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Grand Illusions

Makers of Modern Strategy: from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age

edited by Peter Paret, with the collaboration of Gordon A. Craig, by Felix Gilbert
Princeton University Press, 941 pp., $12.95 (paper)

The title Makers of Modern Strategy, wished upon its editors by the long, worldwide, and deserved success of the original edition of 1943, is, of course, a misnomer. Strategy is made by men of war, often without benefit of book learning. Strategic theory, which is what this work is about, by contrast reeks of books, often written by scholars who never smelled powder. Occasionally soldier and scholar inhabit the same skin; they did so in the persons of Montecuccoli, Frederick the Great, and Mao Tse-tung, who all figure in these pages. Soldier sometimes blurs with scholar: Count von Moltke, the nineteenth-century chief of the Prussian army, was a man of scholarly mind, though his literary output was small; Admiral Mahan, whose real weapon was the pen, had seen service afloat during the American Civil War; B.H. Liddell Hart, the great newspaper campaigner of the 1930s, had been a subaltern on the Somme; and De Gaulle, when he found time, wrote beautiful French prose and some not unoriginal military thoughts. But like Molière’s bourgeois gentil-homme, who found he had been speaking prose uninstructed since infancy, most men of war, before the coming of the book, marched out on campaign without anything but native wit and folk wisdom to teach them how to fight.

That is not to say either that pre-Gutenberg soldiers altogether neglected to think about war in a rational way or that modern strategic theorists are mere commentators on events. We know that Alexander the Great, to take only one example, calculated the odds between options to a fine degree. And we also know that theorists, Clausewitz foremost among them, have had a deep effect upon the conduct of war, often disastrously so, particularly when misunderstood. Nevertheless, a review of strategic theory is no more a study of war than a history of political science is a handbook of government. Those who can, fight; those who can’t, theorize. It is in that spirit that we should approach this enormous, fascinating, and immensely important book.

How does it compare with the first edition? In length, it contains eight more essays than the original’s twenty. Of the total, fifteen are on new subjects by new authors, six are rewritings by new authors, four are revisions, either by the original author or another, and three remain unchanged. The decision to leave untouched the piece on “the economic foundations of military power” by Edward Mead Earle, the book’s moving spirit, is, for reasons of filial piety, entirely understandable; less so to retain the essays on Vauban and Frederick the Great, on whom much subsequent work has been done, notably by the Sandhurst scholar, Christopher Duffy. Duffy is now the world’s leading expert on fortification, of which Vauban—the seventeenth-century genius of siege warfare—was the Palladio, and he is the author of a definitive military life of Frederick the Great.1 A contribution of his on either or both of those subjects could not have failed to be an improvement.

About the general improvement in the book’s quality, however, there can be no doubt, and it would be ungenerous to quibble over details. The improvement is a reflection, in great part, of the extent to which writing about war has benefited over the last forty years from the wider application to it of first-rate academic intellects. Few academics were, in 1943, interested in war or, indeed, thought it in any way worthy of academic study. There is a strong feel about the first edition of minds being wrenched out of their accustomed paths to confront subjects both unfamiliar and inimical to them. To this edition no such sense clings. Six of the authors are professional military historians, a calling scarcely known before the Second World War, while many others have had doctoral training in or devoted their scholarly lives to the subject at a later stage of their careers. The result is that all the new essays are of a quality equal to that of any other branch of modern historiography, and some are outstanding; one would single out for special mention Gunther Rothenberg’s two essays on strategic thought in Central Europe and Michael Geyer’s on German strategy in the twentieth century.

The synoptic essays by Gordon Craig and Felix Gilbert, two of the original contributors, are also of the highest quality and value, which makes it puzzling that neither was asked to assist with the introduction. That piece, by Peter Paret, is disappointingly short and makes little effort to define for the general reader how “strategy” is to be understood. The word is, of course, a catchall, whose many meanings are best grasped by reading the book as a whole. Some analytic definition ought, nevertheless, to have been offered, if only as a baseboard against which the varied offerings of the individual contributors might be bounced.

Given that the book is lacking, this review ought to begin with a sketch of what it might have said. Strategy is “the art of the general,” for whom strategos was the Greek word. But that definition introduces an immediate difficulty. There was a world before that of the classical past in which generals were unknown, while the Greeks themselves recognized a transformation in the nature of generalship during the evolution of their civilization. All three ages—of preheroic, heroic, and postheroic leadership—lend something to a definition of strategy and each requires examination, therefore, if we are to understand the form it has taken in modern times.

