Military history


Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.

—Mike Tyson

Everyone needs a strategy. Leaders of armies, major corporations, and political parties have long been expected to have strategies, but now no serious organization could imagine being without one. Despite the problems of finding ways through the uncertainty and confusion of human affairs, a strategic approach is still considered to be preferable to one that is merely tactical, let alone random. Having a strategy suggests an ability to look up from the short term and the trivial to view the long term and the essential, to address causes rather than symptoms, to see woods rather than trees. Without a strategy, facing up to any problem or striving for any objective would be considered negligent. Certainly no military campaign, company investment, or government initiative is likely to receiving backing unless there is a strategy to evaluate. If a decision can be described as strategically significant, then it is obviously more important than decisions of a more routine nature. By extension, people making such decisions are more important than those who only offer advice or are tasked with implementation.

Strategies are now offered not only for the life-or-death, make-or-break decisions of great states and large corporations but also for more mundane matters. There is a call for a strategy every time the path to a given destination is not straightforward or whenever judgments are required on resources needed, their effective application, and their appropriate sequence. In business, chief executives may take responsibility for overall strategy, but there are separate strategies for procurement, marketing, human resources, and so on. Doctors have clinical strategies, lawyers have prosecution strategies, and social workers have counseling strategies. Individuals have their own strategies—for developing a career, coping with bereavement, filling in tax returns, or even potty-training an infant or buying a car. In fact, there is now no human activity so lowly, banal, or intimate that it can reasonably be deprived of a strategy.

For those who want more effective strategies, there are plenty of books offering advice. The multiplicity of audiences shows in the variations of style. Some books rely on a jokey presentation, others on large print or inspirational stories from the successful and victorious. There are learned tomes with graphs and charts detailing many complicated factors to be taken into account. Somewhere between are checklists of activities that, if followed carefully, will at least increase the chances of achieving the right result. There are extended pep talks, encouraging bold thinking and decisive moves and a commitment to victory. These may be no more than collections of clichés, not always consistent, with hints on how to struggle with opponents and bring along prospective allies. Elsewhere there are more philosophical reflections on the paradoxes of conflict and the pitfalls of losing flexibility in the single-minded pursuit of a distant goal. There are even tips on how to be a fantasy strategist while staring at a screen, refighting ancient wars or dominating aliens in imagined universes with complicated rules and extraordinary weapons.

Can the same word apply to battle plans, political campaigning, and business deals—not to mention means of coping with the stresses of everyday life—without becoming meaningless? Columnist Matthew Parris has lamented the ubiquity of the word strategy and the ease with which it becomes attached to any desirable end. He commented on demands for a “growth strategy” in the face of a stagnant and indebted economy but wondered who would claim a “rain strategy” as an answer to drought. “Every sinner needs a virtue strategy. Every starveling needs a food strategy.” “There exist few modern circumstances,” he observed, “where the removal of the word ‘strategy’ from any passage containing it fails to clarify matters, usually demonstrating the argument’s circularity.”1 Yet strategy remains the best word we have for expressing attempts to think about actions in advance, in the light of our goals and our capacities. It captures a process for which there are no obvious alternative words, although the meaning has become diluted through promiscuous and often inappropriate use. In this respect strategy is not much different from other related words, such as power and politics. While their exact meanings are explored, rarely to a conclusion, in scholarly texts, their adoption in everyday speech tends to be imprecise, loose, and lazy.

There is no agreed-upon definition of strategy that describes the field and limits its boundaries. One common contemporary definition describes it as being about maintaining a balance between ends, ways, and means; about identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives.2 This balance requires not only finding out how to achieve desired ends but also adjusting ends so that realistic ways can be found to meet them by available means. This process can describe the simplest tasks, but when the ends are easily reached, when inanimate objects rather than other people are involved, and when very little is at stake, this barely counts as strategy. By and large, strategy comes into play where there is actual or potential conflict, when interests collide and forms of resolution are required. This is why a strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns. The conflicts can be quite mild, for example, between those within the same organization notionally pursuing the same goals but with distinctive responsibilities. As the quote from boxer Mike Tyson illustrates, a well-aimed blow can thwart the cleverest plan. The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy that should emerge from this book is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.

Strategy is also frequently presented as a duel, a clash of two opposing wills. This reflects the term’s military origins and regular comparisons to a wrestling match. It can also be the result of the simple modeling of conflicts encouraged by game theory with the standard two-by-two matrix. Few situations involving strategy are so simple. A boxer in a ring with Mike Tyson might have few options, but his prospects would improve greatly if it was possible to break the rules and bring in a fellow fighter from outside the ring. As we shall see, combining with others often constitutes the most astute strategic move; for the same reason, preventing opponents from doing the same can be as valuable. A duel is also a bad metaphor because it suggests a fight to the finish with only one winner. Yet conflicts can be resolved through building on shared interests or forging a winning coalition with the next available partner. As both types of moves can require complex negotiations, it may be a challenge to convince natural supporters that the necessary concessions have been worthwhile or prudent. So the realm of strategy is one of bargaining and persuasion as well as threats and pressure, psychological as well as physical effects, and words as well as deeds. This is why strategy is the central political art. It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.

