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20150807 – A History of Strategy



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This is review of military strategic thinking throughout all known history from ancient Chinese to our days. The idea is to trace development of military thinking, provide brief review of ideas and individuals who did this thinking.


  1. Chinese Military Thought

Chinese approach to the war is as to an evil, even if sometimes necessary. It is violation of cosmic harmony and should be resolved as soon as possible via victory of the most virtuous. San Tzu defines virtue as harmony between leaders and people via strict discipline. The perfect army is so disciplined as not to require neither rewards no punishment. Tai Kung developed detailed structure for military control and planning and logistics requirements. Most important in Chinese strategy purposes is to minimize violence because it violates harmony. The victory should be achieved by superior intelligence and logistics placing adversary in position when he has no choice but surrender. Author highly appreciates Chinese military writings as unsurpassed in their sophistication.

  1. From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

For this part author selected Thucydides, Sallust, Caser, and Josephus as unsurpassed military historians. However he considers western strategic thinkers much less sophisticated and effective than Chinese. He discusses works of Aeneas (4th Century BC before Alexander) author of writings on military preparations, war finances, and other strategic issues. Later writer Asclepiodotus (1 century BC) produced works on tactics of phalanx, however they were pretty much outdated by this time. Author reviews a few other thinkers, the most outstanding being Flavius Renatus Vegetius (4 century AD) and his “Summary of Military Matters”. Byzantine Empire produced “Strategikon” (around 600) presenting top achievement of its military with ideas and methods later successfully used in struggle against Arabs. Much later around 900 it produced much less important “Tacticon”. Author considers totality of this literature inferior to Chinese because it did not produce coherent philosophy of war.

  1. 1500 to 1763

This period includes works of Machiavelli in which he developed idea of using conscripts as source of mass military manpower, however he underestimated artillery. Machiavelli become quite popular, but his military ideas were not applied in real world by anybody. After that author discusses a few other thinkers including Montecuccoli, Puysegur, Maurice De Saxe, and Frederick the Great, none of them really significant. Unlike many others, Frederick did apply his ideas in practice in Prussian wars with various levels of success.

  1. From Guibert to Clausewitz

This period from 1763 includes work of Gilbert based on analysis of 7 years war eventually resulting in ordinance of 1791 with which French army fought in Napoleonic wars. It included recommendation of moving troops in independent columns with lots of attention to maneuvers. In 1799 the first treatise on strategy: Spirit of Modern System of War” was produced by von Bulow. In it Bulow discussed use of geography, maps, and military staff to conduct proper preparations, analysis, logistical, and military movements based of plans. On French side promoter of ideas of war as movements of people and material through 2-dimensional space was Antoine Jomini who added multiple military concepts including theater of operations, bases and numerical representation of troops capabilities, and setting up specific objectives and lines of operations. Finally significant amount of material in this chapter allocated to Clausewitz who analyzed war and its purpose based on history and experience of Napoleonic wars. The quality of this analysis and ideas put Clausewitz at par with Chinese writing.

  1. The Nineteenth Century

Starting with Bulow and Clausewitz the military writing moved in more professional direction with soldiers writing for soldiers and away from mythological an historical approach. It was overall change in approach to writing caused by Enlightenment, but also by dramatic changes in military technology. Old prevalence of military formation in battle similar to parades became suicidal for troops and therefore not sustainable. In this relation author reviews work of French officer Charles du Picq, who proposed to move away from fighting in formations and switch to skirmishes with relative small, but self-sufficient combination of troops. However these regiments should be strictly controlled from one source and directed to dynamically attack or withdraw or move according to overall strategic intention of top commander. Unfortunately for millions of people fighting in WWI these ideas did not make it through into thick heads of generals for a very long time. Another outstanding thinker of this period was Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke. His work was not only theoretical, but also practical and directed at handling dramatically increased numbers of troops and needs for supplies. He handled it through creation of General Staff and development of detailed mobilization planning for multimillion armies, their movements and logistics. If Moltke developed tools for making effective army, another German general for Schlieffen developed operational ideas where to move this army and detailed strategic plans for war on two fronts West against France and East against Russia. These plans became foundation of German strategy in WWI.

  1. War at Sea

This chapter is about naval operations that normally attract a lot less attention than land armies. The eminent thinker in this area was an American Dennis Mahan. His approach was based on history and on analysis of operations of British Navy. Overall it came down to idea that achieving two connected goals: interrupt enemy maritime commerce and transportation and protect one’s own would lead to decisive advantage in any conflict of contemporary powers highly dependent on shipping of men and material in their ability to make war. Mohan believed that this objective could be achieved by gaining “command of the sea” through winning battle of battleships. The other strategy was commerce protection or interruption: battle of convoys Mahan considered secondary, if at all relevant because he believed that winning fight of battleships would allow blockade enemy ports and completely stop its commerce. Another thinker Julian Corbett actually was rich lawyer who just enjoyed developing ideas about naval strategy. He believed that land war is primary and naval operations are secondary and needed mainly to support armies. His writings are mainly case analysis of existing wars in support of this idea.

  1. The Interwar Period

The period between WWI and WWII was rich in strategic thinkers who tried to accommodate new technologies of warplanes, tanks, mechanized troops, and wireless communications into coherent strategic model of winning war. The most prominent were: Italian general Guilio Douhet – promoter of supreme role of airpower including its ability to win war alone. He greatly overestimated capability of technology of his time and underestimated ability of civil population to survive regular bombing, but his views were vindicated in WWII by American victory over Japan after using just two nuclear bombs. Another thinker British general John Fuller was proponent of rapid movement of mechanized troops and developed ideas that later become known in their practical application as blitzkrieg. Fuller was closely associated with Liddell Hart who promoted multidimensional attacks directed not at taking territory, but rather to disrupt enemy structure and operation making him incapable for organized resistance. Finally author includes in his review WWI German commander Ludendorff who in this period developed concept of total war that required totalitarian state in order to obtain complete control over population and all resources of the country, control that was not available to him in authoritarian German monarchy during WWI. Eventually the Ludendorff’s vision became reality of WWII.

  1. 1945 to the Present

The last chapter is dedicated pretty much to the world with nuclear weapons and development of MAD strategy of making war impossible to accept. Author also discusses Reagan’s strategic defense initiative and concludes that it did not really change MAD calculation since SDI tools are not possible to test on full scale while consequences of even small deficiencies in protection could be catastrophic. Therefore as of now the military confrontation is conceivable only at the small scale of terror versus anti-terrorism operations, and small wars with limited objectives.


It is very nice and concise review of writings about strategy, but it is not history of strategy. Strategy, as just everything else, has theoretical aspect of people writing about what should be done and practical aspect of how it was actually done. The writings review presented pretty well, but much more important and interesting to me aspect of practical application of strategy as it was developed and used by people who actually did, was left something out of scope. It is too bad, because the practical application is the most interesting part of history.

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