Best Defense

It is high time for a new edition of the classic study Makers of Modern Strategy

It has become the custom for U.S. Army Chiefs of Staff to issue professional development reading lists.

The two latest editions of Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton University Press)
The two latest editions of Makers of Modern Strategy (Princeton University Press)


By Michael Hennelly
Best Defense office of strategic readings

It has become the custom for U.S. Army Chiefs of Staff to issue professional development reading lists. Oddly enough, the books that are recommended on these lists vary widely from year to year. There is no book that is common to every list, but the book they recommend the most is Makers of Modern Strategy (aka MoMS) and thereby hangs a tale.

In the early 1940s, a wave of global conflict crashed over American heads and the United States entered a war of unprecedented size, scope and complexity. The limited experience of World War I had not prepared America for the demands of a protracted global war. The thought arose that an understanding of the concept of strategy would enable Americans to more strongly support the demands and sacrifices of World War II. To this end, a group of scholars spearheaded by historian Edward Mead Earle met in 1941 in Princeton (of all places) to discuss the various threads of political and military strategy. The result of that meeting was published in 1943 as Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to Hitler (hereafter MoMS 43).

MoMS 43 consisted of 21 chapters that covered 420 years of strategic thinking beginning with Machiavelli and ending with an epilogue on Hitler and the Nazi concept of war. Most of the chapters focused on individual strategic thinkers such Clausewitz, Du Picq, Trotsky, and Mahan but two chapters examined generic topics of strategic thought (e.g. Japanese naval strategy). The guiding principle of the book was that America was facing unprecedented threats to its security and this situation required an unprecedented approach to the study of strategy.

The post-war era saw the rise of new and unfamiliar strategic concepts. The Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and the concept of deterrence became part of a new strategic vocabulary. It gradually became evident that MoMS 43 needed to be updated. In 1986, Earle’s intellectual descendants produced a second edition entitled Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (hereafter MoMS 86). This is the book that has appeared on so many Army reading lists. The second edition was twice the size of the first but it followed the same pattern. Some of the 28 chapters focused on individual strategists but there was also a strong emphasis on general topics of military strategic thought (e.g. “The Political Leader as Strategist” or “Revolutionary War”).

MoMS 86 is a valuable work but it was written before the internet was invented. When MoMS 86 was published, the world was a very different place. In 1986, the United States was happily providing arms and money to Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan. In the more than three decades since the publication of MoMS 86, the idea of strategy has acquired a new grammar and logic. A new edition of Makers of Modern Strategy is long overdue.

I have two recommendations for a new edition of this book and these recommendations follow in the spirit of Earle’s original impetus for developing the field of strategic studies. It is not enough to simply expand MoMS in a chronological manner (e.g. adding chapters on the implications of new technologies that have arisen in the last few decades). Unprecedented threats to national security require unprecedented approaches to strategy.

Recommendation 1: Expand the cultural approach to the study of strategy. One of the shared characteristics of both editions of MoMS is a preoccupation with Western ideas of strategy. About 95 percent of both editions focus on American or European perspectives of strategy. In MoMS 86, even the chapter on revolutionary warfare adopts a predominantly Western view of the subject. So, for example, a new edition of MoMS should include substantial considerations of strategic thought from the Middle East and Asia.

Recommendation 2: Expand the cross-disciplinary approach to the study of strategy. The first two editions of MoMS demonstrated an awareness of the value of linking military strategy to other disciplines — specifically, political science and economics. A new edition of MoMS should continue and expand this line of thought and consider the relevance of the field of corporate strategy. This idea is not as far-fetched as it might seem. The vast majority of people who study strategy in the United States and the vast majority of scholars who write about strategy all do so in business schools.

Consider one of the articles in MoMS 86 entitled “Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists.” This article traces the development of the technology, doctrine, and strategic implementation of air power. Interestingly, there is no awareness in this article of several topics that are of great interest to management theorists. For example, the article does not address air power from the perspective of being a new, disruptive technology even though the development of air power was surprisingly rapid (only 66 years elapsed between the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk and the first lunar landing). The article also does not address one of the most fundamental issues of management — the logic of aligning organizational strategy and structure. This omission is significant because the most appropriate organizational structure for air forces was a very contentious issue for decades. For example, the Royal Air Force was set up as an independent branch of the British armed forces during World War I while the United States Air Force was not set up as an independent branch of the American armed forces until after the conclusion of World War II in 1947.

In conclusion, we need a new MoMS and it should be one that incorporates new and different strands that do a more complete job of expanding our understanding of the field of military strategy.

Mike Hennelly served in the U.S. Army for 21 years where he qualified as an Army Ranger and was certified as an Army strategist. Later, as a civilian with a Ph.D in strategic management, he taught strategy to MBA students at two different universities and then spent seven years teaching strategy and leadership to cadets at West Point.

Photo credit: Princeton University Press

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 @tomricks1
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