Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 2  /  

Strategic History

Strategic History Strategic History
To cite this article: Gray, Colin S, “Strategic History,” Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, summer 2018, pages 4-8.


The two familiar words that comprise this concept rank high among misunderstood terms. Both noun and adjective are as popular as they often deceive. In a book published a few years ago I offered the following effort at definition:

Strategic history is the history of the influence of the use, and threat of use, of politically motivated force.[i]

These words are tolerable, provided the reader understands, first, that strategy is about ideas for action, not action itself. Second, the reader needs to appreciate the true meaning of history. Historians write and interpret what commonly is miscalled and misunderstood as history, but actually is not and cannot be. History and the past are of course different. All communities, nations and tribes, tell tales about themselves that are, in varying measure, untrue. History books worldwide are shot through with inaccuracies, myths and legends. This is the case even when our tribal educators strive to be accurate. The problem is fundamental and insoluble. The past cannot be recreated, no matter how hard and honestly we try. Plainly this cannot be welcome news for the bold strategic theorist grappling with the concept of strategic history. The best advice this strategic theorist can offer is that we should note, even admit, the weakness in the key words of our preferred definition(s), but ought not to discard highly potent ideas just because they have limitations. What does matter profoundly is that the limitations should be well understood. Notwithstanding the difficulties that beset the concept of strategic history, it is rewarding to understanding to pose the fundamental question – why? Why is the idea of strategic history important? Scarcely less important is the ancillary question, why have neither scholars nor military practitioners adopted this concept in order to see whither it might take them?

The intellectually respectable, if less than glittering, answer most probably is so obvious that it has hidden successfully in plain sight. Strategic theorists have lacked an openness of mind to unfamiliar concepts, especially to those that did not enjoy significant popular endorsement. If scholars appear happy enough with the intellectual content of the ideas that they inherited, where else can they begin their studies? They are not likely to launch intellectually exciting, but perilous, expeditions in quest of novel concepts to attempt to tame and employ. Among other hazards, intellectual novelty in the broad fields of defence and security might even be dangerously imprudent. A concept like strategic history is almost frightening in what its use, even its abuse, might suggest and possibly reveal.

The very concept of strategic history has an inherent bias away from the time horizon in which politicians and journalists feel comfortable, the present day and very recent past are their temporal focus, because their employment is about today and not much later than that. Also, the jobs of politicians and journalist critics are tied to the conduct of political affairs. The experts who must manage current and near-term future affairs are, by analogy with the military hierarchy of higher command, locked into a world of tactics, with occasional operational level forays. Probably contrary to appearances, this is not to be super critical of busy officials and politicians. In their jobs they are more than fully employed with tactics and operations. Quite obviously there is little time left available for policy and its strategy. It is not hard to understand why the concept of strategic history has little or no appeal to overly busy officials and politicians. Sadly, it can be said that the concept has what exceedingly limited appeal it does enjoy in good part because it sounds so grand, while remaining beyond practical utility.

It is probably sensible to dampen what could prove to be undue enthusiasm for the concept of strategic history simply for the reason that now it is much too soon to be either optimistic or pessimistic on the vital matter of its utility.

On one important claim we can be entirely certain about our interpretation of the past: specifically, whatever its geopolitical and therefore geostrategic scope may or may not have encompassed, we can be certain that all human communities, in all periods of the past, had and were aware they had, a strategic context within which they were (and are) obliged by necessity to operate. Human beings gather in communities for security. This gathering requires political activity, which inevitably leads to anxiety about rival communities. Thus, the need for strategy is born, always and everywhere. World history includes a ubiquitous strategic theme. We have always had a strategic context.