Modern warfare is purposive—fought, that is to say, for some more or less well-defined end. But, in the days when the world was young, warfare was an endemic activity, largely ritual in form and to our eyes purposeless in nature. “To our eyes” is an exact phrase because fragments of that military past still survive in remote corners, notably in the mountains of New Guinea. There anthropologists are able to study a system of tribal relationships based on the premise of permanent warfare but also on a practice of conflict where the act of killing is severely deprecated. Deaths, naturally, do occur, but one death, in a formal encounter between contending tribes, is usually enough to bring it to an end and often to precipitate peace negotiations.

Anthropologists discount the notion that what they call “primitive warfare” is altogether without function (as opposed to explicit purpose). Over time, they have observed that stronger tribes do tend to increase the area of their territory at the expense of weaker neighbors. But such concepts as “victory” or “conquest” seem quite alien to the tribal elders who preside over the confrontations of the young warriors. Their aim seems to be to restrain rather than foment their aggressiveness, which is largely discharged in insult, violent gesture, and the casting of missiles at ranges just too long to find the mark.

When primitive warfare became purposive we cannot guess. Why it did so may be an easier question to answer, if only because of where it survives. Eskimos scarcely practice anything recognizable as warfare, while Stone Age warriors live in regions where the land supplies an easy living and the climate is kind at all seasons of the year. The first group is, in a sense, too oppressed by the struggle for existence to have time to fight, the second so little oppressed that fighting supplies the only element of struggle in their lives. It is in the intermediate geographical zones, where the seasons alternate sharply and man must save in the good times to survive in the bad, that the need to fight man, rather than the elements, in a competition for resources—water, grazing, game, metals—of which there are never enough to go around, appears to have taken hold.

Competition presupposes organization and organization leadership, whether one takes the Hobbesian view that the weak seek the protection of the strong or prefers to believe that society is a free association of equals; even the most egalitarian society seeks leadership when crisis threatens. The simplest form of leadership we call heroic. It is that celebrated by Homer and it continued to be practiced in the Alexandrian Age—Alexander the Great slept with the Iliad under his pillow—and, leaping a civilization or two, by Henry V and Gustavus Adolphus. But the later Greeks, like the Romans of the imperial age and the soldiers of the Enlightenment, came to recognize that there was more to leadership than heroism. Philo of Byzantium, writing in the second century BC, exactly defines the shift from the exemplary to the directorial in the practice of generalship. The general, he says, does of course advance his cause by being seen to share the risks his soldiers run. His death in action would, however, set it back further than he can hope to promote it by acting the hero. Better, therefore, that he station himself behind his soldiers, whence he can “reinforce weak points in his line, reward the brave and punish the cowards.”

The break between the exemplary and directorial style was never to be absolute. As late as the third month of World War I, even such a stereotypically directorial general as Douglas Haig would think it right to mount his horse and ride out into shellfire to set the example of shared risk to his soldiers at a crisis of the First Battle of Ypres. But from at least the second century BC, the directorial style was available; it was practiced by the generals of all states in which a division of responsibility between political and military leadership was to any degree established. As that division was set ever wider, it tended to become the norm. And its effect, in one direction at any rate, was to generate the literature of which this book is a survey.

It is a pity, given how much earlier the second style of generalship appeared than the first edition’s chosen starting point in the Renaissance, that the new editors did not therefore decide to consider some of the ancient military writers. None, it is true, wrote “strategic theory” as we understand the term today. Vegetius, the late Roman author whose work nearest approaches the genre, was interested in technique and tactics rather than means and ends. But Caesar, though he discussed his generalship implicitly rather than explicitly, could undoubtedly, had he chosen, have abstracted the principles by which he operated. And both authors are important for the period with which Makers of Modern Strategy begins, for their rediscovery coincided with the Renaissance and, by way of their translation into Italian, English, and French, was as important an influence on the contemporary “art of war” as Machiavelli or Montecuccoli.

Nevertheless, the book is as near to being comprehensive as matters; and its exclusions are justified because the period it covers is the first in which strategic theory was continuously rather than just intermittently of influence. The question is, of course, how influential was it? Charting the interrelationship of thinking and doing is one of the most tantalizing, if demanding, of all intellectual enquiries. Even in fields like mathematics and physics, in which fruits of thinking are exactly verifiable, there is a notorious time lag between the demonstration of proof and its general acceptance. In the softer sciences the gap is longer still and acceptance rarely, if ever, general; economics is the most notorious case in point. And war is not a science at all, even though “the science of war” was the term by which modish military thinkers tried to replace the old “art of war” in the heyday of scientism at the end of the nineteenth century. Theory did, nevertheless, influence the way wars were fought from the fifteenth century onward. And Makers of Modern Strategy does help us to understand how.

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    See my review in The New York Review (February 13).

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