Book Notes — Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction

Antulio Echevarria’s Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction is a short and accessible introduction to military strategy, as ‘strategy’ is thought about and debated in American national security circles today. It will be a useful read for many simply as introduction to the terminology of the modern defense intellectual. Echevarria has both the strengths and weaknesses of this class, and I found the historical references he uses to be, in their own way, illuminating. The bulk of these references were to the wars of the Roman Republic and early Empire, Napoleon’s campaigns, the American Civil War, World War II, the French and American failure to crush Vietnamese communists, Cold War deterrence strategies, the Gulf War, and numerous contemporary insurgencies. A slew of other conflicts get a side reference here or there. The only surprises in this list is the dearth of references to those two pillars of realist theory, the First World War and the Peloponnesian War. I suspect the first is omitted because Echevarria wants to dispel the stereotype that attritional warfare must look like so many Sommes; Thucydides is probably left out because Echevarria centers his work on what he labels military strategy, and Thucydides focuses so often on the level of action that Echevarria calls grand strategy. We will return to Echevarria’s distinction between military strategy and grand strategy later on in this post.

A book like this is by its nature a summary of what other thinkers have written and said. Again, Echevarria’s choices on this front are illuminating. His discussion of strategic thought is very much focused on the debates of the current moment. The difference between Echevarria and most of his fellow defense intellectuals is that Echevarria is a great deal more familiar with the origins of the terms and concepts that dominate modern defense discourse than most. He does a swell job of tracing these concepts back to their roots without drowning his readers in a sea of names, dates, and acronyms. Almost all of the foundational strategic theorists—Jomini, Clausewitz, Douhet, Galula, Schelling and so on—get a call out sooner or later. However, Echevarria rarely lets any of these men get the final word, and supplements their theories with the concepts (and occasionally, the controversies) current among American defense intellectuals over the last 40 years. Contrary to my expectations, the names Mahan and Corbett do not appear in this text. The debates that follow from their line of inquiry—is war at sea fundamentally different from war at land, the relationship between geography and strategy, the entire concept of ‘jointness’ and the ghastly pestilence of acronyms spawned because of it—are left unaddressed. Other omissions are less surprising: Sunzi and Mao make appearances, but no other Chinese theorist of war is mentioned, nor are the actual campaigns that Mao took part in (which only occasionally corresponded to his theories) highlighted. Lenin does get a mention, but none of the other 20th century Russian strategists appear. India’s long strategic tradition is unreferenced.

One cannot fit everything into a hundred pages, so these omissions will be excused. But given what is missing, it is interesting to see what Echeveria goes out of his way to include. Entire chapters of the book are devoted to cyber-warfare, “targeted killing” (e.g. drone strikes), and terrorism. While certainly topics of interest to the national security professional, I remain unconvinced that any truly lies in the domain of military strategy. Each of these rests somewhere in those grey mists that separate military operations from the realm of law enforcement or spookery. Whether political assassination is a natural extension of military or spookish operations is a hot topic, of course. An intellectual take like Echevarria’s hides the fact that there is a very real, albeit low-key, turf war being waged between JSOC and the CIA’s Directorate of Operations over just who should be running America’s bomb-‘em-from-above campaigns. Echevarria does not take a side in that dispute, but the fact that this dispute exists points to why drones are a relatively prominent part of this book in the first place: cyber-warfare, counter-terrorism, and decapitation strikes are still thorny issues for the American defense intellectuals. Conceptually and institutionally, they are unsettled questions. It is hard to imagine that these questions will stay unsettled. I suspect that in future years these sections will hopelessly date the book.

Another way to make this same point goes like this: though this book is titled Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction, a more accurate title might be something like Concepts Used to Analyze Strategic Problems In Vogue with American Military Thinkers in the Early 21st Century, Along With a Few Thoughts on National Security Controversies of the Last Few Years: A Very Short Introduction. This is not meant as a criticism of the book. It is probably exactly what the vast majority of its readers want. But it does mean this book’s content will be far less enduring than it could have been.

