Book Review: Strategy: A History – Lawrence Freedman

I’d been planning on reading this tome for quite some time. Through superior logistics (coffee) and outstanding tactics (patience) I completed it. Maybe I should write a book on strategy. If I did I doubt it would be as comprehensive or engrossing as Lawrence Freedman’s magnum opus Strategy: A History.

I find strategy a fascinating topic. I’m an avid chess player and an (amateur pseudo-) military historian. I’ve read a lot of history books in my time, but I’ve never encountered one that details the history of a concept. In spite of the intimidating length of this book—it’s 751 pages long—I spent long stretches of time reading it. Freedman explicated the evolution of strategic concepts in an intellectually stimulating manner.  

Freedman divided his analysis of strategy book into three categories. The first addressed the development of military strategy from antiquity to the present day. The second described the advancement of political strategy over the years. The book culminated with an analysis of business strategy. Freedman had more than enough material to write a separate book on each subject. It struck me as interesting how he chose to weave these diverse disciplines into one coherent narrative about the evolution of strategic thought.  

Freedman displayed phenomenal erudition throughout the text. I enjoyed the way he didn’t limit his sources to the topic at hand. He used references from literature, economics, and psychology among other disciplines to illustrate his points. I thought this variety made the voluminous material a little easier to ingest. Of course, he added the importance of storytelling and narrative as tactics in the sections on politics and business. With the dry data from the other fields, I thought this a very relevant touch.

Freedman presented a diverse array of examples to buttress his ideas. He explained how the Greeks viewed military prowess in terms of both cunning and strength. They emphasized the latter. I liked how he used the Odyssey to show how the Greeks prized cunning and deception in warfare. Later Roman epics such as the Aneid emphasized strength in battle. In the chapters regarding political strategy he referenced Michael Dukakis’ failed 1988 campaign and how it provided specific lessons learned for Bill Clinton when he ran in 1992. While he didn’t use the expression, I thought Freedman showed the 1988 Presidential Contest to be the first modern Presidential Campaign, especially in terms of the negativity and the attack ads.

I thought the section on business strategy enlightening, but I’ve been spoiled. I’d strongly recommend Walter Kiechel III’s The Lords of Strategy for anyone interested in the subject. Freedman cited it in his book. It’s much more detailed and focused on the topic.

I enjoyed the book, but it did have a few shortcomings. This is a first edition, but I found some inexcusable and blatant factual errors. Freedman wrote that Michael—not Richard–Daly served as the Mayor of Chicago while the 1968 Democratic National Convention took place there. He also wrote that during World War I George Creeley headed the Committee on Public Information. The gentleman’s correct name was George Creel.

Another issue I had with the book occurred in the section regarding Ronald Reagan. It seemed to me that Freedman attacked Reagan inappropriately. He wrote, “Reagan was telegenic with an easy, affable style that helped him link with people who might otherwise recoil from his politics.” He could’ve stopped there, but he went on, “Reagan also had an ability to drift in and out of the fictional and nonfictional worlds which he inhabited, which made his claims credible even when they were fanciful.”  

I don’t have any problem with Freedman’s disdain for Ronald Reagan. As an historian, he’s entitled to write critically about any figure he’s covering. (In the section on business strategy he made fair negative points regarding the “re-engineering” craze.) I thought it odd that he would make these comments about Reagan in a section where he showed just how skillful his political strategy was.

Strategy: A History presented a comprehensive overview of the subject. Even for those who may not want to read it cover-to-cover it would make an exceptional reference source. I found the book very educational and entertaining. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the concept. I’m sad to say that my chess game hasn’t improved any since I completed reading it, though.



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