A History

Lawrence Freedman

Oxford University Press, New York 2013, 768 pages

Book Review published on: April 21, 2017

During a November 2015 press conference, President Barack Obama expressed concern that intelligence reports concerning the administration’s campaign against the Islamic State (IS) might have been manipulated to reflect a falsely optimistic assessment; reportedly, analysts’ superiors at U.S. Central Command changed reports about Iraqi Army capabilities (or lack thereof) to indicate the Iraqis had “redeployed” instead of “retreated” in the face of IS attacks.1 How can the president accurately assess the effectiveness of a national strategy in the absence of trustworthy information?

This is of course not the first allegation of the manipulation or misuse of otherwise unbiased intelligence analysis. In the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the CIA's assessment of the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program was used to legitimize Sunday morning talk-show threats of a “mushroom cloud” over Manhattan.2 Coupled with the promulgation of ultimately discredited links between Iraq, al-Qaida, and 9/11, these intelligence-based narratives were nevertheless instrumental in shoring up the strategic message of the Bush administration. The damage wrought by poor intelligence, either biased, manipulated, or flat-out wrong, is equivalent whether it falsely supports or refutes a particular strategic narrative.

In Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman makes the case that without impartial, well-sourced intelligence coupled with its wise use, campaigns, and the strategies upon which they are based, would certainly be less likely to achieve their stated goals, especially when new intelligence insight suggests a change of course is in order. At 715 pages, making one’s way through Strategy is a commitment, though well worth the effort for the breadth of topics and perspectives Freedman addresses. He does tend to bounce from one topic to another, and thus the book requires a complete and thorough reading before the method in the author’s approach becomes apparent. It’s not until the final chapters that the reader starts to see the pieces coming together.

References to the strategic value of intelligence are sprinkled throughout the book. Freedman, for example, highlights the role of intelligence in the thinking of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, T. E. Lawrence, and Carl von Clausewitz, who actually distrusted intelligence, concerned that it tended toward the pessimistic, inciting indecision and “imagined perils” in the military leader. Clausewitz preferred that the strategist rely on “common sense.” Freedman points out adroitly that “Clausewitz’s advice to ignore timely intelligence now appears as more of a recipe for disaster than a means of avoiding unnecessary panic.”

Strategy also presents interesting and wide-ranging examples of the tactical, if not strategic, impact of intelligence—the Biblical Joshua sending spies into the city of Jericho; Odysseus’s own double agent, Sinon, who appealed to the Trojan’s confirmation biases and convinced them the wooden horse was no threat; and the operational preparation of the battlefield conducted by Satan, planning his covert influence campaign in the garden of Eden, hoping to recruit the new race of man to his cause. Freedman’s discussion of the post-Gulf 1.0 revolution in military thinking highlights the anticipated benefits of advanced sensors and technology, offering a “system of systems” approach that might allow commanders an uninterrupted flow of intelligence information and lead to information superiority, a better understanding of the battlespace, and “effortless superiority.” As he does throughout Strategy with other wishful thinking, using the challenges of asymmetric, cyber, and fourth-generation warfare as examples, Freedman demonstrates that the strategic promise of this technological revolution may be illusory.

One of the best examples in Strategy of the strategic value of unbiased and well-employed intelligence is the battle of Borodino, the decisive engagement in Napoleon’s disastrously unsuccessful invasion of Russia. Many of us have seen Charles Joseph Minard’s famous graphic depiction of Napoleon’s army, a thick line depicting approximately five hundred thousand French soldiers marching toward Moscow in 1812 with an appallingly thin line representing the surviving ten thousand or so limping back to France in defeat.3 Freedman points out that intelligence from Tsar Alexander’s espionage network in France allowed him to anticipate (two years before Napoleon made his way to the outskirts of Moscow) that war was coming, giving him time to prepare and, importantly, time to make an honest assessment of Russian relative weakness. Following from this insight, and over the complaints of his senior military leadership, his strategy therefore was to allow the French army to advance well into Russia and away from their own supply lines. Thus intelligence provided time and, in the end, space for effective policy to be formulated, while also providing political leverage to keep overly aggressive military leadership at bay.

