Grand Strategy course: case studies and queries

Douglas Peifer's picture

I'll be co-teaching a graduate level course on Grand Strategy this fall, and will be responsible for teaching the first block of historical case studies.  The overall course aims to nurture strategic thinking above the operational level, with IR experts covering theories about how states and people interact, a political scientist covering deterrence, nuclear themes, containment, and US grand strategies since 1945, and regional specialists covering contemporary Great Power challenges, in particular that posed by China.  My intent during the first historical block is to introduce students to historical cases that illustrate various dimensions of strategy, the interaction between opponents, alliance dynamics, and strategic planning/force development in peace and strategy during war.  My first inclination is to use the following cases (I only have ten 3 hour lesson periods, so can only cover 4 or 5 cases): 

Peloponnesian War:  I just think Thucydides provides some many venues for discussion debate, ranging from his triad of fear, honor, and interests to rising/declining power dynamics, to role of allies/dependents, to internal tensions between oligarchs/demos, etc.  A tough haul to cover in 6 hours, but worth it.  Using the Strassler's Landmark Thucydides, supplemented by either Platias and Koliopoulos' Thucydides on Strategy or Paul Rahe's Sparta's Second Attic War:  The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta, 446-418 BC.  I certainly value Kagan's three volume study, but want students to read Thucydides in his own word, and will provide commentary/lecture to set the stage.  

Punic Wars:  I've chosen this one because it provides an interesting case in strategic versus tactical success, land power versus sea power, theaters of war and centers of gravitiy, Fabian strategy, etc.  Leaning towards using Adrian Goldworthy's The Fall of Carthage.  The Punic Wars 265-146 BC.

Seven Years War:  Using this one because it presents, to my mind, one of the clearest examples of a coherent grand strategy, that of William Pitt the Elder.  I'm thinking of using Daniel Baugh's The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest.  And yes, I understand that one could instead focus on the struggle on the continent, and Frederick II's campaigns.  But I find if one tries to cover everything, one instead just gives the thinnest of historical overviews with superficial discussions. 

The Dreadnought Race and World War I:  focus will be on great power competition after 1890, with discussion of Tirpitz Plan, Fisher's reforms, and the naval dynamics of WWI.  Vaguely thinking of using Nicholas Lambert's Planning Armageddon.  Would have liked to use Rolf Hobson's Imperialism at Sea: Naval Strategic Thought, the Ideology of Sea Power and the Tirpitz Plan, 1875-1914 but it is out of print.  The intent of the case study is not to provide an overview of World War I, but instead to examine how a particular strategic concept, in this case William II's belief that Weltpolitik required a powerful fleet, caused a reaction in Britain that rendered the concept counterproductive diplomatically and misplaced militarily.  

World War II:   I'm still thinking about where to focus this case study.  Since both the previous case studies have focused on the maritime sphere, I'm rather loathe to do the same here, though I've found that Overy's Why the Allies Won World War II and Philip O'Brian's How the War was Won:  Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II offer focused, clear arguments that generate good discussion.  Leaning toward focusing German planning and assumptions about the war they initiated, perhaps using Gerhard Weinberg's World at Arms or focusing more tightly on the Eastern Front using Stephen Fritz' Ostkrieg. Hitler's War of Extermination in the East.  I'm aware that I might instead focus on Japan and the Pacific War, but believe that were it not for Germany and the war it unleashed in Europe & Atlantic, the Pacific War (as distinct from Japan's war in China) would not have happened.   

I have a couple questions to ask the group:

1. I've considered replacing the Punic Wars with a case study on Byzantine grand strategy, using Edward Luttwak's The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.   I have two reservations.  The first relates to the time span. Luttwak's book spans a millennium, claiming a continuity in Byzantine strategic conceptions from the Germanic invasions to surge of Islam to Bulgarian challenge to coping with Seljuks and managing crusaders.  While I'll concede that the concept of a partiuclar strategic culture applies, equating strategic culture with grand strategy seems misplaced.  I also know that some of my classicist friends were less than smitten, shall we say, with Luttwak's Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.  Most of the glowing reviews seem to come from political scientists and IR scholars, not historians.  Any thoughts on Luttwak's thesis and The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire from those specializing in the era?  Or thoughts on whether grand strategy is a useful concept when it spans a millenium, with multiple different threats?

2.  I think very highly of Geoffrey Parker's Grand Strategy of Philipp II, and used it in a previous course.  Tempted to use that book or Parker's newer book on Charles V (Emperor) in a case study of Habsburg grand strategy, but find that my students (American military officers) have great difficulty understanding the early modern period and the Habsburgs in particular.   And given time constraints, it's either the Habsburgs or the Anglo-French rivalry in the 18th century.  Any thoughts on which case provides more insights on grand strategy in your opinion? 

Post a bit long-winded, but wanted to share my thoughts on useful case studies and books before I asked for insights and reactions on Luttwak and the Habsburg verus Anglo-French case study.

