April 21, 2024

American national security strategy is generally unimaginative. It is too often constrained by a rigid, unimaginative pursuit of optimal objectives… It needs the constructive, creative impulse that characterizes great strategy.

On May 7, 1864, the battle-weary soldiers of the Army of the Potomac awoke expecting to retreat north (yet again) from their nemeses – the Army of Northern Virginia and its commander, Robert E. Lee. For two days, the Union army had fought the Confederates in the vicious battle of the Wilderness, and the Union had lost, and lost badly, suffering almost double the casualties of its opponent. In Ulysses S. Grant’s first major operation in command of all the U.S. armies and his first in the eastern theater with the Army of the Potomac, he had failed. To Union soldiers watching artillery and supply wagons moving to the rear, it seemed like Grant was doing just that. They were mistaken. Approaching a fork in the road, the soldiers realized that the army was turning south, not north. Shelby Foote writes:

Now a murmur, swelling rapidly to a chatter, began to move back down the column from its head, and presently each man could see for himself that the turn… had been to the right. They were headed south, not north; they were advancing, not retreating; Grant was giving them another go at Lee.

Though “whipped”, Grant refused to admit it, and the soldiers’ understanding of what had just happened in the Wilderness changed as a result. Instead of defeat, they saw the beginning of the end. James McPherson writes eloquently, “a mental sunburst brightened their minds. It was not ‘another Chancellorsville… another skedaddle’ after all. ‘Our spirits rose,’ recalled one veteran who remembered this moment as a turning point in the war… ‘We marched free. The men began to sing.’” There is a lesson here.

American national security strategy is generally unimaginative. It is too often constrained by a rigid, unimaginative pursuit of optimal objectives that are poorly-suited to a world in which rival powers are likely to challenge the U.S. indirectly, through various forms of aggressive diplomacy and limited war. It needs the constructive, creative impulse that characterizes great strategy.

The Social Construction of Strategy

The old aphorism “seeing is believing,” nicely captures the spirit of the Enlightenment, with its scientific revolution and celebration of the persuasive power of physical evidence. Yet it is often true that “believing is seeing.” This is a potent strategic tool, and the degree of freedom leaders have in re-constructing the reality of war increases from lower to higher levels.

At the strategic level, the meaning we give to reality differs based on how we collectively interpret it – how we socially construct it. Emile Simpson writes, “Strategy seeks to invest actions in war with their desired meaning… Strategy does not merely need to orchestrate tactical actions (the use of force), but also construct the interpretive structure which gives them meaning and links them to the end of policy.”

Leaders get to influence, if not outright define, the meaning of reality. Recognizing the constructive possibilities of strategy can dramatically expand strategic choice and give rise to more creative strategies. American national security strategy needs more of this.

Grant’s choice after the battle did not change the harsh facts of the Wilderness, but it did affect the meaning that others gave to those facts. His decision to turn south, to see the Wilderness as the opening scene of a bigger story, changed the army’s understanding of what they had just experienced – McPherson’s “mental sunburst”. Grant’s actions show how even simple questions (e.g., “What happened?”) can have multiple, even contradictory answers, and the validity of those answers may depend not in differences of facts, but on the interpretation of those facts, and the ability to convince others that your interpretation has merit.

In war, conditions are complex. There are relatively few binary conditions or outcomes, and this complexity increases as one moves from the tactical to the strategic level, where every answer seems to begin with “it depends”. Sociologist William Bruce Cameron’s observation, “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts,” holds true. Perception, national will, and leadership are intangibles that are hard to quantify. Sometimes we interpret this strategic complexity as a higher barrier to analysis, but one that can nevertheless be cracked. Leaders may still believe that at the strategic level there is some underlying, objective reality awaiting their discovery. But aftermath of the Wilderness highlights something even more profound about strategic reality: we do not just discover it; we also define it. That is, reality is “socially constructed,” determined through social and political processes of discussion, negotiation, persuasion, and historical interpretation. This may smack of postmodernism, with its subjective realities and relativistic truths. Such concepts are not often invoked in military circles. Yet considering the socially construction of military and political outcomes is a powerful way to see new strategic possibilities.