History – The Plot

A vital, indeed essential, function of theory is to help make sense of what, in its absence may be largely a confused and confusing muddle. Possible players as well primarily as those acting bystanders tend to merge, even fuse, into an inchoate mass. Rulers, actual as well as merely aspiring, typically escape our contemporary ability to look back with much understanding, let alone empathy. All too obviously, meaning in history (or the past, more accurately though less manageably) is beyond reliable control by the aspirant historian.[ii] Frustration looms as we strive to make sense of our past. Possible evidence we have, but how should we proceed in an attempt to corral and probably then categorize, the sheer mass of yesterday’s happenings? The scale of the challenge is not easily met even were we to enjoy a quantity and quality of access to the past that is quite beyond us now. Although we enjoy a fair quality of access to much that has happened of recent years, that comprises only a notably modest fraction of total human experience. In order to locate and study our strategic history, obviously we require theory in order to allow us to discriminate between strategic and non-strategic matters.

Fortunately, we have readily to hand the logical basis necessary for the unlocking of all human doors upon strategic behaviour. What is more, there is no need for historical personnel to intend such behaviour. In order to penetrate human behaviour what is necessary is ruthless application of the elementary, indeed elemental, logical formula comprising at its core just four elements: Ends, Ways, and Means, together with the help and hindrance of Assumptions. Logically as usefully reliably inclusive as the Thucydidean triptych of fear, honour, and interest, these fundamental four enable us to endeavour to explain happenings long in the past concerning which reliable records are conclusively missing.[iii] As students of Carl von Clausewitz, we are not confused about the stakes in strategic history.

We can and probably should go beyond the Prussian’s theorizing and agree that the threat or actual use of military power always has political meaning, both that intended at the time of its employment and also that which follows, either wholly or only partially as a consequence.[iv] As the better histories recognize, a great deal that happens is almost certainly largely the product of fortune, good and bad. The general theory of strategic history I advance here makes no demands for accurate fine-grained detail. I grant freely that states and their functionally partial predecessors in pre-modern times frequently misbehaved in strategically incompetent ways. Also, I recognize, of course, that in the real world of whichever time and in whatever geography, strategic leaders were obliged by often frustrating necessity to do the best they were able, given the contextual realities which only rarely they could design and execute for optimum effect. In other words, whether it was Ancient Rome striving for the security of the frontier of empire beyond the Euphrates, or American policymakers two millennia later endeavouring (ineffectively) to oppose the maturing of Russian influence in Syria, the story is really the same strategically.[v] Whether it is Rome with approximately thirty legions, and a like number of auxiliary units, or the United States today spending $600 billion annually upon the defence function (understood broadly), it is perhaps a cause of some surprise that so little of fundamental significance bearing upon human security has changed over millennia. The scholar eventually may surrender conceptually and even morally to the highly controversial argument that the strategic history of the human race essentially is a unity that can be accommodated fully, if not always comfortably, under the tent provided by one general theory. Regarded properly, which means functionally, it is not really hard to grasp the unity of all human phenomena.

Strategic history worthy of the bold and unfamiliar title fits over the conceptual quartet of Ends, Ways, Means, and Assumptions, a thoroughly functionally reliable guide. Societies cannot, indeed also historically could not, compete, sometimes militarily, for security without their employment of whatever local mix of real-time, real world, actualities that were, or are, to hand and available. The conceptual quartet fits all actors in all periods. Of course, every political player makes mistakes from time to time, but the logic of strategic necessity is inexorable and unavoidable, except by accident. The strategic historian has no difficulty seeking and occasionally finding unusual tactics, possibly bizarre operational intentions, and even cases of largely unmerited strategic advantage. Strategic history does not make extravagant demands, and its probable course and consequences are rarely surprising. Really it qualifies as superior existential truth. In any and every period of history, the political actors had chosen policy goals, and they were obliged to find strategies to make effective use of the military and other means available to them. The theory’s austerity, free of detailed advice, means that it can, and should, serve as the basis for specific theory that does privilege particular strategic choices.


