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Wylie’s Military Strategy

 by J. Scott Shipman


Military Strategy, by Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie, Jr., USN (1911-1993)

This is a very brief review and recommendation for a book that I discovered recently. Admiral Wylie’s short Military Strategy (about 85 pages in the original edition) was published in 1967, but written in the mid-fifties while Wylie was “at sea in a single-screw low-speed amphibious cargo ship.” He remarked these ships were “not demanding  of a captain’s attention as is, for instance, a destroyer.”My copy was published in 1989 by the  Naval Institute Press  as part of their Classics of Seapower series and has an excellent preface by John B. Hattendorf that will give those unfamiliar with Wylie’s life experience a good foundation. This copy also has a postscript written by Wylie “twenty years later” and three related essays published previously in Proceedings magazine.

Given Military Strategy’s brevity, I’ll resist the urge to provide long quotes. Wylie and an associate’s search for articulating the relevance of the navy in the never-ending budget battles brought them in contact with the famed mathematician John von Neumann of Princeton. Wylie used a paraphrase of von Neumann as a starting point: “With respect to strategy as a subject of study, its intellectual framework is not clearly outlined, and its vocabulary is almost nonexistent. These two primary tasks are badly in need of doing…” He sets out to do just that and does a nice job.

Wylie defines strategy as: “A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.” He discusses the military mind and strategy, and how often the military focuses on principles to the exclusion of real strategy. Wylie outlines methods of studying strategy that are simple and well thought-out. Wylie makes a compelling case for a general theory of strategy. He says: “A theory is simply an idea designed to account for actuality or to account for what the theorist thinks will come to pass in actuality. It is orderly rationalization of real or presumed patterns of events.” Further, he continually stresses the importance of assumptions being based in reality, and not wishful thinking or the last war/battle.

His chapter on existing theories is worth the price of the book. He provides a type of Cliff’s Notes overview of the four theories he sees as core: the maritime, the air, the continental, and the Maoist. Of the last, he masterfully lifted sections from Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare, Che Guevera on Guerilla Warfare, and Vo Ngugen Giap’s People’s War People’s Army. He observed of the later, “these books are not only theory, the portray a hard reality of contemporary warfare.” To our people in uniform, in particular, unfamiliar with these books, Wylie provides an accessible and informative introduction to the type of war being waged by Islamic jihadists and how they attempt shape the battle field.

He develops a brilliant point that destruction doesn’t necessarily translate into control, and that often destruction is driven more by emotion than strategy.

Wylie goes on to provide a general theory of strategy that, using his words, has “substance and validity, and practicality.” As Seydlitz89 said in a recent comment thread here: “Wylie is amazing.  So many ideas in such a small book!  He misread Clausewitz and overrated Liddell Hart – which are probably connected, but overall?  He comes up with some very basic ideas about strategic theory which are ever sooooo useful.  I’ve re-read his small book several times and always come up with something that either I’d forgotten or that I had missed earlier.  Wylie’s basic approach to theory is as a practitioner, not as an academic, much like Clausewitz before him.”

Indeed, Wylie provides a nice scaffold for any type of strategy, military or business. For me his approach was refreshing in a genre where, more often than not, dogma and ego walk hand-in-hand.  Time and again, he offers that his ideas may be wrong and encourages readers to think and wrestle with the concepts provided. Wylie writes in his postscript: “As far as I know, no one as ever paid attention to it [the book]. I don’t know whether this is because it is so clear and obviously valid that no one needs to, or because it is of no use at all. I suspect it could be the latter, but I really do not know.”

This little book comes with my highest recommendation. If you’re in uniform and just getting started with strategic concepts/thinking, this is an excellent place to start.

Interesting referenced titles:

Military Concepts and Philosophy, Henry E. Eccles 

The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939, Robin Higham 

An Introduction to Strategy, General Andre Beaufre 

Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, John von Neumann 

Strategy in Poker, Business and War, John McDonald 

11 Responses to “Wylie’s Military Strategy”

  1. seydlitz89 Says:


    Nice post.  One question I’ve had is how is it that Wylie has seemingly a clear knowledge of Julian Corbett, but fails to see the fundamental influence Clausewitz had on Corbett’s whole approach?  Instead, Wylie, most likely again under the influence of Hart, puts Clausewitz into a box and observes that he is not compatible with Mao!  Although Mao considered Clausewitz a great influence, had taught courses on Clausewitz, and Mao (and Lenin) fall clearly within the Clausewitzian school, that is their approaches can fit within the larger Clausewitzian general theory .  .  .

