Strategic sense may be acquired, to some degree, from studying history; much has been written about history’s importance to the strategist. It has even been suggested, not unjustifiably, that “no other profession believes more strongly that the study of its past—going back not merely decades but centuries, or even millennia—has something to offer its practitioners in the present.”[i]
Yet substantially less has been written about whether or not history or, more particularly, the writing of history, is itself strategically sensible. Beyond the crucial element of what to include in any history, how that history is communicated can matter a great deal. Chris Paparone, criticizing the overly linear manner of strategic thinking taught in American professional military education, tied what he believed to be a low level of strategic sense to a flawed understanding of history: “educators and practitioners of strategy just have the luxury of viewing the past through the lens of causal certainty, a lens that does not work when looking toward the future…Only through the study of history do they know how things ended up. Knowing how the story ended, institutions can attribute causal relationships that reinforce beliefs that such ends can be rationally achieved through purposeful strategies toward the future.”[ii] Although Paparone’s criticism of both strategic thinking and strategic history may go too far in some ways, the link between history and strategic sense deserves further exploration. A crucial point of tension between strategic sense and history is the role of uncertainty and the particular way in which historians handle uncertainty given their advantages of hindsight.
This article begins with a brief exploration of strategic sense, to emphasize how it opposes the uncertainty of war. It then discusses how the writing of history may affect the way we understand it, which necessarily has consequences for strategic sense and the historical interpretations and strategic concepts which we develop with our strategic sense.
Strategy requires a particular way of thinking, one which encompasses the instrumental logic of trying to match available means to desired political goals as well as the adversarial logic of trying to impose one’s preferred instrumental logic on an active, intelligent enemy seeking to do the exact same thing in return. This thinking can be either more or less sensible, as implemented by any particular strategist in any particular war. Neither thinking nor implementation is easy; the whole interaction of the core interlocking relationships of strategy is more or less complex and non-linear.
Understandings of strategic sense have varied historically. The ancient Chinese believed it was inherently mystical and derived from the Dao, which allowed the strategist to understand and even manipulate the predisposition of future events while also restricting him to that predisposition.[iii] Famously, Clausewitz wrote about military genius, comprised of “first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead. The first of these qualities is described by the French term, coup d’oeil; the second is determination.”[iv] Colin Gray has written about strategic sense and the strategist in a heroic vein: “To bend an enemy’s will to resist and, if required, to reduce the capacity of his military means to do harm, the strategist needs to have control over the course of events. For this heroic task to be feasible, the strategist first must ensure that he controls his own capacity to do the harm he intends.”[v] Lawrence Freedman has somewhat qualified the idea of the master strategist, by noting that “[t]he great strategists therefore tended to be those who were able to identify the most salient features of a conflict, political as well as military, and how they might be influenced.”[vi]
What emerges from how strategic thinkers have wrestled with the idea of strategic sense is that sense must be the strategist’s answer to uncertainty about the future pattern of adversarial interaction in the present war, as influenced by myriad factors. Uncertainty is endemic to the practice of strategy. A strategist may be uncertain about many things: the enemy’s location, strength, intentions, political will; about the weather tomorrow; about the terrain on the other side of the hill; and so on. A strategist may even be uncertain about the fighting strength of his own forces, the limits of his own political will, or even whether or not the chosen and implemented strategy is working. Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley purposely made uncertainty definitionally central to strategy: “strategy is a process, a constant adaptation to shifting conditions and circumstances in a world where chance, uncertainty, and ambiguity dominate. Moreover, it is a world in which the actions, intentions, and purposes of other participants remain shadowy and indistinct, taxing the wisdom and intuition of the canniest policymaker.”[vii] The uncertainty may be so predominant that it is unclear whether or not the strategist may succeed in achieving the desired political goals.
Strategic sense is the conceptual opposite to uncertainty. Only strategists with sufficient sense—sufficient relative to the challenge posed by the enemy—can penetrate that uncertainty and allow the strategist to act in a more than ad hoc, reactive manner. Only sensible strategists can discover or impose some degree of control and linearity in the relative (but not complete) uncertainty and chaos of warfare—total control and linearity being impossible.
