The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

World War I: On Strategy

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 30, 2012 - Posted by | H100, military history, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I think what General Von Molke missed was the broad definition of the term “instruments of national power.” The instruments of national power include the size of the Army, the readiness of the men and the functioning of their equipment but also such abstract things as agility, surprise, flexibility, risk/boldness and “improvisation” itself.
    Art Terhakopian
    MAJ, MC

    Comment by Artin Terhakopian | October 31, 2012

  2. I Agree with Art, Von Molke was mentally fixated on accomplishing the plan as he saw it. In his mind, the plan that he invisioned could not be changed. Ultimately, what Von Molke did not understand about Strategy is that it does not begin with the military. Strategy links the “ends”, “ways”, and “means” in order to meet the national objectives. Furthermore, I think Molke’s failure to understand strategy can be blamed for the German’s failure of the Shlieffen Plan.

    It is very possibility for U.S. national and mlitary leadership to make the same mistake, especially when trust and authority are undermined. Specifically, if national leaders are inexperienced or military leaders disregard the political process as the foundation of how strategic objectives are developed, the U.S. military leadership could have a similar fait as Molke.

    However, the current military culture and doctrine protect the leaders on both sides from crossing this line. Culturally, the U.S. military respects and undestands the chain of command. Despite what political views individuals may have every Soldier understands the rank structure, with the President being the highes ranking closley followed by the Secretary of Defense. Additionally military doctrine clearly defines the course military personnel are urged to take, this includs interagency, politcal, and civilian authorities and relationships. U.S. military personnel still value doctrine as the guide which directs action. Again, individuals may not undestand or agree, but they will follow.

    Comment by Ryan Scott | October 31, 2012

  3. I agree with my colleagues. Von Molke seems to be living in the theater strategy realm and focusing on the integration and synchronization of military actitivies. In the case of the Kaiser’s request, those activities would be a challenge. Von Molke, as Chief of the German General Staff, should have been looking at the national military strategy or even the national defense strategy levels. His focus should have been the application of the German military to achieve the national security end states…not the integration and movement of troops. His understanding of strategy failed to account for the broader vision that his uncle held.

    I think that there is a real danger of this in the U.S. national and military leadership. It strikes me that many senior military leaders attain their ranks as a result of subject matter expertise (e.g., field command or operational support). These officers are expected to become generalists (“Generals”) and bring their vision to the next higher level. These leaders may or may not have the personal intellectual curiosity or breadth of experience necessary to translate what they know beyond the operational or theater level to the national defense or security level. This appears to be the case for Von Molke.

    This marginalizes the services, as only a select few (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) attain positions of influence on policy. National-level leaders, faced with this scenario among military leaders, must then turn to others outside of the uniformed services for strategic level advice. This hamstrings national-level leaders, since those advisors may have different interests, incentives, goals and values than those in uniformed service. As such, the military must cultivate leaders capable of applying their experience and skills beyond the operational level and provide them with opportunities and incentives to do so.

    Comment by Kenneth Mortimer, 11A | November 6, 2012

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