Flexible Response: The Key to Victory
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Flexible Response: The Key to Victory


In his Discourses on Livy, the great Niccolò Machiavelli opines that the timber of humanity primes us to repeat what worked last time. Our minds run in grooves. This can prove dangerous, he maintains, because good fortune rewards those who vary with the times while punishing those who get behind the times. The Florentine statesman postulates two reasons why people find it hard to conform to changing surroundings. One, “we are unable to oppose that to which nature inclines us.” We’re hardwired to think, feel, and act in certain ways. And two, “when one individual has prospered very much with one mode of proceeding, it is not possible to persuade him that he can do well to proceed otherwise.” We extrapolate from, and act on, a very small sample size of personal experiences.

Machiavelli’s is a fancy Renaissance forerunner to an old American saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Success then translates into success today. Right?

Well, maybe. Now think about big institutions, bodies made up of — and led by — individuals prone to linear thinking. Institutions like governments, armed services, and companies tend to transcribe dramatic events — great victories or traumatic defeats — into bureaucratic routine. Structuring policies, doctrines, and career incentives on the assumption that past triumphs can be rerun or setbacks avoided strips flexibility out of decisions and actions. For Colonel John Boyd, the lenses through which an individual or organization interprets the past color, and can inhibit, the ability to orient to new surroundings.

In short, it’s hard to keep up with changing circumstances. As Machiavelli counsels cheerily, ill fortune befalls those who fail to keep up with the times.

This tendency to stamp the lessons of the past onto present practice is a recurring theme in our Naval War College courses. George Washington and his fellow Revolutionary commanders thought they could replay the Battle of Bunker Hill over and over again. They could build fixed defenses and British Redcoats would charge them in costly frontal assaults. The British Empire would batter itself into submission. Wrong. Imperial Japanese leaders predicated their maritime strategy for World War II on rerunning the 1904 surprise attack on Port Arthur and the decisive 1905 encounter with the Russian Navy at Tsushima Strait. But the United States wasn’t Imperial Russia. Japanese strategy came to grief because Tokyo fell out of step with the times.

What to do? Changing routines may require changing out personnel with older ways of thinking for those with unorthodox — yet more accurate — views of the setting. It demands flexibility, and a measure of humility on the part of top leadership. Machiavelli attributed Rome’s eventual victory over Hannibal in large part to its ability to change commanders when the situation changed. The city had Fabius the Delayer for the defensive phase of the protracted struggle. But Fabius proved unable to break out of his defensive mindset. He failed to see when Rome had amassed enough strength to take the offensive. Roman leaders, however, could pick an enterprising leader, Scipio Africanus, to carry the fight across the Mediterranean. Rome won big.

So if you need to innovate, it’s good to be a republic. It affords a degree of strategic agility seldom seen in authoritarian or totalitarian states. It behooves leaders of all stripes to keep their organizations as flexible as possible, preserving and extending their advantages over more hidebound competitors. The capacity to adapt, then, constitutes a crucial metaphysical edge. If the United States and its allies want to compete effectively with the Chinas and Irans of the world, they could do worse than study their Machiavelli. Nimble is as nimble does.

December 14, 2013 at 12:36

‘Being Flexible’ is ‘key to victory’!

Flexible on ‘Principles’ has been practiced with plenty of PR Spins!

Does this author ever recommend an action plan for USA in Afghan?

Cheaper than paper that world goes internet!

Naval Aviator
December 14, 2013 at 07:15

Would you go so far as to suggest that innovation is a principle of modern war, something that those MOOSEMUSS standard-bearers need to consider in their war planning? Or are they just as predictable as the Japanese in their second Pearl Harbor in 1941?

