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John Lewis Gaddis


Penguin Press, N.Y., 2018, 368 pgs., index, motes


Reviewer Comment

The author has an unusual approach to his discourse on the nature of strategy - and by 'grand strategy' of course he means the highest level in which strategic considerations and actions directly integrate military concepts with the political purposes desired. That is, military means with political ends. He stresses this unity throughout the book in so many ways. His approach is to meld:
- 1 description of the historical events
- 2 the strategic thought (and more important the actions) of the relevant personalities
- 3 analysis of these with reference to what great thinkers about strategy did or likely would have considered them positive or negative.
In particular he invokes St. Augustine, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Isaiah Berlin, and Tolstoy as the main commentators. But each chapter includes an interesting and surprising roster of individuals in addition to the the official leaders the reader might expect. The author's ability to find relevance to strategy and to thought about strategy in the thought of so many individuals and integrate it into the subject of that chapter is remarkable. I have listed a few relevant sources on strategy below.


Preface -

Professor Gaddis notes that his thinking about strategy has sources from his students whom he taught "Strategy and Policy" at the US Naval War College over the years; and from his teaching "Studies in Grand Strategy" at Yale University. Indeed, nothing, in my opinion, sharpens one's ideas about a topic than the experience of attempting to teach it. He notes that his approach to writing is 'informal, impressionistic, and wholly idiosyncratic" and it surely is. He continues: "I seek patterns across time, space and scale". He repeatedly draws attention to these three components relevant to strategy. He explains that his authorities on strategic theory, such as St. Augustine and Machiavelli, or Clausewitz and Tolstoy (and many more) will be talking to each other throughout the book.


Chapter 1 - Crossing the Hellespont

The chapter begins with Persian King of Kings Xerxes meditating on sending his army into Greece in discussion with an advisor, Artabanus. It continues with commentary on the strategy employed by both Persians and Greeks. The author also includes discussion with Isaiah Berlin, something to which he continues to return throughout the book. In particular, he repeatedly invokes the metaphor of the 'hedgehog and the fox' to categories he employs to differentiate methods of strategy. He also brings Tolstoy (War and Peace) into this analysis. His method, continued throughout the book, is to describe briefly but clearly the historical events that are subject to the strategies being considered by the historic actors, the later commentators and himself. In this example he jumps directly from Xerxes to Berlin to Tolstoy to Herodotus and back. Artibanus is Gaddis's fox and Xerxes is his hedgehog, but both ultimately fail.
In another remarkable shift Gaddis then jumps to the question of the possible ability of humans to forecast the future. He references Philip Tetlock's {short description of image}experimental project to identify 'super forecasters'. Gaddis categorizes Tetlock's individuals as foxes or hedgehogs. and that the foxes did 'better'.
In the following section Gaddis returns to Xerxes and Greece. He opens with this wise comment. "The test of a good theory lies in its ability to explain the past, for only if it does can we trust what it may tell us about the future."
Unfortunately so many economists and political pundits today believe history, the record of the past, began circa 1920 or later. Investment gurus deny that the past has any relevance to the future outcome of investment choices today.
Gaddis' appraisal - "Xerxes' invasion of Greece was an early but spectacular example of hedgehog - like behavior." ... "Xerxes failed, as is the habit of hedgehogs, to establish a proper relationship between his ends and his means. Because ends exist only in the imagination, they can be infinite: ... But "means, though, are stubbornly finite." This is a central theme Gaddis uses through out the book when evaluating specific strategies and strategic thinking. He invokes Tetlock again by noting that Xerxes was like Tetlock's hedgehogs and Artabanus was like Tetlock's foxes.
In another surprising jump Gaddis invokes F. Scott Fitzgerald's test that a 'first rate intelligence' must have the' - "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function". In other words, be both a fox and an hedgehog simultaneously - the critical ability Gaddis finds in 'great strategists'. For this he cites Berlin's view that some people are indeed both.
The remainder of the book is an exposition of these concepts in the contexts of specific historical examples, beginning (again unexpectedly) with Jane Austin and Steven Spielberg.
Moving through more individuals, Gaddis comes to Daniel Kahneman and his concept of 'fast and slow thinking' {short description of image}.
Then another key concept. "Which is what grand strategy is meant to prevent. (making dumb moves). I'll define that term. for the purposes of this book, as the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities. If you seek ends beyond your means, then sooner or later you'll have to scale back your ends to fit your means. Expanding means may attain more ends, but not all because ends can be infinite and means can never be. Whatever balance you strike, there'll be a link between what's real and what's imagined: between your current location and your intended destination. You won't have a strategy until you've connected these dots - dissimilar through they are - within the situation in which you're operating." Gaddis continues with an exposition on the term 'grand' in its context with 'strategy'.

