Poised outside of the newly re-enforced capital of Sparta, the Theban general Epaminondas knew that beginning a siege against the city would only wear down his troops who had already campaigned deep into Spartan territory during the mid-winter of 370BC. His force was a collection of Arcadian peoples and included a large number of Helots — the Spartan underclass — among other “disaffected elements”. Epaminondas decided on a new tack. Rather than conquering the Spartans, he would contain them.
At Mount Ithome, the natural citadel of Messenia, he founded a city as the capital of a new Messenian state, established there all the insurgent elelments that had joined him, and used the booty he had gained during the invasion as an endowment for the new state. This was to be a check and counterpoise to Sparta in southern Greece. By its secure establisment she lost half her territory and more than half her serfs. Through Epiminondas’s foundation of Megalopolis, in Arcadia, as a further check, Sparta was hemmed in both politically and by a chain of fortresses, so that the economic roots of her military supremacy were severed.
Epaminondas’s strategy successfully dislocated the power base of Sparta after just a few months campaigning, and no victories in the field. After all, the object of war is not to destroy your opponent’s military force, but to “obtain a better state of peace — even if only from your own point of view.”
This gem of a story (from pp. 15) is a rarity in BH Liddell Hart’s Strategy, which is otherwise a tiresome slog of a read. Rather than a well argued, economically written thesis, Strategy is a wordy, meandering narrative of the author’s own journey to his theory. Liddell Hart re-tells history with hints and side comments about a hypothesis that is not revealed to the reader. The key term “strategy” itself is finally defined on page 321 (as “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy”)! The first three quarters of the book are not about understanding history, but a guided tour of how Liddell Hart came to his conclusions. Those conclusions are finally revealed in the last section of the book, which I would almost recommend skipping the rest to read.
This style of presentation, as well as several passages in the book, indicate the level of Liddell Hart’s egotism. Self promotion is almost a second thesis of the book, especially in the latter third. It is an insight into the man behind the controversy.
Despite the controversy, and Liddell Hart’s recent unpopularity in strategic scholarship, I decided to read this “classic” to learn about the ideas. I wanted to learn what was said in the book, and see if the argument stood on its own merits. There are some valid — if seemingly dated — arguments. Liddell Hart’s levels of strategy paradigm (Grand strategy > Military Strategy > Tactics) is helpful despite the muddy terminology he uses. The psychological aspect of warfare (what is now called the “moral plane”) was a great contribution to the field. Liddell Hart’s discussion on the interplay between politicians and generals is timeless.
He also spends quite a bit of time criticizing earlier military thought. He rejects Clausewitz, or at least the followers of Clausewitz, whose mistaken understandings he holds responsible for the horrors of the First World War. Liddell Hart further rejects “geometric” and “mathematical” military thinkers such as Jomini. The mechanization of war, as witnessed in World War One, invalidates many of their theories. Weapons like the machine gun give defensive strategies the edge, rendering concentrated attacks ill-advised. Military forces must turn to fast-paced mobile operations to search out weakpoints for attack. In other words, take the “indirect approach”.
Liddell Hart does not dismiss all previous thinking on strategy. He tries to synthesize older insights compatible with his flavour of maneuver warfare. For example, citing Bourcet, Napoleon and General Sherman, Liddell Hart stresses the strategic advantage of alternative courses of action in war. When taking a line of advance try to have more than one objective in mind. This will force your enemy to decide where to parry your strike — “putting the enemy on the horns of a dilemma”. He won’t want to split his force, and once he commits, you can switch to the alternate objective as conditions demand. Conquer, rinse and repeat.
Many of the ideas presented in Strategy will not seem to be particularly revolutionary to the modern reader — almost common sense. This may be a sign of how much strategic thought has progressed since the early 20th century. However some of his arguments are uninspired. His final chapter on guerilla war, written in 1967, is barren of understanding. This must be due to lack of experience for at around the same time Kitson and Trinquier were writing great stuff.
Nevertheless, Liddell Hart has a knack for writing pithy little axioms about strategy. Following is a small collection of quotes, many of which have a flavour of Sun Tzu (On a related note, the term “ju-jitsu” [sp] is used a few times in the book):
“To strike with strong effect, one must strike at weakness.” (pp. 212)
“The true purpose of strategy is to diminish the possibility of resistance.” (pp. 213)
“While strategy is the opposite of morality, as it is largely concerned with the art of deception, grand strategy tends to coincide with morality” (pp. 220)
“The object in war is a better state of peace — even if only from your own point of view.” (pp. 338)
“It is wiser to run the risks _of_ war for the sake of preserving peace than to run risks of exhaustion _in_ war for the sake of finishing with victory…” (pp. 357)
This book can nearly be summed up by a short list of quotes. Historians might want to read and dispute Liddell Hart’s take on their specific era. But most of the knowledge in this book lies in Chapters 19 to 22, a scant 49 pages. There are many more informative, better written and truly original books on strategy in the past few decades. Strategy should only be of interest to those (like me) are piqued by the controversy, or those studying the historiography of 20th century strategic thought.