Basic Concepts

Strategic Models

Strategic models are theories which have been advanced to describe the mechanisms through which strategic objectives are achieved. They are often described in terms of their earliest proponents, such as Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz. Of course, a thorough and comprehensive discussion of these writings is far beyond the scope of this humble article, which is intended only as a brief introduction for those unfamiliar with these authors. No doubt some of you will feel that I am doing their writings a severe injustice by summarizing them so succinctly, and I freely admit that much detail has been lost. Nevertheless, it would be impractical to attempt anything more ambitious in this limited space.

Sun Tzu

"All warfare is deception" – Sun Tzu

In "The Art of War", written some two and a half millennia ago, the Chinese military author Sun Tzu promoted a strategic doctrine based on deception, misdirection, and the judicious use of force against enemy weak points, bypassing his strong points. In the modern age, his theories find application in the strategies of unorthodox forms of warfare such as guerilla warfare, armed insurgencies, and terrorism. At the risk of oversimplification, Sun Tzu preached that one should seek points of enemy weakness and exploit them, be they military, political, economic, or anything else. He viewed the objective of war as the strengthening of the state through the acquisition of enemy resources, and to that end, he viewed battle as a possible means to an end but not an ideal one. In his view, an ideal victory would be won without firing a shot, and an enemy army would be added to your own rather than being damaged or destroyed.

Good modern examples of people who employed Sun Tzu's strategies to considerable effect would be Gandhi, Mao, and Al-Quaeda. Gandhi correctly identified public opinion as the weak point of British occupying forces and focused all of his efforts on that target, eschewing traditional military methods of insurrection. Mao relied heavily on guerilla warfare strategies and was fond of openly citing Sun Tzu as his inspiration. And Al-Quaeda fought the militarily superior Soviet Union and then the United States by avoiding military confrontation, which they would surely lose, and using fear and terrorism to sap morale and pierce the public image of invincibility attached to their foes, with the effect that they forced their enemies to expend vast resources fighting them: orders of magnitude greater than their own expenditures.

But these principles do not find application only among irregular forces and guerilla warfare specialists. The American "island hopping" strategy during WW2 employed some of these principles as well, by expanding across the Pacific via a series of islands with overlapping spheres of control, bypassing and isolating strong points in order to expand through weak ones. And of course, all of the careful strategic manoeuvring that nations do between actual shooting wars is highly reminiscent of Sun Tzu's teachings.

Carl Von Clausewitz

If Sun Tzu is the patron saint of unorthodox warfare, then the 19th century author Carl Von Clausewitz is the pre-eminent writer on orthodox warfare. Unlike Sun Tzu, who viewed the destruction of enemy armed forces as an ideally avoidable expedient to ultimate victory, Clausewitz actually defined the destruction of enemy armed forces as one of the three goals of war itself. While Sun Tzu preferred to avoid strong-points and strike at points of enemy weakness instead, Clausewitz counselled that one should seek out enemy strong-points such as armies and fortresses, and attack them directly. While Sun Tzu counselled that morale depended on the leader's wisdom and prudence, Clausewitz taught that public morale depended upon achieving spectacular victories. Where Sun Tzu emphasized caution and precision, Clausewitz emphasized boldness.

In antiquity, his teachings are reminiscent of the campaigns of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, both of whom were highly aggressive and demonstrated a pattern of seeking out the enemy's strongest forces for battle. Both of them created a cult of personality around their battlefield successes: an aura of invincibility which buoyed the spirits of their armies. In the modern era, the teachings of Von Clausewitz, particularly insofar as they relate to seizing the initiative and attempting to seek out and destroy enemy armed forces, are still widely followed by most conventional armies.

