Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change? With America’s Veterans’ Day upon us tomorrow, I thought I might acknowledge some of those lessons.
Yup, I know, some readers may wonder why a civilian with liberal politics (uh, that’s me) is looking to the military in this way. But I’m also a devoted amateur student of history, I have a lot of respect for many of those who serve in the military, and I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders. Here goes:
Plant the seeds for future success now, even if that success seems far away
During the early years of Second World War, Hitler was running rampant over Europe and the Japanese were doing the same in the Pacific. By any realistic account, the Allies were losing the war on just about all fronts. Nevertheless, their leaders assessed what needed to be done, and they developed rough timelines for achieving their goals. Among other things, Churchill and Roosevelt made the critical decision to defeat Germany first, then beat the Japanese.
Lesson: At times, changing things for the better seems like an insurmountable obstacle. If your assessment of a situation indicates that major change will require many steps and stages, plan out what must be done and take the first steps toward advancing.
Avoid tunnel vision: Plan using parallel tracks
Sound military strategy usually involves a multifaceted approach toward achieving goals. For example, those planning the D-Day landings in France needed to think about personnel, equipment, geography, weather, communications, and a host of other logistics and contingencies. Take the “simple” question of building landing craft to reach the beaches: Someone had to develop proper designs, the factories had to start mass producing them, and they had to be shipped to England. All those plans had to be in the making well before the June 6, 1944 landings.
Lesson: Most significant social change goals also require parallel tracks of planning activity. Making the world a better place typically involves multiple stakeholders, actions, and timelines. Understanding how those dots connect is vital toward achieving success.
Be passionate about your goals, but plan and evaluate dispassionately
The stakes over warfare can hardly be greater. But when it comes to military planning, the best leaders don’t let their emotions carry them into making bad choices. They stay focused yet appropriately flexible, with a constant eye on their endgame.
Lesson: Change agents are similarly urged to disentangle their passion for a cause from the cool planning and evaluation needed to create transformation. This is not easy. The more invested we are in addressing injustice or a societal challenge, the easier it is to be ruled by our hearts rather than our heads.
Learn from mistakes, even (especially!) gruesome ones
If you study the biographies of great military leaders, you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. They learned from those mistakes and remained determined to succeed.
Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes the lessons we learn from our miscues.
Sometimes you compromise, and sometimes you fight
Not every situation in life can be a “win-win,” and armed conflict is a prime example. At times, negotiation, compromise, and settlement are the right thing to do. On other occasions, one must press on to overcome the enemy. Hitler is an easy case of an enemy who had to be stopped completely, but there are countless other situations more complicated than that. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, offers valuable lessons about how military force, diplomacy, and compromise combined to narrowly avert a nuclear catastrophe.
Lesson: This dilemma applies to nearly every attempt to engage in meaningful change. When do you broker an agreement, and when do you go for it all? A capacity for understanding the bigger picture helps us to make smart choices in this regard.
Be gracious and humane in victory
Wise wartime victors know that treating a vanquished foe with dignity is the right thing to do, both morally and out of self-interest. In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious Allies set out to punish Germany, imposing humiliating conditions of surrender. They stoked the destruction of the German economy and planted the seeds for Hitler’s rise to power. After the Second World War, however, the Allies realized their mistake and imposed conditions upon Germany and Japan that promoted renewed relations with those nations and the rebuilding of their economic and social structures.
Lesson: In social change efforts, too, good victors don’t attempt to humiliate their opponents. Such mistreatment only serves to fuel cycles of anger, resentment, and aggression.
Envision something better
As the tides of the Second World War turned, the Allied nations began planning the United Nations. Today, the U.N. is far from being a perfect world organization, but it plays an important role in brokering diplomatic relations and humanitarian efforts.
Lesson: As your social change goals near a milestone victory, think hard about how that success can lead to more lasting, positive transformations. What comes next?