies will be punished for their crimes and oppression of the Strategist/re-educated to see the situation with Realism and Sound Strategy.

Unfortunately, like real cultural Marxists, this strategy is undone by the “nation of rebels” issue. Counterculture easily becomes consumer culture. Today’s edgy, consciousness-raising strategic critique is tomorrow’s establishment bromide. And Political Leaders depend on a steady stream of edgy but ephemeral fads to maintain novelty. The Strategist may start out as a tattooed punk rocker, but will end up as a businessman in pin stripes helping The Man do as he pleases.

To go back to my Mother Strategika analogy, the core problem here has much to do with the expectations of strategists themselves. Both Russia hawks and Russia doves seem –in their own way — to agree that the US made a mess of things in Russia after the Cold War, although policy prescriptions differ. Similarly, anyone with a heart sympathizes with the plight of the suddenly (well, given that the Alexander/Napoleon model dominated up to late 1800s, “suddenly” is correct) deskilled, depowered, and divided Strategist. But Revolution — barring some Seven Days in May-esque military coup that many Strategists themselves would never desire in a million years or a horrific catastrophe that suddenly forces re-prioritiation of the Strategist class’ privileges– will likely not be televised, tweeted, Tumblr’d, Instagram’d, or Facebook-picture tagged. Why?

Please Don’t Hate Me Because I Have Political Power, Baby

Only Notorious B.I.G’s song “Playa Hater” can express the sheer degree of disregard the Political Leader has for yet another bitter Strategist with a parable about why it was all better in Bismarck or Kennan’s day:

Playa (hata’), turn your head ’round (turn your head ’round)
Lay on the ground, you’ve been robbed
Wake up (wake up), open the door (open the door)
Lay on the floor, you’ve been robbed ….

Playa (hata’), turn your head round
Take off that crown, you’ve been robbed
Wake up, open the door
Don’t cry no more, you’ve been robbed ….

You see, there are two kind of people in the world today
We have, the playaz, and we have, the playa haters
Please don’t hate me because I’m beautiful baby ..

Hear what they talk, about me
But my crew so deep, you can’t do a damn thing to me

Now, I did not completely pull that analogy out of nowhere. Rap is replete with entertainment figures mocking the specter of the “player hater” or the backpack-clad “mad rapper” still in his basement putting out mixtape after mixtape of “real hip hip” that no one actually listens to. In this view, saying it was all good back in Kennan’s day is just as irrelevant as idealization of boom-bap rap, the time when Chuck D and Public Enemy were cutting-edge artists, or back when people preferred Reasonable Doubt to Drake. No matter of pleading will convince everyone to trade in whatever newest rap gear they wear for a Beastie Boys-like outfit, and no amount of pleading will suddenly make pickelhaubes and tricorne hats hot again. And, like a player hater driven mad by the knowledge that a hated rap figure’s deep-rolling and heavily armed entourage will turn him into Swiss cheese if he ever tries something in the club, the Strategist similarly is a victim of his own impotence. He or she cannot do a thing to the Political Leader, who rolls with an even deeper and more heavily armed entourage (although one wonders if Jay-Z has better protection than POTUS these days).

So, like another group of frustrated intellectuals, the Strategists are “caught between capitalist reality and their own frustrated aspirations.” 


Strategists are more interested in telling what the Boss what he or she should like, how or she should think, and what the Boss — above all else – should buy. To be blunt, the Strategist wants the Boss to share his own policy preferences, so the Strategist can, well, Strategize as he or she pleases. The Strategist wants to own the means of production and the fruits of his or her labor. To combine another set of unwieldy metaphors, the Strategist wants a magical unicorn flying over a frozen Hell with the aid of a winged pig.  Needles to say, maybe they’ll get the winged pig at best — but not the unicorn (they need the horn to break through newly frozen Hell’s ice). And even the winged pig looks kinda shaky.

At heart, though I agree very much with Lynn’s tragedy of the geopolitical nerd, it would be uncharitable to not point out that the titular Nerd — like Rousseau’s Man in the State of Nature — is perhaps unhinged because he sits at great remove from his natural habitat. He would prefer, like the siloviki of Russia preferred after the end of the USSR, a return to the good old days. Specifically, he would prefer to dictate policy, strategy, and tactics. That way no element of “ends, ways, and means” would be out of sync, all of it would be at his fingertips. If he didn’t like the policy, well, he made the policy! So he could change it.

The Strategist today is an impotent, rage-driven figure that complains, complains, and complains in the hope that whatever subjective policy idea they want is identified as objectively — and strategically — the “right” thing to do and they are put to work making (in a self licking strategic ice cream cone) a set of strategy and tactics for said policy. Perhaps they could start to consider the idea that it may be less costly to accept that change has occurred. It might even be, well, strategic.

And if they are not willing to accept this reality, it isn’t Clausewitz that will help them. It’s Schmitt or Lenin, because the Strategist’s narrow and dogmatic insistence on his or her own unique policy preferences, strategic visions, etc can only by forced on an body politic that rejects them through the usage of propaganda and coercion that changes what Marxists dub the “correlation of forces.” If that’s the job, well, we’ve gone truly beyond strategy into what our frustrated Strategist (ironically) hates the most — politics.