Masters of War: History's Greatest Strategic Thinkers

  • Published
Masters of War: History's Greatest Strategic Thinkers by Professor Andrew R. Wilson. US Naval War College, 2012, 193 pp.

The Masters of War video lecture series is intended to introduce the amateur to the classics of military strategic thought. Professor Andrew Wilson effectively surveys the thinkers, ideas, and historical contexts in which the ideas developed. Covering a broad range of prominent strategic thinkers from Thucydides and Sun Tzu to the contemporary counterinsurgency warfare theorists who designed the 2007 surge in Iraq, Professor Wilson presents the theories and their application through the ages. An analysis of any course must include consideration of at least the following aspects: the expertise of the professor, the appropriateness of the breadth and depth of the material, and the methods of research and presentation.

Professor Wilson's demonstrated expertise in his subject matter and his polished presentation are a testament to the high-quality faculty one expects at the US Naval War College. If Professor Wilson can be considered an accurate representation of his peers at his institution, then the education of the Navy's future senior leaders is in good hands.

The professor's course offers considerable breadth, which includes both welcome surprises and regrettable omissions. The primary surprise is the inclusion of French counterinsurgency theorist Roger Trinquier. In many courses, Trinquier is ignored in favor of his countryman David Galula because of the former's association with torture and its use in counterinsurgencies for tactical intelligence. Ignoring Trinquier is to the student's peril, not because torture should be tolerated, because it should not. Understanding the argument in torture's favor allows the military and intelligence professional to advocate for the ethical treatment of prisoners without ignoring the need for effective interrogation techniques to gather the necessary intelligence for tactical success in counterinsurgency warfare. Consequently, the inclusion of Trinquier, while acknowledging the limitations of his theory regarding torture, is an important element of Professor Wilson's course. Unfortunately, some omissions detract from the breadth presented in the course. Specifically, lesser-known/-considered aspects of Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory and the strategic theories of Col John Boyd are conspicuously absent. The former certainly influenced a large portion of the twentieth century and, though ultimately unsuccessful, retain elements useful for understanding in order to counter them should they resurface. Boyd's ideas are often considered only tactical in nature, presented as the observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) loop in its simplest form. In its more complex form, the OODA loop is a strategic theory of how to survive and thrive in a complex environment at all levels of war and deserves inclusion in this course. Another exclusion of modern theorists is Lt Gen David Deptula, USAF, retired, originator of the effects-based approach to operations. Although the value of effects-based thinking is still debated, there can be no question that Deptula's ideas influenced the United States' way of war in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and should be considered for inclusion in any course on military theory. Still, Professor Wilson does provide a broad array of thinkers in his course and covers the universally recognized strategic thinkers in great depth.

The depth provided to the ideas and context in which each strategic thinker developed his thoughts follows the pattern of the generally accepted importance of each thinker to the field. The likes of Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Carl von Clausewitz, and Alfred Thayer Mahan are discussed in considerable depth--in some cases over multiple lessons. In each case, the historical context in which the thinker cultivated his ideas and the ideas themselves are intricately woven together into a tapestry that richly communicates the core theories as well as how and why they evolved. Occasionally, when modern theorists are included, they do not receive the same degree of treatment, sometimes to the point of oversimplification. One example is Col John Warden's theory, commonly referred to as the "five rings." Professor Wilson offers an adequate surface treatment of the theory to whet the appetite; however, he fails to discuss a key element regarding the existence and importance of producing effects on centers of gravity within each of the five rings in order to produce the desired strategic effects. Professor Wilson's perceptive treatment of the classical theorists is admirable, but when a modern theorist warrants inclusion, the theories should be presented in sufficient depth to offer the student the opportunity for equivalent comparison as a means of understanding how the modern theorist fits into the field of strategic theory.

Professor Wilson's approach to teaching the course features the historical method. His lectures, both individually and collectively, offer an excellent example of how to employ this method in the classroom. It is also a limitation of this course. The study of war and of strategy in war demands more than a study of history. Effectively evaluating strategy and strategic theory calls for historical, comparative, and quantitative methods. The construct of this course may constrain its students into a mind-set that only the historical method is of value to the study of strategy and strategic theory. Fortunately, we have other examples to follow, such as Dr. Stephen Biddle's Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton University Press, 2004), that will expand our thinking outside the confines of the historical method. The latter is important, but it is only one of many ways of studying strategy and strategic thinking. A lesser observation, but worth mentioning, is that the method of delivering information in the video series primarily consists of Professor Wilson speaking in a room filled with historical artifacts. On occasion the sameness of the lectures' visual presentation weighs on the student. Perhaps the presentations could be augmented more frequently with the use of either maps depicting key elements of battles used as case studies or videos illustrating the historical events discussed in the lecture. Given that high-budget production is rare in academic video series, this minor critique may be a high hurdle to clear. Overall, the methods of analysis and presentation are effective, based on the intended procedure. The primary point of this critique is that the topic is better served with a broader methodological approach.

Despite this review's suggestions for improvement, the cumulative effect of the lectures is a positive one, and they achieve the stated intent of introducing students to the broad array of strategic theory and its importance to the study of war. Perhaps this idea is captured best in the concluding lecture during which Professor Wilson effectively closes the loop on the importance of studying strategic thought for the senior military leader. He emphasizes the necessity of connecting the strategy bridge from the arena comfortable for the military professional (operational and tactical levels of war) to the less familiar strategic level. The latter requires a better understanding and ability to operate in the political arena to effectively connect political objectives to tactical military action and synchronize that action with the other instruments of national power.

Lt Col Michael Martindale, PhD, USAF
Pakistan Air Force Base Mushaf

"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."