No matter how advanced our social sciences are becoming there should be little reason to doubt that geography will never be removed from the top table of contributors to global anxieties, even actual mayhem. In the wise words of the great Dutch-American geopolitical theorist, Nicholas J. Spykman:

Because the geographic characteristics of states are relatively unchanging and unchangeable, the geographic demands of those states will remain the same for centuries, and because the world has not yet reached that happy state where the wants of no man conflict with those of another, those demands will cause friction. Thus at the door of geography may be laid the blame for many of the age-long struggles which run persistently through history while governments and dynasties rise and fall. [vi]

Although it certainly has proved to rank highly among the influences that produce discord and worse among peoples, geography, both physical and what needs to be termed cultural, has always found generous support provided by public anxiety and, of course, inevitably politics. As best we are able to tell from what passes as evidence, albeit only minimally at best in some cases, strategic history has not altered in kind, at least not in ways that should count as being truly exceptional. This may appear a shocking thought to some of the readers of the journal. Under serious consideration here is the relevant hypothesis: Notwithstanding the libraries that have been written on the subject of the ‘new’, at least the different, I am exploring the possible merit in the proposition that little of fundamental importance for human life and happiness has shifted in times of record. This proposition obviously is absurd unless I pause promptly to explain exactly what I am, and more significantly, what I am not claiming.

Both material and ideational cultures have registered significant changes many times now past. However, what is particularly interesting is to notice the major contributions that do not appear to have altered in fundamental ways. If we focus on categories of behaviour rather than individual items, we discover that strategic history lends itself readily to organization for disciplined analysis and, hopefully, understanding. The argument here can be reduced to the necessity to comprehend the necessary relations among only three vital qualities: security, politics, and strategy. These three are structurally adequate to support a general theory of strategic history. As always, no advance can be secured unless the central concepts are defined rigorously and subsequently applied as appropriate.

First, for a rather unsatisfactory conceptual launch, it should be recognized that security is an idea beyond definitional settlement. It is always both variable with contextual meaning and also notably subjective. Just as individuals have very different levels of tolerance of risk, so security is a feeling that varies among people, probably at different times of day, let alone in different days of the week!

Second, security always is arranged, sometimes prearranged by politics. All places and all times of necessity have had resort to political process. It is not always pretty, or even constitutionally legal, but we need to appreciate this process in functional terms. The purpose of politics, everywhere, at all times, and in a myriad of behavioural forms, is ever about the gaining of influence. The purpose of the political activity, the reason why influence is sought, does not concern us in the crafting of a general theory. It is sufficient for our current purpose simply to know that we humans have always done this.

Third, unsurprisingly, strategic history mandates the paying of attention to the full and proper meaning of the concept of strategy. Strategy commands the third position in the trilogy of ideas necessary for this general theory, because it is necessary for our general theory to have extensive, indeed strictly limitless temporal reach. Although security and politics flag necessary beliefs and activities, only the purpose that should be indicated by the consequences of behaviour conveys the necessary sense of movement to behaviour that otherwise may appear all but locked. Of course, there is no law requiring a matching of effort expended to contextual change. Habit and tradition can disappoint would-be innovators, in both material and cultural fields.

Those who care deeply about the physical geography that continues to figure prominently in our thinking about strategic history, cannot be insensible to the frequency with which particular terrain has been organized for all too familiar reasons bearing on aspirations for regional hegemonic sway. Not only have people in all periods acted similarly, they have done so in approximately the same places geographically. Any doubts we may entertain in this matter should readily be quelled by reflections on the seemingly endless high strategic significance of three rivers: the Rhone, Danube and Euphrates.

Strategy and History

All history is strategic! This extravagant seeming claim reads as if it might be a final-year university examination question. Naturally, if this was a British exam, the key instruction, ‘discuss’ would be added. The concept of strategic history seems strange, but this appearance is easily recognized as deriving almost wholly from its unfamiliarity. With strategy understood properly as referring strictly to the consequences of force or the threat of force, difficulty with strategic history does not long endure, let alone prevail. One helpful way in which to approach the subject is with the null hypothesis. If all theory about strategic history is misguided at best, and almost certainly seriously in error, what would we be saying about the terms of human existence? Given that by widely agreed definition strategy is about the use made of force and the threat thereof for political reasons, it would be absurdly challenging to remove a strategic element from all categories of political life, domestic or foreign. This is in no sense a moral judgment, rather is it simply a strictly accurate reflection of how things are, how they have always been, and therefore, we must say prudently, how they will be in the future. There are, of course, excellent reasons why our history is so steeped in strategic concerns and judgments. The only reason why one needs to make this argument is because it is not understood as it should be.

At some modest scale of risk of overstatement, it should be recognized that we always live in a historical context that has strategic quality. If we are fortunate that quality will not be pressing or coercive. Nonetheless, the contexts of our lives are more or less heavily impregnated by menace of a strategic kind. Bearing in mind the true meaning of strategy in terms of the consequences of action, it is not hard to comprehend the relevance of strategic issues for the theory and practice of Political Order. This idea has gained some traction of recent years among leading public scholars, but generally it is deemed too vague and general to be useful in statecraft and strategy.[vii] That said, one retains the suspicion that the very high concept of “Political Order” is really, inherently, much too important just to ignore. In the competitive world of states and strategies, it is not self-evidently inappropriate to harbour the prudent suspicions that the ignoring of apparently unfriendly moves abroad may render the gathering of friendly elements too little and too late. It was not for nothing the great French scholar Raymond Aron specified prudence as the cardinal virtue required for sound statecraft.[viii]

There is no small difficulty in persuading people to attempt to reason in search of approximate historical parallels, rather than for strict analogies. It would seem to be the case that we all were educated by the warning that “history does not repeat itself, only historians do that”. Alas, this advice has rarely been reliable for levels of contention above the tactical and operational. At the elevated levels of conflict termed policy (and its politics) and strategy, repetition appears more usual than not. However, when we proceed in search of lessons that history, meaning historians, may be able to teach us, we should not allow ourselves to be detained seriously by a quest for historical analogies. Accurate and fully appropriate analogies do exist, but they are so rare that effort ought not to be expended, and therefore almost certainly wasted, in their futile pursuit. The basic, indeed eternal, reason why historical analogy is usually only fool’s gold, is because of the abundance of reasons that can apply to human decision-making, not excluding the seemingly trivial and possibly even accidental.

No matter how knowledgeable they are, historians cannot reliably reconstruct a process of past decision-making because they cannot know reliably what the decision-makers of the time in question knew and believed. Nor can they know how strongly they believed whatever it is we are striving to unravel. This does not, perhaps should not, mean that we are always fatally disabled as historians. However, it does mean that our knowledge and understanding is necessarily terminally truncated. For example, consider the unduly proud knights who rode to face oblivion as a result of their tactical and operational folly in the battle at the Horns of Hattin in 1189. We know for certain that they were led by prideful stupidity, but we know also as a complication that typically their religious certainty was amply supported by distinctly terrestrial ambitions, both for honour and profit. The point only is that we human beings, in all periods and every kind of terrain, commonly have distinctly mixed motives that contemporary scholar historians are not able to identify with anything akin to certainty. Admittedly, much strategic behaviour does not appear to be mysterious. For example, the profoundly consequential Battle of Hastings in 1066 was waged tactically in the manner entirely traditional as the Saxon way in battle, anchored on a strong shield wall. This was as predictable as it proved hard to beat, even though William’s Normans eventually succeeded, on balance with dire and horrific strategic consequences for England.

