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The best books on Military Strategy

recommended by Antulio Echevarria II

Texts about military strategy take us back into the mists of time but what it is, and what the nature of war is, remains hotly debated. Antulio Echevarria II of the US Army War College talks us through key books, both old and new, on military strategy.

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Antulio Echevarria II

Antulio J. Echevarria II  is the Editor of the US Army War College Quarterly. Prior to that, he was the Director of Research at the US Army War College. He is the author of Clausewitz and Contemporary War, Imagining Future War and After Clausewitz, as well as  several articles on military thinking and contemporary war.

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Antulio Echevarria II

Antulio J. Echevarria II  is the Editor of the US Army War College Quarterly. Prior to that, he was the Director of Research at the US Army War College. He is the author of Clausewitz and Contemporary War, Imagining Future War and After Clausewitz, as well as  several articles on military thinking and contemporary war.

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Dipping into these books in preparation for meeting you today, there seems to be quite a lot of ink devoted to deciding what military strategy is. What is it? I picked up that ‘strategos’ is the ancient Greek word for ‘general.’

Yes, there are a couple of variations of what military strategy is; some say it is the business of the general, or the art of the general, the concern of the general, the things the general needs to be expert at, and so forth. It’s the purview of the general, if you will. Afterwards, many definitions appeared throughout history until we get to a point where the art of strategy is almost synonymous with the art of war.

I would define military strategy as finding the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent and using them to your best advantage in order to get what you want. It requires understanding your opponents—not just what their material capabilities might be, but also their psychology, their habits, what they might be inclined to do or not to do, and what they might want from you.

From all that information, you construct an idea of their strengths and weaknesses with respect to your own. You then use your strengths against their weaknesses as best you can in order to achieve whatever it is you want. Maybe you want to give them enough of a drubbing that they’ll leave you alone, maybe you want to deter them from attempting to harm you in the first place, or maybe you want something more than that. There’s any number of possibilities.

Usually what you get at the end of it all depends on how successful that drubbing was, if it came to that; so, the terms of peace can go up or down depending on the magnitude of the victory or the defeat that occurs in the field or at sea, or, nowadays, in the air, or, one day, in space.

And isn’t it an important part of military strategy, quoting one of the authors you’ve chosen, that you don’t go to war at all? According to Sun Zi [also known as ‘Sun Tzu’ — see note on Chinese names at the bottom of this interview], “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Yes, but there’s a bit of a deliberate hyperbole in that saying. There are lots of theories as to whether or not there was an individual called Sun Zi we can point to, or whether it was a collection of writings by several Chinese masters. There may have been a Sun Zi long ago but, over time, other sayings and aphorisms were added to his works, so that what we have today is an expanded version, a collection of ancient Chinese wisdom, if you will, about waging war. Other scholars say, ‘No, we have some evidence there was indeed an individual by the name of Sun Zi.’

“The nature of politics works against the nature of strategy, in some ways”

Of course, when Sun Zi was writing you had to have a patron. Just like any artist or builder, you had to market yourself as a strategist in order to be put on someone’s payroll. So you had to come across as the best strategist, one who could beat anyone else. You were mindful of the competition, and you tried to be the most attractive candidate. So hyperbole of that type would not have been uncommon.

There’s also just the hook aspect of it, to get the attention of your audience so you can lay out what you really mean. Now all your students are raptly attentive, ready to hear how it is you’re going to beat the opponent without even having a battle.

So Sun Zi’s book is generally published as The Art of War in English. As you say, it’s not clear exactly when it was written, but certainly more than a couple of millennia ago now. I’m intrigued that something so old is still on your list and still relevant.

Well, that’s the thing, it has survived, partly because of the way it was written—as aphorisms or pearls of wisdom regarding how to view strategy or to fight wars. That made it easily transferrable from one historical era to another.

There might be some ambiguities because of language differences, but usually we can address those. The translators will do their best, and other interpreters will provide their own takes. It may not be a perfect representation of what the original wisdom was, but it is flexible enough to be applied, and people go back to it again and again.

It is also seen as something that is diametrically opposed to, or different in character from, Western wisdom about waging war. In fact, there are many similarities, but because it is seen as ‘the other,’ if you will, it is often used as something to balance what the Western way of war is or Western way of strategy might be. It is essential in that sense. It is probably always going to be part of the canon for understanding strategy, doing strategy, or teaching strategy.

