An innovative look at strategy and its making

Strategy entails making efficient use of available resources – which are generally never enough – in a general plan of action to achieve a goal, usually over a period of time. It may seem a simple enough task – and many unqualified people – may term themselves expert practitioners – but it is certainly not so and they are deluded…. as the following paragraphs will show. On the other hand, there are some issues which are so SNAFU…even FUBAR (sorry, can’t expand these acronyms) that even the best strategists cannot untangle them as this story will show you and then there is one man who… but better you read it yourself….

~~~~One of the signs that distinguishes a good general, so good generals, bad generals and military historians let it be known, is preparedness to refuse to do things that other influential people think would be a good thing to do. The good general, pressed for political, or propaganda, or in some cases purely idiotic, reasons to take a course of action that he knows to be military unsound, digs his heels in and points forcibly to the disadvantages of such a course of action.

Thus, during the Second World War,  Gen Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, spent much of his time – usually in the middle of the night when he wanted to go to bed and Mr. Winston Churchill didn’t – in the production and development of persuasive arguments about the unwisdom of pursuing such schemes of Mr Churchill’s as the establishment of an unsupported beach-head beyond the range of fighter cover in Norway, or tying up and probably losing most of the commandos in the purposeless capture of the island of Pantalleria or doing something aggressively spectacular but fundamentally useless in the north of Sumatra. (These and a great many other aberrations beside, Gen Brooke had an enormous admiration for Mr Churchill as a war leader.)

In the simpler days of Victorian soldiering, the reasons that were put forward for doing or not doing things were of a less complex politico-strategic nature than the ones that Brooke had to dream up in the small hours of the morning at No.10 Downing Street or at Chequers.

A case in point arose during a panning conference chaired by General Sir Garnet Wolseley in 1884 to discuss arrangements for the relief of General Charles Gordon, at that time besieged in Khartoum by Dervishes under the command of the Mahdi.

It was believed by some, not least among them Mr Gladstone the Liberal Prime Minister, that Gordon’s incarceration at Khartoum was a product of his own high-minded obstinacy.

Gordon was a remarkable sapper of deep religious faith, an unfashionable tendency to pass his spare time in the performance of good works among the poor and the sick, and, for a Victorian, an almost subversive indifference to money, which he mainly either gave away when he had it, or refused to accept when it was offered to him. He was an outstandingly able soldier with a particular flair for getting the best out of those who in his time were comprehensively known as ‘natives’.

He had been famously successful as the commander of the Chinese Ever Victorious Army during the Taiping Rebellion against the Imperial Chinese government, and caused distress and amazement to the Chinese court by resigning when one of their acts met with his moral disapproval. He upset them further by sending back the handsome financial present with which they wanted to reward him for his services. He had governed the Equatorial Province of Central Africa. He had been sent to the Sudan to superintend the evacuation of the Egyptian administration and garrison, neither of which was humane, efficient or a match for the Mahdi and his Fuzzie-Wuzzies. Gordon had got some out, but refused to obey an order to abandon the ones he couldn’t get out and to get out by himself.

The unhappy Egyptian warriors, not celebrated for their martial ardour, congregated around General Gordon in Khartoum. He inspired them to fight for their lives, and with a compound of ingenuity, leadership, and zeal had by the time of Wolseley’s planning conference already survived a siege of five months.*

The delay of even starting to think about  how to rescue Gordon was of almost political provenance….. (To be continued)

*All told, he was to hold out for nine months. Gordon was killed, and the defences of Khartoum overrun, six days before Wolseley’s relief column arrived within range of the city.

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