Masters of War: History's Greatest Strategic Thinkers

Course No. 9422
Professor Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D.
U.S. Naval War College
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Course No. 9422
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  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version features hundreds of visual elements to enhance your learning experience, including period photos, quotes, and maps, particularly in Lecture 20, where the professor showcases how insurgency is more dependent on winning support of population centers than a territory. On-screen definitions and bulleted information also help to reinforce material for visual learners.
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What Will You Learn?

  • Take a look at what makes Thucydides history's first great strategist.
  • Explore the historical context for Sun Tzu's The Art of War and see how it's been used through the centuries.
  • Study the revolution of naval warfare between Napoleon's era and the advent of World War I.
  • Tackle the challenge of nuclear strategy - where preventing a war depends on having the weapons to fight in one.

Course Overview

What can Thucydides teach us about the war in Iraq in 2003? What is the key to adaptation during an ongoing conflict? How do you balance the tension between political and military objectives? Why are insurgency and terrorism such powerful military tactics, and how do you combat them?

As these questions show, military strategy matters. Civilizations with the greatest strategists—often coupled with the greatest resources—have had a powerful edge over competing civilizations. From Napoleon’s revolutionary campaigns to the way insurgency, terrorism, and nuclear weaponry have defined the nature of warfare in the 21st century, the results of military strategy have changed the course of history.

Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers gives you an inside look at both the content and historical context of the world’s greatest war strategists. Taught by Professor Andrew R. Wilson, who serves on the faculty of the elite U.S. Naval War College, these 24 lectures will change the way you read newspaper headlines by instilling in you a new appreciation for the subtleties and complexities of strategy—and how nations and military leaders have adapted to the dynamic realm of fog, friction, and chance.

  • See how George Washington adapted his strategy after losing New York during the American Revolution.
  • Learn why FDR went against the advice of Chief of Staff George Marshall and embarked on a campaign in north Africa in the summer of 1942.
  • Trace the United States’ Pacific strategy, from War Plan Dog to Guadalcanal to the island-hopping campaign.
  • Apply Clausewitz’s “culminating point of victory” to the Persian Gulf War.
  • Consider the strategy behind recent U. N. airstrikes in Libya.

The great masters of war have been writing about strategy for thousands of years, and understanding their works can help a nation achieve military and political success. You’ll come away from this course with new insight that will allow you to take an informed, active interest in political and military debates—which ultimately will determine the course of our nation.

Explore Strategy from Ancient Greece to the 21st Century

Warfare has changed, yet the classics of strategic thought endure. From the triremes and hoplites of ancient Greece to the Special Forces in 21st-century Afghanistan, strategy is the process by which political objectives are translated into military action—using the means at a nation’s disposal to compel an enemy to bend to its political will.

The best way to hone your strategic analysis is to study the classics of strategic theory and to test these theories across a range of historical and contemporary cases. Masters of War offers a concise and rigorous survey of history’s greatest students of war, placing each theorist within his unique historical and strategic context:

  • Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War
  • Sun Tzu’s famous The Art of War
  • Machiavelli’s strategy for a republic with a citizen-army
  • Jomini, Clausewitz, and the Napoleonic revolution in warfare
  • The development of naval strategy and the rise of airpower
  • Mao Tse-tung, David Galula, and Roger Trinquier’s reflections on insurgency and counterinsurgency—and their influence on the U. S. Army’s Field Manual 3-24
  • Just-war theory, from Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue to Operation Iraqi Freedom
  • Nuclear war, terrorism, and other strategic challenges for the 21st century

