Alastair Luft’s Blog


Eyes on the Prize

As part of the series on applying the Principles of War to the business of writing, this week looks at the first principle, Selection and Maintenance of the Aim.

​What was the aim of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan? Consider:

  • Canada sent forces to Afghanistan in late-2001 / early-2002 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The aim of the US-led mission was to dismantle the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan and remove the Taliban from power.


  • When the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) stood up in late-2002, the aim expanded to include assisting the Afghanistan transition to new leadership. Included in this mandate was the coordination of peace and reconciliation efforts, and also humanitarian assistance.


  • From 2003 to 2004, the aim was to let the fledgling Afghan government develop its constitution and focus on its first elections, with the Canadian focus being on providing security around Kabul.


  • In 2005, Canada’s aim changed to reflect the broader mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The mandate included not only assisting in the provision of security, but in governance and development as well. For Canada, these activates were realized in two primary ways, the conduct of combat operations and through a Provincial Reconstruction Team, both based in Kandahar province.


  • In 2011, the aim remained on provision of security, development, and governance, but the execution changed from primarily combat operations to the training of Afghani national security forces.


  • In 2014, Canada ceased its activities in Afghanistan.

As of this writing, the Taliban is still an effective adversary in Afghanistan. Indeed, some reports suggest that 2016 may have been a banner year for the Taliban, with the force able to take back more territory than at any time since the 15-year campaign began.

So did Canada meet its aim Afghanistan?

The Objective

The overriding Principle of War is, ‘The Selection and Maintenance of the Aim.’ Whether in the conduct of war as a whole, or in the smallest supporting operation, it is essential to understand what the force is trying to achieve. Not only does this prevent a force from working at cross-purposes, it also ensures scarce resources are efficiently assigned to necessary activities.

Ideally, the aim should be clearly defined, simple, and direct. The acronym SMART applies: Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic, and Time-Based. (Note: there are multiple variations in the acronym – the version presented avoids A = attainable because of conceptual overlap with a goal being Realistic). Removing the Taliban from power is a specific and measurable goal. Assisting in the provision of security, development, and governance is not, or at least it’s much harder to express in terms of SMART criteria.

In theory, the aim cascades through the levels of conflict. The political level sets the overall objective, with the various instruments of national power – diplomatic, informational, military, economic – determining how best to achieve that goal. In turn, this unifying theme extends downward through the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to individual actors actually doing things on the battlefield; the so-called ‘strategic corporals.’

Some terminology:

The goal, or aim, or objective, is what defines a win; it’s what the force wants to happen. The goal can change as the situation evolves. Goals come with parameters, things that need to either happen, or not happen, like obeying laws.

Strategy is the general plan to accomplish a goal. It is executed through tactics, the how or actual activities that accomplish things. Strategy is constrained by the environment; a plan that works in one environment might not be appropriate in another. Lastly, tactics break up into individual techniques, the multitude of individual actions that can be taken as a result of minute to minute changes in the environment.

  • Goals and parameters dictate strategy.
  • Strategy and environment dictate tactics.
  • Tactics and the minute-to-minute situation dictate techniques.

At every level, there must be an appreciation for the overall aim and how the smallest technique supports the broader intent. Any deviation from rowing forward represents effort that’s at cross-purposes.

It is possible that the aim will change. This is natural and should not be a surprise. This is why the military’s analysis method, the estimate process, has a built-in check: ‘has the situation changed and is the mission still valid?’ That said, should a new aim be required, it should be similarly clear, simple, and direct; almost more so since it’s introducing change.

Using the Principle Against Resistance

The war with Resistance is for keeps. Make no mistake, as an internally generated expression of human self-sabotage, Resistance intuitively understands the nature of war and conflict far better than people consciously understand those same concepts. This includes the understanding that it must bend us to its will, it must compel us to do what it wants. That’s how it wins.

And what does Resistance want? To stop us from pursuing a creative calling.

Our goal, as writers or other creatives, is to pursue our calling. Is that goal clearly expressed, is it SMART? Some might argue that it is not. They are wrong. If the point of the creative calling is to write, or paint, or play music, this goal couldn’t be SMARTer.

