REVIEW: On Grand Strategy – John Lewis Gaddis (Penguin Press, 2018)

Books on strategy comprise a gargantuan field of popular reading.  The stuff of ancient conquests and military theory can certainly be interesting when handled by the right author, and it’s a pretty well-established meme to use military tactical and strategic advice as metaphors for deploying one’s skills in the business world.  It stands to reason, then, that a book on strategy seeking popular sticking-power would need at least two of the following: interesting subject matter, astute and insightful explanation, and easily readable narration.

So enters John Lewis Gaddis.  Full disclosure: I have never read any of Gaddis’ numerous other books.  He’s apparently quite an expert on the Cold War, and he taught military strategy as a civilian, for what it’s worth, so his resume at least implies that he knows what he’s doing.  The book cover says this was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, too, and it’s easy to see why: it was written for idiots.

This complaint isn’t really leveled at Gaddis himself.  It’s hard to tell whether he constrained his expertise in order to fit the market, or if this is an honest effort of his to produce a readable, accessible book on the topic of grand strategy.  If the former is the case, the Pulitzer seems an adequate metric of its success.  If it’s the latter, however, then the book is a waste of time.

Gaddis begins his work—and structures his thesis—around a fragment of Greek referenced by Hericlitus and then, later, by Isaiah Berlin.    “The fox knows many things,” said Archilochus two and a half millennia ago, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  Berlin, says Gaddis, interpreted this into the realm of strategical planning and predictive capabilities.  Foxes, knowing many things, can compartmentalize their knowledge and draw upon those various ideas—even ones in contradiction to others—to formulate better predictions about the future than hedgehogs.  Hedgehogs, on the other hand, can visualize and idealize grand concepts, as all new data is oriented toward contextualizing and understand that ‘one big thing’.  This means, according to Gaddis, that foxes make great strategists but lousy leaders, since the complexity of their predictions lack a greater framework that tends to attract followers.  Hedgehogs, on the other hand, can attract followers with their single-minded and infectious zeal; their simplicity of vision, however, lacks consistent predictive capability.

This all sounds simple enough—so simple, in fact, as to seem suspiciously hedgehog-like in its unifying capacity.  Gaddis admits that, for the most part, people don’t fall neatly into one category or another.  And then he spends much of the rest of the book categorizing, at least implicitly, famous historical figures as one or the other, and choosing appropriate contrasts for them.  A particularly amusing example of this is his contrasting St. Augustine, the fourth century philosopher and theologian most famous for his autobiography and his completion of The City of God Against the Pagans, a gargantuan work of theological and political theory that influenced Catholic teaching for a millennium, against Niccolo Machiavelli, a 15th century Florentine whose general political credo—funded by Lorenzo de Medici—boiled down to the means are usually, but not always, justified by their ends.

What was the basis for this particular comparison?  Good question.  The chapter he spends on the two doesn’t make that clear.  Rather, he spends some time explaining how The City of God is a “Moby-Dick of theology”, and that isn’t meant as praise; rather, it’s “a loose, baggy literary leviathan … in which cycles and epicycles, angels and demons, myths and histories jostle one another in no particular order” (99).  This sort of commentary makes one wonder if Gaddis indeed read either The City of God or Moby-Dick, or if instead he skimmed the Cliffs notes and filled in the blanks by himself.[1]  Even if the points he raised against Augustine’s work had merit (they don’t, since Augustine himself raises them and answers them over the course of his writing), the bigger trouble comes from Gaddis’ use of the Saint as a counterpoint to Machiavelli.  The millennium that transpired between the two men saw the rise of an entire political ethos founded on Catholic doctrine and a two-cities approach to political and spiritual matters.  Meanwhile, the complexity of the Church and the centuries of study brought forth more contemporary schools of philosophy illuminated by the faith—St. Thomas, perhaps the most well-known of the scholastics, deserves a note here.

To put this in perspective, albeit rhetorically, more than twice as much time passed between the writing of The City of God and The Prince as has passed between that overplayed piece of baroque music, Pachelbel’s Canon in D and that overplayed piece of pop music, The Beatles’ Let it Be.  The musical references serve no relevance, but the passage of time does.  A thousand years separate these two men, who lived not only in different eras, but under different systems of government, in different regions of the world, with different ideas about spiritualism and morality, and with vastly different needs to be addressed in terms of their political climates.  What purpose does it serve to compare The Prince, a political tract, with The City of God, a work far-exceeding the confines of politics and written during the Western Empire’s decline?  Wouldn’t a work by a more contemporaneous Scholastic have made more sense?

If I had to guess, Gaddis’ comparison across the millennium served only for him to make this inane comment at the end of the chapter:

“Machiavelli’s great transgression… was to confirm what everyone knows but no one will admit: that ideals ‘cannot be attained.’ […] There is no contest, in governing, between politics and morality: there is only politics.  And no state respects Christian teaching on saving souls.” (117)

This is the sort of commentary you’d expect from an undergraduate thesis written ten hours before final grades were due.  Not only is every single thing here wrong, it’s laced with the sort of grim pretention that only an academic could pull out of his bowels.

Despite appearances, this book is essentially a quick rundown of various historical amusements targeted for the clickbait audience.  While the chapter concerning St. Augustine and Machiavelli was certainly the most egregious example of ridiculous claims compounding backwards reasoning, Gaddis’ general model regarding foxes and porcupines remains itself little more than an amusement.  In order to distill down the periods of history he speaks of into the space of twenty to thirty page long chapters, he loses too much for the commentary about strategy to be terribly worthwhile.  By his own admission, he’s attempting to double the scope of a previous work in the field of strategy while halving the amount of space to do it in.  While I can’t speak for that particular volume’s merit, I can say that this attempt seems like a failure.  It’s trite, overridden with Gaddis’ own amusing ego, and devoid of meaningful commentary on contemporary applications for people who might be interested in making strategy a tangible part of their everyday existence.  Don’t waste your time.

[1] A common criticism of Moby-Dick is the so-called superfluous chapters which detail everything from the biology of whales to the long process of stripping a catch.  Their prevalence and inclusion in the work would almost make one think that maybe the point of the book isn’t to be a singular story of vengeance after all, and that maybe Melville’s intentions for Moby-Dick go beyond the irritatingly pretentious views of the barely-literate English Majors looking to gain social capital from knocking down an American great.  This applies doubly so for Gaddis’ absurd reduction of The City of God into a purely political tract; if a square peg doesn’t fit into a round hole, stop pretending it’s a round peg.

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