February 28, 2014

Always present, ever elusive

Strategy: A History is a work on the cultural historical origins of strategy and the myriad ways in which men have sought to use strategy to gain the edge in battle or politics.


Strategy is a fascinating subject. Seemingly always useful, sometimes vital, strategy is attempted by many, done poorly by most and understood well by remarkably few. One of those few is Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College War Studies Department, who has authored one of the most comprehensive books on the historical context of strategy-making ever written. Not content at explaining strategy in warfare or western civilisation from ancient times to modernity, the simply titled Strategy: A History aims to reveal strategy in life in its broadest terms without losing its elusive essence.

It is customary for works on strategic history to have canonical references – Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Jomini– and Freedman of course does have these, but he has created a massive and protean 629 page richly detailed codex in which also appear such unlikely figures as Eldridge Cleaver, Mutaqda a-Sadr, Satan, Vilfredo Pareto, Edward Bernays, Sumantra Ghoshal, Quakers, the cartoon strip Dilbert and troops of chimpanzees.  Strategy: A History displays an intellectual range of astonishing breadth and texture in clear prose that merits comparison as much with Jacques Barzun’s magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence as it does with famous classic Makers of Modern Strategy edited by Peter Paret.

Freedman’s panoramic and civilizational depiction of strategy is apt to clash with readers who partake of a more orthodox Clausewitzian approach to strategic studies, accepting strategy primarily (or perhaps only) as a phenomena of war with the purposeful application of violence toward the securing of a policy and ultimately political ends. While Freedman devotes sufficient space to military strategy and strategists and wars and warfare, a great deal of the text ventures into the realms of cognate social science disciplines, the evolution of European political modernity, seismic cultural and socioeconomic shifts, the world of business and management strategists and the importance of narrative and script. Clausewitzians are apt to reject most of this as “not strategy” but it represents for Freedman the important cultural and intellectual material or historical milieu from which politics is constructed that drives the making and application of strategy. Or the point from which the evaluation of strategy’s contribution to victory or defeat can be expressed and understood.

Despite the complexity and diversity of subject matter tackled by Freedman, Strategy: A History has several overarching themes, often represented as dualities. The first is the contrast between strategy as the utilisation of force and strategy as the application of cunning and guile, or strategy as “brawn or brains”. Sometimes the latter is classically referred to as ‘stratagems’, something associated more closely with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or the Byzantines, as described by Edward Luttwak in his study of Constantinople’s grand strategy.

Freedman writes: “From Homer came the contrasting qualities, represented respectively by Achilles and Odysseus, of bie and metis (strength and cunning), which over time – for example, in Machiavelli – came to be represented as force and guile. This polarity continued to find expression in strategic literature. Outsmarting the opponent risked less pain than open conflict, though winning by cunning and subterfuge was often deplored for a lack of honor and nobility.”

Another powerful theme in Strategy: A History, frequently illustrated, are the limits of strategy itself. By ‘limits’ Freedman means both strategy’s usefulness as a tool and the kinds of situations to which strategy can reasonably and profitably be applied. Most strategies have natural limits in that there is (or can be) an effective logical counter by your adversary, making strategy the iterative relationship captured by Clausewitz’s metaphor of a “wrestling match” or in the chalkboard escalation ladders of RAND nuclear war theorist Herman Kahn.

Decisive victories in war or conflict are extremely rare because securing a permanent advantage, or even a comparative one is a difficult prospect against a determined, thinking and adaptive enemy. This means strategy is useful less as a mechanistic plan in Freedman’s view than as an exercise in preparing ourselves to “cope with the unexpected”. Utility comes only with the right circumstance, no matter how often we like to talk about having a strategy:

“Only at moments of environmental instability, as latent conflict becomes actual, when real choices have to be made, does something resembling true strategy become necessary. So what turns something not quite strategy into strategy is a sense of actual or imminent instability, a changing context that induces a sense of conflict. Strategy therefore starts with an existing state of affairs and only gains awareness of how, for better or worse, it could be different. This view is quite different from those who assume strategy must be about reaching some prior objective. It may be more concerned with coping with some dire crisis or preventing further deterioration in an already stressful situation… This is why as a practical matter strategy as best understood modestly as moving to the next stage rather than to a definitive and permanent conclusion.”

Strategy: A History reads easily, like a long walk with many charming detours and side trails, as you move toward your destination. It is a work on the cultural historical origins of strategy and the myriad ways in which men have sought to use strategy to gain that edge in battle or politics; a book that  comfortably distills a lifetime of reading and historical scholarship.

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