The ultimate sources of strategic sense are fairly straightforward: “formal education; the informal education that experience may provide; and individual human nature.”[viii] Personal talent and genius, as of an Alexander, Scipio, or Napoleon, may be used as exemplars in formal education but cannot be learned directly. Whether a true military genius happens to develop in a particular polity at a particular time requires a substantial degree of luck. Accumulation of experience may certainly be useful as a source of insight, but it must be tempered by reflection. Without reflection, experience can be useless at best or harmful at worst if wrong conclusions are drawn and wrong lessons learned. Reflection, in turn, is most effective when buttressed by formal education—which must include history.
Uncertainty and the Study and Writing of History
Insightful knowledge of strategic history is a crucial basis for strategic sense. Yet virtually all history can be made strategically relevant in some way. Not only is strategy multi-dimensional, but the number of dimensions reaches as high as seventeen according to Gray’s count, including among others disparate dimensions such as society, culture, economics and logistics, military organization, technology, and geography.[ix] Political, social, economic, etc, histories may be as meaningful as campaign histories for understanding the conduct of war. This is a crucial part of Michael Howard’s injunction that history be read in breadth, depth, and context, which he helped pioneer through his own written histories.[x]
Yet just because virtually all history can be strategically relevant, does not mean that virtually all history is necessarily strategically sensible, particularly in its communication. Not all historians can match the style of Howard or the other greats. To inform strategic sense, the problem arises, that the historian already knows how it ends. With hindsight the historian does not face the uncertainty which plagues any, or every, strategist; this feature of historical writing can crucially affect how history is presented. The classicist Jon Lendon has commented:
Battle descriptions in today’s histories are usually written backwards in a logical chain from the outcome of the battle. From the result of the battle, then, proceed in reverse order the fighting that created that result, the manoeuvres, the dispositions of the units of the armies that did that fighting, and, first of all, the plans of the commanders that disposed and set those units in motion (although the plans of one commander can, if a surprise lies in the future, be held back for dramatic effect). This strong logic disciplines the battle description: we hear of the climactic engagement, not what happens elsewhere; we hear of the units in at the kill, but rarely get a full account of the forces of either army; the terrain is described where it bears upon that decisive combat, but the rest of the battlefield is neglected. Similarly, differences in numbers or equipment between the contending sides, matters of supply or weather or chance, the quality of troops or weapons, or human foibles – stupidity, insubordination, over-boldness, cowardice – tend to appear in the account only where the main plot requires them, unless, of course, they offer comic anecdotes.[xi]
Hindsight is a tricky beast in history. In one sense, it can be the whole point of history. Without hindsight, of what value is history? History requires hindsight as much as experience requires reflection. It is because we know how things ended that we can make judgments and learn something from history, regardless of whether this occurs as part of a ham-fisted, generic lessons, learned process or a nuanced and philosophical historical reflection. Hindsight is especially crucial if we wish to do better, and be wiser, next time. Yet hindsight eliminates—or seems to eliminate—uncertainty. The question necessarily arises: if strategic sense is meant to penetrate uncertainty, but hindsight has already removed it, how can history be strategically sensible?
Ultimately history can never really eliminate uncertainty, for a number of reasons. First, the historical record is inherently incomplete, and rarely more so than in war. Clausewitz recognized that “the facts are seldom fully known and the underlying motives even less so. They may be intentionally concealed by those in command, or, if they happen to be transitory and accidental, history may not have recorded them at all.”[xii] History is hostage to a basic, albeit variable, uncertainty about some (but rarely all) of the facts. It is written around this uncertainty, in the same way that a military operation is planned around geographical or terrain features.
