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Strategy: Theory for practice and the use of history


‘… in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is …’

Benjamin Brewster, The Yale Literary Magazine, Volume 47, 1882

The question to which military strategy is the answer should be simple; “How can our aim be achieved?” This apparently simple question, upon closer examination, becomes a Pandora’s Box. What does success look like? What assumptions are being made? What risks do certain decisions run? How can the means be afforded? If the strategy fails, what happens? And so on. Theory assists the strategist in designing an approach to a particular problem, but that strategy must be convertible to action to succeed.

Strategy does not exist except during its execution. “Strategy is an intellectual activity: it is the level of effort that orders the military behaviour that should deliver some, at least, of the consequences commanded by the political high ground of policy aims.”1 Until this point, any strategy is an idea in the minds of strategists, and words on paper. Although bordering on the philosophical, this fact is important to remember. One might consider the creation of strategy as a Gedankenexperiment or thought experiment, as typified by Herman Kahn, a contemporary and colleague of Colin Gray's.

My students have occasionally suggested to me that Colin’s work is complex and difficult to comprehend. Indeed Colin wrote that his own “dense prose” was perhaps too forbidding for non-academics.2 Some reviewers have criticized his work for the same fault.3 Many of the concepts with which he wrestled require complex expression to express fully their intricacy and subtlety. In contrast to this appearance, Colin aimed for simplicity and clarity in providing a theoretical basis for creating strategy. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, the knowledge gained is certainly worth the effort necessary to understand the full breadth and depth of Colin’s work.

Strategy is both a complicated, yet surprisingly simple, concept to grasp. Its simplicity lies in what it is – the conversion of policy into action. Another theorist, Bernard Brodie’s approach to strategy was straightforward, but important: “Strategy is a ‘how to do it’ study, a guide to accomplishing something and doing it efficiently. As in many other branches of politics, the question that matters in strategy is: Will the idea work?”4 The complication derives from the variety of ways that process can be accomplished. This complication does not add to the practice of strategy; instead, it makes it more difficult to comprehend, and more difficult to formulate. Axiomatically, this means that success cannot be predicted. This undermines the definition of strategy as a plan for success recently adopted from business by some. The increasing ‘businessization’ of military activity has and will continue to cause problems in developing theory, and formulating and practicing military strategy.5

The use of strategic theory to support the practice of the use of military force was the subject of many of Colin’s books, articles, and lectures. Strategy must convert policy from ideas and objectives into the use or threat of military force. That conversion is the theme of this essay.

Developing theory

Colin Gray strove to understand the link, or bridge, between policy and action, and to identify patterns of action, inaction and friction. He tried to provide a framework within which we could appreciate what strategy is and how it is converted into military action. An understanding of Clausewitz and Thucydides was fundamental to Colin’s approach to strategy. He succeeded in developing strategic theory from their works, creating the concept of strategic history almost single-handedly.6 As a practitioner, he sought to provide the firmest of foundations for those charged with the conversion of policy into the use of force.

Colin considered one of the most dangerous beliefs concerning strategic theory to be, “… that a relatively timeless wisdom has been attained.”7 He emphasized the need for a Plan B (or C or D) when a decision to use force was made. Military success relies not only on the capability of the forces involved but on the flexibility of the command of those forces and the ability of those forces to adapt to differing environments and circumstances. Fighting the “wrong war” quickly reveals flaws in the strategy of any nation, as explained in Maxim 25 of Fighting Talk.8 Simply because your forces excel in one facet of warfare does not imply overall success: the enemy always gets a vote in any conflict. Making a strategy in a vacuum to exploit this “excellence” is dangerous and entirely without merit. Should your adversary possess a superior strategy, or should they possess knowledge of yours, either through subterfuge or educated guess, your success will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. A poor strategy will not be saved even by the most effective of forces. In other words, the strategy will not work. Conversely, good strategy can succeed even if the forces available are only “adequate.” While theory gives strategists a solid foundation from which to work, its practical application must reflect the adaptability that real-life requires.

