Credit to A. Bradley Potter, Johns Hopkins University SAIS
Among the most widely read strategists is B. H. Liddell Hart, famous for the “indirect approach.” Most courses analyzing military strategy or its broader cousin grand strategy devote at least a portion of their time to the central idea of Liddell Hart’s career as a strategist and historian. Writing in response to what he viewed as calamitous misapplications and misunderstandings of Clausewitzian military thought, Liddell Hart sought ultimately to create an integrated, modern vision for strategy applicable not to just military forces, but also to all government activities supporting the attainment of political aims during war. The revolutions in technology which helped define the First and especially Second World Wars, along with the destruction they wrought, spoke to the need for a new strategic framework. Liddell Hart’s book Strategy was his answer to this challenge.
This essay aims to introduce new students of strategy to Liddell Hart’s central arguments from this most famous work. First, a brief exploration of the man’s scholastic and military career sets the stage for a careful examination of his indirect approach and its implications. Following these discussions, a short review of how Liddell Hart’s thinking continues to affect the debates surrounding strategy offers a chance to apply his theories. Ultimately Liddell Hart encourages his readers to reconsider Carl von Clausewitz and cast aside misunderstandings of him while also offering an alternative, distinct vision for how war should be fought – a vision that rejects the importance of battle and rather focuses on achieving victory with minimal bloodshed.
A Strategist from the World Wars
Liddell Hart was born in Paris on October 31, 1895 to English parents. By the time he attended Cambridge at the dawn of the First World War, he displayed in inquisitive mind, but was rather bored by formal studies (Reid 2004). As fighting broke out in 1914, the young Liddell Hart joined the King's Own Yorkshire light infantry and proceeded to serve three tours in the Great War as a junior officer before beginning to write on military issues following the Armistice. As his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography puts it, he became known as a keen “interpreter of the operational experience of 1918: distilling its essential principles for training purposes, and then relating them perceptively to mobility and command in a novel way” (Reid 2004). While he gained some notoriety among influential British officers, most notably General Sir Ivor Maxse and Colonel J. F. C. Fuller, his career in uniform was cut short after suffering two minor heart attacks (Reid 2004). He retired from the British Army in 1927 after being on half-pay since 1923 and filling no significant military responsibilities. He held the rank of captain.
After experimenting with several careers, the retired Captain Liddell Hart became a well-regarded journalist and military analyst who corresponded regularly with important strategists of the day, including Fuller and later T.E. Lawrence (Reid 2004). By the late 1920s, Liddell Hart’s notion of the indirect approach to strategy was beginning to take form, and an early version was published in his 1929 book The Decisive Wars of History (Reid 2004). The most complete formulation of the indirect approach was ultimately offered up in Strategy, published first in 1954 and again as a revised second edition in 1967. The book became widely read in both military and academic circles, and played an important role in repairing Liddell Hart’s image, which had been tarnished during World War II when he underestimated Germany’s martial capability, called at one point for a compromise peace with Hitler, and criticized Winston Churchill’s strategy for winning the war (Reid 2004).
His biographer Alex Danchev remarks that Strategy is the closest Liddell Hart ever came to writing a treatise on war, but it was “started too soon, distended too much and finished (or unfinished) too late to produce a truly satisfying whole” (Danchev 1998, 157). Rather than a complete vision of strategy, it offered a “grab-bag” of ideas, some of which were radically novel and others of which were fundamental and well understood (Danchev 1998, 157). These shortcomings are readily apparent to readers who pick up the volume; however, imperfect though it may be, Liddell Hart’s Strategy offers important takes on modern warfare still worth considering today. In particular, his treatment strategy as a concept, the indirect approach itself, and the implications of mechanized and aerial assaults are well worth mulling in detail.
