Harry Summers Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Strategy; Conversation with Harry G. Sumers; 3/6/96 by Harry Kreisler

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Strategic Thinking

Colonel Summers, welcome to Berkeley. Tell us a little about what you think it takes to be a strategic thinker.

When I was at the War College they had a program to develop strategists. I said to the commandant, "I'm not so sure you can do that. I think what you can do is identify potential strategists and then work to increase their knowledge." And the overarching requirement is intellectual curiosity. If you have intellectual curiosity, you keep asking "why does this happen? why does this work?" Then you have at least the potential to develop into a strategic thinker. But absent that spark, absent that desire, it's almost impossible. You can make second-rate copies, but I don't think you can ever make a strategic thinker of someone who doesn't have the innate intellectual curiosity about the way the world works and the way things happen.

Is a strategic thinker in the military comparable to someone who does political strategy, or someone who does business strategy in the corporate world?

In my view, yes. There are other people who would go to the mechanistic route and say, "Well, strategy is just the use of resources to achieve ends. And therefore, you can do it with almost a computerized model." That doesn't fit my idea of what a strategist is. I think it needs to be much more conceptual, and not so much materialistically driven. And in that sense I think that a military strategist is quite analogous to a strategist on the civilian side.

How do you maintain and support the intellectual spark that you start with? Are there certain classic texts?

Going back to intellectual curiosity, I think that to be a military strategist, you would have to be very well versed in military history, be fascinated with it, and have a very good background in military history in general, sort of an eclectic view of military history. That would include not only military leaders, but great battles and the general histories as well, to get a foundation from which to analyze. That kind of foundation is essential. You certainly have to get deep grounding in military history to be a military strategist. For a business strategist, the same thing. You would have to be fairly well grounded in the business community or management.

What are the basic components of military strategy?

First, it's ends and means. You have to study both sides of that equation. You have to be familiar with political science and political ends because all military operations have political objectives. There is no such thing as military objectives, only political objectives. So you have to understand that side of it. You have to understand the dynamics of international politics and local politics since, as has been said, almost all politics are local politics. Then you have to understand the military means, the dynamics of military force, how it can be used, what its components are. In addition, for an American military strategist, understand the social milieu in which it operates, because we are a very peculiar country in that the American military very much is a instrument of the American people rather than of the American government. You have to understand that dimension of it as well.

Has it been a failure in our recent history that our politicians have not understood the context for an effective military strategy?

General Fred Woerner, who was a Berkeley graduate in 1939, said in a piece he wrote after the Vietnam War, "Anti-militarism is a constant in the American society." That's what we are: not so much an anti-military, but an anti-militarism people. The study of military history and military affairs is not very deeply rooted in this country. It's something we just tend to avoid. So that, I think our political leaders, by and large, really don't understand the dynamics of American military power, particularly the peculiarities of American military power, the idea that it really is a people's military and that it cannot be committed over time without the support of the American people. I see that feeling in the national political leadership. They don't understand that limit, that enormous limitation, on the use of military power.

In other words, in our history, in our traditions, there is a critical stance toward the military, basically. And this requires politicians to be sensitive to the history and tradition of being skeptical of military ways of doing things. Our founding fathers believed in citizens' armies. It's implicit in their design for our government.

Yes, and explicit as well in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which makes it very clear that the American military is a creature of the Congress, not of the executive branch. The Congress has absolute power over its very existence. Clausewitz laid it out in the early nineteenth century when he differentiated between eighteenth-century war -- which was a matter for kings and presidents and princes, and the people were just observers -- and nineteenth-century war as a matter of what he called "the remarkable trinity of the people, the government, and the army." That observation, a very profound observation that he drew out of the French Revolution, had been drawn almost fifty years earlier in the American Revolution and incorporated into our Constitution. We are a trinitarian military in the true sense of the word -- which has enormous ramifications for the commitment of U.S. military power and for U.S. military policy.

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