Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 19:40 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 19:40 | SYDNEY

So, what is a civilian strategist?

This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

8 August 2011 11:04

This post is part of the What is 'strategy'? debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Crispin Rovere is a PhD Candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Rodger Shanahan asks two very important and incisive questions: (1) what is a civilian strategist, and (2) why do they (we) feel they do not need tactical or operational knowledge to be authoritative on strategic matters?

Strategy is about the achievement of political objectives by military means. A civilian strategist is therefore someone not in uniform, who approaches the use of armed force with political objectives in mind. A civilian strategist calculates whether the benefit of military operations to Australia's national interest outweighs the blood and treasure required of the nation.

When coming to these judgments, they are bound to ask questions like: is the threat to Australia's national security grave enough to warrant the sacrifice of Australian lives? What are the costs and risks of embarking on such an enterprise? What is it we hope to achieve by the use of armed force? Under what circumstances would it no longer be in our interests to continue?

With respect to Afghanistan, these issues have long been contested. At the IQ2 debate in Melbourne, General (Retd) Jim Molan argued that, irrespective of the stated political objectives, Australia has a moral and humanitarian responsibility to protect the Afghan people from oppressive Taliban rule. This was a powerful presentation that understandably swayed much of the audience. 

A civilian strategist might then ask: if we have a moral responsibility, just how many lives are required to fulfil this obligation? Is it 10? 100? 100,000? At what point do we assess this as being beyond our interests to pursue? Moreover, is the vast expense of conducting large-scale operations in Afghanistan the best possible allocation of resources to assist those less fortunate around the world?

Ultimately, a civilian strategist may be less concerned with whether Afghanistan is 'winnable' than whether it is worth winning.

It is hard to imagine volunteer soldiers in Afghanistan concerning themselves with these questions. While it's critical that field officers understand the strategic thinking of theatre commanders in taking tactical decisions, the political objectives of civilian leadership are of little relevance. As Sebastian Junger observes in 'War': 'Soldiers worry about those things about as much as farmhands worry about the global economy, which is to say, they recognize stupidity when it's right in front of them but they generally leave the big picture to others.'

The problem lies where civilian leaders fail, through lack of direction or oversight, to clearly communicate to uniformed commanders what the latter is expected to achieve with the resources they've been allocated. This criticism has been leveled by both civilian strategists as well as soldiers themselves.

This leads to Rodger's second question. On the one hand there are civilians who possess operational and tactical expertise, whose focus is on military doctrine or defence capability, but who are more likely to have direct operational experience and to have served either in uniform or embedded among soldiers. In this instance they are not so much civilian strategists as military experts, like Rodger Shanahan himself, who move between civilian and military circles, often acting as interpreters for both.

Ultimately, civilian strategists require a different set of skills than those of uniformed soldiers. Speaking only for myself, I will always defer to those with command experience when discussing operational matters.

I would also agree that while not a pre-requisite, knowledge of operations can profit a civilian strategist by helping them assess operational plans and its relationship to political objectives. Indeed, there were few civilian strategists to advise President Obama on General McChrystal's surge plan or capable of arguing alternatives. McChrystal gave his best advice as to what was likely to be effective, but not whether America's security interests justified such an investment.

I would welcome the opportunity to be deployed, expand my knowledge and earn the trust and respect of my military friends, but as ClosetIdealist points out, civilian strategists make a substantial contribution, whether or not they have been on the battlefield.

Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.