My strategy for this book was to read 150 pages a day over four days. On the fifth day I’d draft the review, on the sixth I’d polish it, and on the seventh I’d rest. The first day went perfectly to plan. Then the cat got sick, and a morning disappeared. Then my son needed help with an essay — an afternoon gone. Obstacle piled on obstacle. I eventually needed seven days just for reading. There’s a lesson here.

That lesson runs like a river through “Strategy.” Lawrence Freedman, once a foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair, is Britain’s foremost strategic analyst. His books manage to delight the experts yet are still comprehensible to the general reader, a rare skill in this genre. On this occasion, he has produced what is arguably the best book ever written on strategy (in its widest sense), but the overriding theme after more than 600 densely packed pages of text is virtually the same as what Robert Burns said in a few words:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]

In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman (Oxford Univ.)

Gang aft a-gley [often go awry],

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

For promised joy.

Strategies promise joy but seldom deliver. The plans we make are attempts to impose order on our world, but the most careful arrangements often run aground on the shoals of circumstance. As Mike Tyson once philosophized, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”

The inclination to strategize is hardwired into our genes. Freedman begins this fascinating study by showing how chimpanzees form quite complex plans, whether finding food, defending themselves or ensuring group harmony. Violence is common but seldom indiscriminate; chimps apply their cost-benefit analysis when using force. As with Burns’s mousie, however, capricious chance can render naught the best-laid schemes of Mr. Chimp.

After looking at apes, the author moves to the human tendency to strategize. He deconstructs familiar stories (David and Goliath, the Trojan horse, etc.) to tease out their underlying strategies. His analysis of the 10 plagues in Exodus is a thing of beauty — perceptive, articulate, sophisticated but wonderfully clear. Each plague, he shows, constituted a gradual turning of the screw in a program of strategic coercion. That reminded me of Lyndon Johnson’s limited-war strategy in Vietnam, except that God succeeded and Johnson failed.

Strategy, Raymond Aron once argued, “draws its inspiration each century, or rather at each moment of history, from the problems which events themselves pose.” In other words, human beings adapt. But adaptation is usually reactive; strategy responds to the past more than it anticipates the future. Or, as the old adage goes: Commanders prepare for the last war. As a result, they find themselves struggling to keep up with change. A brilliant few have been able to guess correctly what lies ahead, but even a genius depends on luck. And, as Napoleon found in Russia, good luck can suddenly turn into bad.

“Actuality in the end proves unmanageable,” Thucydides observed. “It breaks in upon men’s conceptions, changes them, and finally destroys them.” Try as we might, we cannot make the world bend to our will. That is what commanders discovered in 1915. Before World War I, generals on both sides assumed that Napoleon had written the gospel on war in the age of nationalism. “Nobody,” Freedman admits, “could think of better ways of using great armies to win great wars.” Napoleon, however, did not have to contend with machine guns.

Nineteenth-century technological progress obliterated Napoleonic notions of mobile war, forcing men into trenches. Yet it is difficult to unlearn a gospel. Commanders in World War I are often condemned for fighting an unimaginative war of attrition, when in fact they should be criticized for trying to turn the war into something else — something Napoleonic.

Carl von Clausewitz famously remarked: “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. . . . Countless minor incidents — the kind you can never really foresee — combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal.” Strategies often depend upon a cooperative enemy; failure can result when the adversary refuses to act as predicted. Thus, in Vietnam, the United States followed a logical strategy but faced an enemy wedded to a different logic. Ditto in Iraq.

“Strategy” is a book about war but also much more than that. Less than half of it is devoted to military history. A later section deals with politics, looking at the plans made by those with power and by those who seek it. Here, the same limitations apply; the best-laid plans are foiled by the unpredictable and the accidental. Freedman ends by looking at how the obsession with strategy has infiltrated everyday life. We are all strategists now. Starbucks has a strategy for selling coffee, McDonalds for selling burgers and my sister for losing weight. CEOs see themselves as commanders of commerce; they even read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” But where does all this planning lead? Freedman concludes that “the hype that accompanied the promotion of successive strategic fashions exaggerated the importance of the enlightened manager and played down the importance of chance and circumstances in explaining success.”

All this strategizing is, in truth, an attempt to impose individual will upon a recalcitrant world. When armies fail, strategists are blamed. When a product goes unsold, the marketing strategist is fired. We conclude from failure that, if only a Napoleon had been in charge, success would have been assured. In this way, we convince ourselves that we are, in fact, architects of our own fate. That is much more palatable than having to admit that we might be mere flotsam in a turbulent sea of circumstance. We pretend that we are big and powerful, when in fact we are small and weak. Strategy is often simply a charade — ersatz order imposed upon a stubbornly disordered world.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His “Back in Blighty: British Society in the Era of the Great War” will be published in early 2014.


A History

By Lawrence Freedman

Osford Univ. 751 pp. $34.95