Staffs and Spartans: Who is the strategist?

Welcome to another installment of CCLKOW, the twitter based military affairs discussion. In this week’s piece we consider who should do strategy in the armed forces. Contrasting the dedicated model of the long service staff strategist with that of the combatant who rotates through the role in alternation with line experience, one is confronted with risks and benefits to each. Arriving at a point of six of one, a half dozen of the other, it is for the discussion to consider what is the best model for military strategy. Enjoy the post and join the conversation at #CCLKOW on Twitter.

Matt Cavanaugh over at The War Council offered some interesting thoughts on what the strategist does. As important as identifying the proper mission statement for the role, so too must we choose who the strategist is within the military institution. To describe and identify the contrasts between the two prevailing models, there is either the Staffer, the Prussian professional whose experience and expertise is gained outside of the chain of command, or the Spartan, the thinking amateur whose credentials are gained in the field and applied accordingly.

Both models have strengths and drawbacks. With respect to the dedicated strategist, there is the time and space to study, think and analyse. Additionally, in this framework there is the dispassionate distance from branch preferences and rivalries, allowing decisions to be made with greater objectivity than sentimentality. However, at the end of the day strategy is being written by people whose knowledge is derived from study beyond the harsh conditions of consequences. Looking at the Spartan, real world expertise and hard earned lessons provide an empirical foundation to build good thinking practices. And while familiarity with a particular branch might inspire romanticism for the form, it is equally true that the intimate understanding of these capabilities influences their apt application in conflict. The career largely dedicated to learning by doing, on the other hand, limits the time available to learning beyond scope of one’s own purview.

The weakness, at the heart of each, is the degree to which unfamiliarity and ego rule. In both cases you have the tension between expert and tyro. The benefits that either offer to the creation of military strategy are easily argued. Equally, and more troubling, the risks from both can be catastrophic given the function of strategy. Each model is vulnerable to the arrogance of the wisdom of giving the greater weight of influence to their expertise. It is sobering to imagine the consequences when this is coupled with the ignorance with which each must be characterized.

And so the questions and discussions for this week are these:

Who should be the strategists for the armed forces?

Should one model dominate the armed forces? If so, how do you control for the weaknesses and risks?

Instead of preference for either, is a hybrid model the path forward? While this seems ideal, this means balancing the risks and weaknesses of two different models rather than one.

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