Seriously consequential decisions are made for such a wide variety of reasons, often with an intensity that we do not know, that our knowledge and understanding of the past is rarely to be fully trusted. Of particular concern to us for reason of their possibly decisive significance, are motives that are not well articulated publically. In other words, we may well know with tolerable reliability what Julius Caesar said, but we are not likely to be as confident that we understood why he said it. Today, as then also, we know that action and inaction have many motives, morally praiseworthy or otherwise. We understand that moral virtue or blame is usually notably culture-specific. Tribal loyalty is nearly always deemed virtuous, to other members of the tribe at issue. Even the discovery or revelation of apparent tribal guilt, as for example in the making and exercise of yesterday’s British Empire, attracts apologists. People short on historical sense have no little trouble simply acknowledging and accepting what was thought and done in the past, insofar as we can tell, simply as the way things were, true to their own time, frequently meaning only expedient.

Students of strategic history must leave their contemporary standards of belief and behaviour behind when they dare venture into the seriously foreign country that is the past.

Strategic history is a mode of study and understanding exceptionally permissive of an often meretricious determination to evade capture by prejudices of times past. We will certainly fail, but we should be at least somewhat capable of accepting past thought and behaviour on fair terms. Admittedly, this is often close to impossible. This author is certain that no historian, popular or scholarly, can explore what occurred in Europe in 1914-18, without his or her certain knowledge of the events in the 1930s and 40s casting an influential shadow over the process of research and writing. Even the smartest scholars in 1919 did not, indeed could not, know what we know today about the 1930s and beyond. It is often quite a challenge for us to understand that today really is yesterday’s tomorrow. It is probable that strategic history will encourage a bias in favour of giving privilege to the most senior of our categories for understanding the past. Of course there is high value in a distinctly tactical level of historical research and writing, but it is almost certainly more rewarding to grasp the meaning of historical events when they can be studied, in the first instance, contextually. Strategic history is a level of scholarly approach that maximises the prospect of the researcher avoiding capture by tactical details, even undoubtedly important ones.

By way of a brief illustration of the argument advanced above, I will cite the historical case of the Battle of Britain conducted by the RAF against the Luftwaffe in August/September 1940. The historian should have little difficulty appreciating that the RAF’s strategist, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, was bequeathed a strategic problem by Britain’s context. Dowding appreciated that the victory he sought would be, simply, denial of the air superiority over southern England that the Luftwaffe required as a key enabler for invasion.[ix] The RAF would win if, in German assessment, it did not obviously lose. So long as RAF fighters rose to be able to deny the Luftwaffe’s right to fly at will over the likely invasion beaches, Dowding would have won; he recognised that avoidance of defeat would translate as victory. The RAF’s victory in 1940 was an essential strategic enabler of all that followed for the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. Many scholars who have given excellent tactical-technical, even operational, level analyses of the Battle of Britain have failed to understand how and why Dowding commanded as he did, strategically. The strategic historian needs to understand the technology and consequent tactics of the cases in point. However, the vital tactical detail must not be permitted to obscure the reasons why and how combat was waged. The Battle of Britain, 1940, is particularly instructive for the argument here, because Dowding was able to use RAF Fighter Command on the smallest scale tactically and operationally, yet consistent with his dominant strategic objective. That goal was to convince the enemy they were not winning and indeed could not win.

Strategic history should have little difficulty making sense of the tactical and technical realities of the time. Admittedly, this is rather top-down history, which is not much favoured by those who might wish to climb into the cockpit of their history interpreting machine to teach Germans the errors of their ways. However, strategic history is really entirely supportive of a tactical focus, while appreciating that all strategy is made, can only be made, by tactics and operations. It is these that result in the consequences we understand as strategic.

A Road Forward

The subject here is so extensive as to pose a severe challenge to the researcher and theorist. To help make sense of strategic history I offer four major claims and arguments. These should be considered aids to further research. Given the relative novelty of the concept of strategic history, this essay may justly be regarded largely to be an early work of enquiry requiring much follow-up effort.