All the best,
Doug Peifer

I'm not a Classicist, but I would shy from using Classical wars as examples. Having taught Thucydides and Vegetius specifically, and Greek and Roman Warfare generally, I find that so much contextualizing is necessary that you often don't get to worthwhile discussions and analyses. For example, if a person doesn't know where Korkyra and Pylos are, she/he can't really even begin to understand the Peloponnesian War, much less Thucydides. Instead, what we end up doing is reading excerpts, or worse, "analyses" that distort the history to the point that it's unrecognizable. I can't count the number of thinkpieces I've read arguing that Athens was the established power being challenged by rising Sparta, rather than the reality, which was closer to the opposite and included a constellation of dozens of major and minor Greek powers jockeying for position in the Aegean, not to mention the Persians. Too, Thucydides is not a work of strategy so much as it is a historical account steeped in criticism of contemporary political systems (the speeches, particularly those of Kleon, make that clear). Rather than do an extreme disservice by just reading the chapter on Melos, as is common, I'd dispense with it altogether. You may have better luck with the Punic Wars, but covering nearly 150 years of fighting in an entirely alien context will cause similar problems; the result might end up being just an analysis of Hannibal's Italian campaigns, as it so often is reduced to. If you want a Classical campaign that they may have context for, I'd go with Caesar's Gallic Wars. The sourcing is easy and accessible, and much less contextualizing will be necessary.

I would avoid Luttwak altogether unless his books are set alongside the many works that debunk his ideas. While his ideas may resonate in a strategic studies medium, they've been too thoroughly debunked by archaeologists and historians to be useful except as polemics or examples of historiography in the negative, as I understand it.

I am an early modernist, and the early modern period might give you some better examples. Charles V, and the Parker book on him, is an excellent opportunity. I don't think it would be terribly difficult to get them to where they needed to be regarding the context and time period, particularly with some judicious introductory reading, although Parker will provide that himself in the book.

I think the Seven Years War is a good example, provided it's an analysis of the war, and not just Britain in the war, as is often done. Each power had a strategy going into the war, which they pursued throughout it; some, like France, had dual strategies (broadly, Continental and colonial) that befit an analogy to the modern US. It's a perfect historical example of great-power rivalries, balance of power systems, and other models/paradigms. However, as above, contextualization will take time and effort - if students aren't familiar with the Habsburg-Capetian rivalry, the politics of eastern Europe, or the Polish and Austrian Successions, the juice may not be worth the squeeze.

Why should American officers have difficulty understanding the early American period ? Whe do they not understand the Austro-Hungarian Empire ?

Perhaps some answers to those 2 questions might reveal where the difficult lies in a focus ?
Just a thought at random. The Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburgs seems more relevant anyway since its collapse and attack upon it set off WW I, the first of the so called Modern Wars leading to the Present period in History and Politics. Emphasis on current International System of States has not always been the historical nor political and military reality..........if there ever is reality rather than an illusion taken as some false truth.

Dear Doug,

You have an impressive plan already in place.

However, I would echo Jonathan's comments at least when it comes to the timeline. I would not go back in time as far as the Peloponnesian War. I use it only briefly to outline the "Thucydides Trap".
If a case study goes to far back too much cultural and historical context is required and it appears you do not have the time for it.
For my Strategic Leadership course I do not go back farther than the First World War and then advance to the Korean War.

Best wishes and best of luck


In my experience, American students in general struggle with history, and especially non-American history. Very few history instructors, from primary to tertiary education, are broadly and competently versed in non-American history, much less teach it in the depth required for a student and/or officer to be able to have fruitful discussions on it. (That's not their fault, by the way - teaching standards, time, and resources simply don't exist for non-American history, especially pre-1900). It takes a great deal of reading and study to even begin to grasp the aspects of a state like the Habsburg one, given its long and complicated history that belies a lot of modern notions like nation, contiguity, and government structure (how do you explain a dynastic state to people who don't know dynastic politics?). I'm an early-modern European specialist, and I wouldn't feel confident doing a deep-dive on a subject like Charles V without some preliminary reading; how is an Americanist supposed to approach it?

The tertiary instructor can either fight this, or she/he can accept it and do his/her best with it, either by adapting to it or selecting examples that require less context/background reading/information dump to reach fruitful discussion. I hate having to pivot away from examples in the early modern and earlier periods (especially given what I study), but the reality works against the ideal.

Also, not sure what you mean by "the early American period" - could you clarify?

If still doing Thucydides (I cannot imagine why not) on "grand strategy" then the book is AG Platias and C Koliopoulos, Thucydides on Strategy (Oxford). Relatively short, the first chapter is a great, 20 page explanation of what strategy is. I use it for students, works to define things nicely - lots of room for discussion too.

With my apologies as an ancient historian, I think it would be a mistake to leave out the ancient world altogether because it requires too much "context." Is that not indeed also the case with the other, more modern, wars? A chronological view of the trajectory of grand strategy is a sound principle, and indeed the Platias and Koliopoulos is a good idea (I did a review on this work myself for H-War: I also think the Punic Wars is an excellent idea, as you get a great view of Roman military adaptability on land and by sea, a view of Carthaginian politics as they affect military matters, how their lack of siege equipment changed the war, etc...

Prof. Abel,

Am thinking that is a mistake in written, 'early Ameican' period from Prof. Peifer's post, of early modern period.