The Indirect Approach
Origins and Method
The origins of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach are twofold. From a theoretical perspective, he is writing in response to military and political leaders who he claims misread and misapplied the theory of 19th century Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. From an empirical perspective, he is digesting the experiences of the World Wars, especially the stalemated trench warfare of the Great War and the mechanized and aerial battles of the fight against Hitler. Liddell Hart argues vigorously that the application of poorly understood Clausewitizian strategy fueled the bloodbath that was World War I and the slow adaptation of alternatives during World War II, all of which called into question the validity of the old theory and demanded reformulating how military force might be applied to achieve political aims (Liddell Hart 1967, 357).
Specifically, the massive losses and post-war exhaustion of combatants in World War I, along with the growing importance of sea power, airpower, and mechanized land forces in World War II, suggested to Liddell Hart that the interpretation of Clausewitz from the past should be revisited. Sea power had choked off Germany during the Great War; then, during the interwar period, those in charge of armies and air forces failed to appreciate the great shifts in war that were occurring thanks to new technology (Liddell Hart 1967, 359). In fact, airpower now offered the opportunity to strike at economic and moral centers without destroying the enemy in the field. Mechanized warfare, meanwhile, could not only make direct attacks, but it could also help induce the collapse of an enemy without a major battle “by cutting their supply lines, dislocating their control-system, or producing paralysis by the sheer nerve-shock of deep penetration into their rear” (Liddell Hart 1967, 358). Each of these would come to represent aspects of the indirect approach.
Additionally, these insights into a changing battlefield were not merely speculative. In World War II’s opening months, a small number of mechanized units supported by airpower created a new type of fighting – blitzkrieg – or lightening warfare. Such fighting was relatively bloodless, but was quite effective in allowing the Germans to overcome Poland and France (Liddell Hart 1967, 360 – 361). Later, Allied air operations against communications networks helped make the invasion of Continental Europe possible as it hindered Germany’s ability to mount counterattacks (Liddell Hart 1967, 361). In the most general sense, new land and air developments affected the formulation of military aims; namely, it allowed for increased direct action against civilian objectives and expanded the range of options for attacking military objectives, opening up new ways to cripple militaries without destroying them (Liddell Hart 1967, 359). Liddell Hart concludes that “the sum effect of the advent of this multiplied mobility, both on the ground and in the air, was to increase the power and importance of strategy relatively to tactics…”, which required fresh strategic thinking (Liddell Hart 1967, 359).
While these theoretical insights and first-hand experiences provided the intellectual roots of Liddell Hart’s study of strategy and formulation of the indirect approach, he based his thinking on a much larger body of historical analysis. Strategy examines wars from the fifth century B.C. to the middle of the twentieth century, including the Greek Wars, Roman Wars, Medieval Wars, Napoleonic Wars, and both World Wars, among others, to make its arguments. From a methodological perspective, each of these is treated as a type of mini-case study out of which Liddell Hart discerns patterns about how wars have been successfully waged throughout the ages. He notes that a single study of a campaign is likely to present analytical obstacles in the pursuit of truth; however, “if a specific effect is seen to follow a specific cause in a score or more cases, in different epochs and diverse conditions, there is ground for regarding this cause as an integral part of any theory of war” (Liddell Hart 1967, 25). His experience as military editor for the Encyclopedia Britannica offered him an opportunity to evaluate long periods of history and conduct the wide-reaching survey of military history that is ultimately presented in Strategy (Liddell Hart 1967, 25). In this sense, Liddell Hart and Clausewitz share a similar philosophy about the nature of war studies – it is not a realm of human pursuit suited to abstract mathematical theorizing, but rather an endeavor dominated by understanding the importance of psychology and the human experience (Liddell Hart 1967, 324).
Strategy and Grand Strategy
As in many things throughout Strategy, Liddell Hart juxtaposes himself against Clausewitz in how he defines strategy. The old Prussian officer, he argues, looked at strategy merely as “the art of the employment of battles as a means to gain the object of war” (Liddell Hart 1967, 333). This definition has two flaws. First, it “intrudes on the sphere of policy, or the higher conduct of war, which must necessarily be the responsibility of the government and not of the military leaders it employs as its agents in the executive control of operations” (Liddell Hart 1967, 333). Additionally, Clausewitz’s definition unnecessarily stresses the importance of engaging the enemy as the only means to achieve a strategic end, which leads to the profound heresy that all efforts in war should focus on setting up and fighting a decisive battle (Liddell Hart 1967, 333). While these views and critiques of Clausewitz’s concept of strategy are still debated, they are at least the understanding against which Liddell Hart directed his efforts.
