When I was about twelve, my parents gave me a fifteen-volume set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia. I thought I was supposed to read it straight through, so I did, and then tried to make sense of the whole thing as one big idea. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I like this sort of thing.

Sir Lawrence Freedman’s 750-page magnum opus, Strategy: A History, is encyclopedic, although not alphabetical, a pleasure to dip into here and there to get a carefully considered summary briefing on the strategy of the Hebrew Bible, the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Jane Addams, Black Power, or the strange array of social science attempts to redefine human behavior as a contribution to strategy. Everybody talks about strategy, but no one seems to know what it is. But now there are no excuses; it’s all here, at least in chronological array. As with my childhood set of Compton’s, I read it straight through for its several-thousand-years’-long narrative arc; it only remains to try to make sense of the whole thing as one big idea.

Freedman begins by admitting that there is no agreed-upon definition of strategy. When one encounters the word applied to battle plans, political campaigns, and business deals, “not to mention means of coping with the stresses of everyday life,” the concept may begin to seem meaningless. But not so for Sir Lawrence, a most distinguished professor of war studies at King’s College, London, who unapologetically focuses his modern section on American approaches because “the United States has been not only the most powerful but also the most intellectually innovative country in recent times.”

The “origins” of strategy run from David and Goliath to Machiavelli to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a vast stretch of time covered, for this big book, in a relatively short space, as though the author is hurrying to get to strategy in our modern age. All the old warhorses are here. Thucydides is analyzed as the start of “real” strategy and the distortions of language as a cause of Athens’ fall is featured. Plato’s Republic is taken seriously as a “strategic coup” by which philosophy defeats strategy. (I am one of those who read Plato’s Socrates as ironic, playing along with an overnight concoction of a perfect polity—which turns out horribly—as the most effective way of showing us what not to do when thinking strategically.) Sun Tzu is properly portrayed not so much as a strategist as a master of stratagems, a subset of the art in full: To do the opposite of what is expected is not enough to qualify as strategy. Overall, the centuries of “Origins” analyzed here could be characterized as “a series of footnotes to Homer,” a running debate between advocates of force (Achilles) and those who prefer guile (Odysseus). The Trojan Horse was guile personified; it worked, but thereafter could be scorned as a despicable trick unworthy of heroes. The strategic approach of Milton’s Satan to his own demonic team, as well as toward Adam and Eve, was all seductive guile and still seems to be working.

Freedman groups his survey under three major headings: “The Strategies of Force,” “Strategy from Below,” and “Strategy from Above.” In each, he provides an incisive analysis of several strategic approaches and leaves the reader with the task of drawing conclusions about each. This reviewer will try to do that in what follows, which may or may not be what Freedman had in mind.

“The Strategies of Force” is presented as a “new science,” transcending anything considered strategic before 1800. The world had changed. With the rise of mass armies and organizational techniques—I would attribute that first to Wallenstein in the Thirty Years’ War—the strategic focus must primarily be on force. No strategy as we now know it, Freedman indicates, could exist until Napoleon grasped the potential of large-scale action in warfare. Strategy would need to take every factor into account: “the relationships between time, positions, means, and different interests.” On this new scene, stratagems, or guile, would be an ineffective diversion. The focus on force compelled attention to Clausewitz’s concept of the enemy’s “center of gravity,” not in itself a point of strength or weakness, but the coherent focus of all power and movement on which everything depends.

But in Freedman’s view, Napoleon “did not have a clear notion of how [military] objectives could result in a new European political order with any sort of stability.” Clausewitz, however, in his often muddled textual way, suggests that Napoleon had this coup d’oeil sense as a young general on the Austrian–Italian front in 1797, but had lost it by 1812 in his decision to march to Moscow. Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow was a victory, not for force, but for Kutuzov’s Fabian strategy of delay and strategic withdrawal. The Age of Force seemed to be producing successes from the other direction. Rather than a new science, Tolstoy declared strategy “a false science” because commanders simply have no control over history’s inexorable course. Although in the American Civil War, the North concentrated its force to annihilate the Confederacy, others would begin to argue for indirect approaches, notably Sir Basil Liddell Hart, but the realization that indirection worked only in special cases caused Liddell Hart to turn against war altogether. In this context Freedman cites Churchill’s decision to fight when the situation was hopeless, when he could have no strategic confidence about the likely outcome of the war; it was a desperate strategy made sane only by the hope of drawing in the United States.

The advent of nuclear weapons opened an entirely new strategic dimension that centered on threatening war in order to fend it off. Game theory and the “prisoners’ dilemma” were efforts to provide a scientific basis for decision-making in a non-zero-sum context—a key breakthrough, Freedman says, in that strategy would depend on the likely actions of others in an uncertain situation made scientifically predictable based on human rationality.

