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Joint Action: A Personal Theory

This essay is part of the Personal Theories of Power series here at CIMSEC and The Bridge, which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Despite the historical success of joint action, many professional warriors and strategists continually debate which military function is most decisive in the termination of war. Even today, some question whether it is indeed worth the effort to work through the complications of combining competing strategies into effective joint action. My personal theory of joint action proposes an artful blend of both sequential and cumulative strategies to conduct unified operations that most effectively achieve our national objectives. Strategic effect is reduced when either cumulative or sequential strategies are parochially subordinated to the other, since there is no single, decisive function, service, or role in war.

Landing Craft Utility 1633, departs the Whidbey Island-class amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) with vehicles assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU) after a stern gate marriage. Ashland is part of the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group and is conducting joint force amphibious operations in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Raymond D. Diaz)

 

The Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 drastically changed how the US military operates. Most importantly, it required the military services to interact jointly by force of law. This legal requirement for joint operations is necessary; but is by itself insufficient to build a compelling basis for joint collaboration, integration, and interdependence. While there has been much ink spilt over the normative force of Goldwater-Nichols, few have explored the theoretical basis for joint interdependence since Sir Julian Corbett.[1] This essay attempts to expand Corbett’s theoretical foundation that gives the law its conceptual footing.

What is Jointness?

Joint action, or jointness, is the creation of complementary strategic effect across all domains towards a shared political objective. Achieving a degree of physical or psychological control over an adversary creates strategic effect and requires an appreciation for the unique specializations and inherent difficulties of each domain-focused force. This appreciation acknowledges that institutional professionalism is hardly omnicompetent or transitory between varied forms of military power.[2]

Categorization of Joint Action

Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie, U.S. Navy (Retired) (Photo Courtesy U.S. Naval Institute)

 

In Military Strategy, J.C. Wylie[3] postulated that the “common factor” to all power struggles “is the concept of control, some form or degree or extent of control exercised by one social entity over another.”[4] Wylie’s work offers a novel lens for viewing fighting, the solitary means of war.[5] This combat-centric view turns our attention to questioning the best strategy for combat operations.

Often, the territorial imperative quickly comes to the forefront. If land matters most, as some have correctly suggested,[6] then our discussion of the best strategy comes to an abrupt conclusion if we assume that land is all that matters. If only land matters, then achieving the desired effect via the continental theory of war promulgated by some strategists answers our question. As Corbett suggested:

Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided—except in the rarest cases—either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by the fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.[7]

Is this settled theory or should we concern ourselves with the nagging implications of Corbett’s fear of the possible? How should we properly understand the latter part of Corbett’s statement regarding the former’s pious and possibly sole finality? Wylie offers us insight when he suggests, “there are actually two very different categories of strategies that may be used in war.”[8] He categorized these strategies as sequential and cumulative:

Normally we consider a war as a series of discrete steps or action, with each one of this series of actions growing naturally out of, and dependent on, the one that preceded it. The total pattern of all the discrete or separate actions makes up, serially, the entire sequence of the war. If at any stage of the war one of these actions had happened differently, then the remainder of the sequence would have had a different pattern. The sequence would have been interrupted and altered. But there is another way to prosecute a war…. The other is cumulative, the less perceptible minute accumulation of little items piling on top of the other until at some unknown point the mass of accumulated actions may be large enough to be critical. They are not incompatible strategies, they are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. In practice they are usually interdependent in their strategic result.[9]

“[A] sequential strategy would utilize the ability of force to take and protect,” Lukas Milevski suggests, “whereas a cumulative strategy would utilize the innate capacity of force to inflict damage.”[10] Sequential strategies strive for finality in achieving strategic effect, while cumulative strategies effectively deny such finality.

U.S. Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division descend to the ground after jumping out of a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft over drop zone Sicily during Joint Operations Access Exercise at Ft. Bragg, N.C. (Photo by A1c James Richardson, USAF)

 

Both strategies are best understood as complementary sides of the same coin, rather than inherently hierarchical or opposing inferior viewpoints. Sequential strategy promotes inherently offensive assertions of control, while cumulative strategy is an inherently defensive aspect of control that saps the strength of an adversary’s assertions for control.[11] These categorizations are not exhaustive, but they are useful in explaining how merging sequential and cumulative strategies jointly enhance strategic effect.

