by Lawrence Freedman
New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 752.
Note, index.. $24.95. ISBN: 0190229233
The Wide Ranging Look at the Evolution of Strategy
Strategy: A History is a wonderful summary of the field by Lawrence Freedman, King’s College London Emeritus Professor in the Department of War Studies and a former foreign policy advisor to Tony Blair.
Freedman’s first sentence, “Everyone needs a strategy,” (p. ix) heralds the ambitious scope of the book. Throughout its 600 pages, the author explores strategy in many different forms, including some wonderful reviews of military strategy, socialist revolutions, management theory, political discourse and campaigning. This is a wide canvas, but because Freedman keeps drawing connections between the different theories and practices of strategy, the reader never feels lost.
Freedman isn’t afraid to criticize many of the authors and schools of thought which feature in it. He is not a fan of Sun Tzu, whose “approach worked best when followed by only one side.” After all, “In the face of a strong and coherent adversary, clever mind games could take you only so far” (pp. 45-46). Liddell Hart, to give another example, appears as a shameless self-promoter who did little more than rehash Sun Tzu and cherry-pick examples from military history to support the ‘indirect approach’ as the pinnacle of good strategy.
One idea seems to interest Freedman especially. As he travels through more than two millennia of strategic thought, a chief lesson emerges: the willingness to adapt. Aptly, the quote which opens the book is taken from boxer Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” Helmuth von Moltke “the Elder”, Bismarck’s effective but at times unwieldy weapon, emerges as a strong practitioner of this lesson. Willing to improvise and delegate, von Moltke’s tactics at the operational level allowed for an outstanding degree of flexibility for mid-19th century warfare.
Strategy: A History is best understood as an introduction to the subject for the curious layman. Freedman’s willingness to tackle such a wide variety of subjects means that some get little more than a cursory glance. But this scope is also the book’s strength. If you are into military strategy, Freedman’s book will both satisfy you and broaden your horizons, inviting you to look at parallels across the spectrum of activities in which humans try to shape circumstances to meet their goals. Besides meeting a host of interesting characters that have helped shape the history of strategy, the main take away is an understanding that the world is a very messy place. It takes both determination and humility to tackle the messiness.
Note: Strategy: A History is also available in hardcover $34.95, ISBN 978-0-1993-2515-3, and several e-editions.
Our Reviewer: Tomé Ribeiro Gomes, who hails from the Azores, studied at Nova University of Lisbon and at Catholic University of Portugal, graduating with an MA in 'Governance, Leadership, and Democracy Studies'. His principal interests are strategy, politics, education, and Ancient History. This is his first review for StrategyPage.