In science fiction and action movies, the principles of Clausewitz are more popular than those of Sun Tzu for the simple reason that this battle-centric philosophy results in more battles, hence more excitement for the audience. Also, despite their impracticality, some of the "honour codes" of the much-mythologized medieval period still survive in popular culture, and the teachings of Clausewitz seem more "honourable" than those of Sun Tzu. A machismo-obsessed audience may even find some of Sun Tzu's recommendations to be cowardly, despite their rationality. In contrast, Clausewitz's emphasis on aggression, martial spirit, and destruction of the enemy resonates emotionally with the audience.

This is not to suggest that the principles of Clausewitz are irrational; they would not have been so widely adopted if this were the case. But they are certainly more crowd-pleasing, which plays a role in their popularity among science fiction writers and fans. And in reality, no one would follow one school of thought to the complete exclusion of the other. They can both be applied simultaneously, where appropriate.

Giulio Douhet

Giulio Douhet is one of the earliest known advocates of a style of warfare that Sun Tzu and Carl Von Clausewitz could never have imagined even in their most fevered dreams: strategic aerial bombing. He wrote "The Command of the Air" in 1921, during a period when military air power and particularly strategic bombing was still very much an embryonic concept, and advocated the use of air power to destroy important enemy targets (which could be military forces, military bases, industrial facilities, civilian cities, etc), thus crippling enemy morale and materially harming his war effort, in order to complement the work of surface forces. Douhet did not shy away from the possibility of civilian casualties, reasoning that suffering inflicted upon the civilian populace would cause them to put pressure on the government to end the war.

The importance of his strategic bombing theory cannot be overstated; many of the shooting wars and the Cold War of the 20th century were dominated by it. Strategic nuclear bombing ended WW2, with the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Strategic conventional bombing hastened the end of WW2, by shattering the military-industrial infrastructures of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The threat of strategic nuclear bombing loomed over the second half of the century, in the form of the Cold War between the US and the USSR. Of course, Douhet did not foresee the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons, but the same basic principles apply.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, this basic approach was given the name "Shock and Awe" by United States military planners, and was used to such great effect during the 1991 war against Iraq that by its end, exhausted and terrified Iraqi soldiers were surrendering to American civilians. They did not openly embrace Douhet's principle of deliberately harming the civilian population, but they did bomb so-called civilian "infrastructure targets" such as power plants and water treatment plants.

In science fiction, the same basic methodology is often seen, but in space rather than the air. The bombardment of ground targets for the purpose of harming enemy morale or damaging enemy fighting strength is most famously used in Star Wars when the Death Star completely destroys the planet Alderaan, instantly annihilating its entire civilian population along with any military facilities on the ground or in orbit.

Of course, Alderaan was by no means the only example: orbital bombardment is a common feature of warfare in science fiction, although the "honour code" of machismo that encourages followers of Clausewitz over those of Sun Tzu is also in effect here: the so-called "good guys" never use this strategy. To ensure this moralistic distinction, enemy military facilities are always conveniently separated from civilians by placing them in orbit or in isolated locations, so that friendly forces may attack them with no fear of collateral damage. The same technique is used in the old James Bond action movies, where the terrorist group SPECTRE invariably locates its assets in fortified bases in remote areas rather than scattering them through populated regions as real terrorists do. Alternatively, the entire enemy species is assumed to be combatants, hence there are assumed to be no civilians at all; this was the technique used in Babylon5 to eliminate any sense of dishonour in Sheridan's covert nuclear strike on the Shadow capital city while travelling under truce.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Commander Alfred Mahan was a Union naval officer during the American Civil War in the 19th century. He served for 40 years in the Union Navy, during which he proved himself to be a rather poor naval officer, with a record of numerous mishaps and collisions with other vessels (and in one case, a dry dock).

However, after the conclusion of his inglorious career as a naval officer, he became a writer and historian: a career to which he was clearly better-suited. He wrote "The Influence of Sea Power" in 1890: a highly regarded piece that influences naval thinking to this day. Mahan's argument was basically that control of high seas and littorals determines what happens ashore, so that if you dominate the seas, you can dominate action on land. Navies can blockade land masses and project power by carrying and supporting land armies. He also argued for the creation of far-flung military bases in order to supply and maintain the great fleets he called for, because one could not rely upon foreign-held supply bases. His doctrines still influence US Navy policy today, and were forcefully implemented during the great Pacific naval battles of WW2.

