Like any self-respecting thinker on strategy, I made a point of securing a copy of Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History to consult throughout the year. Despite receiving notable plaudits, there is one issue in particular that this post seeks to challenge, and that is Freedman’s thoughts on “the myth of the master strategist.”

Freedman takes aim at the view of the master strategist as outlined by Colin Gray in Modern Strategy and Harry Yarger in Strategy and the National Security Professional. Gray and Yarger insist that the superior strategist has at his core the skill of holism – the ability to perceive the whole in enough detail to manipulate net strategic effects. Freedman notes the troubling issue that while the deep expertise of the master strategist may be welcome before policy ventures begin, he could not help being unprepared for crisis situations, and therefore of less value. Freedman also calls for a tempering of the value of holism, that everything may not be connected to everything, arguing instead for the need “to recognize the unreality of insisting on setting out with confidence, certainty, and clarity a series of steps that was sure to reach long-term goals.”

Freedman criticizes Gray’s view of strategic man as an exalted view that simply does not occur in reality, not only for reasons of the sheer difficulty of the task, but for the fact that there is a distinct separation between the military and political spheres of strategy. Most skilled strategists, according to Freedman, rise through the military sphere, but to be a master strategist necessitates being in and understanding the political realm. Ultimately, due to the sheer difficulty of the pursuit and the impossibility of comprehending all relevant factors,, strategic man cannot exist.

While one can empathize with Freedman’s argument, it is ultimately incorrect. Finding strategic man is daunting, yet it can be achieved; and here I shall argue that strategic man has existed in the past, can exist in the present, and will exist in the future.

Strategic man in the past

Freedman’s insistence that strategic man is impossible overlooks historical evidence to the contrary. The clearest retort to his argument is Alexander the Great. Alexander resembles not only the archetype of classical heroic warfare; he is also the greatest embodiment of strategic man in reality.

Alexander’s genius as a strategist extends far beyond the battlefield, uniquely manning Gray’s “strategy bridge” in a way that few have ever achieved. At every point throughout his campaigns Alexander displayed not only tactical ingenuity and ferocity, but also political sagacity and magnanimity… MORE