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Anachronism and Strategic History

Anachronism and Strategic History Anachronism and Strategic History
To cite this article: Black, Jeremy, “Anachronism and Strategic History”, Infinity Journal, The Strategy Bridge Special Edition, March 2014, pages 26-28.

For an ‘eighteenth-centuryist’, strategy is a problem issue, at once fascinating and deeply problematic. This is because, as so often for the historian, there are the problems involved in discussing a subject when the modern vocabulary was not employed, and, partly for that reason, parallels with modern conceptualisation are difficult to find. As a result, there can be a serious tension between the approach of the historian, with, in particular, the disciplinary emphasis on documentary sources from the period and the exposition of the social scientist. Colin Gray directly addresses this point in appendix C of The Strategy Bridge. Entitled ‘Conceptual “Hueys” at Thermopylae? The Challenge of Strategic Anachronism’, this is a characteristically vivid piece and one that is of major conceptual interest. Gray points out that ‘we modern strategists are damned if we do and damned if we do not’ use history (p. 272), before arguing that anachronism does not really matter if an explanation is anachronistic as long as ‘it does its intended job plausibly’ (p. 272). He closes the piece by suggesting ‘that when one thinks of strategy as a function, much of the sting goes away from the charge of strategic anachronism across time and culture’ (p. 273).

Using the past as a convenient data set in order to unlock thoughts for the present seems a reasonable proposition for a modern strategist. At the same time, there is the risk, as throughout strategic studies, that the data is selected, indeed in this case manipulated, in order to suit a theory for the present. Whether that is ‘functional’ is an interesting case.

Rather than pursuing this point at the grand conceptual level, I would prefer to turn to particulars, as they offer the possibility of showing that detailed historical work can throw light on strategic issues. More crucially, there is the possibility of approaching a more informed and a more profound understanding of the situation than if the past is simply used as ready information to be deployed without an awareness of the problems of the conjuncture, the contingent, and the evidence. In short, a close-grained or granulated use of past examples is necessary. It is immaterial whether this usage is by historians or political scientists/strategists but, in either case, it is essential to employ the skills of historical scholarship. The apparent ‘anachronism’ of the past, at least by modern standards, may emerge as a problem, but it is, in practice, a valuable perspective.

At times, the contrasts appear an extraordinary challenge. Societies where conflict is located in terms of confrontation alongside spirits against similarly arrayed hostile forces, for example the societies of Antiquity, may appear to have little to offer to the present-day strategist. In a different light, the same point can be made about pre-modern technologies, with their dependence for power sources (and the basic economy) on human and animal muscle and the wind, and current counterparts. These cases are very different, but they unlock major issues for consideration. The first, that of the spirit world, raises the significance of ideological drives and imaginings, and how these are to be understood in the case of goals and suppositions. The second, the case of technology, invites attention not only to the role of resources, but also to how resources that may seem fit for purpose in a particular context nevertheless greatly shape options.

The role of historical understanding can be highlighted by considering the power that for long most approximated in its time (and the latter qualification requires emphasis) to the modern USA. Of course, the very comparison invites selection in terms of the needs and interests of the present. The theme of imperial overstretch, of the Britain of the 1930s, appeared most pertinent to the USA of the 2000s, with both confronted by a number of difficult challenges and facing serious fiscal problems. However, aside from the complicating issues of the particular comparison that is made, notably America’s greater economic strength in the 2000s (and 1930s) compared to that of Britain in the 1930s, there is also the point that other periods offer differing points of reference. In the sense of being in a very different strategic environment, Britain in the 1850s was not the same as the USA in the 1950s, and so on.

The same point can be made about eighteenth-century Britain and, for that age, there is the additional perspective of a contemporary discussion in terms of a strategic concept that still makes sense today, that of the balance of power. Moreover, the balance reflects the impact, in then contemporary strategic thought, of scientific ideas; an impact which raises the question of how best to assess the impact of such ideas today. Indeed, it can be suggested that current strategic discussion has failed adequately to probe this issue.

The balance of power drew on mechanistic themes, not least because of the intellectual thrall of Newtonian physics. Sir Isaac Newton not only measured natural forces, he also argued that forces affected each other and thus could and should be measured. This understanding was linked to ‘political economy’, to adopt a British phrase of the time, referring in practice to the mathematisation of policy. If mathematics was found in both physics and public policy, the notion of measurement drew on a wider, though far from complete, spread of the Scientific Revolution into Western culture.

As a result, ideas such as the balance of power had weight culturally, as well as being of functional value. The idea of the balance of power also drew on rhetorics of limiting excessive power, both in international relations and in domestic politics. Thus, opposition to ‘universal monarchy’, the tyrannical expansionism and expansionist tyranny supposedly posed by France, notably under Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715), was linked to opposition to autocracy within a state, particularly hostility within Britain to James II of England (VII of Scotland, r. 1685-8), who was overthrown in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

In opposition to ‘universal monarchy’, the balance of power offered a strategy for international relations that was intended to protect the sovereignty of a multipolar system. States were seen as sovereign but linked as if within a machine. This system was regarded as self-contained, and as part of a static and well-ordered world. The concept was based on the model of the machine which, in turn, was treated as well-ordered and enabling its parts to conduct activities only in accordance with its own construction. The mechanistic concept of the system of states was well-suited to the wider currents of thought, specifically Cartesian rationalism, as well as its successors.