Perhaps that is where the difficulty is found. Early modern period, be it European or....... indicates a time recognized as 'modern' from 'ancient'.
It would be generally assumed American Officers would know something of their own History, particularly as that would be from 18th Century forward.

More importantly, the Hapsburgs ended with WW I in 1918-19 as the 'modern war tore it to shreds in bringing about a foundation however imperfect for the balance of the 20th Century leading directly to our own present times.
In this, would agree History is not a strong forte of American education and development but for professionals who receive both Academy and post-Academy professional study and experience, do not quite understand why they would not be more 'aware' of the History leading to WW I, unless it means study is narrowly confined to actual military conflict as warfare ?

Not so certain classical or ancient warfare actually contributes that much to understanding modern war, which has evolved as much from technology of war as the 'art of war', as a study of tactics and strategy ? Hope this explains what may have taken place here ?

There are a few things that I would like to specifically address and the first and most important of these is, that the best solution is stay with the outline you have initially laid out. While I have been a research historian for the majority of my career, when it has come to teaching, I have found that following your own star and plan has been the best thing that you can do. No one is going to agree on a single course and many courses are shaped by not only our specialty but also our personality and what we believe is most important to emphasize in academic studies. The use of a source, in this instance Luttwack, can be as useful and detrimental as you would like it to be. Certainly, you can make your students aware that there are disagreements among specialist historians over the value of Luttwack but you may also point out that broad studies such as his are always subject to great debate because they cover their topic in such broad strokes. Specialists will always nitpick a broader study to death and that is the curse and the good about being a specialist. Ancient primary sources give a complete picture of how the very concept of grand strategy has developed over time and that is has been a concern of strategists and governments in all times. Indeed, Vegetius and the various Byzantine texts (compiled in a text that contains three Byzantine military treatise) demonstrate a deep concern for developing coherent and understandable strategies to overcome adversaries. So, when it comes to the use of sources, I reminded of the saying, “you can please some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time” It seems that in academic circles that idea is exacerbated to its limit.

While I have enjoyed the occasional opportunity to review a book or two and have had some discussion participation, H-War is inherently biased towards modern war, basically from World War One to contemporary times. It is also intensely Euro-centric with almost zero consideration of war from Asia (unless it is Vietnam), Middle East, or Africa. So, of course no one is going to recommend or support that you use ancient history and, as mentioned above, everyone has a chip the game in promoting their specialty. As a historian whose focus is on the Middle East, I have found very little room for inclusion in this community and I have been trying to develop some essays and other vehicles to spur discussion that is Middle East oriented on this listserv. I have long hoped for more scholars to post here discussions that would enable me to participate more fully as a member of the community and I am happy to read Jennifer's response because I know that I may not be the only rogue historian in this place.

Finally, the discussion of ancient history will never prove fruitless or valueless. I was teaching a course on ancient history and I had a student who openly challenged me in class on several occasions. The student was flatly wrong and completely misinformed on all of those issues and I finally asked him where he was coming up with his information. He replied that he knew more than I did because he watched short videos and had heard everything about this subject before. You are educating a generation that has been more exposed to false narratives and pseudo-history by watching for much of their lives and thus have a burden of false understanding. It is now more important than ever to undo the damage done by these various “presenters” and to properly contextualize what are often “icebergs” of knowledge. Sure, they may know some basic facts and names but they have not been able nor really have sought to put all of these icebergs of knowledge into a coherent and flowing continuum that helps them understand the why of the events and their basic importance. If I am ever given the chance to teach in this area, I jump to it because I deal with the lower grades and I see the tragedy that is unfolding. It is far too much like what Marshall McLuhan said where in the future, speaking of today, students will often feel cheated and that they can learn more outside of the classroom than inside of it. This will not be because real teaching is taking place but because of the availability of raw facts.

and I am happy to read Jennifer's response because I know that I may not be the only rogue historian in this place

I should mention that we (the H-War staff) are very pleased to have added Dr. Finn as a Network Editor because it should help increase our engagement with ancient military history.

If I might, I would strongly second Jennifer Finn's point that there is a great deal of value in ancient history for modern students.

In addition to the lack of context, another stumbling block for many would seem to be Clausewitz’s dictum at 2.6 that one rarely finds any honesty of purpose in citations of ancient military history - i.e. that it is usually used for rhetorical effect and that the level of detail available compares unfavorably with more modern case studies.

Having said that, however, and granting that modern "scientific" analysis of ancient warfare is problematic, that leaves aside the fact that at least some ancient authors - Thucydides in particular - were powerful analysts of events in their own right who influenced later discussions not just in history, but also political science and international relations theory. I would argue that he should be read, if only for his comments about human nature and how it interacts with conflict.

Regarding the Punic Wars, you might consider assigning selected passages from Polybius, particularly those dealing with the role of tyche (chance) and the role of orge (violent emotion) in inopportune decisions to go to war (esp. Hannibal, but also the Aetolians and Acaeans). You might argue that he had already identified two elements of Clausewitz' curious trinity of war. You might also consider his discussion in Book 6 on the importance of the Roman constitution as an element that promoted resilience post Cannae.

