Charles Hill on Freedman’s Strategy: A History

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Charles Hill pens a favorable but also fairly critical review of Sir Lawrence Freedman’s tome-like, Strategy: A History.

The snares of strategizing

.…Sir Lawrence Freedman’s 750-page magnum opus, Strategy: A History, is encyclopedic, although not alphabetical, a pleasure to dip into here and there to get a carefully considered summary briefing on the strategy of the Hebrew Bible, the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Jane Addams, Black Power, or the strange array of social science attempts to redefine human behavior as a contribution to strategy. Everybody talks about strategy, but no one seems to know what it is. But now there are no excuses; it’s all here, at least in chronological array. As with my childhood set of Compton’s, I read it straight through for its several-thousand-years’-long narrative arc; it only remains to try to make sense of the whole thing as one big idea.

Freedman begins by admitting that there is no agreed-upon definition of strategy. When one encounters the word applied to battle plans, political campaigns, and business deals, “not to mention means of coping with the stresses of everyday life,” the concept may begin to seem meaningless. But not so for Sir Lawrence, a most distinguished professor of war studies at King’s College, London, who unapologetically focuses his modern section on American approaches because “the United States has been not only the most powerful but also the most intellectually innovative country in recent times.”

The “origins” of strategy run from David and Goliath to Machiavelli to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a vast stretch of time covered, for this big book, in a relatively short space, as though the author is hurrying to get to strategy in our modern age. All the old warhorses are here. Thucydides is analyzed as the start of “real” strategy and the distortions of language as a cause of Athens’ fall is featured. Plato’s Republic is taken seriously as a “strategic coup” by which philosophy defeats strategy. (I am one of those who read Plato’s Socrates as ironic, playing along with an overnight concoction of a perfect polity—which turns out horribly—as the most effective way of showing us what not to do when thinking strategically.) Sun Tzu is properly portrayed not so much as a strategist as a master of stratagems, a subset of the art in full: To do the opposite of what is expected is not enough to qualify as strategy. Overall, the centuries of “Origins” analyzed here could be characterized as “a series of footnotes to Homer,” a running debate between advocates of force (Achilles) and those who prefer guile (Odysseus). The Trojan Horse was guile personified; it worked, but thereafter could be scorned as a despicable trick unworthy of heroes. The strategic approach of Milton’s Satan to his own demonic team, as well as toward Adam and Eve, was all seductive guile and still seems to be working….

The book comes across as being rather unwieldy in size, scope and definition of strategy, though informative. I disagree with Hill’s interpretation of Sun Tzu as well as Plato ( Socrates was an ironist, Plato? Well, he wandered quite far from his master’s teachings in the fullness of time). Nevertheless, worth a read.

25 comments on this post.
  1. Lynn C. Rees:

    My current working definition of strategy: “any idea or usage that interferes with doing strategy”

  2. zen:

    LOL! Too often true.
    Another great barrier to excellence in strategy is a lack of sociopathy. 

  3. seydlitz89:

    Hi zen-

    This was a bit of a groaner . . . While I did enjoy reading Charles Hill’s Grand Strategy, I found this review probably accurately dealing with Freedman’s book, but at the same time lacking . . .
    First, there’s his comment on Clausewitz’s “muddled textual way” in dealing with Napoleon’s campaign of 1812.  Clausewitz was a participant on the Russian side and obviously had much to say about what was the greatest campaign in history up to that point.  He brings up the campaign numerous times in On War, not to mention his book on the campaign of 1812 . . . he was also addressing an audience who had experienced that campaign in different ways . . . “muddled”?  Any more than Charles Hill’s treatment of recent history?  I think not!  More on that below . . .
    Second, there is the comment on Niebuhr’s “rejection of non-violence”.  Is it referring to Freedman’s view or his own?  Niebuhr’s argument in Moral Man and Immoral Society is actually quite nuanced.  He doesn’t actually reject non-violence, but rather argues that non-violence in fact involves “punishment” or coercion in the economic sphere, that is “violence” against the oppressor . . . MLK was well aware of this as I have argued in the past.  Between Niebuhr and MLK there’s not much difference . . .
    Third, no mention of Clausewitz’s general theory of war which would form the basis of Clausewitzian strategic theory . . . BIG bust for Hill and Freedman too if that is the case.  This provides the boundaries for what we know in strategic theory terms as “strategy”.  Without this we could be talking about almost anything which is seemingly what Freedman is doing . . . so why bother, from a Clausewitzian perspective . . .
    Fourth and finally, there’s the Max Weber reference to his “sociology” which could “sharpen strategy by showing how certain means might work or why certain ends were beyond reach”.  Actually I agree with this statement, but I question what Freedman and/or Hill sees as Weber’s “sociology”.  Is it the run of the mill view of Weber as a “founder” of what is taken today as “sociology”?  Or is it based on Weber’s actual approach, which is very specific (and very compatible with both Clausewitz and Niebuhr)?  I recommend Liah Greenfield’s great essay on “Nationalism and the Modern Economy: Communing with the Spirit of Max Weber”, Max Weber Studies, Vol 5.2, July 2005.     

