Wanderer above the sea of fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Strategy is abridge,” so sayeth Colin Gray, “because no other idea so well conveys the core function of strategy” which “connects two distinctive entities or phenomena that otherwise would be divided.” Gray then lays a gauntlet, that this metaphor is, of course, “open to challenge by pedants.”

So where do I sign up? I’m feelin’ up for some pedantry.

The metaphorical Strategy Bridge links resources and power to policy and purpose. This is, indeed, an exceptional metaphor, if one describes strategy as a product, an end point, a static, completed thing that has been constructed (in the past tense). This is a strategy that has already been built, what Hal Brands calls “design.” But we also know strategy functions as a process, dynamically adapting and reorienting according to the enemy’s zags and zigs (which Brands refers to as “adaptation”). Consider the image above as representing the would-be strategist – the “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” – he has some distant sense of the goal, and experience informs what he expects lurking in the unknown.  He requires both a map with a plan and a compass continually adjusting to true north. Again: design and adaptation. If war is too big for any one academic discipline, then perhaps strategy is too big for a single metaphor.

But where might we find such a metaphor? Sports is often the first port of call, and Gray actually mentions the game of tennis as a suitable start point, owing to it’s iterative interaction, but this just doesn’t seem violent or rough enough (besides, insurgents typically avoid tiny white shorts and bright headbands). Instead, I could envision a hybrid of a competition I’ve been part of before – the Pikes Peak Marathon in Manitou Springs, Colorado.  The nation’s third oldest 26.2-mile race starts at 6,000 feet elevation and follows a trail for 13 miles to the 14,000 foot summit, then descending back down some 13 miles and 8,000 feet to the bottom.

What if we tweaked it? What if we allowed two (or even three, or four) runners in competition with one another, with roughly similar abilities – but – allowed them to wield violence in any way they saw fit to intimidate, coerce, harm, hurt, or destroy their opponents – and to run off trail – as long as they touched the top and got back to the start point first? (Ok, ok, I acknowledge the lunacy of this suggestion; just stay with it for a bit more.)

Even if you physically defeat your opponents (through strategies of annihilation, attrition, or exhaustion), you still have to successfully navigate tricky terrain to the end.

This Violent Pikes Peak Marathon would well represent tactics as heavily influenced by the intersection of physical ability and technology, and the dangerous competition between and among multiple competitors jockeying for relative position. Strategy in this endeavor shows itself as a constant adaptation to terrain, environment, and enemy – a compass to guide one through ever shifting and overlapping sets of critical judgments, each one influencing the next. At different points along the way, choices and options range from broad to narrow to either/or. When one gets to the top, they’re only halfway there, and the most difficult stage is the downslope (akin to Phases IV and V in military operations). Even if you physically defeat your opponents (through strategies of annihilation, attrition, or exhaustion), you still have to successfully navigate tricky terrain to the end. Perhaps most importantly, this race features three lines of effort on the way to strategic victory. The victor must defeat the opponent physically (to achieve “military” victory); be the first, relatively, to cross the line to earn the paper prize (certifying the “political” agreement); and be seen by the crowd as the legitimate victor (so all agree on a common “narrative”) and therefore respect the achievement.

The Violent Pikes Peak Marathon is a start but far from perfect; it lacks the simplicity and clear mental imagery that serves the Strategy Bridge so well. But bridges don’t just appear, they are built, brick by brick. Another metaphor must emerge, which compliments the Strategy Bridge, to describe this other crucially important side of strategy.

Cover photo Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Major Matt Cavanaugh is a U.S. Army Strategist, a Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and has served in assignments from Iraq to the Pentagon, and New Zealand to Korea. A Contributor at War on the Rocks, he looks forward to connecting via Twitter @MLCavanaugh. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US government.