For those who start as powerful, strategy should not be too difficult. The sensible application of superior resources tends to be successful. A famous biblical passage observes “that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”3 The American writer Damon Runyon added, “But that’s the way to bet.” Fighting against superior force may score high on nobility and heroism but normally low on discretion and effectiveness. This is why underdog strategies, in situations where the starting balance of power would predict defeat, provide the real tests of creativity. Such strategies often look to the possibility of success through the application of a superior intelligence, which takes advantage of the boring, ponderous, muscle-bound approach adopted by those who take their superior resources for granted. The exemplars of such an approach are Odysseus but not Achilles, Sun Tzu and Liddell Hart but not Clausewitz and Jomini. They would seek victory at a reasonable cost by means of deceits, ruses, feints, maneuvers, speed, and a quicker wit. There is an undoubted satisfaction by winning through wit rather than brute force. The problems come when opponents turn out to be not only better resourced but also as alert, brave, and clever.

Strategy’s etymology goes back to classical Greek. Through the Middle Ages and into the modern era, however, the relevant reference tended to be to the “art of war.” The sort of issues that later came firmly under the heading of strategy—the value of alliances, the role of battle, the respective merits of force and guile—were firmly in view. The word strategy only began to be used in Britain, France, and Germany in the late eighteenth century, reflecting an Enlightenment optimism that war—like all other spheres of human affairs— could benefit from the application of reason. It also reflected the demands of contemporary warfare, with mass armies and long logistics chains. The employment of force now required careful preparation and theoretical guidance. Before, ends and means might be combined in the mind of the warrior leader, who would be responsible for both the formulation and execution of a strategy. Increasingly, these functions were separated. Governments set objectives they expected the generals to achieve. The generals acquired specialist staffs to devise campaign plans that others would implement.

Given the ease with which military metaphors are taken up in other spheres of activity, including the language of command, it is not surprising that political and business leaders adopted the idea of strategy. References to business strategy were rare before 1960. They started to take off during the 1970s and by 2000 became more frequent than references to military strategy.4 It is through the literature on management and business that the use of the word has spread. As organizations’ plans and policies, at least their most important and far-reaching ones, came to be described as “strategic,” it was not too large a jump for individuals to use the term when considering how best to make professional choices. The social and philosophical movements of the 1960s encouraged the “personal” to become more “political,” potentially introducing strategy into more basic relationships.

Corporations acquired planning staffs which set targets for others to follow. Politicians hired consultants who advised on how to win elections. And then those with experience in these tasks wrote and lectured on the principles of strategy, offering prescriptions that might bring success in potentially diverse settings. The rise of strategy has therefore gone hand in hand with bureaucratization of organizations, professionalization of functions, and growth of the social sciences. It reflected the hope that the specialist study of economics, sociology, politics, and psychology would make possible a more comprehensible and therefore more predictable world, so that all moves could be better informed and judged, tailored more effectively to the circumstances of the moment.

One response to the advance of the strategists was to challenge their presumptions of control and the centralized power structures they encouraged. Strategy has been presented as a conceit and an illusion, a pretense that the affairs of the multitudes can be manipulated from above by an elite. Instead of the deliberate decisions of a few, critics pointed to the countless moves of innumerable individuals, unable to see the big picture yet coping as well as they can in the circumstances, leading to outcomes that nobody had intended or even desired. This critique has encouraged demands for decentralized decision-making and empowered individuals. In turn, this encouraged strategy as a more personal response to the vicissitudes of everyday life.

This book describes the development of these different approaches, from rigorous centralized planning processes at one extreme to the sum of numerous individual decisions at the other. It shows how in these distinct military, political, and business spheres, there has been a degree of convergence around the idea that the best strategic practice may now consist in forming compelling accounts of how to turn a developing situation into a desirable outcome. The practice of thinking of strategy as a special sort of narrative came into vogue as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, and disillusion set in with the idea that large enterprises and even wars could be controlled by means of a central plan. Developments in cognitive psychology and contemporary philosophy came together to stress the importance of the constructs through which events are interpreted.

As a history, this book aims to provide an account of the development of the most prominent themes in strategic theory—as they affect war, politics, and business—without losing sight of the critics and dissidents. Readers might be surprised by some of the characters that appear, and by chapters that barely seem to mention strategy at all. This is because of the importance of the theories that set the terms for strategy. These establish the problems the strategists must address and the circumstances in which they operate, as well as their forms of political and social action. The result is that this book is not so much about planning for conflict or the application of practical intelligence to forms of uncertainty but rather about relationships between theory and practice, and indeed theories as a form of practice. Strategy provides a way into a whole range of discourses: abstract formulations of what it means to act rationally and postmodern musings on domination and resistance; propositions on causation and insights into the working of the human brain; and practical advice on how best to catch enemies in battle, undermine rivals in elections, and launch a new product into the market. Strategists have addressed the efficiency of various forms of coercion as well as inducements, human nature under stress, the organization of large groups of people on the move, negotiating techniques, visions of a good society, and standards of ethical conduct.

