war on the rocks

Finding Strategic Man

October 7, 2014

Like any self-respecting thinker on strategy, I made a point of securing a copy of Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History to consult throughout the year. Despite receiving notable plaudits, there is one issue in particular that this post seeks to challenge, and that is Freedman’s thoughts on “the myth of the master strategist.”

Freedman takes aim at the view of the master strategist as outlined by Colin Gray in Modern Strategy and Harry Yarger in Strategy and the National Security Professional. Gray and Yarger insist that the superior strategist has at his core the skill of holism – the ability to perceive the whole in enough detail to manipulate net strategic effects. Freedman notes the troubling issue that while the deep expertise of the master strategist may be welcome before policy ventures begin, he could not help being unprepared for crisis situations, and therefore of less value. Freedman also calls for a tempering of the value of holism, that everything may not be connected to everything, arguing instead for the need “to recognize the unreality of insisting on setting out with confidence, certainty, and clarity a series of steps that was sure to reach long-term goals.”

Freedman criticizes Gray’s view of strategic man as an exalted view that simply does not occur in reality, not only for reasons of the sheer difficulty of the task, but for the fact that there is a distinct separation between the military and political spheres of strategy. Most skilled strategists, according to Freedman, rise through the military sphere, but to be a master strategist necessitates being in and understanding the political realm. Ultimately, due to the sheer difficulty of the pursuit and the impossibility of comprehending all relevant factors,, strategic man cannot exist.

While one can empathize with Freedman’s argument, it is ultimately incorrect. Finding strategic man is daunting, yet it can be achieved; and here I shall argue that strategic man has existed in the past, can exist in the present, and will exist in the future.

Strategic man in the past

Freedman’s insistence that strategic man is impossible overlooks historical evidence to the contrary. The clearest retort to his argument is Alexander the Great. Alexander resembles not only the archetype of classical heroic warfare; he is also the greatest embodiment of strategic man in reality.

Alexander’s genius as a strategist extends far beyond the battlefield, uniquely manning Gray’s “strategy bridge” in a way that few have ever achieved. At every point throughout his campaigns Alexander displayed not only tactical ingenuity and ferocity, but also political sagacity and magnanimity.

Following the death of his father, Philip II, Alexander’s claim to the Macedonian throne was challenged; this carried the risk that Macedonian dominance could be curtailed. But a series of lightning marches across Greece ensured not only the throne of Macedon, but so too his place as Hegemon of the Hellenic League. And all was achieved without actually resorting to combat. Alexander secured his political base and accepted the political mandate of all Greece to wage the war of revenge on Persia. This episode alone is enough to secure Alexander in the pantheon of strategic heroes.

Alexander’s prowess on the battlefield is well known. The scale of his achievement lies in his mastering of every form of warfare conceivable in his age. He achieved this without losing, and all in the manner of learning by doing. By the time Philip II had died, Alexander had already mastered rapid advances. In the invasion of Persia Minor he mastered the classical equivalent of amphibious assault. Alexander also understood the valuable asymmetry of defeating naval forces through land action, as he demonstrated when he removed the Persian fleet’s dominance by the attrition of their naval bases throughout the eastern Mediterranean. He mastered siege warfare at Tyre. He secured lines of communication and established docile regimes in nations from Asia Minor to Egypt and beyond. He mastered the decisive battle, most famously at Gaugamela, and he mastered what is today termed as counterinsurgency in Sogdia and Bactria (modern day Afghanistan).

It is easy to judge Alexander on his military record alone, but Alexander, as the Hegemon of Greece and ultimately King of all Asia, also uniquely carried the political sphere with him on campaign.

The bringing together of policy through tactics, into a construct resembling a one-man strategy bridge, is best represented by Alexander. The numerous examples of Alexander’s political acumen are myriad. Despite waging a war of revenge, Alexander fully respected and even adopted the religious customs of conquered lands. After conquering Babylon, he insisted that the temples destroyed by Xerxes be rebuilt so that the Persians could honor their old gods once more. He also subsumed rather than destroyed their traditional forms of local governance in order to maintain the local way of life. This is most clear in the adoption of the Satrapy system for tax collection, serving the dual purpose of not alienating those in his rear areas while also absorbing their financial capacity. Alexander paid heed to local legends—most famously untying the Gordian Knot—convincing locals that Alexander was destined to rule Asia. Most famously of all, Alexander’s magnanimity in the treatment of Darius’s family upon seizing Babylon is testament to his political skill. To end a war of revenge, Alexander employed the politics of reconciliation and respect with the Persians.

Alexander’s political sagacity ensured that he never suffered any kind of uprising or revolt in rear areas. Alexander remains without doubt the greatest strategist in history, embodying what strategic man should be. He who can perceive the whole in a shifting, dynamic environment; communicate complex matters to those he must lead, both militarily and politically, in order to inspire them to feats beyond what was thought possible; master a vast array of technical and tactical challenges in real time, against diverse adversaries; one who understands the ethical dimension in strategy and the need for political humility; and ultimately, when the time comes, holding the ability to defeat those who challenge him through force of arms quickly and decisively.