  4. Charles Cameron:

    Hi Seydlitz:
    Is there anywhere online that I can read your comments on Neibuhr & MLK?  I don’t know nearly enough about either of them, and know I should somehow find the time to do so.  Ah, old age setting in for me, late autumn at least!

  5. zen:

    Second, there is the comment on Niebuhr’s “rejection of non-violence”.  Is it referring to Freedman’s view or his own?  
    I had a lot of trouble with that point – and many others – distinguishing Hill paraphrasing Freedman’s view from Hill’s opinion of it. There seems to be too much breadth in the book as well as in this review. Intellectual history and philosophy are a good context to understand strategy in historical periods, but even with my fairly broad conception of strategy, it is different from building elaborate philosophic theoretic systems of political economy, though these can inform strategy in terms of politics, policy and ends

  6. T. Greer:

    I struggle with presentations of strategic thought go something like this:
    Machiavelli and the Renaissance
    Sunzi is not pat of that continuity. Is the goal is to be inclusive just throwing in Sunzi doesn’t cut it – Sunzi was but one in a centuries long war of words to find correct strategic principles. Those voices need to be heard. Now if you are presenting a history of Western strategic thought, then you have the right to keep the Chinese out – but then keep Sunzi out as well. But for someone to write a book on strategy with so universal a scope that Lee Atwater gets in and then still deny the Legalists their spot at the table – it is utterly appalling. 

  7. seydlitz89:

    There’s this concerning MLK as strategist . . .
    I had a long back and forth with IJ about publishing an expanded version of this post, but in the end they rejected the idea saying that what MLK did “wasn’t really strategy” . . . oh well.  Some day . . .  

  8. Lawrence Freedman:

    Weird reading opinions of my book by people who haven’t read it.

  9. Lynn C. Rees:

    Weird? You must be new to this whole Internet thing.

  10. zen:

    Welcome Professor Freedman,
    No, I have not read it yet. This was a post about Charles Hill’s review of your book which caught my attention because I had enjoyed reading his Grand Strategies.  Hill’s review may not have done justice to your book as it left both Seydlitz, who is a retired officer well read in strategic studies, as well as myself unclear in places.  You have a fair complaint that one review is not a substitute for reading the actual book in making an assessment of it.
    I have another strat book that I am reading to write a review for Pragati magazine this month, but when I am finished I will read Strategy: A History  and see for myself

  11. J.ScottShipman:

    Professor Freedman, For what it’s worth, I ordered a copy this afternoon—because of this review.

  12. seydlitz89:

    Professor Freedman-
    First off, I’m not a “retired officer”, but a former US military intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the last decade of the Cold War.  So, didn’t have the option of retiring since experts on the East German Army were no longer needed by the mid 1990s.  Just to clear that up.
    My comments were regarding Charles Hill’s review of your book, not directly your book at all.  Still his review brought up many questions.  The first basic question for me would be does “strategy” in your view include the individual, or does it only refer to collectives?  The second would refer to the general theory . . .  

  13. Lawrence Freedman:

    Thanks everyone. I actually thought the Hill review was positive and fair – he did say he liked the book and he had clearly read it but perhaps in conveying the range of topics I cover he did give the impression that it was bit chaotic.

    It is an idiosyncratic book, which is essentially the history of the idea of strategy in all it’s aspects. For this reason it is about the relationship of theory to practice, and for that reason looks at some diverse theories. I can’t imagine anybody else picking the same topics and themes as I did – although the old favourites are there – so some might well think it eccentric. It looks at all types of strategy – individual and collective – bad and good. I think a distinctive approach to strategy does emerge but the book is not just to promote that view.

    I have been doing a number of talks in US and I suspect some will appear on You Tube so you can get some idea of my approach from those.

    I am of course aware that people comment on all sorts of stuff without reading but having visited this site in the past I would genuinely welcome engagement. I say at the start that my approach to the literature is critical but respectful and I am quite happy to have that back in return.