This leads to “The Rationality of Irrationality” and other concepts that turned strategy upside-down. The idea of gaining strategic advantage by accepting a loss of control brought us Mutual Assured Destruction (the aptly acronymed MAD) under which the U.S. would accept a condition of helpless vulnerability to nuclear missile attack if the USSR did the same. Another upside-down strategy came with revivification of guerrilla warfare.

Lawrence of Arabia’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the Arab Revolt and the uses made of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War by Mao Zedong in the Chinese Civil War and Vo Nguyen Giap in the Vietnam War seemed to reveal the Strategy of Force to be an unclothed emperor. This, Freedman says, “marked the end of ‘the golden age’ of strategic studies” which in retrospect was a unique moment when measurable elements of power—missile “throw-weight”; the number of main battle tanks—made quantitative, rational, formulaic, scientific theories seem plausible. There followed such imaginings as the OODA Loop—observe, orient, decide, act—a way to describe another’s decision cycle so that you might get inside and act first. Or Edward Luttwak’s claim that strategy has a logic all its own, neither cyclical nor linear, calling for paradoxical acts at the operational level to impose the unexpected on an adversary, which sounds like taking us back to that non-strategist Sun Tzu.

Then comes the Revolution in Military Affairs, a concept with so many and varied definitions—war can be fought with fewer people; decisive victory can be obtained by “shock and awe”; victory in battle is never enough—that it soon was drained of meaning. The new twenty-first century brings volumes of data beyond comprehension with associated leaking, hacking, and forays of cyberwar. Freedman ends his study of force with “The Myth of the Master Strategist”; the “new science” of strategy in the modern age is paralyzed as no one can “begin to comprehend all the relevant factors and the interactions between them.”

Freedman’s “Strategy from Below” focuses on how people who lack power, such as activists and intellectuals, devise methods to get power for those they believe they represent. This begins both naturally, with Marx and a strategy for the working class, and with a military model, which produced professional revolutionaries imposing organization over spontaneity. With Lenin, “the Bolshevik Revolution changed forever strategic discourses on the Left,” producing rigid doctrinal orthodoxy. Excellent on personalities, tactics, and phases in the movement, Strategy stays away from the magnitude of the monumental ideological challenge rooted in Rousseau’s declarations that all government, indeed all civilization, had been illegitimate and would continue to be so until a “true” revolution—i.e. not just a political upheaval, as had been the French Revolution—would transform human nature itself.

Freedman then shifts to the social scientists who sought bottom-up reforms as alternatives to Marxism: not radicals, but elite professors at established institutions. Max Weber’s sociology would sharpen strategy by showing how certain means might work or why certain ends were beyond reach. With reform, bureaucracy would take command and social science could start to replace strategy. John Dewey proposed pragmatism as “a strategist’s philosophy,” but more philosophy than strategy. Mosca, Pareto, and Gramsci rejected traditional strategic ideas of force or guile by substituting a fixed theoretical interpretation of how society worked as a way to place boundaries around strategic decisions.

Nonviolence, from the suffrage movement to Gandhi, is downplayed by Freedman as a strategy of only limited applicability. (Freedman ignores Gandhi’s aim of undoing civilization itself, a strategy as “grand” as that of Rousseau and Marx.) Reinhold Niebuhr’s rejection of non-violence in this fallen world is matched by Martin Luther King Jr.’s successful non-violent strategy which in turn is rejected by Malcolm X and “Black Power” with its adoption of violence as a cleansing force, as necessary and “virtuous” as Robespierre declared. Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Allen Ginsberg, and feminists make cameo appearances along with C. Wright Mills and Cesar Chavez. A long consideration of Saul Alinsky’s “community organizing” is found effective as an anti–social science, a program of boundless ambition, at “war against the social menaces of mankind.” President Obama is not mentioned here, but the attention given Alinsky-ism accords with Obama’s declared goal of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” a goal of greater magnitude than mere strategy could achieve.

Freedman also considers the countercultural intellectual profundities of French theorists, notably Foucault, for whom everything could be considered strategy. The tropes of “framing,” “paradigm-shifting,” and victimhood are examined, all committed to resist and overthrow authority, any authority. Freedman here provides less on strategy than on twentieth-century intellectual history, but it is a good review of intellectual history.

