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The Art of Strategy: Or How to Fight and Lead Better

Empires rise and fall, leaders fail and succeed, but the art of strategy is forever. James Warren on the ultimate history to Western strategy and what it teaches us about our history.

Strategy: A History, is an ambitious and sprawling book by a British military historian who has written widely, and very well, about nuclear and cold war strategy, the Falklands War, and contemporary military affairs, among other subjects. Sir Lawrence Freedman prefaces his more than 700-page investigation of a vast and important topic with a telling aphorism from an unexpected corner: “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” So sayeth Mike Tyson, the menacing and troubled warrior from the mean streets of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

“Iron Mike” was obliquely referring to the fundamental strategic challenge faced by all generals and admirals, as well as by boxers: No matter how sound the original plan one develops to fight a war, it‘s bound to be tested once the action is joined, for war, like boxing, is an extreme trial of moral and physical stamina. Unpredictability is of its essence. One of the recurring motifs in Strategy is that achieving success in any conflict requires not only the ability to frame a plan based on a realistic assessment of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as well as one’s adversary’s, but the presence of mind to adapt and refine that plan in an environment that gravitates naturally toward violence and disorder.

Strategy, as Freedman describes his admittedly diffuse and multifaceted subject, is both a way of thinking and a way of doing. While its elemental features “such as deception, alliance formation, and use of organized violence to achieve a given end” have been with the human species from the start, the word “strategy” came into common use only in the early 18th century, reflecting the Enlightenment’s faith in human beings’ ability to apply empirical science and reason to even the most extreme form of organized social activity.

By the time of the Napoleonic wars, strategy, at least in the West—and this book is almost exclusively devoted to Western strategic thought by design—came to refer to the art of the commander-in-chief “projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign,” while its close relative, tactics, comprised “the art of handling forces in battle in the immediate presence of the enemy.”

This definition retains its viability to this day. But as we wend our way through centuries of strategic thought, with Sir Lawrence serving more as amiable and wise tour guide more than learned professor of war studies, we come to see that the term necessarily takes on different shades of meaning in different contexts. Broadly speaking, Freedman tells us there are two fundamental types of war strategies—those of annihilation, aimed largely at rapid destruction of an adversary’s military forces in decisive battle, and those of exhaustion, which involve protracting hostilities with a view to wearing down the enemy’s will. One of the many rewards of reading this book comes in seeing how theory and practice bounce off one another to produce fresh variations on these two themes as we move across the centuries from the Greeks to Machiavelli, from Clausewitz to Liddell Hart, and Petraeus, and cyber war.

However one defines the term, strategy as a practice is carried out on several levels. Grand strategists establish political objectives for a conflict, form coalitions, and allocate political, economic and military resources. At the level of plain strategy, generals and admirals (with the help of their staffs) develop broad military plans within pre-established political parameters to reach those objectives. Invariably, and especially since World War II, their plans must be coordinated with those of non-military organizations, governmental and civilian, while operational strategists concern themselves with the formulation and execution of military campaign and battle plans.

Professor Freedman’s book contains discrete sections devoted to key strategies of politics and business as well as those of force. Since Marx, it seems, there has been a great deal of cross-fertilization of strategic concepts across these broad fields of endeavor. While Freedman is adept at conveying the essence of the Big Ideas in commerce and politics in brief chapters, some as short as fifteen pages, the book’s “center of gravity,” to borrow a term from Clausewitz, clearly lies in his coverage of the strategies of force that have occupied his attention for his entire professional life.

The ideas and mindset of Clausewitz, the Prussian general-theorist whose unfinished masterwork, On War, remains indispensable reading for all armchair and professional strategists to this day, seem to hover over the book’s coverage of all strategic thinking: “So shrewd were Clausewitz’s insights and so compelling his formulations that it [has been] hard to think of alternative ways to study war effectively.”

Sir Lawrence has a gift for explaining Clausewitz’s famously dense dialectical ideas in plain English. He is especially good, I think, in unpacking Clausewitz’s understanding of modern (i.e., post-Napoleonic) war as the “dynamic interplay” of the “remarkable trinity” of the violence, chance and politics, which imposes certain limits on the first two elements.

Efforts to execute even the best conceived plans, Clausewitz believed, always fall afoul of unforeseen developments that are the result of acting in a high-stress environment of violence, where “All actions take place in something virtually akin to dusk, which in addition, like fog or moonlight, gives objects and exaggerated size and a grotesque view.” The Prussian general had a word for contingencies that unexpectedly fouled up the best of plans, whether it was unseasonal weather, misunderstood orders, simple exhaustion of the troops, or the destruction of a critical bridge by a landslide, preventing an advance. He called these things “friction.”

The real challenge for the strategist, as Clausewitz saw it, is “to anticipate both the enemy and all those elements of friction and chance that get in the way.” The correct approach is not to give up and assume that chaos and chance will “mock all plans and overwhelm best efforts but rather to prepare for such eventualities in advance.”

Strategies that come to enjoy wide acceptance as a result of stunning success in the past, Freedman points out, can lead to grief and frequently have. The European generals and their political masters in 1914 all took it as an article of faith that the first of the powers to strike a decisive blow against the enemy’s main army would be well positioned to achieve complete dominance quickly. With the adversaries fully massed along the Western front, dreams of achieving the decisive result through a massive infantry assault covered by artillery would not give way, but the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men did as the generals kept trying and trying. The war rapidly degenerated into horrific stalemate in the muddy, rat-infested trenches.

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Or take the American army in Vietnam clinging tenaciously to the attritional strategy that had served it well in World War II, albeit with new and more deadly tools and tactics that appeared to insure success against what Henry Kissinger called a “fourth-rate power.” It took the shock of the Tet Offensive of 1968, and a very smart new commanding general, Creighton Abrams, to recognize that “search and destroy” operations against Communist regulars was a lousy way to fight a war where the real prize was gaining the loyalty of the people in the villages.

Freedman has written widely not only on military history, but on contemporary military strategy in journals and magazines as well. His discussion here of (largely) American military strategy since the Gulf War, especially its unfortunate collision with the real world of ground combat against highly motivated irregular forces, makes an invaluable contribution to a vexed and critically important on-going conversation.

Freedman sees great value in the US service strategists’ sustained efforts to integrate their unrivaled information technology to combat systems, with a view to disrupting the enemy’s decision-making capacity by attacking his brains rather than his brawn. Such efforts promise to limit both the duration and destructiveness of combat.

There is, however, very little that is truly new in strategic thought, it appears. Recent American “innovations” are a case in point. The new American strategic concepts have their origins in the work of British strategist B.H. Liddell Hart, post-World War I champion of the “indirect approach,” which sought to evade the mindless slaughter that came with massed attacks against enemy strongpoints through guile, surprise, and speed.

Freedman is skeptical, though, of the American strategists’ enduring inclination to see technology as a panacea for dealing with all enemies, great and small. He joins the good company of Napoleon, Mao, and Vietnam’s Vo Nguyen Giap in seeing that the human factor virtually always trumps the material-technological one in the end. Insurgencies in places like Iraq and Afghanistan continue to demonstrate the limits of cutting edge technology in “asymmetrical” war, in part because of the insurgent’s persistent resourcefulness in adapting relatively inexpensive intelligence-gathering and communications technology, and in part because of what General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove called “total commitment.” The only way the radical insurgent can be defeated is by death.

With admirable candor, Freedman tells us that he received the contract for this book in (gulp!) 1994, and that he made a “number of false starts” with the manuscript. Considering the daunting scope of the subject, this is entirely understandable. Considering the wisdom and analytical brilliance he brings to bear on that subject, it’s been well worth the wait.