  14. Charles Cameron:

    Professor Freedman:

    I am the least strategically minded of the bloggers here — my remit generally concerns the various theologies in play, and hence issues of motivation and morale, rather than the military side of things — but I’m happy to note that you’ve read here on occasion, and appreciate your taking the time to join us.  
    I am not very knowledgeable in matters of strategy, as I’ve said — but another keen interest we have here is in the nature of original insights & “creative” thinking.  Your description of your book as idiosyncratic and personal enough that you “can’t imagine anybody else picking the same topics and themes as I did” catches my eye and attention more surely than any blurb could!
    In any case, thank you again for visiting us, and I trust that the critical and respectful exchanges of which you speak will continue.


  15. zen:

    Seydlitz – Sorry, at least I had the “well read” part correct 😉
    Professor Freedman – idiosyncratic is good. There’s much that can be said with a lifetime of reading and thinking that could not be said by following the received way of doing things. Very glad to have you here!

  16. Madhu:

    From the Chicago Council on Global Affairs:
    Sir Lawrence Freedman, Professor of War Studies, and Vice-Principal, King’s College London
    What do modern military and corporate strategy have in common with Achilles, Sun Tzu, and primates? The answer is fluidity, flexibility, and pure unpredictability. Every day we make decisions that are built on our theory of what will give us the outcome we want. Sir Lawrence Freedman proposes that throughout history strategy has very rarely gone as planned, and that constant evaluation is necessary to achieve success—even today. Join The Chicago Council for a centuries-spanning discussion explaining how the world’s greatest minds navigate toward success.”
    At the Chicago Club, Nov. 8.
    I should post an announcement on Chicagoboyz when I get a chance.

  17. Madhu:

    To second J. Scott’s comment, I order a fair number of books based on the discussion here. I rarely pay attention to “good” or “bad” reviews, but mostly to whether the book seems interesting to me. Not being in the field, I would never have ordered many of the books that I do were it not for zenpundit and cobloggers.
    Which reminds me, I need to order an Echevarria book…. 

  18. Charles Cameron:

    Thanks for pointing us to the Chicago Club event, Madhu! 

  19. Lawrence Freedman:

    I won’t do this every time but here is another and even more positive review

  20. Charles Cameron:

    War on the Rocks we appreciate here on Zenpundit! Thanks.

  21. Charles Cameron:

    Prof. Freedman:

    Freedman sets up Achilles and Odysseus as two poles in one the book’s key themes.  Achilles represents force and Odysseus represents guile.  

    The same polarity, I sense, is present in the myth that Joseph Campbell said was the core myth of the Americas, that of the twin heroes known in their Navajo incarnations as Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water.
    Campbell’s book of the Navajo war ceremonial which recounts that myth, Where the Two Came to Their Father, was the first volume in the Bollingen series, and most magnificent with its 18 wonderful silkscreen plates of the rite’s sandpaintings:

    It was this rite or “sing” that was used to prepare Navajo soldiers to fight in World War II.

  22. david ronfeldt:

    in the spirit of lynn’s amusing oct 4 comment, i managed at least to browse the final chapter via amazon’s site, and i’m delighted to see that it emphasizes the roles of strategic narratives / stories /scripts.  very important in my view, consistent with work arquilla and i did about an emerging information-age approach to strategy that we called noopolitik (or noospolitik, à la the noosphere).  in essence, we said, noopolitik is about whose story wins. 
    freedman’s is the first book on strategy writ large that i have seen conclude in a similar vein.  it offers new insights, esp. about what he identifies as system 1 and system 2 modes of working on strategy.  which might appeal especially to you, charles.

  23. Charles Cameron:

    Thanks, David.
    The section on Systems 1 & 2 does indeed appeal to me, and will make a very helpful reference in a presentation that’s been sitting in front of me for weeks, needing to be written but constantly postponed!

  24. J. Scott Shipman:

    Spent about an hour this afternoon with Freedman’s book and I suspect most of our readership will find the work of great benefit—actually had a hard time putting it down.

  25. Dan OConnor:

    Scott et al;

    I concure with your assessment of Oct 8th.  It is interesting and a fresh perspective that one should endeavor to get through.  While it is a dense material, it is a perspective both on the history of and the overused aphorism of “strategy”.  One could speculate that capturing the essence of strategy as being flexibility, an idea, or direction.  

    I am almost through it and have found the perspective Dr. Freedman has presented as thought provoking and interesting reading.  It has a message worth pursuing and at least exploring in terms of future operations, economics, brute force, and guile.