Nonfiction: When to Wage War, and How to Win: A Guide

Gaddis writes as he presumably teaches, informally mixing literary and historical analyses with the observations of his students, reminiscing in a personal voice about long-ago conversations or sharing conclusions that came to him over the years of the seminar. The book is as much personal remembrance as strategic reflection, and is chock-full of aphorisms and enigmatic adages.


Niccolò Machiavelli

Palazzo Della Signoria, via Getty Images

Gaddis believes the best way to hone strategic thinking is not just by mastering the advice of Machiavelli or Clausewitz (who both figure prominently in the class), much less contemporary high-tech wizardry, but also by understanding the interplay of history, literature and philosophy over 2,500 years of Western civilization — with occasional insights from Sun Tzu and other non-Western thinkers. In some sense “On Grand Strategy” is a traditional argument for the value of classical education in the broadest sense.

The student of strategy learns to balance a grasp of detail with proper humility: It is, of course, wise to have a plan and contingencies. But how will these prompt rival counter-responses? Do such agendas have the means adequate for their ends? Or are they more dreams, warped by ego and emotion (“And the heat of emotions requires only an instant to melt abstractions drawn from years of cool reflection. Decades devoid of reflection may follow”)? The better way is to be Isaiah Berlin’s versatile fox, not a single-minded obsessed hedgehog, or to embrace Machiavelli’s virtues of imitation, adaptation and approximation.

A recurrent theme is the danger of omnipresent hubris. Even a great power cannot master the unexpected and uncontrollable — from the great plague at Athens, to the harsh Russian winter, to I.E.D.s and tribal factionalism in Iraq. Why in the world, during a breathing spell in their war against Sparta, did democratic Athenians attack neutral and democratic Syracuse, 500 miles away? The answer is the same blinkered arrogance that sent Philip II’s huge but poorly led Spanish Armada into the British northern seas. Understanding the underappreciated role of irony is essential for a leader, and might have prevented the disasters of both 415 B.C. and 1588. Tolstoy and Clausewitz appreciated that bad things can come from good intentions and vice versa. The best generals live with and react to paradoxes, Gaddis argues. The worst ignore or seek to undo them.


Carl von Clausewitz


Gaddis sees these more successful global strategists as rope-a-dope pragmatists who remain elastic and patient enough to capitalize on events and opportunities as they unfold, rather than forcing them to fit preconceived schemes. Caesar tries to force a Roman republic into a global hegemony without full cognizance of the inevitable blowback from centuries of republican government, and so predictably is assassinated by a dying generation of dreamy senators. His savvier adopted son, Augustus, like the later Otto von Bismarck, builds coalitions, finds pre-existing seams to exploit at home and abroad, and waits to take advantage when enemies — or friends — stumble. Stalin’s prewar Bolshevik nightmare was responsible for 20 million dead, but apparently was not so loathsome that the Soviet Union could not prove temporarily useful for Churchill and Roosevelt in bleeding out the Nazi Wehrmacht.

Morality matters, if defined less as self-righteous ardor and more as self-awareness of a leader’s effect on those around him and an appreciation of paradox. A pragmatic St. Augustine has no problem with war — if it is a last resort to save civilization, without which there can be neither calm nor organized religion.

Still, courting calculated risk is essential. The gambler Winston Churchill took chances in 1940, albeit rational ones backed by educated guesses that, for all Hitler’s bluster, the Third Reich had neither the air nor sea power to destroy the Anglosphere. Risk is not always risk when it is the natural expression of national advantages and a mixture of caution and audacity.


Sun Tzu


Gaddis’s American heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, who he thinks “rescued democracy and capitalism.” Roosevelt somehow was cognizant early on of how the singular military and economic potential of America might save Europe and Asia, but only if he first prepared reluctant Americans materially and psychologically for the inevitable war to come. Woodrow Wilson, among others, was not so successful in creating a postwar peace because he forced conditions to preconceived realities that bore little resemblance to emerging ironies at Versailles — and was without a sellable idea of an American role after World War I.

Gaddis concludes with an invaluable warning that true morality embraces neither messianic interventionism nor the quest for utopianism — indeed that is how millions become deluded, endangered or doomed. Instead, ethical leadership pursues the art of the possible for the greater (not the greatest) good. Augustine did not demand the city of God absolutely over the city of man. Augustus did not self-righteously return the Principate to the strife of the late republic. Lincoln did not start the Civil War as a crusade to eradicate slavery everywhere.

With regard to the American 21st century, Gaddis’s favorite novelists and philosophers perhaps argue against both optional intercessions abroad and moralistic lead-from-behind recessionals. The better course is to marshal American power to prepare for the often unavoidable existential crises on the horizon, with the full expectation that we do not have to be perfect to be good.

“On Grand Strategy” is many things — a thoughtful validation of the liberal arts, an argument for literature over social science, an engaging reflection on university education and some timely advice to Americans that lasting victory comes from winning what you can rather than all that you want.

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