It would be all too easy to laud Colin Gray with his contribution to strategic theory by simply praising his work, but I will leave that to others. I cannot say I knew Colin well. Others knew him better than I, but we did talk and correspond, and Infinity Journal was born of his ideas. Indeed Colin provided the framework on which we built the publication and will continue to evolve it.
I came to know Colin Gray when, in 2005 I picked up a copy of Another Bloody Century, which remains one of his best works, albeit he believed it not to be one of his best. The dedication in Another Bloody Century reads, “To my daughter Tonia. May she live in a peaceful world, contrary to her father’s expectations.” Colin wrote with a purpose often absent today.
When I did meet Colin some years later, I cannot say the shuffling professor, dragging his shopping trolley of books around campus, immediately impressed me, but all doubts fell away once he started talking. I never found Colin arrogant, but he was perhaps naturally impatient, and highly competent. He offered a correction or alternative view with little recourse to ceremony and he was very ready to counter anything he saw as misleading, but never in way that could be described as impolite. Direct, maybe. It didn’t matter if you had ‘done stuff’ or ‘were somebody’. If you wanted to set forth about strategy or military science in general, you had better come to the table fully prepared.
An occasion that sticks in my mind was the Israeli Air Force Conference of 2011. Colin was on the “speakers table” during lunch on the first day. Sitting with him were various Air Power luminaries, especially from the US. One of the luminaries of US Air Power then told the table that the great thing about air power was that it was “inherently strategic.” Colin had been almost silent up until this point, but he commenced with a seemingly innocuous utterance, “if I may”, then proceeded to explain how saying air power was inherently strategic was one of the stupidest things he had ever heard. After five minutes there was mixture of very red faces or wide grins depending on where you sat in terms of your beliefs about air power. The point wasn’t about “strategy”. It was about context.
As most reading this may know, Colin went on to address many deep seated beliefs about airpower, and the US Air Force paid him to do it, though some of those more transfixed by the glory of airpower may have found his words hard to read, not because his arguments were complicated but they certainly created discomfort.
While Colin was an “academic” he was one that most military men found easy to speak to. General Rupert Smith cited Colin in glowing terms to me, and General James Mattis called him the “most near-faultless strategist alive today.” It is my understanding that Colin and James Mattis met while Mattis was the US Secretary of Defence. Safe to say few academics had the credibility Colin Gray did, with men in uniform and few had his track record of being “inside the tent” when it came to working on real strategic problems, especially as concerns nuclear weapons and defence policy in general.
Annoyingly, in my opinion, Colin was never really aware of what he did well. He was quite capable of writing just one passage or paragraph that would create real clarity and insight. It wasn’t his great academic work which helped those who read him improve their understanding. It was his simple utterances and books he regarded as less than his best works that made the real difference. Another Bloody Century has already been mentioned. War, Peace, and International Relations is another stellar work, as is his concept of “Strategic History” which is perhaps his greatest contribution to education and to the teaching of strategy, but one he was completely and utterly unaware of until Dr. A.E. Stahl reminded him of it in a quite hilarious email exchange. If we were to suggest that Colin created, best articulated, or even coined “Strategic History”, which he did, it was of little interest to him.
Given his track record and prominence, it was hardly surprising then, that when A.E. Stahl and I sat in a Tel Aviv café, back in 2010 and decided the world needed a publication to inform and educate about the true meaning of strategy, the first email to be written in that moment was to Colin Gray. We must have got something right, although we got pretty beaten up along the way as Colin applied the odd course correction.
The last time I met Colin he was clearly not well. He wasn’t doing well physically but his brain was still like a steel trap. I don’t know if I sensed I wouldn’t see him again, but I found myself pressing him on three points.
Firstly, did he, like me, still default to Clausewitz as the source of reason and common sense when it came to war, warfare, and politics, thus strategy? –so “if not Clausewitz, then who?” – and be aware, I was highly dismissive of Clausewitz until I started reading Colin Gray. It is deeply ironic that those who take a more academic approach to the study of Clausewitz almost never cite the Prussian with a deep understanding of Clausewitz in terms of practical application.
Secondly, was Strategy still inherently about the consequences of violence for political purposes?
Thirdly and lastly, did he think there was an “operational level of war.”
On the first two, we were in broad and violent agreement. On the last he said I was asking the wrong question. If soldiers found it helpful, then it had merit, but as Colin often said, strategy can only be done in and as tactics, and as Clausewitz opined, the “Many readers will no doubt consider it superfluous to make such a careful distinction between two things so closely related as tactics and strategy because they do not directly affect the conduct of operations.”
It may take some time for Colin to be actually appreciated for what he did. I never encountered any part of him even slightly interested in self-promotion. He wrote what he thought needed to be written, and not what he thought would sell. Where he was controversial, he was for honest reasons, and reputation formed no part of it. He was not an iconoclast, but he was ruthless with the received wisdom that permeates our field of endeavor.
How best then, to remember Colin Gray? His author bio in most of his books merely reads, “Colin S. Gray is Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, University of Reading.” Well, if you read those words printed in a book, it means you’re reading Colin Gray. Good enough.
William F. Owen
Editor, Military Strategy Magazine