Strategy: a dialogue between desire and possibility

When someone as eminent as military historian Sir Michael Howard reviews a new book by a young former soldier by describing it as “a work of such importance that it should be compulsory reading at every level in the military” and (recognising himself that he is “really go[ing] overboard” ) that the book “deserves to be seen as a coda to Clausewitz’s On War” you know that you have to read it and that your expectations have been set very high.

Emile Simpson’s War from the Ground Up: 21st Century Combat as Politics deserves a much wider audience than just the military.  It sparks ideas about analogies in other parts of life; the experience of a young officer in Helmand Province has meaning elsewhere.

One of his most powerful ideas is the recognition that we need to understand how our actions will be interpreted, and when then they can be interpreted in multiple ways they risk becoming ineffective:

To use an analogy, the market is an interpretive structure whose function is to impose a specific type of meaning, a price, on a product. When the market cannot allocate a price (which is one of its basic functions), its mechanism breaks down and it loses utility. This happened in the financial crisis of 2008, when many derivatives were so complex that the market could not price them.  The market seized up its basic mechanism stopped working. When an action in war can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways depending on the prejudice of the audience, it is very hard to make armed force have political utility in a Clausewitsian conception of war: for a military outcome to set conditions for a political solution it needs to be recognised as such.  (p.74)

But his comments on strategy are more powerful still:

Essentially strategy is the dialectical relationship, or the dialogue, between desire and possibility. At the core of strategy is inevitably the problem of whether desire or possibility comes first. Does one start with the abstract idea of what is desired, or should one commence by consideration of what is realistically possible? This is a chicken and egg situation.

The two should ideally be in perpetual dialogue, not just before but also during a conflict. Desire must be grounded in possibility; possibility clearly requires an idea in the first place which informs any analysis of possibility…..

Understood as dialogue between desire and possibility, strategy is as much the process that handles this dialogue as the output of the dialogue itself. (p.116)