Image courtesy of Matt Cavanaugh. Image courtesy of Matt Cavanaugh.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

What are strategists good for?  What is our signature contribution to national security?  Those familiar to the site know that I’ve been kicking around this idea for awhile, having tried my hand at a “Strategist’s Mission Statement” – which Frank Hoffman critiqued at War on the Rocks – causing me to revise my original work.

But I’ve noticed something is missing.  Let’s start with the thought that mission statements are comprehensive; covering the what, the how, and the why.  By being so broad and so global, mission statements can sometimes skip over important functions.  When I look back on the “Strategist’s Mission Statement” I wrote, I think this is the case. Here it is again:

“To artfully design and coherently link achievable ends, allocated means, effective ways, with acceptable risks to generate, exploit, and sustain some degree of control of the enemy and environment to secure military objectives, desired political outcomes, and strategic narratives consistent with national interests.”

That may be somewhat of an aspirational mission; but how do I convert that to something to be slipped into normal conversation?  I’d need to carry a card around to keep the above Mission Statement straight! How do I quickly and concretely convey what it is that a strategist (in the U.S. Army) does?  For example, those in the infantry say they “close with and destroy the enemy.”  Google “orders the world’s knowledge.”  And the Wounded Warrior Project “honors and empowers our nation’s wounded warriors.”  What they lack in depth they more than make up for in conversational utility.

I’ve worked at this for awhile, and believe I have a useful solution.  I’m choosing to refer to this as a “core competency,” which may or may not be a flagrant violation of business school literature. In any event, I’m willing to risk the B-school malpractice suit.  When I hear “core competency,” I think of a central contribution or characteristic of clearest value.

So here goes:

Curious Stranger: “You’re an Army Strategist?  What does that mean?  Do you move little pieces on a board – like in Risk?”

Army Strategist: “The Risk thing is for another group of officers – we call them SAMS grads – they tend to play a lot of games.  If I had to be brief, Strategists anticipate, design, and facilitate strategic decisions.”

Interestingly, in an interview several years ago, Stephen Biddle made a case for this that has heavily influenced my thinking on the subject:

“I think all these positions are defensible. In fact, not only do I think they’re all defensible, I think a choice among them ultimately rests on value judgments [strategist] folk like me can’t resolve…[for example] rollback might solve the problem but it’s very risky.  Containment is less risky in the short term but can’t solve the problem, at least not anytime soon. Its like the difference between swinging for the fences and trying to get a home run but risking a strikeout, as opposed to someone who swings for contact, hits only singles but very rarely strikes out. No [strategist] can tell you that swinging for the fences is the wrong thing to do. It’s a function of how risk-tolerant we are as a people…

…I’m trying to lay bare the choices and illuminate the costs and benefits of them each, and to show where the value judgment lies as a way of facilitating a [strategic] debate that I can’t, at the end of the day, resolve about what are our values.”

Love it or hate it, please feel free to send in comments and criticisms.  In the image above, I’ve listed out some of the characteristics behind the word choices, which should give readers a sense of my thought process.

Of course, we could always go with a pithier version, that I like equally:

“Army Strategists close with and destroy strategic problems.”