In describing Echevarria as something of the ur-American defense intellectual, I fear that I have given the impression that his ideas or his writing are run-of-the-mill. This is not true. Being able to relate complex ideas in plain language is a rare gift. Echevarria has got that gift. His thinking is also razor-sharp. He is an example of the American defense intellectual at his most excellent. But this is, as suggested above, very much a book of the moment. Whether by accident or intent, this book is a neat little summary of what problems the American defense intellectual is thinking about right now and what historical analogies and concepts he or she is using to think through them.

Echevarria’s most important contribution in this book is conceptual. To relate the current state of strategic theory, Echevarria decides to group all possible military strategies into ten basic categories. These categories cut across more traditional conceptions of war (insurgencies vs. wars of maneuver, naval vs. land-based campaigns, total vs. limited wars, etc.) and are not limited to any single era. These basic types are:

  • Strategies of annihilation
  • Strategies of attrition
  • Strategies of dislocation
  • Strategies of exhaustion
  • Strategies of coercion
  • Strategies of deterrence
  • Strategies of terror
  • Strategies of terrorism
  • Strategies of decapitation
  • Strategies of targeted killing

I consider the last four somewhat spurious. Echevarria describes strategies of terror as strategies that make “use of terror to coerce or intimidate” (64) or follows from the premise that “terrorizing the populace should drive [their leaders] to capitulate” (69). By way of example, he includes both the American fire-bombing of Japan and the political assassination campaigns carried out by Algerian nationalists during their war of independence as example of “strategies of terror.” However, I fail to see a meaningful distinction between these type of operations and what Echevarria earlier calls “strategies of exhaustion” and “strategies of coercion” (which I will discuss with greater length below). For now it is simply enough to note that the word coerce appears in Echevarria’s own definition of terror-strategies, strongly suggesting that this type of strategy is merely a subset of “strategies of coercion” type he introduces earlier in the book. 

 Targeted killing seems to be a similar sort of category error—depending on the tempo and preciseness with which these operations are being conducted, I don’t see a good reason to classify them as anything but a tactical subset of the first four strategic types. Echevarria himself admits that terrorism may be better understood as a tactic than as a strategy (65), and he probably would have been better off treating it as such.

I have similar reservations about decapitation strikes and kidnappings, and tend to see them as mirror images of terrorist campaigns. One is used by the weak against the strong for the sake of generating publicity, fear, distrust, and discord; the other is used by the strong against the weak for the exact same purposes. As Echevarria’s many case studies using drug cartels and criminal syndicates suggest, it is not clear that either type of violent act truly rests in the province of military strategy. If the “strategy” can be used just as easily by law enforcement agencies and criminals as it can two parties at war, its use as a specifically military strategy is questionable. Al Capone ordered a decapitation strike on mobster rival Dean O’Banion in 1924. Are we ready to call that a military strategy? If so we have reduced the meaning of that word to mere “the use of organized violence to achieve certain ends.” This seems to be broader that Echevarria is willing to go. The fact that military assets are used for these operations is also not sufficient to upgrade these particular acts to military strategy. After all, military assets have also been used to police streets and run medical clinics. If this latter sort of operation does not get its own category of strategy as well, then it is difficult to justify the special attention given to targeted killings, decapitation strikes, and terrorist bombings.

In contrast, the first six categories—annihilation, dislocation, attrition, exhaustion, deterrence, and coercion—are solid. Laying out and defending these categories is the great achievement of this book. The difference between the first four of these strategies might be best explained through a diagram of my own creation:

Strategies of annihilation and strategies of attrition both attempt to force the enemy into accepting one’s will by reducing their physical capacity to resist it. Strategies of annihilation attempt to do this quickly, usually through set-piece battles. For success they rely on the physical destruction of a large percentage of the enemy leadership, army, or populace—a large enough percentage, at least, that future resistance is physically impossible. Echevarria highlights the Napoleon’s 1805 campaign—which ended with the Battle of Austerlitz—and the destruction of the Spanish fleets off of Manila and Santiago Bay in Spanish-American War as examples of this strategy successfully employed. The Battle of Cannae is given as an example of a strategy of annihilation that failed. If a failure to annihilate the enemy force does not lead directly to your own annihilation, the campaign quickly bogs down into a war of attrition.