In seeking what he considered a more accurate definition of strategy, Liddell Hart turned to Helmuth von Moltke the Younger who claimed strategy is “the practical adaptation of the means placed at a general’s disposal to the attainment of the object in view” (Liddell Hart 1967, 334). According to Liddell Hart, this definition makes clear that the military is responsible to the government employing it and allows the government to intervene in strategy, amend it, and push it in a direction that may not simply be the overthrow of an enemy’s military (Liddell Hart 1967, 334). Such a nuanced vision of what strategy is and ought to be offers a start for understanding how Liddell Hart viewed the issue; namely, he defined strategy as “the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfil the ends of policy” (Liddell Hart 1967, 335). He went on to offer that “…strategy is concerned not merely with the movement of forces – as its role is often defined – but with the effect” (Liddell Hart 1967, 335). In contrast to the extreme interpretations of Clausewitz, Liddell Hart argues that strategy “…has for its purpose the reduction of fighting to the slenderest possible proportions… The perfection of strategy would be, therefore, to produce a decision without any serious fighting” (Liddell Hart 1967, 338). He cites several historical examples to back up his ideal concept, among them Julius Caesar’s Ilerda campaign, Moltke’s encirclement of MacMahon’s army at Sedan, and General Allenby’s 1918 encirclement of Turkish forces in Samaria (Liddell Hart 1967, 338).
There is an additional aspect of strategy that sets Liddell Hart apart from many earlier strategists – the belief in and application of grand strategy. The British strategist suggests that grand strategy is the “policy which guides the conduct of war” and may be conceived of as “policy in execution” (Liddell Hart 1967, 335). He goes on to argue that “…the role of grand strategy – higher strategy – is to co-ordinate and direct all of the resources of a nation, or band of nations, toward the attainment of the political object of the war – the goal defined by fundamental policy” (Liddell Hart 1967, 335 -336). Further separating it from traditional understandings of strategy, grand strategy deals with economic, diplomatic, commercial, ethical, and military aspects of war in addition to questions about securing peace after a conflict (Liddell Hart 1967, 335 -336). Grand strategy envisions what is today called a whole-of-government approach to waging war and establishing and maintaining peace. While decidedly separate from the strictly military strategy that makes up most of Liddell Hart’s book, the concept of grand strategy ultimately benefits from the application of the indirect approach as well.
The Indirect Approach
What of the indirect approach? The seeds of it are in Liddell Hart’s understanding of strategy and his review of history. After careful study of past wars, Liddell Hart was convinced that conflicts are generally won when the means of war are applied in a way that an opponent is unprepared to meet, that is, employed in an indirect fashion (Liddell Hart 1967, 25). A strategy does not need to overcome resistance, but rather exploit the elements of movement and surprise to achieve victory by throwing the enemy off balance before a potential strike (Liddell Hart 1967, 337). Liddell Hart argues that if a strategist is charged with winning military victory, then he has:
“… responsibility is to seek it under the most advantageous circumstance in order to produce the most profitable result. Hence his true aim is not so much to seek battle as to seek a strategic situation so advantageous that if it does not of itself produce the decision, its continuation by a battle is sure to achieve this. In other words, dislocation is the aim of strategy; its sequel may be either the enemy’s dissolution or his easier disruption in battle” (Liddell Hart 1967, 339, emphasis in original; bold emphasis added).
