Abraham Rash, a fellow classmate from my college days, weighs in a post compiled entirely on his iPhone. That might not be as hard-core as capturing a British fort on Christmas morning, but it’s pretty damn close.
Take it away, Abe:
According to Liddell-Hartt, grand strategy is defined as:
“…[the coordination and direction of] all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, towards the attainment of the political object of the war – the goal defined by fundamental policy.”
This is different from mere strategy, which the OED defines as:
“The art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign.
Usually distinguished from tactics, which is the art of handling forces in battle or in the immediate presence of the enemy.”
In short, strategy is what a general uses to win a campaign; grand strategy is what a commander-in-chief uses to win a war.
The OED defines great(est) as:
“of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above the normal or average.”
In the context of grand strategy, this would mean that the greatest grand strategist is not just the most talented or the most famous, but rather the most effective; ie, they are the grand strategist who achieved the most result with the least resources, and whose results were the most dependent upon their own personal input. Finally, they are not just a theoretician, but a practitioner, for it is surely in the field that the greatest proof of grand strategy is found.
This distinction is a fine one, but it is very real, and creates a highly exclusionary set of conditions under which an individual might qualify as the “greatest” grand strategist. Unlike the greatest strategist, who might literally be anyone (even non-military), the greatest grand strategist at a minimum must be someone who:
1. Is a historically documented individual or small group (sorry, no legislative bodies, no semi-mythical legends)
2. Who waged a war (no armchair general can ever be the greatest)
3. Won (the greatest don’t lose)
4. Who bore or shared in overall command responsibility during that war
5. And was irreplaceable (ie, if they died or were captured, a positive outcome would not have been possible for their side)
In addition, it is likely that they:
6. Fought and won an important war
7. Did so under conditions of adversity – perhaps extreme adversity
8. Were opposed by a grand strategist of nearly equal stature
Finally, it would be useful if they also:
9. Actually operated in a consistent manner that was based on a logical set of strategic principles, rather than just won by the seat of their pants (otherwise, why are we discussing and studying them?)
There are other guidelines that might be mentioned as well: the size of the forces they commanded (winning a war with a 10,000 man army is vastly different from winning a war with 5,000,000), the era in which they operated (sure, Sargon the Great conquered everything in sight, but he was primarily “fighting” bronze age farmers, and his “empire” was about the size of Colorado), and the degree of control that they actually had (call this the Marshall vs Eisenhower debate), and more besides. However, these are for the most part secondary issues, and not necessarily germane to the discussion at hand.
At this point, it’s probably best to get a few disqualifications out of the way. They are listed by the above condition that dis qualifies them:
1. Odysseus (mythical), Sun Tzu (semi historical), the British Admiralty during the Napoleonic Wars (many bright lights, but no easily identifiable source of grand strategy).
2. von Schlieffen (yes, he fought any number of wars, but not in the one that really counted) and every other general who “missed the boat” of history.
3. This is a big one, so I’ll just stick to some of the most prominent names: Hannibal, Pyrrhus, Pompey the Great, Heraclitus, Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon, Lee & Jackson, Mannstein et al, etc ad nauseum. Basically, if they lost their war – regardless of the reason or of how many initial victories they had – they’re out.
4. Clausewitz, Jomini, Liddell-Hart, Mahan and every other academic strategist who ever lived. Yes, they are bright important fellows. Most had distinguished military careers. But they weren’t anywhere near overall command. This also includes Patton, Corbulo, Marlborough, Clive, Montcalm, Schwarzkopf, Petraeus, and every other extremely talented general of a great power who has had the misfortune to live during a time of limited wars and colonial actions. Sorry boys, but if it wasn’t a total war between great powers, there wasn’t enough pressure in the cooker.
5. MacArthur (Korea), every general Louis XIV ever had, etc. If they were fighting for a wealthy powerful state against a materially weaker state, they weren’t facing adversity, just tedium. Which is not to slight their suffering, just that casualties do not necessarily equal adversity. Nor do political complications alone. Think the Lakota Sioux or North Vietnam versus the US; THAT’S adversity.
6. This one is trickier. You can’t automatically exclude someone just because the other side lacked talent. But consider Winfield Scott or Colin Powell. Their opponents were underpowered AND beyond incompetent. Is it fair to include them? This should raise question marks at the very least.
7. Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and every other supremely successful semi-nomadic conqueror who ever lived. Maybe they had a formal strategy; maybe they didn’t. Since they didn’t write one down, we’ll never know. And since we can’t study them, they’re excluded.
