- My NYPL
Tools and Services
- Using the Library
I am a...
- Classes & Events
- Support the Library
Modern War and Strategy at the Library, Part I
"You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you."
—Leon TrotskyThe Prussian soldier and theorist Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz, defined strategy as "the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war," with war being "an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will." Clausewitz advocated the concept of "total war;" although wars of unlimited scope that did not distinguish between civilians and soldiers existed for centuries before, Clausewitz was the first to truly theorize on it and categorically discuss it. While many may dismiss him as a simple old school jingoist the world would be better off without, his book On War was no 'lite' account of how human affairs in extraordinary, morally ambiguous circumstances may be conducted, but a thoughtful and empirical tome built on experiences from the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars.
So much the worse for today's discourse. In the past few decades, an entire shelf of new literature regarding "strategy," "leadership," and "power" has proven to be a boon for the would-be managers, movers and shakers of tomorrow. However, while its not this humble librarian's place to evaluate and critique the merit of such writing, it is in the interest of bibliography and general education to point out how much of this material is simply regurgitated and watered-down. While the foundational literature reads arguably at a higher level, the rewards are proportionate to the time taken giving their full measure of scholarly engagement.
As many who know even next to nothing of modern strategy can attest, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli is indeed the father of strategic political philosophy. While at times he is painted as some 'evil' arbiter of amoral power games, or some cryptic conspiracist a la The Da Vinci Code (a patently false assertion propelled only by pop publishing kerfluffle), Machiavelli's importance as a political philosopher remains virtually without parallel.
First, start with the classic, The Prince, but be sure to read The Discourses in quick succession—reading an author's secondary works does tend to allow more nuance, contradiction and depth than the stereotype of the "evil" Machiavelli prevalent in pop culture today.
Next on the list, consider reading Antoine-Henri Jomini. While Clausewitz and Machiavelli are household names, Jomini is no less important to the history of modern strategy, and yet remains in obscurity. A champion of quantification, geometry, logistics and the use of overwhelming force, Jomini bears the dubious distinction of formulating a 'science' of warfare, a meme still very much en vogue in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (McNamara, Rumsfeld, etc.).
These are the makers of modern strategy and the theoreticians of how humanity conducts warfare today.