Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Colin Gray’s essays on strategy (II): Why 3 strategic classics remain relevant

In his 14th essay, Colin Gray makes a good argument that all you really need to do to understand strategy is read and re-read Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz. "These three books constitute the strategic canon," he advises. He adds an interesting thought: "It is only the generality of strategic ideas in the three classics ...

mbo_agasi/Flickr
mbo_agasi/Flickr
mbo_agasi/Flickr

In his 14th essay, Colin Gray makes a good argument that all you really need to do to understand strategy is read and re-read Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz. "These three books constitute the strategic canon," he advises.

He adds an interesting thought: "It is only the generality of strategic ideas in the three classics that saves them from utter irrelevance to the supremely pragmatic and ever changing world of the practicing strategist." I'd go a step farther and say that their very generality is what makes them so useful. War is chaotic, crammed with startling details and unexpected turns. In 2004 and 2005, as I was writing Fiasco and so trying to understand the war in Iraq, I took all those details and developments and sat down with Clausewitz and T.E. Lawrence for a month. Both books helped me "make sense" of what I had seen -- Clausewitz in strategic terms, Lawrence more on the tactical and cultural.

In his 14th essay, Colin Gray makes a good argument that all you really need to do to understand strategy is read and re-read Thucydides, Sun Tzu, and Clausewitz. "These three books constitute the strategic canon," he advises.

He adds an interesting thought: "It is only the generality of strategic ideas in the three classics that saves them from utter irrelevance to the supremely pragmatic and ever changing world of the practicing strategist." I’d go a step farther and say that their very generality is what makes them so useful. War is chaotic, crammed with startling details and unexpected turns. In 2004 and 2005, as I was writing Fiasco and so trying to understand the war in Iraq, I took all those details and developments and sat down with Clausewitz and T.E. Lawrence for a month. Both books helped me "make sense" of what I had seen — Clausewitz in strategic terms, Lawrence more on the tactical and cultural.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.