Rational Security

The ABCs of Strategy

Everything you need to know about war is in children's books.


All you need to know about military strategy can be gleaned from children’s books. Not just classics, like Dr. Seuss’s Swiftian Butter Battle Book, with its keen insight into the dynamics of arms races, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s saga of conflict-ridden Middle Earth, but also in books for young readers written by leading novelists and historians. The heyday of elegant writing about big issues for young people by these sorts of authors ran from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the key works are well worth remembering.

Here’s a sampling of great "youth books" that explore strategic themes:

When it comes to recognizing that small, courageous, well-led forces can overcome far greater powers, look no further than Mary Renault’s Lion in the Gateway. Like her great novels set in ancient times — The Last of the Wine, The Mask of Apollo, and Fire From Heaven among them — Lion recreates an era, in this instance the time of the Greco-Persian Wars, in telling detail. It also explores a major strand of strategic thought concerned with assessing the extent to which a qualitative advantage — in this conflict, heavy Spartan infantry on land and maneuverable Athenian ships in close waters — can offset a numerical disadvantage. Along the way, Renault also makes clear that the "rise of the West" was utterly at stake in this epic struggle.

As to the defense of the West from invasion — the ultimate challenge upon which Rome finally foundered — there is no better illustration of the mastery of small, mobile armored forces than the story of whoever it was who spearheaded the defense of Britain in the 5th century C.E. The last of the Roman legions withdrew in 410, but an Arthur/Artorius — the legend is disputed, but somebody emerged at the head of the hard-hitting knights who defended threatened communities from barbarian assault. Christopher Hibbert, among the most prolific, respected historians of the past century — whose chosen topics range from the 15th century Battle of Agincourt to the World War II fight at Arnhem — chronicles in his The Search for King Arthur the remarkable string of victories, and the ultimate failure, too, of this still-mysterious great captain.

A long dark age followed the fall of Rome and the overrunning of Britain, but this was also an amazing time of military innovation, especially in the realm of defensive strategies. The Byzantines were great masters of defense, their empire surviving Rome by a thousand years — time enough to hold back the tide of Muslim conquest that threatened to engulf Europe. It was the Byzantines who perfected field and fixed fortifications, adopted the Arthurian concept of heavy mobile forces, and maintained naval mastery of much of the Mediterranean. Their way of war, as well as others’ practices during this period, can be best viewed in Charles Oman’s The Art of War in the Middle Ages. While not a "children’s book," it was written when the author was still an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1880s. Close enough. Oman returned to the subject later in a more detailed study, and also went on to write a multi-volume history of the Napoleonic-era Peninsular War. But in its youthful simplicity and crisp brevity, Oman’s Art of War remains one of the most useful strategic studies ever written.

After the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, and to a great age of oceanic exploration and discovery, a protracted struggle for control ensued in the northern half of the New World. The southern portion was shared by Spain and Portugal, but in the north conflict was the norm, sparked by increasingly bitter Anglo-French antagonism, including French use of Native Americans for terror raids on English settlements. The long struggle featured much of what we call "irregular warfare" today, with rangers emerging to protect against raiders — and sometimes to retaliate against them. These elite forces also helped to transform the whole British Army fighting in the North American wilderness, a key contribution to victory over the French. The century-long conflict is outstandingly covered in the American Heritage Junior Library’s The French and Indian Wars, a book whose depth of insight owes largely to the contributions of Lawrence Henry Gipson, the great scholar of this period.

Britain, having defeated France, now had to face an insurgency mounted by its own colonists — the well-known Revolutionary War that ended so badly for King George III. For all the many thousands of books published on this subject, it is hard to find clearer strategic analyses than those of two eminent historians, Lynn Montross and Thomas Fleming. Montross, whose famous War Through the Ages is broad in scope, captured the key to revolutionary success in his book for young readers, Washington and the Revolution: the skillful blending of conventional and guerrilla operations. Fleming, an outstanding historian of the War for Independence — Liberty! being one of his most popular works — also wrote The Battle of Yorktown, another Junior Library book. It is interesting to compare Battle which shows that this was not just a siege, but featured a lot of very hard fighting at close quarters — with Fleming’s study of Yorktown for adults, Beat the Last Drum. Both are wonderful. Battle strips away much detail, but holds its own quite well as a piece of strategic analysis.