Second, history is rarely definitive. Historical interpretations are made and become orthodox for a generation, they are challenged and revised by the next generation, whose work in turn is challenged by yet another new generation of scholars. When exploring causation in history, not only are the facts incomplete, but they are often legitimately interpretable in various ways. When there is room for interpretation, uncertainty necessarily exists. History as written may be arguable, agreeable, maybe even right, but sometimes it can also be hard to know the difference. The alternative is probably less frequent: historical certainty can and does exist, and attempts to see uncertainty on such topics may be intellectually and, depending on the topic, even morally dishonest.
Third, historical judgment is inherently also counter-historical, counterfactual judgment. This is an all-but-inescapable feature of judgment. For example, if one were to argue that the battles of Stalingrad or Midway were decisive turning points of the Second World War in their respective theaters, one simultaneously implies the counterfactual point that without these battles, as they historically occurred, those decisive turning points would not have occurred, or at the very least, not in the place or way that they actually did. This inherent uncertainty is of the same sort which the practicing strategist faces, albeit in a far less morally challenging context: it is the uncertainty of potential futures which have not (yet) come to pass. In making judgments, historians are, consciously or not, thinking about untrodden, past historical futures in the same way that strategists think about untrodden present-day futures. When making such judgments, historians cannot escape uncertainty, although rarely do they engage with the counterfactual side of the judgment—and for good reason, as by virtue of being counterfactual, hardly any evidence exists!
But the perception of uncertainty is also affected by hindsight through the way it shapes history as it is written. Hindsight encourages historians to write history more efficiently and, through efficiency, with greater certainty and linearity. The historian can identify the key narrative and follow it; often, the key narrative is the one which may be unraveled from the end to the beginning without substantial breaks, then to be travelled forward from beginning to end in a coherent narrative. This is seen as good writing in a technical and stylistic sense, as digression is understandably normally undesirable.
Back to Strategic Sense from Historical Writing
Despite its attractiveness, stylistic efficiency can decontextualize the historical process under study, including military action. Decontextualization runs counter to Howard’s advice specifically to engage with the context of one’s subject. Context matters greatly for instilling strategic sense through the study of history. Any particular interpretation of strategic history is an encapsulation of the author’s strategic sense relating to that topic. Any new concept proposed and added to the ideational ecosystem of strategic studies, whether an operational concept like AirLand Battle or a more general concept like hybrid or gray zone warfares, encapsulates the involved thinkers’ and authors’ aggregate strategic sense. These interpretations and concepts offer both a collective basis and a shortcut for thinking about present and future challenges. If they are flawed, subsequent strategic performance is likely to be compromised.
First, decontextualization may lead to the belief that the particular military action studied was not merely decisive, but the only contributing factor to the outcome. The recurring debates over who really contributed most to victory in the Second World War are a case in point. For example, Phillips Payson O’Brien has challenged the usual wisdom that the Soviets were the main contributors to the defeat of Germany, arguing instead that it was attrition of industrially-high-effort material inflicted by the Western allies which was decisive.[xiii] Despite much good sense in this argument, it not only goes too far but also reflects a notion of war as essentially an abstract tabulation of material capabilities in which neither human lives nor geography matter. Obviously, they do matter; Hitler shot himself because the Soviets were a few hundred meters from his bunker in Berlin, not because the Western Allies had essentially destroyed the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine, crucial though those and other Western efforts were to incapacitating Germany in the months and years leading up to May 1945.
Second, decontextualization also matters for purposes of categorization. The West was surprised by Russia’s so-called hybrid warfare against Ukraine in 2014, which led to a major emphasis on Russian subversive practices. Consequently, it has characterized Russia as a pioneer of these practices, notwithstanding Russia’s own perspective which holds that the West did it all first, having supported various revolutions in countries around Russia’s borders or traditionally friendly to Russia, and even including the Arab Spring. Similarly, conventional history understands the Second World War as the exemplary conventional war, neglecting not only widespread partisan warfare but also the degree to which modern concepts of gray zone warfare were arguably preempted by the United States’ 1940-41 undeclared war against Germany in the Atlantic.
