Three Things That Don't Exist


Growing up I believed in three things. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Every Christmas morning I would wake up and run into the living room and rush to tear open the wrapping paper on my presents. On Easter, I followed a similar ritual, when I came upon my Easter Basket. And as I began to lose my teeth, I would place them under my pillow before bed time expecting the Tooth Fairy to come take it away for the price of one dollar. Today, my kids follow a similar ritual, and despite inflation, the price of a tooth in my family remains one dollar. Supply and demand in the free market.

In my early years as a military officer, I was taught to believe in three things. First, a common operating picture, also known as a COP. Second, a “whole of government approach” to solving international problems. Third, I was taught to be on guard for the strategic corporal. As a field grade officer approaching twenty years of active service, I no longer believe in any of them. Let me explain.


Joint Publication 1-02 defines a COP as “is a single identical display of relevant (operational) information (e.g. position of own troops and enemy troops, position and status of important infrastructure such as bridges, roads, etc.) shared by more than one Command. A COP facilitates collaborative planning and combined execution and assists all echelons to achieve situational awareness.”

A common operational picture is every commander’s dream. Yet to date, none exists. By definition, a COP would be all inclusive, and contain all the information commander’s need to gain an understanding of the battlefield. Further, some commands have developed various forms of a COP. these include a “Sustainment COP,” a “Cyber COP,” and an “Intelligence COP” to name just a few. If you have to qualify what type of COP it is, chances are it’s not a COP.

The all elusive COP is a figment of our imagination.

A Whole of Government Approach

The second ideal that doesn’t exist is a whole of government approach. Students at the staff and war colleges receive lectures and briefs on how the military is one aspect of the elements of national power, and should look to other agencies to assist and lead with our national problem sets. While some agencies have certainly performed their missions well with DoD in support (FEMA in DSCA, State in NEOs, and USAID in FHA), the whole of government approach remains out of reach. Military planners continue to include other government agencies as lines of effort in operational approaches. Other sightings of a whole of government approach appear in staff and war college student papers or in on line discussions that delve into the need for a new Goldwater Nichols Act that brings all agencies together for planning.

Commanders, staff officers, leaders, and soldiers should approach any plan that relies on a whole of government approach with a healthy dose of skepticism. Indeed, one can emulate Mark Baum in The Big Short, and insist that there is a zero percent chance of a whole of government approach and solution to a problem.

Moreover, while planning should certainly include and consider other agencies (especially when they are the lead agency for an operation), we should ensure that the military aspect of a plan is well thought out, complete, feasible, and all the other minimum criteria our doctrine demands.

The Strategic Corporal

Like many a young officer I was raised as a lieutenant and captain listening to the myths and legends of the strategic corporal. I once worked for a brigade commander who would walk into the TOC just before night shift to tell us stories about strategic corporals. Like the COP and whole of government approach, I no longer believe in this mythical entity.

The term strategic corporal was originally used by German Generals in the Second World War when describing Hitler behind his back. The reference to the time in the First World War where Hitler served as a corporal in the German Army. The phrase returned in 1999 when General Krulak published "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War" in Marines Magazine.

Today, the term strategic corporal is most often used when a junior enlisted soldier makes national or international news. More often than not, said news is bad news. Incidents such as Abu Ghraib where junior soldiers tortured and abused detainees serves as an example. While these incidents certainly have strategic effects, the strategic failure is the system that created and put these corporals (and junior soldiers) in a position to do what they did.

Abu Ghraib is not the story of corporals gone wild; it is the story of failed leadership and failed command and control. It is the failure of an institution that failed to properly plan and train for long term detention operations in a combat zone. Other stories of junior enlisted personnel having a strategic effect such as then PFC Manning do not focus on the core of the issue. Manning, Bales, PFC Green and the like should have never been in the positions they were in. Institutions took risk looking for short term gains in an ill conceived method of increasing numbers., And just like sub-prime mortgages, moral waivers backfired. While their actions were morally and legally reprehensible, the strategic failure is with the institution that placed them there.


Any sightings of a strategic corporal are on par with sightings of Big Foot, the Lockness Monster, or aliens featured on old episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. Approach any plan or briefing that uses these phrases or concepts with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The Opinions in this Essay are mine and mine alone. They do not reflect the view or opinion of the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.