Echevarria uses the word attrition in the normal sense. A strategy of attrition is an attempt to grind the enemy down bit by bit until they either do not have the men, the money, or the material to keep the fight going. The First World War is the paradigmatic example of this sort of warfare in most folk’s minds, but Echevarria instead chooses to focus on the Allied strategy during the Second World War. He does this, I believe, to dispel the notion that attrition warfare means mad dashes towards enemy machine gun nests. An attritional strategy need not be static. It can require movement and grand maneuver. It can be conducted between fighter planes, armor formations, or submarines. All that matters for a strategy to fall under this rubric is that it does not attempt to create one decisive point upon which the fate of nations turns, and that when the defeat of one of the warring parties arrives, their collapse comes less from a lack of will than from a lack of the physical capacity to send more soldiers to the front.

Strategies of dislocation and exhaustion focus on the enemy’s will. By fostering awe, surprise, confusion, and shock, a strategy of dislocation aims to disrupt the enemy’s ability to understand the situation on the ground and effectively resist your forces. The key case study here is the Nazi Blitzkrieg through France, which defeated the French while destroying only a small part of the French armed forces. The modern phrase “shock and awe” catches the gist of this sort of strategy perfectly. If strategies of dislocation are the psychological counterpart to strategies of annihilation (both seeking quick decision through overwhelming force), strategies of exhaustion shadow those of attrition. The difference between attrition and exhaustion is that a strategy of exhaustion sets its sights a bit lower: it aims not to slowly destroy the enemy’s physical ability to continue the fight, but their willingness to sacrifice anything more for victory. In some wars, such as the First World War, this is a distinction without a difference. In other wars, however, such as America’s sojourn in South Vietnam, the difference is obvious. The North Vietnamese never had the power to defeat the Americans through attrition. They did have power to exhaust their willingness to stay in the fight.

The last two strategies, coercion and deterrence, are mirror images of each other. What sets these strategies apart from those discussed above is their focus on threat. Deterrence seeks to deter an enemy from doing something you do not want them to do by threat of force; coercion seeks to coerce (or compel) an enemy into doing something they would not like to do by threat of force. In each case, military force is used to persuade your opponents that you have the capacity and the willingness to inflict pain upon them—and that the pain you are able and willing to inflict will exceed the pain of complying with your wishes.  These two strategies focus just as much on the threat of force as its actual use. They are thus the only two that are exercised in peace-time. In many ways, actual war begins once one of these strategies fails. However, coercion and deterrence can bleed into war itself. War provides an opportunity to prove that one actually does have the capacity to wreck the sort of havoc promised earlier. It also provides the opportunity to show that one can take the wounds the other side can deliver, and thus prove that your own side will not be deterred. As wars stretch on in time, however, the distinction between coercion and exhaustion begins to blur.

These six categories are a useful heuristic, and simply classifying different campaigns into one category is a worthwhile exercise. The Imperial Japanese Navy, for example, had since the time of Tsushima a strong preference for strategies of annihilation. Realizing that complete annihilation of America’s fleets and war-making powers was not possible, they hoped instead to use a strategy of dislocation and deterrence—the hope being that the Americans would be so shocked by the destruction of their Pacific holdings and fleets, and so wary of the cost of recapturing and rebuilding what they had lost, that they would come to the bargaining table instead of risk further battle. As things happened, the Americans instead decided to wage an all-out war of attrition designed to fully dismember the Japanese empire. Once the Japanese Navy was sunk to the bottom, Japan’s only response was to fight a desperate war of exhaustion-cum-deterrence, going to extreme lengths and committing extreme sacrifices to raise the costs of Allied victory. The American decision to use the atomic bombs was a decision to put coercion ahead of attrition, and it, combined with the very real strategy of annihilation being used against the Gwandung Army by the Soviets, convinced the Japanese to capitulate.