Stylistic efficiency and potential decontextualization inherent in writing history may in turn engender new theories of warfare characterized by decontextualized assumptions of historical efficiency. This leads to the narrowly linear and excessively efficient strategic thinking of which Paparone disapproved. Effects-based operations (EBO) is one example. As Hew Strachan critiqued, “[e]ffects-based operations sought to plan by beginning with the desired outcome, with the implicit assumption that it might be gained by means very different from those suggested by capability-based plans…It reverse-engineered from a desired future without making sufficient allowance for what might happen en route, or indeed for unintended consequences.”[xiv] EBO is based on the notion that precise, limited strikes may have precise desired effects. EBO proponents sought unsuccessfully to operationalize historical efficiency. A particular—and rather flawed—kind of strategic sense in the study of history combined with excessive faith in technological advancement led ultimately to a strategically insensible operational concept.
Strategists and historians necessarily treat uncertainty differently. Endemic to strategy, uncertainty is apparently, but not actually, eliminated in history. Since strategists must rely on their own strategic sensibility in the face of uncertainty in war and often educate themselves through history to be better prepared for the challenges of practicing strategy, this basic difference in relation to uncertainty matters for learning. Poorly conceived or poorly written history may instil a sense of apparent historic certainty, linearity, and clarity—in sum, historical efficiency—which in turn may lead to poor strategic sense. Efficiency is not always appropriate; Edward Luttwak in a wholly different context notes how efficiency in defense spending is the opposite of strategic effectiveness.[xv] This substantially applies to historical efficiency versus strategic sense as well.
A companion of poor history is poor reading of history. Although no one reader may control the quality of the history, that reader can control whether or not, and how to, read any work of history best to develop his strategic sense. Even poor history can help build strategic sense if engaged effectively. Viewed from the context of common tropes of how military history is written, for purposes of developing strategic sense, one should ask questions framed by concerns about overemphasis on the main action narrative leading to potential decontextualization of the history. Unlike what historians convey, the strategist must focus on the whole field he faces. Inherently, the practicing strategist needs more information than the historian provides. He must critically and contextually engage with the history, by connecting and comparing it to other relevant knowledge, to draw out more from it than the historian has written.
[i] Eliot A. Cohen. “The Historical Mind and Military Strategy”, Orbis 49/4 (Autumn 2005), 576.
[ii] Christopher R. Paparone. “Beyond Ends-Based Rationality: A Quad-Conceptual View of Strategic Reasoning for Professional Military Education” in Gabriel Marcella (ed). Teaching Strategy: Challenge and Response. (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute 2010), 309.
[iii] Christopher C. Rand. Military Thought in Early China. (Albany: State University of New York Press 2017), 37.
[iv] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1984), 102.
[v] Colin S. Gray. “The Strategist as Hero”, Joint Force Quarterly 62 (October 2011), 38.
[vi] Lawrence Freedman. Strategy: A History. (Oxford: Oxford UP 2013), 243-244.
[vii] Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley. “Introduction: On Strategy” in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox & Alvin Bernstein. The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 1994), 1.
[viii] Colin S. Gray. “Strategic Sense – Missing from Action”, Infinity Journal 5/3 (Fall 2016), 6.
[ix] Colin S. Gray. Modern Strategy. (Oxford: Oxford UP 1999), 24.
[x] Michael Howard. “The Use and Abuse of Military History”, Parameters 11/1 (March 1981), 9-14; Hew Strachan. “Michael Howard and the dimensions of military history”, War in History 27/4 (2020), 536-551.
[xi] Jon E. Lendon. “Battle Description in the Ancient Historians, Part I: Structure, Array, and Fighting”, Greece & Rome 64/1 (2017), 42.
[xii] Clausewitz, On War, 156.
[xiii] Phillips Payson O’Brien. How the War was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2015).
[xiv] Hew Strachan. The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2013), 252.
[xv] Edward N. Luttwak. “Why We Need More ‘Waste, Fraud & Mismanagement’ in the Pentagon” in Edward N. Luttwak. On the Meaning of Victory: Essays on Strategy. (New York: Simon and Schuster 1986), 85-115.