Strategy: A History, is an ambitious and sprawling book by a British military historian who has written widely, and very well, about nuclear and cold war strategy, the Falklands War, and contemporary military affairs, among other subjects. Sir Lawrence Freedman prefaces his more than 700-page investigation of a vast and important topic with a telling aphorism from an unexpected corner: “Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” So sayeth Mike Tyson, the menacing and troubled warrior from the mean streets of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
“Iron Mike” was obliquely referring to the fundamental strategic challenge faced by all generals and admirals, as well as by boxers: No matter how sound the original plan one develops to fight a war, it‘s bound to be tested once the action is joined, for war, like boxing, is an extreme trial of moral and physical stamina. Unpredictability is of its essence. One of the recurring motifs in Strategy is that achieving success in any conflict requires not only the ability to frame a plan based on a realistic assessment of one’s own strengths and weaknesses as well as one’s adversary’s, but the presence of mind to adapt and refine that plan in an environment that gravitates naturally toward violence and disorder.
Strategy, as Freedman describes his admittedly diffuse and multifaceted subject, is both a way of thinking and a way of doing. While its elemental features “such as deception, alliance formation, and use of organized violence to achieve a given end” have been with the human species from the start, the word “strategy” came into common use only in the early 18th century, reflecting the Enlightenment’s faith in human beings’ ability to apply empirical science and reason to even the most extreme form of organized social activity.