Rated 5 out of 5 by RoyT Excellent Eye-Opener!
This is an eye-opening course in a new area of study for me. Professor Wilson has succeeded in his mission to ensure that I “…will never again be able to watch the nightly news or read the daily paper without thinking about Thucydides, or Machiavelli, or Mao” (Course Guidebook, Page 3). The course merits a wider viewership than the usual military buffs and specialists, as it contributes to making one a much more well-informed citizen on a matter of critical importance. Professor Wilson is an excellent guide: his lectures are well-crafted and delivered in a clear and easily understandable manner, and are supplemented by a great number of useful visuals.
I particularly enjoyed seeing otherwise familiar figures in a new light, specifically Thucydides (building on Kenneth Harl’s excellent TC course, the Peloponnesian War) and Machiavelli. It was also good to finally go beyond name recognition for such other ‘masters of war’ as Sun Tzu, Jomini, Clausewitz, Mahan, and Corbett, with Professor Wilson expertly explaining the thought and impact of each on strategic thinking about war. As well as detailing the expected political and military background (including pertinent tactical and operational details), he provides just right amount of historical details and social, technological, economic, and cultural context to enhance one’s understanding. This really made the course more interesting and compelling for me.
Professor Wilson makes the case that strategic thinking must be grounded in the complexities of context, that “Strategic analysis involves objectively weighing the risks and rewards of different courses of action—thinking through the chains of cause and effect in each action before making a move. The best way to develop skills in strategic analysis is to study the classics of strategic theory and test their utility across a range of historical cases” (Page 4). He does this in an admirable fashion, not only in top-notch explanations and justifications for the enduring influence of the ‘masters’ (for instance, Al Qaeda finds useful material in the 4th century B.C. Sun Tzu and the early 19th century Carl von Clausewitz, as well as Mao Tse-tung), but also in testing each of these ‘masters’ in historical case studies. In doing so, Professor Wilson demonstrates their strengths and limitations, and in the process provides excellent treatments of incredibly numerous wars and other conflicts, right up to the present day challenges posed by the possibility of nuclear war and, increasingly, the actuality of terror.
Clausewitz, as Professor Wilson reveals in a “confession” at the end of lecture 10, provides the framework for the course, being “the masters’ master”. Most notable are the now familiar injunctions in his ‘On War’ (1832), that war is “…a continuation of political competition between states by military means” (Course Guidebook, page 70) requiring military subordination to political leadership. According to Professor Wilson, ‘On War’ is, in effect, “…the first and fullest exposition of strategic theory.” He even goes so far as to use Clausewitz’s framework/principles in analyzing earlier masters of strategic thinking. This perspective, combined with Professor Wilson’s richly detailed context for so many really interesting historical cases, makes this one of the outstanding TC courses for me.
I am looking forward to a second viewing and dipping in here and there as a refresher on specific themes and wars/conflicts.
February 3, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by veetee What are the Assumptions Not How to Think
I found this course quite boring. It goes through the basic assumptions of various strategic thinkers, but what's missing is an good analysis of the assumptions, practical application, and how to think strategically. If you want that then I'd recommend the Course on Strategic Thinking.
Going through assumptions behind strategic thinking without giving examples of how its been applied and what happened when it was is rather meaningless. I was very disappointed.
October 6, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Ark1836 A Great Strategic Move
I really did not know what to expect with this class. I assumed, wrongly, that it would be a discussion about specific battles, generals, and wars. Instead, this class focused on the intellectual development of strategic thought over several thousand years by studying various masters who wrote books on military strategy. The professor discussed the historic context of each master, the key contributions or theories made by each, and how the master's works influenced leaders in various circumstances in world history. The highlight of the course was the discussion about theories on the use of terrorism and counter-terrorism strategies. This class provided very valuable insight into the challenges and issues facing the current War on Terror. It helped me better understand the current political context surrounding this issue, and I feel more informed as a result of taking this course. The professor was engaging and provided unique insights. I would enjoy seeing more classes by this professor.
July 11, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by leopardgibbon Rare opportunity to study the subject of strategy
This course provides everyone the opportunity to study strategic thought at the same level offered to military officers at the American military war colleges and a very few civilian academic programs (which Professor Wilson lists in his last lecture). For most Great Course subject areas, there are many alternative avenues for learning. Not so here. This is a rare opportunity to delve deeply in a field that is absolutely central to today's world but for which there are very few opportunities for study. I am delighted that I found this course.
Professor Wilson is a Clausewitzian. He considers Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) to be the strategist of strategists. Clausewitz contended that war was an extension of politics. Politics and war, he said, have the same logic but different grammars. The basis of his analysis is the "paradoxical trinity" of passion, genius, and logic. By passion, he meant the primal hatreds of mankind. By genius, he meant the art of the great generals in exercising their creative faculties in the midst of the chance, fog, and friction of armed conflict. By reason, he meant the strategic policies exercised by political leaders. Clausewitz abstracted the concept "absolute war", by which he meant a war without limits, an effort to annihilate the opponent utterly. Such a state of absolute war could never, Clausewitz believed, be reached in practice, because of the constraints of politics and circumstance. In this, I believe, he was proved wrong in the mid-20th century by the horrific actions of Nazi Germany and the new threat of mutual nuclear annihilation following World War II.
Professor Wilson uses a Clausewitzian touchstone to analyze the writings of the other great military strategists throughout history. In successive lectures, he discourses on Thucydides' history of the Pelopennesian War; Sun Tzu and his Art of War; Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy; Jomini, the other leading strategist besides Clausewitz of the Napoleonic era; the 19th century theorists of naval power Mahan and Corbett; the air power theorists Douhet, Trenchard, Mitchell, and Warden; Mao and his concepts of revolutionary insurgency; the French theorists of counter-insurgency Galula and Trinquier; the nuclear theorists Brodie, Schelling, and Sokolovsky; and new theories of terrorism and counter-terrorism based on Fuller's view of "multiple theaters" of terrorist action. Throughout, Professor Wilson matches the theories of these strategic thinkers against historical examples.
My one criticism of the course is that Professor Wilson does not elevate Sun Tzu to the same level of master strategist as Clausewitz. In contrast to Clausewitz, who viewed violent conflict as an inescapable party of history because of humanity's primal passions, Sun Tzu stated that the greatest victory is a victory achieved without battle. Although he is the oldest of the systematic strategists considered in this course, Sun Tzu may be the most important to consider today, as the infinite destructive capacity of today's weapons makes the avoidance of war a goal of the highest priority for our very survival. Modern nuclear theorists, whose bone chilling theories Professor Wilson examines in ghastly detail, may have pushed Clausewitz beyond his limits. It may well be time to turn to Sun Tzu's more harmonious outlook, which does not deny conflict but seeks to channel it away from violence through, paradoxically, a mastery of the tools of war itself (very much as mastery of a martial art can enable one to avoid fighting on a personal level).
Even though this is fairly a recent Great Course (dating from 2012), I feel it already badly needs to be updated to consider the threat from ISIS, which because of its seizure of territory, is not a pure terrorist threat such as Al Qaeda and requires a somewhat different strategic analysis.
Overall, this is a superb, and indeed an indispensable course to understand today's world.
January 30, 2016