A friend serving in the U.S. Army asks: how can army leaders get their message about the army’s role in Pacific strategy to “resonate” with their sea-service counterparts?
They could start by reading Aristotle—his treatise on The Art of Rhetoric in particular. The classics define rhetoric, which nowadays has come to mean empty talk, as the art of persuasion. To oversimplify, the philosopher’s paramount bit of advice is to shape the message to the audience. That means calibrating it to appeal to hearers’ intellect and their emotions. Do that and the message may resonate, swaying them to your cause.
So Aristotle would counsel senior army leaders to hone their rhetorical dexterity with the same fervor they bring to designing ground forces or drawing up budgets. In a real sense strategy is storytelling. It goes far beyond the mechanical-seeming process of devising ways to harness diplomatic, economic, and military means to make political gains in a competitive environment. Good strategy does more than simply impart information or map out a plan of action. It spells out purposes and explains to specialists and non-specialists alike how its executors intend to put national power to work fulfilling those purposes.
If a strategic narrative is cogently framed, it sweeps audiences along to the writer’s or speaker’s conclusions. That’s how rhetoric works: it informs, provokes, and inspires. And it must appeal to audiences from different backgrounds and demographics. If Congress is the audience, defense spokesmen typically try to convince lawmakers to provide the armed forces with the implements they need to make the story—and its happy ending in particular—come true. If the American people are the audience, strategy should persuade ordinary citizens that spending tax dollars on armaments will advance a worthy if not righteous cause. If allies or prospective foes are the audience, the script should convince them that America can and will keep its international commitments. Allies will take heart, consoled that the United States will be there for them; opponents will lose heart and might postpone or abandon any malign aims.
Great communicators tailor their message to those whose views they mean to shape.
So much for the general Aristotelian wisdom. What if the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps are the audience? Admiral J. C. Wylie commented acidly on why joint-force debates tend to deadlock, and he attributed the problem to the different operating mediums the services inhabit. The physical domain molds each service’s outlook on the profession of arms, and by extension the assumptions members of that service bring to the table. Think back to your grade-school geometry. Assumptions are taken as self-evident truths, and we reason from them to prove or disprove some proposition. They cannot be falsified within a system of logic, and thus it’s tough to get someone to budge from them. For example, Admiral Wylie maintains that armies assume they must fight a decisive battle to exert control over a foe, navies concentrate on wresting away command of the sea, and air forces believe the ability to destroy something from the air equates to control of that something.
Try to have a productive discussion with someone operating from a fundamentally different set of axioms.
But Wylie does espy an exit from impasses among the armed services. Harking back to B. H. Liddell Hart’s writings about World War I, and in turn to the writings of the classical Chinese soldier Sun Tzu, Wylie suggests that all of the services could embrace “indirection” as a common strategic assumption. Liddell Hart recoiled from the horrors of trench warfare, while Sun Tzu urged generals to open direct and indirect axes of attack to keep an antagonist off balance. He enjoined them to shift emphasis back and forth as battlefield conditions warranted, making the indirect axis the direct axis and perhaps back again. Sun Tzu commends an exceedingly fluid brand of operations to those who take the field. It may be that army and sea-service chieftains could agree on indirection as an axiom of the American war of war. But they must find some mutual lexicon if indirection is not it.
Now, we are talking about changing the cultures of big institutions. Cultures are stubborn. Barring some cataclysm that breaks a culture—a Pearl Harbor or 9/11—it takes time and determined leadership from on high to change one. It’s worth working toward Wylie’s common set of martial assumptions, but China needs to be countered now, not years from now after the services—possibly—remake themselves into more collegial institutions. So in the near term army leaders should take the Aristotelian approach and acquaint themselves with the navy and marine worldview, puzzling out what will appeal to seafarers’ intellect and passions. To me the U.S. Army’s contribution to Pacific strategy is plain, substantial, and eminently compatible with the family of concepts that have gushed out of the sea services in recent years. For example, the Marine Corps has redesigned itself in part as a “stand-in force” able to remain within China’s weapons range to deny China’s navy, air force, and army access to allied soil and to the waters of the broad Pacific. Marines will scatter across Pacific islands, chiefly along the first island chain, to help the fleet deny and ultimately win maritime command.
China wants territory. Denying its military the ability to use the sea would deny it access to key terrain and defeat Beijing’s aims. And defeating a rival’s strategy is what it’s all about.
In principle there is no reason the U.S. Army couldn’t join the Marine Corps to constitute a stand-in force on a grand scale, a joint land/sea force able to defy Chinese aggression. Showing sea-service leaders how army deployments will advance U.S. maritime strategy, as sea-service leaders interpret it, should make for a resonant appeal. The services have worked together in relative concord in the Pacific before; there’s no reason they can’t again.
Heed the wisdom of the ancients.
About the Author
Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.