Throughout Masters of War: History’s Greatest Strategic Thinkers, you’ll explore the social and moral dimensions of war and statesmanship; you’ll probe unresolved questions about limited nuclear war, the possibility of a just war, and the efficacy of our counterterrorist tactics; and you’ll come away with the confidence to participate in strategic debates—not only about present conflicts, but those in the future.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Why Strategy Matters
    If war is a gamble, then strategy—the process by which political purpose is translated into military action—is key to success. This course opens with a survey of why strategy is important, and it looks at World War II’s “Operation Torch” as a case study for how the military should be used as an instrument of policy. x
  • 2
    Thucydides on Strategy
    Take a systematic look at what makes Thucydides perhaps history’s first great strategist. In his analysis of the Peloponnesian War, he examines the political origins of the war, the Spartan and Athenian leadership, and the social and moral implications of war—all in an effort to prevent future generations from repeating Athens’ mistakes. x
  • 3
    Thucydides as a Possession for All Time
    Join the lively debate over the efficacy of the Sicilian Expedition—was it good for the Athenians to engage in a preventive war far from home? Then turn to the Melian Dialogue and the debate between realists and neoconservatives over the conduct of war, and consider how this debate still plays out in contemporary America. x
  • 4
    Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
    War. Business school. Professional sports. Sun Tzu’s writing is wildly popular in today’s world. This lecture lays out the historical context for “Master Sun’s Military Methods” and provides an overview of Sun Tzu’s strategy for war: (1) Be efficient, (2) avoid protracted wars, and (3) value the commander’s intellect and skill. x
  • 5
    Sun Tzu through Time
    After charting Sun Tzu’s historical importance throughout Chinese history, in feudal and modern Japan, and in the modern West, Dr. Wilson demonstrates Sun Tzu’s strategy of deception in action by taking you inside Operation Fortitude, a critical component of the Allied invasion of Normandy. x
  • 6
    Machiavelli’s The Art of War
    Learn about Machiavelli, the Italian Renaissance man who, in addition to his famous political treatise, The Prince, wrote his own The Art of War, in which he advocated a citizen-army modeled on that of the Roman Republic. This lecture takes you through Machiavelli’s book of tactics, his recommendation for Florentine military rulers. x
  • 7
    Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy
    If Machiavelli’s The Art of War is a book of tactics, his Discourses on Livy is a book of strategy. Discover Machiavelli’s philosophy of circumstances, fortuna, and his recipe for military action, virtu. See what strategies he thinks a republican military should adopt—and what qualities to look for in a good commander. x
  • 8
    The Napoleonic Revolution in War
    Experience the battles of Jena and Auerstedt during the Napoleonic Wars. These two decisive victories fought on the same day against the Prussians demonstrate the radical transformation of warfare and gave rise to two important masters of war: Antoine-Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz. x
  • 9
    Baron Jomini as a Strategist
    Delve into the life of Baron Antoine Henri Jomini, whose widely read strategic works defined Napoleonic warfare—using a concentrated force to win decisive victories—and whose tactics and operations are still used in today’s modern military. You’ll also weigh the validity of key criticisms of Jominian strategy. x
  • 10
    Clausewitz’s On War
    This lecture introduces you to Carl von Clausewitz, who might be the most influential modern master of war. His key ideas—the paradoxical trinity, assessing the international context, striking the enemy’s center of gravity, and the principle of continuity—make Clausewitz the “master’s master” and provide the basis for modern military strategy. x
  • 11
    Jomini and Clausewitz through the Ages
    Compare two modern masters: Jomini, whose ideas are best suited for the tactics and operations level, and Clausewitz, whose philosophy explains why you can win all the battles and still lose the war. Then dive into the question of how much and what kind of political oversight is needed in war. x
  • 12