I go through this exercise to show that these categories—while compelling—are rougher around the edges than they seem, and a commander may adopt or forsake one approach as circumstances require. A single campaign may actually be simultaneously of different types. Was the Battle of Yorktown, for example, the culmination of a strategy of annihilation or a strategy of exhaustion? The answer depends in large part on whether you view the Yorktown campaign from the perspective of Lord Cornwallis or Lord North.

If you want to see how clarifying this sort of exercise is yourself, consider this question: which of the six types of strategies are American troops in Afghanistan following?

My biggest disappointment with Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction is that it downplays the political element of military operations. This is—again—a characteristically American thing to do. I am grateful that Americans enshrine the principle of dividing the civil so strongly from the military, and this reluctance to admit politics into military strategy reflects a real reluctance on the part of military leaders and thinkers to let partisan concerns poison their professionalism. This a good thing. But it leads to some blind spots. This can be seen in the one passage where Echevarria does gesture towards this issue:

Commanders define risk as the likelihood a mission might fail: high risk means high probability of failure. They usually try to reduce risk by increasing resources in some way. In contrast, heads of state view risk as a function of the political capital they might have to invest, or have already invested. Put simply, political capital is the trust and confidence the public has in its leadership. As the commitment of resources (lives and treasure) increases, so too does the risk to political capital. Accordingly, political leaders prefer to keep the resources they commit to a military action, especially human lives, as low as possible (6).

This does a very good job of explaining some tensions in American strategic behavior over the last two decades, but it is hardly a universal rule. It doesn’t even describe American military history—Abraham Lincoln was famously impatient with the reticence of his generals, and the Continental Congress was continually frustrated by Washington’s slow and inglorious ‘Fabian’ strategy. In truth, political leaders are often more eager to commit more resources to a military action than military leaders are, and military leaders are often more concerned with explicitly political aims than Echeverria allows. For example, a great deal of Japan’s strategic behavior in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, up to and including the decision to go war with Great Britain and the United States, is most easily understood through the lens of the bureaucratic fight for influence between the Imperial Army, Imperial Navy, and the Planning Board. Simply put, certain enemies were chosen and certain strategies were pursued to ensure that the Navy remained relevant. “Risk” and “failure” in the eyes of these commanders was measured by how much power they held in Japan’s domestic politics. [1] Likewise, more than once an Allied offensive was launched during the First World War to signal commitment to other members of the alliance. [2]

We could continue with these examples for a long time. Defeating the enemy is often a secondary concern of many military operations. Military operations—be they conducted in times of peace or war—may be just as much about bureaucratic infighting, career advancement, demonstrating toughness to domestic audiences, rewarding domestic supporters, forestalling domestic rivals, fostering national unity and purpose, or signaling to allies as they are about defeating an enemy. Echevarria might claim that such concerns fall outside the realm of military strategy—and as you will see below, his definition of military strategy excludes them—but I wish he had taken some time to discuss how domestic concerns will shape the creation and implementation of military strategy. In fact, given how much weight politics is given in his earlier books, I find it mysterious that Echevarria devotes so little attention to it here.  


Echevarria’s definition of “military strategy:”

Military strategy is the practice of reducing an adversary’s physical capacity and willingness to fight, and continuing to do so until one’s aim is achieved (1).

What that means in practice:

Simply put,  that task consists in countering the strengths and exploiting the weaknesses of an opponent in ways that make accomplishing one’s purpose ever more likely (ibid).

How this is different from “grand strategy:”

To throw sharper relief on the characteristics of military strategy, we can compare it to what some experts call grand strategy. Military strategy refers to the “business,” or concern, of the general… By comparison, grand strategy can be thought of as the “concern of the head of state” of which the general’s business is but one aspect (3).

Something creators of “national security strategy” documents ought to remember:

What distinguishes a strategy from a plan is the nature of the environment and the presence of an adversary or a rival (6).