Following dislocation, the situation must be exploited to ensure maximal gains from victory. By exploitation, Liddell Hart means that a commander takes advantage of the new opportunities that come from a successful dislocation and blow against an enemy before he has time to recover (Liddell Hart 1967, 349). The indirect approach, then, is the application of movement and surprise to dislocate an enemy and attain and exploit military victories to achieve a defined political objective. The most skillful strategists employing this approach will not need to apply a maximum of violence since they have forced their enemy into a position from which he can defend only poorly. “The business of war, therefore, was not position and attrition, and mutual exhaustion, but analysis and paralysis, the maximal preservation,” Danchiv muses about Liddell Hart’s indirect approach (1998, 161). Most armies and generals, however, are trained mostly for the military “blow,” the period between the dislocation and the exploitation when fighting may occur; thus, few are well equipped to best engage in either of the two more important activities (Liddell Hart 1967, 349).
There are nuances to the actualization of the indirect approach that are best captured in Liddell Hart’s eight axioms. These axioms represent a checklist of sorts for ensuring the application of the indirect approach. In his words they include:
- Adjust your end to your means
- Keep your object always in mind
- Choose the line (or course) of least expectation
- Exploit the line of least resistance
- Take a line of operation which offers alternative objectives
- Ensure that both plan and dispositions are flexible – adaptable to circumstances
- Do not throw your weight into a stroke whilst your opponent is on guard
- Do not renew an attack along the same line (or in the same form) after it has once failed (Liddell Hart 1967, 348 – 349)
Liddell Hart forcefully contends that for the indirect approach to be successful, indeed for any strategy in war to be viable, the political ends must be in line with the total military means available for achieving them (Liddell Hart 1967, 336). Should this condition be met, a real economy of forces might be realized (Liddell Hart 1967, 336). If wars are waged to attain political objectives, then those objectives should not be beyond the accessible military means to achieve them. If they are, the prospect of engaging in a futile war is realized and surely violates Liddell Hart’s goal of achieving a positive result with the minimal bloodshed. Some ends simply cannot be achieved using the means available, and accepting this reality will ensure that the ends and means are adjusted appropriately.
The second axiom is closely related to the first but requires some additional definitions. Namely, there is a distinction between the political and military objectives in war, though this difference is often lost to the confusion that surrounds using the term “objective” to signify both at the same time. Liddell Hart offers an alternative. Rather than using the word “objective” at all, he suggests that “the object” be used for the policy goal and “the military aim” be used for the way forces are used to achieve a particular policy (Liddell Hart 1967, 351). Generally speaking, the object of war is what Liddell Hart calls “a better state of peace,” or the realization of a policy goal that makes peaceful existence “better” for at least one of the combatants (Liddell Hart 1967, 351). He further argues that military victory, that is winning battles, does not automatically ensure attaining the object. Rather, the military aim should be aligned with the political object if the application of military force is to ultimately result in the attainment of a political object (Liddell Hart 1967, 351). By placing the object always in one’s mind, it may drive military activity rather than military activity becoming an end in and of itself.
Axioms three and four are fall generally in the spirit of dislocating the enemy. By choosing the line or course of least expectation, an enemy may be pushed off balance in a psychological sense. These lines or courses of action begin with a physical maneuver, however. A physical dislocation:
“(a) upsets the enemy’s dispositions and, by compelling a sudden ‘change of front’, dislocates the distribution and organization of his forces; (b) separates his forces; (c) endangers his supplies; (d) menaces the route or routs by which he could retreat in case of need and reestablish himself in his base or homeland” (Liddell Hart 1967, 339 – 340).
Psychological dislocation follows. It is the impression that the physical dislocation makes on the minds of commanders and is strongest when sudden or when there appears no way to counter the dislocation (Liddell Hart 1967, 340). “Psychological dislocation fundamentally springs from this sense of being trapped.” (Liddell Hart 1967, 340). To dislocate an enemy in this way requires one to put himself in the shoes of an opponent, determine the course of action he might least suspect, and then strike in just that way (Liddell Hart 1967, 348).