If you decide to include late antique/byzantine material, my instinct would be to counsel against using Luttwak for the reason you note - a millennium is not a campaign and different strategies were applied at different times and places against different enemies. My field is late antiquity, so I don't feel comfortable commenting too much past the early seventh century, but for classicizing history Ammianus Marcellinus and Procopius' Wars are both worth reading. If I had to pick from among the various military manuals, the Strategikon attributed to Maurice has the virtue of being the most practical. For accessible modern studies of the military history of the period, I would probably recommend Peter Heather's books.

You are covering quite a lot of ground in little time - still, not a word about logistics, industrial base, or military technology & research and development as an integral consideration in grand strategy, even in ancient times?

Hi Doug:
Just to chime in as an(other) ancient historian, I would highly recommend keeping the Punic Wars. Goldsworthy's text does an excellent job laying out all the context needed for a non-specialist, and he pointedly avoids burying the reader in an avalanche of unfamiliar names/places/words. (I don't have my copy in front me at the moment, but I believe there's a helpful glossary, too.) I've used Goldsworthy's book in an undergrad military history class, and the students did very well with it. Dexter Hoyos' book Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War is also very readable and a bit shorter than Goldsworthy's, with the added bonus that he is a leading authority on Carthage and the Punic Wars.
And really, there's no question that the Punic Wars would give your students an excellent case study--particularly given the stunningly "modern" scale of the operations, occurring simultaneously in multiple theaters.

Professor Peifer,
Your initial explication of the course intrigued me but I am unclear as to how many of you will be teaching this course and where will your historical block fit in - will you be presenting before or after theoretical foundations are laid? Is there any overarching goal or will everyone ride their own hobby horse? In other words, how will the course fit together and what do you hope the students will take away from it aside from the hope they will learn about concepts above the operational level.
I did like your suggestion about the Punic Wars but wonder why there is no discussion of wars in Asia. An analysis of the Imjin War (1592-1598) which involved Japan, Korea, and China might suit your purposes in terms of strategy and societal involvement. The case would involve the full panoply of goals you introduce in your first paragraph. The material is quite rich and the issues raised continue to be relevant.
I, too, find your proposal too Eurocentric but think using classical history would serve your purpose as would using the Thirty Years' War. In fact, any conflict before 1700 would be sufficiently unknown to your students and would force them out of their comfort zones. My experiences as a college professor have shown me that if you set high standards the bulk of your students will strive to meet them and all will have their minds stretched.

Many thanks to all those generous enough to share their thoughts on case studies, books, and readings related to a Grand Strategy course. I very much appreciate the suggestions and posts. Let me close the loop by responding to some of the questions posed about the course, its audience, and specific recommendations.

Professor Bernstein asked for a little more explication about the course and where the historical block fits in. The course is an alternative track to the Air War College’s regular core program, open to those having a special interest in grand strategy. We’ve waived the normal reading limits for program, and advise candidates that they should expect a challenging, graduate level seminar discussions. The grand strategy program is an elective, alternative program limited 10 and 15 who are interested in the topic and willing to put in the associated effort. They are all go-getters who understand they will be doing more reading, but find its focus appealing.

That said, for those who haven’t taught in the professional military education system, the background of the students is very different from what one would have in a graduate history, political science, or international relations program. One can expect that almost all students entering a graduate history program have four years of undergraduate historical knowledge. Likewise, anyone entering a political science or IR graduate program comes prepared with some understanding of the various theoretical schools, as well as having at least a passing understanding of research methodologies. Not so with our students. We teach O-5 & O-6 level students (LtCols & Cols). Most attended a command and staff college five or so years earlier, and may have studied Clausewitz, the World Wars, and some other history or international relations topics back then. However, a good number of our students have degrees in engineering, the hard sciences, or business. They may or may not know about the causes of the First World War, which countries fought on what side, or such matters, but can give thoughtful, informed commentary on things ranging from orbital mechanics, GPS, and Chinese initiatives in space to command level accounts of the Iraq insurgency to a candid assessment of dealing with battlefield casualties and the trauma of war. What I’m trying to say is that the range of historical understanding is much more uneven than in a graduate history program (some with only vague recollections of high school history courses, others with master’s degrees from respectable programs), but the life experience and level of expertise in other fields generally broader and deeper. Those applying for the Grand Strategy program tend to have more interest in history, international relations, and politics than is the norm.

As for the course, it is team-taught, and I don’t want to post the syllabus and readings without consulting everyone. But to Professor Bernstein’s query of how the historical block fits in, and whether/how its parts make a coherent whole, let me provide a few more details. The course is made up of five blocks of various lengths. The block I’ll be teaching is block II, and as you can see, there is another block (block 4) that dives into US history and strategy since the Second World War.

Block I: International Relations Theory
o 4 instructional periods – taught by political scientists.

Block II: Historical Grand Strategy Analysis
o 11 instructional periods – I’ll be teaching this. My background/expertise is modern European diplomatic/military history (PhD UNC-Chapel Hill, Weinberg, 1996)

Block III: The US Foreign Policy Process
o 9 instructional periods – taught by political scientists

Block IV: History of American Grand Strategy, Part I – The Cold War
o 14 instructional periods – jointly taught by an American historian and a political scientist.