Aim: I will write.

Is it specific? Yes. It doesn’t matter what I write, as long as I write.

Is it measureable? Yes. Did I write today? Mission accomplished.

Is it agreed upon? Yes. My body tells me that I have to write – I have no choice in the matter.

Is it Realistic? Yes. Can I write? Just watch me.

Is it Time-based? Yes. Every day I have to write. The clock starts fresh with every sun-rise.

Where this aim becomes less SMART is when exterior factors and desires are introduced. Publishing a book next year. Organizing an art show. Releasing an album. These are second-order considerations resulting from the primary aim, which is only to undertake the creative activity itself. Even then, the aim can be tailored to accommodate these additional goals and in a broader sense, these activities are individual battles, campaigns in an unending war.

What then, of strategy? If pursuing a calling is the object, what is the plan to accomplish the aim? How can the principle be applied?

There are two methods, a macro and a micro.

The War

In the first case, the Principle can be applied to ensure that every action is in line with the goal of pursuing a calling. It might be expressed thus:

  • Aim: Pursue a calling as a writer.
  • Strategy: Write.
  • Tactics: Three main methods will be employed:
    1. Writing: Practice craft in a variety of styles, genres, and forms.
    2. Reading: Develop a knowledge base of similar (and non-similar) writing.
    3. Outreach: Develop a network of mentors, peers, and reviewers to enable feedback and support.
  • Techniques:
    1. Writing: Take a course on characterization to improve on indirect (authorial interpretation or interpretation by another character) and direct methods (dialogue, action, appearance);
    2. Reading: Focus on classics to analyze story structure, as well as in genre to learn about conventions;
    3.  Outreach: Join a writer’s group.

Every activity must be tested for its relation to the chosen aim; is it helping accomplish the goal? Does reading widely help in pursuing a calling as a writer? Assuming the definition entails treating said calling professionally (which it does), then yes, this activity helps. Likewise working on craft.

Combat – the Single Activity of the War

The micro application of the Master Principle of War is through the production of unique works, the battles mentioned above. In this case, the principle is analogous to theme. Each story must be about something; that something is the aim, or theme, of the story. Adapting Shawn Coyne’s wonderful analysis of Silence of the Lambs, this might be expressed as follows:

  • Aim: Tell a story about how justice prevails when people engage their inner darkness as passionately as their ‘positive’ side.
  • Strategy: Write a thriller where the only way to catch a serial killer is to seek advice from another serial killer, trading favours about one’s inner secrets for information.
  • Tactics: Apply genre conventions, to include:
    • A crime / MacGuffin:  Buffalo Bill’s desire to dress up like a woman.
    • Clock: Buffalo Bill captures senator’s daughter.
    • Red herrings: Raspail’s car clue.
    • Speech in praise of the villain: Starling examines Buffalo Bill’s file
    • Stakes become personal for the hero: Starling has to trade personal information to Lecter.
    • Hero at the mercy of the villain: Clarice in Buffalo Bill’s basement.
    • False ending: Buffalo Bill put down, but Lecter escapes.
  • Techniques:
    • POV: Free Indirect Style
    • POV continued: Primarily Starling, but others.
    • Etc etc

Again, each activity should be tested for adherence to the aim, perhaps a more difficult task in this case, but important nonetheless. Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid should be consulted for more information.

In either case, the process remains the same: determine the aim, develop a strategy to accomplish the aim, then align tactics and techniques with the controlling object. The aim might change; that’s okay, at least in a micro sense. A story’s theme might not even become apparent until the storytelling process is well underway, but the effort can continue. When the theme does get revealed, it will be important to revisit the estimate. If there’s one thing contemporary conflicts have shown, it’s the importance of knowing and revisiting one’s purpose amidst a chaotic and complex operating environment.

Thankfully, Resistance is uncomplicated in this manner. Consequently, overcoming Resistance is equally uncomplicated – write, paint, play music, whatever constitutes the creative calling. Still, as uncomplicated as it may be, it is far from easy. Indeed, as Clausewitz wrote, ‘everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.’

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