One book to avoid
Why strategists should stay far away from Art of War Strategic Puzzles
I was biased when I sat down to review this book. I wanted to like the book. I looked for reasons to like the book.
I didn’t like the book.
To be precise: I didn’t like Art of War Strategic Puzzles, by Richard Wolfrik Galland.
Not because it’s bad. The book is fine. It’s fun. It’s enjoyable. It delivers puzzles and scenarios, as promised on the cover.
Just not ones worth a single strategist’s time, and therein lies the rub.
The book promises “strategic” puzzles for the “armchair strategist.” It does not deliver.
But before we get there, let’s start with the book’s inspiration, Sun Tzu. The phrase “art of war” is in the title, a pretty-hard-to-miss marker for the venerated Chinese strategic text. If that wasn’t enough, the opening pages proclaim, “Sun Tzu’s insights are the inspriation behind this book of mental conundrums.”
However, it seems another heavyweight in the military strategy universe would’ve been more appropriate inspiration. Carl von Clausewitz devised his “critical analysis” method to put students “exactly in the position of the commander” to learn and think through battlefield decisions. When author Richard Galland writes, “you have a been given command of a mighty army,” and then presents scenarios for the reader, he seems to be channeling Clausewitz and not Sun Tzu.
There’s about 40 battles covered in the book, and each one is broken down into three main parts: the map, the numbers on each side, and then three what-should-we-do-next choices. The battles get boiled down to a couple pages and a few words. Lots of surface, no depth.
While this was an editorial decision, noone who’s ever been acquainted with battlefield decisions has ever found them so neatly binned in batches of threes. Wartime decisions are more like amorphous clouds than precise clocks.
Clausewitz himself covered the 1815 Battle of Waterloo using his own critical analysis method. With chapter after chapter, paragraph after paragraph, he sought to rewind and untangle what happened in the battle (and beyond). An entire book-length treatment breaking down a single battle. He did this because, as Lawrence Freedman has written, a commander must consider factors as diverse as politics, engineering, sociology, psychology, physics, geography, history, and economics to get the “best out of one’s own side,” and to defeat an adversary. Decisions at war necessarily involve forests of factors, and analysis can’t stop at a few trees (even if they are important ones).
Instead of low-level treatment form-fit to a template for fortyish scenarios—the better scale would’ve been four scenarios to enable at least some of the diversity of details each commander would’ve been privty to at the time.
And the one-side-three-choices model doesn’t admit the toughest problem every commander faces: a living, willed opponent. There’s no space made here for the interaction dynamic, the back-and-forth between opposing, dueling commanders and their forces. (To be fair, that’s hard to capture, and the book’s editors will likely have defensible grounds in asserting that these were meant to be a snapshot in time so as to leave aside this dynamic.)
OK, finally, here’s where I get out my old West Point professor pointer and slap it against the blackboard. (Are there any blackboards left in colleges, anywhere, anymore?)
The book’s mislabeled. It’s not a book about strategy. It’s a book about tactical decisions. These are battles.
Chancellorsville and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s confederates. Fort Washington and Gen. William Howe’s redcoats. Both are featured in the book, both were victorious in battle.
But how’d they do in their wars?
In those same conflicts, the American Civil War and American Revolution, there were opposing general officers and military supreme commanders who lost many battles at the tactical level. Indeed, Gen. George Washington may have lost more battles than any other US general in history. But both he, and Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, won the wars that mattered the most. The United States would not have existed or endured if not for their superior strategic decisions (or, put another way, their ability to solve strategic puzzles).
Note the contrast. Where the book spends pages on Lee and Howe, these are tactical puzzles. This is exclusively about the physical parts of battle (i.e., numbers, locations, how and where to move next), and unrelated to the purposes the use of force itself.
Slap a different title on this puppy, give it its due as a fun book for armchair soldiers. But unless this former West Point prof sees a revise-and-resubmit, nobody should ever put this in front of those seeking an education in strategy. It’d be as appropriate as handing out a live grenade for teaching physics—instantly dangerous, and given enough time, it’d certainly blow up in your face.