So, what aspects of joint action are typical of sequential and cumulative strategies? Conventional land power is a sequential strategy because of its unique ability to control political territory. Only conventional land power can assert control by seizing political territory, and only conventional land power can achieve control by protecting that valued territory. Alternatively, forms of power promoting cumulative strategies are sea power, air power, space power, and cyber power. Guerrilla warfare is also a cumulative strategy. All cumulative strategies, however, lack direct control upon the territorial imperative.[12]

Explanation of Joint Action via Sequential and Cumulative Strategies

A U.S. soldier shares grapes with Afghan boys in the southern province of Kandahar. (Photo by Tony Karumba)

 

It would seem inherent in Wylie’s suggestion that the “ultimate determinant” of control “in war is the man on the scene with a gun.”[13] However valid this point might be, as suggested above with the coin analogy, it illuminates only one part of the whole. War is a “duel on a larger scale” between opponents with varied capabilities and strategies at their disposal. There is room on both sides for misconceptions about the nature of the aforementioned coin.

Zealots will always promise “decisive” war termination via either type of strategy, omitting the obligatory importance of jointness. Slogans such as “Victory through air power,”[14] and “[land power] when specific outcomes matter,”[15] illustrate two such examples. Sometimes these are suggested as result of unwitting reductionism, but can also be the polemic tools of ideology or cynical competition for resources. The greatest barrier to joint action is parochial thinking that does not fully appreciate other strategic viewpoints, more precisely, a blend of sequential and cumulative strategies.

Relationship of Jointness to the Interaction of Sequential and Cumulative Strategies

While finality is possible with sequential strategies, hostility is always at play. War rarely allows for a single decisive blow, nor is the ultimate outcome of a war usually to be regarded as final. Additionally, lest we commit ourselves wholly to the lure of “decisive” strategies, one can never overlook the political constraints dictated by context in asserting control.[16] Clearly, there is more to consider than a simplified perspective of “decisiveness.”

Milevski illuminates the interplay between cumulative and sequential strategies further:

Cumulative strategy is underappreciated, in part because it cannot be ‘of itself reliably decisive’…. Its effect is limited and only works over time, anathema to those strategists whose aim is short, decisive wars. Cumulative strategy can on its own only achieve a denial of control the result of which is to obscure the choices that really are available and the consequences they may have…. Bereft of the ability to take, it cannot force a conclusion upon [an adversary] unwilling to accept it, as may be ultimately possible with sequential strategy…. To those not trained to think in terms of control, denial of control as an operational method seems inexplicable as it does not fall into more popular categories of operations such as direct and indirect or attritional or maneuver. Bereft of an intellectual framework, however implicit, practitioners facing a cumulative strategy have no way of understanding the character of the threat they face. This lack of comprehension affects not only the strategy chosen to counter it, but also practitioners’ grasp of who is more strongly affecting whom.[17]

The interaction of cumulative and sequential strategies is complex. As a result, it is useful to consider this interaction during the ongoing debate over war termination, counterinsurgency operations, and even resourcing of our future military capabilities. In each of these areas, success will be secured by balanced use of cumulative and sequential strategies in a joint and thoughtful manner.

Anticipation within a Positive View of Joint Action

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) launches a Tomahawk missile in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, 2011. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Wylie’s theory of control viewed through the dichotomy of sequential and cumulative strategies is not meant to be prescriptive nor mathematical. After all, the interplay between friendly and adversarial combinations must be tested in real war.[18] Actual context requires the subjective blend of these strategies into unified action. By understanding the core of control as having two equally important strategies, sequential and cumulative, one grasps the fundamental basis of jointness as a principle in achieving a desired strategic effect.

“One can sense a very real possibility that this concept of sequential and cumulative strategies operating in coordination,” Wylie suggests, “may help us form more valid judgments of the interrelationship between ground and air, ground and sea, and sea and air forces.” Since he wrote these words, technology has irrevocably changed the modes of warfare making this interrelationship more complicated. Nevertheless, Wylie grasped the most important element of the debate when he suggested that control was best achieved via an interoperable application of both cumulative and sequential strategies.[19] It is for this reason that strategists should willfully acknowledge and be driven by a holistic understanding of the necessity for jointness, rather than by force of law. My personal theory suggests that this approach to joint action will increase success in translating tactical action into strategic effects that promote our national interests.


[1] This essay is greatly indebted to the works of Clausewitz, Corbett, Colin Gray, Lukas Milevski, and especially J.C. Wylie as the means for developing a basis of joint action. The latter’s work in Military Strategy is especially useful in parsing out how cumulative and sequential strategies drive how we think about war. Also, the author would like to thank Jeremy Renken, Scott Shipman, and Nick Prime for exchanges that further illuminated Wylie’s theory of control to me.

