Good Reading: “Modern Military Strategy” by Elinor Sloan

Strategy is not a traditional field of study, and as such, there are very few actual textbooks covering the topic, so I am particularly interested when one occasionally does appear. A recent offering is Modern Military Strategy: An Introduction by Elinor C. Sloan, Associate Professor of International Relations at Carleton University. The title of the work is an accurate representation of content in that Sloan confines herself strictly to the military aspect of strategy (defining it as “the use of armed force to achieve the military objectives and, by extension, the political purpose of the war,” a definition found originally in the 1986 anthology Makers of Modern Strategy) and with a few exceptions, limits the discussion to strategic thought from the post-Cold War era: the early 1990’s onward. It is not a comprehensive study but rather a true Introduction; a primer that briefly surveys the work of modern strategists and focuses on their central arguments and criticisms directed against them.

To this end, this book centers on strategic thought in the Post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras. In our search for modern strategic thinkers we are looking for military strategists and practitioners, civilian strategists and scholars, and military and civilian historians who have written in the decades since the end of the Cold War about the conduct of war in the contemporary period, and who have put forth statements or principles that are at a sufficient level of generality, so as to present, at minimum, a partial theory of war. (p. 3)

Despite the introductory nature of the book this is still a very ambitious task because Sloan covers numerous functional elements of military power, organized by chapter: seapower, landpower, airpower, cyberwar, nuclear power and deterrence, and spacepower. Joint theory and military transformation and irregular warfare also receive their own chapters. Sloan covers a lot of ground in only 135 pages.

Modern Military Strategy Sloan

Chapters covering the historic dimensions of military strategy – namely sea, land and air – begin with a very brief examination of prominent classical theorists to provide background before moving on to more contemporary scholars. Each strategist or strategic idea receives a few paragraphs or at most a couple of pages, making them useful epitomes for books and ideas that are often dense and difficult for disinterested readers to finish. For example, Mao Tse-Tung receives 4 paragraphs and the kernel of his thinking on irregular warfare is condensed into the following 63 words:

The core of his strategic thought is that successful insurgency involves seven fundamental steps: arousing and organizing the people; achieving internal unification politically; establishing bases; equipping forces; recovering national strength; destroying the enemy’s strength; and regaining lost territories. These seven steps were later intellectually organized into three “phases,” with the result that it has become common to speak of phases of revolutionary warfare. (p. 68)

In other chapters, however, the focus on post-Cold War strategic thought and the summary format result in some arbitrary and questionable omissions. The chapter on airpower, for instance, does not even mention John Boyd, even though his ideas had a major impact in the 1990’s and continue to have influence to this day.

Sloan does fall short of one objective she had for the book. She concludes the introduction with the following goal statement:

Each chapter concludes by drawing together principles of a theory of war within a particular functional area as revealed by the scholarship of the strategic thinkers in our midst. A holistic consideration of these partial theories may make it possible to draw out themes that collectively approach a general theory of war in the contemporary era. This is a tall order – and the one to which the book aspires. (p. 4)

The product is not exactly elegant. At the end of each chapter, Sloan pulls together the key principles and best practice statements from relevant scholars and strings them together in a single, massive sentence punctuated by semi-colons. These are fairly accurate summaries on the strategic state of the art in a particular domain, but calling them “partial theories” is a bit too generous. At the end of the book these statements are recondensed and Sloan makes her attempt at a general theory of war:

From our partial theories above it may be possible to draw out some general themes about warfare today that similarly are not bounded by domain, or at least are applicable across two or more domains. These include: achieving strategic effects in war today (including irregular war) is a joint effort; plans must be drawn up that account for sea, land, air, space, and cyber forces working together to achieve the political objective of the war; military force from all domains must be employed in synchronized, parallel, and simultaneous fashion; force should be applied with utmost precision; the offensive use of force holds the upper hand in most scenarios; that said, the patient accumulation of intelligence is imperative across several domains (cyber, deterrence, and irregular), as is the honing of non-kinetic war-fighting skills (space and irregular); and war efforts must be planned with a comprehensive approach in mind, incorporating a wide range of non-military elements. (p. 134)

A useful list of statements and principles, to be sure, but as a general theory it leaves some things to be desired.

Still, Sloan should not be faulted for falling short of the Holy Grail. A general theory of war is the supreme aspiration of all strategic thinking, very few scholars even attempt to formulate one, and even fewer succeed in doing so. Sloan’s book is worthwhile not for its original contribution to strategy, but as an introductory text that summarizes recent work in the field. Having been largely disconnected from academic discourse for the past three years, I found it invaluable as a refresher. And Sloan’s concluding words of affirmation deserve to be quoted:

There are contemporary strategic thinkers, both military and civilian. New elements in the conduct of war have been drawn out and recorded in their scholarship. It is possible to detect some common themes that cut across domains. These principles and statements mark the initial signposts in a twenty-first-century understanding of the role of military forces in a nation’s security policy, that is, modern strategy. (p. 135)

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