Top positive review
12 people found this helpful
What Kind of War are We Fighting?
on 20 February 2014
The author is Professor of the History of War at Oxford University. A brilliant historian following in the footsteps of Michael Eliot Howard and many other previous illustrious holders of the chair. Strachan has written a number of excellent books on strategy and war. He is a regular lecturer at Defence Colleges around the world.
Today, strategy has come to mean many different things from those of say 100 years ago when it referred to the relationship between tactics and strategy. Today it is more pragmatic and less theoretical. It is essentially the bridge between policy and the battlefield. It is about applying means to ends. It is at the interface of operational capabilities and political objectives. Strachan likens it to the 'glue which binds each to the other and gives both sense'. Above all,strategy has to be founded on a crystal clear 'recognition of the nature of war itself'.
This book is one of the most stimulating books on war and strategy ever written. It is full of insights destroying myths along the way. His comments on Clausewitz are illuminating even for those who are very familiar with his work.
The book is not for the general reader since it requires a detailed knowledge of the key writers on war, i.e. Jomini, Machiavelli, Sun Tsu, Mao, Clausewitz, Corbett, and others. In addition, one needs to be very familiar with warfare in depth since at least the 18th century in order to follow and appreciate the author's analysis.
The chapter on Clausewitz is a gem. In it he focuses on the relevance of 'On War' today and on how Clausewitz has been misunderstood in book after book written about him. One of Strachan's major themes echoes that of Clausewitz in 'On War', namely, strategy cannot be decided upon until you know the true nature of the war you are fighting. Strategy has to rest on a deep understanding of war and war's nature because it will and does shape policy. He points out, and he is not the only one to do this,that Bush and Blair lacked a strategy over Iraq because neither 'understood the nature of war'. Strachan also points out that the famous 'surge' in Iraq was not strategy. General Petraeus agreed and called for a political solution.
The author is one of the very few writers on war who have argued that too much emphasis has been placed on 'war is a continuation of policy by other means'. War is the product of reciprocal exchanges between diverging policies. Strachan reminds us that wars frequently 'shape policies' and the latter frequently alter during a war. For example, the outcome of the Second World War was quite different from that envisaged at the outset. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are even better examples. Iraq was said by Blair to be essential to save us from WMD, then it was to parachute democracy into Iraq, then to defeat al-Qaida, and finally to stop civil war.
In his book Clausewitz shows how policy stands outside war, and can often be independent of it and at odds with it. Strachan therefore emphasises the importance of Bk V111 because it emphasises the reciprocal nature of the relationship between policy and war. He writes that although war should be used as an instrument of policy in reality :'this is a statement about its causation more than its conduct, and about intent more than practice'. As he points out, once war occurs and policies conflict reciprocity 'generates its own dynamic, feeding on hatred, on chance and on the play of military probabilities'. If only our politicians and military would take this to heart. The key point is that wartime policy has to reflect the nature of the war being fought. This was ignored in Iraq and in Afghanistan, hence the failure of both ventures. Far too often strategy is used as a synonym for policy. With regards to Iraq and Afghanistan our policies were based on ignorance of regional, cultural and military realities and capabilities.
The author emphasises that war is no longer, as it was in the 19th century, the sole province of Generals. From 1945 strategy and policy became conflated in the public's minds; this was acceptable during the Cold War and a strategy of deterrence but not now.
Since the end of the Cold War there has been a tendency in the west to ignore the element of chance, friction and luck in war, things which Clausewitz emphasised. Easy convential military victories in Iraq and elsewhere spawned yet another 'revolution in military affairs' (RMA) that placed an emphasis on advanced technology and military superiority. The Powell and Weinberger doctrines exemplified this. They failed badly in Iraq once the actual fighting ended.
Strachan castigates the military for failing to understand what strategy meant after the invasion of Iraq, a failure that meant they could not see what had really altered in war. Strategy had, he says, become confused with policy. 'On War' made clear that wars must'vary with the nature of their motives and of the situations which give rise to them'. This has been ignored all too often.
Terrorism, he reminds us was not invented on 9/11, although Blair and Bush would have you believe it was. Terrorism is a means not an objective. To call for a 'global war on terror', now referred to as the 'long war', was simply daft or as Strachan says 'strategically illiterate'. It never set out a means to achieve a political objective; it was simply a declared means to end fighting. Furthermore,it was vague about space and time, two vital ingredients of strategy. US and UK planners failed to define 'long war',and even more importantly the nature and character of the enemy. Was the enemy a person such as Hussein or bin Laden, an entire ethnic and religious group or any country that disliked the west?
The constant use today of the term 'asymmetric warfare' is pure jargon and is not new.Any intelligent adversary will chose tactics and strategy that suit him not the enemy. Each side will seek to exploit the others perceived weaknesses. That Gordon Brown said on television when PM that we could win in Afghanistan 'if only the enemy would stand and fight' indicates a depth of ignorance about warfare that is alarming.
The author writes:'Historical illiteracy is a besetting sin of western governments'. Hence, the invasion of countries that has often led to a situation far worse than the one that preceded invasion. When, for example, did humanitarian intervention lessen suffering?
Strachan argues that the 'big change in war has been the overt readiness of the west to use it as an instrument of policy' before the nature of the war has been discerned. Conventional wars based on big battles are no longer the norm yet the Armed Services continue to argue their corner as if they are and will be.
The author reminds us that Clausewitz opened his superb book by defining war as 'an act of force to compel an enemy to do our will'. This, not the much quoted war as a political instrument, is the key to understanding what Clausewitz was saying. he pleads, therefore, for 'On War' to be read with far greater care.
Professor Strachan's superb book calls for the study of strategy to return to its historical roots, and to divorce itself from much of today's focus on political science, law and economics. Strategy, as Michael Howard said many years and books ago, must be studied in context. History is after all as Marc Bloch said 'the science of change'.We need, as he said, to study how and why yesterday differed from the day before in order to reach conclusions which will permit us to foresee how tomorrow will differ from yesterday.
In a final chapter Strachan reminds us that 'security is relative, not absolute'.
A magnificent, lucid and thought-provoking book that will repay study. It should be required reading for all interested in the greatest of human failings, namely WAR.