Can you give an example of one of those aphorisms that you think is particularly useful today?

The one you cited (“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”) is a perfect one to start with, because so much of strategy requires being in the proper position. All that starts well before a battle.

You can’t guarantee an outcome per se and there’s always an element of chance. But, in any number of areas—not only your military forces, but your diplomatic leverage, the number of allies or coalition partners you might have, the will of your populace at home and to what extent it supports the conflict—you can be in so strong a position as to have the initiative and every card possible in your favour. So that is probably what is really meant by that expression.

The strategist’s job starts well before the battle is ever joined, in other words. You always need to be thinking about how to acquire an advantage, how to achieve leverage over your opponent. That’s a constant struggle because you have to assume your opponent is trying to do the same thing. He or she is moving for positional advantage over you as well, and whoever gets their first has the upper hand.

“Whenever young officers are taught how to plan for operations, they are required to have a deception plan. It becomes a little bit of a joke amongst them, but it gets the point across that they’ve got to think about upsetting the enemy psychologically”

That’s an idea that is still applicable today. We probably don’t do that enough in the West. There are a number of reasons for that. Part of it has to do with the nature of the multilateral institutions, the law of war, what is allowed and what isn’t allowed.

There are restraints on NATO, for instance. Article 5 says that NATO should come to the defence of any NATO member that’s attacked. That’s a very defensive posture. It precludes taking offensive action or moving in an aggressive way to achieve positional advantage over your opponent.

So with the nature of the agreements that we have, we have forfeited some of the things that earlier strategists would have thought of as natural or essential to the successful prosecution of strategy. But we’ve agreed to have those constraints, in some ways. It fits in with our values as a Western society and for the most part we are OK with that. The military isn’t necessarily happy with it, but it has agreed to accept the risks that come with putting those values first.

Do you think, generally, that when governments—like that of the US—have been preparing for wars, they’ve paid enough attention to strategy? There’s lots of people like you who study it, but is enough of that know-how taken into account in the build-up to a war—like in Iraq?

It really depends on the personality of the head of state. In some cases, strategy is paid a great deal of attention to, in other cases it isn’t. Partly that’s because you have to start thinking about your objectives, the ends you want to achieve, before you even begin to deploy your forces.

Ideally, the way we think about strategy in the West is: you first decide what you want to achieve, then you look at the resources you have available to achieve it, and then you develop the ways, the methods you want to use to accomplish what you want.

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Often, the nature of politics being what it is—a struggle over the distribution of power—makes it difficult to establish what the ends really are. The nature of politics works against the nature of strategy, in some ways. Strategists are always saying, ‘Tell me what you want so I can start planning.’ But it is not always possible for an incumbent administration to articulate what it really wants because, if it were to get leaked to the public before the public has been prepared for it, it might cause a stir that could prove counter-productive. That’s why it is so much more difficult, in some ways, to deal with the nature of politics today because the public can be informed of anything almost instantly, especially with social media.

I understand that China’s first emperor, Qinshihuang,—of Terracotta soldier fame—as well as Mao Zedong both took Sun Zi very seriously, is that right? I guess they had more freedom to do whatever he advocated.

Yes, but Mao also took Clausewitz seriously. He agreed that war is essentially born inside the womb of politics, so whatever the political situation is—the particular struggle for power—is going to shape what war looks like. That’s one of the things Clausewitz was trying to say in his very lengthy tome on war. Mao is on record as having said that he agreed with the main principles Clausewitz advanced.

Sun Zi he certainly took seriously, as far as we can tell. He appears to have been an avid reader. He was competing for control of the Communist Party, so he had other rivals within his own party to deal with as well as the Nationalists. Then, the Japanese invaded China in the late 1930s, in the midst of the Chinese civil war.

So he had plenty of competitors, plenty of adversaries to deal with, and the fact that he emerged successfully out of all that suggests he knew something about strategy.

The Art of War is full of aphorisms, but then, when he talks about other things, it does take you back through the millennia. You can almost feel that you’re in a pre-modern China, surrounded by marshes. It is quite evocative I thought, which surprised me. One more quote that jumped out at me. Sun Zi says, “All warfare is based on deception.” Is that true?

