Strategy, Theory, and History


In September 2015 I accompanied the Headquarters of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) to Sicily, a trip which I’ve described in a previous post. My role, in concert with my colleague Professor Niall Barr, was to act as an historical advisor to the assorted gathering of senior officers, civil servants and diplomats who generally make up the annual COMARRC (Commander, ARRC) ‘staff ride’. My job was to describe and relate actions on Sicily during the course of Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily in July-Aug 1943) to the issues with which the ARRC is concerned; strategy, joint planning, operational level warfare, command and control, logistics, intelligence, pol-mil interface, civ-mil planning etc. These staff rides (Sicily, Monte Cassino, and the Gothic Line, all done on a yearly rotation) are fun, but hard work. Academics and assorted invitees are required to sing for their supper and the standard of contribution and discussion is expected to be high, as is commensurate with the 3 star rank of the Commander ARRC.

Truth be told, however, I am not a military historian per se.  I do many staff rides across a variety of theatres and battlefields from the Second World War, but my intellectual tangerines remain unpeeled at the thought of repeatedly reciting the movements of Division X to place B, or debating the merits of one design of tank against another. I’ve never played a wargame. I don’t get excited by guns. I don’t harbour a secret and slightly morbid fascination for the Waffen SS, and I don’t stare admiringly at portraits of Field Marshal Eric Von Manstein whilst practising how to say fingerspitzengefuhl. Moreover, I don’t particularly enjoy regurgitating a narrative of events that has been trodden over and over again into the historical dust, and I have to admit that as a truly awful chess player I place no trust whatsoever in my own armchair generalship. Perhaps most heinously, I am almost entirely agnostic regarding the Monty/Patton debate.

I jest of course. Sort of. The above is a caricature of a type of military historian, and a certain style of  military history, one that often lends itself to the apparent ‘analysis’ of operations and campaigns. But while there’s no reason why such studies should not be vibrant intellectual enquiries in their own right (please see anything by David French), in the hands of the former they too often become derivative, moribund efforts with little to offer in the way of originality or insight. As a consequence  it’s easy to understand the rather cutting observation that, ‘[M]ilitary history is to history what military music is to music’.  In fact it’s for these reasons that not only have I refused to be defined as a military historian for fear of being perceived as guilty-by-association with certain elements of the breed (no great loss, say they) but until now I have also steered clear of writing military history, for fear of the same.

But that changed after the 2015 COMARRC staff ride to Sicily. I found Operation Husky intriguing on a level that I had never encountered when pondering Operation Overlord, for example.  I think perhaps it was the remarkable terrain of the island which, to me, asked so many questions as to how one was meant to have prosecuted the campaign demanded by critics. I was also stimulated by the counterfactual logic that those criticisms implied, particularly with respect to the Allied failure to inflict a decisive defeat upon the enemy. To that end I returned to work and began to write an article on Operation Husky, which I then submitted to a prestigious journal.

The subsequent peer review was brutally dismissive. And, in retrospect, for good reason. For I had fallen into the trap of producing an example the sort of work that I had previously been so dismissive of; derivative, unoriginal, and ultimately offering little in the way of substantive insight into anything of real importance to broader debates on the subject of war. Licking my wounds, I let go of any aspirations to write conventional military history and, after a bit of thought, returned to the fray with a different perspective in mind. And that was to prove how Operation Husky, as a single, seemingly self-contained  operation of only five weeks duration in the summer of 1943, could provide tremendous insight as to the fundamental and enduring nature of strategy as described by a number of eminent theorists, namely Edward Luttwak, Antulio Echavarria II, Richard K. Betts, Lawrence Freedman and Hew Strachan.

In particular, the intent was to explore how theory provides a far more accurate explanation of events than mere description, particularly its emphasis upon the forces unleashed by the rival interactions of competing designs. In particular, it sought to focus upon war’s tendency toward paradox and contradiction, as identified by Luttwak. By  incorporating a timeline that ran from Husky’s genesis at Casablanca in January ’43 to the autumn of that same year, and by visualising the Sicily campaign as being at the centre of of a hugely diverse web of considerations not only affecting the Allies but simultaneously stretching through Axis politics in Italy, the Balkans and out to the Eastern Front, the intention was to unpick a number of issues relating to the design, control and direction of war. Firstly, by explaining the way in which Husky’s contravention of the ‘ideals’ of strategymaking was the key to its successful implementation. Secondly, by understanding the way in which rational German analysis of the situation created an entirely paradoxical scenario in which their optimum course of action created precisely the scenario they were trying to avoid. Thirdly, by using the relationship between Husky and the German defeat at Kursk to illustrate how success creates its own disadvantages. And lastly, by illustrating how the theoretical best practice of using strategy to create ‘options’ was thoroughly overturned in contact with subsequent events in Italy. It was here that Allied strategy required the straightjacket provided by certain reciprocal German actions in order to function. Yet these were actions that it realistically had no control over.

So what was the purpose of all of this, aside from satisfying my own intellectual curiosity? At heart, it was an attempt to show how operational military history requires more than a description of battles to make sense of events. Without a firm theoretical grasp of how war functions in terms of engaging rational designs with the forces of chance, chaos and contingency, then we slip into dangerously misleading territory. In particular, we derive a false understanding of how  war actually works and, most importantly, how accurately we can use military operations to serve the objectives that we desire.  Unless military history can find a way to accommodate the insights provided by theorists of war, as opposed to just theorists of battles, then not only will it forever fail to provide the necessary intellectual rigour required by scholars, but it will also (and this is perhaps the most important aspect) encourage those who read it to believe that the results of operations and conflicts can be explained by simple observable outcomes, rather than by the complex and inherent nature of war itself. In return, theorists can only justify their claims by utilising the granular detail of events provided by historians. Together, theory and history provide the requisite understanding to make sense of such complex events. To that end, it’s why I wrote Strategy, Theory, and History: Operation Husky 1943 (now available in the Journal of Strategic Studies).

Image: British troops dashing ashore from landing craft, July 1943, via the Imperial War Museum.

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