Options for the U.S. to Wage Conflict in the Cognitive Domain

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Todd Schmidt currently serves as an active-duty military service member.  He can be found on Twitter @Dreamseed6 and hosts his scholarly work at www.toddandrewschmidt.com.  His views are his own.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature, nor does the content represent the official position of any government, organization, or group.

National Security Situation:  U.S. challenges to waging conflict in the cognitive domain.

Date Originally Written:  April 20, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  June 22, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author’s body of scholarly work focuses primarily on the influence of military elites on national security through the lens of epistemic community theory. This article is written from the point of view of an international relations/foreign policy scholar assessing challenges in future conflict through the lens of political psychology.

Background:  Humans live in bounded reality – a reality bounded by cognitive limitations[1]. Humans see the world they want, not as it is. The complexity of the world triggers information overload in the mind. Coping with complexity, humans use mental shortcuts to filter information that informs decision-making. Mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, are influenced by personal human factors.

In political psychology, human factors include emotions, belief systems, culture, education, psychological/behavioral attributes, and experiences that filter the overwhelming information to which humans are exposed[2]. Information filters reinforce perceptions of reality that conform to values and beliefs, or “operational code[3].” Filters act as cognitive limitations in the mind and the cognitive domain, which creates vulnerabilities and permits influence.

Current operational environments witness adversaries increasingly avoiding conventional conflict and achieving their objectives through other means of influence. The consequence is a future of persistent, unending great power competition that resides in a gray zone between war and peace. Adversaries will challenge U.S. power in this gray zone to erode strategic advantage and influence action. According to military doctrine, adversaries currently deploy capabilities “in all domains – Space, Cyber, Air, Sea, and Land” to challenge U.S. power[4]. This doctrine denies the cognitive domain.

Significance:  The cognitive domain will gain prominence in future strategic environments, conflict, and multi-domain operations. The cognitive domain of war has been explored and contested for centuries. Ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu refers to winning war through intelligence, information, and deception; attacking enemies where they are least prepared; and subduing adversaries indirectly without fighting. To win campaigns of influence in the cognitive domain requires achieving cognitive superiority.

Current Chinese military doctrine recognizes the importance of cognitive superiority, particularly in pre-kinetic stages of war. In pre-kinetic stages, unconventional “attacks” in the cognitive domain will shape how adversarial populations think. Human capital will be targeted. Targets will include societal weaknesses, social networks, and cyber and information systems. By weakening or defeating “systems” across all domains, below the threshold of kinetic conflict, an adversary’s strategic advantages, defenses, and deterrent capabilities are compromised[5].

Cognitive superiority is achieved through education and professional development, organizational learning and adaptability, technological advantage, and leadership. Taken together, these means translate into the ability to gather, decipher, process, and understand tremendous amounts of data and information faster than the enemy. Fusing and communicating knowledge faster than a competitor ensures the ability to disrupt enemy decision-cycles; influence their perceived reality; and impose U.S. will.

Option #1:  The U.S. improves public education, which includes a reevaluation of its investment in human capital, education systems, and professional development.

Risk:  Public education and pursuance of tertiary education will continue to fall behind U.S. allies and adversaries[6]. American society will be targeted by misinformation and influence campaigns; and bombardment by opinions masquerading as fact. The public will be challenged in discerning the origination of attacks, whether they originate domestically, outside sovereign borders, or through complicity. Finally, a trend of hyper-politicization of public policy related to education will result in low prioritization, under-funding, and a society dispossessed of the cognitive complexity to question and discern truth.

Gain:  Future generations, a population of which will serve in the armed forces, will have an educational foundation that better provides for the ability to detect and discern misinformation. Those that choose to serve will be better-equipped for achieving intellectual overmatch with adversaries that the joint force requires[7].

Option #2:  The U.S. invests in organizational learning and adaptation.

Risk:  Organizations that fail to learn and adapt in a manner that creates advantage and innovation, particularly in complex, competitive environments, are challenged to maintain relevance[8].

Gain:  Organizational learning and adaption is enabled by a professional, educated, trained workforce[9]. Investment in organizational learning and adaptation builds a healthy organizational culture reinforced by professionalism, common ethos and values, and competitiveness. Such characteristics are imperative to understanding complex challenges in uncertain environments[10].

Option #3:  The U.S. invests in technological innovation and advantage.

Risk:  Adversaries will forage and steal intellectual property. They have done so for decades, unhindered and unpunished[11]. American business, venture capital, and entrepreneurs, as well as the U.S. economy as a whole, will be unnecessarily impeded in the ability to compete in a world economy, threatening U.S. national interests.

Gain:  American entrepreneurial spirit is motivated and sustained by the advantages and rewards of a market-driven economy. The profit and gain achieved through investment in and maintenance of technological innovation and advantage fosters economic productivity. Taken together, these dynamics incentivize public policy that creates and fosters healthy, competitive, and profitable business environments and practices[12].

