Chasing the Norm

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

The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present

The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present by Beatrice HeuserHeuser - Evolution of strategy

“War. War never changes”. So begins the latest hit video game Fallout 4. In reality however, war has changed immeasurably.

Examining 2000 years of warfare, with an emphasis from the age of Napoleon to the early War on Terror, Heuser shows the evolution, change, and variations of strategy and conflict. While bloodshed, suffering, fog and friction are common of every conflict, the how, where, when, and why of war has as many fashions as well…fashion.

Heuser’s concern is how people have written about and talked about the use and management of war and violence. Treating this entire field as focused on ‘strategy’ is a methodological risk. Most people in history haven’t used the term ‘strategy’ as we understand it today. While we should be careful not to put new words into old mouths, this is a risk worth taking.

Evidence of strategic behaviour is common across all human history and all human cultures. Even if our ancestors would not have used the term, they were undertaking the same essential task as we do today: Thinking about how to manage and use force to achieve political ends. And if we are to understand our challenges, we need to learn how those before us overcame theirs.

To manage an intellectual history of this scope, Heuser identifies five broad areas, bookended by analysis of the use of the term ‘strategy’ (from the Greek ‘stratagos’ meaning a General), and a fascinating discussion of the long term trends and future challenges.

Heuser merges the period from covering Antiquity to the Middle Ages, covering issues such as leadership, moral, mercenaries, sieges and technology. The book then explores on the Napoleonic era and the development of ideas of total war. She highlights a ‘Napoleonic paradigm’ focused on decisive battles, and increasingly the targeting of foreign populations as a constant from the late 18th century till the advent of nuclear weapons in 1945. Forces such as the development of the modern state, technology, nationalism and Social Darwinism all contributed to this trend. The outcome was a shift from a war where people could sit on the hillside and watch during the American Civil War, to a world where civilians were the target of war.

Total war, pitting the entire resources of the state against an opponent in a struggle for survival found its apotheosis in the Second World War. Many expected its appearance during the Cold War, and its core ideas such as aiming for decisive, unconditional victories still drive many modern militaries, particularly the USA.
Following this analysis, and in line with the chronology, though more thematically organised, Maritime Strategy, Airpower and Asymmetric conflicts are explored. These chapters are useful to show just how new many of our ideas about warfare are, and how important technological change has been to dramatically shaping its nature, focus and use.

This is a long book, with a lot of history to chew through. While consistently solid in its prose, some of these areas can drag for the non-specialist. Or seem not deep enough for those with something of a background in the area. It’s useful to know some of what Thucydides, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett and other ‘masters’ of strategy thought, as Heuser tends to try and spread around her focus, showing the wider context of the debates and spread of ideas about war through (largely European) societies.

A highlight is the concluding section on ‘The quest for new paradigms after the world war’. Here the narrative seems to slow down, trying less to highlight all the major debates and authors. Instead it trace just a few ideas and pulls them apart. You hear more of Heuser’s own views through this section, which is to be appreciated, and reminiscent of the historically grounded essays of Hew Strachan’s Direction of War.

It’s a truism that general fight the last war AND that they are obsessed with how new technology makes all past experience obsolete. As Heuser masterfully shows, there have always been historically grounded and material/technologically oriented schools of thought about strategy. Its use and application has always been a debate, wrapped up with our notions of ethics, technology, geography, identity and logic. Strategy changes because war changes. Notions of linear experience might work for a fictional video game, but reality is far richer and more varied. The catch – and there always is one – is that to make sense of this change, we need to know what has stayed the same. If you can work your way through Heuser’s volume, you’ll be well on your way to separating fact from fiction.