Where I Got Strategy Wrong

April 1, 2015

Towards the end of a long career as a historian and strategic thinker, one error stands out above all others: the time that I was unable to convince you to donate to the War on the Rocks crowdfunding campaign, so help me fix that right now at http://igg.me/at/warontherocks. It’s not too late. This mistake taught me an invaluable lesson about strategy that I have never since forgotten: Never get involved in a land war in Asia and never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line. How did I come to make this mistake and what can we tease from its lessons and apply to the current international environment?

And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.” And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs, and sloths, and carp, and anchovies, and orangutans, and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats… And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.

At that point, Prime Minister Collingridge motioned me over and put President Bartlett on hold. He whispered to me, “There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass’ sic nach Berlin kommen. Let them come to Berlin.”

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Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say, on behalf of my countrymen, who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope and the determination of the city of West Berlin. While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of. the Communist system, for all the world to see, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.

It was twenty years ago today. Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. They’ve been going in and out of style. But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile. So may I introduce to you. The act you’ve known for all these years. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We hope you will enjoy the show. We’re Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sit back and let the evening go. Sgt. Pepper’s lonely, Sgt. Pepper’s lonely. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

It’s wonderful to be here. It’s certainly a thrill. You’re such a lovely audience. We’d like to take you home with us. We’d love to take you home.

I don’t really want to stop the show. But I thought that you might like to know. That the singer’s going to sing a song. And he wants you all to sing along. So let me introduce to you. The one and only Billy Shears. And Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

So that’s how it all happened. It was a valuable lesson and one that I hope we remember, should humanity survive.

Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982. His most recent book is Strategy: A History (OUP, 2013). He is a Contributing Editor at War on the Rocks.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps