In defence of civilian strategists

@ClosetIdealist is a security and risk advisor in the private sector, having previously served in the Australian Public Service and the ADF. 

I read Rodger Shanahan’s recent post with much interest and a little despair.  My background also crosses several disciplines, including a brief stint in the Australian Army.  A key principle in Rodger’s argument – that junior leaders in the ADF are expected ‘to take into account the strategic environment’ – doesn’t exactly accord with my experience in uniform.  Sure, training activities noted that in some circumstances things had to be done differently due to the ‘CNN test’ – the possibility that someone was filming you – but that was about it.  So let’s not pretend that section and platoon commanders are patrolling Oruzgan with a copy of Clausewitz in their day-pack or Evelyn Goh’s ‘omni-enmeshment’ theory at the front of their minds.  The better ones might be thinking about the practical application of COIN doctrine, but I’m not sure that this compares to strategy at the highest levels.

I’m also a ‘putative strategist’: I studied at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and served in the Australian Public Service before moving to the private sector.  Interestingly, many of Rodger’s ‘putative strategists’ – often post-graduate qualified public servants or intelligence analysts – have keenly sought to serve Australia’s national interests in Afghanistan.  Many saw room for an expanded AusAid presence, one focussed not on Canberra’s goal of ‘spending the budget’ but on achieving results through integration with ADF operations.  When it became clear that an increased Australian presence was not politically feasible, some sought to work for the Americans in other areas of Afghanistan.  In my experience, these ‘putative strategists’ do not consider themselves as superior to those in uniform.  Many have expressed a willingness to serve their country in dangerous roles overseas, some have done so and still others have found their dreams frustrated by weak decision-making in Canberra.

I don’t think the ‘lack of mutual understanding’ is helped by the fact that some in the ADF feel that only those in uniform have the moral right and professional expertise to comment on Defence policy.  It’s forever humbling to remember that while I served in uniform I was a willing participant of this culture, where civilian commentators and strategists were routinely dismissed as ‘<expletive> civvies’.  It is certainly true that those in uniform have a unique and indispensible perspective, one rarely attained by non-combatants.  And I think the broader thrust of Rodger’s argument – that ‘civilian strategists’ should endeavour to understand the pressures and challenges faced by those who carry out the operations that achieve strategic priorities – is valid and worthwhile.

But the ADF has also reached a point where some painful, honest introspection might be beneficial.  Put simply: ADF members should remember that they, ultimately, do not define the Australian Government’s strategic goals.  Civilian decision-makers, hopefully in conjunction with senior ADF officers, will set strategic goals, identify risks and will indirectly determine, through this strategic planning process, what operations the ADF will conduct.  But those decision-makers probably won’t ever have crawled out of their sleeping bag – wet, cold and hungry – to do the graveyard shift of picket duty.  Nor will have they experienced the ‘two-way rifle range’.  So, it is the job of the senior military officers in any strategic planning process to ensure that the ‘ground-truths’ are not overlooked; that the operational objectives derived from strategic intent are realistic and achievable.

Importantly, it must be remembered that strategic intent drives the operational goals.  Rodger has commented that a well-regarded (civilian) scholar was ‘caught up in the emotion of the moment’ when writing a blog post, because the author showed ‘a complete lack of understanding of what motivates soldiers’. I think Rodger’s argument overlooks the fact that soldiers are employed to conduct operations, which in turn are meant to progress towards – and eventually achieve – strategic goals.  That some who argue for a withdrawal from Afghanistan choose to omit from their argument ‘the impact of such a suggestion on the tactical environment outside the wire’ does not automatically suggest a callous disregard for ADF members in Afghanistan, rather it implies that the strategic priorities of the Australian Government are more important that the feelings of those in uniform, a counterpoint noted (by a civilian) here.  This has always been the case and to suggest a reordering of priorities would be the equivalent of putting the operational cart before the strategic horse.

I chuckled when I read that Rodger is unsure as to what a ‘civilian strategist’ looks like.  Aside from some notable American exceptions, I am at a loss to identify what a modern-day ‘military strategist’ looks like!  Where is strategy taught to ADF officers?  At the Australian Command and Staff College?  Based on a recent round of job advertisements, it seems that someone in the ADF must hold the ANU’s ‘civilian strategists’ in high regard!  I fully agree with Rodger’s point that “’strategist’ is not a qualification – it is an appellation one can give oneself”, but we mustn’t forget that this sword cuts both ways, applying equally to both those in suits and those in uniform.  For effective strategic policy, Australia needs strategists in uniform, strategists wearing suits at Russell Offices, and strategists elected to Parliament.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. The view from the Department of Defence, Russell Offices to Parliament House in Canberra.

4 thoughts on “In defence of civilian strategists

  1. If I can fumble around trying to clarify my own thoughts…

    Aren’t soldiers basically heavies, enforcers, hitmen, buttonmen, what-you-will, whose job it is to kill people and destroy things at their political leaders’ command?

    Or am I getting strategy confused with grand strategy?

  2. I’m American, so I can’t speak to the specifically Australian elements of this conversation, such as the issues surrounding Australian strategic or military education, but the debate gets at more broadly applicable issues. I was happy to read this response, because while I understand Mr. Shanahan’s frustrations, I think his piece represented a fundamental misunderstanding of civilian and military roles and responsibilities, and this response makes a crucial point about the relationship – and the order of precedence – amongst strategy, operations, and tactics. I think it can be beneficial for strategists to have a clue about operations and tactics, but the harsh truth for those who have to do the day-to-day dirty work of fighting wars is that they don’t have to. That’s not the way the modern civil-military system is set up. The onus is not on the people setting strategy to deal with the details of how it is to be carried out; it is on the military to figure out the best way to carry out the strategy they are given.

    Policy is the domain of civilian leaders. They make the policy decisions, which determine the overall course, the goal or purpose of actions. Operations and tactics are the domain of the military, generally with the former being determined by higher ranking officers and the latter by lower ranking officers. Strategy is that prickly area where the two meet. Military leaders do their best to advise civilians, to assist in the devising of strategy, providing input re: operations and tactics, telling them what is possible, even offering advice as to what course to them might seem best suited to achieving the policy goals determined by the civilian leaders, but the strategy is ultimately decided by the civilians. The military’s job then is to work out the operations and tactics that best allow them to carry out that strategy.

    Remember: this is not an equal relationship. In a democracy, the military must be subservient to the civilian government, and in fighting a war, the roles reflect this. Tactical-level commanders are asked to have some strategic understanding because their job requires them to contribute to carrying out strategy. It simply doesn’t work the other way. A strategist’s job does not include tactical planning. I know that I would strive to understand a war at every level if I were tasked with setting its strategy, but simply put, it’s great, but not required for a functional system, for decision-makers to have an understanding of all levels. The chief burden for that kind of comprehensive understanding is where Clausewitz put it: on the military leader(s), those who sit at the nexus of the civil-military relationship. They are the ones who must advise the civilian leaders and work to make sure they take operational and tactical considerations into effect, and who must oversee the translation of policy and then strategy into operations and tactics. (A couple of essays in Nielsen and Snider’s American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era, including the editors’ own conclusion to the collection, express the importance and the messiness of this nexus very nicely).

    Mind you, in real life, it really seems like the whole strategy step is skipped half the time anyway, making this sadly moot, but the point is that even an ideally functioning system does not require policy-makers or strategists to understand operations and tactics.

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