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Best-Laid Plans

by Victor Davis Hanson

Strategy: A History, by Lawrence Freedman (Oxford, 768 pp., $34.95)

Strategy as we know it today is far more than the Greeks’ original and limited notion of strategika, the “things related to the art of generalship.” The latter meant nothing more than troop arrangement (taktika), siegecraft (poliorketika), artillery (belopoiika), and tricks (strategmata). No wonder that, from Onasander’s Strategikos (a first-century manual  on the duties of the general) to the Byzantine Maurice’s late-6th-century Strategika, such “strategic” reading is dull and slow-going.

After the Enlightenment, and particularly in the 19th century, strategy, while understood to have arisen from politics and war, expanded to the larger science of how rational thinking could achieve power and influence in a climate of resistance and uncertainty. By the late 20th century, if everyone had a strategy, from a professor wanting tenure to a Little League coach hoping to advance his son’s baseball future, the goal was still the same: to figure out how to acquire more of something, and then retain your winnings.

In our age, community organizers, social activists, and Wall Street captains of industry have all fancied themselves warrior generals employing “strategies” on their civilian battlefields to get their way with uncertain markets, unsympathetic politicians, or crusty unions. Sir Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King’s College London, is as interested in these “strategists” as he is in generals, and thus further redefines strategy broadly as “getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest.” “It is,” he writes, “the art of creating power.”

In the world of Freedman, almost everything becomes strategic and everyone a strategist of some sort, from a comic dramatist to a CEO to a community organizer. But to paraphrase Frederick the Great, does he who defines strategy as everything risk reducing it to nothing?

In some sense, he does. A theme of Freedman’s wide-ranging inquiries is pessimism about the efficacy of strategy. Even the most brilliant minds with rigidly planned guides to power often underestimate the omnipotence of the unforeseen and coalitions that form out of nowhere to chip away at their seemingly permanent success. They certainly fail to understand that nothing ever quite ends. By June 1941, Hitler had won his intracontinental European war; by June 1942, he was increasingly understood to be losing it. Count up the Gulf wars — 1991, 2003, the insurgency between 2004 and 2009, and the present mess. At what point was removing Saddam from Kuwait a victory? At what point did it become a precursor to later removing him from Iraq — another win, which begat the insurgency, which begat the successful surge, which begat the increasing violence after the recent American exit in toto from Iraq?

Freedman’s monumental survey is arranged in a roughly chronological fashion, ranging from the Old Testament and the Greeks to the Iraq wars and contemporary America. Freedman draws not just on history and political science, but also on fiction, poetry, drama, economics, and business. Indeed, in his conclusion, he focuses more on film than on the great wars or critiques of classical strategists.

He begins with stories from the Bible and Homer to review the well-known dichotomy between guile and muscle (David’s sling versus Goliath’s brawn, and Odysseus’ cunning in antithesis to Achilles’ brute force). He continues this antithesis through references to classics such as Sun Tzu, Paradise Lost, and The Prince, and adroitly concludes that the two poles are not so much antithetical as complementary. While there is no substitute for the use of hard power, the latter works best when used sparingly and decisively. Likewise, it may be easier for the powerful to become tricky than the tricky to become powerful. The U.S. certainly did counterinsurgency in Iraq far better than the Iraqis did conventional warfare.

Freedman might have reminded his readers more forcefully that many of his examples are not historical, but literary. This is an important distinction, and not just in the most obvious sense. Characters may not be simply voicing philosophical observations of the author (or others), but also must conform to the demands of plot, character, and theme. One example: Odysseus, especially in later tragedy, “cheats” by not fighting in the open and in unambiguous fashion, because, as a precursor to the new consensual polis, he represents a multidimensional man with skills that transcend the ossified world of Homer’s aristocracy — and all the odium that those skills incur from traditionalist grandees.

Guile in the West has traditionally been seen as inferior to the use of power in decisive battles. The bowman and slinger are objects of derision even when they nullify traditional Athenian or Spartan power at disasters such as those on Sphakteria or in Aetolia. In early classical Greece, there is winning, and then again wanting to win the right way — which sometimes, tragically, ensures losing.

