Generalship is an intellectual endeavour. It requires those incumbents to understand the nature of war and the character of the conflict in which they are taking part. However, developing and sustaining that understanding is not straightforward. This is particularly evident when circumstances increase the difficulty by imposing friction on the mundane routine. Such friction slows progress and develops into a force that actively pushes back, especially once an adversary begins killing civilians, inflicting destruction, and killing or wounding opposing own forces. The General must rise above this milieu and staffs have a significant responsibility in helping them to do so.

It is axiomatic that generals deal with the strategic art. However, they do not do so alone. They are supported by staffs who use systems, processes, and methodologies to inform their situational awareness and enact their will. The usual methodology of linking ends to ways and means may be bad strategy, as described by Jeffrey Meiser. He criticises military thinking as being ‘uncreative, noncritical and limits new and adaptive thinking’[1]. Meiser criticises such methodology as it encourages lazy oversimplification under-consideration, arguing that ‘Under this approach, the strategist simply fills in each box, or better yet, creates a diagram showing each element of national power as a line of effort directed at an enemy centre of gravity or critical vulnerability. This is the stuff of “PowerPoint nirvana” but encourages strategists to avoid thinking creatively and precisely about resources and power’[2].

Such methodologies provides lines of effort but no contestable theory of success[3]. This demands that formulation of strategy should rigorously examine different conceptual approaches around a central hypothesis. Such different approaches are neither left flank, right flank, or ‘up the guts’, but are far more nuanced and varied. The question is not to ask “tell me how this ends?” but rather the question to be understood is “how does this work?”[4]. Unfortunately for staffs, there is no simple checklist for this. The United States Marine Corps’ MCDP 1-1 Strategy, however, specifically warns readers of the pitfalls in attempting to reduce strategy making into a routine, stating that ‘Just as there is no strategic panacea, there is no optimal strategy-making process’[5]. This is where a tension exists as staffs will inherently want to systemise and 'routinise' their work, however, such efforts ultimately undermine their purpose and their support to the General.

So then what does a staff need to do in order to support their General in their understanding of a conflict? Perhaps this is best explored by first understanding what The General’s purpose entails, helpfully enlightened by observations from Major General Stephen Day, DSC, AM from his reflections on Generalship in two wars[6]. Firstly, their fundamental duty is to win. This will mean making difficult decisions, and often it will mean changing strategy; generals cannot afford to be dogmatic and fixed. Therefore, staffs need to be similarly dedicated and focused on success, this means focus on outcomes over processes. This leads naturally to the second point, generals need to begin with the end in mind which requires a vision for success. The General is the one person that must have a clear and unambiguous understanding of what they are striving to achieve. Therefore, it is apparent that staffs must be able to deliver that clarity to their situational understanding which will require honest and objective reporting. Thirdly, The General must understand the character of the war that they are fighting. This requires nuanced understanding of the conflict history, sources, actors and their motivations in depth. Any such attempt with any conflict would be a herculean task that an individual has little hope of achieving in solitude hence a need for the staff to obtain the deeper understanding and communicate it so that it may be synthesised with other understanding across the staff. Additionally, The General must focus on the outcomes of wars rather than battles. Whilst a general may direct forces in battle, their actions, efforts and outcomes all coalesce into war outcomes. Staffs and Generals must not rather narrowly conceive the plans for taking the next hill or removing adversary key leaders. Rather their plans and operations must exist within our understanding of what the future system should look like. In short, they must be able to translate the tactical into the strategic and vice versa.

In a talk hosted by Headquarters 2nd (AS) Division and streamed by The Cove on Tuesday 28 May, Major General Stephen Day, DSC, AM will seek to expand upon these considerations. Such considerations serves the purpose of informing and assisting further understanding to be developed on how a staff, and staff officers, can support their generals in a warfighting headquarters to win and succeed.

End Notes

[1] Jeffrey W. Meiser, “Ends+Ways+Means=(Bad) Strategy”, Parameters 26, no. 4 (2016): 81.

[2] Meiser, “Ends+Ways+Means=(Bad) Strategy”, 82.

[3] See Frank G. Hoffman, “The Missing Element in Crafting National Strategy: A Theory of Success,” Institute for National Strategic Studies, 31 March 2020,….

[4] See Linda Robinson, Tell me how this Ends: General David Petraeus and the search for a way out of Iraq (New York: PublicAffairs, 2008).

[5] U.S. Marine Corps, MCDP 1-1: Strategy (Washington D.C.: Department of the Navy, 1999), 96.

[6] See Stephen Day, Thoughts on Generalship: Lessons from two wars (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2015). Available online at….