[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]
.…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.