Option #4:  The U.S. Government incentivizes ‘unity of effort’ through public-private partnerships.

Risk:  Liberal democracies and free market economies may resist a perceived ‘militarization’ of the cognitive domain. Public officials may lack the intellectual curiosity or political will to recognize, understand, and engage in the cognitive domain to protect U.S. interests. Private-sector leaders and the public may be wary of partnering with the government. Leading a synchronized ‘unity of effort’ across governmental institutions and the private-sector is an incredibly challenging and complex task.

Gain:  With safeguards to civil liberties, the synergy between public- and private-sector efforts to achieve cognitive superiority would overcome adversarial incursion, influence, and competition in the cognitive domain.

Other Comments:  In a future epoch, the current era will be considered transitional and revolutionary. In this revolutionary era, the U.S. will be required to continually assess and ensure that adversaries and the strategic environment do not outpace the intellectual capacity of leaders, government, and society to understand and harness the age in which we live.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Mintz, A. and K. DeRouen. (2010). Understanding foreign policy decision making. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Cottam, M., E. Mastors, T. Preston and B. Dietz. (2016). Introduction to Political Psychology, 3rd Ed. New York: Routledge.

[3] George, A. (1969). “The ‘operational code’: A neglected approach to the study of political leaders and decision-making.” International studies quarterly. 13:2. 190-222.

[4] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. (2018). “The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028.” TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-1. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.tradoc.army.mil/Portals/14/Documents/MDO/TP525-3-1_30Nov2018.pdf

[5] Laird, B. (2017). “War Control: Chinese Writings on the Control of Escalation in Crisis and Conflict.” Center for a New American Security. March 20. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/war-control

[6] OECD. (2019). “United States.” Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/education-at-a-glance-2019_1e0746ed-en#page1.

[7] Joint Staff. (2019). “Developing Today’s Joint Officers for Tomorrow’s Ways of War.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision and Guidance for Professional Military Education and Talent Management. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Doctrine/MECC2019/jcs_vision_pme_tm_draft.pdf?ver=2019-10-17-143200-470

[8] Darwin, C. (1859). The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Reprinted in 1957. New York: Random House.

[9] Schmidt, T. (2013). “Design, Mission Command, and the Network: Enabling Organizational Adaptation.” The Land Warfare Papers. No 97. August. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://ausa.org/files/design-mission-command-and-networkpdf

[10] Pierce, J. (2010). “Is the Organizational Culture of the U.S. Army Congruent with the Professional Development of Its Senior Level Officer Corps?” The Letort Papers. September. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://publications.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/2097.pdf

[11] Department of Justice. (2020). “Harvard University Professor and Two Chinese Nationals Charged in Three Separate China Related Cases.” Press Release. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/harvard-university-professor-and-two-chinese-nationals-charged-three-separate-china-related

[12] Gill, I. (2020). “Whoever leads in artificial intelligence in 2030 will rule the world until 2100.” Brookings Institute. Retrieved April 20, 2020 from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2020/01/17/whoever-leads-in-artificial-intelligence-in-2030-will-rule-the-world-until-2100

2020 - Contest: Civil Affairs Association Writing Contest Civil Affairs Association Mindset Option Papers Todd Schmidt United States

Turning “Small” Wars into “Big” Wars: How Tacticians Endanger Us All

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

Dr. Heather Venable is an Assistant Professor of Military and Security Studies at the Air Command and Staff College, where she teaches classes on airpower and the historical experience of combat. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918.  She also has written for War on the Rocks, Strategy Bridge, and other online blogs.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

Title:  Turning “Small” Wars into “Big” Wars: How Tacticians Endanger Us All

Date Originally Written:  May 31, 2019. 

Date Originally Published:  August 26, 2019.

Author / or Article Point of View:  The author is a professor of airpower. The author wants to point out the tensions in military thinking between the tactical and the strategic and how this has the potential to lead to escalation of “small” wars amidst the return to great power conflict.  

Summary:  Small wars remain highly likely even as the U.S. stresses the return to great power conflict. In these coming conflicts, some frustrated military leaders will exhibit tension between strategic and tactical thinking. This tendency can be seen in the following discussion of Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg, who had a problematic vision of targeting the Chinese mainland during the Korean War that exemplifies tactical thinking at the expense of considering strategic ends. 

Text:  He talked the talk. But he did not walk the walk. In a lecture given to the Air War College in May of 1953, Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg initially exemplified strategic thinking by providing compelling reasons why the Korean War should remain confined to the peninsula. In the subsequent question and answer session, however, he demonstrated a clear desire to widen the war and target the Chinese mainland. Vandenberg’s lecture epitomizes the tensions in the minds of military leaders between tactical and strategic thinking, which pose dangerous risks of escalation, particularly in small wars. 