[2] Colin S Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 209–211.

[3] If Sir Julian Corbett is the first joint theorist, then J.C. Wylie’s insistence upon integrated sequential and cumulative strategies as a prerequisite for political advantage within a military context demands that he be held as a close second.

[4] J. C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (New Brunswick, N.J.,: Rutgers University Press, 1967), 110.

[5] Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 95, 97.

[6] Gray, Modern Strategy, 212–216; Wylie, Military Strategy, 85; Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 377; Lukas Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy: The Effects of Sequential and Cumulative Patterns of Operations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 2 (January 18, 2012): 234.

[7] Julian Stafford Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 16.

[8] Wylie, Military Strategy, 26.

[9] Ibid., 23–24, 26.

[10] Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 229.

[11] Ibid., 234, 235.

[12] Ibid., 232–234.

[13] Wylie, Military Strategy, 85.

[14] H.C. Potter et al., Victory Through Air Power (Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Pictures, 1943), accessed May 23, 2014.

[15] Huba Wass De Czege, The Hard Truth about “Easy Fighting” Theories: The Army Is Needed Most When Specific Outcomes Matter, Essay, The Landpower Essay Series (Association of the United States Army, April 2013), accessed January 14, 2014.

[16] Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 75–89, 577, 593–594.

[17] Milevski, “Revisiting J.C. Wylie’s Dichotomy of Strategy,” 235–236.

[18] Wylie, Military Strategy, 29.

[19] Ibid., 27–29, 33–35.

Defense Industrial Base: A Personal Theory of Power

This essay is the third in the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint Bridge-CIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.


Defense industrial base [hereafter “industrial base” or “defense industry”] issues are almost always discussed in a contextual vacuum — as if their history begins with World War II factories or with President Eisenhower’s 1961 warning of a growing industrial complex. But manufacturing materiel is as ancient as war itself. This essay attempts to first set a historical narrative for the defense industry and then to propose a theory of its power.

Marching through history

In 1528, Charles V of Spain hired a Genoese firm to supply and operate a fleet of galleys to help control the Italian coast. Due to their increased size and sophistication, the price of galleys grew. By 1570, this led his son Philip II to experiment with having court administrators operate seventy percent of Spain’s fleet. They failed to recruit experienced oarsmen or to provision equipment efficiently. The price of operating galleys doubled without any vessel improvements before the policy was reversed to private enterprise.[i]

In 1603, Charles’s grandson, Philip III paid 6.3 million ducats to Gonzalo Vaz Countinho, a private merchant, for 40 ships and 6,392 men. This eight year contract supplied Spain with its entire Atlantic fleet. Twenty-five years later, Philip IV contracted a Liège company to build cast-iron cannon and shot. By 1640, 1,171 canons and 250,000 shot were built. Until the end of the eighteenth century Spain was self-sufficient in iron guns.[ii]

Contracting was not limited to the House of Habsburg. Governments have always relied on industry to provide materiel. It is not surprising then that in Michael Howard’s classic War in European History private enterprise plays a prominent role. Knights, mercenaries, merchants, and technologists shaped the history of Europe and thus its wars.[iii]

An industry is born

For centuries supply caravans traveled with armies and small, decentralized, enterprises such as blacksmiths were ubiquitous. To profit, merchants repurposed equipment on commercial markets. Other proprietors assumed financial loss for military titles or, when victorious, profited from the spoils of war.[iv]

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) changed the scale of conflict and the materiel required to conduct it. At last there were “large-scale profits to be made” from the “business of war”.[v] In Genoa, Hamburg, and Amsterdam centers comprised of weapons manufacturers emerged alongside merchants that specialized in capital, financing, and market access. A multinational arms industry was born that “cut across not just national, but confessional, and indeed military boundaries.”[vi]

Berlin based Splitgerber & Daum was one firm born from this system. Formed in 1712, its two proprietors began as commissioned agents. They raised capital to supply munitions first to local arsenals in Saxony and eventually the Prussian army itself. Their growth can be attributed to an early observation: that success in their business “could be achieved only within the framework of a strictly organized mercantilist economy.”[vii] Patriotism became a marketing tool.

