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An Introduction to Strategic Misfortunes

Strategy is a concept that is exceptionally easy to understand – on paper that is. In practice, it remains notoriously difficult to execute. We know this because of the wealth of knowledge contained within the history of warfare – or if one chooses, throughout strategic history. Yet, precisely what is this high concept? What does it mean and what is its role? After all, these are questions that must be answered, however briefly, before one can begin to understand any misfortune in the function of Strategy. If we turn to history’s greatest military theorist, the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, we understand that Strategy is the “use of the engagement for the purpose of the war”.[i] In Clausewitz’s definition, “engagement” ultimately implies violence and “purpose” denotes the political condition and/or political behavior being sought. Today, one may prefer to use a definition of Strategy proffered in more modern wording: “Strategy refers to the use made of force and the threat of force for the ends of policy. It is the bridge that connects policy with military power.”[ii] Though separated by 175 years, ultimately both definitions speak to the very same meaning and role of Strategy: it is an activity, deportment, or even response concerned with the linkage of violence to political purpose.

The history of warfare has provided posterity with a treasure chest of examples where military leaders devised and executed Strategy with sheer excellence. For one example, we can turn to the Battle of Marathon, which, with great thanks to historians such as Hans Delbrück, we now have a clearer understanding of the events that took place in this ancient battle. It was in the Vrana Valley in 490 B.C.E. that Miltiades and his hoplite forces defeated the invading Persians. He was able to accomplish this through, among others, a combination of his brilliant understanding of the terrain; the force deployment of his Athenian hoplites aimed at opposing Persian cavalry and their formidable archers prior to the battle; and in how he managed to utilize his forces in order to counter attacks to their flanks once violence began. The purpose of the engagement was simple. Miltiades and his hoplites accepted battle with the Persians for the maintenance of the security of Athens, and arguably, Greece at large. This was a display of Strategy at its finest. Brilliant lessons in Strategy aside – let alone Strategy that has been executed “good enough” – arguably, they are not equivalent to the strategic misfortunes found throughout strategic history, including contemporary and current times.

The list of strategic misfortunes is long and bloody, too long to be listed even in a special edition dedicated to the subject. However, a few examples are necessary in order to bring forth a clear understanding of the purpose of this edition.

While historical accounts and records of wars may be incomplete and slanted, the end result of wars cannot be. We know who won and we know who lost. As concerns strategic history, it is chock full of strategic misfortunes found within the conduct of war.  A strategic misfortune can imply anything from difficulty to outright failure in linking “ends” and “means” via “ways”. Moreover, failure in the function of Strategy need not occur within one instance of fighting – it can actually be a long and drawn out process. For example, and again turning to the chronicles of strategic history, in 216 B.C.E. General Hannibal of Carthage defeated one Roman army (possibly up to 50,000 dead Romans and Italians) at the Battle of Cannae within the spate of a day. Yet, despite such a tactical achievement, Hannibal failed strategically. He subsequently occupied parts of Italy for over a dozen years and never succeeded in turning his battlefield achievements or military occupation of Italy into positive political effect for Carthage.

In contemporary historical times, Napoleon is a prime candidate for strategic misfortunes. Despite the French Emperor’s numerous tactical successes, Napoleon racked up an abundance of strategic failures spread across the European continent, and beyond, throughout his rule. Similar to Hannibal, he could never turn his bloody triumphs into positive political achievements for the French Empire. Such failures effectively ensured that every battle won ultimately mattered little, at least for the maintenance of the French Empire.

In World War I, volumes could be written on the strategic misfortunes that took place in Europe alone. In 1914, the German General Staff’s “Schlieffen Plan” quickly turned into a massive strategic failure for Germany, placing pressure on the entire German armed forces. As a result of, among others, amendments to the original German plan, the unexpected speed at which the Russians were able to organize and deploy, and the French ability to mount a counterattack, culminating in the Battle of the Marne, Germany’s initial political aims were quickly lost. In what was expected to be a rapid victory against France, events morphed into years of so-called trench warfare and ultimately, in the defeat of the German Empire.

At present, and despite knowledge that the history of warfare has provided, strategic failure continues unabated. Strategic misfortunes have permeated numerous conflicts since the 1980s – from the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Argentinians in the Falklands War, the US and French in Lebanon, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the US and international forces in Somalia in 1993, United Nations’ forces in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the Israel Defense Force in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

So, how and what can we learn from both historical and current strategic failures that will assist in the future? Answering these questions through the examples provided in the following articles is the purpose of this Infinity Journal Special Edition. In this edition, six individuals have written on a wide range of topics that do not simply point out the strategic failures that have occurred, but perhaps more importantly, why they happened. It is from these writings that we must learn and subsequently apply lessons if one desires to avoid, as best as possible, future strategic misfortune.

Eminent strategic theorist Professor Colin S. Gray argues that the Luftwaffe’s failure in the summer of 1940 was the direct result of the excellence of RAF Fighter Command, rather than because of its own mistakes, serious though these were. In this Infinity Journal Special Edition article, Gray explains the strategic nature of the German defeat.

Lt. Col. Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria, II, a world-renowned historian, Clausewitzian scholar, and Director of Research for the U.S. Army War College, argues that Erwin Rommel’s generalship continuously pushed men and materiel to their limits, which precipitously wore down forces that were merely intended to provide security and stability along the flank of the main theater of operations against the Soviet Union. Rommel failed to appreciate the operational interplay between land power and air power – and his forces paid the price at El Alamein.

Defense analyst and lecturer at the Israeli Defense Force Command and General Staff College, Dr. Eado Hecht, holds that adaptation of Israel’s successful strategy to quell Palestinian attacks emanating from neighbouring Arab states to the unique circumstances of Lebanon led to the First Lebanon War in 1982. However, after initial success, the strategy failed.

United States Army Colonel and Director of Military History at West Point, Gian P. Gentile, provides a self-critical assessment of how he came to violate the dictates of being a good historian: he began to think like a social scientist and embraced a model that placed the primacy of strategy over tactics in war. What he found, however, is that history does not always conform to that model.

Associate Professor and Senior Analyst, Dr. C. Dale Walton, examines US decisions regarding war and peace from the Vietnam War to the present. He finds a disturbing pattern of “anti-Clausewitzian” behavior. Walton argues that the US military is very good at fighting wars, but America’s civilian leaders frequently have misused their military instrument, engaging in ill-conceived adventures without first carefully assessing likely human, financial, and other costs, establishing clear goals, and crafting a realistic roadmap for winning the conflict in a timely fashion.

Lastly, Adam Elkus, a defense and security analyst and doctoral candidate in international relations, writes that the sheer scale and complexity of the Chinese Civil War belies assertions that today’s substate conflicts are uniquely challenging. Elkus looks at what lessons we can grasp from the complexity and contingency of Mao’s victory and the Nationalists’ strategic misfortune.

As a Co-Founder and the Publisher of Infinity Journal, it is my true pleasure to offer our readers this Infinity Journal Special Edition, “Strategic Misfortunes”.


A.E. Stahl
Publisher, Infinity Journal
October 2012


[i] Strategy, as defined by Clausewitz, was well understood by many of contemporaries, such as August Wagner, August Otto Ruhle von Lilienstern, Gerhard Scharnohorst, among many others. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984): 177.
[ii] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History, (New York, Routledge 2007): 1, 284.