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Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy

Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy by Colin S. Gray. Potomac Books, 2009, 208 pp.

The distillation of some 40 years of scholarly work by one of the most prolific strategists of our time, Fighting Talk is an accessible collection of essays that briefly explores the vital assumptions of a working strategist and describes the building blocks of strategic theory. Making a repeat appearance on the Air Force chief of staff’s reading list for 2012 with his more recently published Airpower for Strategic Effect (Air University Press, 2011), Gray is known for his scholarly depth and rigor. Although the illustrations in Fighting Talk are brief, the historical examples that support each maxim supply plenty of rigor. Some readers might criticize the lack of depth in this short essay format, but Gray’s conscious purpose here is to cut to the chase. As he reminds us throughout the book, strategy is a practical pursuit.

Divided into five parts, the book begins with part 1, “War and Peace” (maxims 1–10), an aptly named wide-aperture look at the nature of war and the relationship between war and peace. Maxim 8, “There Is More to War than Warfare,” draws an important distinction between the state of relations among belligerents and the actual conduct of the fighting, whether by military or irregular forces. This difference is often lost or ignored in conversation but remains important to understand as the book moves through part 2, “Strategy” (maxims 11–21), which Gray points to as the bridge between the political focus of part 1 and the military concerns of part 3.

In part 3, “Military Power and Warfare” (maxims 22–28), the focus narrows to the more pragmatic business of military performance with lessons from the operational, tactical, and logistical aspects of actually fighting the fight. It is not a checklist for campaign planning but a coherent set of reminders to provide a solid conceptual foundation to the war fighter. Throughout, this part reminds the reader that, though not conducted for its own sake, warfare nonetheless remains a vital part of the big picture of policy and politics. As maxim 26 makes clear, “Victory in Battle Does Not Ensure Strategic or Political Success, but Defeat All but Guarantees Failure.” Thus, we learn that even though we must always consider the forest, we can lose it if we fail to focus on the trees as well.

The first three parts deal with what Gray describes as the core concerns of the strategist, but the last two—part four, “Security and Insecurity” (maxims 29–35), and part 5, “History and the Future” (maxims 36–40)—step back again to provide contextualization about the nature, dynamic character, and functioning of world politics. One thread running through these last 12 maxims stresses the importance of understanding the past as a way of informing decisions about the future. This notion is captured in maxim 37, “History Can Be Misused to ‘Prove’ Anything, but It Is All That We Have as a Guide to the Future,” which argues that the strategist who disdains the past is left only with the present and the future—and the future cannot be known.

The reader should not expect any particularly profound revelations in Fighting Talk. Maxims, after all, are generally accepted truths—statements generally beyond controversy. Indeed, Gray openly admits that he really offers nothing new by asserting in maxim 14 that “If Thucydides, Sun-tzu, and Clausewitz Did Not Say It, It Probably Is Not Worth Saying.” This is not to say that the book is not worth the relatively short time required to read it. The real value in reading and contemplating the maxims is twofold. First, the individual essays can serve as a jumping-off point for further reflection and study. Second, and perhaps even more important for those who “do” strategy, is the grounding that the entire collection provides for sound decision making.

Fighting Talk is not a prescriptive “how-to” guide for planning, fighting, and winning wars. Rather, it ably serves as a primer for politicians, war fighters, pundits, and the interested public to better understand the very nature of war, peace, and strategy and the way those three are intertwined. As Gray points out in his introduction, “these truths frequently are forgotten, or misunderstood, often with dire consequences” (p. xiii). Mistakes will always be made. By learning and applying the lessons of these enduring truths, however, practitioners of the strategic art can improve their chances that the significance of their failures is small rather than catastrophic.

Maj Stephen L. Meister, USAF

Offutt AFB, Nebraska

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

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