Again, this is a little bit of hyperbole. It’s the idea that during the Warring States period, which we believe is the era in which Sun Zi wrote, war was just a brutal clash of not very well trained armies—frontal assaults, lots of casualties, many cities razed. So, to avoid that kind of destruction, he tries to introduce a new approach to strategy, which involves using what the opponent wants to believe about you to your advantage. That’s where deception comes in, pretending to be weak, so as to invite attack and take advantage of your opponent’s aggressiveness.

We still do deception. It is still considered very important today. If you recall the invasion at D-Day during World War II, Patton was used as a decoy. There was a fictitious army in the south of England to keep the Germans preoccupied with the possibility of an invasion at Calais, which is where they wanted to believe the Allied invasion would happen. Instead, the Allies landed at Normandy. So that was deception on a very large scale.

Every campaign plan today is required to have some sort of deception plan built into it. And whenever young officers are taught how to plan for operations, they are required to have a deception plan. It becomes a little bit of a joke amongst them, but it gets the point across that they’ve got to think about upsetting the enemy psychologically.

It’s hard to imagine D-Day being kept secret in the modern area.

Given communications and what they are today, yes it’s hard to image. For example, Ukrainian civilians can take selfies next to Russian armed vehicles as they’re lined up, warming up their engines, or getting ready to go on a road march, and that tells us instantly the grid coordinates of that column.

How in the world can anyone execute a deception plan and keep a straight face about it? Remember the famous expression ‘little green men,’ and the Russians insisted they weren’t really annexing Crimea and trying to take over the Donbass. It was all the work of separatists and irregulars and so forth.

But we were able to take that narrative apart piece by piece, and to reconstruct their command structures. We knew which Russian organisations, which special operating teams, were involved and who was in command. Yes, they were leading some militia folks and irregulars, some gangs and what have you, but there was a regular structure at work too. There was a cadre of well-trained officers and NCOs leading it. We were able to uncover all that.

“The term ‘strategy’ dates from the Greco-Roman period but then it doesn’t come back into vogue until the 18th century or so”

So, how can we—in the age of cyber communications and satellites—execute deception and pull it off? An EMP or electro-magnetic pulse would knock out all communication within a certain radius. You could do that—knock out everything and then make your move. But eventually the lights will come back on.

It is an interesting question, and there are various ways to approach it—one involves the strategic communications your party releases. You can set up a narrative about what you want people to believe you’re doing and make it plausible, and then do something that looks very similar to what you said you were going to do but actually it may be “one off” in order to achieve what you want. It is trickier but it can be done.

Let’s move on to your next book, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. He was a Prussian general who served in the Napoleonic wars. I was about to say he lost, but he didn’t: he just suffered lots of humiliations along the way to the final victory over Napoleon. What does his book say and why does it remain so important?

The key message is that strategic principles that we, as practitioners, might use in war depend on what the nature of war is. Which is where we get to a shifty terrain because there are any number of ideas about what the nature of war is.

His book is set up on the premise that understanding the nature of war makes some principles valid, and some invalid. We have to use our judgement in the application of those principles, so there’s a big emphasis within On War on the use of the commander’s judgement—of exercising that judgement, training that judgement—so you can do better, because there are no absolutes or certainties in the conduct of war. Sometimes it’s almost instinct, but it can be a trained instinct, or a trained judgement that responds as quickly as instinct. That’s one of the things he’s getting at.

The nature of war itself comes down to what the major institutions are that are participating in war, how the military is structured, how well it can operate within the realm of chance and uncertainty. Also, to what extent does the populace support the war? What level of hostility is present or not? What is the role of the populace in the military? Are you talking about citizen soldiers, who might be fired up with their passion for the war? Or might the populace in fact be going the opposite way and be very anti-war?

“Ukrainian civilians can take selfies next to Russian armed vehicles as they’re lined up, warming up their engines, or getting ready to go on a road march, and that tells us instantly the grid coordinates of that column.”

In the United States, in the Vietnam era in the 1960s, there were growing anti-war sentiments, but the White House failed to appreciate the importance of those. It started to lose support for the war right out from underneath its feet. Then Tet came along in 1968. That was almost the nail in the coffin that killed US hopes for any sort of long-term victory. The public support just dried up, the credibility of the White House was lost and so on.