    From Sail to Steam—The Sea-Power Revolution
    Study the revolution of naval warfare that took place between Napoleon’s era and the beginning of World War I. The Industrial Revolution, the growth of global markets, the demand for raw materials, and the transition from sail to steam transformed navies and set the stage for 20th-century warfare. x
  • 13
    Alfred Thayer Mahan
    Meet the first of this course’s naval masters of war. Impressed by the audacity of Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, Mahan’s grand naval strategy was that a concentrated fleet and a global network of naval bases were the keys to naval dominance, which, in turn, would lead to economic prosperity. x
  • 14
    Sir Julian Corbett
    Building on lessons from Clausewitz and Mahan, Sir Julian Corbett offered a complete strategy that integrated land and sea operations. You’ll study his text, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, and see how his principles played out in Wellington’s Iberian campaign and in the Russo-Japanese War. x
  • 15
    Mahan, Corbett, and the Pacific War
    Why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor? Discover Japan’s reasoning and why it failed, and you’ll see how the United States applied Mahan’s and Corbett’s strategies to defeat Japan, from Plan Dog to Midway to Guadalcanal to the end game in 1945. x
  • 16
    Air Power in Theory and Practice
    The 20th century saw the rise of air power and the creation of independent air forces in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Here you’ll explore the history of air strategy, from General Giulio Douhet’s theory of air power as the ultimate strategic weapon to the American “bomber mafia,” and you’ll see how these theories held up in action during World War II. x
  • 17
    From Rolling Thunder to Instant Thunder
    During the Vietnam War, the failure of coercive persuasion in Operation Rolling Thunder raised questions about air power theory, but the development of improved targeting, better technology, and stealth aircraft allowed for successful air strikes during the Gulf War’s Operation Instant Thunder. You’ll also examine the strategic impact of bombing campaigns in Yugoslavia and most recently in Libya. x
  • 18
    Nuclear Strategy
    Tackle the challenge of nuclear strategy where, paradoxically, preventing war depends on having massive capabilities for fighting a war. Professor Wilson explains the nuances of deterrence, retaliation, mutual assured destruction, arms limitation, and more. You’ll meet three nuclear strategists who have influenced nuclear policy in the nuclear era. x
  • 19
    Mao Tse-tung in Theory and Practice
    Turn now to China and Mao’s three phases of revolutionary war. The key to an insurgent uprising is to buy time with a strategic defense, to build legitimacy and cultivate friends abroad during a strategic stalemate, and to take over in a strategic counteroffensive. You’ll see this theory in action as Mao’s revolutionaries rose up against Chiang Kai-shek. x
  • 20
    Classics of Counterinsurgency
    How do you fight a revolutionary uprising? The French theorists David Galula and Roger Trinquier offered strategic theories based on the anti-French insurgency in Algeria. This lecture shows how these theories from the 1960s apply in 21st-century Iraq and Afghanistan. x
  • 21
    Just-War Theory
    Is war ever morally justified? Consider the three categories of just-war doctrine—jus ad bellum (the just recourse to war), jus in bello (the just conduct of war), and just post bellum (the just conclusion to war)—and apply them to Operation Iraqi Freedom. x
  • 22
    Terrorism as Strategy
    As frightening as it is, terrorism may be the most strategic form of war. In the post–9/11 era, scholars have devised ways to objectively discuss terrorism as a strategy. Here, Professor Wilson explains the five audiences of terrorist action and presents Michael Collins and the war for Irish independence as a case study. x
  • 23
    Strategies of Counterterrorism
    Reflect on the challenges of a counterterrorism strategy and the spectrum of responses, from simply ignoring terrorists to taking full-blown military action against them. x
  • 24
    From the Jaws of Defeat—Strategic Adaptation
    Conclude with a look at how General Washington adapted his strategy after the Battle of New York. Take one last look at the relationship between civilians and the military and how that nexus can create the optimal strategy. x

