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Categorical Confusion? The Strategic Implications of Recognizing Challenges Either as Irregular or Traditional

Categorical Confusion? The Strategic Implications of Recognizing Challenges Either as Irregular or Traditional - Cover

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray.

February 2012

74 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Strategic theory should educate to enable effective strategic practice, but much of contemporary theory promotes confusion, not clarity, of suitable understanding. A little strategic theory goes a long way, at least it does if it is austere and focused on essentials. Unfortunately, contemporary strategic conceptualization in the U.S. defense community is prolix, over-elaborate, and it confuses rather than clarifies. Recent debate about irregular, as contrasted allegedly with traditional, challenges to U.S. national security have done more harm than good. Conceptualization of and for an operational level of war can imperil the truly vital nexus between strategy and tactics. In much the same way, the invention of purportedly distinctive categories of challenge endangers the relationship between general theory for statecraft, war, and strategy, and strategic and tactical practice for particular historical cases. It is not helpful to sort challenges into supposedly distinctive categories. But, if such categorization proves politically or bureaucratically unavoidable, its potential for harm can be reduced by firm insistence upon the authority of the general theory of strategy.


Strategic concepts and the theories they encourage and enable are discretionary intellectual constructions. Strategic concepts are not dictated to us; rather, we choose them and decide how they can serve as building blocks for the edifice of theory we prefer. When strategic theory is confusing, misleading, and not fit for its practical purposes of education and even advice, then it is akin to bad medicine that we take in the mistaken belief that it will do us good. Unfortunately, it is necessary to alert Americans to the inadvertent self-harm they are causing themselves by the poor ways in which they choose to conceptualize strategic behavior.

A quadripartite argument serves to summarize both what is causing confusion, and how much of the damage can be undone and prevented from recurring. First, it is an error amply demonstrated by historical evidence to divide challenges, threats, war, and warfare into two broad, but exclusive categories—irregular and traditional (regular, conventional). The problems with this binary scheme are both logical and historical-empirical. Challenges and wars tend not to follow the optional purity of strictly irregular or traditional characteristics.

Second, it is not a notable advance to add a third arguably exclusive category, hybrid, to the now longstanding two. The hybrid concept is useful in that it alerts people to the phenomena of strategic occurrences and episodes that have mixed-species parentage, but on reflection this is a rather simple recognition of what has been a familiar feature of strategic history universally and forever. Strategic big-game hunters who sally forth boldly in search of hybrid beasts of war can be certain to find them. But having found them, the most classic of strategists’ questions begs in vain for a useful answer. The question is “so what?” while the answer does not appear to be very useful.

Third, by analogy with systems analysis in contrast with operations research, the wrong question inexorably invites answers that are not fit for the real purpose of theory. The right question is not, “How should we categorize the wide variety of strategic phenomena that may be challenges and threats?” Instead, the question ought to be, “Should we categorize strategic challenges at all?” The most persuasive answer is that we should not conceptually categorize challenges and threats beyond their generic identification as menaces (and some opportunities). The general theory of strategy provides the high-level conceptual guidance that we need in order to tailor our strategic behavior to the specific case at issue.

Fourth, our strategies for coping with particular challenges will be effective only if they are conceived and implemented in the context of the authority of strategy’s general theory. They should not be designed to fit within the conceptual categorical cages of irregular, traditional, or hybrid (inter alia) theories. When considering the American need to be ready to meet, or choose not to meet, what may be challenges and threats, it is important to appreciate the saliency of these caveats: (1) the identification of phenomena as challenges (threats or opportunities) unavoidably requires substantial guesswork—when is a challenge/ threat not a challenge/threat; (2) the rank-ordering and prioritization of challenges is more an art than a science, even a social science; (3) challenge labeling by exclusive categories frequently harms understanding; and, (4) the United States should not gratuitously surrender political and strategic discretion by bounding its challenge-spotting needlessly with self-constructed intellectual barriers that by implication narrow the range of appropriate U.S. response choices.

Careful consideration of the categorization of challenges yields the following conclusions and recommendations, both explicit and implicit:

1. Clarity and logical integrity in the definition of key concepts is vital. Both elements are necessary— one does not want to be clearly wrong.

2. Definitional encyclopedism should be resisted. Efforts to be fully inclusive are well-intentioned, but almost always a mistake. Typically, more is less. 3. Ideas matter, because they help educate for action.

Strategy is a practical endeavor, which is why strategic theorizing ultimately is only about strategic practice.

4. The general theory of strategy (and of war, and statecraft) so educates practitioners that they should be fit enough to craft and execute specific strategies designed to meet particular strategic historical challenges.

5. The categorization of challenges and threats is regrettable, but the damage that it might promote can be reduced and limited if it is done in the authoritative context of general strategic theory.

6. A major practical reason to resist the temptation to categorize challenges is that the effect of such conceptual all-but enculturation is to encourage us to respond “in category”—which must involve some gratuitous surrender of the initiative on our part.

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