The approach I have adopted here does not follow any particular school of social science. In fact, I have sought to show how the ascent of certain schools can be explained by academic strategies. Toward the end I develop the idea of strategic scripts as a way of thinking about strategy as a story told in the future tense. I believe this follows from the lines of analysis developed during the course of the book, but I hope readers enjoy the history even if they do not accept the analysis. What fascinates me about strategy is that it is about choice and because these choices can be important the reasoning behind them is worthy of careful examination. It is about decisions that matter to those making them, dealing with personal advancement and group survival, but also views and values that are deeply held, businesses that affect the livelihoods of many, the opportunity to shape a nation’s future course. To study strategy in this way is potentially subversive of those forms of social science which must control for the random and the disorderly, the anomalous and paradoxical, the exceptional and eccentric as awkward outliers. With strategy, these cases must be given special attention precisely because the actors have challenged expectations by either falling short or beating the odds. This might not make for great deductive theory, but it can allow the student to appreciate the thrill and drama of some of the most challenging forms of decision-making without worrying about mathematical proofs.

To keep the topic manageable I have focused largely on Western thinking about strategy, and for recent times, I have particularly examined American approaches. Because I wanted to link the main themes in the book with developments in broader political and social theory, greater geographical comprehensiveness would have been impossible. I fully understand that different cultures would yield different insights, but the United States has been not only the most powerful but also the most intellectually innovative country in recent times. In classical times Athens set the pace; in the late nineteenth century it was Germany. The advantage of staying within the bounds of Western culture is that it is possible to draw out the influences and the shared themes over time and across apparently different areas of activity. Selectivity has also been essential. I touch on the classic texts—the writers to whom regular reference is made—and those now forgotten (often deservedly so) who made an impact in their time. I have also sought to put trends and tendencies in strategic thinking in context. To keep the discussion grounded I have kept in mind Raymond Aron’s observation about how strategic thought “draws its inspiration from each century, or rather at each moment of history, from the problems which events themselves pose.”5 To make sense of the key theorists, and to provide a critical edge, it is important to consider the events to which these thinkers were responding. One does not, however, need to go as far as George Orwell who, reviewing a book on strategy, observed that “there is something unsatisfactory in tracing an historical change to an individual theorist, because a theory does not gain ground unless material conditions favor it.”6 The history of ideas is fascinating in part because ideas developed in one context live on and take on new meanings in another.

As a theme of this book is the growing importance of stories as a means of thinking about and communicating strategies, I have tried to show where the most important strategic stories came from, the intent behind their construction, and how their meanings were changed over time. In keeping with this narrative theme I have also used a number of examples from literature— including the Bible, Homer, Milton, and Tolstoy—to illuminate core issues and the treatment of strategic behavior.

The book begins by treating the “prehistory” of strategy, addressing the two major sources of the Western cultural tradition—the Hebrew Bible and the great texts of the classical Greeks—and authors who have been most enduring in their influence—Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli. The first main section of the book looks at military strategy. The second section is concerned with political strategy, particularly efforts on behalf of underdogs. The third section considers the development of strategies for managers of large organizations, especially businesses. This section is the shortest, but only because it covers half a century of literature rather than two centuries. The last section considers the contemporary contribution of the social sciences and seeks to draw the main themes together.

Research for this book has taken me into unfamiliar territory. It has proved to be an opportunity to explore issues dimly remembered from undergraduate days and many that had previously passed me by. I was taught in political theory to read the original texts and not just the commentaries, and I have tried to do so, but it would be misleading to suggest that I have not relied extensively on the interpretations of others. I have drawn—I hope with full attribution—from the insights and ideas of a wide range of specialists. Part of the enjoyment of writing this book has come from my exposure to some wonderful scholarship, in social science and fields supposedly distant from my own. Despite the best efforts of colleagues I have undoubtedly overreached in a number of areas. Nonetheless, the exercise has reinforced my conviction that academics worry too much about making a good impression within their own disciplinary boundaries while not paying enough attention to what is going on beyond them. While the stance is often critical, I hope it is not disrespectful. These are issues worth arguing about and I look forward to those who feel that I have missed significant points arguing back.

My own expertise and the origins of the subject mean that much of the book is concerned with war, but I have also sought to do justice to revolutionary, electoral, and business strategies and explore how they have influenced each other. I have no practical experience of war, although I have met many warriors. I was very politically active as a student and engaged in many energetic debates about reform, revolution, and violence. In later years, while at King’s College London, I have had a variety of managerial roles for some three decades (even ending up with “strategy” in my title). In this respect, I have in my time tried to think strategically as well as think about strategy.



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