By 1722, Splitgerber & Daum was manufacturing “gun barrels, swords, daggers, and bayonets” at Spandau and assembling guns at Potsdam.[viii] By mid-century it was a conglomerate. Frederick the Great, unlike his grandfather the “mercenary king,” was not an admirer of contractors. But after the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763 he guaranteed the company a “regular flow of government orders” as long as it remained loyal to Prussian interests.[ix] He understood that in order to “raise Prussia to the status of great power required the services of merchants, manufacturers, and bankers.”[x]

Pouvoirs régaliens

Twenty-six years later, the French Revolution would change Europe. Until then, states were the property of absolute sovereigns; after they became “instruments of powerful forces dedicated to such abstract concepts as Liberty, Nationality, or Revolution.”[xi] As the nature of the State changed, so did its wars. French armies were now comprised of conscripts. In 1794, France attempted a planned economy. It reasoned that if people could be conscripted so could resources. The experiment failed due to inefficiency; manufacturing reverted back to private enterprise before the year’s end.

Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

Industry would flourish during the Napoleonic Wars. From 1783 to 1815 two thirds of Britain’s naval tonnage was produced by private shipyards. And the Royal Navy began to experiment with managing industry. It sacrificed deals with large lower-cost providers to bolster small contractors that it considered to be more flexible. In the nineteenth century, the birth of nations launched state industries: private, but British shipyards; private, but German steelmakers.

Krupp would embody this development. Founded in 1811 in Essen (by then Prussia), it would first develop steel. By 1851 it became the primary provider of Prussian arms and, after German unification, the country’s preeminent defense firm. By 1902, Krupp managed the shipyards in Kiel, produced Nassau-class dreadnought armor, and employed 40,000 people.[xii]

Defense Industrial Base Power

Defense industries evolved from distributed providers, to unaligned enterprises, and finally to state-managed industries. They became consortiums of private or government-owned entities that translate the natural, economic, and human capital resources of a state into materiel.[xiii]

Krupp’s steel plant in Essen as captured during The Great War

World War II stretched this logic to its absolute; all state resources were translated into the machinery of war. In 1940 the US only built 2,900 bombers and fighters; by 1944 it built 74,000 on the back of industry. From 1941 until the war’s end 2,711 Liberty ships were built; welded together from 250,000 parts, which were manufactured all over the country. And from 1942 to 1946, 49,324 Sherman tanks were built by 11 separate companies such as Ford and American Locomotive — built by the “arsenal of democracy.”[xiv]

After the war, all countries began to balance national security objectives with resources via defense industrial base policies. A country’s industrial base capability could be measured as a combination of its scope (how many different cross-domain technologies it could develop), scale (at what quantity), and quality (battlefield performance).

The path to independence

National resources limit capability. Less capable countries are more dependent on allies than more capable ones (see Figure 1). As countries develop an industrial base their level of dependence decreases, but never goes away. This can be best understood through industry itself. Prime contractors rely on their supply chains. But a widget supplier is more dependent on its customer, than its customer is on it.

Figure 1: Interdependence in the International System

Reflects a manufacturing view of the defense industrial base. Information technology capabilities (i.e., data PED or cyber) have made industrial base capabilities more accessible to smaller countries with less national resources. How this impacts the curve or a nation’s independence is worth further exploration.

 

Industry developed a science for managing the inherent risk of dependence — supply chain management. However, corporate practices do not translate to international politics. Country A may find new allies; Country B may seek to act on its own. And all countries shift along the curve depending on their level of investment.

For example, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have invested into defense since the first Gulf War. They are now capable of “manufacturing and modernizing military vehicles, communication systems, aerial drones, and more.”[xv] Through offset agreements and foreign partnerships they have acquired “advanced defense industrial knowledge and technology” and are expected to rely on their “own manpower and arms production capabilities to address national security needs” by 2030.[xvi]

To borrow from Henry John Temple — Britain’s Prime Minister from 1859 to 1865 — in the international system, states have temporary friends, but permanent interests.[xvii] Over time, it is thus in the interest of each country to increase its independence by investing into defense capabilities (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Ability to Achieve Political Objectives Over Time

Without such investment, Country Z capabilities erode. Country Y may attempt to sustain its capabilities, but as other countries develop new technologies, sustainment also leads to capability erosion. Only countries that invest into industrial bases over time are able to achieve political objectives independently.

One more supper

The United States has never shown, over a sustained period of time, “a coherent long-term strategy for maintaining a healthy domestic defense industry.”[xviii] American defense budgets are cyclical; they have contracted after every war. Every time, the Pentagon intervened with reactionary strategies to manage industry. And each time, as one former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense noted, the Pentagon got it wrong.[xix]

This was most evident in 1993 when the Pentagon held a dinner, known as the “Last Supper,” with top defense executives. It told them that after the Cold War, America no longer needed nor could it afford the same volume of materiel. But it left it up to industry to decide its overcapacity problem. Industry began to consolidate, based on rational business sense, but not a national strategy.

