Department of National Security and Strategy - U.S. Army War College - Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania
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Strategic Studies Institute
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Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute

Theory of War and Strategy

Theory of War and Strategy prepares students for service at the strategic level through the study of war and strategy. The course emphasizes the theoretical approach to war and strategy and thus sets the intellectual framework for all subsequent courses. Theory of War and Strategy has three blocks of instruction:

(1) The first block, "Strategy, War and the International System," gives the students some key concepts for analyzing conflict and cooperation among nations. It introduces the concept of strategy, which will be the major focus for the remainder of the War College year. Next, it considers the international environment, beginning with the actors. We look at the concepts of nations, states, and sovereignty. We also briefly examine the major non-state actors that increasingly impinge on the heretofore almost exclusive right of states to employ force in the international arena. The next topic is power, which is the coin of the realm in international relations, especially for the national security professional. We look at ways to think about international relations-concepts the strategic leader can use to make sense of the environment in which he or she operates. These concepts include contending schools of thought about international relations as well as recent thinking regarding the international system and strategic environment. The block concludes with an examination of military power and its use in the international system and its relationship to strategy. At the end of the block, the student will have a basic familiarity with strategic theory and understand major concepts derived from international relations theory.

(2) The second block, "The Strategist's Toolkit," builds on the concepts introduced in the first block to initiate our in-depth study of strategy and its relationship to war. We continue the examination of strategy by moving from its context and underlying theoretical concepts to the strategic considerations that strategic leaders and strategists must weigh in formulating and executing grand strategy and military strategy. This course contends that one distinguishing aspect of both strategy and war is that external considerations always influence their conduct in some fashion-either as a constraint or as a facilitator. Perhaps the most obvious and prevalent of such considerations are the rules of war found in Just War theory and international law. Equally significant, the very nature of war affects it conduct. According to Carl von Clausewitz, because war is a political act, there will always be domestic political considerations as to what is possible, desirable and justifiable. Likewise, because war has traditionally been an international act, the international community judges the legitimacy of each occurrence-imposing as it does special considerations on combatants and strategists, including the belief that multilateralism is the preferred strategy of democracies. The final lesson of the block examines the theoretical issues of war termination. At the conclusion of the block, the student will better understand some of the factors that policymakers and strategists must consider in harmonizing national interests, political and military objectives, and conflict termination.

(3) The third block, "Theories of War and Strategy," moves from the general examination of strategy and war to address the more specific question of how to conduct war. As we study specific strategists and theorists, the student will be asked to analyze how that strategist/theorist thinks about war (What is war?), why he thinks wars should be fought (What is the object of war?), how he believes a state should fight a war, and how he thinks wars are won. We begin by considering what two major theorists, Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military officer, and Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher of war, have to say about the nature and characteristics of war. We will look successively at their theories of war, their understanding of ends, ways and means, and the relationship between war and policy. In both cases, we will examine how these theorists apply to modern warfare. From this beginning, we proceed to consideration of specific types of warfare. First of these are what might be called domain theories of warfare. J.C. Wylie, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett and others provide thoughts on land power, sea power and airpower, their employment, utility, and decisiveness. We also have a lesson on the general subject of theories of nuclear warfare as well as theories of limited war, insurgency, counterinsurgency, terrorism and counterterrorism. Warfare in space and cyberspace wrap up the theoretical portion of the block. We complete the block with an assessment of future warfare and its implications for the formulation and execution of strategy. As we examine theories and theorists, we will continue to use our model of the strategic thought process-the relating of ends, ways, and means-as a framework to guide strategic thinking. We will use historical examples to study various aspects of war and strategy. The ability to "think in time" and to analyze and assess the strategy of past conflicts is essential to progress as a strategic thinker. We are studying strategy at the national and theater levels and should strive to think expansively, creatively, and critically in dealing with the broad strategic problems. In the words of British Field Marshall William Slim - as a strategist, you must know how to THINK BIG!