Sydney M. Williams
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selective Readings
June 15, 2018
“On Grand Strategy”
John Lewis Gaddis
“Grand Strategy:The alignment of potentially infinite aspirations
with necessarily limited capabilities.”
“This, then, is a book about the ‘mental’ Hellespont that divide such leadership,
on one shore, from common sense on the other. There ought to be free and
frequent crossings between them, for it’s only with such exchanges that grand
strategies – alignments of means with ends – become possible.”
John Lewis Gaddis
On Grand Strategies
This is a short book (313 pages), with a large sweep of (mostly) Western Civilization, especially of its military leaders and observers. Professor Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale. As well, the book is, as Victor Davis Hanson wrote in a review for The New York Times, “…a thoughtful; validation of the liberal arts, an argument for literature over social science, an engaging reflection on university education and some timely advice for Americans that lasting victory comes from winning what you can rather than all that you want.”
In ten essays, Professor Gaddis carries us from Xerxes, Pericles and Octavian to the Founders, Napoleon and Bismarck. He juxtaposes Augustine with Machiavelli, Elizabeth I with Philip II and Clausewitz with Tolstoy. He focuses on three U.S. Presidents: Lincoln, Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, showing us why Lincoln and FDR were successful, while Wilson failed to realize his dream “to make the world safe for Democracy.”
He cites maxims. Isaiah Berlin quoting the Greek poet Archilochus of Paros: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Augustine: “The higher glory is to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with a sword.” Machiavelli: “…a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good.” Clausewitz, author of the unfinished On War: “war…must be subordinate to politics and therefore to policy.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said brilliance is the ability “to hold opposing ideas in [one’s]mind, while retaining the ability to function.”
Professor Gaddis instructs us on Thucydides, who wrote of the distinction between resemblance and reflection – between patterns surviving across time and repetitions degraded by time. George Canning – the late 18th-early 19thCentury British statesman – who prophesied that the “new” world would one day correct the imbalances of the “old” world. Edmund Burke on proportionality, which leads to the conflict between what we would like to do set against what we can do. He writes of Sun Tzu, the 5thCentury BC Chinese author of The Art of War, who “sets forth principles, selected for validity across time and space, and then connects them to practice, bound by time and space.” He describes Napoleon at Moscow being like the dog that caught the car. What do I do now? Lincoln who told us that power and liberty can co-exist. And 92-year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes who said of newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt: “A second class intellect. But a first-class temperament.”
This is a book one can read not only to learn of the successes and failures of famous and infamous military strategists, but one from which we can better understand today’s polarized politics. Isaiah Berlin, the Latvian born British historian and a hero to Professor Gaddis, came to see (in the 1950s) politics as a polarity, with “inequivalent” concepts of liberty at either end. “One,” Professor Gaddis writes, “offered freedom from the need to make choices by yielding them to some higher authority…The other the freedom to make such choices.” Taken to extremes, the first leads to tyranny, the second to anarchy.
One can also derive life-lessons, for we are all strategists (though mostly not grand), knowingly or unknowingly, in all the decisions and choices we make. We alternate between the focused but myopic hedgehog and the versatile but peripheral fox. We would be wise to periodically step back and conduct self-analysis. We may find ourselves changing from one animal to the other, as conditions warrant, so to lead more balanced, productive lives.
In an interview last Month with Brian Lamb on C-Span, Professor Gaddis spoke of the summer odysseys into small-town America he asks of his students: “…It is just our small effort to try to break down some of the isolation that somehow the elite universities have locked themselves into, the bubbles into which they have placed themselves.” His is a voice of reason. With many of us concerned as to what is happening on college campuses, Professor Gaddis restores a measure of confidence. However, since most of us cannot take his class, we can, at least, do the next best thing – read his book.