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Strategy: A History

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman. Oxford Press, 2013, 751 pp., $34.95.

          Sir Lawrence Freedman, widely regarded as one of Britain’s most capable strategy analysts, was once foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair and since 1982 has served as professor of war studies at King’s College in London. A copy of Strategy: A History on the office coffee table would make an impressive statement—a more than 630-page tome (plus 85 pages of endnotes), with a scholarly title, the iconic Trojan horse on its cover, and written by a renowned expert. A comment comes to mind once made about Stephen Hawking’s masterpiece, The Universe in a Nutshell: “one of the best-selling, least-read books in history.” However, it would be a mistake to avoid cracking the cover of Freedman’s book, as it is an eminently readable effort, both informative and entertaining.

          A book with the girth of Strategy may itself require a strategy for reading. One approach, suggested by the current commandant of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (informally known as the “Book-a-Day Club”) at the Air University, was to first review the table of contents; skim the book, paying notice of figures, tables, pictures, maps, and so forth; and then establish and adhere to a reading schedule. Having thus prepared mental “bins” into which knowledge would eventually be placed, I was prepared to embark on a weeklong journey of enlightenment while cruising through the book at my planned rate of 100 pages per day.

          The book is divided into five sections: “Origins,” “Strategies of Force,” “Strategy from Below,” “Strategy from Above,” and “Theories of Strategy.” Within the major sections, some chapters titles indicate the individuals discussed therein (e.g., “Sun Tzu and Machiavelli,” “Clausewitz,” “Herzen and Bakunin”), while others address concepts and strategies (“Brain and Brawn,” “Indirect Approach,” “Existential Strategy”). A strength of the book is the interweaving of individual strategists’ perspectives with concepts and historical events, flowing like a meandering river through the rich historical landscape of strategy.

          One would expect such a sweeping history of strategy to begin at the earliest recorded human efforts toward the tradecraft, but in “Origins,” Freedman actually goes back even further, noting the strategic tendencies of chimps, our prehuman ancestors. This nod to the scientific theory of evolution leads somewhat ironically to a discussion of strategies in the Bible. Freedman occasionally lapses into treating the biblical stories as historic fact, describing various battles involving angels and demons in matter-of-fact terms. One nagging thought might strike the reader as Freedman discusses God’s strategies: who needs a strategy when you can always turn your opponent into a pillar of salt if you do not get your way? He eventually acknowledges that “as with all debates in which God was involved, in the end the deliberations were futile.”

          Freedman then moves deftly into the strongest section of the text, “Strategies of Force,” with its focus on military strategy. He traces the history of military strategy, summarizing the contributions of the usual suspects—Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini—and some less familiar. As an Airman, I was naturally interested in what Freedman has to say about the development of airpower strategy. He dedicates a few pages to the subject of airpower, blended with a discussion of the development of the tank, as a response to trench warfare carnage in World War I. However, he seemed to underplay the key rationale for the development of independent air forces—that strategic objectives could be attained without necessarily accumulating tactical objectives, which differentiates airpower qualitatively from development of armor. To his credit, in subsequent sections of the book Freedman intersperses contributions of numerous air-minded strategists. He also provides occasional insights into strategies involving cyberspace operations.

          Over half of Strategy focuses on political and business strategies. In “Strategy From Below,” Freedman spends an inordinate amount of ink on revolutionaries, anarchists, nihilists, socialists, guerillas, and similar ilk—the Davids opposing their Goliaths. I found this narrative interesting but less compelling than the discussions involving military history, and suggest this portion of the book could be skimmed without losing the gist of the overall argument. The next major segment, “Strategy from Above,” discusses how military strategic thinking has permeated the business community, with similar benefits and limitations. We find the best laid business strategies can be foiled by unpredictable events and bad fortune. In the final section, “Theories of Strategy,” Freedman looks at how the notion of strategy has permeated everyday thinking—it seems we are all strategists, in need of strategies for dealing with everyday life. In this section he delves into negotiating and decision-making strategies and the roles of intuition (“System 1”) versus deliberation (“System 2”).

          I had expected that upon finishing Freedman’s magnus opus I would be more appreciative of the value of strategy development. If anything, Freedman takes pains to highlight the risk of overpromising and underdelivering when it comes to strategic planning—cautioning against “unrealistically elevating strategy as the ingredient that could make all the difference between success and failure.” However, while having a strategy may not provide a surefire recipe for victory, it is clear that having even an imperfect strategy is better than an ad hoc approach or no strategy at all. This converse is captured by the wisdom of noted philosopher Yogi Berra: “if you don’t know where you’re going . . . you might not get there.” 

          It is said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. In the end, my planned 100-page-per-day strategy fell victim to outside events, some foreseeable and others coming seemingly out of nowhere. So it is with most strategies, the history of which was, in some ways, summed up by Freedman in the book’s opening line quoting boxer Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a strategy ‘til he gets punched in the mouth.” In his acknowledgements, Freedman informs the reader that he received the contract for this book in 1994 and that the past 20 years have included various starts and restarts on this massive project. Another life lesson here—a robust strategy includes the determination to get up off the mat and back into the fray. Well played, Sir Lawrence.

Lt Gen Allen G. Peck, USAF, Retired

Director, Air Force Research Institute

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"The views expressed in this book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."