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New Article at Pragati: Review of Strategy: A History

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Strategy: A History by Sir Lawrence Freedman

I have a new article up at Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review, a review of Sir Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History:

Always present, ever elusive


Strategy is a fascinating subject. Seemingly always useful, sometimes vital, strategy is attempted by many, done poorly by most and understood well by remarkably few. One of those few is Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College War Studies Department, who has authored one of the most comprehensive books on the historical context of strategy-making ever written. Not content at explaining strategy in warfare or western civilisation from ancient times to modernity, the simply titled Strategy: A History aims to reveal strategy in life in its broadest terms without losing its elusive essence.

It is customary for works on strategic history to have canonical references – Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Napoleon, Clausewitz, Jomini– and Freedman of course does have these, but he has created a massive and protean 629 page richly detailed codex in which also appear such unlikely figures as Eldridge Cleaver, Mutaqda a-Sadr, Satan, Vilfredo Pareto, Edward Bernays, Sumantra Ghoshal, Quakers, the cartoon strip Dilbert and troops of chimpanzees.  Strategy: A History displays an intellectual range of astonishing breadth and texture in clear prose that merits comparison as much with Jacques Barzun’s magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence as it does with famous classic Makers of Modern Strategy edited by Peter Paret.

Read the rest here.

6 Responses to “New Article at Pragati: Review of Strategy: A History”

  1. seydlitz89 Says:


    Glad to see you posting on Pragati, but why no comments allowed?
    This Clausewitzian at least has no problem with your points, except for the one that I brought up with Professor Freedman myself on this blog.
    His response in part was this:
    –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.–
    Individual?  That is where this Clausewitzian parts ways.  There is no such thing as an individual strategy in terms of strategic theory . . . since almost all the concepts deal with political collectives.  I understand that Professor Freedman has been talking about strategy since I was in High School, but that does not change that very basic fact.
    I also wonder if he deals with Reinhold Niebuhr at all . . . ?  If not then maybe he should consider that in the next edition . . . 

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    “There is no such thing as an individual strategy in terms of strategic theory . . . since almost all the concepts deal with political collectives.”

    But doesn’t there have to be one individual in the collective to make it work. In other words, strategy is a point on the other side of a process and it is first expressed by only one individual. The collective in this context is the mass that surrounds that point. 

  3. seydlitz89 Says:

    Actually it takes a whole lot of individuals to make a strategy work, but the strategy belongs to the collective, is defined in terms of the collective.  In terms of strategic theory of course we’re talking about political collectives exclusively . . . Refer to Freedman’s quote above . . . the distinct seems clear enough to me . . . extended to the individual, “strategy” and including “bad and good”, the concept becomes meaningless . . .

  4. zen Says:

    hi Seydlitz
    ”  Glad to see you posting on Pragati, but why no comments allowed?  ” 

    Good question. I do not know why that is, I am fine with comments but the editors are not.
    Having read the book ( there’s a good bit on Max Weber and Niebuhr BTW) I think I would characterize *some* of the *individual* activity as describing not strategy-making but strategic thinking being applied in various degrees to areas of politics, diplomacy, revolution and non-violent conflict and competition even if they cannot be realized as a full-blown strategy in the classically understood sense. He has things to say on the score of strategy not being everything to all people and being an abused concept.  One of Freedman’s points is that strategy is only successful despite our best efforts under the right circumstances, not just with the right actions on our part and that while much of this effort, while it comes to nought (or less than we hope) the attempt is useful because it makes us better prepared to adapt to unfavorable events. 

  5. larrydunbar Says:


    It is probably accurate to say that strategy is literally dead without a political collective, and, like a new dance, strategy starts with the second dancer. So I guess your point is well taken.

  6. seydlitz89 Says:


    Thanks for the review, but somehow I think Freedman tipped his hand on this blog.  “strategy” as confusion . . . 

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