So now that we’ve eliminated a huge slew of the more popular candidates, who’s left? A pretty damn skilled bunch, if you ask me. Alexander the Great/Parmenio, Scipio Africanus, Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar/Marcus Agrippa (you know you’ve pretty much won all the marbles when you get a month named after you), Belisarius, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Basil II Bulgaronctonus, Salah ad Din (Saladin), Tran Hung Dao, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Frederick the Great, Nelson/Wellington, Lincoln/Grant/Sherman, Foch, Zhukov, FDR/Marshall/Eisenhower, and Mao Zedong all come to mind. But none of them are the greatest. That title must be reserved for one man, and one man only.
I know, I know…he lost more battles than he won. Fine. He was a mediocre general. But this essay isn’t about the greatest general of all time, it’s about the greatest grand strategist. Which he clearly is.
Consider the evidence:
When the American Revolution began, he was a rank amateur. Put bluntly, he was a tobacco farmer from the middle of nowhere Virginia with a junior record of 0-1-0 (his screw up started the French and Indian War) who was living primarily on money inherited from daddy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he had never travelled outside of the country, he had no degree, he was a terrible conversationalist, and he had no charisma. To be perfectly honest, he was known for nothing other than being the sort of Strong Silent Type that mystified his chattier neighbors. In short, he wasn’t exactly the stuff heroes are made of.
But he did have three things going for him: a robust physical constitution, an iron sense of integrity, and an aura that allowed him to inspire men simply by frowning at them. Because of this and because of his personal wealth, the Continental Congress gave him the dubious honor of being commander-in-chief of the American armed forces.
Actually, that’s an overstatement. In actuality, he was the nominal commander of a spontaneous and unorganized volunteer force that fully expected to go home within 3 months. He had no money, no navy, and no allies. He didn’t even have a working government. Instead, he had thirteen highly disparate and selfish colonies who were united in almost nothing save that they all happened to be on the North American continent. Only about 1/3 of the population of those colonies even wanted independence, and they were solidly opposed by 1/3 who absolutely wanted to remain part of the British Empire, thank you very much.
But he was stubborn, so he determined to try anyway. He had to build his army from scratch, from a population that was notorious for eschewing things like terms of enlistment, and in the face of an enemy who was well on the way to being by far the largest empire in the history of the world. He himself had to learn the art of command as he went. Small wonder that he didn’t do so well at first. But he persevered, and in time he trained his army, found his money, wooed his allies, won his war and established his country.
And he did it all in less than ten years.
In short, he beat the British Empire. Think about that for a second, and let it really sink in: he beat the British Empire.
From the end of the Hundred Years’ War to the end of World War II, a period of almost exactly 500 years (1453-1945), the English and British fought dozens of wars, ranging in seriousness from minor border squabbles with Scotland to the Spanish Armada and the Blitz. And with a few minor and mostly forgettable exceptions (the loss of Calais, for example), they always won.
In order, the British fought and defeated the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, the Danes, and the Germans. Each was at the height of their power when they faced Britain, and none ever truly recovered from the defeat they received. Even more impressively, they did it less on the back of exceptional talent than on the basis of careful government, patient development of trade and infrastructure, and the continual triumph of policy over inspiration. The British Empire were the ultimate opponent because they weren’t wedded to the genius of one or two commanders: instead, they relied on the immense inertia of their system, which routinely lost battles but seldom lost wars.
And yet, with an amateur army, no training, and no money, George Washington did what the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and Hitler could not. And he did so because he never became so glutted with victory on the battlefield that he lost sight of why the war was being fought in the first place. He didn’t want to fight, but he did, because he felt that the goal of the war was worth the sacrifice of the damage it caused.
Furthermore, he was utterly irreplaceable. If he had been killed, it is highly unlikely that the American Revolution would have had the entirely positive outcome that it did. Yes, the colonies may have won, but they would not have been as united, and they likely would have fallen prey to various European predation. George Washington was quite literally the cornerstone that held the American forces together.
In the end, George Washington defeated the most enduring military power in the history of the world, and decisively won his war. Afterwards, he secured his peace as well, via the Treaty of Paris and the Jay Treaty, which ensured a long and peaceful recovery for the war-ravaged United States. Later, he helped form the US Constitution, and provided a sterling example of all that a President should be during his two terms in office. When he died in 1799, he left behind a legacy that included what would become the longest-lived written constitution in history, to govern the greatest economic, cultural, and military power in the history of the world.
In short, he may not have won his battles, but he definitely won his war. He did the most, with the least, against the most redoubtable opponent of the past millennium, without taking a generation or a river of blood to do it. And he was even able to ensure a lasting peace as well.
And that makes him the greatest practitioner of grand strategy ever.