Strategy: A History, by Lawrence Freedman, OUP USA, RRP£25 / $34.95, 768 pages

Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” That quotable sage, Mike Tyson, lures readers into Sir Lawrence Freedman’s monumental study of strategy in almost every conceivable form and across all phases of history. And then we’re off: to the Tanzanian wilds where chimps collaborate to overthrow the dominant ape in the troop, then biblical Egypt for an appraisal of the 10 plagues as a “pattern of graduated escalation” against the Pharaoh, and Sun Tzu’s China to absorb the art of military misdirection.

Freedman does not feel bound by anything as piffling as corporeal reality for his subject matter, either; at one point he delves into Milton’s Paradise Lost to analyse Satan’s campaign against God. To say that all this resides in the first few chapters of Strategy: A History, before the author has even begun to work his way through the writings of Carl von Clausewitz, mechanised warfare and the existential game theory of nuclear deterrence, is to give some clue of the weight and ambition of this book.

Freedman is a professor of war studies at King’s College, London, but his curiosity is piqued by electoral and commercial strategy as well as the martial kind. Henry Ford’s insurgent derring-do, the “permanent campaign” of American politics, the rise of management science after the second world war – so encompassing is the book’s sweep that at times it reads like a potted account of any attempt by any organisation to achieve any objective in the face of any adversary ever. His wide-open definition of strategy (“It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest”) clears the way for a roving, multidisciplinary approach.

Such capacious works of history only really succeed if they have something to bind the scattered facts and observations together. In Henry Kissinger’s modern classic, Diplomacy (1994), the author examines every event with reference to the immemorial tension between self-interest and idealism in foreign affairs. Freedman does something similar. He reaches into antiquity to contrast the Greek bie with metis; that is, strategies based on superior force, personified by brave, raging Achilles, and strategies that call for craft and cunning, as practised by Odysseus, he of the Trojan horse.

Romantic militarists used to disdain the Odyssean way as craven and unchivalrous, Freedman reminds us, mass mobilisation and blunt attritional war being more their thing. This purist take rather lost its moral force in the Somme and Verdun. Although Strategy does not major on the first world war, its insights into alliance-building, the dangers of sending mixed signals to one’s enemies and the respective merits of annihilation and exhaustion as methods of conflict make it hard to think about anything else. If the book has a centre, though, it is actually the advent of nuclear weapons, when, perhaps for the first time, a technological leap in destructive power ended up rendering war less not more likely. Deadly stakes, great powers, rational choice theory; Freedman is in his academic element here.

The price of all this panoramic range is, inevitably, depth. The reader is left wanting much more on Robert McNamara, the former US defence secretary who bestrode business, politics and war. A book about strategy in all its forms might have used him as a kind of leading man, if a compellingly flawed one. Instead, we get just a few pages. In his eagerness to cover absolutely everything, Freedman also looks for strategic lessons where there probably are none. The campus rebels of 1968 are studied for clues as to why their “strategy from below” did not work. The possibility that they were just silly rich kids with some cockamamie ideas about the world is not entertained.

As the book goes on – nimbly, sometimes drolly, with occasional improbable swoops into pop-culture – it becomes apparent that the Tyson quote is more than a sop to the intimidated reader. It really does seem to capture Freedman’s central argument, which is that strategy is flexibility. Any hard and fast plan of action is unlikely to survive first contact with the enemy, or unpredictable circumstances. A theatre of war, like a market or an electorate, is a complex system with moving parts and reactions to every action. We overrate our ability to impose our preferred order on these systems, and there is a “myth of the master strategist” in politics especially.

A serious strategy shows humility; it has built-in contingencies, never plans too far ahead, goes easy on details that cannot be controlled and does not pretend miracles can be achieved with a weak starting position. This emphasis on looseness raises the problem of paradox: is Freedman’s idea of a good strategy really a strategy at all? Is it not more like a disposition or habit of mind, a general resourcefulness and opportunism?

His caution is such that he even counsels against outright victory, citing the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and Nazi Germany’s searing advances through Europe in 1940 as examples of quick wins that quickly led to the enervating burden of rule, the asymmetric threat of counterinsurgencies and sheer overstretch. Sometimes, a vigilant stalemate is as much as can be hoped for. Such pessimism is born of the kind of deep and wide historical scholarship that removes all illusions about how much anything as man-made as strategy can really achieve in an unknowable world. This is a book of startling scope, erudition and, more than anything, wisdom.

Janan Ganesh is an FT columnist


Letter in response to this article:

A good guide for any endeavour and life in general / From Prof Josep Colomer

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