Block V: The Grand Strategy Debate Going Forward
3 instructional periods - mix

There is a common course objective and series of desired learning outcomes to which everyone works, but each instructor picks those topics, historical cases, and readings he or she feels best contribute to the objective. Faculty involved in the program debate each year whether to update or revise the course objective and DLOs. We haven’t had that discussion yet, but here are the ones from last year:

Course Objective: Evaluate various theoretical perspectives relevant to the study of strategy, as well as its practice throughout history. Evaluate various approaches to American grand strategy and the challenges of implementing that strategy through the national security decision-making process.

Desired Learning Outcomes (DLO)
1. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of various theoretical approaches to the study of strategy and derive practical lessons from those perspectives.
2. Summarize overarching currents that have influenced strategic decision-making throughout history.
3. Analyze the way in which states have developed and executed strategies in order to maximize their security in varying environments throughout history.
4. Evaluate the roles states and non-state actors have played in addressing key issues that have shaped the strategic environment throughout history.
5. Assess the effectiveness of various grand strategies, including the current National Security Strategy, in enhancing U.S. security.
6. Appraise the challenges of implementing a grand strategy given the national security decision-making process.

The program has a second main course which addresses contemporary security challenges, issues, and military planning, along with various faculty-accompanied trips in the US and overseas but I won’t delve into these.

Hopefully the above gives a better sense of the course’s structure, purpose, and audience. Let me make a few comments before turning to the cases themselves. First, I fully understand the importance of context and complexity, and agree that each and every case I select could and should be a semester long case. I’d love to delve into the emergence of the poleis, have lessons on the structure of the Ottoman Empire, and set the stage for a session the Tirpitz Plan and maritime strategies before and during WWI by discussing the jeune école in France but I have the unenviable choice of only examining one non-US case in some length, or examining several recognizing that we’ll only be exploring part of the elephant, so to speak. I’ve opted for the latter because 1. I want to give students several cases to see how different dimensions of strategy (including logistics!) operate in different time periods and contexts, and 2. Because if historians don’t step up to the plate, political scientists fill the void. And while political scientists excel at developing parsimonious models and theories that explain things in general, I think historians need to step forward when it comes to strategic studies by honing an appreciation for context, complexity, and yes, contingency.

Turning to the cases, here are my thoughts:

Peloponnesian War/Thucydides: I’m going center one of cases around this. Why? Four reasons:
1. I enjoy teaching it, know something about the period and have taught it before (not an ancient historian, but as a Europeanist taught about it in Western Civ/World Civ surveys, TA’d course on topic way back when)
2. I think that Thucydides provides all sorts of insights that have contemporary value.
3. My students are already predisposed to think that technology is the most important dimension to strategy. By using this case study, I can make them understand that alliances, leadership, culture, and other dimensions are equally important. And while I plead guilty to having a Western-centric slant in my selection of cases, using one case where state & social structures are very different is useful. If the “past is a foreign country [where] they do things differently,” then for my target audience this period is an alien planet, so to speak. That makes setting things up a bit challenging, but the maps, commentary, and notes in the Strassler Landmark Thucydides, supplemented by a lecture and the Platias and Koliopoulos' Thucydides on Strategy should do.

Punic Wars: Thanks for everyone’s thoughts. I think I’ll stay with this rather than turn to Luttwak’s Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire for the reasons in my first post. Many thanks to Jonathan Abel for the critical feedback on Luttwak. That’s rather what I sensed, but find it troubling to see how highly reviewed it is by the strategic studies community (dominated by political scientists and IR types) despite the panning it has received by historians. As for using it as an example of historiography in the negative, I’ll already be doing that my having students read the opening chapters of Graham Allison’s The Thucydides Trap. I have them read the Allison because the term “Thucydides Trap” constantly crops ups in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and other foreign/security journals and blogs. We also bring in speakers who reference Allison’s book or the term, connecting the alleged lessons of the past contemporary US/China relations. Allison gives such a superficial, wrong-headed assessment of Thucydides and other historical cases that “this shall not stand.” Despite this, the Allison selections make students want to read Thucydides, and our discussion of Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War then shows that there is much more to the book and conflict than “the rise of Athens and the fear this inspired in Sparta.”

Habsburg example versus Anglo-French Rivalry & Seven Years War: I appreciate the positive feedback on Parker’s Charles V, and may use that an Early Modern case study (typo in original) in the future. I do have some reservations in terms of setting this one up with only 1 or 2 lessons; I used Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in a previous course, and just found that my students came with no understanding of the period. The same applies for Classical Greece and the Punic Wars, but perhaps since these are so alien to the students, setting up the discussion was easier. Students seemed to have a harder time grappling with the Habsburgs, perhaps because some of them kept equating the various lands ruled by the Habsburgs with modern Spain, Austria, and Germany. If I had 10 lessons I could use to set up a case study on Charles V or Phillip II’s grand strategy, I think it would be marvelous. But given my experience with the Kennedy book, I do think the juice may not be worth the squeeze here. One might argue that eighteenth century France and England likewise are very different, and that one needs to fully explain how they functioned differently than their modern equivalents. But the bridge is narrower. Many thanks to Dr. Abel for your thoughts. I’ll let you know how things go, but think I’ll give it the Anglo-French rivalry in the 18th century a try. I’m hoping that at least some of the students know how important the Seven Years War was to Americans, and think widening the aperture to examining it as a global conflict will be educational to them. Given the time constraints, I’ll plead guilty to focusing on the Anglo-French dimension as I just don’t have time to go into Prussian, Austrian, and Russian strategies and campaigns at more than a passing level. Sorry Frederick…

All the best and thank you for the many kind suggestions and useful comments.