The use of history

The theory of strategy may be taught and understood, but the process of designing and creating strategy itself is unteachable. Colin wrote, “Strategists cannot be trained, but they can be educated.”9 Professor Keith Payne summarized the problem as one of designing a response, “… against a yet-unknown opponent, in a yet-unknown context, over yet-unknown stakes …”10

Strategic theory is there to guide the strategist, but the theories need to be understood within the context of the political objective for which the strategy was conceived. History can teach lessons which may guide the strategist and indicate available options, but the strategist must always operate within the current context and modify the design of strategy accordingly. One cannot take a successful strategy from the past and apply it, unchanged, to a current or future circumstance. Examples from history are central to illustrating this approach to the use and validity of theory when compared to practice.11 We can compare different periods of history to see continuity or disparity between successful and unsuccessful strategy.

Colin was a great advocate of the use of history to inform current strategy, viewing that history through the lens of strategic theory. Strategy must be viewed as a whole, with the distinctions of “ends, ways, and means” valuable to the foundational understanding of what makes a strategy. These distinctions, however, will not illustrate how to make a good strategy.

Whatever the high-level definitions of strategy are, its mechanisms reach down to the operational and tactical level of military action. These are the tools of strategy. Tactics and doctrine are taught, as is the operational level of war. These can draw immediately from historical examples and current capabilities. The past is a reservoir of knowledge that should be used for guidance of what can happen and how it happens. Michael Howard noted, “Historical precedent can sometimes be illuminating, sometimes inspiring, but often can be misleading as well.”12

If one examines the development of NATO’s capacity to meet its strategic goals over the last two decades of the Cold War, we can assess the capability of the NATO countries to prosecute a nonnuclear strategy.

It is possible to draw a metaphorical line from the NATO strategy known as “flexible response” adopted in 1967, through the means provided to NATO by the alliance members, ending with the ways for executing the defense of Western Europe. Given the resources of the time no NATO country could have countered a Soviet invasion of Western Europe for more than one or two days. Regardless of the tactical competence of the NATO forces, simple arithmetic calculating ammunition use against the level of stockpiling showed a lack of essential supplies. NATO command would have used tactical nuclear weapons to stop the Warsaw Pact advance. The alternative to nuclear first-use was a complete surrender of NATO. This simple fact indicated a dislocation between ways and means to achieve the required ends. The implication was extreme risk if war ever came to Europe.

Strategy must be good enough to achieve the objectives set by the polity. The wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) had demonstrated that the long-term political objectives and the military means to carry them out were not sufficiently synchronized.

Those who predict dramatic changes in the style of warfare or a revolution in warfare caused by new technology or current fashion should be subject to doubt. In seminars, lectures, and general conversations, Colin argued that the importance of counter-insurgency in the last decades had been overstated, and that it was not the future of warfare. Changes in the character of war, especially those of technology, should not be overestimated when assessing the options for strategic thinking. The bases of strategy, those of policy, theory, and context, meant that one could not predict what strategy would be “good enough” for future conflicts. The strategist, perhaps prompted by optimistic politicians, must not fall into the trap of predicting future events around which a strategy should be built. “What matters above all else,” Colin wrote, “is that we all, especially our military planners, never forget that a decision to wage war is ALWAYS A GAMBLE and the historical record does not demonstrate that bold decisions for war initiation typically are rewarded with conspicuous success.”13

The polity must set realistic goals for the use, or threat of use, and effects of military force. From an historical perspective there is not much reason to be optimistic. While most forces are “good enough” for short-term operations, the military and political systems in many Western European countries are not adequate to fight a peer enemy, but that is where the threats are developing. The unknown source of any new threat — whether China or Russia or elsewhere — emphasizes the need for strategic flexibility against any developing confrontation.

“Trust, but verify”

Colin was particularly skeptical regarding the reliability of treaty verification. Having been a practitioner under the Reagan administration, he said that this was one of the most difficult areas in nuclear and conventional strategy. He mentioned problems with the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (SALT and START), as well as the Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The Soviet Union, and afterward the Russian Federation, were obstructive when it came to verifying their adherence to any treaty obligation. President Ronald Reagan, in his speech at the signing of the INF Treaty in 1987, used the old Russian proverb, “trust, but verify,” in recognition of this problem.14 Colin was insistent that the United States kept to its side of the bargain. The development of nuclear strategy required clear verification of the force sizes on both sides, but this applied to conventional forces as well. Practical actions based on false or unverifiable information are a fool’s errand. Colin understood that real-world knowledge of the opponent’s capability, political will, and determination is key for designing a competent strategy and converting that strategy into the use, or threat, of force.