The line of least resistance is the physical equivalent of the line of least expectation (Liddell Hart 1967, 341). “They are the two faces of the same coin,” suggests Liddell Hart, and only when combined is the indirect approach fully employed and the enemy actually dislocated (Liddell Hart 1967, 341). The line of least resistance is the equivalent of moving against an enemy’s rear or weak flank rather than attacking him head on (Liddell Hart 1967, 341). Before attempting dislocation, however, moves must be made to distract the enemy and thus inhibit his “freedom of action” (Liddell Hart 1967, 341). One can easily imagine how air forces, capable of flying over defended positions on the ground, or mechanized units, able to push around fortified positions, might each be employed to find the least line of resistance and thus achieve the indirect approach (Liddell Hart 1967, 358). Additionally, there may be good reasons not to concentrate forces, since alternative distributions may threaten the enemy in different ways and offer new approaches to the line of least resistance, whatever it may be (Liddell Hart 1967, 342). Provided that the line of least resistance offers access to an objective congruent with attaining the political object, it should be pursued whenever possible (Liddell Hart 1967, 348).
This raises the point of axiom number five. Having multiple objectives puts an opponent “on the horns of a dilemma” (Liddell Hart 1967, 348). What should he defend? Where will you attack? How should forces be distributed to secure all possible objectives? This distracts the enemy from his opponent’s principle objective and at the very least makes the attainment of some objective easier (Liddell Hart 1967, 343). Provided these alternative objectives are all in line with the political object, they truly put an enemy into a bind. Additionally, they prevent an enemy from consolidating to meet a particular concentration of opposing forces since the pursuit of multiple objectives will naturally disburse forces on both sides to some degree (Liddell Hart 1967, 347). Liddell Hart discusses the nexus between technological improvements and dispersed advances in some detail and lauds these as central to the restoration of military strategy in the 20th century:
“A revival of the distributed strategic advance was required in order to revive the art and effect of strategy. Moreover, new conditions – air power and motor power – point to its further development into a dispersed strategic advance. The danger of air attack, the aim of mystification, and the need of drawing full value from mechanized mobility, suggest that advancing forces should not only be distributed as widely as is compatible with combined action, but be dispersed as much as is compatible with cohesion” (Liddell Hart 1967, 346).
In this way multiple objectives might be threatened and attained in support of realizing the political object.
As objectives are attained or missed, axiom six comes to the fore. Liddell Hart stresses that a plan “should foresee and provide for a next step in case of success or failure, or partial success” (Liddell Hart 1967, 349). Indeed, much in war is uncertain and strategic realities shift quickly as the tides of a conflict ebb and flow. Planning as much as possible for these eventualities helps ensure that the indirect approach may be applied in more than one direction, whether the prosecution of the war goes favorably or poorly.
Finally, the last two axioms are what Liddell Hart considers “negative” lessons from his survey of military history, or practices out of line with the successful application of the indirect approach. Axiom seven seems obvious, but for commanders obsessed with engaging in battle as the only means of defeating their enemy, it is often forgotten. Liddell Hart reminds his readers that an enemy must first be “paralyzed” before an attack may be successful (Liddell Hart 1967, 349). This guidance flows from the notion that dislocation must occur before any blow against an opponent. Finally, the last axiom merely reminds us that successive attacks on the same point or of the same type, if the first has failed, are unlikely to succeed in the future (Liddell Hart 1967, 349). As much as a commander might like to think his initial volley weakened a particular point that did not break, it is foolish to think that the enemy did not realize this too and has not acted to reinforce any weakness along prior lines of engagement.
While these eight axioms and related details do not examine every implication of the indirect approach, they offer the student of strategy a helpful entryway into Liddell Hart’s fundamental insights. The indirect approach is best captured by the notions of maneuver and surprise. Each is important to the dislocation of the enemy and the exploitation of a victory. Each helps prepare the battlefield in such a way that makes the actual fighting, should there even be any after dislocation, as bloodless and swift as possible. This is the aim of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach. Why force direct battle and waste time, energy, and resources, when the political object might be achieved using more cleaver, indirect means?
