“Everyone has a plan, ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” That pithy line from Mike Tyson is the opening salvo in Lawrence Freedman’s book, Strategy: A History – and it’s a well-chosen shot from the professor of war studies at King’s College, London. At over 700 pages, the book is a daunting prospect, but is saved from being a dry academic tome by the lithe jauntiness of a world-class heavyweight writing at the peak of his career.

The book meets the promise of its title – this is a comprehensive history of strategy; it’s not a manual for fighting wars nor a hand-holding guide for businessmen. It’s a fascinating, detailed and engaging description of 2,000 years of the development and philosophy of our attempts to think about actions in advance. “Strategy is fluid and flexible. It is governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

The book is divided into four sections: War, Politics, Business and Social Science.

The first section describes the origins of strategy as a tool of war. It encapsulates 2,000 years of history and reads like evolution itself: from the war-like nature of ants and the deceptive talents of chimpanzees; David and Goliath from the Bible; the Greeks and Romans; Sun Tzu (the Taoist military sage); Machiavelli (a government official under Cesare Borgia); and through Clausewitz and Jomini writing on Napoleon to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major-General” as he transforms into the post-Industrial Revolution boardroom leader.

For anyone labouring under a modern syllabus education, this section alone is a useful introduction to classical literature. It’s the story of the stories that informed all the stories that followed.

Freedman then shifts to direct strategy’s twin weapons of strength and cunning on politics. Faced with the possibility of instant thermonuclear annihilation after the Second World War, governments turned to The New Strategists to help them resolve conflict in ways other than head-on.

“All actions take place in something virtually akin to dusk, which in addition, like fog or moonlight, gives objects an exaggerated size and a grotesque view.” – Clausewitz

The key people in this new approach largely came from the RAND Corporation – the originators of the “think tank”. RAND mainly hired economists and social scientists to direct the thinking. Their most influential graduate was US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who pioneered the use of quantitative analysis while at the Ford Motor Company.

Other key players include RAND graduate Herman Kahn (who, incidentally, inspired the title caricature of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove) and his book, On Thermonuclear War; Viennese economist Oskar Morgenstern and his book, The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior; and the development of the “crisis game” by Thomas Schelling. All three contributed to Games Theory and the rise of scenario planning as they sought to simulate the confused and stressful conditions facing modern decision-makers.

The usefulness of this type of thinking culminated in September 1961, when a number of rounds of Schelling’s game took place in Washington DC. The “single most striking result,” according to Schelling, was “our inability to get a fight started.” This led to his conclusion that, “Whoever it is who has to initiate the action that neither side wants is the side that is deterred. In a fragile situation, good strategy involves leaving the overt act up to the other side.”

This shift in strategy had marked, beneficial effects a month later during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when President Kennedy spent much of the crisis trying to determine the effect of a particular course of action on Moscow.

Freedman presents these observations from both the top (generals and presidents) and the bottom (Marx, Gandhi and social revolution). The result could have been overwhelming, except for Freedman’s patient, unpatronizing tone. Instead, his book is a fascinating review of the tools available to all of us to create agile, informed and interesting decisions.

Image: The Soviet Star and two doves of peace painted on a floor of the former Soviet Army nuclear weapons depot near Prague REUTERS/Petr Josek 

Author: Sheridan Jobbins is a journalist and screenwriter.