Doug Peifer

[ED NOTE: Many thanks to Dr. Peifer for such a thoughtful reaction post]

I'd to take us off on a tangent: Does the adjective grand add value to the definition of strategy? I have long argued that grand is a useless appendage, in part unTwain academic wordiness that says why use one word to describe a thing when two will do? I maintain strategy includes political, economic, cultural, diplomatic, etc aspects of a nation's policy or strength. My debate partners say that strategy represents the military only, and so to include these other features we have to tack on grand. I seem to be fighting a losing rearguard against everyone from John Gaddis to my fellow H-Warriors. What say ye?
On a related note: my understanding is that through the Napoleonic period (possibly later?), grand strategy referred to what we call today the operational level of war. Can anyone shed light on that?
Anyway, I'm enjoying the discussion, and will include some of it (and earlier thread on giving maritime strategy its due alongside land based) when I reprise my Technology, War, and Strategy course at Purdue next fall.
Rob Kirchubel

Dr. Peifer:

Like many others, I have followed this discussion on the grand strategy course to be of great interest. I will never have the opportunity to teach such a course myself, but it is nonetheless enjoyable to see how such a course would be organized, and what spins I would take on some subjects.

As a German naval historian, the fact that you are interested in examining the Tirpitz Plan and the Jeune Ecole as part of your naval elements certainly caught my interest. I was sorry to hear that Rolf Hobson's excellent _Imperialism at Sea_ is out of print, as it would be quite useful. At the risk of sounding immodest, I could suggest two of my own writings that deal with both the German navy and the Jeune Ecole school in both Germany and France, _German Naval Strategy 1856-1888_, and "Two Sides of the Same Coin: German and French Maritime Strategies in the Late 19th Century", a chapter in _Commerce Raiding: Historical Case Studies, 1755-2009_. For additional material on German naval strategy, you might want to add Wolfgang Wegener's _The Naval Strategy of the World War_, a candid assessment of German naval strategy written by a serving officer during the war.

If you pursue the Jeune Ecole and France, in addition to Theodore Ropp's classic _The Development of a Modern Navy_, there is the more recent _The Jeune Ecole: The Strategy of the Weak_ by Arne Roksund.

I hope this information helps in some small way, and I would be very keen to see how this particular segment of your course progresses. All my best.

I would not throw out Luttwak's Roman Empire with the bathwater. Much of the heaviest critique focuses on Part III of that book, and deservedly so (I usually ignore part III). But some of the critiques also wildly mischaracterizes what he says (notably Peter J. Heather, "Holding the Line: Frontier Defense and the Later Roman Empire," in Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, ed. Victor Davis Hanson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 227-42, which I actually use as an example of how badly one historian can mischaracterize another's argument). I highly recommend a careful reading of Everett L. Wheeler, "Methodological Limits and the Mirage of Roman Strategy," Journal of Military History 57 (1993): 7-42 & 215-240, to sort out the baby and bathwater in Luttwak. I have used Luttwak's conceptual work with great profit to numerous audiences. It is absolutely true that the Romans didn't have a "staff" or a clear concept of "strategy." And the frontier had numerous functions beyond defense. And yes, assorted emperors used war offensively for reputational purposes, but often in ways that subsequent emperors had to walk back. And reputation also was a part of strategy!


        In this post I am going to first deal with the overuse and abuse of the term “Grand Strategy” which has limited the value of the original insights and intent and then move on to addressing the issue of whether there was a definable strategic outlook in Roman and Byzantine military thought. While the latter may appear to be a dissertation plus title, I do want to offer some insights based on my reading of the primary source material, on which basis I disagree with Mr. Wayne Lee.

         The use of the term “Grand Strategy” is appropriate in some instances but cannot be broadly applied to all ancient societies or military responses. The term and adjective “Grand” has not suffered from observation but more from overuse in application. The series produced by Edward Luttwak as studies of military strategy and tactics over the longe durée of Roman and Byzantine history have their advocates as well as detractors, however, the term got loose and into wider circulation, perhaps too wide. Suddenly there were a number of grand strategy studies and books where the term was perhaps not cogently used for academic purposes but perhaps more selling point. Academia in general and modern historical studies in particular appear to be very disposed to trends and fads and “Grand” strategy is one of those, the other most notable is that of Memory and Memorialization which became a sudden cottage research industry in historical studies and has now, due to the trend mostly exhausting itself begun to fade. Another trend that was seized on was the “Informal Empire” and “World System” that suddenly began to appear everywhere after Emmanuel Wallerstein. Indeed, it reached to such depth that Gamilio Algaze produced a dissertation entitled, The Uruk World System. As this was my original area of concentration when taking my graduate studies, it did hold a certain level of interest but I believe that there are better means of interpreting the data that he found. However, my main point is that these terms often escape their original, cogent foundation and lose credibility by their overuse and thus the older, original studies that do contain value lose their own credibility in the sea of trendy historicism.