Liddell Hart and Clausewitz
Liddell Hart’s distain for the application of Clausewitzian strategy in the first half of the twentieth century is easy to see. It nearly bleeds off of Strategy’s pages. Carl von Clausewitz’s readers took his ideas too far, argues Liddell Hart, well beyond where the Prussian had ever thought appropriate. Because of misunderstandings surrounding Clausewitz’s concepts, for “more than a century the prime canon of military doctrine has been that ‘the destruction of the enemy’s main forces on the battlefield’ constituted the only true aim in war” (Liddell Hart 1967, 352). As a result, the merits of the indirect approach, which throughout history had been so central to the successful prosecution of a war, were lost in favor of a view that held the bloody destruction of the enemy by battle as the highest and most effective form of warfare. According to Liddell Hart, the misinterpretation of Clausewitz is the result of his “philosophical mode of expression” and abstract presentation that made understanding the nuance associated with his more blunt statements difficult for most students of war (Liddell Hart 1967, 352 - 353). Particularly confusing was that Clausewitz would often write as if he were about to make one conclusion before turning his prior reasoning about face just at the end of a particular point (Liddell Hart 1967, 353).
Liddell Hart cites many examples of such confusion. In one, while discussing the tendency toward the use of maximal force, Clausewitz wrote at some length that battle was the only means of achieving a political end via war, only to admit later in his book that this was the ideal, only applicable in the abstract (Liddell Hart 1967, 354). This is easily puzzling to a reader unaccustomed to Clausewitz’s style or who is unable or unwilling to read the man closely. It also speaks to a broader issue with which Liddell Hart took exception. While Clausewitz himself may have been able to differentiate in his thinking and writings between the perfect world of military pursuit and the actual imperfect world of these pursuits, these subtleties were so twisted up in his work that they became especially difficult for practitioners to understand (Liddell Hart 1967, 354 – 355). This was Clausewitz’s great sin. Ultimately, “… it was the ideal, and not the practical, aspect of his teaching on battle which survived… he fixed the distortion in the minds of his pupils by hammering on the abstract ideal” (Liddell Hart 1967, 355). As disciples of Clausewitz focused on the abstract ideal, the linkage between strategy and policy became decoupled, and commanders were willing to fight wars to such extremes and exhaust so much strength that there could be no post-war benefits (Liddell Hart 1967, 356). Clausewitz may not have intended this interpretation, but it was his legacy according to Liddell Hart.
The British captain does make a small effort to put On War, Clausewitz’s massive study of war, in the proper perspective. He reminds us that the book was written over twelve years, a time in which time the Prussian’s views evolved, and was never finished by its author, who died of cholera before completing revisions (Liddell Hart 1967, 357). In fact, these revisions generally abandoned the concept of ‘absolute’ war, or the tendency toward extreme mobilization for the purpose of battle, which Liddell Hart saw as especially foolhardy (Liddell Hart 1967, 357). Additionally, Liddell Hart quotes a note that Clausewitz had left with his unfinished manuscript. It read: “Should the work be interrupted by my death, then what is found can only be called a mass of conceptions not brought into form… open to endless misconceptions” (Liddell Hart 1967, 357). These are precisely the misconceptions Liddell Hart laments. In the end, the British captain claims that the Prussian was a codifying thinker rather than a creative one (Liddell Hart 1967, 353). Clausewitz’s great contributions to the study of war were those that emphasized the psychological nature of combat, called into question the mathematical analysis of war that strips from it the human factor, and captured the effects of “danger and fatigue” and the “value of boldness and determination” (Liddell Hart 1967, 353). Even given these compliments, Liddell Hart scorns the lessons of Clausewitz. It is against the backdrop of these lessons playing out in the World Wars that Strategy was written.
How Does Liddell Hart Fit the Literature?