The other element is the government itself. What is the overall purpose? Even if there are specific purposes that are not going to be released to the public, what is it that the government itself wants to achieve? Because if it is just looking for a limited negotiated settlement of some sort like the Korean War—you want to drive the Communists and the North Koreans above a certain line, and to arrive at an armistice and preserve South Korea as a free state—then that’s one thing.

If you want to achieve a conquest of someone else in the territories, then that changes the nature of war because it raises the stakes, at least for you. It puts you in a different territory, in terms of your calculations. Likewise, if your opponent wants conquest and if you feel that opponent is not going to stop short of that, then that raises the ante for you as well.

So the nature of war depends on the inter relationship between those 3 things, according to Clausewitz.

He would say, for instance, that the defence was stronger than the attack in the Napoleonic era because of the nation-in-arms concept. You could fire up the population, get into the passions of patriotism or nationalism or even downright hatred of your opponent. Even if your regular forces were defeated in a major battle, as the Prussians were, they could continue to resist as guerrilla fighters, which made life miserable for the occupying French.

He advocates for that course of action, along with a number of others. The Prussian king does not go with it for good reason. I think at the end of the day, Prussia would have just been crushed and it would have been more of a disaster. Many civilians would have been killed in the process.

If they’d gone for guerrilla-type fighting?

There were a couple of attempts at it, there were some uprisings. They were eventually put down by the French. Clausewitz misread public support for such adventures. He thought that the population would be behind it because he hated the French so much. He was projecting that onto the Prussian society, who were just not ready for it.

So Clausewitz was disappointed and fought for the Czar when Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812.

If you’re using mostly a very elite, professional force—mercenaries even—who are not really connected to the populace, and the populace isn’t really invested in the war, that may change which principles are valid. If you put a small professional army against citizen soldiers or a nation-in-arms, Clausewitz believed that the latter would win 9 times out of 10—probably because they would just continue to resist until either the professional force was ground down or the government decided it was not worth the cost anymore and pulled everyone back.

And you don’t agree?

No, I think there’s a lot of validity in that. That’s where you get the Maoist theory of the people’s war. Mao doesn’t credit Clausewitz with having given him the idea, but lots of the guerrilla warfare principles parallel very much what Clausewitz was writing about small war and the nation-in-arms. It doesn’t mean that he is necessarily the foundation for those, but there are enough similarities that we can’t ignore.

You’ve seen an example of it in Iraq with the Anbar Awakening. That was the Iraqi population taking the insurrection into their hands and trying to drive out Al-Qaeda.

“We have more traffic fatalities in the US every year than we’ve lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined for the whole 15 years. And yet we zero in on numbers of people killed.”

In Iraq, it took the West a little bit longer than it should have to shift its principles to protecting the population and being its guardian as opposed to just going after the “bad guys.” Going after the “bad guys” is always important to do, but if you create more damage and are killing more non-combatants in the process, you’re going to turn that hostility back against you.

Let’s talk about some of the more modern books on your list. Book number 3 is Lawerence Freedman’s Strategy: A History, which is, as its name suggests, the history of strategy from earliest times.

He lays out quite nicely how complex and convoluted that history is. The term ‘strategy’ dates from the Greco-Roman period but then it doesn’t come back into vogue until the 18th century or so. People are still doing strategy, they’re just not calling it that. That makes it difficult if you’re tracing the history of an activity. But he does it very well. Articulating the business of the general is what we’re talking about here as far as what strategy is—which is different from business strategy.

But it all comes down to achieving some sort of an advantage or leverage over whatever competition you’re facing. If you don’t have any competitors, then all you need is a plan. If you’re in an environment where you have competitors, you need a strategy because you have to deal with the competition in some way and that’s where strategy really comes into play. It is a practice more than just a theory.

Are you OK with strategy being used in business? Some of these books you’ve chosen are a bit scathing about how now everything is called strategy now…Strategy this and strategy that.

Oh, it has become something of a craze. If you want to sell a book, put the word strategy somewhere in the title. When things happen on the international political level—when we begin losing conflicts—the outcry from the pundits is, ‘We have no strategy!’ or ‘The strategy we have is broken!’

Then, books start appearing about how to do strategy better or what the real principles of strategy are. So, now you’ve got this natural attraction to the term and people start using it more and more.