  1. Ubiquitous and Eternal. Strategic history is not a mere phase in the human story. It is my contention that save for the few very rare cases of true community isolation, the whole of our history everywhere has been blessed and cursed with strategic context. Even when there has been no proximate adversary abroad, all human political communities have found it essential to be able to pose threats of forceful sanctions in cases of culturally unpopular, possibly deviant, behaviour. A domestic context wherein coercive threats are either visibly present or soundly assumed as quietly present in the background, are both evidence of strategic context.
  2. Wide Variation The theme in the past for which we search can take any form, provided only that the threat or use of force is a factor of some live, if possibly quiet, moment. The historical context of interest will always be found to have particular features with meaning for the actual or potential threat or use of force. The strategic historian may not be so much interested in particular deeds and characters, as rather more in the evidence, major or minor, of strategic concerns on the part of both individuals and whole communities. For example, he will want to understand what it was like to endure in Saxon England with the terrifying prospect of Norse (Viking) raiders, a highly credible contemporary menace. One day, perhaps, our descendants may wonder at our ability to bear a contemporary strategic context of nuclear danger.
  3. Functional Commonality As explained tersely above, we have ready to hand the essential bare architecture needed for theory. We may know a great deal, or possibly little, about particular courses of events in a historical narrative. However, we do know what we have to discover in order to construct a credible narrative. All strategic phenomena, ubiquitously, and eternally functions by following these steps: (1) policy ends are decided politically (2) strategic ways are chosen in order to select the method(s) for accomplishment of the ends; military (at least, coercive) means are provided to execute the strategy of choice – assumptions are made concerning much of all of this, since it is in the realm of “futurology”. Of course the particular details of every historical case will be, to a degree, exclusive to itself. That freely granted, the austere framework just mentioned – with its ends, ways, means, and assumptions, can work usefully to aid scholars in the analysis of historical matters concerning which we have only incomplete knowledge. Very often, we find that good answers to historical conundrums are inaccessible. The responsibly truthful scholar does not indulge in unduly speculative analysis. Popular historical fiction will not hesitate to retro-fit modern ideas back into the Roman Empire, but we will strive hard to deny ourselves that satisfaction.
  4. Parallelism I have argued against the harmful practice of analogical pursuit. Even when analogy seems highly likely, indeed credible, its temptations should be rejected. There is always just too rich, and to a degree unknowable a causation, about our decision-making for us to be confident that one historical episode truly is twin to another. Nonetheless, it is sensible to look for features that are reasonably common, although they may have occurred in quite different times and places. It is sensible to be alert to the differences, great and small, that appear to frame occurrences as entirely individually true to themselves alone. To that prudent thought, however, we ought not to betray the understanding gained concerning the permanently strategic quality inherent to all our history. Functionally considered, as they should be, there is need to escape and evade the tyranny of a tactical focus. For strategic historians attempting to be faithful to their calling, it will matter little whether a tyrant is poisoned, shot, or deposed legally. And rather more only that he ceases to rule. Strategic historians have to learn when it is prudent not to over-indulge in the mastery of secondary detail.

[i] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History, 2nd edn. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), p.350.
[ii] See Michael Howard, The Lessons of History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), Chapter 1.
[iii] Thucydides, A Comprehensive Guide to ‘The Peloponnesian War’, ed. by Robert B. Strassler (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p.43.
[iv] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret trans. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), Chapter 1.
[v] For example, see Freya Stark, Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier, (London: Tauris Parke, 2012).
[vi] Nicholas J. Spykman, ‘Geography and Foreign Policy’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 32, No.1 (February 1938), p.29.
[vii] See the ambitious study by Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Pre-Human Times to the French Revolution (London: Profile Books, 2011).
[viii] Raymond Aron, Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p.585, offers what should be judged the definitive words on the subject of prudence in international relations.
[ix] I have addressed the Battle of Britain strategically in, ‘Dowding and the British Strategy of Air Defense, 1936-1940’, in Williamson Murray and Richard Hart Sinnreich, eds. Successful Strategies: Triumphing in War and Peace from Antiquity to the Present, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.241-279.