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If you're looking for a typical book on strategy, that will recount famous exemplars from military history or the business world and perhaps even distill them into "lessons" that are really no more than subjective and axiomatic mantras, aphorisms, and maxims... then this isn't the book for you. Try the 48 Laws of Power, the 33 Strategies of War, or any number of other books, many of them thoughtful in their own rights, if that's what you are in the mood for.
This book? Well, I can sum is up as a broad and sweeping analysis of the question: what is strategy? What do we really mean when we use words like "strategic"? Is strategy the same thing as planning or preparation? What is it that enables human beings to be strategic animals, both psychologically and neurologically? This book is the most fundamental exploration of strategy I've ever encountered.
Oh, there will be much discussion of military history, the business world, science, philosophy, and even religion, searching for the origins of strategic thought and conceptions of strategy as an idea. But this is all back drop providing material and context to fuel the wider history (and historiography) of strategy.
Ultimately, the author comes to the conclusion and primary thesis that strategy is fundamentally not science, nor art, but some flexible realm between... consisting not of hard formulas, prescriptions, or even theories, but of the idea of many possible futures and outcomes and variables, and a method of identifying key narratives of events as they unfold and selecting from various available scripts to tilt the probabilistic chain of events in one's favor. It is an idea that respects the art of strategy, without resorting to postmodern solipsism, and which acknowledges the importance of planning and hard data, without overemphasizing quantitative analysis or resorting to pseudo-scientific theories.
In the book's journey, you'll start with emergency of early homo-sapiens and the unique potential for abstract thought and imagination that defines our human capacity for strategy. You'll look through ancient warfare and mythology and religion for the emergence of the idea of achieving ends using rational means that rely upon the employment of guile and wit, as well as that notion's antithesis. You'll cover military history, the study and theory of modern military "science", as well as the practice of military art. You'll look closely at numerous historical conflicts, from Napoleon and the rise of key thinkers like Jomini and Clausewitz, through to Vietnam, Iraq, and 9/11, with countless thinkers in between. You'll cover social and military revolutions, the establishment of social science, sociology, and many philosophical currents and paradigms therein. You'll even cover neuroscience and behavioral psychology, not only what they tell us for devising strategies that must by their nature influence others, but what they tell us of how people strategize, and how people actually think and behave. You'll discuss economics and rational actor theory, just as you'll look closely at game theory and complex systems theory and their applications and implications for the strategic arts and sciences. From Odysseus and Sun Tzu, to Jon Von Neuman and Mearsheimer. It's a big book and a long journey, but richly rewarding!
This is a breathtaking work, hugely ambitious and rigorous in its methods. I'll admit there were a few parts, mostly those delving into Christian theology, where I thought the author was stretching quite far to find relevance, and where I was less interested and entertained, but I appreciate the author's attention to all dimensions and angles.
Quite frankly, if you have an interest in strategy: what it really is, what it really means, it's practice, it's practitioners, its theory and its history... you will find no better resource than this book. For fans and students of strategic studies, whether military history or business, this book will open your eyes to a much wider picture and a much broader understanding of what it is you're studying. It will challenge your common sense, all of the "lessons" you've ever learned, and your conceptions of strategy in the purest and most basic sense. This is destined to be the definitive analytical work on the subject for the foreseeable future!
32 of 32 people found this review helpful
The author quotes John von Neumann (a developer of game theory among many other things) in the beginning of the book to the effect that the Game of Chess doesn't require a strategy because there is an exact mathematically correct move for every situation but for most other areas a correct strategy is not determinable. This book covers all those different areas in an encyclopedic fashion.
The book is a long read, but who among us can't devote thirty hours or more to such an interesting topic. The book is thematically arranged by area (war, politics, social sciences, business, and so on). He'll talk about the different strategies and almost always shows that they work until they don't.
The book illustrates how dangerous it is to just have intuition with a good narrative when developing a strategy while ignoring the empirical and reality. Reality is complex. Most of the time narratives will only get you so far.
Overall a long read, but worth it. There is a central narrative in the book, but sometimes the author didn't understand how to tie his stories together coherently.
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
The author has made the ultimate mistake of writing about everything he has read to show off how erudite and knowledgable he is. However, I wanted a book on strategy and not a narrative on sociology, economics,the bible, politics. Anyone can read other books and mention them in a dialogue without actually showing their relevance to the fundamental discourse at hand.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
I feel bad giving this work a modest rating. In many ways it is a great work of scholarship. I'm not an expert in this topic, but it certainly seems like a comprehensive review of strategic thought in an impressive range of disciplines. I learned plenty from its accounts of the various approaches adopted by communist revolutionaries, civil rights leaders and others.
Unfortunately this breadth comes at the cost of a lack of focus. An effective editor could have halved the length of the book and lost little of value. For every instructive exploration of different strategic debates there is a pointless detour into something irrelevant. Near the start of the book the author spends ages relating the biblical tale of the plagues God set on Egypt, despite himself acknowledging that a mythical scenario enacted in full by an omnipotent deity has no relevance to strategy. In the final section, just as he is supposed to be drawing out some overall lessons, the author mystifyingly recounts at length the full plot of the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, without drawing any clear lesson from it.
The effect is that the book never really rises above a series of historical accounts, and the reader is left little wiser about the potential for cross-cutting approaches to strategy. The account ends with a somewhat limp conclusion that strategy is basically communication, and is therefore like drama. Maybe that is the best that can be done, but this reader was left wondering whether there was a clearer narrative buried under the movie reviews.
This was exacerbated by the reading of Michael Butler Murray. Mr. Murray has a pleasant enough voice but an odd intonation. Every second sentence is read with a kind of wistful languor as though his dog had died years ago and he is savoring the memory. The effect is soporific, making the convoluted writing harder going.
For the student of strategic thought there is more than enough interesting material here to make it worth slogging through the mournful reading and excessive length. But a stronger supporting editor and reader could have made Mr. Freedman's undoubted scholarship far more compelling.
3 of 4 people found this review helpful
The book started slow but only when comparing it on how it ends. Great book on strategy from “the beginning”, to war, to business and politics. Most definitely will be on the lookout for more of his works.
The last 10 hrs of the book was insightful, the first 20 were overly long and torturous at times.
0 of 1 people found this review helpful