Saturday 23 March 2024

The Evolution of Strategy

As the long-suffering reader of the blog might have vaguely surmised, I have been thinking a little about strategy recently, and how it might impact on our wargames. The answer is, of course, both more and less than we might imagine. It impacts less because tactical warfare, which is, after all, mostly what wargamers are interested in, has relatively little impact on strategic warfare. That is, looking at it the other way around, it is hard to translate a tactical victory into a strategic victory. If your enemy is determined to carry on, no matter what the cost, or how badly defeated they have been, the war will continue. And you still might lose.

There are several cases around which prove the above assertion to, at least, have legs. Hitler defeated the Western allies in 1940, for example, but the war continued because the British Empire and Commonwealth refused to either surrender or negotiate. Similarly, it was observed that the US never lost a tactical encounter in Vietnam. It is just that, in the strategic picture, it did not matter much.

On the other hand, strategy, at its grandest level, does have some impact on how and where wars are fought. For example, after the First World War, some powers decided that all they really needed was a strategic bomber force to deter any invasion by threat of massive attacks on enemy cities. Whether the technology of the time was up to the job is rather moot, but the idea was there and the concept of a defensive air force took time to evolve. This idea did not, incidentally, die with the Second World War, but morphed into nuclear strategy.

As you might have guessed by now, I have been reading again, this time a large tome on strategy:

Heuser, B., The Evolution of Strategy: Thinking War from Antiquity to the Present (Cambridge: CUP, 2010).

This would seem to be something of a university-level textbook for international history, politics, peace (and war) studies, and so on. It really covers what people have been writing about strategy over the centuries, and how what happened in the real world changed that.

There are quite a few interesting points in the book, which is just as well because it is 500 pages long or so. It has to be said, however, that as someone who mainly wargames in the ancient and early-modern periods the coverage of these is rather light, largely because no one particularly wrote about strategy in its modern definition until roughly Machiavelli. I know that there are exceptions, and they do get a chapter or so, but really the picture starts to get interesting in the Eighteenth Century and beyond. For something that is supposed to be a rational human activity, there is a lot of trendiness and muddled thinking going on, by the way.

Still, everyone was mesmerized by the Napoleonic Wars. Heuser really does not think that there was a ‘Western Way of War’ before the French Revolution, but that Napoleon, with his focus on the decisive battle, rather invented it. Maybe, and maybe not. After all, Frederick the Great wrote a lot about decisive battles but rarely managed to engineer one. We return to the point above, that a campaign or battle is only decisive if it persuades your enemy to give up.

Still, at sea, the idea of the decisive battle was also all dominant after Trafalgar. The concept that your battle fleet put to sea and decisively defeated the enemy battle fleet, gained command of the sea, and then won the war was the key concept. There were arguments among the British as to whether the army was really necessary, and among the French as to whether the navy was superfluous. These were theoretical arguments, of course, among the emerging academic and retired military classes. No sane politician ever really considered scrapping one or the other.

This all rather changed with the First World War. There was no decisive battle at sea. Both sides in reality had a more realistic goal of retaining a fleet in being to deter any silly stuff like invasions by the other side. On land, the concept of a decisive battle expired in the trenches.

Views of warfare switched, somewhat, but in different directions. One school went for technology – future war would be dominated by tanks, aircraft, and submarines. Everything else was irrelevant. To an extent, of course, that was perfectly correct, but only, as with so many things, to an extent.

On the other hand, other strategists argued that the whole strategic idea of the First World War was incorrect and that more should have been done to attack indirectly, with such things as the British blockade (which did cause starvation in Germany, eventually, but which did not contribute to the surrender) bombing (which did not cause too much damage in WW1 and did not cause surrenders in WW2) and defeating the enemy by attacking command, control, communications and logistics (Liddell Hart and the Blitzkrieg, of course).

The advent of nuclear weapons, as noted, did not really change things too much. The idea of a (nuclear) force in being simply continued. This is deterrence. The concept of imposing your will on the enemy, as practiced by Napoleon and the decisive battle brigade, started to decline as it was realized that a decisive battle in a nuclear sense would be the last battle. Ever. Nevertheless, as the small wars started up again, wars of decolonization and the ideological clash between superpowers, the concept was never entirely lost. Even large and successful campaigns, such as the defeat of the Tet Offensive, could not,, win wars, particularly when the resource base for the enemy was off-limits, as it was in Vietnam.

As might be expected from a large book there is a lot in it which I have not covered here. The chapters on asymmetric warfare are interesting and give a lot of ideas for how such activities are fought on the tactical and political levels. And so on.

The final assessment is that is well worth reading, and might inform your wargaming. After all, grand strategic assumptions tend to inform weapon system procurement. If you assume your navy will fight the enemy navy in a decisive battle, you will invest in battleships. Otherwise, you might decide that commerce protection and raiding are more important and invest in smaller warships. And that controls what you can do, in general, tactically.


  1. I agree with the central point about the rarity of decisive tactical victories on land and sea, and big victories only mattering if the loser lost the will to continue the war. However, the reported view that starvation in Germany in WWI did not contribute to the surrender must be wrong. How could it not be? Yes the Germans were getting beaten on the Western Front by superior numbers and materiel, combined with the emergence of effective combined arms tactics, but it must have undermined the will to continue when you were barely getting enough food yourself, and the people you were supposed to be protecting were starving.

    1. Yes, agreed. I think the point is that (indirectly) attacking the civilian population did not bring the war to an end any more than area bombing in WW2 did. Indeed, it could have been that it increased civilian morale ('we're all in it together') such that only military defeat on the Western Front could end the war. In spite of Hitler's stab in the back theory, actually it was the army that gave up the fight. There may, indeed, have been indirect effects of civilian starvation, but it did not lead to German civilians demanding an end to the war.

  2. I often find theses Very Short Introductions very good for a start in a new subject: Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction
    by Antulio J. Echevarria II pub. Oxford

    1. Thank you. Yes, indeed, that book should be on every wargamer's shelf.

  3. It is an endlessly fascinating subject, but probably still somewhat under-developed, especially when applied to history: what were people trying to do, and was what they were trying to particularly viable, or even remotely plausible. I feel this quite a lot about C16 warfare in particular. But in any event, even in the age of decisive Napoleonic battles, I am struck by the fact that the campaign with the most decisive battles (the French against the Spanish) achieved the worst strategic outcomes. There is a lot of benefit in making generous peace terms, and shaping the political space; whereas knavery and high demands are both high-cost high-risk (but high-payoff) strategies.

    1. Agreed on all counts. I suspect today the problem is encapsulated in the much discussed but usually absent 'exit strategy'. Plus, I'm reading a bit about the military getting out of control and mission creep - if it looks like you are winning, you push on a bit harder (while your enemies resist a bit more). So the objectives become a moving target, and usually are fallen short of.