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Strategy: Key Thinkers: A Review – Travis Hallen

The study of strategy is a daunting undertaking. Not only must students wade through the dense tomes of the strategy masters but they must also be alive to subtle nuance in the texts, attentive to the significance of word choice, and conversant in the influence of context on the strategists’ theories. Given this complexity, it is not surprising that recent compendiums on strategic thought are themselves intimidating to new initiates in the field; Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: a history runs to 768 pages, while Beatrice Heuser’s The Evolution of Strategy is slightly more manageable at 506 pages.


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What has long been needed is an entry-level introduction to the subject that makes it accessible to the novice and provides the contextual understanding necessary to make sense of the primary texts, yet does not simplify the inherent complexity of strategic thought. Enter Thomas Kane’s excellent 198-page primer on the evolution of strategic thought. Strategy: key thinkers provides an outstanding introduction to the study of strategy and is a necessary addition to the book shelves of those beginning to study strategy for the first time or needing to refresh knowledge that may have lapsed from disuse.

Kane writes with authority. A senior lecturer at the Centre for Security Studies at the University of Hull, he is an established author on strategic matters, in particular Chinese strategy. This experience as a commentator and educator is readily apparent in his ability to identify, tease out and explain in a coherent, concise and accessible way the threads that weave through and interlink 2000 years of strategic thought. This distillation of two millennia of theory into less than 200 pages has rightfully been hailed as a ‘major intellectual achievement’ and has drawn praise from leading strategic thinkers, notably Colin Gray.

Gray’s endorsement is perhaps not surprising given his clear influence on Kane. However, as Gray literally wrote the book on modern strategy, it would be difficult for any contemporary author to write without due reference to and reverence of ‘the master’. Kane achieves this without apparent sycophancy, by clearly identifying where his contribution fits within the expansive bibliography of the history of strategy. Although acknowledging that he draws on largely the same strategic canon, Kane emphasises from the outset that ‘where Gray reconfigured insights taken from the older classics, this book attempts to illuminate the insights themselves’, with the aim of helping the ‘reader engage with the classic authors’ thought processes, and perhaps even to emulate them’. This focus is the basis of the book’s appeal to the novice strategist.

Kane structures his work chronologically. Although he does not explicitly group the thinkers into strategic epochs, Kane’s progressive analysis, from Sun Tzu to Gray, establishes a clear differentiation between classic and modern strategic thought, with Machiavelli and Clausewitz acting as transitional thinkers. Indeed, Kane compares the shift from the classic to the modern strategists with the discovery of the New World, equating Machiavelli with Columbus, and Clausewitz with Martin Waldseemuller, ‘the cartographer who literally put the newly discovered continents on the map’. The pivotal role these two thinkers have played in shaping modern strategy is reflected in the examination of subsequent strategists by the continued reference to Machiavellian and Clausewitzian concepts.

This is not to suggest that subsequent strategists were derivative. Mahan, Corbett, Douhet, Schelling and Wohlsetter, to name only a few of the modern thinkers discussed by Kane, provided unique insights that have made an important and lasting contribution to our understanding of strategy. However, the disparity in the number of pages Kane allocates to the pre- and post-Clausewitzian strategists reflects his belief that ‘classic works by long-dead authors often seem more useful than competing offerings from those writing today’. Eleven key post-Clausewitzian thinkers are ‘discussed’ in a mere 56 pages, while the thoughts of Clausewitz and his four predecessors are ‘analysed’ over 93 pages.

The greater depth of analysis Kane affords the classic strategists also reflects a need to provide a more detailed appreciation of context for those thinkers more removed from the modern reader. Although it is cliché to refer to Clausewitz being more often quoted than read, the fact remains that On War, along with the other classic works on strategy by Sun Tzu, Thucydides and Machiavelli, are often distilled to ‘sound bites’ devoid of the context in which they were originally penned. Kane’s work seeks to mitigate the unfortunate side effects of this quote-mining approach to strategy by drawing the reader’s attention to the context and reasoning that lay behind the works of the classic thinkers.


Translation of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War [Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

Thucydides’ Melian dialogue is one such example of where selective quotation leads to misunderstanding of key concepts. As Kane tactfully yet convincingly points out, the international relations theorists who assert that Thucydides was the first realist overlook that it was the Athenian generals, not Thucydides himself, who articulated the realist credo that ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. Thucydides never voiced support for this position and, in light of the outcome of the Peloponnesian War that was the subject of his study, Thucydides was well aware that ‘realism may be insufficient as a guide to long-term strategy’.

The Melian dialogue is just one example of how Kane has successfully achieved his aim of ‘illuminating the insights’ of the classical strategists. Key concepts from Sun Tzu, Vegetius, Machiavelli and Clausewitz receive similar treatment to similar effect, with the reader finishing each chapter with an improved ability to identify and appreciate the nuance with which these authors wrote. Accordingly, both those about to read the strategy classics for the first time and those who perhaps need to refresh their understanding of classic strategic concepts would benefit greatly from Kane’s concise and well-structured analysis.

However, this book does not offer much for those seeking the same insight into the theories of the modern strategists. Kane’s focus with respect to the post-Clausewitzians rests almost exclusively on understanding their links to the classics. Key factors that invariably shaped the strategic concepts developed by Mahan (America’s reliance on maritime trade), Douhet (Italy’s geography) and Brodie (managing a defence budget in a fiscally-constrained environment), for example, are overlooked in preference for exploring their relationship with Clausewitzian concepts. In itself, this is not a major criticism of the book. The context in which these strategists wrote are more readily understood and appreciated by a modern readership; however, it does mean the book falls short in relation to illuminating the insights of more contemporary strategists.

Strategy: key thinkers is not a substitute for reading the original works of the strategists that Kane analyses. It is a primer that provides the reader the necessary intellectual foundation to tackle the strategic canon that forms the basis of any military staff college. This book should be included in all Service reading lists, and is a must-have addition to the library of any serving member of the military serious about understanding the role strategy plays in their profession.

Squadron Leader Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar and editor at The Central Blue. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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