Kim's Uncle
December 11, 2013 at 13:19

If the purpose of this article is to advocate for flexible response without an overall, comprehensive, all-encompassing strategy in the same sense as Robert McNamara formulated during the Vietnam war, then that is the seed for disaster. McNamara articulated the policy of graduated pressure and flexible response by reading up on some obscure articles written about such scenarios. Things that sound good in theory do not always work out well in practice where numerous variables are at play. Flexible response and graduated pressure in the Vietnam context was disastrous because it was a reactive policy devoid of commitment to the overall strategy. US under the Johnson administration which McNamara served under did foolishly devised such an idiotic policy of reacting to the level of force and violence North Vietnam could inflict. The reaction from the US part was not to use its overall strategic strength to achieve its overall goal. The US reacted to North Vietnam aggression gradually instead of going for the jugular. It was meant to send a message to North Vietnam hence the term, graduated pressure or flexible response. Vietnam policy under Johnson squander years of US public support by pursuing a graduated pressure policy of limited engagement instead of using the correct war making policy of deterring North Vietnam aggression towards South Vietnam by playing on strength of US technology, military organization, and political regional alliances. The US and allies could have easily shut off the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos, therefore, North Vietnam had no way to ship supplies south to foment war on South Vietnam. Thus, flexible response in the Vietnam context is a foolish policy.

Gary Brunner
December 11, 2013 at 01:28

Indecision is the key to Flexibility.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
December 12, 2013 at 08:31

Ha ha!

You are so right. Procrastination is always a course of action worth considering.

Christian Westling
December 10, 2013 at 17:36

Good article bet the conclusion is ridiculous.
Some of the greatest war strategists and commanders has been royals; Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII of Sweden, Fredrick the Great, Alexander The Great and so on.

The Real Journalist
December 10, 2013 at 23:28

The author merely reiterates the news headlines and neocon’s propaganda briefs, then add her own twisted misinformation to reinforce the neocons wicked intent against China, she is doing nothing but to urge USA further down the lose-lose path against China.

She is proving the USA’s overall decline, not just in economy, politics and morality, as well as in its last bastion of academics; the graduates for the top elite academic institutions do not have courage and original thinking, but selling themselves to the neocons to satisfy their personal material pursue.

December 10, 2013 at 11:53

How come U.S. is hell bent on containing China’s rise? It shows lack of flexibility.

December 10, 2013 at 17:32

Perhaps this question can be asked another way: Why is it that the United States perceives that a rising China might seek to undermine its decades-long position in Asia, especially when the United States (as well as most of China’s neighbors) has helped to facilitate China’s rise? China, or at least some Chinese, perceive a containment strategy; the United States (or at least some Americans) perceive Chinese attempts to restrict or even eliminate an American presence in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific. I think it important that both questions, and not just one, be asked here.

December 10, 2013 at 23:41

“…especially when the United States (as well as most of China’s neighbors) has helped to facilitate China’s rise?”

Is this some sort of joke?

December 11, 2013 at 15:54

“Is this some sort of joke?”

Not at all. Where does all the foreign capital surging into China originate? It didn’t just magically appear. It isn’t merely a coincidence that China’s rise began when it opened up to foreign capital, trade, investment, and technology. And look who China’s major trading partners are–certainly not Greenland, Ireland, Brazil, or other nations on the other side of the planet. So no, it’s not a joke at all.

December 10, 2013 at 06:32

And the pendulum swings back to the “America is tops” side of things. Mr. Holmes, you are wonderfully predictable and I fully expect a “woe is us” article next time.

In regards to your article, the French Republic during World War I was not very adaptable versus the German monarchy. In fact, the Germans showed a far greater capacity for flexible strategic thinking during the war – it was simply their misfortune that they didn’t have adequate resources to fully exploit this flexibility.

If anything, your example is lacking – the Second Punic War was a war fought between Republican Rome and… republican Carthage. Fabius’ removal was not due to the fact that the populace sensed a change in the strategic picture and voted in a new commander – they had him removed because he wasn’t producing victory fast enough. Had Hannibal been able to exploit this impatience on the part of the Roman populace, he would have won. As is, he lost most of his troops and had no easy way of getting reinforcements – another reason why Rome won and Carthage lost.

A democratic form of government is no more advantageous to strategic flexibility than an authoritarian one is. After all, Dynastic China, Napoleonic France, and Nazi Germany all contributed as much to the art of war as Republican Rome, Great Britain, and the United States.

Strategic flexibility comes from leaders willing to make the right decisions rather than the popular ones. It is this fact alone that actually makes republics far less capable of engaging in strategic flexibility and in fact makes them more prone to strategic whimsy.

Our failure is in confusing the two.

