Strategy: A History

  • Published

Strategy: A History by Sir Lawrence Freedman, Oxford University Press, 2013, 751 pp.

Everyone is a strategist, and everyone has a strategy. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen Mark Milley, US Army, has a strategy to deter Russia. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has a strategy to dominate online retail. And I have a strategy to complete this book review. But as my arms tire under the weight of Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman’s 700-plus page magnum opus, Strategy: A History, I discover through exploratory learning one of strategy’s critical lessons: nothing goes perfectly according to plan.

Freedman is eminently qualified to undertake this massive project. His honorifics, from professor emeritus at King’s College London where he headed the War Studies Department for several decades to his investiture as Knight Commander in the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, would take an additional page to list. He is best known for his official histories of the Falklands campaign and his books on nuclear deterrence.

In Strategy, the reader finds the most complete survey of strategy in all of its aspects: from primitive to modern, war to business, and everything in between. Freedman starts with the origins of strategy. Unwilling to content himself with an etymology lesson on the Greek strategos, Freedman instead looks to our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, and their complex social interactions that involve coalition building, deception, power struggles, and other strategic behaviors. From this jumping-off point, he examines military strategy from Sun Tzu to the nuclear revolution. After exhausting military strategy, including an insightful chapter on nuclear deterrence drawing from his incredible scholarship on the topic, Freedman explores political strategies and closes the book with an examination of the new, but booming, field of business strategy.

Freedman’s analysis of strategic classics like Carl von Clausewitz is thorough, but where he shines is in the elucidation of the nonobvious. Freedman brings in works rarely considered and evaluates them as strategic texts. His analysis of the Hebrew Bible as a strategic text draws from Talmudic and Biblical scholarship and presents God as a “superlative strategist.” The Exodus story is retold as a detailed description of strategic coercion with increasing pressure (on Pharaoh) and increasing demands (from Moses). Freedman glances over the Israelites’ many trials and battles to come to a basic strategic theory for the Hebrew Bible: obedience to God is the best strategic choice. But this does not necessarily equate the moral choice to the best strategic choice. Freedman richly discusses all of the times that trickery or deception is a necessary component of God’s strategy. Later, as is only fair, Freedman pulls in another unusual text to discuss Satan’s strategy in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

These texts show the incredible overlap between Western and Eastern strategic thought. Courses on military strategy within professional military education (like the Defense Strategy Course taught at the Army War College) and civilian schools (like Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program or King’s College London’s War Studies Department) often stress the difference between Western and Eastern theories. Western approaches forming around Clausewitz, Jomini, Mahan, and others exemplify a predilection for decisive engagement and de-emphasis of—sometimes disdain for—deception. Eastern theories forming around Sun Tzu and Mao are taught as just the opposite, with deceit and nonbattle strategies taking priority over the destruction of what the West would dub centers of gravity like armies or cities. Freedman’s look into texts like Paradise Lost and the Hebrew Bible show that deception is well-grounded in Western theory, and a brief look at the bloody battles in the Far East equally debunk an Eastern aversion to decisive battles.

Besides his exhaustive research and analysis of many facets of strategy (military, political, and business), Freedman takes a chapter in the middle of his book to debunk a widely held myth: the master strategist. Modern scholars like Colin Gray (author of Modern Strategy) and wishful practitioners like the US Army War College’s Harry Yarger claim strategic thinking is a holistic encapsulation of parts and relationships, affecting each other with first-, second-, and nth-order effects ad infinitum. The master strategist, in their view, has to have an incredible intellect, enormous dedication to professionalism, and an inexhaustible thirst for learning. Using these traits, the “master” could find critical vulnerabilities wherein a strike or stratagem would reverberate throughout the entire (well-understood) system of interconnected parts, and the master would achieve victory. Freedman warns us to reject this naïve notion for several reasons. First, no intellect (human or artificial) could exist that could understand every interconnected dynamic and closely monitor their linkages. And second, it supposes a rigidity wherein societies, armies, or people cannot adapt or adjust to outside pressures. As a historian, first and foremost, Freedman sees value in looking back and analyzing how and why events took place. Still, he warns it is altogether a different matter for forward-looking strategy. He unrolls this thread with his subsequent book, The Future of War: A History.

All considered, though billed as a history, Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman’s magnum opus, Strategy: A History, makes a profound and unique impact on the fields of military, political, and business strategy, connecting and enhancing them. Any strategist’s bookshelf without this book is woefully incomplete.

­­MAJ Paul M. Kearney, USA
Associate Editor, Georgetown Security Studies Review

The opinions and assertions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the US Government, Department of Defense, or US Army.


"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."