#Monday Musings: John B. Sheldon

"Monday Musings” are designed to get quick, insightful thoughts based around three questions from those interested in strategy, from the most experienced and lauded, to our newest thinkers/writers.

1  — Who had the greatest impact on you intellectually (whether through writing, mentorship, etc.)?

By far the biggest intellectual influence in my professional life is Colin S. Gray. He was my dissertation supervisor and has, I am happy to say, become a friend and mentor. Colin is an incredibly generous and kind man who has opened doors for all of his students, and I have certainly benefited from that over the years. Most importantly, though, Colin taught me how to think and honed my strategic judgment,  continuously challenged my assumptions and passing on his prodigious intellectual curiosity. Colin always seeks to inculcate a joy of deep reading across a broad range of subjects, fostering an ability to make heuristic and contextual connections. Finally, Colin's love of history—he calls himself an historically-minded political scientist—has influenced my reading tastes and the evolution of my habits of thought. I owe Colin a debt that I likely can never repay, and I should certainly not be where I am without his influence, support, and friendship.

More generally, the late, great Spike Milligan has had a significant influence on me. His sense of humanity, absurdity, and ridiculousness has been a Godsend. Serving honorably in the British Army in the Second World War (his experience of which was the basis for his memoir, Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall), Spike was devoted to improving the lot of humanity and deeply understood—and felt—our ability to do despicable things. Our collective antidote that mitigated our terrible excesses was his most wonderful humor. For those unfamiliar with his work, this is a man who wanted his gravestone to read, "I told you I was ill."

Strategy is a deadly business, but there is room for a humor informed by our sense of humanity nevertheless. There are too many gray-suited, gray-faced people in our profession who affect a mock and often self-important solemnity that frankly wears increasingly thin. I go back to Spike time and again to try and avoid such a fate. Enough said.

2  — What book (fiction, history, or academic) do you think best explains strategy?

My education in strategy under Colin and since has led to a love of the classics in the field: Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War; Clausewitz's On War; Wylie's Military Strategy; and Luttwak's Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace. Julian Corbett's Principles of Maritime Strategy is probably the best text out there on both maritime warfare and limited war in general. Then, of course, there is Colin Gray's Modern Strategy. These are books I find myself re-reading, and all are among the most well-thumbed in my library. Yet while these works exert a strong influence on my thinking, it occurred to me only a few months ago that the author I have turned to the most since I was a teenager is George Orwell. I have long since moved away from his brand of politics, but his clarity of thought, moral compass, eloquence, and superior argumentation have long survived him. In particular, his essay "Politics and the English Language" is a classic I re-read and recommend often. It remains the best guidance for detecting nonsense passing for strategic analysis in many of the world's capitals.

I find fiction not only enjoyable but also a window into the human condition—the most constant and important among all of strategy's dimensions and also the most poorly understood. Among my favorites are Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, an examination of the narratives we create for ourselves as well as the unreliability of scientific knowledge and our own personal experiences. I am also a big fan of the fiction of the great 20th century British novelists Graham Greene, Anthony Burgess, John le Carré, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Lawrence Durrell. Greene had a tremendous insight into human frailty and delusion, as his The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana attest. Burgess seemed to understand our penchant for violence when other intangibles are missing or unchecked (A Clockwork Orange) as well as the tendency to hypocrisy and corruption (Earthly Powers). Le Carré's fiction, especially his George Smiley novels, perfectly captures the thousand moral compromises the secret world of intelligence can exact, as well as the despairing loneliness that is the hallmark of much of contemporary Western society. Kazuo Ishiguro may have the deepest sense of compassion and empathy of any writer alive today, as demonstrated in his beautifully heartbreaking The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Lastly, Lawrence Durrell had the wryest sense of humor about how buttoned-up British culture interacts (or not) with those of others, as demonstrated in his Antrobus Complete collection of short stories.

I should like to add a caveat to the question. Reading is critically important for the professional and intellectual growth of anyone interested in strategy, but I would also insist that any strategist should not only be well-read but also well-traveled. As John le Carré has written, "A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world."

3  — What do you want your legacy to be?

My late grandfather once said that if you love what you do then it's not work. I have had the greatest fortune to be allowed to pursue a career in something that I truly love, so if my legacy were to amount to anything I should hope that my intellectual passion for strategy might at least inspire someone to take it up and somehow help keep the intellectual flame alive for another generation.

John B. Sheldon is Chairman and President of ThorGroup GmbH, and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Washington, DC, and the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, Canada. He has previously taught strategy at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, served in Her Britannic Majesty's Diplomatic Corps. He now lives in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the official policy of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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