Strategic man in the present

It is in the present where Freedman’s case is on surest ground, especially in his articulation of the separation of the military and political worlds. Freedman insists that strategic man is a myth because of this separation. It is true that the separation of the military and political worlds, especially in liberal democracies is a hurdle for strategic man, but not an insurmountable one.

The rise of the state system, and the harnessing of the full resources of the state (especially financial and manpower), has necessitated the creation of huge administrative bodies to optimize those resources. Arguably the creation of civil service structures, large military bodies beyond corps level and, most notably, the expansion of warfare itself into the air, then space, and now cyberspace, has rendered strategy simply too large for strategic man to cope.

The strategy bridge in the state system is today an incredibly large, cumbersome machine with many moving parts, each requiring professional expertise to manage. Strategy became, much in the spirit of the industrial revolution that catalysed so many of these dramatic changes, a machine. While daunting, this does not render strategic man a myth either. The real challenge lies not in developing mastery of the vast array of complex matters that now traverse the strategy bridge, but instead in resolving the dislocation of military matters from the political.

The moving of the military sphere away from the political has created the most difficult conditions for strategic man to emerge. The fear of military officers wielding political power while commanding troops stems all they way back to Julius Caesar and the Roman Senate, and not without justification. In liberal democracies the structure is deliberately established to prevent true intimacy between the military arm and executive power. It is only a logical consequence that such separation prevents military strategists from also developing superior political skills. Conversely, those holding political office rarely have even basic experience of military affairs.

The solution to finding strategic man in this environment is not easy. First, foster closer political involvement by the military leadership. But this is obviously very controversial and historically risky. Second, mandate some level of military experience on the part of the political leadership. Such a move, however, would be unpopular and no guarantor of strategic acumen. After all, Margaret Thatcher held no military experience yet performed national strategy in several cases extremely well (the Falklands War, Cold War strategy, domestic counter-terrorism against the IRA), meeting the standard of strategic (wo)man by any measure of success.

Despite the difficulties, improving the odds of finding strategic man lies in establishing closer links between the military and political worlds once more. The alchemic process of strategy that translates the results of tactical action into political capital is the essence of strategy. Only by charging people in some measure to man this critical juncture can strategy hope to be performed skillfully once more. Solving this architectural problem in present governmental systems may represent the surest route to better strategy.

Strategic man does not need to resemble the Supreme Being, they need only be good enough. Eisenhower performed the task very well both as a commander in the Second World War and as President in establishing early Cold War strategy. President Reagan also performed well with his more aggressive Cold War strategy that ultimately proved decisive. The actions of David Petreaus in aligning counterinsurgency methods with local Iraqi politics during the 2007 Surge serve as an example of aligning the use of force to political intent. Numerous other examples of effective practice can be found in contemporary history that should provide hope.

Strategic man in the future

Strategic man has existed in the past; we have Alexander the Great as the supreme example of what this being should be. We have had good enough strategists emerge in the past century within the state system, with Eisenhower and Thatcher among others offered as examples of effective performance. Despite the difficulties of finding strategic man, empirically we are on sure ground to argue that he will exist in the future.

Significantly, Freedman’s underlying assumption in the myth of the master strategist is a liberal democratic prism that fails to acknowledge other political systems across the world. Strategic man may have a far easier rise in Africa, South East Asia, and the Far East. Indeed the fear among Western democracies should instead be what do we do if strategic man rises against us, instead of for us.

Nobody can predict the future, nor will the attempt be made here. Instead the assumption moving ahead will be that we can expect the state system to remain dominant, with liberal democracies playing a central role. This assumption will at least provide a framework to guide further thinking of how to nurture strategic man within that liberal democratic system.

At present in the liberal democratic system, we simply hope that either political leaders take office who instinctively know how to conduct strategy, or that we are blessed with an officer corps that can translate the use of force well enough for political ends. In order to better cultivate the emergence of strategic man three avenues should be considered:

  1. A reconceptualization of who “does” strategy in government. The bureaucratic architecture of government should be optimized for greater interaction not separation between the political and military spheres.
  2. A closer relationship should be encouraged between the military officer corps and political executives, to develop greater understanding of their respective needs.
  3. Both military officers, and the political classes holding executive office, should benefit from a thorough strategic education, ensuring that the basic concepts of applying strategy are understood.

A closer examination and adjustment to the architecture of government (structure), the relationships between the military and the executive (agency), and the education of strategy throughout, represent the surest actions liberal democratic societies can take to cultivate the rise of strategic man.

In conclusion, we know that in the present we have significant problems in finding strategic man. Whatever the solution is in detail, it is critical for the future of strategy that we enable better conditions for strategic man to rise. It is certain that strategic man will rise once more; the big question is whether we can enable his rise within our own system first, before he rises elsewhere.


Dr Daniel Steed is Lecturer in Strategy and Defence at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute. His tasks at Exeter include helping in the design and delivery of the MA in Applied Security Strategy, under the direction of General (Rtd.) Sir Paul Newton and Professor Paul Cornish.  He is also a contributor at War on the Rocks.