It is in the final chapters of Strategy that Freedman brings together the seemingly disparate elements of this work, as he focuses in on the strategic importance of scripts and narrative. He defines strategy succinctly as “a story about power told in the future tense from the perspective of leading characters.”4 His conclusions certainly resonate for the reader interested in the role intelligence plays in the development of the strategic narrative, impacted as it is by bias, politics, emotion, and preconceptions.

Referring back to his earlier chapters on economics and psychology, Freedman points out the relative value of the use of shortcuts to cope with complex situations, such as intuition or “thinking from the gut.” Also called “System 1” thinking, while it can be potentially useful, it is also heavily influenced by unhelpful emotion and biases, about which an individual is likely not to aware. “System 2” thinking involves a much higher level cognitive evaluation of a particular course of action or overall strategy.

Philip Tetlock recently discussed these different systems in a perhaps more accessible fashion in Superforecasters: The Art and Science of Prediction. Tetlock suggests that these individuals, superforecasters, are better able to predict future events (likely to be a valuable attribute of the gifted strategist), as they are able to move from System 1 (or as he calls it “tip of the nose”) to System 2 thinking using established tradecraft and, importantly, to empirically test early assumptions.5 Freedman brings it all together, stating, “One way to think of strategy, therefore, was as a System 2 process engaged in a tussle with System 1 thinking, seeking to correct for feelings, prejudices, and stereotypes; recognizing what was unique and unusual about the situation; and seeking to plot a sensible and effective way forward.”6

As he points out, System 1 only gets you so far. Thus—and this is a key conclusion—effective strategy, while incorporating the best of System 2 (which should include unbiased, accurate intelligence) can be thought of as System 1 judgements ultimately placed within persuasive arguments. He says, “Shrewd judgement is of little value unless it is coupled with an ability to express its meaning to those who must follow its imperatives.”7 The most effective strategic leaders according to Freedman’s analysis should be gifted with intuitive System 1 thinking and the ability to take that thinking to System 2, supported by solid intelligence. They should then able to effectively communicate a powerful vision of the future, spurring followers to take steps consistent with the overall narrative.

Remember Sinon, the Greek double agent whose deceit facilitated the entry of the wooden horse into Troy? He was not the only source of intelligence for the Trojans. As Freedman recalls for the reader, King Priam’s daughter, Cassandra, was gifted by Apollo with the ability to accurately see into the future. Observing the Greek’s gift, she warned the Trojan’s they were being deceived and faced an “evil fate.” She was the first superforecaster if you will. Apollo, though, had also cursed Cassandra—“Unlike Sinon, who could lie and be believed, Cassandra would make accurate predictions and never be believed.”8 As we look to our leadership to formulate and communicate effective strategy, let us hope they can identify the perfidy of the Sinons and trust in the objectivity of the Cassandras.

Book Review written by: John G. Breen, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas


  1. Michael D. Shear, “Obama Orders Inquiry into Intelligence on ISIS,” New York Times, 22 November 2015, accessed 21 April 2017,; Helene Cooper, “Obama to Nominate Joseph Votel as Head of U.S. Central Command,” New York Times, 6 January 2016, accessed 21 April 2017,
  2. “Remember That Mushroom Cloud?,” New York Times, 2 November 2005, accessed 21 April 2017,
  3. Benjamin Starr, “Vintage Infographic: Napoleon’s Tragic Russian March,” Visual News website, 27 September 2012, accessed 21 April 2017,
  4. Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 608.
  5. Philip Tetlock, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (New York: Crown Publishing, 2015).
  6. Freedman, Strategy, 605.
  7. Ibid., 614.
  8. Ibid., 25.