Because many historians and politicians, as well as some strategists, focus on warfare rather than war, Colin warned that: “The principal wrecking beacon for the understanding of strategy is the attractive power of the military instrument itself. The use of force is confused with the use made of force. The difference is small on the page, but cosmic in understanding.”15 In one of his last articles, Colin emphasized that the postwar end-state one wishes to achieve is the most important consideration of strategy. It is the raison d'être of choosing to use military force in the first place.

In his book Strategy and History, Colin proposed some potential scenarios which might influence future strategy making, while emphasizing the caveat that “none of the dire developments just outlined have occurred.”16 Certain situations were more likely to occur, such as the spread of weapons of mass destruction. The likelihood of each event analyzed by Colin was based on an understanding of previous events and on the demands placed on military forces over time. He posited scenarios, such as the geopolitical effects of climate change, which current strategists should consider as possible options, and argued that strategic thinking should take possibilities into account, even potential surprises, to retain the flexibility necessary for success. Changes in the balance of power, and shifts of focus, perhaps to the Pacific and China, need to be considered in any strategy design. Climate change will also put pressure on resources, which may significantly affect many states’ security, leading to the use of force either to secure one’s own resources or to stop an attempt by another state to take them.

Thus, my discussion of Colin’s ideas comes full circle. How strategic theory can be applied to the creation of strategy to address the current situation was always foremost in his thinking. The application of theory to practice was tempered by the knowledge of the past, both successes and failures. Context, as Colin would emphasize, was important in understanding the practice of strategy. The problems of security, whether it is national, resource, or data, are nothing new, but at the same time unique. Politicians and military leaders alike make the mistake of ignoring history at their peril.


Additional information

Notes on contributors

Kenton White

Dr. Kenton White is a Lecturer in Strategic Studies and International Relations at the University of Reading, England. His current research looks at strategic theory and practice over the last 200 years.


1 Colin S. Gray, The Future of Strategy (Malden, MA: Polity, 2015), p. 28.

2 Colin S. Gray, Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory (Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2002), p. 3.

3 Keith B. Bickel, ‘Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History (Review)’, The Journal of Military History, 68.1 (2004), 321–22 <>.

4 Bernard Brodie, War and Politics: A Major Statement on the Relations Between Military Affairs and Statecraft by the Dean of American Civilian Strategists (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 452.

5 Kenton White, ‘“Effing” the Military: A Political Misunderstanding of Management’, Defence Studies, 17.4 (2017), 346–58 <>.

6 Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Colin S. Gray, War, Peace and International Relations: An Introduction to Strategic History, 2nd ed (Abingdon, UK: New York: Routledge, 2011).

7 Colin S. Gray, ‘Strategists: Some Views Critical of the Profession’, International Journal, 26.4 (1971), 771 (p. 790) <>.

8 Colin S. Gray, Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace, and Strategy (Westport, Conn: Praeger Security International, 2007), p. 107.

9 Colin S. Gray, Strategy and Politics (London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2016), p. 59.

10 Keith B. Payne, Shadows on the Wall: Deterrence and Disarmament (Fairfax, Virginia: National Institute Press, 2020), p. xv.

11 Colin S. Gray, Strategy and History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Cass Series Strategy and History, 15 (London: Routledge, 2006).

12 Michael Howard, The Mediterranean Strategy in the Second World War, Lees-Knowles Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966), p. 2.

13 Colin S. Gray, ‘Nuclear Strategy – A Tale of Consequence’, Military Strategy Magazine, 7.1 (Spring 2020), 6–10.

14 ‘Remarks on Signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty’ (Washington, 1987), Ronald Reagan Presidential Library - National Archives and Records Administration <> [accessed 11 May 2020]. The original Russian is Доверя́й, но проверя́й. The direct translation was verified by Dayana White, in whom I have complete trust.

15 Colin S Gray, p. 81.

16 Colin S. Gray, Strategy and History, p. 189.

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