A better state of peace

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.”

Strategy - Liddell HartThis 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.

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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7 Responses to A better state of peace

  1. Peter Hodge says:

    Yeah, I’d agree with your analysis, YH. “Strategy” has some interesting ideas, here and there, but that’s about it. BLH’s big ego is also on show in his biography of T E Lawrence.

    On the other hand, Alex Danchev’s biography of BLH, “Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart”, is very interesting.

  2. T. Greer says:

    Thanks for this. I just picked up Hart’s book from the library yesterday. I shall be sure to read chapters 19-22 inclusive.

  3. T. Greer says:

    P.S. For those interested in learning about Epaminondas’ attack on Sparta, Victor Davis Hanson’s Soul of Battle contains an entertaining and informative narrative.

  4. Pingback: Warren Ellis » Links for 2009-11-21

  5. Isegoria says:

    Don’t leave us hanging, Younghusband. We only have a few weeks to get those “many more informative, better written and truly original books on strategy” on our wish lists. We need names.

    (By the way, ju-jitsu is one of many “correct” spellings of jūjutsu from before we settled on our current transliteration scheme. Jiu-jitsu has made a strong comeback with the success of the Brazilian variant in mixed-martial arts competition.)

  6. I don’t know if I agree. I enjoy the review and re-interpretation of history, and recapitulating a thought process is useful in understanding it. Because of the long opening, I understand the ending much better. I’ve always liked that book very much, because he lavishes so much work clarifying and garnering support for his ideas.

    Also, we have the capability of 20-20 hindsight. In Liddell-Hart’s day Clausewitz and even Jomini held sway over the old fogies educated 50 years before his time. We’ve been hearing this stuff ever since we first read the term blitzkrieg in our callow youth.


  7. Mssr. Jouet says:

    I’ve long been a fan of that book; mine is highlighted, underlined, dog-eared and broken in the spine. I agree you have to slog through to the end to get to the juicy bits, but then I was a rank beginner then (now I am still a beginner, and even more odorous). It illuminates, on its own horns, the older Sun Tzu and the soon-to-emerge John Boyd. It’s a worthwhile stop on the trail between the two; all other stops are without value, imho. The axioms you chose are the wrong ones. And the next and final step is Ueshiba’s “The Art of Peace”, a lifelong discipline.