The 1990s were focused on consolidation, commercialization, and dual-use technology. Today, as budgets are again tightened, new strategies such as increased competition and international expansion have emerged. This may help save some companies, but how will it impact our ability to act independently over time?

In 2003, after decades of following a similar industrial base approach, the UK realized that it no longer had the design expertise to complete development of its Astute-class nuclear submarine.[xx] And in 2010 the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review, by listing the capabilities it will have, spelled out what it can no longer accomplish independently. Although the UK received American support for its submarine, what would happen if it did not?

As the US argues over budgets or program cuts, a theory of defense industrial base power could help set priorities. Commercial diversification or international expansion are tactics by which defense firms gain new revenues to save themselves in a downturn. We need a national defense industrial base strategy to maintain our capability for independent action.


[i] Parrott, David. The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2012.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Howard, Michael. War in European History. New York: Oxford University Press. 1976.

[iv] Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800 (2nd Edition). Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. 1996.

[v] Parrot, The Business of War.

[vi] Howard, War in European History.

[vii] Henderson, W.O. Studies in the Economic Policy of Frederick the Great. Oxon: Routledge. 1963.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Clark, Christopher. Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 2006.

[x] Henderson, Studies in the Economic Policy.

[xi] Howard, War in European History.

[xii] James, Harold. Krupp: A History of the Legendary German Firm. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2012.

[xiii] Peck, Merton J. and Frederic Scherer M. The Weapons Acquisition Process: An Economic Analysis. Boston. Harvard University. 1962.

[xiv] Gansler, Jacques S. Democracy’s Arsenal: Creating a Twenty-First-Century Defense Industry. Cambridge. The MIT Press. 2011.

[xv] Saab, Bilal Y. “Arms and Influence in the Gulf: Riyadh and Abu Dhabi Get to Work.” Foreign Affairs, accessed May 5, 2014.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Gartzke, Erik and Alex Weisiger. “Permanent Friends? Dynamic Difference and the Democratic Peace.” International Studies Quarterly (2012): 1-15

[xviii] Harrison, Todd and Barry Watts D. “Sustaining Critical Sectors of the U.S. Defense Industrial Base.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. 2011.

[xix] Marshall C. Tyrone Jr. “Pentagon Revamps Approach to Industrial Base, Official Says.” American Forces Press Service. February, 20 2013, accessed May 16, 2013.

[xx] Harrison, Sustaining Critical Sectors.

The Cognitive Domain

This essay, provided by Lt Col Dave “Sugar” Lyle, USAF, is part of the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

Complimentary mental models hold the social world together. It’s not the lines painted on the road that keep us from careening into each other on the highway, as we sadly find out too often. Paper money has no intrinsic value on its own, unless you like the pictures and holograms, are trying to starting a fire, need a bookmark, or have just run out of toilet paper. Online credit purchases do not even require the plastic card anymore, and only work because we collectively believe that strings of ones and zeros — stored electronically in computers that we’ll never see — equal our right to receive services and things from other people, and keep them. In all of these cases, it’s not about the symbolic artifact. Our agreements about what those artifacts represent, and our willingness to act on those beliefs, are what keep the wheels of society turning.

If it’s true that the plot of every story in the world can be reduced to trying to answer the question “Who am I?”, then it speaks volumes about the importance of identity to human beings.

Our brains are hard wired to socialize; to find personal meaning in the groups we belong to and the groups we interact with. If there’s a group, we instinctively figure out if we belong to it and what our place is in the pecking order. We usually try to maintain or improve our position in the hierarchy, even if it’s only within a subgroup we identify with. And to do so, we simultaneously cooperate and compete with others, usually both at the same time.

If it’s true that the plot of every story in the world can be reduced to trying to answer the question “Who am I?”, then it speaks volumes about the importance of identity to human beings. In fact, our brains process things that we associate with our own identity in different ways than we process things that we see as being “other”. We have a very hard time rationally questioning anything that becomes part of who or what we imagine ourselves to be.

But how do we know what is “us”, and who or what is “other”?

We make up stories to set the boundaries. We love stories, and literally can’t live socially without them. The basis of our shared mental models, we encode our stories in metaphors, in ceremonial rituals, in songs, in books and films, and in various physical artifacts that help us to remember and communicate both the stories and their meaning. We use the stories as guides for social interaction, and we rewrite them over time to incorporate new experiences. Stories help us understand where we’ve been, and set the direction for collective effort in the future. They are our guideposts for understanding and negotiating ever changing social landscapes, and for accepting our roles within them. Because we have stories, we have identity, we learn to specialize, and we learn to work together for mutual benefit, creating far better lives together than we could ever possibly experience separately.