You see more courses developed on strategy, what it is or isn’t. You can really gain a lot of attention by becoming one of those overnight strategy experts—maybe not enough to make a small fortune, but at least you can achieve some recognition.

Do you think those criticisms are true, that we don’t have a strategy? Is that what’s gone wrong in the Middle East, let’s say?

There was a strategy. Whether it was good or not is the issue, and whether the goals were really achievable. Again, the nature of politics works against the nature of strategy because there are always political wars going on between various parties involved, and the struggle for power never really ends. So whatever the incumbent party is—Republican or Democrat for the US—there’s an opposition that is looking to find weakness and looking to reduce the credibility of the incumbent administration, to show it’s incompetent, to undermine it.

Which means that people are reluctant, sometimes, to articulate what their ends really are. Without that knowledge, the military can’t really achieve as much as it might need to make the strategy work.

“There are any number of ideas about what the nature of war is”

On the other hand, that ambiguity can work to the advantage of a party too. You can claim victory, even if your original ends weren’t exactly met. You can claim ‘all we really wanted to do was x and we did it; so we were successful, and now we can begin withdrawing. The war is over, the major combat operations are over.’ You try to shape perceptions of what it was you did compared to what you wanted to achieve. It’s your own internal deception plan, I suppose. Whether or not people will actually buy it is another thing.

Also, wars go into different phases. What the aims were in the beginning aren’t necessarily what they’re going to be in the middle or the end. It is constantly open to change.

Like in Vietnam: the goals of the US originally were quite limited, but it just got sucked in more and more, didn’t it?

It sure did. There are lots of theories as to why it happened, but the goals initially were very limited, involving only special operating forces advising South Vietnamese soldiers. Then there was a gradual escalation over time for various reasons, there was ‘mission creep’ as it’s called in the military. In a sense you can also have ‘war creep’ or ‘strategy creep.’

Is that coming from the military side or the civilian side?

It can be a little of both. Part of it was that Johnson did not want to be seen as the first US president to lose a war, so he escalated gradually to keep that from happening. But he really didn’t want to be in the war. He wanted to get on with his great society program. He wanted to devote energy and attention and resources to improving living conditions, living standards, education, civil rights—all those things. He found the war to be an albatross around his neck, but he couldn’t get out of it, so he was advised, without escalating. But that only drew him in deeper. The military, of course, didn’t want to lose either, so it looked to escalate as well, though it would have preferred to go in with maximum effort at the outset.

When you read books about what went wrong for America in Vietnam, like The Best and the Brightest, you get the sense that not enough attention was paid to ‘knowing the enemy’ (to go back to Sun Zi). What surprises me is that when Iraq came around, it was the same all over again. There were a lot of people on the ground saying, ‘Don’t invade this place! It’s a really bad idea!’ Is that your feeling as well, that not enough attention gets paid to knowing the enemy?

Yes. There’s an arrogance of power at times, and certainly there was in Vietnam. Racial attitudes came into play as well—there was an arrogance that prevented fully understanding the Vietnamese people.

There was also a lack of intelligence sources, aside from CIA estimates and so on. By that I mean the intelligence networks we had weren’t as productive as they were, say, in World War II when we had broken the German and Japanese codes. Those breakthroughs told us a lot. We had to use that information wisely, of course, but it told us when the Germans or Japanese were making big moves. It wasn’t always 100% actionable—at times they still pulled off surprises—but by large we had the intelligence upper hand.

In Vietnam, we didn’t have that kind of information. Some of the sources that came out after the war from the Vietnamese archives, even Chinese and Russian sources, show that, at times, we were closer to winning than we thought. We just didn’t know it. The Chinese and the Russians were wondering how much more material they were going to have to throw into the war. Had we had that kind of information instead of making estimates, then we could have taken a different course of action, perhaps.

Next up is Modern Strategy, a book by Colin Gray. This is more of a textbook, is that right?

This book is a great place for people to begin who want to learn more about strategy. Gray does what he says he is going to do: he talks about modern strategy. He talks about everything from the principles of nuclear strategy to the basic fundamentals of strategy itself, the importance of Clausewitz, and of strategic context.

I don’t agree with everything he says, but no strategist agrees with everything another one has to say. But his book is a great place to begin.