Finally, this concept, "This, then, is a book about the mental Hellesponts that divide such leadership, on one shore, from common sense, on the other." Its all about the proper alignment of means and ends. And one can learn how better to do this by the study of great and not-so-great strategists.


Tangental aside - Gaddis is describing 'grand strategy' in the context of national security policy - the highest level of concerns about political - military relationships as it was enacted by real leaders. But many of his specific thoughts about excellent versus poor strategy relate also to private as well as public efforts to achieve ends. This is especially so with respect to means and ends. Not only do many people ignore Gaddis' advice about their proper alignment but they also confuse the two and treat means as ends.
What we have are several quite different categories of individuals (doers - thinkers - and thinkers about thinkers) - 1 actual employers of strategies to achieve real results - the kind of people Talib notes have 'skin in the game'. then 2 academic theoreticians who conjure up strategies they attempt to sell to leaders and deplore failures for not having done so, - then 3 authors who attempt to evaluate the theories proposed by the #2 types.


Chapter 2 - Long Walls

The title refers to the walls Athens constructed to connect the city with its port, Piraeus, thus giving up its farmland in Attica in favor of basing its strategy on naval power and its island empire. The principle strategist initially is Pericles. But he died in the terrible plague and was replaced by the vastly inferior Cleon. The author includes only the events and political/strategic policies of the participants in the Peloponnesian War that he considers critical and valuable with respect to analysis of strategy. But his summary of the critical strategic episodes is excellent. Among his reference theoreticians are Themistocles and Thucydides. His main actual strategists are Pericles and Cleon (but unnamed Spartans and Corinthians are noted as well)
He judges that, "Both Spartans and Athenians acted strategically, however, in that they were aligning aspirations with capabilities." He considers that both could have avoided war if they had 'trust' in each other, but that such trust was 'strikingly shallow' in the 'character of the Greeks". A typical shift in the chapter is commentary on the Korean and Vietnam wars with class discussions comparing these to Thucydides' evaluation of Greek decisions and Tolstoy's ideas in War and Peace.


Chapter 3 - Teachers and Tethers

In this chapter the author switches to consider Sun Tzu and Chinese strategic principles. These are both theoreticians, not practicing strategists. He then abruptly brings in Shakespeare's Polonius. Back to Sun Tzu, he quotes the famous admonition, "War is a matter of vital importance to the State, not to be embarked on without due reflection. (See my web page {short description of image}) There is much more to consider about Sun Tzu and the context of his ideas than Gaddis includes. His observation is that "Leadership in The Art of War, then, is seeing simplicities in complexity."
With another abrupt shift Gaddis turns to Julius Caesar and then even more to Octavian (Augustus). Plutarch is one of his sources. Antony, Lepidus, Sextus Pomeius, Cleopatra, Agrippa, Tiberius, and Cicero make their appearances (all of these were practicing strategists).


Chapter 4 - Souls and States

In opening this chapter Gaddis mentions George Kennan (the younger) who explored in Siberia and wrote about it in 1870. The context is the response of primitive peoples to fear of the unknown and unknowable. But this brief tangent is followed by one of Gaddis' main, lengthy discussions, that between St. Augustine and Machiavelli, who were both strategists and theoreticians. The contrasts and comparisons are central to his approach to what constitutes effective 'strategy'. One of their main 'discussion' topics is the question of what constitutes 'just war'. The chapter should be studied in detail. He again references and quotes Berlin effectively.


Chapter 5 - Princes as Pivots

Gaddis accepts the definition of a pivot as a turning point. The historical context of the chapter is the conflict between English Queen Elizabeth I and Spanish King Philip II, two consummate strategists. He comments that: "Both monarchs would have absorbed Augustine from Catholic doctrine - Philip avidly, Elizabeth grudgingly,,, and both may have read Machiavelli." (Which was widely available to them). The contrasts between the two are striking, especially in their thought processes and in their strategic policies. Gaddis appraises both in terms of St. Augustine and Machiavelli.