In the lecture, Vandenberg explained that he had no easy solutions “tied up in pink bows[1].” He also shared how his vantage point provided him with unparalleled perspective on the importance of allies and Cold War grand strategy. As such, he pointed out the problems he saw in expanding the war into China, explaining that striking a key air base inside Chinese territory required the U.S. to “do it with our eyes open” in light of a Sino-Soviet mutual defense treaty. Vandenberg also highlighted the risks of lengthening the United Nations’ own lines of communication. These comments epitomize a solid strategic consideration characterized by continually asking: then what? 

In the ensuing question and answer session, however, Vandenberg dangerously undercut his previous comments. When asked to discuss the Far East’s “strategic importance” during a “hot war,” Vandenberg ignored realities like the aforementioned treaty[2].  Caveating his opinion as being “almost as dangerous” as clamoring for preventative war against the Soviet Union, Vandenberg continued on recklessly:  “My solution has always been . . . we ought to put on a very strong blockade of the Chinese Coast; that we ought to break her rail lines of communication that carry the wheat from the North and the rice from the South . . . that we ought to mine her rivers . . . and that we ought to destroy those small industrial installations . . . .”

In addition to expanding the war and possibly inciting a famine, he suggested that the U.S. start its own “brushfire” to demonstrate, “BY GOD, that we are getting fed up with it.” Vandenberg’s address to War College students on the challenges of making sound strategic decisions devolved into sharing his emotionally-laden tactical responses, which lacked careful consideration of desired ends. Yet Vandenberg characterized his approach as “realistic[3].” 

Ironically, Vandenberg believed himself to be thinking rationally when, in fact, he was thinking romantically. In 1959, Bernard Brodie counterintuitively described the military mind as romantic, explaining how officers preferred “strong action over negotiation, boldness over caution, and feeling over reflection[4].” Vandenberg’s irrational suggestion that the U.S. start a new war because he was “fed up” epitomizes the mentality Brodie sketched. Today, many military officers also characterize themselves as pragmatic realists; in practice, though, they may act very differently.

This romantic attitude permeates tactical thinking, which can undermine a strategic vision. In theory, the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war are neatly bundled together. In reality, the frustrations of small wars often reveal the gaping seams between the tactical and the strategic as the limitations of military force to quickly meet political objectives become evident. 

A tactical thinker concentrates on the short-term prospect of winning a clear-cut victory. A strategic one, by contrast, seeks to play the long game. At times, these two inter-related but competing perspectives cause tension. In the case of a parent teaching a child to play chess, the tactical mindset of seeking to “win” a game sits at odds with the more strategic perspective of keeping children motivated to learn by letting them win[5]. 

Meanwhile, this seductive tactical vision entices military thinkers and decision makers with the promise of decisive action, with the potential to solve a problem once and for all. But nothing in warfare is ever final. The Army officers who produced a recent study on Operation Iraqi Freedom entitled The U.S. Army in Iraq epitomize the dangers of this tactical tendency. Chafing at what they consider to be the imposition of problematic “artificial geographic boundaries,” they wish the U.S. had enlarged the war to include Iran, thus eliminating the sanctuary areas of small wars that are understandably so frustrating to officers[6]. This “if only” mindset seeks short-term military advantage at the cost of a stronger, more durable state of peace that should be the guiding principle underlying and linking together each level of war. 

Small wars on the periphery remain highly likely even as the U.S. returns to stressing great power conflict. In these coming conflicts, some frustrated military leaders will demonstrate tension between the strategic and the tactical just as Gen Vandenberg did. Indeed, the likelihood of this tendency has increased because the U.S. military has become imbued with a “killing and destroying things” mindset[7].  In focusing more on how to kill and destroy than why, the military has reified the tactical and operational at the expense of the strategic. We can only hope that politicians choose not to follow through on fool-hardy tactical ventures; amidst the democratization of weapons technology, such impulses risk endangering us all[8]. 


[1] Vandenberg, H. (1953, May 6). Lecture Presented by General Vandenberg to Air War College. K239.716253-118, Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA). 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brodie, B. (1959). Strategy in the Missile Age. Palo Alto, CA: Rand, p. 266.

[5] Dolman, E. (2016). “Seeking Strategy” in Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Eds. Richard Bailey and James Forsyth. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016, pp. 5-37.

[6] Finer, J. (2019, May 28). Learning the Wrong Lessons from Iraq. Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2019-05-28/last-war-and-next. 

[7] Kagan, F. (2006). Finding the Target. New York: Encounter Books, 2006, p. 358.

[8] Krepinevich, A. (2011, August 15). Get Ready for the Democratization of Destruction. Foreign Affairs. https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/08/15/get-ready-for-the-democratization-of-destruction/.



2019 - Contest: Small Wars Journal Assessment Papers Dr. Heather Venable Mindset Policy and Strategy United States