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  • 24 lectures on 12 CDs
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 208-page printed course guidebook
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  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Andrew R. Wilson

About Your Professor

Andrew R. Wilson, Ph.D.
U.S. Naval War College
Dr. Andrew R. Wilson is Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College in Newport, RI. He received a B.A. in East Asian Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and earned his Ph.D. in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University. An award-winning professor and an expert in both military history and strategic theory, Professor Wilson has lectured on Asian military history,...
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Reviews

Masters of War: History's Greatest Strategic Thinkers is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 90.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Challenging and Informative This is the second course by Andrew Wilson I have purchased, which indicates that I like him as a teacher. He is obviously an expert on his subject, clear, and interesting. This course covers a vast amount of material since it discusses strategies and tactics of warfare over more than two millennia. I imagine that students doing this study over a full semester would have a mountain of outside reading to do, as well as more time to digest the material. It's a little overwhelming, but I enjoyed it. The subject of war itself leaves me with mixed feelings. On the intellectual side, it is a quite stimulating and interesting workout. There is an enjoyment to learning about military strategy, just as there could be studying strategies of chess or football. But then, there is the human side. How many millions of human lives have been lost in the history of wars? Some, to be sure, were necessary and noble causes, such as defeating Nazi Germany. How many wars, on the other hand, were waged pursuing ambiguous or ignoble causes? Millions of lives cut short. Contemplating that seriously tempers the enjoyment of learning these things. In the end, we live in an imperfect world. Human evil exists and must be opposed. While I would not choose such a life course, I am deeply grateful for those who do in the cause of liberty and justice. As John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: “I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography and natural history ... in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, and music... " This is an excellent course if the subject interests you.
Date published: 2018-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent course on strategic thinking! This was a most interesting and engaging course! It's relevance to the world we live in today cannot be over stated. Professor Wilson does an excellent job of relating past strategic thinkers to today's world and is not hesitant to share his own views for us to ponder. All in all, an excellent and very timely course worth viewing more than once!!!!!
Date published: 2018-09-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Course on Military Strategy I Have Taken I am a retired Army colonel with 30 years of service and a continuing student of military strategy. During my career and since retirement I have taken many courses on military strategy along with my own independent studies. This course is the very best course that I have taken. I recommend it military and civilian audiences alike. Professor Wilson is knowledgeable, engaging, and an excellent speaker. The course was pure joy from start to finish.
Date published: 2018-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Why study Strategy? It seems obvious that things military are not to everyone's taste. So, how can a course on the history of strategic theory and strategic thinkers be of general interest? Why should a civilian spend time studying strategic thinking when other, more humane and cultured subjects are available from the Great Courses? This course, I believe, will convince you of the vital importance of knowing something about the principles of strategy (“the process by which political purpose is translated into military action”) and the thinkers who have been important in the development of strategic theory. Prof. Wilson is a superb lecturer who has put together a very fine course on this highly important subject. To me (a civilian), his most important points are 1) the importance of a robust and continuous civilian-military dialog on strategy and 2) the need for critical thinking about strategy. Prof. Wilson’s own words best summarize why this course is worth taking: “As citizens, understanding classic strategic thought gives us the confidence to become informed and insightful participants in future debates over policy and strategy. The ultimate benefit of studying strategic theory lies not in providing pat answers to the questions pondered by politicians, soldiers, and citizens but, rather, in equipping us all with habits of critical thought that allow us to turn a clear eye on the infinite complexity of our current and future struggles”. I heartily agree.

Date published: 2018-04-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Masters of War This is a superb introduction to the subject, delving into dimensions one might not typically expect yet shed much light on modern issues such as dealing with urban terrorism in addition to the expected. I've gone through the course twice now and expect to do so again.
Date published: 2018-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Magnificent Confusion! I'm fond of quoting a statement of Michael Crichton, "I'm certain there is too much certainty in the world." If you are as fascinated as I am by the topic of decision making under conditions of uncertainty, this is the course for you. You will learn the perspective of the great thinkers of war, and when their ideas succeeded and when they failed. You will also learn that the fog of war robs us of certainty about how our decisions will play out in the real world. If you want to rid yourself of your unjustified certainties, watch this course. It is a path to better thinking. Further, if you find yourself in a discussion on these or related matters, you'll be able to pull the foolishly certain into the deep water. It is said of Socrates that he was the wisest of men because he knew that he knew nothing. This course a step along his path.
Date published: 2018-01-19
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Rigorous but rewarding course I have over 70 Great Courses; this is one of the best. Dr. Wilson is a polished speaker; the course topics are well structured. The course is rigorous and challenging but well presented. His discussions of classical and recent strategic theorists were equally enlightening. It would be nice if Great Courses could video one or two case analyses at the Naval War College to see the application of course material to current strategic issues. My initial reaction to course was that it would be dry and narrow in focus; the opposite was true. A really Great Course.
Date published: 2017-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Accurate This is an excellent overview of how strategic thought should be developed. I provides an effective framework without demanding adherance to a set of "rules" or principles.
Date published: 2017-09-13
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