The social construction of knowledge means that the social environment, with its relationships, culture, norms, and values, significantly influences how we understand the world, and how we understand the world affects what we know to be true. It was on the sociological foundations of social construction that Alexander Wendt and other theorists created the constructivist alternative to the realist/neo-liberal argument international relations. Wendt writes, “If the United States and Soviet Union decide that they are no longer enemies, ‘the cold war is over.’ It is collective meanings that constitute the structures which organize our actions.” In a socially constructed context, a leader has maneuver space to shape the meaning of facts, and therefore transform our understanding of reality.

Leaders have freedom to create and preserve options domestically and internationally by creatively interpreting established facts.

This reality-construction is the true indicator of James MacGregor Burns’s “transforming leadership”. Transforming leaders do not change the facts; they change what the facts mean by constructing new possibilities. Grant did this transforming work in the smoke-choked, 1864 Wilderness. What looked like defeat for three years running was no longer defeat. The facts made it seem like a loss – over 18,000 Union casualties to 11,000 Confederates, both Union flanks assailed, forward motion halted, and the Confederates still in their defensive works. Grant had the authority to choose to retreat, and the option was open to him. He chose differently. In the process, he transformed the Battle of the Wilderness from a tactical loss into a successful first step in a campaign to end the war. It was a creative effort to shape the perception of the army he was leading and the public that supported it. Was it true? That question misses the point. It was true because the Union Army believed it, and, eventually, so did its Confederate opponents.

Leaders have freedom to create and preserve options domestically and internationally by creatively interpreting established facts –  Charles DeGaulle re-creating a French Republic in the midst of defeat in the Algerian war, or Nelson Mandela creating a post-apartheid Africa in which whites would still have a place and a voice. President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger shattered the western, monolithic view of global communism by opening the door to China in 1972. Nixon described it as “the week that changed the world.” And it had (though preparations for it took a lot longer than one week). It ended the mutual isolation of the People’s Republic of China and the U.S.  Yet the pre-Open Door facts remained the same. China was still communist and Mao was still in charge. The Vietnam War continued. The Cold War was still frosty. But President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger changed the perception of those facts in a creative way to enable opportunities heretofore unconsidered.

Grant did not believe the Wilderness was a loss. Nixon and Kissinger did not believe communism was monolithic. Their belief allowed them to see options not considered. They were not so naïve to think that they should not have or seek evidence to support their strategic and operational thinking. They did. But their thinking started with open minds to consider the facts anew. How, then, do leaders develop such constructive strategies? We cannot do the topic justice in this short essay, but three conditions are essential.

  1. Start with reality.

There are limits to the sort of creativity we describe above. Indeed, a critic may contend that we are arguing for the irrelevance of facts. We are not. Adolf Hitler, sitting in his Berlin bunker in April 1945, maniacally moving non-existent military units around a map, is not what we have in mind when we say that leaders have space to shape our perception of reality. Leaders must construct strategies based on actual conditions. Strategy cannot be disconnected from facts, such as when American strategy in Vietnam was crippled by deliberate dishonesty and obfuscation, epitomized by the “5 o’clock follies” of inflated body counts and the denial of reality.

Grant was able to transform the Wilderness into something other than a strategic defeat because he still had an army. Even catastrophes can have ambivalent legacies. Roman Consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro led 70,000 Roman soldiers to slaughter at the hands of Hannibal’s forces at Cannae. Cannae was an epic defeat. Despite this, it was indecisive because of the political will of the Roman nobility.

  1. Challenge your assumptions about acceptable strategic ends and ways, but remain true to core values.

Leaders must identify and examine possible states of the world (and approaches to obtaining those states) that they have either (A) not considered or (B) assumed are unacceptable, but that may nevertheless harmonize with strategic goals and national values. The creative recognition of novel (at least to you or your followers) potential states of the world, or of alternative interpretations of otherwise unacceptable states is the beginning of constructive strategy.

Consider, for example, the assumption that the NATO alliance would not survive a Russian incursion into any of the Baltic states. This may be true. Then again, a Russian Baltic adventure may increase the commitment of the rest of NATO to collective defense of territories that it is actually positioned to defend. This is not an argument for anything other than a robust commitment to collective defense of the Baltic states. It is an argument against strategic fatalism – the idea that one condition necessarily follows another.