Freedman does not discuss cultural difference much, but it can explain differing strategic approaches in some of his examples. The Arcadian Aeneas Tacticus wrote at roughly the same time as Sun Tzu, but they remain a world apart culturally. If a besieging captain wished a holistic account of proper temperament, the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang, then he might read the latter. If he just wanted to know how best to go under, through, or over the walls, Aeneas is the better guide.

Twelve chapters in Part II, titled “Strategies of Force,” offer a valuable tour of both historical and abstract traditional military thinking. The usual suspects — Napoleon, Jomini, Clausewitz, von Moltke, Delbrück, Mahan, Liddell Hart, Mao, the nuclear strategists, and the revolution-in-military-affairs bunch — all make their appearances. The net takeaway from their work is rather ironic. The employment of overwhelming state power could often be derailed by insurgents, guerrillas, and terrorists. But these irregulars themselves sought traditional power, and so eventually accepted that to establish and maintain their control they too would have to metamorphose into what they once opposed — by creating conventional military forces that in turn might provoke new insurgencies. Apparently, strategy never sleeps.

In Part III, “Strategy from Below,” Freedman explores in novel fashion how the less powerful — socially, politically, and economically — sought to trump the entrenched. What do Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Lenin, Weber, John Dewey, Gramsci, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Sixties radicals, and political operatives of the past 20 years all have in common? Their shared desire was to galvanize the masses to force concessions and wrest powers from the state. That could be done violently, or through civil disobedience and peaceful protests; it could even be undertaken by elements within the establishment, using existing communications and protocols to focus on more populist messages.

The net result of these forces over the last two centuries in the West has been a sharing of power and broadening of the middle class. Hierarchies of class, race, religion, and gender have blurred, and the redistributive welfare state has grown. Despite formal income inequality and because of technological revolution, there is a sense that the proverbial people have never had it so good. I do not know whether the aim of Marx or Gandhi was to render indistinguishable to the casual observer the Wall Street grandee, with his iPhone, sneakers, and jogging outfit, from the inner-city teen on public assistance, but such superficial equality is now a mark of the times.

The elites, of course, were not idle in enacting their own visions of creating wealth, both collective and personal. In a section titled “Strategy from Above,” Freedman turns to business — Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, Peter Drucker, and the faddish business gurus who currently advise American industrialists. Here Freedman is at his most pessimistic. He is not at all sure that military modes of strategic thinking translate into commerce, noting that, given the capriciousness of the market, there has been no consistent strategic blueprint that overrides the business environment. He concludes that being an enlightened manager means accepting uncertainty, preparing for cyclical downturns, and treating associates and underlings fairly. Common sense and street smarts seem a better prognosticator for success than the preset axioms of gurus.

In a short, final section, “Theories of Strategy,” Freedman suggests that his more than 700 pages of examples and analyses lead to an underwhelming result: “One large conclusion of this book is that such plans struggle to survive their encounters with an awkward reality.” In lieu of such fossilized preplanning, Freedman suggests, “scripts” offer more hope of achieving a goal by assuming that constant improvising and deviation from dogma are necessary to advance along a trajectory, in which even a successful end point inaugurates a new beginning and an entire set of new challenges. Whether even the most careful thinkers can control events depends on a sort of resigned acceptance that success in business or victory in war must invite resistance — and on and on and on.

The text is vast and displays an enormous amount of knowledge, but it can also make for slow reading, whether in its synopses of a Thomas Kuhn or Michel Foucault, or in prose that occasionally turns cumbersome. E.g.: “They noted the complexity of relationships, not only with customers, suppliers, and competitors, but also complements — that is, other players with whom there was a natural cooperative and mutually dependent relationship (for example, hardware and software firms in computing).” And: “When we seek to understand the present it is unwise to assume that things are the way they are solely because strong actors wished them to be thus, but when we look forward to the future we have little choice but to identify a way forward dependent upon human agency which might lead to a good outcome.” Unfortunately, there are few chapter or section summaries that remind the reader of the central themes of these widely different discussions.

Freedman begins his study by quoting Mike Tyson and ends with a discussion of American film director Frank Capra. In between, he has written a vast exploration of strategy that is difficult to read, full of surprises, and marked by unsurpassed erudition. It also is witty and reminds us that he in the world who knows most about strategy may be the one who is the most unimpressed with it.

– Mr. Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the editor of Strategika.

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