“Burial of General Braddock,” photographic reproduction of engraving after 1850s painting by John McNevin. Courtesy of the Historic U.S. Views Collection (Box 2, Folder 4), American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. Originally found at Common-place.

Summer Essay Campaign #7: “Strategic Culture Makes the Difference”

To Answer Question #7: “In what ways does strategic culture influence military operations?”

By Second Lieutenant William Reach

On the night of July 13th, 1755, General Braddock lay dying in a little moonlit clearing deep in the wilds of western Pennsylvania.  Shot through the lung and slowly expiring, the British general reflected on his defeat four days prior, where a 2400-strong expeditionary force of British regulars and colonial Rangers suffered a brutal beating from 330 Delaware, Miami, and French fighters.  A massed column of English Soldiers and colonial Rangers marched, and then retreated, from the withering fire that unseen enemies poured onto their ranks from the thick underbrush.  When the Colonial militiamen began breaking formation and attempted to fight behind cover, British officers mounted on horseback beat them back into ranks with the broadside of their swords and berated them for their cowardice.[i]  [ii]  Reflecting on the slaughter, the distinguished general uttered these final words before his death: “Who would have thought it possible?”

Poor General Braddock.  Ensnared in a strategic culture oriented towards victory on the agrarian battlefields of Europe, he and his well-disciplined officers proved to be no match for the desperate, loosely organized coalition of enemies who attacked him.  His pre-conceptions of war, grounded in his distinguished military career, demanded that he march his men in a tight echelon through the dense wilderness and guided the English force towards defeat[iii].  Like so many other leaders, an invisible web of military history, force structure, and doctrine-based training had shaped the nature of his military and geopolitical worldview.

Strategic culture is responsible for the shape, color, and texture of all military operations and is the single largest factor in determining the victor from the vanquished.  Before the first bullet is fired, the reigning strategic culture of the period has already graced military forces with sets of strengths, weaknesses, and predispositions towards pursuing specific courses of actions.    Save for the conflict itself- after all, the body politic chooses the nature of the fight- the military chooses most other aspects of a prolonged engagement.   Officers and Soldiers alike accept doctrinal axioms and share joint experiences that directly form the foundation of strategic culture.  The extrapolation and gelling of opinions based on this shared background causes military leaders to conceptualize conflict through the lens of these factors.  Not all individuals share the same beliefs; different circles of leaders adopt varying views in competition with their peers, and stratification often occurs between specific schools of thought. Regardless, the sum of the total of these groups forms the strategic culture.

The implications of strategic culture permeate the operating environment.  Most recently, a strategic sub-culture emphasizing casualty reduction rose to prominence in our own Armed Forces, springing from U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf and Somalia in the early 1990s.  High casualty rates among military personnel led to public outrage at home, which in turn influenced military strategy among senior leadership to reduce Soldiers’ risk on the battlefield.  The Powell Doctrine guided how the U.S. fought wars on a strategic level and brought about technological evolution of tactics and equipment within the contemporary operating environment.[iv]  This strategic culture shifted international intervention towards air and drone strikes during the Clinton years, and led to the quick introduction of up-armored Humvees, body armor, MRAPs, and Phalanx systems onto the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Today’s air-supported, CROW-equipped convoys are far cry from the Vietnam-era strategy of luring the enemy into artillery range with foot-patrols.  The particular sub-culture of casualty reduction brought about a positive end result- the reduction in loss of life- and has become a staple of the Military’s leadership down to the company level.  It has restructured the manner in which the United States conducts its wars.

Elastic strategic cultures promote shared ethical values and doctrinal cohesion across the force while providing room for risk and innovation.  Leaders who take calculated risks are rewarded for their successes while those who demonstrate incompetence are removed from command for repeated failures or errors in judgment.  The same General Cornwallis who surrendered at Yorktown single-handedly overthrew one of the most powerful kingdoms in India almost two decades later.  Conversely, intolerant strategic cultures emphasize rigid hierarchies and an overly-strict doctrinal adherence.  Overemphasis on dogma and the reigning doctrine of the day weakens the fighting force and creates an intellectually brittle Officer Corps.  One may look no further than the Maginot Line for a compelling historical example.

The transition to a standing garrison force is fraught with peril for the military’s strategic culture.  The old maxim that “Generals are always fighting the last wars” is a testament to the enduring strength of conventional thinking that becomes entrenched after a conflict.  As war-time philosophies like “mission command” fade in the face of real-time reductions in funding, emphasis on accident reduction, and stagnant promotion structures, the peace-time leader must concentrate more on coloring within the dotted lines than innovating for the next conflict.

Mortal threats will confront the United States in the coming decades.  As economic and geopolitical competitors attempt to topple America’s global hegemony, the Armed Forces cannot afford institutionalized mental or moral weakness in the composition of its strategic culture.  Maintaining a resilient and open exchange of ideas is vital to the future success of the American military on the world stage.  Many years from now the current first-year cadets and midshipmen at West Point and Annapolis will lead divisions, draft war plans, and determine the course of American destiny. The culture of the Officer Corps they enter will shape and mold their thinking during the most formative years of their career.  It is incumbent on the post-war Armed Forces to bequeath them an institutional culture worthy of victory.

[i] Letter of Captain Robert Orme to Robert Napier, Fort Cumberland, July 18, 1755

[ii] “We was drawn up in large Bodies together, a ready mark. They not sight at us for they Always had a Mark, but if we saw of them five or six at one time [it] was a great and they Either on their Bellies or Behind or Runing from tree to another almost by the ground. The genii [General] five horses Shot under him. He always strove to keep the men together but I believe their might be two hundred of the American Soldiers that fought behind Trees and I belive they did the moast Execution of Any.”  Charles Hamilton, Diary, 1735.

[iii] Exchange between Benjamin Franklin and General Braddock:  “This general was, I think, a brave man, and might probably have made a figure as a good officer in some European war. But he had too much self-confidence, too high an opinion of the validity of regular troops, and too mean a one of both Americans and Indians…

“I ventured only to say, “The only danger I apprehend of obstruction to your march is from ambuscades of Indians, who, by constant practice, are dexterous in laying and executing them…”

“He smiled at my ignorance, and replied, ‘these savages may, indeed, be a formidable enemy to your raw American militia, but upon the King’s regular and disciplined troops, sir, it is impossible they should make any impression.” (Kennedy, Bailey, & Bailey, The American Spirit: United States History As Seen by Contemporaries, Vol. 1; [Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010] p. 110, emphasis ours)  http://www.revolutionary-war.net/edward-braddock.html

[iv] Stevenson, C. A. (1996). The evolving Clinton doctrine on the use of force. Armed Forces & Society: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 22(4), 511+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA18688904&v=2.1&u=cfsc_remote&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=aaf3815310f53ae98e14f978c4af9e12