We only think we’re in charge of what we believe, and that we deliberately control our own decisions through conscious, rational thought.

And here’s the real kicker. We only think we’re in charge of what we believe, and that we deliberately control our own decisions through conscious, rational thought. What really happens is that a multitude of mental submodels — most of which we’re not even aware of — compete for control of our conscious attention, and the domination of our decisions. The idea of unconscious thought influencing the conscious is nothing new — the Greeks were talking about it thousands of years ago. But what is new, as we learn more about the neurobiological foundations of our cognitive processes, is how little control we actually have over our own thoughts most of the time. “Gut feel” intuition usually trumps the pure, unbiased processes of reason that we like to credit ourselves for, but seldom employ in practice — but that’s not always a bad thing. So how does this work inside the mind itself?

Heuristics  — the “rules of thumb” built in our brains through combinations of conscious and unconscious encoding — are really combinations of associated and connected mental submodels that are called up in specific contexts. Formed from the bottom up over time, ideas and memory literally emerge from countless physical structures in our brain building and interacting through electrochemical processes. With the numbers of neurons in our brains estimated to be in excess of 500 billion, the combinatory possibilities of brain processes are even greater than the known numbers of stars in the universe. To add to the complexity, nature and nurture combine as co-creative forces, ensuring that no two brains are ever alike, even if the basic structures are similar. The true “Great Unknown” can be found in the space between our ears…

But the human mind isn’t completely unknowable either. As Joseph Campbell observed, the same myths are constantly reinvented over the millennia because basic human nature — and the basic cognitive heuristics that form it — is universal across ages and cultures. An intuitive understanding of this has been the key to success for generations of generals, politicians, illusionists, and con artists, giving them the power to predict and shape human behavior. But now, through neuroscience and neurobiology, we’re finally starting to better understand the underlying biochemical processes that were at work the whole time.

The knowledge of identity stories — and the history of how they came to be — is crucial to building your own mental model of other people’s mental models.

Imagine all of those competing mental submodels as if they were Lotto balls, tumbling around in the hopper of our brains, competing to be selected as the winning ball at the top of conscious attention. Now imagine that all of those balls are connected to the other balls in various ways by small, invisible strings, with different degrees of connection and strength. If you could grab specific balls and strings, in specific sequences, you’d have a better chance of influencing which balls make it to the top of the hopper to be selected. You may not know exactly which one will be the winner, but your odds of predicting it are much better if you know something about how those balls are connected together, and how they interact. It works the same way with interconnected memories, ideas, and feelings: “cognitive priming” activates specific mental heuristics at specific times, for better or for worse. The knowledge of identity stories — and the history of how they came to be — is crucial to building your own mental model of other people’s mental models. It’s this “Theory of Mind” we use every day to negotiate and modify the heuristic driven social landscape, as we seek to shape it in ways that favor us.

Except it’s not always that easy. Sometimes the stories don’t match up. Sometimes we disagree about who is in our group, who gets to have what, who gets to tell others what to do, and what should happen if we disagree on these things. We try to define the boundaries with artifacts that evoke the stories. We write laws and codes. We wear uniforms, and issue IDS and badges. We buy power ties, $50,000 wristwatches, and $500,000 cars to cement our place in the social strata. Then we use these stories and artifacts to reinforce our place and our “rights” within the social system. We plead. We cajole. We flatter. We threaten. And finally, we fight.

We fight when our primitive brain senses that something is threatening our physical survival. We fight when something threatens our identity or place in the pecking order, and occasionally we fight over things peripheral to survival and identity that do not threaten the first two. We fight over fear, honor, and interest, as Thucydides observed, and we usually do it in that order. And when we fight, we often equate the ability to maim and kill as having power.

But killing really isn’t the point when it comes to power. While it’s true that killing someone else is a way to exercise power, and a way to prevent someone else from exerting power over you, power is much more about influencing their mental models of the people who you don’t kill, in order to drive the continuing social interaction in directions that you favor. As Thomas Shelling once said, it’s usually much more useful to have the ability to kill someone than it is to actually do it. And as he also said, it’s the loser who determines when the fighting stops, not the winner.

it’s usually much more useful to have the ability to kill someone than it is to actually do it…it’s the loser who determines when the fighting stops, not the winner.

