In Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the world's leading authorities on war and international politics, captures the vast history of strategic thinking, in a consistently engaging and insightful account of how strategy came to pervade every aspect of our lives. The range of Freedman's narrative is extraordinary, moving from the surprisingly advanced strategy practiced in primate groups, to the opposing strategies of Achilles and Odysseus in The Iliad, the strategic advice of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, the great military innovations of Baron Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, the grounding of revolutionary strategy in class struggles by Marx, the insights into corporate strategy found in Peter Drucker and Alfred Sloan, and the contributions of the leading social scientists working on strategy today. The core issue at the heart of strategy, the author notes, is whether it is possible to manipulate and shape our environment rather than simply become the victim of forces beyond one's control. Time and again, Freedman demonstrates that the inherent unpredictability of this environment - subject to chance events, the efforts of opponents, the missteps of friends - provides strategy with its challenge and its drama. Armies or corporations or nations rarely move from one predictable state of affairs to another, but instead feel their way through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated, requiring a reappraisal of the original strategy, including its ultimate objective. Thus the picture of strategy that emerges in this book is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point, not the end point. A brilliant overview of the most prominent strategic theories in history, from David's use of deception against Goliath, to the modern use of game theory in economics, this masterful volume sums up a lifetime of reflection on strategy.
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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!
If you take nothing else from this review, understand this: this book is a history of theory. They are clear about this in the description, but it bears repetition, thus: A. History. Of. Theory. So the narrative goes from one strategic philosopher to another and as often as not discusses how the philosophy touched the world at large.
This book does not show how strategy is relevant to you. It also makes a weak case as to how the development of strategic theory was relevant to the history of the world. It is as if the artifact of strategy only barely touches the larger world. The author cannot be accused of overselling the relevance of his subject. Unfortunately, that makes it pretty hard to get interested.
There are two major items in this book's favor. One, that it keeps a refined focus on strategy and artfully keeps from being drawn down to the level of tactics, which would be an easily understandable digression. And two, the book has a good vision for the analysis the strategies of political movements, though sadly, it is there where it looses thematic focus.
In the end, I couldn't finish this book. It is an academic text unsuited to audiobook format. It also is written with that academic tendency of never using a fifteen word sentence where a fifty word sentence will do.