Military Strategy, by Rear Admiral J.C. Wylie, Jr., USN (1911-1993)

This is a very brief review and recommendation for a book that I discovered recently. Admiral Wylie’s short Military Strategy (about 85 pages in the original edition) was published in 1967, but written in the mid-fifties while Wylie was “at sea in a single-screw low-speed amphibious cargo ship.” He remarked these ships were “not demanding of a captain’s attention as is, for instance, a destroyer.”My copy was published in 1989 by the Naval Institute Press as part of their Classics of Seapower series and has an excellent preface by John B. Hattendorf that will give those unfamiliar with Wylie’s life experience a good foundation. This copy also has a postscript written by Wylie “twenty years later” and three related essays published previously in Proceedings magazine.

Given Military Strategy’s brevity, I’ll resist the urge to provide long quotes. Wylie and an associate’s search for articulating the relevance of the navy in the never-ending budget battles brought them in contact with the famed mathematician John von Neumann of Princeton. Wylie used a paraphrase of von Neumann as a starting point: “With respect to strategy as a subject of study, its intellectual framework is not clearly outlined, and its vocabulary is almost nonexistent. These two primary tasks are badly in need of doing…” He sets out to do just that and does a nice job.

Wylie defines strategy as: “A plan of action designed in order to achieve some end; a purpose together with a system of measures for its accomplishment.” He discusses the military mind and strategy, and how often the military focuses on principles to the exclusion of real strategy. Wylie outlines methods of studying strategy that are simple and well thought-out. Wylie makes a compelling case for a general theory of strategy. He says: “A theory is simply an idea designed to account for actuality or to account for what the theorist thinks will come to pass in actuality. It is orderly rationalization of real or presumed patterns of events.” Further, he continually stresses the importance of assumptions being based in reality, and not wishful thinking or the last war/battle.

His chapter on existing theories is worth the price of the book. He provides a type of Cliff’s Notes overview of the four theories he sees as core: the maritime, the air, the continental, and the Maoist. Of the last, he masterfully lifted sections from Mao’s On Guerilla Warfare, Che Guevera on Guerilla Warfare, and Vo Ngugen Giap’s People’s War People’s Army. He observed of the later, “these books are not only theory, the portray a hard reality of contemporary warfare.” To our people in uniform, in particular, unfamiliar with these books, Wylie provides an accessible and informative introduction to the type of war being waged by Islamic jihadists and how they attempt shape the battle field.

He develops a brilliant point that destruction doesn’t necessarily translate into control, and that often destruction is driven more by emotion than strategy.

Wylie goes on to provide a general theory of strategy that, using his words, has “substance and validity, and practicality.” As Seydlitz89 said in a recent comment thread here: “Wylie is amazing. So many ideas in such a small book! He misread Clausewitz and overrated Liddell Hart – which are probably connected, but overall? He comes up with some very basic ideas about strategic theory which are ever sooooo useful. I’ve re-read his small book several times and always come up with something that either I’d forgotten or that I had missed earlier. Wylie’s basic approach to theory is as a practitioner, not as an academic, much like Clausewitz before him.”

Indeed, Wylie provides a nice scaffold for any type of strategy, military or business. For me his approach was refreshing in a genre where, more often than not, dogma and ego walk hand-in-hand. Time and again, he offers that his ideas may be wrong and encourages readers to think and wrestle with the concepts provided. Wylie writes in his postscript: “As far as I know, no one as ever paid attention to it [the book]. I don’t know whether this is because it is so clear and obviously valid that no one needs to, or because it is of no use at all. I suspect it could be the latter, but I really do not know.”

This little book comes with my highest recommendation. If you’re in uniform and just getting started with strategic concepts/thinking, this is an excellent place to start.

Interesting referenced titles:

Military Concepts and Philosophy, Henry E. Eccles

The Military Intellectuals in Britain, 1918-1939, Robin Higham

An Introduction to Strategy, General Andre Beaufre

Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, John von Neumann

Strategy in Poker, Business and War, John McDonald

******

Cross-posted on Zenpundit.com




Posted by J. Scott Shipman in Books, From our Archive, Maritime Security, Navy


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  • http://zenpundit.com J. Scott Shipman

    I would feel remiss if I didn’t also provide along with my rather short and modest review, a much more expansive review done by Seydlitz mentioned above:

    http://milpubblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/towards-general-theory-of-strategy.html

    Once again, thanks to Mary and the Institute for the interest and the cross post.

