Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective

The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective by Hew Strachan

IStrachan- Direction of War work at a ‘Strategic & Defence Studies Centre’ and like to use the word strategy. But I confess to not being really sure what the word means. In this confusion I am not alone.

In The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective Hew Strachan (pronounced ‘strawn’) examines the ‘lost meaning of strategy’. Today most government departments try to be ‘strategic’ as do businesses, health coaches, schools and caterers.

This is a far cry from what the term classically meant. Strachan compelling argues that for 18th and 19th century thinkers such as Clausewitz and Jomini, strategy meant ‘the use of the battle for the purposes of the war’. This was the notion which World War One generals carried with them into the conflict. The change in meaning occurred after World War Two and with the rise of the nuclear age.

No longer could states use battles for war, because war could no longer be risked. The total war of Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito was too high a burden, and nuclear weapons made conflict seem cataclysmic. As Bernard Brodie famously wrote ‘Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have no other useful purpose’. Ever since, Strachan laments, strategy has been broad, grand, and banal. It covers peacetime and war, economics and policy and is thoroughly confused about its purpose and role.

Through a series of thematic essays Strachan traces this change and the harm it has done to our modern understanding and use of war. While total wars between powerful states have thankfully paused, warfare continues in a variety of forms.

In one fascinating chapter, Strachan highlights and critiques the emergence of the ‘operational’ level. This is a domain of thinking that had not existed in the past and represents an attempt by the military to recapture that original element of strategy — and their control of this highly valued term.

While Strachan rightly attacks the sloppy thinking and misuse of the term strategy, I admit to still being unclear exactly how he thinks we should use it. Perhaps a re-reading would help. This is a detailed, analytical book that weaves its way to a conclusion rather than setting out easy to follow guideposts. As a series of reprinted and updated works from other contexts the book is coherent but not comprehensive.

If I have caught the thread, Strachan believes that strategy should not be thought of as a constant but a discussion. An intersection between policy (what the nation wants) and tactics (the use of force by the state). In the middle, and negotiated between those with responsibility for policy (the politicians) and tactics (the military) is strategy.

Where we have gone wrong is to try and split the term. So the relationship between policy and strategy occupied the West during the Cold War, leading to meaningless Presidential rhetoric about a “forward strategy of Freedom”. At the same time, the operational concept only looks at the relationship between strategy and tactics. This ignores the purpose of fighting and confuses military concerns with the resources and approach of the nation undertaking it.

Strachan also usefully highlights the temporal shift in our thinking about strategy. Instead of a discussion between past and present it is now between present and future. As a historian who resents this shift, he lays blame for this change at the feet of two groups.

First theorists from the Navy and Air Forces who either don’t have much of a history to draw on. Or who believe their machines sufficiently different and perfectible in the future as to be ‘revolutionary’. The other group is political scientists, particularly those after WW2 who Strachan believes got lost in abstract game theories and formal logics that ignored actual human conflict.

In The Direction of War, Strachan judges strategic studies a very troubled discipline. He demonstrates it is confused about its key terms, divorced from its origins, and subverted in its purposes. At the heart of this is the inability of many in the discipline to shake the romance of World War Two. That is, wanting to plan for, discuss and debate grand strategy in total war scenarios without being sullied by looking at the actual occurrences and use of strategy in mundane, limited, and localised conflicts today.

There’s much to this. We have a generation of Western leaders who think every crisis is Munich, and Churchill is the only model of good leadership. And this generation, in war and peace has been terrible at using force to support national interests. Too willing, too reticent. Too fearful, too hubristic. And rarely clear minded in why and how the conflict will serve their nation. But we can’t just blame the leaders. Those who advise and write on these matters need to also take responsibility.

This is a slow read but a valuable one. There is wisdom on every page, but not every page seems to take you in the same direction. The essays wander through history, shift to theory and then back again. Unsurprisingly for a Professor at Oxford, European and especially British experience is the go-to, though Strachan does an admirable job of providing as much information as you need to understand the reason why he is raising each example.

Ultimately, I still feel some confusion about strategy. Restoring strategy to its original meaning seems an unhelpful move. It would seem to exclude many critical peacetime choices, such as the development of alliances and much of defence planning (do we build ships to defend the air-sea gap, or land forces to be interoperable with coalition partners overseas?).

The present wide use of the term also suggests a need for a term that helps us connect policy and action to secure the nation and its interests. Thanks to Strachan’s consistent effort to demand clear, historically grounded thinking I now feel I at least have a firm foundation upon which to build my own views