So how does the loser accept the new reality? They rewrite their story in ways that rescue their personal and social identity. A temporary stability can be maintained under the threat of future sanction and violence, but when peace follows war, it happens because the stories of the victor and vanquished have become complimentary enough that the loser can not only answer the “What am I?” question with honor, but perhaps more importantly, “What can I become?” favorably under the new status quo.

Using knowledge of the basic human cognitive processes, and the stories that define people’s identity — to take actions that convince others to change their stories, identities, and actions in ways that accommodate yours, accepting your story as their own in the ultimate exercise — is called POWER.

Theory Properly Constructed

This essay is the start to the Personal Theories of Power series, a joint BridgeCIMSEC project which asked a group of national security professionals to provide their theory of power and its application. We hope this launches a long and insightful debate that may one day shape policy.

When professionals hear the word theory, their eyes tend to glaze over. Most believe theory is purely academic. While understandable, this is only one view of theory. For those of us that will be sharing our personal theories of military power, theory frames our worldview. It changes how we approach problems. Theory shapes how we project power. Over the next couple of days, this will become blatantly apparent as you read how a broad range of national security professionals share their personal theories here on The Bridge. We are presenting our personal theories as a starting point for a wider and deeper national security and strategy discussion.

Theory is crucial to what we do, but it must be consciously acknowledged and tested. In his book The Tacit Dimension, Michael Polanyi suggests “we can know more than we can tell.” This is a useful description of our theoretical beliefs as knowledge; where knowledge, in what is irrevocably lost through unrefined English, is best understood via differentiation in the German tongue as Wissen and Können.[i]

The former, Wissen, is knowledge of awareness; here our particular gestalt is the sum of our biases and blind spots. The latter, Können, is knowledge of discernment; here we typically tend to make order of things within our perception and sub-conscious. These coupled concepts build a bridge between the creative powers of the mind and a value judgment for ordering of the operations of perception. For both these reasons, there is value in the expression of our personal theories. They expose buried subceptions, but are also practical extensions in reproductive and productive reasoning.[ii] Bringing these to the fore is the purpose of The Bridge’s efforts to gather the personal theories that follow this article: for narrow self-reflection, for wider public consideration, for discussion, for questioning, for debate, for recursion, and ultimately for improved practical application. So as a prompt for our writers and readers alike, it is useful to consider the proper construction of theory at the outset of this endeavor.

The Five Functions of Theory and their Impact on Practice

“Strategy and strategies, theory and practice, must be seen as one,” the eminent strategist and theorist Colin Gray suggests, and “[theory] should be able to help educate the realm of practice by assisting people to think strategically.”[iii] There is a unifying nature of theory, in that it informs and educates professionals towards making sense of their circumstances. Towards that end, the archetypical theory has five functions: it defines, categorizes, explains, connects, and ideally, anticipates.[iv]

Theory should provide users a description of what is being done and illuminate the purpose of what is being done.

First, theory defines the field of study. In a sense, it provides via classification a clean break with what its users are considering and what they are not. Inherent in this classification are two additional considerations: definitions ideally should provide users a description of what is being done and illuminate the purpose of what is being done. [v]

Blind Monks Examining an Elephant by Itcho Hanabusa (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Second, theory must categorize its field of study into constituent parts, thus providing some form of typology, for example, differentiating between strategy and tactics, or limited and total war. Ideally, perhaps even scientifically, this typology requires the theorist to establish criteria of exhaustiveness and mutual exclusiveness. This is logical, even purely logical, if impossible. The curb of practicality must provide limits of such logic to the user of theory in favor of pragmatic reasoning. This pragmatic reasoning is what provides grammar to a particular theory. Thus, hopefully familiar to the reader: theory’s logic is not its own—so as to provide consistency with its purpose—but its grammar in what it does is its own. This nature drives theory towards a healthy respect for empiricism rather than just glib idealism. This also means the categorization of a theory is likely never final; it will remain eternally relevant for contemplation because of either new explanations or new grouping, or some combination of both.[vi]

“Explanation is the soul of theory.”

