Forty Shades of Gray

July 17, 2013

Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace and Strategy (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2007)


I am often asked to name my favorite book.  Without hesitation, I always say Forty Shades of Gray.  Some mistakenly think I am referring to E. L. James’ best-selling Fifty Shades of Grey; but, my nightstand reading tends to nonfiction and strategic realism for intellectual stimulation over tawdry prose.  Thus, Fighting Talk, with 40 condensed chapters, lies nearby, earmarked, and underscored heavily.  This does not say much about connubial bliss, but it says a lot about Professor Gray’s pithy text.

Among strategic historians today, there stand few who can rival Colin Gray’s intellectual depth, sharpness of wit, or realism.  For several decades, his contributions to strategic studies have established a solid reputation for extraordinary insight.  No policymaker or student of strategic affairs should attempt to make any inroad into the field without exploiting Gray’s body of work, which includes some 20 books.

Fighting Talk does not diminish his reputation any.  In fact, it will surely expose a larger audience to the basics of strategic reasoning and the complexities of developing and executing good strategy.  It is a tightly structured book of unusual clarity and offers modern strategists a compact but illuminating set of insights into strategy and history in a digestible form.

Gray’s lifelong work has concentrated on the development of strategy as a practical field of study.  His opus to date, Modern Strategy, is extremely well regarded in the field as an indispensable graduate course on strategy in every dimension, from conventional war to so-called irregular contests.  Recently, Gray released a more futuristic assessment titled Another Bloody Century  offering a pessimistic but historically well-grounded estimate of the 21st Century.  It is my second favorite book of this decade.

In that effort, Gray’s take on history stresses the continuities over sharp or revolutionary change.  He emphasizes that while the context of war changes continually, “much of what is most important about war and warfare does not change at all.”  While recognizing that discontinuities do occur and that every age has its own unique way of war, Gray emphasizes the “eternal universal realities” of human conflict as the foundation for study.  He underscores this point noting that “Historical experience is a goldmine for the understanding of future war and warfare.”

Fighting Talk is based on the same historical underpinning and strategic realism It is an extremely disciplined book that presents a distillation of some of the most profound insights drawn from Gray’s lifelong study of strategy and military history.  It presents a total of forty maxims in tight three to four-page chapters.  Each maxim is supported with a remarkably concise explanation and defense of each strategic “nugget.”

The book is organized into five sections and an afterword.  “War and Peace” offers ten general maxims on the two subjects.  The next, “Strategy,” delves deeper into the realm of strategic behavior, and the role of strategy as a bridge between policy aims and military plans and tactics.  Following that, “Military Power and Warfare” turns to the more practical matter of applying military power against a human opponent.  The penultimate fourth section, “Security and Insecurity,” explores the chaotic nature of any security environment and the requirements of prudence and adaptability over time.  The final cluster captures some of Gray’s most significant findings about the future, or more accurately, how to apply the past to thinking about the future.

The headlines out of Iraq and Afghanistan make many of the maxims in Fighting Talk appear useful for future policymakers and Pentagon strategists:

  • It is more difficult to “Make Peace” than it is to Make War.  As we know from Iraq, excellence in war-making is not the same as excellence in peacemaking or institution-building under chaotic conditions.
  • There is More to War than Warfare.  Here again, war is a broader construct that defines the status between belligerents and involves the competition between a full range of  instruments of power.  Warfare is a distinctive subset and involves the actual conduct of military operations.  The United States approaches these as the same, but as Gray notes, “to approach war as if it is synonymous with warfare all but guarantees political failure…”
  • Policy is King, but Often is Ignorant of the Nature and Character of War.  Given Mr. Rumsfeld’s micromanagement of the planning proceeding Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) this is now a very obvious lesson.  “It is an historical fact, endlessly repeated,” Gray dryly comments, “that policymakers committed strongly to their political desires are not easily deflected by military advice of a kind that they do not wish to hear.”
  • Bad Strategy Kills, but So Also Do Bad Policy and Tactics.  This resonates with any veteran of OIF, and brings to mind Tom Rick’s brutal assessment of the campaign plan for Iraq as “perhaps the worst war plan in American history.  It was a campaign for a few battles, not a plan to prevail and secure victory.”  A decade later, Rick’s quip still smarts, but after $1.2 trillion, it is hard to evade reality anymore.
  • There is More to War than Firepower.  This strikes at the heart of a culture too caught up in technology that views warfare strictly as bombing an enemy target, rather than as a challenge that requires the design of military operations and supporting actions to achieve a desire political end state.  Fred Kagan’s Finding the Target brilliantly sums up the problem afflicting America’s conduct of war.  If you want to know what is wrong with the American Way of War, read Dr. Kagan’s book.
  • The Future is Not Foreseeable.  Nothing dates so rapidly as today’s tomorrow.   This maxim supports another similar jibe at technophiles and purveyors of military dilettantism—“The Strategic Concept du jour will be tomorrow’s stale left over until it is rediscovered, recycled and revealed as a New Truth.”  The purveyors of the Air Sea Battle concept might want to look at this.

In the afterward, Gray implies that he was motivated to write this book by De Saxe who penned a book of maxims to “amuse and instruct.”  Like De Saxe, Gray may have written Fighting Talk to amuse himself, but I think any reader will certainly feel instructed by this small jewel.  Fighting Talk is extremely educational, frequently witty, and profoundly practical.  Although this volume is appropriate for general readers, aspirants to public office in the upcoming election may also want to closely scour the book.  But beware: Professor Gray has little patience for political correctness or fuzzy thinking from policy theorists who are not grounded in a realistic appreciation of geopolitics and the immutable nature of human conflict.  Add this book to your professional library if you are interested in realism and uncorking the wisdom of the ages.


Frank Hoffman is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks. He is a retired Marine infantryman, Washington-based national security analyst and a Ph.D. student at Kings College London.