After winning their independence, Americans soon found themselves in a new terror war — this time at sea rather than in the wilderness. And in the fighting against the Barbary Pirates, the al Qaeda of their time, many of the techniques on display today, from raiding to regime change, can be glimpsed. These are central themes advanced by the novelist and historian C.S. Forester — author of the Horatio Hornblower novels, a biography of Lord Nelson, and many other books for adults – in his The Barbary Pirates. It was written for Random House’s "Landmark" series for children; still, it offers a subtle, insightful analysis of the origins and course of the Barbary conflict, and of the ways to deal with such terrorism.

The Napoleonic Wars were going on at the same time as the fight against Barbary, and in my view the single book that best encapsulates the military revolution of the time is Manuel Komroff’s The Battle of Waterloo. This is one of Macmillan’s short "battle books," a series that enlisted great authors to give brief but compelling treatment to key moments in military history. Komroff, a playwright, novelist, and sometime historian, delivers the goods in Waterloo, keying on the growing importance of defensive firepower — something that would come to dominate great wars for the next century. His rendering of the British "thin red line" standing fast against the charging columns of the Grande Armée, and of the increasingly costly, futile French cavalry charges, is nothing short of luminous.

The American Civil War was fought half a century later, a period during which much progress had been made in weapons. Yet all too often the same methods of frontal assault persisted, and the carnage was awful. Nearly one in three Confederate soldiers died in battle or from their wounds. Union casualties, though higher, were a smaller percentage of the larger number who served. The fundamental dynamics of this first truly modern war have never been better sketched out than in Bruce Catton’s narrative in The Golden Book of the Civil War. Catton, award-winning author of the Centennial History of the Civil War and the Army of the Potomac trilogy, worked with Charles Flato to simplify the complex, and brought to bear a level of strategic insight seldom seen — in works for younger or older readers.

During the 25 years after the Civil War, the reunited, industrializing United States went to war in the West against a variety of Stone Age peoples. The latter fought with great valor, were often quite well armed, and used a wide range of hit-and-run raiding tactics. The great chiefs sometimes even fought more directly — and successfully. Cochise, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, and others all come alive in historian Paul Wellman’s Indian Wars and Warriors West (there is an East volume, too). Wellman’s classic accounts of these conflicts for adult audiences, Death in the Desert and Death on the Prairie, may hold more detail, but his version tailored for young readers is just as chock full of fresh perspectives for today’s soldiers who are called upon to conduct counterinsurgencies against tribal peoples.

This brings us to the world wars of the 20th century, books about which number in the hundreds of thousands. Only a relative few are aimed at young readers, but they include some brilliant strategic analyses. One of the best is another of Macmillan’s Battle Books, 1918: Gamble for Victory, by Robert Cowley, founding editor of Military History Quarterly. Nowhere in the vast literature on World War I is there better insight into the rise of German storm troop infiltration tactics — which became the foundation of blitzkrieg in the next conflict, so well chronicled in Robert Leckie’s The Story of World War II, another of Random House’s Landmark books. Leckie, a combat veteran of the Pacific War, became famous for his memoir Helmet for my Pillow, which was a basis for the HBO series The Pacific. Leckie managed to blend both concision and depth in his account of history’s largest war — something that just eluded Stephen Ambrose in his attempt at explaining World War II to younger readers, The Good Fight.

In recent decades, it has grown harder — at least for me — to find leading literary lights and eminent scholars writing about war for younger audiences. But I keep looking, because setting great writers the task of simplifying the complex has produced some of the deepest and most valuable explorations of human conflict. Readers of all ages benefit from such undertakings. So next time you go to the public library — if your community still has one — head to the children’s section and search out one of these Landmark or Golden books. If they have a "battle book," it will be in the "Y" stacks as well. Check one out. A world of insight awaits.

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