Echevarria’s paragraph-length summary of a vast literature on the sources of military power:

The following nine principles appear most frequently in professional military literature:

  1. objective, defining the goal and ensuring every military action contributes toward achieving it;
  2. maneuver, gaining positional advantage;
  3. surprise, attacking one’s foe in an unexpected manner
  4.  mass, concentrating military power to achieve superiority; and its converse
  5.  economy of force, ensuring secondary efforts receive only as much force as necessary;
  6. offensive, gaining the initiative or the temporal upper-hand;
  7. security, ensuring one’s forces are well protected;
  8.  simplicity, avoiding complicated schemes and communications;
  9. unity of command, placing the direction of the war under a single political-military authority to avoid conflicting interests (8).

On the variety  of possible exhaustion strategies:

A strategy of exhaustion can take several forms. Among the most frequent are blockades, sieges, “ scorched earth ” policies that destroy land an attacker might use, or almost any approach, including guerrilla warfare, that typically involves trading space for time or avoiding decisive battles until one is (38)

According to Echevarria, there currently are two schools of thought on strategies of coercion. The first:

believes coercive strategies are most successful when threats need not be carried out; it is the threat of force, or pain yet to come, more than its actual use, or pain already inflicted, that is most important (59).

The second:

views coercion as a function of the threat of military failure, which typically involves the systematic destruction of an opponent’s military capabilities until it realizes it would be better off if it complied. This is known as coercion by denial because at its core is the use of destruction to deny a party the ability to accomplish its aims (59-60).

On why strategists are more important than strategies:

Finding the right commander can take time. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln fired six generals before he found one, in Ulysses S. Grant, capable of defeating the Confederacy’s armies consistently enough to bring the war to an end. British prime minister Winston Churchill went through three generals before he found one, in Bernard L. Montgomery, capable of defeating Erwin Rommel, the Wehrmacht’s famed “Desert Fox.” As historians have noted, the strategist is probably more important than the strategy because one needs wisdom to know when and how to adjust one’s strategy, and this quality is critical for success (111).


[1] Michael A. Barnhart, Japan Prepare For Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

[2] David Stevenson, CataclysmThe First World War as Political Tragedy (New York: Basic Books, 2009), kindle locations 3450-3460. Briand’s insistence that Verdun be held–against the best judgement of Joffre–is another example of political leaders calling for blood that generals are loathe to spill.

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Aside from increasing the prosperity of Georgetown realtors, I am skeptical of the Americans' need for defense intellectuals I just cannot see what usefulness they have beyond that of good historians of war and talented practitioners. They conduct interesting arguments about this strategy and that principle but I don't see how that helps the people who must decide what to do about a situation, now. People like Lincoln and Grant would have been hindered in figuring what to do, now, if they had stopped to consider how their actions and decisions fit into a framework constructed by defense intellectuals.

I think perhaps this is recognized by Mr. Echevarria when he states that strategists are more important than strategies, which I take to mean that what ultimately works is gifted men deciding what needs to be done, now. This reminds me too of what Bill Slim said was the best comment on the conduct of war he ever heard, as delivered by a British Sergeant "Hit em' as fast as you can, as hard as you can, where it hurts them the most, and when they ain't looking!" I don't see what any defense intellectual can add to that.

Another thing disturbs me. As described in your review, a leading defense intellectual writes a book about strategy apparently directed at an audience residing within what is essentially an island nation, and he doesn't have much to say about navies and the sea. We can't do anything without being able to use and control the sea. That was even true during the Civil War-no effective Union Navy, no Union victory. It is incomprehensible to me that that isn't seen as THE fundamental of American security by anybody whose living is supposed to be derived by thinking about what will make America safe. Ironically, a book with this failing is reviewed in a post immediately following a post about how we aren't paying attention to the Pacific as we ought to be. Between the wars, the Navy thought a lot about that and they didn't have many defense intellectuals that I am aware of, just a number of good and thoughtful naval officers.