            I would dispute the idea that the Romans did not have a defined or clear concept of strategy. In The Anonymous Byzantine Treatise on Strategy the author quite clearly says, “Strategy is the means by which a commander may defend his own lands and defeat his enemies. The general is the one who practices strategy”[1]. The texts do discuss military operations and potential responses to varying battlefield contingencies. Skirmishing, commissioned by Emperor Nikephoros, specifically details making unexpected attacks on an enemy and discusses how it is more important and “advantageous” to attack an enemy in retreat, on their way back to their own home country.[2]  Vegetius’ Epitome of Military Science, which was created by and epitomized using sources that extended from the early period of the Principate up to his own time, frequently discusses specific elements of strategy.[3] Vegetius’ concern is on how the Roman army responded to different situations and how it is shaped by military discipline, organization, and smaller matters that concern marching order and battlefield arrangement, but these were no less strategic considerations for them than battlefield disposition is for us. He further discusses how to react and deal with besieging a city or what to do in the case of being besieged. He also speaks on laying ambushes and other activities, which for us may fall more within the contemporary scope of tactics. One of the longer, clearer sections on strategy comes from pages 127- 139 in which Vegetius considers various responses to sieges, either when the Roman army was besieging a city or when the army was itself besieged. The text goes into great detail regarding each and every aspect of the attack and a large number of variables that might present themselves.

            The chief difference regarding ancient versus modern strategic thinking. Ancient strategic thinking appears to be more concerned with the modality and the discipline of the army rather than focused on the enemy but there are elements of considering how to attack an enemy. Thus, considerations of strategic thinking were more inwardly focused and less focused on outward expressions. The chief concern of Vegetius is that the Roman army knows how to deploy properly on the battlefield, to lay a proper ambush, to not be taken by an ambush. This same idea holds true for the Byzantine army manuals as well. I do not believe that this disqualifies it as strategy, but simply as strategy approached from a different perspective.  

            One legitimate question of these texts is, how aware of these texts were the Roman military leaders and how much value or attention was paid to them? The answer is very difficult to find but the reality that the texts did exist and did delve into these issues does demonstrate that there were Roman strategic thinkers and that some effort was made to inject conscious, thought out responses and that the Roman army did not fight on the basis of merely inventing strategy or tactics on an ad hoc basis.   

            Finally, there is something of a basis on which to describe a “staff” in the Roman army. Again, in Vegetius Epitome on page 36 the translator, N.P. Millner, does bring up in a footnote that during the time of Silvanus in Gaul, roughly A.D. 355 there was a principiorum vertices which the translator immediately renders as “top brass” and adds that these were a cadre of senior military commanders directly under Silvanus. It is not clear if this was a regular, full-time planning position but that the possibility exists suggests that it may have happened but not often enough or to such a degree as to warrant separate mention. Further, ancient authors tended to focus on the general to a degree that obscures any subordinate’s contribution for the specific purpose of glorifying and enhancing the role and reputation of that general. Lastly, Millner does clarify that Vegetius does appear to have imported this from that time and imported into his own.[4]    

[1] George T Dennis, trans. Three Byzantine Military Treatises (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985), 21. 

[2] Ibid, 157.

[3] N.P. Millner trans. Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science 2nd Revised Ed. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), 127 – 139.

[4] Ibid, 36.



First principles: we should be clear, at least in our own heads and within our own classes and writings about what we mean by a term like "grand strategy." It has at least two meanings that we hopelessly muddle together all the time.

The first is historical and best expressed by Liddell-Hart, and was called "national strategy" by Americans, and has to do with the overall national approach to winning a specific war. For example, the national political and military leadership of the United States in the last year of the Civil War launched multiple and mutually supporting army/joint campaigns, while the navy continued to blockade and control/seize key southern ports, while the federal government continued to mobilize troops and materially support forces in the field, while the Lincoln administration developed policies for emancipation of slaves and mobilization of freedmen, and while they continued diplomatic efforts to keep the rebellion isolated from foreign recognition and aid. See for example Sherman's essay "The Grand Strategy of the Last Year of the War."

The second is more recent and influenced by political scientists, and has to with a polity's theory about how to provide for its security and prosperity all the time, especially in peace but also in war. That theory animates and guides all sorts of specific peacetime policies (which we confuse by calling them "strategies"). The problem is that we always try to figure out an American grand strategy, which is extremely difficult to capture given America's vast and complicated conditions, reach, and interests. (Containment of Soviet-driven international communism was a more straightforward example from 1945-1991, but it is more difficult to pin down before and after the Cold War). If we use other polities, the concept becomes more accessible. Australia has tended to follow a grand strategy of what some political scientists call "bandwagoning," meaning that given their more limited resources they align their foreign and military policies with a likeminded great power, first Great Britain and more recently the United States. This approach is not simple. All of their foreign and military policy choices have to balance Australian interests with American interests, leaving them with hard decisions about, for example, how much of an Australian contribution to American military operations is just enough to keep the United States in their corner while not breaking themselves in the effort.