A quote from the beginning of the book: “There is an essential unity to all strategic experience in all periods of history because nothing vital to the nature of war and strategy changes.” Do you agree with that?

It depends what he meant, because he and I have debated the nature of war. He believes that the nature of war is unchanging—that the character of war changes, but the fundamental nature of war doesn’t.

I disagree with that. I think Clausewitz was trying to tell us that the whole thing changes. It is not just a chameleon. A chameleon changes externally but it doesn’t change its internal composition. War is more than a chameleon, according to Clausewitz, because its internal make up—which parts of a society participate, for instance, and how—too can change, and it is really important for us to understand that. If we’re going in against a citizen army or nation-at-arms in the wake of a massive social and political event like the French Revolution, we may be looking at a fundamentally different nature of war than if we were going up against a small force of mercenaries that doesn’t have much public support.

So you’re both Clausewitz fans, but you interpret him a bit differently.

Right. He would say war is still war and its fundamental nature doesn’t change. For me that’s a tautology that doesn’t get us very far. The weather is still the weather, but if you’re walking out into a blizzard, you’re going to want to know that, especially if you’re the military, because you have to prepare very differently—strategically and tactically. And if you’re walking out into a blistering heat wave, you’re going to want to know that too.

Is there a bit in the book that particularly speaks to you, that’s especially useful?

It’s important to look at his discussion of politics and ethics and its relationship to strategy. Ethics is something Clausewitz doesn’t really touch on, for instance, but it is so important today. It is one of the things that really gets in the way of achieving an advantage over your opponent because there are certain things that you will not, or must not, allow yourself to do. Ethics help preserve our values when we’re in the chaotic environment of war, and we need to appreciate that.

Do soldiers really feel caught, when they’re in the field, between what they feel they need to do to win and what they know they can’t do as a representative of a democracy?

I think most practitioners will tell you that they do. They feel caught between the rules of engagement and what they think they need to do in order to achieve their military objectives. If you’ve having to call in and get legal approval for every missile strike, it takes time to do that and in the meantime the target may have moved away. That might have been an individual high up in the enemy’s ranks, so you miss an important opportunity. The military is naturally frustrated by that kind of restriction.

On the other hand, without some restrictions you might have some indiscriminate killing, and that’s obviously not a good thing for your society. Probably, in the long-run, it would run counter to the goals you want to achieve.

“He would say war is still war and its fundamental nature doesn’t change. For me that’s a tautology that doesn’t get us very far.”

So we have to find a balance between those two. It’s really difficult. Military culture and political culture often don’t see eye to eye. They don’t use the same language, often. Civil-military relations are key to good strategy and that’s one of the things that Hew Strachan brings out in his volume.

Yes, let’s talk about his book, The Direction of War now. He used to be a professor at Oxford and he’s now at St. Andrews. He is a historian of war. He specialised in World War I, but then he was brought into the present. Tell me more about his book.

It’s a collection of essays that has to do with the contemporary direction of war and how to use history, historical examples, and some strategic theories to clarify what’s going on and what needs to happen. These are essays he published in Survival and elsewhere, and they were directly relevant to what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a way of trying to get people to pay attention, whether Members of Parliament or the US defence establishment. He was trying to speak directly to them, as well as to lower ranking military and policy practitioners.

The burden of it is that strategy is not just about the approach you have going into the campaign—your objectives, your resources, and how you expect to use the latter to achieve the former. It is also the way you direct the war while you’re in it to ensure your purposes are met. You tend to find, in any war, that people don’t always understand what the objective is, and consequently they work at cross-purposes to it. Often they don’t realise they are, or maybe, in extreme cases, they are deliberately hijacking the opportunities afforded by the war to settle scores or to gain profit.

Those things run counter to the overall war effort and need to be reined in. Whoever is in charge of running the war needs to be alert to those situations.

“Ethics is something Clausewitz doesn’t really touch on, for instance, but it is so important today.”

Those are some of the messages that come out in his essays. If you’re the political leadership, you can’t turn the war over to the military to run. You have to stay actively involved in it, steering it, you have to communicate. You have to have good civil-military relations in order to make sure you get across the cultural barriers and pick the right people to do the job.