Surprisingly, the “From Below” section concludes with American presidential election strategy featuring the supposedly nefarious political consultant Lee Atwater, who gets twice the space given Ronald Reagan. Atwater is portrayed as an intense reader of Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Sun Tzu, and an inventor of the “permanent campaign” strategy built around key words, images, and media manipulation all focused on winning with little thought of what is to be done after victory. Freedman sees this as strategy “from below,” in the sense of populism, “eschewing an ethic of ultimate ends.” American conservative politics is portrayed as akin to the ancient sophists—all deceptive guile and no substance. Freedman commits a howler here in his scathing treatment of President George H. W. Bush’s patently phony claim that his most admired thinker is “Christ. Because he changed my life.” Of course that was not said by Bush the father in 1992 but in 2000 by George W. Bush whose born-again faith is undeniable.

Finally, “Strategy from Above”—how the powerful use their power against each other. The rise of “scientific management” is seen as a great contribution to Western thought in such innovations as “Taylorism,” the time-and-motion studies for manufacturing efficiency, and “The Hawthorne Effect,” when attention paid to workers by researchers enhanced the quality of work. The great captains of industry, Rockefeller, Ford, and GM’s Alfred P. Sloane, are all here along with the influential analyst Peter Drucker.

Then Robert McNamara appears with his Ford Motor Company “whiz kids” and full-throttle quantification, followed by his role as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. The outcome, in business and the military, was that “the loss of confidence in models based on central control, quantification, and rational analysis left an opening for alternative approaches to strategy.” Nonetheless, business was now seen as a continuation of war by other means. CEOs were considered generals; Sun Tzu’s Art of War was on every corporate board reading list.

The academic disciplines were enlisted; economics dealt with challenges on the horizontal axis of competition; sociology dealt with issues on an organization’s vertical axis.

Economists became hegemons issuing dictates on game theory and Nashean equilibrium; “parsimonious” models eliminated variables. On the other side of the battlefield was Milton Friedman citing evidence of market efficiency.

From here on, Freedman reviews the full array of management and business strategy theories. Popular books peddled fads too banal or too quirky for management to implement. Highly intellectualized theories encountered the limits of rational choice, which “could never capture actual human behavior.” Reason was not enough; “hyper-rationality was required in the world of abstract modeling.” For a moment, the reader fears that Freedman is going to conclude by signing on to the current fashion for “Thinking Fast and Slow,” or System 1 (intuitive and unconscious thinking) and System 2 (deliberative thinking), which readers may recall from its appearance four decades ago in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there called “romantic” and “classic” ways of thought.

At the end, Freedman offers no conclusive assessment of his hundreds of pages of categorized narrative summaries. But a lineage of development, or deterioration, can be tracked, starting with strategy in the classical age which was largely a matter of force or guile—Achilles vs. Odysseus.

The post-1800 “strategy of force” raised the art to a more sophisticated and complicated level, but still recognizable as strategy in the classic sense, a matter of force and guile, independently or in tandem.

With the rise of “strategy from below,” however, strategy becomes a warped concept. Marxist ideology, not really addressed by Freedman, is totalistic, answering every conceivable question of life in advance—the antithesis of strategy. The alternatives to Marxism “from below” are revealed to be esoteric speculations of an elite intelligentsia, theories that demand acceptance, not testable, and thus do away with strategy altogether.

Strategies “from above,” from the powerful, merit serious consideration in the early industrial years of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but the prescriptions turn superficially obvious (“pay attention to the needs of your team”), or theoretically preposterous—in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s flying island from which an academy of geniuses live free from contact with the people below while advising them what to do and being maintained by them.

At the end Freedman offers a simple approach, quoting Isaiah Berlin’s call for

a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data, too many, too swift, too intermingled to be caught and pinned down and labeled like so many individual butterflies. To integrate in this sense is to see the data (those identified by scientific knowledge as well as by direct perception) as elements in a single pattern, with their implications, to see them as symptoms of past and future possibilities, to see them pragmatically—that is, in terms of what you or others can or will do to them, and what they can or will do to others or to you.

To put Berlin’s words into practical effect, Freedman offers the idea of “strategic scripts” as a way of thinking about strategy in the future tense. This is a useful angle of approach, particularly because “to study strategy in this way is potentially subversive of those forms of social science which must control for the random and the disorderly, the anomalous and paradoxical, the exceptional and eccentric as awkward outliers.” This is a good starting point to escape from what has been a strategic train wreck through most of the modern era. The larger and so far missing dimension is “grand strategy,” to have a sense of where you are and where you want to go before that moment of intuition about a particular situation and the deliberative process that follows even when it must be instantaneous. There are grand strategies set forth in several of the greater works covered by Freedman, but Strategy: A History holds the reader to the strategic level, a subset of grand strategy. Not all grand strategies work; Marx’s was a disaster. The grand strategy of our time is the international state system itself, a work of perhaps unconscious political genius, but one that is scarcely understood today and is in a deteriorating condition. Strategy: A History doesn’t go into that, but nonetheless provides a point of departure for drafting a script for the time ahead, a matter of increasing urgency.