The place for Strategy among the great analyses of war and peace is a hotly debated one. In many ways, Liddell Hart was merely relearning and applying the indirect approach to new technologies. In the opening pages of his book, Liddell Hart quotes Sun Tzu at length and the many ways that this ancient strategist had already advocated for the indirect approach (Liddell Hart 1967, 11 – 12). Writers ranging from Belisarius and Shakespeare to Moltke and even Clausewitz are also cited as having had glimpses of Liddell Hart’s strategic vision centuries earlier (Liddell Hart 1967, 12). In this broadest sense then, Liddell Hart was advancing a well-established position, one rooted in surprise and maneuver that aimed to achieve some larger goal that the simple destruction of an enemy’s forces.
Yet, Strategy was not just a rehashing of old ideas. Michael Howard, the well-known British military historian, has argued that Strategy is “perhaps the most original contribution to strategic thinking since Jomini and Clausewitz” (Howard 1966, 59). Howard agrees with Liddell Hart’s analysis of World War I’s failed strategies and suggests that the interwar period in which the indirect approach was first proposed was ripe for new strategic thinking (Howard 1966, 59). Ultimately, as World War II hung in the balance, it was Liddell Hart’s notions of threatening multiple of alternative objectives that helped spread German forces and set up ultimate victory (Howard 1966, 59). Howard concludes that the legacy of Liddell Hart is that of the “man who, more than any other in this century, has shown us how to think clearly and sanely about war” (Howard 1966, 16). This is glowing praise indeed.
John Mearsheimer, meanwhile, attacks the notion that Liddell Hart really was some visionary with important new ideas for World War II or any war. The University of Chicago professor suggests that Liddell Hart’s concept of the indirect approach shifted several times; it was only in his memoirs published late in life that he attempted to show how these ideas were prescient and relevant to strategy during World War II (Mearsheimer 1988, 88 – 93). In a sense, Liddell Hart was retroactively fitting his early theories to explain history. Mearsheimer concludes that Liddell Hart’s earliest work, that which was produced during the early 1920s, used history in an analytically rigorous way to examine critically the roles of infantry and armor in warfare (Mearsheimer 1988, 220). However, by the late 1920s and certainly in the 1930s, the period of time where he was expanding on the indirect approach, Liddell Hart was so consumed with the “lessons” of World War I that he was no longer employing history as an objective guide; his ideas became less visionary than they were reactionary to a particular event in history (Mearsheimer 1988, 220 – 222). As such, their widespread adoption today should be taken quite carefully and their value not oversold.
Finally, a few comments on Liddell Hart’s understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of Clausewitz. Throughout Strategy the British strategist seems to confuse what Clausewitz actually said with how poorly people understood the Prussian. To be sure, Liddell Hart’s criticism of Clausewitz’s unclear writing style is fair, though the Clausewitz admitted himself that this problem was likely given the incomplete state of his book. What is ill founded is to blame on Clausewitz all of the faulty application of his strategy in the centuries after his death. While the juxtaposition of the theoretical, “absolute” type of war with the realities of actual war is sometimes difficult to follow, Book I of On War, which was the closest to completion at the time of its author’s death, is quite clear about the modifications to theoretical warfare in reality. If commanders reading these lines failed to appreciate their nuance, that fault is not on Clausewitz alone, and it surely does not undermine the quality of his arguments once properly understood. Informed analysis of On War offers important insights even today. Additionally, and perhaps most central, while Liddell Hart implies that Clausewitz’s definition of strategy allows for the privileging of military means over political ends, this flies in the face of Clausewitz’s own words. Repeatedly the older strategist stresses that war is “a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means” (Clausewitz 1976, 87). By necessity it means war should be in the service of politics, military leaders in the service of their governments. Later readers may have mistaken Clausewitz, but Liddell Hart’s criticism oversteps its bounds and cheapens the actual insights provided by On War to a careful reader.
The Enduring Relevance of Strategy
So why should we continue to read this book? What does Liddell Hart offer the student of strategy and diplomacy today? In short, the indirect approach matters. While scholars may argue about its influence in the past, the insights it provides are valuable grist for future debates on military strategy. While he may vilify Clausewitz too much, Liddell Hart is correct to criticize the faulty application and misunderstanding of Clausewitzian thinking. His focus on the importance of maneuver and surprise are timeless and may well be applied to new advances in technology and new strategic questions. Finally, Liddell Hart’s delineation of grand strategy and its domain are useful not just to military men and academics, but to practitioners across government who have a role to play during wartime. These are no small things, and they ought to be remembered.