December 10, 2013 at 09:10

At the beginning of Han dynasty, it was weak caused by decades of civil war; it had to resort to humiliating bribery to buy peace from Xiongnu. Later Emperor Wu launched military campaigns to solve the Xiongnu threat for good. At the decisive campaign he sent the bulk of Han force to nail down the bulk of Xiongnu’s force, meanwhile he sent a 20 some years old general to search and destroy Xingnu’s court with a crack force of few thousands. The young general accomplished the mission, then the Han’s bulk force put the Xiongnu to rout when Xiongnu went into panic after hearing their court was destroyed and the royal family was captured by Han. Then after Xiongnu did not become meaningful threat to Han people in nearly 1000 years not until the Mongol coming along.

Such strategic flexibility only can come from strong leaders, not by decisions made based on popularity in the republics or democracies. To prove the point further, despite American had overwhelmingly superior weaponry in the Korean War and Vietnam War, American lost the wars because they were lack of strategic flexibility and making the decision based on popularity; making the situation worse was the politicians were directing military operations instead of the soldiers.

Lack of strategic flexibility and politicians’ meddling of war is the inherent defects of the republics or democracies like the USA, it cannot be overcome.

If Mr. Holmes has inclination of strategic flexibility he would not try to drive the USA into a lose-lose strategy against China single mindedly.

December 10, 2013 at 11:56

“…he sent a 20 some years old general to search and destroy Xingnu’s court with a crack force of few thousands…”

You mean Huo Qubing?


December 10, 2013 at 12:55


Well put.

December 10, 2013 at 22:19

@ Historian
“Such strategic flexibility only can come from strong leaders, not by decisions made based on popularity in the republics or democracies. ”

What makes you think that Democracies do not produce strong leaders? Perhaps, the continous success of US and Western democracies for over a century is a hint towards that. Chinese may end up thinking of their leaders are strong, given the amount of atrocities they have committed on their population, under the garb of expansion, peace and unity.
Sheer use of force is no strategic flexibility. The fact that US is accomodating China in world order by taking ADIZ in stride for civilian flights, is a sign of Strategic Flexilibiiity.

December 11, 2013 at 07:09

Goccle, democracy is for self-determination, it is not an ideology for exportation, and definitely it is not a moral foundation for conquest and exploitation. What the American doing in the name of democracy is simply wrong and gives democracy a bad name.

The democracy you brag about only exist since the last cold war, before that the western imperial powers were not democracies, they were all some sort of authoritarians, either republic or monarchy; even WWII was not a fight for democracy, it was a fight about dominance of imperial powers, only the American portrayed it as a fight for liberty but not for democracy, because after WWII, all imperial powers rushed back to their colonies to restore their pre WWII imperial order. Therefore linking the success of imperial powers to democracy is a fallacy, just like the fallacy of linking free market economy to the pre-condition of becoming democracy.

Leaders committing atrocity on their own population will be viewed as tyrants only, but a lot of leaders use aggression to demonstrate strong leadership, that’s what the Western nations have been doing since WWII by bombing and killing millions of innocents.

December 10, 2013 at 13:01

I’ll go further and add that comparing the American republic to Renaissance republics like the Republic of Florence is a hard sell. The biggest factor stated of course is correct, the ability to replace incompetent commanders. But this itself relies on the strength of the nation’s institutions, not the form of government itself.

The Italian states existed in a tenuous position, surrounded on all sides by greater powers and rivals, France, Habsburg Spain/HRE, Ottoman. This existential threat and the constant wars are what drove the need for these nations states to reform their institutions, not the form of government itself.

If an authoritarian government relies on a military system based on meritocracy instead of patronage, then there is no reason for it to be at a disadvantage, as the author states. After all, you cannot say Enlightened Despotism in the 17-18th century proved to be a hindrance to European militaries.

As well, with no large wars for the last half century between the dominant powers, you would argue that all such peacetime militaries are already rotting from within. Their wartime organisation shunned in favor of extensive bureaucracy and patronage. Even the US is not an exception. The wars in the Middle-East were not able to radically reform the upper-echelons of the US military, as the original balance of forces were too great for any decisive defeat or humiliation to force such changes. In that case, all such militaries are going to suffer their initial organisation failures. Operational experience will prove important, but only if the initial engagements are decisive enough to end the war itself.

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