The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

World War I: On Strategy

Kaiser Wilhelm II, German Emperor Helmut Von Molke, Chief of the German General Staff, 1914

General Helmut Von Molke, Chief of the German General Staff, 1914















“I answered His Majesty that this was impossible. The deployment of an army a million strong was not a thing to be improvised, it was the product of a whole year’s hard work and once planned could not be changed. If His Majesty were to insist on directing the whole army to the east, he would not have an army prepared for the attack but a barren heap of armed men disorganized and without supplies.”

The Kaiser: “Your uncle would have given me a different answer.”


Given the below definitions from our current doctrine, and the conversation described above, what did Von Molke not understand about strategy?  Also, do you think there is a danger of U.S. national and miltiary leadership making a similar mistake?  Why or why not?



strategy — A prudent idea or set of ideas for employing the instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national, and/or multinational objectives. (JP 3-0)

National Security Strategy — A document approved by the President of the United States for developing, applying, and coordinating the instruments of national power to achieve objectives that contribute to national security. Also called NSS. See also National Military Strategy; strategy; theater strategy. (JP 3-0)

national defense strategy — A document approved by the Secretary of Defense for applying the Armed Forces of the United States in coordination with Department of Defense agencies and other instruments of national power to achieve national security strategy objectives. Also called NDS. (JP 3-0)

National Military Strategy — A document approved by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for distributing and applying military power to attain national security strategy and national defense strategy objectives. Also called NMS. See also National Security Strategy; strategy; theater strategy. (JP 3-0)

theater strategy — An overarching construct outlining a combatant commander’s vision for integrating and synchronizing military activities and operations with the other instruments of national power in order to achieve national strategic objectives. See also
National Military Strategy; National Security Strategy; strategy. (JP 3-0)


strategy – (DOD) The art and science of developing and employing instruments of national power in a synchronized and integrated fashion to achieve theater, national and/or multinational objectives. See FM 3-0. (FM 1-02).

military strategy – (DOD) The art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of national policy by the application of force or the threat of force. See also strategy. See FM 3-0. (FM 1-02).


October 25, 2011 - Posted by | H100, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Simply put, General von Molke mistakenly thought that the military strategy did not have to change to match the nation’s. This was a grave mistake then and would be again today.

    As we have studied, a nation’s military is but one way for a nation to achieve its strategic ends, not reversed. Military leaders need to always remember that our plans, no matter what level, must support our national end state. When the German Emperor asked General von Molke for a different option to achieve the national end he should have received one instead of General von Molke’s quibble about how long his staff had worked on the military strategy.

    I believe that the current U.S. Military would not commit General von Molke’s mistake. Our military history, beginning with General Washington, is full of examples of our military leaders ensuring that our military remained subservient to our national / governmental leaders. This includes our military strategy playing a supporting role to our nation’s strategy and not the other way around.

    Comment by MAJ Chris Moore, 17A | October 26, 2011

  2. Von Molke (the younger) fell into the trap of becoming wedded to one plan and making the solution fit the plan instead of the plan fitting the solution. This sentiment was common prior to and during WW I and was a direct reflection of the relative inflexibility of the leadership. I believe that we all are a product of our experiences and the national leadership of the United States is no exception. The US possibly fell victim to this thinking prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 with regard to the search for weapons of mass destruction. The inflexible application of strategy and the failure of both national and military leadership to adapt to changing circumstances is a possibility for any nation, at any time.

    Comment by Matthew Wilder, 17D | October 28, 2011

  3. Simply put, Von Molke the Younger failed to understand the need to nest the military strategy / campaign end-state with the political / strategic end-state (and technically speaking, I’m not convinced Von Molke even had a clearly defined end-state in mind). Moreover, there appeared to be significant inflexibility on the part of Von Molke, particularly in seeing the overarching ends. He sought to apply military means and ways, and the ends were an afterthought (e.g., working forwards as opposed to backwards, trying to fit “round pegs into square holes”). Von Molke the Elder would have provided a different answer, as he generally understood the relationship and was a student of Clausewitz.

    As for the U.S. national and miltiary leadership, I do not believe they will make a similar mistake today (although historically, there is an argument there have been such conflicts, as noted by MAJ Wilder). We are at a point in our Armed Forces and national leadership framework, where doctrine and the NSS, NDS, and NMS all remain generally inline w/ one another. As long as we continue to understand the civil-military relationship/hierarchy, our U.S. military leadership should be able to coordinate efforts in synchronization w/ OGAs IOT employ all elements of national power in future conflicts or contingency operations.

