Do Ideas Matter? Some thoughts…


I really enjoyed Adam Elkus’ article Do Ideas Matter? (full PDF) on the Small Wars Journal blog – right up to the paragraph before the conclusion. The author articulated and made his points well, concluding with logical sentence: “… For better or worse, American strategic culture embraces an engineering mindset, and the joint doctrine conceptualization of COG may or may not be the best tool for American strategy…

I thought from here he might be going to connect the dots between whatever doctrinal constructs you adopt and the need for a responsive delivery system to get that doctrine to where it is needed. Nope…what follows is a disintegration of the original issue into a mishmash of random thoughts and ideas. I get the feeling that the author had a bunch of lines that he’d been hanging out to use and hit us with all of them at once. The conclusion is almost a separate article and scarcely relevant to the good points made in the first two pages – the purpose of a conclusion is to conclude, not introduce new material.

I wonder if this was bounced off anyone else before it was published or just churned out in isolation, maybe after too many coffees and very late at night or early in the morning…That’s been a theme of mine here pretty consistently: the need for a good editor to cause an impartial eye over a draft BEFORE there is any thought of it hitting the streets. Even if it only picks up a couple of minor typos (one of my idiosyncrasies is transposing ‘now’ and ‘not’ – hands up if you can see that causing some strife?) or some logical disconnects, sharing your work with someone else before going live is a good thing.

Typos, errors in grammar, loose logic, inconclusive conclusions…all minor details that can irretrievably harm the (possibly quite valid) argument that you are making. This post originally started out as a comment on this post at the SMJ but after reading and rereading the absolutely crap conclusion in this paper, I had such a head of steam up, I figured I’d achieve more with it here. Bottom line: Mr Elkus needs an impartial sounding board before he launches off again…this paper gets a mark of D for Do it again…

The other reason I got so wound up about his non-conclusion was that it takes so much away from the first two and half pages which discusses the relevance of the Clausewitzian trinity to US centre of gravity doctrine. I don’t agree with his bottom line “… For better or worse, American strategic culture embraces an engineering mindset, and the joint doctrine conceptualization of COG may or may not be the best tool for American strategy…” because it reeks for building an Army best suited to fight itself – but I like the way he got there, especially in reminding us what Clausewitz really defined as his trinity and describing quite well the minefield that it interpreting Clausewitz.

I like Clausewitz, or at least those interpretations and translations of his work that I have read – certainly I would rate his influence as far greater than the homogenised drivel that Sun Tzu has become in the last decade or two. I think that most if not all of Clausewitz’s ideas remain applicable today and any that may not, are only temporarily out of vogue – doctrine never really dies, it just fades in and out of relevance from time to time. But, applicable or not, the issue that Adam Elkus was trying (I think) to unravel is that it’s all well and good developing all these new ideas and concepts – or polishing up old ones – but it’s largely irrelevant unless we  have a responsive and effective system to ‘inject’ for want of a better word those ideas and concepts into how we think and behave. FM 3-24 is a great publication but only useful for keeping the dust off the shelves if the ‘education (theory)and training (doctrine)’ (as defined by Phil Ridderhof in his comments on this paper on SWJ) doesn’t pick up on and deliver them before they are actually needed. Remember Simon’s soapbox…It’s all about the right information, to the right people, at the right time – and ensuring that they know how to use it.

I use that phrase regularly in discussions on intelligence, lessons learned, doctrine, training, and knowledge management. I wonder if they are all somehow connected?

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5 thoughts on “Do Ideas Matter? Some thoughts…

  1. I appreciate the praise but my point (as signified in the opening paragraph) was “the reception and dilution of Clausewitzian theory in American military doctrine suggests that influence is contingent–and the end product of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine’s continuing evolution in American strategy is unlikely to conform to the predictions of either COIN’s most fervent admirers or detractors.”

    E.G. I am pointing out that theory in its “pure” form is always diluted by implementation and the strategic culture of the state that employs it. Therefore the shape of future American COIN will likely look much different than both its promoters and critics imagine. I use Clausewitz (a relatively uncontroversial strategic theorist) as an example of this–the American Clausewitz is quite different from the Clausewitz most understand. Perhaps the issue was that this point was not made as lucidly as the discussion of Clausewitz and Echevarria, hence the conclusion seemed ad hoc.

    I agree with your points concerning implementation and delivery but that was by no means the point I was trying to make.

  2. Surely in COIN, and probably most other forms of warfare, the ultimate driver for successful doctrine must be your adversary or, more common today, adversaries? The theory remains the same, the application of it is what is shaped by national characteristics.

    If you were to say that “…the American application of Clausewitz is quite different from the Clausewitz most understand…”, you would be absolutely correct. And the success of that application would depend heavily on the robustness of its adaptation to the adversary of the moment. Thus the its application to the potential for 3rd Shock Army to cross the state line in Germany, is different to its application against takfir jihadists (of all religions).

    In 2005, during CLAW 1, I had a few beers in Salisbury with a USMC LTC names Michael Scheiern. One of the things he said that I have used a lot since was “…we’re shifting from the days of platform-based tracking to a new era tracking individuals…“. In terms of COG, it was all a lot clearer in the good old days of only worrying about ships, groups, divisions, corps, etc. The COG construct still holds up today but requires a far higher degree of resolution and continual review against ‘the shifting sands of the COE’. I agree totally that consideration of the COE as a place of strength is incorrect, although easier to work with and espouse; consider the pivot for a tipping point and you might be close to it…

    I think you made you point well with a good conclusion in “… For better or worse, American strategic culture embraces an engineering mindset, and the joint doctrine conceptualization of COG may or may not be the best tool for American strategy…“. I just not sure what happened after that? Perhaps those points could be expanded in another paper…?

  3. The opponent matters as well, but how the threat is interpreted is filtered through national characteristics. This is a not an endorsement of the filtering, just a point that it exists. Even in post-unification Germany, as Echevarria and others point out, his ideas were largely interpreted through the light of the country’s authoritarian, military-dominated politics. Within the national layer of filtering there’s the institutional layer (each service in the US having their own COG version) and then finally the layer of practice against the opponent. With COIN you see this played out in many ways.

    In regards to the construct as a whole, I think Echevarria makes a strong case that the American understanding doesn’t really work well for irregular warfare–in large part because it was engineered in the context of the 1970s-1980s intellectual revival of operational warfare against the Soviet Union. Clausewitz’s original understanding is wider and can be used to encompass both conventional and irregular conflicts. That being said, what may seem like a theoretical problem may not be an issue in practice. I’ve seen some brilliant analyses of the war on terror using the American COG construct–they didn’t need the construct to come to those conclusions, but it certainly didn’t hinder them.

  4. Pingback: The CoGs in the war go round and round… « The World According to Me…

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