In science fiction, the naval doctrine and aerial doctrine of Mahan and Douhet often merge together, because space ships serve as a hybrid of the two. Military spacecraft can project power by protecting transports or deploying troops directly, they can blockade unfriendly planets, they can bombard strategic targets, and they can deter or destroy enemy forces attempting to do the same. Some science fiction spaceships have unusual capabilities in this regard: Star Trek spaceships can teleport squads of men to locations on the ground or even in a battlefield, although not without risk of countermeasures. In Star Wars, heavily armed transport vessels can land on planetary surfaces and deploy vast armies in a matter of minutes. Most science fiction warships also carry weapons of mass destruction, and some, such as the LEXX, even carry weapons of astronomical destruction.

In short, it would be quite an understatement to say that the doctrines of Mahan often apply to science fiction. In many science fiction shows and movies, one could even say that they are dominant, perhaps excessively so. Star Trek in particular often seems to understate the importance of ground forces, to the point that the Federation does not appear to maintain a ground army at all.

The SpecOps Model

The SpecOps (Special Operations) model is based on small teams of very highly trained personnel who are tasked with precise, specialized missions which could not be conducted through conventional military operations. The British have the Special Air Service, or SAS, founded by David Stirling. The Americans have Delta Force: an elite unit founded by Charlie Beckwith. As an aside, Charlie Beckwith spent a year training with the SAS before founding Delta Force, and after leaving the US Army, he founded a security company called Security Assistance Services, whose name also has the acronym SAS. Other countries have similar units: the Canadians have the highly secretive JTF2 (Joint Task Force 2), Australia has their own SAS regiment, and many other militaries have similar units.

While SpecOps units can be a valuable strategic implement in real-life (for example, infiltrating and co-ordinating anti-Taliban forces in the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan), their realistic influence pales in comparison to their presence in fiction. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that in the world of fiction, the SpecOps model easily overwhelms all other models in importance. Movies like "True Lies", "Commando", the "Rambo" series, the "James Bond" series, and many others promote the idea of elite operatives whose skills are so vastly beyond those of normal men that they are able to infiltrate any operation, destroy any targeted facility, and assassinate any targeted individual, seemingly almost at will. In these movies, the SpecOps unit (or individual) is so important that he typically supplants conventional armed forces almost entirely, and is able to single-handedly stop various schemes of global domination and/or mass destruction. Star Wars has a prominent SpecOps unit, although not everyone recognizes them as such: the Jedi Knights.

In fact, the prominence of the SpecOps mindset in fiction is so great that it would be quite refreshing to see such creative works in which there was no "elite Special Forces unit" mentioned at all. But that is unlikely, because the use of a small elite team is very convenient for dramatic purposes. The personalities of individual team members can be developed and nurtured throughout the course of a story, which plays into the strengths of most writers. In Star Wars, the Jedi Knights are overused and overemphasized as well (they were all made into commanding officers of the Republic Army, despite their poor suitability to this role), although in their case, the writer at least had the excuse that they were legitimately endowed with unique powers.


There are numerous different models of strategy, all of which have strengths and weaknesses depending on the situation. Sun Tzu's writings are the most ancient, but much of his work is still applicable in the modern age in terms of national policy and irregular warfare. Von Clausewitz's writings come from the Napoleonic era, and exert great influence upon modern orthodox land warfare. Douhet and Mahan promoted the airborne and naval-centric models of strategy respectively, and in the modern age, particularly due to popular action movies, the SpecOps model has gained considerable prominence. It is all too tempting for writers to focus excessively on one of these schools of thought, particularly the SpecOps model which is so adaptable to their preferred writing style. However, this often does a disservice to the concept of military strategy, in which the most appropriate solution to a problem is used, rather than forcing a preferred solution to solve the problem.

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