    Just as Wylie comments about how Mahan danced all around a maritime theory of control, "but never put his finger on it", Wylie in turn has a general theory staring him in the face and he never realizes it! 

    Also, I did something on Wylie a while back which you may find of interest . . .


  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Seydlitz, Many thanks! After reading your review, mine is pretty puny:)
    I understand your point about Clausewitz; I too thought he downplayed Clausewitz, too—but perhaps with purpose. He may have been attempting to get his framework from under the specter of On War. In reality, many military guys I know recoil at the thought of reading Clausewitz—and I know only a handful of sailors who have taken the plunge (complete disclosure–I’ve read big chunks, but never read it through).
    I agree that he was attempting to start a dialogue that never happened. His "dichotomous thinking" schema resembles what Robert Leonhard did in his excellent The Principles of War for the Information Age, where Leonhard advocated dialectics as a decision making tool—and gave several good examples. I suspect Wylie will remain on the shelf where I can get to it often—for I agree, his is probably the best of it’s type (that I’ve read) written by an American since Mahan (although, I do admire Brodie’s work dealing with missiles).
    Thanks for this comment and the one I used! Stay cool!

  3. seydlitz89 Says:

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve a Wylie fan, since he does provide some fundamental questions, but at the same time, I have to wonder what he could have come up with if he had noticed that one thing . . .

    Yes, unfortunately hardly anybody – except for you, me, Joseph F, and a few others have bothered to comment on Wylie’s challenge.  Still, I think that Clausewitzians would argue that we do in fact have a general theory.  If they don’t, then they aren’t really "Clausewitzians", simple as that . . .

    Dialectics?  Depends on which dialectic we’re talking about . . . which still seems yet to be resolved.  

    Don’t forget Thomas Schelling, one of Brodie’s pupils . . .  

  4. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Seydlitz, Thanks for the clarification. This review was cross posted over at the US Naval Institute. I’m going to post your excellent and exhaustive review in the comments at that site.
    And, I’ll add Schelling to the list–have heard the name (I think). An dear friend who passed away a couple years ago turned me on to Brodie—I like the way he writes.
    On dialectics, I mean something similar to what Boyd did where he would juxtapose two extremes—like Destruction & Creation and see what fell out.
    If you’ve not read Leonhard, the Principles book is highly recommended—I believe he’s a colleague of Jim Storr who wrote the excellent but wildly expensive, The Human Face of War.

  5. zen Says:

    Ok, you two have convinced me – ordering Wylie! Excellent review, Scott! Congrats on the high profile cross-post at USNI Blog!

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Zen, Many thanks! You can read this book in a couple of sittings. The introduction is very well done, and for once the writer didn’t seem to be settling a score and prejudicing the reader toward his interpretation. I know that you’ve been wrestling with frameworks for sometime, and I’ll bet Wylie’s little book will inspire you with it’s simplicity—it did me, and I’m not a strateegerist:))
    I’m going to monkey around with his framework and see what happens. 

  7. Wylie Roundup « The Committee of Public Safety Says:

    […] Scott Shipman of Fear, Honor, and Interest and Zenpundit fame has written a thoughtful review of J. C. Wylie’s Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power […]

  8. seydlitz89 Says:


    Thanks for adding my post to you USNI thread, that was very kind.

  9. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Seydlitz, you are welcome! I’ve also linked Joseph’s excellent Wylie round up on the USNI site. Many thanks, Joseph!

  10. Joseph Fouche Says:

    @J. Scott Shipman
    You’re welcome. The nation needs more Wylie more of the time.

  11. Will We? | Says:

    […] UN, no matter how much I look askance, provides some service. And our military encourages stability. As for our dollar and industry, it mortars the brick bridges between […]

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