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Fictional Strategies, Real-World Answers

Over the weekend, I finally read Eric Frank Russell’s 1957 science fiction novel Wasp, which, incidentally, appears on the RTJ book list. It’s an easy, entertaining read featuring the cunning off-world exploits of Earth agent James Mowry.
      Realizing that they can’t win a war of attrition against the numerically superior forces of the Sirian Combine, Earth strategists plant lone agents on Sirian planets. The agents’ shared mission is to sow fear, incite discontent, and cause the Sirians to dissipate their strength behind their own lines.
      In his attempt to achieve spectacular non-linear effects, Mowry is spectacularly lucky and spectacularly effective. It is the Holy Grail of every new generation of strategists, and Mowry lives it.
      Rather than address Wasp as an analogy for this or that case, I want to consider the goal of achieving non-linear effects consistently. Does it work in the real world? Sometimes it does, certainly, but for all the papers and presentations trumpeting the advantages of non-linear strategies, my sense is that consistent success remains elusive. This is despite the fact that current U.S. strategists and leaders have been raised on complexity, systems perspectives, RMA, transformation, and effects-based operations.
      I would guess that for every thousand strategists who read Sun Tzu, fewer than a hundred can implement the principles effectively and consistently outside of the classroom. Why? Good strategy is never a checklist exercise. Context counts, and it changes. Even the best strategist is susceptible to biases. Incomplete information, deception, the fog of war–the list of challenges is long and daunting. It’s no wonder that the kind of success James Mowry achieves in Wasp reads like fiction; after all, that’s exactly what it is.
      So, what’s the answer? What can we do that we’re not doing already to generate better real-world strategies?