Maneuver Self Study Program

Why Does Strategy Matter to Maneuver Leaders?

An understanding of the components of strategy - the tactical and operational elements that must coalesce in order to achieve political outcomes - can contribute to your development as leaders. It can offer a richer understanding of the elements that will drive a war to victory, or defeat.

As other essays in this series explain, maneuver leaders must be able to integrate sister service capabilities into operations: capabilities such as intelligence and fires. The ability to integrate is required in the strategic domain as well, since maneuver leaders will often be required to draw upon other types of non-combat expertise - from development know-how, to economics, to knowledge of infrastructure and rule of law - to achieve U.S. objectives. The 2009 Army Capstone Concept captured this requirement in its concept of wide area security. Wide area security is the application of the elements of combat power in coordination with other military and civilian capabilities to deny the enemy positions of advantage; protect forces, populations, infrastructure, and activities; and consolidate tactical and operational gains to set conditions for achieving strategic and policy goals. Army forces use combined arms maneuver and wide area security operations to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative. They establish wide area security to protect forces, populations, infrastructures, and activities. Wide area security also denies the enemy the ability to gain physical, temporal, or psychological advantages. Effective wide area security is essential to consolidating tactical and operational gains that, over time, set conditions for achieving strategic goals.

A consideration of strategy can also help you anticipate (and thus prepare better for) the many factors that can and often do, go wrong in war. For instance, in his classic essay, The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy, Michael Howard explained that war is conducted along four dimensions: the operational, the logistical, the social, and the technological. Successful strategy requires taking into account of all of these dimensions, but under different circumstances, one or another might dominate. Howard pointed out that during the American Civil War, the North's victory was not due to the operational capabilities of its generals, but to its capacity to mobilize its superior industrial strength and manpower into armies. Ultimately, he observed, the logistical dimension of strategy proved more significant than the operational.

More recently, in Afghanistan, the logistical dimension of strategy was critical as well. The need to maintain reliable supply lines to a land-locked country shaped U.S. strategy toward Pakistan, which in turn had significant negative implications for U.S. and allied troops on the ground, since Taliban safe havens were operating from Pakistan. Your actions as leaders in wartime will be magnified, shaped, and often necessarily constrained by how tactics and operations are connected to broader political goals.

Moreover, by thinking strategically - remembering the moving parts that are driving toward the desired political end state - you will be better prepared to anticipate what your adversary may be considering and employing against you. Most likely, he is pursing more than one line of effort to defeat you. The 9/11 attacks were not solely tactical successes for Al Qaeda - they were linked to a broader political campaign designed discredit American actions and objectives in the Middle East. Throughout the Iraq war there were countless examples of U.S. effort to build trust among Iraqi civilians that were deliberately undermined by radical Sunni and Shia-backed militias who were thinking about their desired political end-state. As leaders, you will need to develop tactics and operations that make it harder for enemies to turn U.S. actions to their advantage; this requires an understanding of political dynamics at play. Strategy, like war itself, is interactive.

Strategy and the Political Dimensions of War

No one starts a war - or rather no one in his sense ought to do so - without first being clear in his mind what he tends to achieve by that war and how he tends to conduct it. The former is its political purpose; the latter its operational objective."[1]

There is no dearth of definitions of military strategy. "Tactics," wrote Carl von Clausewitz, is the art of using troops in battle; strategy is the art of using battles to win the war." Liddell Hart, a British soldier and historian, described military strategy as the "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy." The British historian Michael Howard observed that "strategy concerns the deployment and use of armed forces to attain a given political objective. An Army officer turned academic put it this way: "At its most basic, strategy is a matter of figuring out what we need to achieve, determining the best way to use the resources at our disposal to achieve it, and then executing the plan."[2] And if, for a moment, we take a step back from these military-focused definitions, it is worth noting that grand strategy is about how nations integrate their political, economic, and military goals in order to preserve their long-term interests in times of war and peace.

For the purposes of this essay, however, the focus will be on military strategy and the importance of connecting military tactics and operations to desired political outcomes. Just as you study the importance of combined arms and the need to integrate all arms into the fight, maneuver leaders must have an understanding of the need to connect battle field actions to political objectives.

In war, politics is as contested as territory. Holding territory requires an understanding of the politics that govern the territory. No matter how threats and conflicts are characterized – whether conventional, small, irregular, or hybrid – what is common to virtually all such contingencies is that the political landscape will drive the character of these conflicts. In virtually any scenario in which the United States Army will be involved, the politics of the situation on the ground will shape the context for the intervention and how the conflict unfolds.

This political dimension of war is not new to the United States Army. Throughout its history, the Army has engaged in "politics on the ground."[3] Virtually all of the wars in which it has fought have involved the problem of managing local actors in order to restore stability and basic order. U.S. Army officers directly supervised the creation of new governments in a range of wars. These include the well-known success stories of Germany and Japan during World War II, as well as Italy and Korea. In addition, cases that have traditionally garnered less attention include the Mexican War in the 1860s, reconstruction during the Civil War, Puerto Rico and Cuba during the Spanish American War. Governance operations took place during the Cold War period too: the Dominican Republic 1965, Grenada in 1986, and Panama in 1989. Not counting the more recent post Cold War period, Army personnel under the theater commander's operational control supervised and implemented political and economic reconstruction. In virtually all of the Army's major contingencies Army personnel remained on the ground overseeing the political transitions that were essential to the consolidation of victory.

An Approach to the Study of Strategy

First, maneuver leaders should become familiar with some of the classical thinking about strategy. You should read all or at least parts of parts of On War. If that seems intimidating, you might first read several articles that synthesize Clausewitz's views, and then dive into the parts of On War that interest you. You should also read some of the classic modern thinkers on military strategy, such as Michael Howard (see the article noted below). This will help provide a context for original texts that you might read.

Second, you should explore relevant Army doctrine that captures the importance of strategy. Some examples of this doctrine are included below. While it might not engender the most fast paced reading, some of it is actually well-written and it provides insights into contemporary debates about how the Army is thinking, which will help you engage in contemporary discussions.

Third, you should read case studies of strategies in war. A good place to start would be to read two books, Makers of Modern Strategy (which is probably worth having on your bookshelf) and The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War. The First title includes essays by renowned historians and thinkers and essay subjects include ones on Napoleon, Jomini and Clausewitz, World War I, Russian strategy, World War II, conventional war and revolutionary warfare. The second title focuses on how rulers and states develop strategy through seventeen essays ranging from the ancient past to modern day. As a part of your case study reading, it would also be worth reading some of the more recent articles and discussions about the problems of strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Your generation of soldiers has been shaped by these wars so understanding the debates about them will be important as you continue to grow as leaders.

[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, p.579

[2] Christopher Bassford, Policy, Politics, War, and Military Strategy; available on line at This was published in 1997 and updated in 2006.

[3] Nadia Schadlow, Organizing to Compete in the Political Terrain Army Strategic Studies Institute Monograph, August 2010.


  1. What is strategy? How would you define it when talking to your cohorts?
  2. As you read about specific wars throughout this course of Self Study and more broadly, keep in mind the political aims of these wars. Are U.S. civilian leaders clear about these aims? Are their military counterparts clear about these objectives? How did the battles and operations in these wars contribute to the achievement of these aims? How were they shaped by them?
  3. Are there strategic principles that endure? What are they?
  4. What are some examples in war in which tactics and operations did or did not advance the political outcomes that the United States sought to achieve?
  5. How did our enemies, in various wars, exploit the politics of war?
  6. What training can I implement into my unit so that subordinates will develop a better understanding of military strategy?
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