Book Review: On Grand Strategy

I am not opposed to optimism, but I am fearful of the kind that comes from self-delusion.

— Marvin Davis, in the New England Journal of Medicine, on the “cure” for cancer

When I started talking to people about this book, I felt like a palm reader – it did not matter how they answered my question, I had a prepared response.

Are you a big fan of history?

No? In that case, you would love this book.

Yes? In that case, you would love this book.

I never liked history class because I knew that memorizing in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue would never be USEFUL in the real world, beyond possibly a trivia night twenty years later. John Lewis Gaddis, in his latest book, On Grand Strategy, demonstrates he understands this and what seemingly 96% of history teachers do not: We do not just want names and dates. Google does that. We want to know why we need to know this.

Gaddis borrows from, of all places, history, the idea that people can be thought of as foxes (who know many things) or hedgehogs (who know one big thing). Leo in Wolf of Wall Street is a hedgehog. Sherlock Holmes is a fox. You are probably deciding right now which one you are or want to be; don’t worry, we will get to that.

It is hard to think of a more epic beginning to the book. Xerxes (the bad guy in the movie 300 with all the jewelry) and his uncle, Artabanus, are deliberating whether 250,000 people should be sent to war with Greece, which back then was pretty much everyone.

I am paraphrasing their conversation a little here because you really should read the book.

Xerxes: Here are all these thousands, and not one of them will be alive a hundred years from now.

Artabanus: That’s deep. Is that one of the motivational quotes on the wall at Gold’s Gym? But seriously, have you thought through this? My girlfriend gets grumpy if she hasn’t eaten in an hour. How are we going to feed 250,000 people on the way to Greece? Also, do we get a bulk discount from Charmin?

Xerxes: If you were to take account of everything…you would never do anything. It is better to have a brave heart and endure one half of the terrors we dread than to calculate all of the terrors and suffer nothing at all…Big things are won by big dangers.

All that happens by the PAGE THREE. Artabanus and all the foxes reading, feel like colossal wimps, while hedgehogs are nodding their head confidently ready to go to war.

However, like any good drama, there is a twist. Less than six pages later, you might be convinced that the world is a little more complex. You are also introduced to one of the key takeaways of the book: Ends and means have to connect if anything is to happen. Aspirations must be balanced with capabilities.

Using the tell me why I need to know this criteria, let’s pick an emotionally charged current event1 we can apply Gaddis’s lessons to: Elon Musk of Tesla. I have read his biography, I admire his ambition, and I think he is deeply intelligent. But, his means and ends are NOT connected. His aspirations and capabilities are as balanced as the 1927 Liberian general election.

4 years back, Musk said in 2 years, 98% of US will be covered by Tesla Supercharging stations; in 2015, he claimed Tesla cars would reach 620 miles on a single charge, they will be “fully autonomous” in 3 years. And, so on and so forth.

— Shikha Chaudry, NewsBytes (5/24/2018)

Musk has consistently and emphatically broken his promises, colloquially known as lying, or more charitably, as bullshitting. Suppose you were a prospective stakeholder in Tesla and had read On Grand Strategy before meeting with Musk. You would probably think to yourself, “He sounds like a hedgehog. His aspirations seem compelling, but what about his capabilities?” An honest appraisal of the situation using this reasoning might be worth millions, or in Dr. Evil-esque fashion, billions, of dollars.

Nobody has enough time to read all of the important books one should read in a lifetime, so you must prioritize. Like anything you do, you are looking for the highest return on your time. This is difficult to determine in advance, but the more you read, the better your filter gets. A non-fiction book should have actionable takeaways or enrich your worldview. If it doesn’t, you might as well turn on the evening news. There are more important books out there (Gaddis makes heavy use of two of them), but its return-on-time is hard to beat.

A critic could argue that he is simply repackaging the familiar idea that the secret to strategy and life is balance. Gaddis would agree with his critic and would likely emphasize that when the stakes are high, simple truths bear repeating. He spends most of the book highlighting how the theory applies in practice throughout history and what happens when it is ignored. If the Tesla example seems blasé, each chapter of the book will provide a real case study of someone who failed to think in those terms with much more serious consequences than too few charging stations and a slap on the hand from the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Given the scope of the book, Gaddis necessarily omits quite a bit. For instance, your author was disappointed at how little attention China, Japan, and India received. However, he provides the curious reader with footnotes to explore each thread independently. You might not be a research-the-footnote type of person until Gaddis fearlessly tosses literary grenades in front of you like, “By now the Pope was routinely encouraging assassination [of Queen Elizabeth],” or describing how Thomas Jefferson didn’t want slavery to look bad, so he took it out of his elevator pitch in declaring independence.

For those of us who have a vague understanding about many things we take for granted, Gaddis helps sharpen the focus. For example, how did the United States and Britain get divorced and somehow become close friends? In 1907, Marquess of Salisbury in England realized that Germany’s kaiser William II was unpredictable, “And so he and his successors began methodically and unilaterally eliminating all sources of friction with the US.”

The biggest strength of this book is the author’s ability to synthesize what is important and weave encyclopedic knowledge into a readable narrative. Aspiring historians should note the strategy. The sentences are efficient, maybe too efficient for controversial or nuanced situations.

Overall, Gaddis is an effective historian whose means are as impressive as his ends.

  1. Just before publishing this post, your author finished Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou — another example of Gaddis’s lessons being worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Deserving of a separate book review, this is as good of a story highlighting the disconnect between aspirations and capabilities as you will likely find.

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