From Pearl Harbor to Al Qaeda—Why Military Strategy Matters

From a lecture series presented by Professor Andrew Wilson, Ph.D.

By almost all measures Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor was a masterpiece. It was bold in concept and brilliant in execution. It was a masterpiece of deception: a masterpiece of tactical and operational surprise and a masterpiece of military strategy. But I said, “By almost all measures.”

image of USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory for military starategy article
USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory

Bad Military Strategy, Brilliantly Executed

Pearl Harbor may have been a masterpiece of military strategy, but it was a catastrophically bad strategic choice. Yamamoto may have been a military genius, but he also launched his country on the path to total defeat. In the end, bad strategy brilliantly executed is still bad strategy.

Learn more: Thucydides on Strategy

I want to emphasize a very important point right out of the gate—there is a huge amount of chance in war. Yamamoto was a gambler, and he viewed the attack on Pearl Harbor as a great gamble. In fact, he said it would require a miracle for Japan to win the war, but he was willing to take that risk. But it wasn’t just a victory against the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor that was at stake.

Image of the attack on Pearl Harbor for the military strategy post
Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack— December 7, 1941.

Japan’s leadership knew that the fate of their entire empire hinged on that one gamble. On the face of it, attacking the United States at those odds sounds insane, but even Carl von Clausewitz, that cool-headed Prussian theorist said war is “like a game of cards.” In other words, war is a gamble.

Clausewitz didn’t mean that war was a game. After all, he had seen Napoleon shatter the Prussian army in 1806. So war was not a game to Clausewitz, but he knew that war was so subject to chance that it is much more like poker or blackjack than a scientific experiment.

A Matter of Chance

Image of Carl von Clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz (1 June 1780 – 16 November 1831) was a Prussian general and military theorist who stressed the “moral” and political aspects of war.

But let’s think about it. Poker and blackjack are games of chance, but they are also games of skill. Knowledge and experience can’t guarantee success in cards, but they can significantly improve your odds.

You learn the rules of the game, you work the probabilities, you try to read your opponents, and you might even count a few cards. To succeed in war requires developing similar odds-enhancing skills. Military prowess matters, but the skill that is most essential to improving the odds in this most dangerous game is strategic analysis.

Strategic analysis involves objectively weighing the risks and rewards of several different courses of action. You weigh your options by thinking through the chains of cause and effect in each course of action; you do that before you place your bets. But you can’t wait until the cards are about to be dealt to start thinking in this way, you need to come to the table already adept at strategic analysis.

But how does one develop those strategic analytical skills? The best way is to study the classics of strategic theory and to test their utility across a range of historical cases.

Learn more: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War

Strategic Theory

At the Naval War College, where I work, we look at the classics of strategic theory—works like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Clausewitz’s On War—and apply those masters of war to historical case studies and to contemporary security challenges, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya.

Now maybe it surprises you that our best and brightest officers are spending time with these moldy old books. Maybe you don’t think classical strategic thought or military history matters. If that’s the case, I can give you a few examples that might change your mind.

Colin Powell, who was National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and later Secretary of State, described the first time he read Clausewitz as a revelation. In fact, Clausewitz played a big role in what became the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine: that set of political and military preconditions conceived as a litmus test for committing U.S. troops to foreign wars.

If that’s not enough, Donald Rumsfeld repeatedly invoked Clausewitz and Sun Tzu during his tenure as Secretary of Defense. And Rumsfeld’s Deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, a leading architect of the Iraq War, regularly endorsed Thucydides as a guide to strategy in the 21st century.

But it’s not just our officers and senior civilians who are students of the classics of strategic theory. Copies of Clausewitz have been found in Al Qaeda safe-houses. Bin Laden may have drawn some inspiration from Clausewitz in assessing the United States. After all, the Prussian talked about the overall strength of a nation at war being a function of their means and their will.

Where Al Qaeda was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of means, military means, bin Laden believed that they had the edge in terms of willpower. To bin Laden, American withdrawals from Vietnam in the ’70s, Lebanon in the ’80s, and Somalia in the ’90s demonstrated a weakness of American will.

To bin Laden American soldiers were paper tigers and Washington, D.C., readily abandoned distant battlefields at the first whiff of unacceptable costs in blood, treasure, and time.

To bin Laden American soldiers were paper tigers and Washington, D.C., readily abandoned distant battlefields at the first whiff of unacceptable costs in blood, treasure, and time. Or at least that’s what bin Laden thought. The fact that Navy Seals, backed by the full power of America’s intelligence services, found bin Laden in distant Pakistan, in the 10th year of the global war on terrorism proves just how wrong his assessment was. But it does show that our foes are trying to think strategically. But like Yamamoto, bin Laden mistook a dangerous gamble for an educated guess.

Learn more: Machiavelli’s The Art of War

The Meaning of “Strategy”

The term “strategy” derives from the Greek word strategos: the elected post of general in classical Athens. That Athenian generals—or strategoi—were also politicians is the critical piece of this concept. The term “political general” is often laden with all sorts of negative connotations.

Think of some of the famously incompetent politicians that Abraham Lincoln appointed to military command. Even today, “political general” is widely considered an insult to an officer’s bona fides as a warrior. But at the highest levels of command a general must be political.

I do not mean political in a partisan sense, but rather in the sense of appreciating that war is a means to a political end. If we look at war that way, then we might define strategy as this: the process by which political purpose is translated into military action. Effective strategy also demands constant management, constant reassessment, constant adaptation. Strategy is not a crock-pot; you can’t just set it and forget it.

This has a lot to do with the fact that war is interactive. The enemy gets a vote. As much as we are trying to compel an enemy to do our will, he is trying to do the same thing to us. So a good theorist—a master of war—will understand interaction and adaptation and will give some guidance on how to compensate for the fog, friction, chance, and uncertainty that are the handmaidens of war.

Keep reading:
The Ottoman Empire at Total War, 1914–1916
Ukraine and Russia: A Violent Identity Crisis
The Terrifying Mongol War Machine

From the lecture series Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers taught by Professor Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D.