Bond, Brian. Liddell Hart: A Study of his Military Thought. Rutgers University Press, 1977.
This older work offers a survey of Liddell Hart’s military writings, including, but going well beyond, Strategy. Students looking for an outside take on Liddell Hart’s military thinking may benefit from this source, especially if they are attempting a more in-depth study of the man and his ideas.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated and Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.
This is the book against which Liddell Hart rails throughout Strategy. While unfinished, it has become the starting point for most scholars aiming to understand the evolution of Western military strategy. Given its major influence on the development of strategy and enduring relevance, it is still taught in most military schools of higher education and in a wide range of civilian international affairs programs. Sometimes difficult read and often a bit convoluted, it is still a must read for any serious student of strategy. Indeed, a careful reading of On War should be a natural companion to a reading of Liddell Hart’s Strategy since the latter book is so often engaged in a close dialogue with the earlier effort.
Danchev, Alex. Alchemist of War: The Life of Basil Liddell Hart. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998.
This is generally considered the most complete biographical work on Liddell Hart. While the style of its writing makes it sometimes difficult to follow, the many original sources, including writings and letters, which it cites help provide a clear glimpse into a man who aspired to greatness within the realm of military strategy. One chapter in particular examines Liddell Hart’s indirect approach in some detail.
Danchev, A. (1999). Liddell Hart and the indirect approach. The Journal of Military History, 63(2), 313-337. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/195628948?accountid=11752
This article is essentially the portions of Danchev’s Alchemist that deal directly with Liddell Hart’s book Strategy, which makes it a useful starting point for students most interested in the strategic implications of Liddell Hart’s work, rather than his life or the body of his writings. Especially useful are the significant quotations from Strategy and other contemporaneous sources that help outline Liddell Hart’s views most clearly.
Hart, B.H. Liddell. Strategy, Second Revised Edition. New York, NY: Fredrick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967.
While not his first attempt at sharing his insights regarding the indirect approach to strategy, it is certainly Liddell Hart’s best known and most relevant. Assigned reading in many strategic studies programs, Strategy is a necessary companion to the study of Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Moltke, Fuller, and a host of other well-known thinkers on military affairs. While not a perfect book or perfect conceptualization of military strategy, its clearly written style offers an easy entry point into larger debates on the use of military force.
Hart, Basil Henry Liddell. The Memoirs of Captain Liddell Hart. Vol. 1 & Vol. 2. GP, 1965.
This two volume set of memoirs comes from the hand of Liddell Hart himself. Published just five years before his death, they attempt to put into context his great mass of writings on military and strategic thought. Though some historical claims in them have been called into question, they offer a window into how Liddell Hart viewed his own life and the works he produced.
Howard, Michael. “The Liddell Hart Memoirs.” Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 111, no. 641 (1966): 58 – 61.
Famed military historian Michael Howard reviews Liddell Hart’s memoirs in his brief journal article. He helps to put the work of Liddell Hart into wider perspective among that of other military strategists and offers a glowing review of the indirect approach.
Mearsheimer, John J. Liddell Hart and the Weight of History. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Mearsheimer challenges the notion that Liddell Hart’s insights into military strategy and its application during World War II were either prescient or correct. This book challenges a good deal of the conventional wisdom surrounding Liddell Hart and is an important counterpoint to many of his champions.
Reid, Brian Holden. “Hart, Sir Basil Henry Liddell (1895–1970),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33737, accessed 10 Jan 2016]
Reid’s excellent entry into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography offers a quick and easily digestible account of Liddell Hart’s life and major works. While it does not address Strategy directly, it does make an effort to put the indirect approach into context and offers a pithy account of Liddell Hart’s rise, fall, and resurrection within the public eye, military establishment, and academy. Students should use this as a first reading for background of the experiences of Liddell Hart.