Chapter 6 - New Worlds

Gaddis contrasts the Spanish and English colonization in the New World and beyond. This is preliminary to his lengthy discussion of the American Revolution. The major thinkers appear, John Adams, Thomas Paine, John Locke, Edmund Burke, King George III, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison and then John Quincy Adams and James Monroe, several were both strategists and theoreticians. Gaddis discusses their strategic thinking in terms of aligning limited means and far reaching ends. And he refers to time and scale. British politicians (strategists) Canning and Churchill appear later.

His final appraisal: "There, unforgettably, was the compromise characteristic of the age: freedom in principle, perhaps even partially, eventually, in practice. But Union - and its requirement that great ends be kept within available means - came first. Only a state at peace with itself could save its soul. For now."


Chapter 7 - The Grandest Strategists

Gaddis opens with Tolstoy who 'evokes the gap that exists, at all levels, between theory and practice." He continues by noting that Clausewitz filled his writing with the same concept. "few if any others have thought more deeply or written more perceptively about time, space, and scale." Clausewitz writes in On War, leaving not the slightest doubt that he knows his subject". But so does Tolstoy. Gaddis is not a fan of Napoleon or his marshals and generals.
He quotes Clausewitz again: "War's 'grammar', Clausewitz writes in On War, 'may be its own, but not its logic'". Both Clausewitz and Tolstoy disparaged theories that sought to be laws. Gaddis discusses Clausewitz's central concept that war is a means to achieve a political end and must be subordinated to political policy. He writes that Napoleon lost sight of this critical reality. And Tolstoy reached a similar conclusion about Napoleon. Gaddis focuses also on Clausewitz's conception of 'friction' in war as a cause of asymmetries between aspirations and capabilities. He notes that Xerxes and Napoleon failed for the same reason. There is much more in this chapter.


Chapter 8 - The Greatest President

Gaddis begins here with an appraisal of John Quincy Adams' failures as a president despite having more designed training for the role than practically any other president. He begain with his first annual message to Congress by "mismatching his aspirations and capabilities on a Napoleonic scale". But Adams rehabilitated himself by being the only former president to serve in the House, where he continually championed the abolishment of slavery and suffered a death dealing stroke while speaking. From, J .Q. Adams Gaddis turns to Abraham Lincoln as a master strategist, always evaluating the possibilities of achieving significant ends with the means available and biding his time while seeking to create those means. He recognized, without having read it, Clausewitz's definition that war is 'an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will'. For example, Gaddis notes Lincoln's careful preparation and approach to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.


Chapter 9 - Last Best Hope

The chapter is about FDR as a skillful strategist. Berlin gives him high marks. "Over the next four years, it was Roosevelt, more than anyone else, who rescued democracy and capitalism - not everywhere and in all respects, but sufficiently to stabilize both so that the setbacks they'd suffered in the first half of the twentieth century cold reverse themselves in the second". And "Roosevelt, in striking contrast, (to Wilson) was one of those politicians equipped with 'antennae of the greatest possible delicacy, which convey to them ... the perpetually changing contours of events and feelings and human activities'."


Chapter 10 - Isaiah

The chapter begins with Berlin's activities during and after WWII. It includes his visit to Anna Akhmatova and her influence on him. As usual, the author leapfrogs from topic to topic, including FDR, Fitzgerald, Tetlock, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Xerxes, Pericles, St. Augustine, and Octavian; and topics such as liberty, freedom, and morality. Yet, it is all about the purpose of grand strategy


Some references

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Philip Bobbitt - Shield of Achilles His description of the function of strategy is based on practical assessment of its role for the modern state - It is the external counter part for Constitution which is the internal manifestation of policy.

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Philip Tetlock - Super forecasting The author's experiments show that it is possible for a few individuals who have developed special skills at analyzing data to gain unusual ability at prediction

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David Kahneman - Thinking fast and Slow The author received the Nobel Prize in economics for the application of his psychological insights to the way humans process data and reach decisions including those about investments

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Niccolo Machiavelli - My web site devoted to description and analysis of his works

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Karl von Clausewitz - On War

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Peter Paret - Clausewitz and the State

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Victor David Hanson ed - Makers of Ancient Strategy

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Christopher Bassford - Clausewitz in English

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Ken Mondschein, ed - The Art of War and Other Classics of Eastern Philosophy

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Beatrice Heuser - The Evolution of Strategy A huge study with very large bibliography. The author includes a huge number of theoreticians about strategy in her historical narrative

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Lukas Milevski - The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought The author begins with the Napoleon era.

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Lawrence Freedman - Strategy Another massive study in which the author expands his description of the application into many fields apart from the military.

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