Rodger Shanahan is having problems with the phrase 'civilian strategist'. Perhaps that's because he's looking too hard at the adjective and not hard enough at the noun. Let's work out what a strategist is, and then worry about the 'civilian' bit later.

If we start by agreeing that a strategist is someone who does strategy, we have to then decide what 'strategy' means. Do not expect a simple answer. The great philosophical logician Humpty Dumpty spoke truly when he said, 'My words mean whatever I want them to mean'. We can and do use 'strategy' to talk about all kinds of things. So the best one can do is to explain how one uses the word oneself, and hope that helps to make things clearer.

My use of the word 'strategy' derives from my understanding of the nature of war. For me, war is organised violence conducted for a political purpose. Strategy is the bridge between them – between the organised violence, which is the means, and the political purpose, which is the end. The relationship between violence as a means and political outcomes is inherently complex. Perhaps that's because it crosses the divide between the physical and the mental – always a tricky interface.

On this account, the central problem of strategy is how to match military means to political ends. The core strategic decisions that any government has to face are (a) what military operations it should undertake to achieve its political objectives, and (b) what capabilities it should build to be able to achieve its political objectives in future. These are the big questions of strategic policy - 'policy' being just a fancy word for government decisions.

We – military, civilian, politicians and layman alike – very commonly get these decisions wrong, because we so often misunderstand the link between ends and means in war. Afghanistan provides an apposite case study. Mistakes happen at every point of the process; we muddle our objectives, mismatch objectives to means, and then mismanage the operations themselves.

Clearly, to make these decisions better, strategists need to know both ends of the link: they need to know about military operations and capability on the one hand, and political objectives on the other. And above all you need to understand as much as you can about the link itself – about the connections and disconnections between them. 

If this is a useful way to think about the word 'strategist', we can turn now to 'civilian'. What does one need to know to do strategy? Clearly I agree with the claim which I suppose Rodger to be making, that no one can call themselves a strategist who does not know a great deal about military operations and capability. I think most civilians who do strategy know far too little about these things. But no matter how hard they work, civilians will not know as much as military professionals who have been immersed in it from the start of their careers.

But equally, no one can call themselves a strategist (at least in my sense of the word) without knowing a lot about political objectives, and about the link between organised violence and political purpose. I think most military officers, even those of very high rank indeed, know far too little about these. And no matter how hard they work at it, any military officer who has spent the first ten or even twenty years of his or her career at the tactical and operational level will not know as much about these aspects of strategy as those who immerse themselves in strategic-level problems from the age of 20.

So we need both uniformed and civilian strategists, and they need to work together. The way to do strategic policy better is not for one 'side' or the other to claim a monopoly on strategic wisdom  and ownership of strategic decisions, but for both sides to educate themselves much better about all aspects of strategy, and to realise that both skill-sets are needed.

Photo by Flickr user The California National Guard.