The Alchemist by Pietro Longhi (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Third, theory provides an explanation of occurrences, and this is theory’s most important function. Harold Winton goes so far as to suggest, “explanation is the soul of theory.” Here within theory is the convergence of both deductive and inductive examination of an object of study. Where the former is focused upon a theory’s empirical testability, the latter is more intuitive and requires creativity to recognize a paradigm shift. While this is the most important aspect of theory, it is also the most transitory. This distinction from the transitory property of categorization results from a recursive flow of analysis and synthesis via observation, hypothesis, and testing.[vii]

Carl von Clausewitz

Fourth, theory relates and connects together concepts. This part of theory progresses the conception of an object from an existential basis (inherent in the previous functions) to a form of relational construct. Without such a progression towards the latter, theory suffers from a pensiveness that precludes practical application. This relational aspect of theory applies order to things and, in other cases, also describes correlation, or even causation, and it can even be a probabilistic supposition. A familiar example of the relational concept in theory is the elegant Clausewitzian connection between violence and politics.[viii]

Hand with Reflecting Sphere by M.C. Escher (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Finally, theory anticipates the future. Theory is more than naïve empiricism, which if followed would suggest that our practical application would only be the sum of our accumulated observations. Karl Popper disputes the idea of this aggregation of observations by reminding us that, “[we] do not ‘have’ an observation, but we ‘make’ an observation.” Observation, then, is always preceded by something more theoretical that presupposes expectations for an object under consideration. Thus convinced that empiricism alone is insufficient, to what extent or limit would the prudent theorists extend their judgment from propositions, hypotheses, principles or axioms, to even laws? The complexity of this issue is discussed elsewhere, but it is sufficient to say a theorist must not abandon empiricism either. For, if they do, it is rather axiomatic that theorists will find their theories are merely visions, which I.B. Holley describes as “ideas not systematically prepared for authentication,” or illusions as “ideas that could not survive systematic preparation for authentication,” or at worst as myths where “ideas… exempt themselves from any systematic authentication.” Here it might be forgivable, falling short of being useful theorists to at least being compelling visionaries, but only the most maligned and rare theorist is caught in illusion- or myth-building.[ix]

“Questions are our best friends for the invention and refinement of strong useful theory, and they are the lethal enemies of poor theory.”

Conclusion

Now that we’ve properly wrestled with the Wissen and Können aspects of theory construction, it’s now time to set it out for review and challenge. “Questions are our best friends for the invention and refinement of strong useful theory, and they are the lethal enemies of poor theory,” Colin Gray reminds us. Now its time to put that idea to the test, ever mindful of the Master’s aim for theory:

The primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become, as it were, confused and entangled. Not until terms and concepts have been defined can one hope to make any progress in examining the question clearly and simply and expect the reader to share one’s views.[x]

We hope you enjoy the next few days as our authors explain, likely through their own intellectual struggles, their personal and particular theories, and we challenge you to respond with your questions, counter assertions, and your own personal theories.


[i] Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, Reissue edition. (Chicago ; London: University Of Chicago Press, 2009), 4–8.

[ii] Ibid., 6–8.

[iii] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2011), 15.

[iv] Harold R. Winton, “On the Nature of Military Theory,” in Toward a Theory of Spacepower: Selected Essays (National Defense University Press, 2011), 20–21, accessed April 26, 2014; Harold R. Winton, “A Black Hole in the Wild Blue Yonder: The Need for a Comprehensive Theory of Airpower,” Air Power History (Winter 1992): 3.

[v] Winton, “On the Nature of Military Theory,” 20–21; Winton, “A Black Hole in the Wild Blue Yonder: The Need for a Comprehensive Theory of Airpower,” 3; Antulio Joseph Echevarria, Clausewitz and Contemporary War (Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 38–40.

[vi] Winton, “On the Nature of Military Theory,” 20; Echevarria, Clausewitz and Contemporary War, 38; Paul Davidson Reynolds, A Primer in Theory Construction (New York; London: Allyn and Bacon, 1971), 4–5; W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, Reprint edition. (New York; London: Free Press, 2011), 2, 21.

[vii] Winton, “On the Nature of Military Theory,” 20–21; Reynolds, A Primer in Theory Construction, 21–23, 26, 42–43; Frans PB Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Routledge, 2006), 57–64; “The Conceptual Spiral”, August 1992, 22–24, 31, 37–38, accessed May 7, 2014.

[viii] Reynolds, A Primer in Theory Construction, 67–75, 81–82; Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 87, 605–610; Winton, “On the Nature of Military Theory,” 21.

[ix] Karl R. Popper, “The Bucket and Searchlight: Two Theories of Knowledge,” in Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach, Revised edition. (Oxford Eng. : New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1972), 341–342, 344; Reynolds, A Primer in Theory Construction, 76–81; I.B. Holley, Jr., “Reflections on the Search for Airpower Theory,” in The Paths Of Heaven: The Evolution Of Airpower Theory, ed. Phillip S. Meilinger (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1997), 580, accessed February 6, 2014.

[x] Gray, The Strategy Bridge, 17; Clausewitz, Howard, and Paret, On War, 132.