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A Reader's Guide to Strategy

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Strategy: A History. By LAWRENCE FREEDMAN. Oxford University Press, 2013, 768 pp. $34.95

Lawrence Freedman’s monumental new book is one the most significant works in the fields of international relations, strategic studies, and history to appear in recent years, so readers should know what it is and what it is not. Despite its size and ambition, this magnum opus is not comprehensive. Strategy is instead a deliberately selective look at an important term that gets bandied about so much as to become almost meaningless. Scholars now have a work that arrests that slackness.

Readers should also know that Freedman’s book does not focus on “grand strategy,” a topic widely studied and a term often used to judge policymaking, since it concerns historical actors pursuing big ends. The index therefore contains no entry for the Roman Empire, and Freedman never discusses the grand strategies of such lasting players as the Ming dynasty, the Ottomans, King Philip II of Spain, the British Empire, or the Catholic Church. He does, however, tackle Satan’s strategy, in a dissection of Paradise Lost. There are diversions into literature, ancient myth, political theory, and the classics, and to the extent that they serve Freedman’s grander purpose of showing what strategy can sometimes be, the detours may be justified. But Freedman certainly likes to pick and choose, a tendency that can sometimes make it difficult for readers to follow the thread of his arguments even as readers move into the central sections.

Those sections are threefold -- “Strategies of Force,” “Strategy From Below,” and “Strategy From Above” -- and Strategy is best read as three separate books in one. As he has with everything else in this elaborate study, Freedman has chosen these titles carefully. Still, his idiosyncratic and even peremptory claim on meanings and the logical chain of his chapters remind one of Alice’s encounter with the arbitrary Red Queen: things are as the author says they are, whatever one may happen to think about whether a “from below” strategy is included in his “Strategies of Force” section. Yet the book still stands tall compared to the many lesser works on strategy and policy out there, which is why it will still stand out in ten or 20 years’ time.

WAR ON THE MIND

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