Editor’s note: War Books is our weekly series featuring great books on war, strategy, and military history. This week’s edition originally appeared last year in January 2018.
In The Soldier and the State, Samuel Huntington famously adopted the phrase “the management of violence” to encapsulate the military officer’s art. Although I am not a military officer and have never managed the application of violence in the Huntingtonian sense, the more I have studied war, the more interested I have become in the management aspect versus the violent one.
To be clear, I don’t dispute the violent character of war, the utility of violence skillfully applied, or the need to manage its application as judiciously and effectively as possible. However, war’s nature is at least as much human as it is violent: from the highest levels of politics to the soldier on the ground, war is a contest of wills and chance directed and conducted by human beings.
Three lessons follow. First, like all human endeavors, war is and always will be uncertain. If war is the continuation of policy, that policy must first be developed, communicated, and directed: somebody, usually the political leadership, has to formulate an idea of the nation’s strategic context and translate interests and threats into a coherent strategy. Second, that strategy has to be implemented: general and field-grade officers need to understand what they are expected to accomplish and translate it into the desired operational results. Finally—and, for me, most interestingly—people have to carry out the plans. Whether you focus on a swashbuckling individual like John Paul Jones or an organizational mastermind like Chester Nimitz, so much of the art of war comes down to organizing enormous numbers of people and amounts of material to achieve desired effects in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
As a student of war, a civilian, and—above all—as a citizen, I find the literature of warfare, both fictional and historical, to be an inexhaustible trove of lessons in how people organize, lead, and manage other people when the stakes are highest. From the Melian Dialogue to Darkest Hour, the enormity of war’s consequences has made for compelling stories and clear lessons for leaders in all walks of life. The following are a few books that have shaped my views on war as the art of management.
Robert Gates, A Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service
In this short, readable volume, lifelong public servant and distinguished former secretary of defense Gates distills from his life’s work a number of practical, easily applicable lessons in how to lead big, public bureaucracies through uncomfortable but necessary change. Gates also makes a clarion call to continue to believe and participate in “the public business.”
Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers
One of the most important lessons for any leader is to stop, look, and listen before making a decision—even and especially in crisis. Ernst and May, eminent scholars of public management and decision-making, walk the reader through a series of real-world decisions both good and bad to develop a framework for surfacing and testing assumptions and probing the “likenesses and differences” between the situation at hand and the analogies that inevitably spring to mind. Not a war book per se, but it might keep us out of a war we don’t really want to fight.
Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson
The life of Nelson was an early influence in my reading on war, and it remains a strong one today. Nelson has many lessons to teach on many levels of war, but this book does a good job detailing the famous “Nelson touch”: the personal qualities by which Nelson formed his peers and subordinates into a winning team. Most of this was done through dinner-table discussions in Nelson’s cabin far away from the crash of battle; indeed, Nelson’s greatest victory, at Trafalgar, was achieved after Nelson’s death by his erstwhile dining companions—of whom the opposing French admiral said every one was a Nelson in his own right. That, more than Nelson’s individual genius, should be the cornerstone of his legacy.
Stanley McChrystal et al, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World
A more modern (and more readable) explication of the managerial art of war. What the flag cabin was to Nelson, the situational awareness room was to McChrystal: the place where he got all of his subordinates into the conversation and onto the same page. Appropriately, Gen. McChrystal chooses a land-based metaphor for leadership, which he likens to tending a garden.
E.B. Potter, Nimitz
The definitive biography of the closest analogue to Nelson in the US naval tradition, Potter’s book opens with the statement that, “In World War II, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz commanded thousands of ships and aircraft and millions of men, amounting to more military power than had been wielded by all the commanders in all previous wars.” The scale of Nimitz’s organizational challenge is immediately apparent, and the rest of the book explains how Nimitz prepared himself to meet it.
Thomas Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today
This dense and detailed investigation traces the evolution of US military command processes from the ideal of Gen. George Marshall in WWII to what Ricks views as the micromanagement of violence today. Anyone following the “mission command” conversation in today’s military—or who has ever complained of the “6,000-mile screwdriver”—will find this a useful history of how things got this way.
James Stavridis and R. Manning Ancell, The Leader’s Bookshelf
A meditation on the idea that “perhaps the single best way a leader can learn and grow is through reading,” this book centers on a list of fifty books that current and former flag and general officers cite as most influential in their own development as leaders, bookended by superb practical advice on reading and leading. An extraordinary syllabus for any reader of books on war and leadership.
Barbara Tuchman, The Guns of August
One of the most definitive treatments of the worst mis-management of violence in human history, Tuchman traces the political and military developments that led to the outbreak of World War I. This book is not only a sound scholarly work, but a remarkable piece of literature by a remarkable author.
Sandy Woodward, One Hundred Days: The Memoirs of the Falklands Battle Group Commander
Highly readable and reflective, Adm. Woodward’s account of the Falklands war is an excellent example of “the management of violence” by the senior officer on the scene in a tense situation.
J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control
Like the Tao te Ching or the Sunzi (On War), Wylie’s book compellingly covers a lot of waterfront in a very short space. As a result, it is worthy of re-reading and pondering—but that may well be by design. “I believe deeply that strategy is everyone’s business,” Wylie thunders: civilians and soldiers, experts and amateurs. In contrast to what he calls the great students of warfare, Wylie “set[s] himself the task of trying to make a little clearer why wars are managed the way they are.” This book holds much wisdom for the student of war, and its explicit embrace of the “amateur strategist” is most welcome for one like me.
Image credit: Pfc. Andrya Hill, US Army