He writes, “One of the reasons we are unsure what war is is that we are not sure about what strategy is or is not. It is not policy. It is not politics. It is not diplomacy. It exists in relation to all three, but it does not replace them.” What does he mean by that?

Many people look to strategy as if it should come before policy, or transcend politics, or that it should put diplomacy to work for it. None of these things ceases for the sake of strategy, but they all have a part to play in making a strategy work. Just as they can be responsible for making it fail.

On a related point, one of the things I’ve faulted political science and international relations for is the exaggerated attention they give to the idea that war is an instrument of policy or politics. This idea comes out of Clausewitz, of course. But some have taken the expression out of context and treat it as if it were the only thing he said. It is as if the political dimension of war is the only one that matters; but accomplishing one’s policy objectives at the cost of severe social cleavages, or unrest and revolution, is not going to amount to much of a victory. Focusing on the political dimension of war, at the exclusion of the others, makes our understanding of war unidimensional, and it necessarily makes strategy unidimensional—which comes back around to agreeing that we may not be sure about what war is and what strategy is.

This is the famous Clausewitz quote, that war is just a continuation of politics “by other means.”

Yes. To highlight one example, in the Cold War many scholars worried that military objectives might exceed policy objectives and thereby lead to an escalation, an all-out war, or a general war you didn’t want. So, they argued that we’ve got to keep a tight rein on military leaders—and rightly so. But, they wrongly assumed that policy itself will be rational enough to avoid escalation. History, recent and ancient, shows us that is not true.

But, we’ve lost our sense of what war is, partly because the assumptions of the Cold War experience are still with us. Under today’s political conditions we’ve also over-legalised war in order to live with the fact that we sometimes need it. But in so doing, we have steadily eroded war’s utility as a legitimate instrument of policy. We rationalize our use of war by calling it an instrument of policy, but it has actually many more dimensions to it.

How do you find the kind of coverage of war in the media, and the general understanding of what’s going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, our contemporary wars?

I think the coverage tends to sensationalise war too much. They’re going for the headlines, making everyday occurrences appear as if they’re bigger than they are. That sensationalism is as old as the press, it’s always going to be there—but it is difficult for civilians to separate that sensationalism from reality, and I think that that’s not a good thing.

Loss of life is always tragic, but to zero in on the loss of life in one particular incident, while losing the larger picture seems, to me, a distortion not only of the brutality of war but the extent to which the populace needs to be engaged and involved in it. They shouldn’t just be sitting back horrified at what they see on their TV screen or on their iPad.

We have more traffic fatalities in the US every year than we’ve lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined for the whole 15 years. And yet we zero in on numbers of people killed.

It is always tragic but we’ve lost sight of the larger aspect of how to prosecute a war, of understanding society’s role in that, and what a good strategic decision is and what a bad one is. Knee-jerking our way out of a war, making impulsive decisions based on the latest headlines is not doing strategy. It is probably going to make things worse in the long run. But it is really, really hard for us to see it that way.

Of all the leaders—throughout history—who do you think is the greatest military strategist? Do you have someone you particularly admire?

In terms of the best overall strategic leader, someone who could guide the crafting of military strategy and had the ability to direct it successfully to win a major war, and to keep his key allies in the game, while dealing with a large number of strong personalities, would have to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had the strategic sense to appreciate what was happening in Europe by late 1938 and early 1939—before Germany attacked Poland—and he was already looking for ways to increase aid to the UK and other Western countries.

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He was also able to deal with the political opposition at home, which didn’t want to get into another European war. The American public had already been bloodied and disillusioned by World War I—with a quarter of a million dead—and which turned out not to have solved anything. Many immigrant communities in the US did not care particularly for Mussolini or Hitler, but they didn’t want to go to war with the Old Country either. He also had to deal with a congress and a military that did not always support his decisions. But he had to maintain the larger perspective.

Roosevelt somehow managed to handle all of that while also being physically debilitated. So, for me, he is the one strategist who ranks top.


Chinese names can cause confusion because of the different ways Chinese characters have been romanized over the centuries. Today, when you study Chinese, you learn the ‘pinyin’ system. In pinyin, ‘Sun Tzu’ becomes ‘Sunzi’ or ‘Sun Zi.’

 The character ‘zi’ is an honorific suffix. So we are talking about Master Sun.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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