Book Excerpt from “Military Strategy for the 21st Century”

This book by Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland, Dr. Benjamin Jensen, Colonel Susan Bryant, and Lieutenant Colonel Arnel David calls for the rethinking of how the U.S. national security community approaches population-centric warfare and strategic competition in the 21st century. Strategic advantage in the 21st century will emerge from mapping human geography in a connected world, leveraging key relationships, and applying a mix of unconventional and conventional methods that put adversaries on the horns of a dilemma. The following is an excerpt from the chapter “The Last War”:

Reading across the lessons-learned literature from Iraq and Afghanistan shows a profession, and larger ecosystem of observers, changing its understanding of the inherent challenges in military operations. Finding the enemy proved more difficult than finishing the fight. The friction of battle paled in comparison to the friction of local politics and the intersecting and ever-changing web of interests that motivated opposition to US interests. Key terrain was not just a hill with good fields of fire. It was often a relationship brokered between the military and a network of influencers, revealing social, economic, and political interests that were causing unrest.

Accounts of these wars fall broadly into three categories of lessons that overlap the ideal-typical levels of war: strategic, operational, and tactical. Strategic lessons reside at the highest levels of the government and military. At the strategic level, “policy planning and coordination happens, dominated by the dynamics of the national capital” (Rishikof et al, The National Security Enterprise). Strategic lessons involve decision-making about policy and political objectives shaping the conduct of the military operations as well as how bureaucracy distorts the process. Strategic lessons actually learned and institutionalized are likely to be the product of double-loop learning and involve substantial change in the national security enterprise and its culture. By connecting multiple constituencies, from policymakers to diplomats and senior military leaders, these lessons produce foundational assumptions about the military instrument of power and, under what circumstances a state can use military forces to achieve political objectives.

The other levels are more organic to the military. Operational lessons learned occur in theater, often within warfighting headquarters. These lessons and accounts generally concern the conduct of campaigns and military operations and form the intellectual bridge between top-down and the bottom-up learning. They can entail either single- or double-loop learning. Tactical lessons are those that occur on the ground, at the lowest levels. These constitute the individual accounts of soldiers, junior officers, and reporters embedded with units in the field.             Many of the accounts considered in this chapter are cross-cutting in nature. Further, many of them consider the interplay of one or more organizations during wartime. The intertwining of strategic and tactical lessons learned stands out in the accounts to follow. The long war appears to highlight a trend towards strategic compression, as the strategic and tactical collide. This compression is a result of the particularly localized political character of contemporary campaigns involving states, non-state actors, proxies, and other interlocutors. While all war is a continuation of politics by other means, wars amongst the people involve a larger number of political interests and therefore tend to have more complex relationships across the levels of war.

Military Strategy in the 21st Century: People, Connectivity, and Competition is available in hardcover, paperback, and digital editions. This books is part of the the Rapid Communications in Conflict and Security (RCCS) Series (General Editor: Dr. Geoffrey R.H. Burn).

About the Authors

Lieutenant General Charles Cleveland (U.S. Army, Retired) left active duty in 2015 as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. His ARSOF 2022 rejuvenated U.S. Army unconventional warfare capabilities and institutionalized the Human Domain as an organizing concept for Army SOF. He also commanded SOCCENT, SOCSOUTH, and the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and has operational experience in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Pakistan, Panama, El Salvador, and Bolivia, and began his career in Special Operations and Army intelligence units during the Cold War.

Benjamin Jensen, PhD, holds a dual appointment as an associate professor at Marine Corps University and as a scholar-in-residence at American University, School of International Service. He is also a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Dr. Jensen’s previous publications including Forging the Sword: Doctrinal Change in the U.S. Army (Stanford University Press 2016) and, coauthored, Cyber Strategy: The Evolving Character of Power and Coercion (Oxford University Press 2018). He has published in several academic journals such as the Journal of Strategic Studies as well as major media outlets like the New York TimesWashington Post, and Financial Times. He writes the “Next War’ column for War on the Rocks. Outside of academia he is an officer in the U.S. Army 75th Innovation Command.

Susan Bryant is a retired Army Colonel who served 28 years on active duty, including tours in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula. She holds a doctorate of Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where she currently teaches Grand Strategy and Military Operations, as well as American Military History. She is also a Visiting Fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategy Studies and a Visiting Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. She lives with her family in Leesburg, VA.

Lieutenant Colonel Arnel David is a Civil Affairs officer and Army Strategist still serving on active duty. He has served multiple tours of duty in both conventional and special operations units where he deployed to the Middle East, Central Asia, and Pacific. He is currently the Chief of Staff for the Army Future Studies Group and recently deployed as the Commander’s Initiative Group Chief for Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan. He is a distinguished military graduate from Valley Forge Military College and was a Local Dynamics of War Scholar at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

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