    Comment by MAJ N. Hummel, SG17B | October 30, 2011

  4. Von Molke simply did not have a clear understanding of military strategy. In the absence of having an understanding of strategy he was unable to move towards nesting of means-ways-ends. This led to a disjointed operating environment and fixation on one plan of action. Many leaders today have a clear understanding of nesting the means-ways-ends, which has yield high regards in campaigns we have fought in. Although there were challenges they were overcome by adjustments and flexible leaderships.

    Comment by MAJ LaShaunda Jackson 17A | October 30, 2011

  5. Von Molke become so attached to his plan that he could not see anything beyond what he had developed. He did not see that his strategy was not nested in what would have been the national strategic objectives and as a result his plan was inflexible and ultimately irrelevant.

    Holistically, I do not think we will see too much of that in our Military. However, I believe, we will always see that among individuals within the military. When a staff works a plan, particularly a large and protracted plan, there is a natural tendency to become married to it. It is the roll of the commanders to ensure that they are not swayed by staffs that became to “emotionally” attached to their plan. Since our culture always for some levels of debate and disagreement prior to decisions being made (that level varies from organization to organization) we have somewhat of an internal check and balance that will help keep that sort of mind set from having too much influence.

    Comment by MAJ Chittenden SG17A | October 30, 2011

  6. I agree with MAJ Chittenden that Von Molke became too attached to his plan. He did not understand that his strategy has to be nested so it adds to the overall strategy. You have to remain flexible. The Commander takes what the staff gives him and makes the best decision possible, but that decision can change. You can not become tied to your first decision and unwilling to adjust. Our military today has checks and balances (mission analysis, decision matrix, etc) that allow the Commander to incorporate all the facts into his decision. It also keeps the Commander honest as you move through the MDMP process.

    Comment by MAJ Carl Mason, 17A | November 2, 2011

  7. Concur with the above comments about Von Molke. However, the second question about our National Leaders is what I would like to discuss. One could argue that the roles were reversed during the US invasion of Iraq. Did our National Leaders create the end state to justify the Military Plan? Nuclear and Chemical weapons are only one type of weapon system. They are no different from an M4 rifle if there is no one to pull the trigger or press the launch button. The U.S. would not have invaded Iraq to stop the proliferation of WMDs if it were a close friend and ally. Our strategic end state for OIF should have been the replacement of the Iraqi Government rather than the destruction of a weapon system. Had our national end state been the establishment of a democratic Iraq going into the war, our military strategy would have been different.

    Comment by Ryan D. Barnett, SG 17D | November 2, 2011

  8. Except for the rewards of remembering information from my high school history classes while playing Trivia Pursuit, I find little pleasure in memorizing names, dates and events.

    However, studying history with an analytical approach using the methods of critical thinking brings much more fascination to the subject. Facts are about the “Who and the what and the where and the when,” but analysis is about the “why” and the “what ifs.” The latter questions are much more intellectually engaging.

    So why analyze history? Certainly, the practice of critical thinking methods can be applied effectively within contemporary studies. I believe that it is important to know where you come from, as an individual, a family, a nation society and a profession. A deeper understanding of these roots provides a foundational strength of character that can stand the test of time… and history.

    Comment by Mark Nakazono | November 23, 2011

  9. Note: The previous comment was meant for the “History and Thinking” post from October 25.

    Comment by Mark Nakazono | November 23, 2011

  10. Moltke’s answer was strategic: it provided the ends, means, and ways necessary for achieving Moltke’s political agenda. He wanted a preemptive showdown with Russia before it completed rearmament. Moltke’s manipulation of the Austrians turned the Austro-Serbian War into the opportunity he needed. Until his strategy was too far advanced for competing centers of gravity within the Second Reich to stop, he had to keep them in the dark. Then he could pursue his goal of crippling Russia as a military competitor. So his answer was the right answer, unless we mistake the second Reich, where who controlled the army was ambiguous, for the United States where civilian control is at least formally mandated.

    Moltke’s war ultimately achieved his political end of destroying imperial Russia as a military threat to Germany. The German victory in World War I has crippled Russia to this day. But, because of his miscalculations, Moltke’s Germany had more bumps along the way to its current domination of the European continent than Moltke’s political agenda or strategic plan anticipated.

    Comment by Joseph Fouche | November 24, 2011

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