If I was king for a day, I would call this second version "grand policy," as it is a theory for guiding policies, but that is neither here nor there. The concept is out there as "grand strategy," but that doesn't change the fact that it is something distinct from the "grand" or "national" strategies for nations at war. The trick in writing and teaching about it is, as noted above, making the distinction in our own heads, and be clear and consistent with our audiences.

All, to Rob's point. Define your terms. I did so here:

However, it is always useful, helpful even, to reframe things.
How does this sound?---global long term strategy. This includes not only ways and means, but the processes that yield those ways and means. The ends, as noted in my rather dated article, remain pretty much what they've been for awhile (from the preamble to Constitution). Generally, though, when neo-navalists like myself talk grand strategy we are at the geo-political level on its largest possible scale. If it does not help you to use the term "grand strategy,"--because of neuroses or the misuse of the term by others-- then don't.

PS--the Feb 21 handgrenade has been ready for several days. I will get right on posting it.

vr, John T. Kuehn

Prof. Peifer's Proposed Course sounds very challlenging and likely very enlightening. Along those lines mentioned in your closing summary of the work, should like to urge that at least 3 added volumes be included substantively to the subject catagories for planned materials.

One of those is Prof. Richard Rosecrance's[Harvard and UCLA] work on Nuclear Proliferation for the Modern era of warfare, given the importance of Nuclear technology and war to modern and current History and Politics.

Second would be Prof. Bernard Brodie's contribution to the discussions and view of modern nuclear war in a number of volumes during the 1960s. His works[UCLA and Rand] formed part of the vital historical and political era to American and global thinking.

Third, is a small paperback volume by Gen. Telford Taylor US Army, who served as the Chief US Prosecutor at Nuremburg in the historic Nazi war crimes trials against the persons and Govt. of Nazi Germany following WW II. His little volume[Nuremberg and Vietnam is title 1960s-1970s] discusses the US positons over Vietnam war experience and its meaning. Should like to further add that International Law should be inclluded in any discussions of Grand Strategy, including its historical and political importance and uses, as well as misuses by those whose wars and histories are to be considered in your dedicated and demanding study of Cases.

Thank You,

Wyatt Reader MA UCLA-Whittier College/ Political Science-International Relations California Community Colleges/Instructor-Supervisor[Life]/private

Prof. Peifer -- You certainly started a long and very interesting thread. I agree with those who believe ancient conflicts to be relevant to strategic thinkers and planners (and students) today. The Second Punic War in particular has always fascinated me, in part because the sources of Rome's ultimate victory lay beyond the military realm. They were fortunate, to be sure, in eventually finding a general who proved to be the equal of Hannibal, in terms of the range of his military skills. But I also believe that Rome's victory owed much to the stability of its political institutions -- a great lesson for modern scholars of military science.

I seldom use the term "grand strategy," but I would define it as an overall framework shaping and coordinating the strategies a government has for dealing with a number of problems or situations. Thus during World War II, the question of whether the United States and Britain should focus their attack on Germany mainly on a cross-Channel invasion of France or on operations going through the Mediterranean was a question of strategy. The balance between the European and Pacific Theaters was a question of grand strategy.

During the Cold War, the United States had a grand strategy, its competition for power with the Soviet Union. This shaped or at least influenced almost all aspects of American international behavior. Sometimes the results were less than optimal. American policymakers' misunderstanding of the Vietnam conflict was caused in large part by their determination to interpret that conflict as a part of the Cold War.

Today I do not believe the United States has or needs a grand strategy. We have various problems, for which we need various strategies, which will have greater odds of success if we to not try to jam them into one overarching framework.

Other people have other definitions, and no agreement on a definition is likely to be achieved anytime soon.

To coin a phrase, am thinking, am 'full-on' with Ralph Hitchens comments upon the broader aspects to Grand Strategy and Rome relying on stable political institutions, most agreeable this is a lesson for military science.

As much as would rather not bring films into this discussion there is a line at the end of the Patton movie, where Gen. Bradley tells Patton the need after defeating Germany is for a broader understanding of the role and mission for military organizations and persons.

Along this similar line, up until the 19th Century, History was the main academic field of study; only with the 20th Century that Political Science broke away from History to become a separate academic field of study. There is a consideration in methodology of appropriate uses for examples of behavior, as the study of political science and history as appropriate as focus for practice of political science. In some sense, for military science this does seem a remerging of sorts would be both desirable and needed.

This 'balancing' can be the challenge perhaps.
Find it quite suitable to accept Robert Kirchubel's observation on the broader dimensions needed to take into account "Grand" as Strategy. Being trained in Political Science, after switching from a History major as undergraduate, the relationships make considerable sense
Wyatt Reader MA
Political Science

During the Cold War, the United States had a grand strategy, its competition for power with the Soviet Union....Today I do not believe the United States has or needs a grand strategy

I would say that the US today has the same grand strategy that it has had since 1945, which is to be the essential global power, the power that asserts itself in every area of the world, and seeks to organize the world in a way that makes America indispensable.

During the Cold War, the Soviets disputed that claim, and now (after a period of unipolarity) the Chinese do (or we see them as doing so).

But here we circle back to the original question about the concept of grand strategy -- is the grand strategy the competition for power with the Soviet Union or the decision to compete for power full-stop?