The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age
Hal Brands, ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023. 1,158 pp. Notes. Index. $45.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Kyle Cregge, U.S. Navy
All committed readers, leaders, and policymakers have a desire to understand how they can chart a better path forward. In a world increasingly suffused with big data and its artificial intelligence applications, there can be a natural inclination to seek objectivity in the measurable. As a combined work, editor Hal Brands’ The New Makers of Modern Strategy: From the Ancient World to the Digital Age is a masterwork: nearly 1,200 pages, 46 contributors, and five parts covering nearly 2,500 years of history and strategic thought.
This third edition is preceded by the initial Edward Meade Earle combined volume, published in 1943 amid Adolf Hitler’s rampage through Europe and the Soviet Union, and Peter Paret’s 1986 work, which incorporated nuclear strategy a mere half decade before the end of the Cold War. Brands is open about this legacy and is in conversation with that canon, while seeking to
“grasp the enduring realities of strategy, while taking new insights and perspectives into account.” Much like the intellectual motivation for the 1943 edition, Brands argues, “there is no guarantee that the democracies will prevail [in our great-power competition], geopolitically or ideologically, in the twenty-first century as they eventually did in the twentieth.”
If there is a critique to be had of the book, it is an oblique one, reflective of the modern security studies field in which it was born. The Greek root strategia, meaning generalship, implies the martial quality of strategy, as was the focus of the original Makers of Modern Strategy edition. Yet the ever-growing definition of strategy (similar to things incorporated under “national security”) may leave some doctrinal readers frustrated. Ultimately, I appreciated the wide array of essays on strategic concepts such as financial security as reflected in Alexander Hamilton; to “persistent conflict” in the Republic of the Congo; and to the Kim Dynasty’s “Strategic Weakness,” among the many other traditional theories and makers that inform conflict at sea and shore between peace and total war.
One might ask for a strategy to approach this tome on strategy. A fair concern, but one that any reader might best set aside. The book’s five parts are demarcated as “Foundations and Founders”; “Strategy in an Age of Great-Power Rivalry”; “Strategy in an Age of Global War”; “Strategy in a Bipolar Era”; and “Strategy in the Post-Cold War World.” While anyone could read Makers of Modern Strategy straight through, its returning value may be in considering its sections as part of a historical cycle; similar to Andrew Ehrhardt and John Bew’s exploration in their chapter on Arnold J. Toynbee; specifically, how “the role historical and civilizational assumptions play in the formulation of strategy.” Although the book’s last section is written to the strategic lessons of the post–Cold War, one could just as easily return to the section on great-power rivalry, as historians including Niall Ferguson increasingly assert the self-evidence of Cold War Two, between the United States and China.
While U.S.-China competition has appropriately captured the minds of national security professionals, there is no knowing for certain what the next year or next decade will require of U.S. decision-makers. Yet only history has sufficient examples of people under uncertainty and stress making choices in the world as they understood it. The New Makers of Modern Strategy succeeds not merely for its depth in any given area, but also for the breadth of time, space, individuals, and concepts that it allows its readers to wrestle with. It should remain on bookshelves to refresh and reinvigorate strategic thinking in our own challenging times.
Lieutenant Cregge is a surface warfare officer. He is the operations officer on board the USS Pinckney (DDG-91).
Spy Ships: One Hundred Years of Intelligence Collection by Ships and Submarines
Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers. Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, 2023. 305 pp. Illus. Biblio. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Ingo Heidbrink
Throughout the history of naval warfare, ships have been used for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Nevertheless, the 20th century—and especially the Cold War era—saw the development of a ship type designed exclusively for electronic intelligence gathering, often simply described as spy ships. For obvious reasons, the history of these ships and their operations is largely unknown, and many, if not most, documentation of these ships and their missions is still classified. Norman Polmar and Lee Mathers’ new book is the first comprehensive history of spy ships, and the authors should be lauded not only for closing a relevant desideratum in naval and maritime history, but also for collecting a trove of sources that allowed them to reconstruct the operational history of spy ships on both sides of the major conflicts of the 20th century—and, most important, during the Cold War.
Beginning with a brief overview of early spy-ship type operations in the first half of the 20th century, the main part of the book describes spy ships and their operations since the end of World War II. In addition to surface spy ships, the use of submarines for intelligence collection operations is also covered. Accounts of U.S. spy ships and submarine operations generally are more detailed than comparable operations of the Soviet Union and other nations, which is no surprise given the available source material. Most important, the book does not limit itself to the technological aspects of spy ship development but focuses mainly on the operational side, including the crewing required for successful operations. The remarks on crewing spy ships are probably the most interesting sections of the book, where the authors clearly demonstrate that the successful operation of a spy ship completely depends on a crew with the qualifications for the individual mission. For example, a lack of language skills could easily result in the failure of the mission.
The structure of the main section of the book with its ten chapters is somewhat unbalanced, devoting chapters of comparable length to single ships such as the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) or the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) and the whole spy-ship operations of the Soviet Union. As already mentioned, this is likely a direct consequence of the available and accessible source materials, but a more structured organization of the chapters would have helped the reader.
A brief chapter titled “Some Bottom Lines” concludes the book and makes it obvious that it is a first attempt to deal with the subject of spy ships from a historical perspective. This conclusion does not answer any historical analytical questions but mainly summarizes the factual history detailed in the previous chapters. Thus, Polmar and Mathers need to be lauded for opening the field of historical research on spy ships of the second half of the 20th century, but the book also clearly shows that there is plenty of room for future historical research on the subject. For example, Polmar and Mathers mention briefly the use of research vessels and distant-water fishing fleets as auxiliary spy ships, but they do not provide any details on this important topic.
A most useful appendix provides brief information on all known spy ships since the second half of the 20th century, reaching from U.S. and Soviet/Russian ships, to ships operated by nations such as Norway and China and ships currently constructed by the German Navy. For professional naval/maritime historians, this appendix might be of as much interest as the main text, as it makes the book a most useful reference work.
The book is well illustrated with photographs of all major types of spy ships mentioned. It should be noted that there are few to no photographs of the specific surveillance equipment or the crews operating such equipment, but, again, given the specific nature of the subject of the book, such pictures might not have been available for publication—or even exist at all.
In the end, Spy Ships can be easily recommended to any naval and/or maritime historian with an interest in the Cold War era, as it provides for the first time a comprehensive overview of a subject of great importance for understanding naval operations during this period. Costing $34.95 for a hardback with more than 300 pages, it is reasonably priced and can be recommended as an addition to any private or institutional reference library in the field of naval and maritime history.
Although it is mainly a reference book, Spy Ships may be read for entertainment by readers with an interest in the Cold War because of its narrative writing style and focus on operational histories of spy ships.
Professors might even consider assigning the book as an additional read for university seminars in maritime history—not because of the topic, but as an example of how a convincing historical narrative can be pieced together on a subject about which large parts of the relevant source material are still classified or not accessible for other reasons.
Dr. Heidbrink is professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and president of the International Maritime History Association.