Technology and military organizations exist in a paradoxical relationship. The relentless march of science creates pressure on strategists and their organizations to adopt novel technology and adapt their doctrine. This pressure can derive from technological innovation by one’s own scientists as well as the fear of what a potential enemy is developing on its side. Yet, as political scientist Stephen Rosen points out, organizations, and especially military organizations, have difficulty changing because “they are designed not to change.” A bureaucracy is organized to perform established tasks with uniformity and regularity. This inherent attribute presents the strategic innovator with a dilemma; a military organization must innovate to survive, but it resists innovation by its very nature. This problem is exacerbated by the reality that the direction and timing of optimal innovation is often ambiguous in the moment and only clear in hindsight.
Military theory is a way of distilling the raw materials of history into a concentrated, potent form that educates the strategist and commander. In this way, theory can serve as a starting point for strategy. While sound military theory is a good starting point for strategy, however, context and execution matter. The positive impacts of theory upon strategy are often limited by the context in which theoretical principles are applied, and by the commander’s judgment and skill in applying them.
Strategists are a critical bunch. After all, critical analysis is an important skill for those involved in scrutinizing international relations, history, and policy to generate insights. It is therefore curious that Martin Van Creveld’s book A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind immediately opens itself to the nitpicking of strategists in two related regards. First, the treatment of such a vast topic is too brief, running just 124 pages. Second, as a natural extension of its brevity, the details about the strategists it addresses are rather sparse. If the reader is able to overlook these limitations, however, A History of Strategy is a useful overview of the figures and ideas that form the canon of strategic thought.