The Best Defense review: Hew Strachan’s new book examines our lack of thinking

The Best Defense review: Hew Strachan’s new book examines our lack of thinking

By Jim Gourley
Best Defense chief cultural correspondent

As recently demonstrated on this blog, topics like the nature of war and the modern relevance of Clausewitz are to military officers and policy wonks what politics and religion are to the Thanksgiving dinner table. Quite often, the problem is that the two groups, and even individuals within them, use the same words to express very different ideas. When you can’t even agree on the definition of words that are fundamental to your profession, they’re all fighting words. Into the fray steps Hew Strachan, Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University. His new book, The Direction of War, comprises an effort to reconcile the dialectal schism between political and military leaders today by retracing the history of strategic thought from its origin in Clausewitz.

As Strachan writes in the introduction, "The theme which holds this book together is strategy." While maintaining the clarity of that theme throughout the work, he crafts the ensuing arguments and observations using the rigorous definitions first written by the 19th and early 20th century originators of strategic theory, then documenting how the language diverged over time. He even adds to the lexicon, proposing that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are best described as "astrategic." [Tom interjection: Actually, that word appears on page 343 of my book The Generals. I had to fight the copyeditor to keep it in.] A historian to the core, Strachan corrects the record on contemporary inconsistencies in Clausewitzian interpretation. Offering no proposals on the future of war of its own, The Direction of War attempts a course correction, trying to bring our view of progress more in line with its actual path through history.

Strachan repeatedly cites a few prominent milestones to chart the azimuth of strategic development: the philosophical works on strategy in the mid-19th century, the emergence of different technologies during the inter-war period, the shift in strategic thought toward nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, and then the post-Vietnam development of flawed doctrines which culminated in the 1991 Gulf War. He contends that nuclear weapons corroded the definitions of what strategy is and what it does. Forced to legitimize itself and feeling compelled to explain the failures of Vietnam, American military leadership took advantage of these emergent ambiguities to create the operational regime of warfare and new philosophical boundaries in civil-military relations. Allied militaries and NATO adopted the same theories by proxy. This progression culminated in the overwhelming victory of the 1991 Gulf War, thus reinforcing faith in ideas that ultimately led to the utter failure to develop anything resembling a strategy during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Whether finding flaws with Huntington’s Clausewitzian interpretations supporting his assertions of how democracies should control their armed forces in The Soldier and the State or describing the modern idea of "the strategic Corporal" as "absurd," Strachan pulls no punches as he realigns contemporary extrapolations with the Prussian theorist’s original meaning. His objective is not to discredit any individual, but rather to expose the faulty theoretical foundations on which they and many others have constructed their ideas. This is where Strachan is at his best, using his deep knowledge of Clausewitz’s life and other writings to renew our understanding of On War such that we may learn from history’s mistakes and successes.

For all of this, Strachan’s own admitted fondness for World War I history is perhaps the sole weakness of The Direction of War. While many of the issues he tackles refer to strategic developments in the last 60 years, he spends what seems a disproportionate amount of time on writings and wars from the early 20th century. Curiously, as much influence on current affairs as he attributes to the Cold War and Vietnam, he scarcely discusses advancements in (or detriments to) strategic thought during those periods. Instead of investigating them the same way as the interwar or post-9/11 periods — as eras during which aspects of strategic thought evolved — The Direction of War treats them as epochal moments of change. Similarly, while the claim that the American military was wrong to embrace maneuver warfare after 1991 appears indisputable in the context of its post 9/11 conflicts, Strachan neither qualifies nor criticizes the strategies employed in the U.S. invasions of Grenada or Panama, leaving it open-ended whether the American military was as wrong as he argues it was. Nor does he provide any historical comparison of American employment of the mujihadeen against the Soviets to what he characterizes as current American strategies to utilize indigenous security forces as "proxies" to fight insurgencies. His arguments are no less historically sound, but the work would benefit from a more even application of historical reference, rather than placing so much reliance on J.F.C. Fuller, Basil Liddell Hart, and the British Army’s 1909 manual on Field Service Regulations and Operations to carry its arguments.

These are minor nitpicks in the context of the greater work. The serious student of military affairs will indulge and perhaps even appreciate Strachan’s decision to sacrifice historical breadth for theoretical depth. His insistence on Clausewitzian exactitude produces a uniquely incisive assessment of key moments in America’s 21st century wars that may be particularly valuable to American leadership as it leaves them behind.

This book’s ultimate lesson is that the current state of strategy and policy, both of the United States and its allies, is without direction. It is difficult to know where to go without comprehending where you’ve been. Strachan has illuminated the road behind us using the clarity of an academic, without any political or institutional bias refracting the beam.