These currents of thought provided not only an analytical framework but also a moral context for international relations. For example, to take balance-of-power politics, which, as generally presented, appear as selfishly pragmatic, bereft of any overarching rules, and lacking any ethical theoretical foundations. In practice, however, the situation was somewhat different. There was a widely-expressed theory of the balance of power, with rules for its politics, outlined in tracts, pamphlets, doctoral dissertations, and explanations of the reasons for the resort to war. The relationship between such theoretization and rules on the one hand, and decision-making processes on the other, is obscure, and clearly varied by ruler and minister, but such discussion set normative standards that helped shape policies and responses.[i]

Without denying a central role for such notions, it is necessary to complement them with an awareness of organic assumptions. These were important, not so much at the level of the international system (until the nineteenth century), but at that of individual states. Moreover, these assumptions helped provide a dynamic component that is generally lacking with the more structural nature of the mechanistic themes. This dynamic component was vitalist in intention. In particular, there was a sense of a state as the expression of a nation, of the latter as linked in a national character, and as this character as capable of change and as prone to decay. The latter looked in part on cyclical accounts of the rise and fall of empires which drew much of their authority on the commanding role of Classical Rome in the historicised Western political thought of the period (there were similarities in China), but there was also a strong input from ideas of health. Thus, a traditional sense of the nation as akin to a person remained important.

This idea translated into the international sphere with a sense of nations as competitive and as under threat from challenges that were foreign as well as domestic in their causation and mechanism. As far as the conflicts involving England/Britain from the English war with Spain of 1585-1604 to the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) was concerned, anti-Catholicism was crucial in affecting English/British attitudes.[ii] This point is worth underlining because it encouraged a sense that the struggle should be persisted in, even in the face of news that was very negative, which was the case in the early days of the Seven Years’ War.[iii] Anti-Catholicism led to a sense of existentialist and meta-historical struggle. As a result, each war was but a stage in a more sustained and wider conflict.

Colin Gray would already have sat up and said that there is a confusion of strategy and policy here; and, indeed, that was very much the case as far as the period was concerned. There was a conceptual flexibility that reflected both the specific issue of the use of concepts in both a descriptive and a prescriptive fashion, and the more general porosity of language. The very lack of fixity engaged Samuel Johnson (and others) as they strove to provide linguistic structure in the eighteenth century shape of dictionaries, but it also reflected the absence of institutions that could shape strategy and policy, let alone relevant linguistic tools. There was no General Staff, the Admiralty was not a strategic-planning centre, and discussions in Cabinet were perfunctory.

As a result, there is no coherent body of documentation for the scholar to assess and deploy. Nevertheless, there were choices and priorities that had to be made, and these choices and priorities both leave a trace in the archives and provide the basis for discussion of strategy.

The most accessible situation occurred when Britain was a coalition partner as it was then necessary to coordinate policies with allies. This was the situation during most of England/Britain’s wars from 1672 to 1815, with the principal exceptions being the War of Jenkins’ Ear with Spain, and the War of American Independence, both before and after French intervention.

In these cases, it is readily possible to see the intertwining of military planning and diplomatic exigencies. Alliance warfare of this type was mostly the case on land. In contrast, the navy rarely was involved with allies after the decline of Dutch naval power. Thus, the evidence of, and for, strategy is more striking for land operations. At sea, however, there was the need to balance between tasks. This need and experience can be seen with the detachment of squadrons from home waters for the Baltic and the Mediterranean, an issue that remained a recurrent feature in naval planning and, with a different geographical span, is still pertinent today. Moreover, a strategy of naval commercial interdiction played a role in operations against the Dutch in the late-seventeenth century and, including a powerful trans-oceanic dimension, in the Anglo-Spanish crisis of 1725-7. Furthermore, the planned use of naval power in international crises, as in 1730, 1731, 1735, 1770 and 1790, can be seen as wide-ranging and reasonably sophisticated given serious limitations with communications and institutional support.

Thus, Gray is correct to discern the value of discussing strategy for periods that lack the vocabulary. At the same time, it is necessary to understand the issues, exigencies and concepts of specific historical episodes in order to develop a better understanding of them and thus to make a more appropriate use of such comparisons. Ultimately, the past does not belong to historians, but historical tools are required for its appropriate analysis.


[i] H.K. Kleinschmidt, The Nemesis of Power (London, 2000), esp. pp. 114-70 and ‘Systeme und Ordnungen in der Geschicht der internationalen Beziehungen’, Archiv für kulturgeschichte, 82 (2000), pp. 433-54; A. Osiander, The States System of Europe, 1640-1990. Peacemaking and the Conditions of International Stability (Oxford, 1994).
[ii] M. Schlenke, England und das friderizianische Preussen, 1740-1763 (Munich, 1963), pp. 171-225.
[iii] G. Yagi Jr., ‘A Study of Britain’s Military Failure During the Initial Stages of the Seven Years’ War in North America, 1754-1758’ (Exeter, PhD, 2007).