  • John Byron

    1. Wylie’s is an absolute classic and one of the two best I know of on how the various military Services think.

    2. The other? Carl Bender’s The Masks of War, originally published as Who Will Bell The Cat?

  • P.S. Wallace

    I read this back when I was a submariner and highly recommend it. Has been sitting on my bookshelf for a re-read for several months now.

  • http://zenpundit.com J. Scott Shipman

    Mr. Byron, Many thanks for sharing the Bender title—I’ll put it on my list.

    P.S. Wallace, I was a big reader when I rode the boats, but it was mostly history and literature. It is funny how we read books when we’re ready–I probably wasn’t ready then…Wylie needs more visibility as we head into dark budgetary waters—we need his theoretical framework to help us keep our mission simple and not lose the big picture. Hope Big Navy is paying attention.

    Thanks to you both!

  • P.S. Wallace

    Mr. Shipman–about people and when they read–my personal opinion is that a case can be made that I shouldn’t have bothered with my own list. Where I ended up, no one cared. Culture thing, and one that needs to be worked on.

  • W.M. Truesdell

    “overrated Liddell Hart”- hard to do, in my opinion. Hart makes convincing arguments for the indirect approach and, obviously, the German Generals agreed and Sherman was the expert practitioner. Hard to argue with success.

  • http://zenpundit.com J. Scott Shipman

    P.S. Wallace, You are spot-on. I’m in the process of writing a book that deals with that culture thing—and namely, takes on the bureaucratic mindset that grips our current military.

    And sometimes, the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

  • http://zenpundit.com J. Scott Shipman

    The Committee of Public Safety blog has an excellent Wylie roundup that comes highly recommended. There is a video of Wylie speaking in the early 90’s that is a must see:

    http://committeeofpublicsafety.wordpress.com/2011/07/23/wylie-roundup/

  • P.S. Wallace

    “And sometimes, the journey is more rewarding than the destination.”

    In that case, stop the train, because I want to get off….

  • Chuck Hill

    I went on line looking for this book. It’s out of print and used copies are selling at a considerable premium above the original cost.

    Why doesn’t the Naval Institute have this available at least as an e-book?

  • http://www.usni.org admin

    @Chuck – good idea. We have digitized about thirty titles so far – and we have plans for more from our front list and our back list that has been digitized already (1997 forward).

    We also want to digitize our older titles and it’s a big project for us at the Naval Institute. Thank you for the recommendation.

    On that note…other suggestions would be great!

  • John Byron

    Admin-

    What about a searchable index of Proceedings back to the beginning, members able to download articles etc.? Big lift, I know. Been banging this drum for about a decade now. Ask Fred Rainbow.

  • http://www.usni.org admin

    John,

    It’s a project I have spearheaded for the past two years. We have from 1878-1920 ready to be published online. We are working day by day, article by article and making a lot of progress. Rather than wait for a major donor, we have slogged through with some really great and competent interns.

    We do have an index of the articles that we have converted. It’s available to anyone who is interested email me at mripley at usni dot org.

    Also, John, we thought about a searchable index but the site search at usni will overcome that because we will actually put the original articles up. That said, we are planning to re-engineer the site search so that it is more granular.

  • Chuck Hill

    In terms a decision criteria about which books to digitize. An online search that showed used copies of the book are bringing a premium price should be a strong indicator that a digital copy is needed. Books available at substantial discount on the used market less so.

  • http://www.usni.org admin

    Chuck,

    Our press team is looking at that criteria exactly. It is easier to get a newly released title or a currently released title into the eBook pipeline. However we are exploring our backlist b/c it is a treasure trove of books.

    we appreciate the feedback.

  • Chuck Hill

    Good to hear. A lot of the books I read growing up don’t seem to be available anymore.

    Thanks.

  • adam

    Re: eBooks

    We are looking at a number of titles for inclusion in our eBook program. At present we are focused on more recent books published within the last 5 years. From a technical and legal aspect, they are the easiest works to obtain the rights to and publish. Titles such as this present more challenges and are part of our long range plans. Now that the program is up and running, we are starting to explore ways to do some of these older titles in an electronic form and/or digital print on demand, which will allow consumers to purchase physical copies of the work in a paperback edition. –adam, Electronic Publications Manager, NIP

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