That a nation or group of nations fails to honor treaty obligations does not preclude it from continuing to establish and maintain beneficial treaties. The UK went to war with Germany over its invasion of Poland in 1939. The war ended without the UK honoring its treaty commitment to a free Poland, which suffered foreign occupation until 1989. In the intervening years, the UK was a core member of the international community, and signatory to numerous treaties, notably the one establishing NATO.

Victory conditions offer another example of the costs of unimaginative strategies. America’s recent strategies for war have not displayed much imagination by taking advantage of opportunities to reconstruct and reinterpret reality. This is most evident in the use of “unconditional surrender” as a victory condition throughout American history. Unconditional surrender is a poor starting point for describing war aims because it cedes all the creative space to the enemy – only they can choose when to surrender without conditions. President Roosevelt declared the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan as the terms for war termination in World War II. Other major allies had not arrived at that vision of war termination yet, and were still exploring “acceptable victory” conditions. Instead, FDR eliminated the allies’ creative opportunity to find those acceptable victory conditions. The allies still won the war, but the prolonging of the war left much of Europe under Soviet control.

A better way, though perhaps more complex and less emotionally satisfying, is to start by describing the minimally acceptable conditions of a war’s outcome. We should ask, “What would we need to achieve at a minimum, and at what cost, to make this war worth fighting?” Once we know where the bottom is, we can construct acceptable conditions above it. The more limited (to us) a war, the more room there is for this kind of constructive behavior.

That said, a warning: constructive strategies increase the risk of justifying behaviors that betray core values. People do awful things. Sometimes we can do something about them; sometimes we cannot. The difference is not always apparent. Greater flexibility in how we construct acceptable states of the world increases the risk that we become passive observers of crimes that we can prevent. Worse, having opened the possibility that criminal behavior is only criminal if we agree and acknowledge that it is, social construction increases the risk that we commit such acts ourselves. The Nazis had ingenious ways of constructing narratives to justify monstrous actions. The murder of non-combatants thus became a sacrifice of the purity of the killer’s soul in ennobling the German people. In constructing imaginative strategies, it is essential to retain an understanding of and commitment to core values.

  1. Convert key followers and stakeholders to your vision, and act.

Effective leaders have the tools to persuade, influence, or, if necessary, coerce and compel others to recognize, accept, or seek alternative strategic conditions. Grant did not just tell a story after the Wilderness. He acted, leading the Army in a series of attempted flanking maneuvers, and maintaining the strategic offensive. This action was an essential part of his constructive work. The U.S. has tremendous opportunities to shape the domestic and international understanding of alternative strategic outcomes. This is especially true in limited wars.

For example, how is the U.S. doing in Afghanistan? “We are losing,” some say. Yet in interpreting a distant, limited war, this is only true if American leadership collectively decides that it is so. Could the U.S. simply declare victory in Afghanistan, and leave? It could, by arguing that its primary war aims have been achieved. Guarantees against the Taliban returning to power are conditions of U.S. victory in Afghanistan only because we choose for them to be so, not because they are given in nature.  The U.S. has many options to reframe its progress and objectives in Afghanistan, and thereby reframe the question of whether that war is being won or lost. This requires political skill, but it is entirely within the realm of possibility.

At the strategic level, believing is seeing. This requires imagination, creativity, and critical thought. Strategies of absolutes – of unconditional surrender, or quests to obtain some objective condition that is out there somewhere, if only we can find it – lack these qualities. U.S. national security strategy would benefit from greater strategic imagination.


Andrew A. Hill is the Chair of Strategic Leadership at the U.S. Army War College. Douglas Douds is a Professor and Military Historian with the U.S. Army War College’s Advanced Strategic Arts Program (ASAP). The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Image: Detail of Photograph of Ulysses S. Grant, by Matthew Brady, 1864. The National Portrait Gallery.


  1. Andrew and Doug, thanks for looking at things completely different. Going to keep re-reading article. Just never looked at events this way? Thanks again, Barry

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