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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.

To become an expert in political or military strategy in today’s complex world, one has to accumulate extensive education, experience, and reading in the field. Dr. Colin S. Gray has done just that, and it shows—especially in his book Fighting Talk.

What qualifies him to write such a book? Currently a professor of international politics and strategic studies and the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Reading, England, Gray founded the National Institute for Public Policy, a defense-oriented think tank in Washington, DC. He also served for five years on the President’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament during the Reagan administration. As a dual citizen and self-proclaimed strategy professional, he has served as an adviser to both the US and British governments for 40 years.

Gray wrote this book to “present and explain the most serious matters of war, peace, and strategy in a format . . . much less dense and professionally forbidding” (p. xi). Readers will find it accessible, without academic baggage, and free of the “dumbed down” content typical of a work of this type. Such a condensed treatise is ideal for the strategist, political adviser, or politician on-the-go.

The author spends a fair amount of time in the front matter qualifying his work with plenty of caveats to ensure that the reader fully understands that, although the book contains generally accepted truths, exceptions do occur. For example, in the introduction, he describes the study as “a work of exposition and explanation, not of argument,” in which he intends to “argue for [the maxims’] significance, but not for their veracity” (p. xiii). Additionally, Gray explains that he has carefully chosen a quotation to begin and end each essay/maxim, a revelation that may lead some readers to expect a book full of watered-down platitudes. To Gray’s credit, however, many of his maxims make bold assertions that delighted this reader.

Consisting of five parts, the book offers short essays/maxims, each only a few pages long, making for fast, easy reading. Part 1, “War and Peace,” includes 10 maxims or chapters of a strategic, historical nature, in which Gray notes the symbiotic nature of war and peace: if one is at war, peace follows, and vice versa. For example, in “The Contexts of War Are All Important,” he enumerates seven such contexts—political, social-cultural, economic, technological, military-strategic, geopolitical and geostrategic, and historical—which one can use to describe every war because, as every strategist knows, context matters.

Part 2, “Strategy,” begins with Gray’s “most important” maxim, “Knowledge of Strategy Is Vital: The Flame of Strategic Understanding Has to Be Kept Lit.” He brilliantly defends the study of strategy and conveys its indispensability in all endeavors, making distinctions between strategists as executives, or practitioners, and strategists as theorists. Gray insists that both are necessary to our understanding of the field. He also mentions, quite unassumingly, the rarity of excellence in strategy, which perhaps explains why we expend so much effort on that quest. Maxim 14 is worth mentioning here: “If Thucydides, Sun-tzu, and Clausewitz Did Not Say It, It Probably Is Not Worth Saying.” Truer words on strategy cannot be spoken! But why is it true? The eras in which these three men lived and made their observations on the nature of war were relatively free from the influence of changing technologies. Had Clausewitz lived and written two generations later, he might have been heavily influenced by the results of the industrial revolution and the effect of technology on the battlefield, factors that probably would have tarnished his otherwise timeless discourse.

“Military Power and Warfare,” part 3, pivots on the most important facets influencing the outcomes of war. Such maxims as “People Matter Most,” “Military Excellence Can Only Be Verified by Performance in War,” and “Victory in Battle Does Not Ensure Strategic or Political Success, but Defeat All But Guarantees Failure” appear to state the obvious, but that’s just the appeal Gray wishes to draw on. Within each essay, the reader will find a well-written and evidentiary-based line of sound logic.

The author delves into the realm of human nature and decision making in part 4, “Security and Insecurity.” This set of essays, which offers character sketches of strategy power players (thugs, villains, and rogues among them), bluffs, threats, and strategic risk taking, describes the difficulty of determining the intent of potential adversaries. In this part, Gray includes one of the most controversial but compelling of his maxims: “Arms Can Be Controlled, but Not by Arms Control.” In its two-and-a-half pages, he makes the impassioned plea that countless hours and finances have been wasted on the idea that arms control is a worthy pursuit and declares that “the logic of the theory was wrong” (p. 143).

Finally, in part 5, “History and the Future,” Gray summarizes his lifetime of studying strategy in maxim 36 “Nothing of Real Importance Changes: Modern History Is Not Modern.” He bookends this essay with carefully selected quotations by Robert Kaplan and Eliot Cohen to bolster his own view. Especially interesting is an observation in maxim 38 (“The Future Is Not Foreseeable: Nothing Dates So Rapidly as Today’s Tomorrow”), which makes the bold claim that “the conviction that future warfare will be irregular rests upon nothing much more solid than the expedient and comforting assumption that tomorrow will be like today only more so” (p. 156). This is why the field and study of strategy is so important, both for the practitioner and the theorist.

Very few strategists of Dr. Gray’s stature could compose such a work as this, yet communicate with assured clarity, confidence, and credibility. I commend Fighting Talk to strategists of all kinds and experience.

Col Chad T. Manske, USAF

RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom

"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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