Study to Win: The Economic Pre-History of Three Prominent Strategists

As the saying goes, “You don’t buy insurance when you need it.”  The same can be said for education.  One never knows when a particular bit of information, a theory, or an experience will prove important later.  For some of history’s greatest strategists, the economic education and experience gained in their formative years made a significant difference in their later performance.  Sometimes this education was formal, as in the case of Edward Luttwak, the prominent writer and consultant to the U.S. military who also studied at the London School of Economics.  Sometimes it resembles kismet, as in the case of military strategist Antoine-Henri Jomini’s earlier participation in the Congress of Vienna, in which the power balance of the European continent was established along geographic, military, political, and economic axes.  Today we will investigate the formal and informal economic preparation of three prominent strategic thinkers: Winston Churchill, Julian Corbett, and Fabius Maximus.


Perhaps the most famous name on this list, Churchill seemingly fit a dozen fascinating lives into just one: Prime Minister of Britain, prominent writer, co-architect of victory in WWII, painter, soldier, Minister of Defense…the list goes on.  It comes as little surprise that he had several notable brushes with economic education (and practice) during his remarkable life.  Although we could look to his service in Parliament and time spent poring over budgets, taxation, and defense spending as a means of explaining his later strategic genius, we will instead start earlier, beginning with his structured self-education as a young officer in India.

Churchill’s success as a strategist is belied by his observation that, “I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like to be taught.”  Fortunately for Churchill, he found in himself a brilliant teacher.  While in Bangalore, he devoured such works such as Plato’s Republic and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a tome about which biographer Jonathan Rose writes, “[Churchill] found the huge book a useful guide to how not to run an empire.”  (Emphasis mine).  Rose notes that Churchill was forever influenced by one particular lesson in the book, that one must preserve peace through constant preparation for war.


Additional self-education in the work of economic theorists such as Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Frederic Bastiat spurred Churchill to think and write about economic issues, developing as Rose asserts, a deep aversion to monopoly capitalism and a belief in antitrust measures as a means of preserving individual freedom against “formidable combinations of capital.”  His interest and education in economics didn’t end in India, however, reaching their pre-war zenith during his tenure from 1924-29 as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British equivalent of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.  In this role, Churchill had ample opportunity to see economic theory meet practice, despite his observation re economics that he was, “quite uneducated on the subject, but had to argue about it all my life”.  For a novice, he certainly acquitted himself quite well amid the deep uncertainty of WWII, in which he famously argued against the early invasion of the European mainland, fearing insufficient resources existed in 1942 to achieve a lasting victory, or when he had the foresight to prepare for a postwar re-integration of servicemembers into the British economy…two years before the Allied victory!


Unlike Churchill, Julian Corbett’s contributions as a strategist remain rooted in the world of theory.  A fellow Brit, Corbett followed a highly improbable path to immortality as a strategic thinker.  For one, he never served a day in the British navy, living out life as an attorney until 1896 when fate intervened in the form of a request from historian John Knox Laughton to edit some documents dealing with the Royal Navy’s combat performance in the 16th century Spanish War.  It was at that point that Corbett found his calling, soon transitioning into influential treatises on naval strategy and lectures at the British Royal Naval College in Greenwich.  One overlooked aspect of the time between his transition from legal also-ran to prominent naval strategist was his time as a staff writer of the Pall Mall Gazette, a daily London newspaper of the time.

It was during this time that Corbett was dispatched to cover the Dongola Expedition occurring in Sudan.  Interestingly, his travel companion for the journey was Sherlock Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.  Corbett and Doyle witnessed a conflict heavily influenced by economic circumstances, as the British Empire sought to assert its dominion over Sudan, largely via its influence in the Egyptian government.  The conflict persisted over a considerable period, with the victorious British and their Egyptian proxies establishing an “Anglo-Egyptian Sudan” in 1899.  The prize for the British?  A straight north-south line of economic influence running from the Suez Canal, along the Nile in Egypt, and onward through Sudan where the Blue and White Nile converge.


In retrospect, then, it is no wonder that Corbett’s subsequent writing about naval strategy included a heavy emphasis on the linkage between commerce on water and operations on land.  Corbett, perhaps more directly than his American counterpart Alfred T. Mahan, argued the need for maritime and land based forces to work in a mutually supporting manner, recognizing that blockades and other maritime tactics only succeeded as a part of a broader campaign.  Fourth Generation Warfare theorist William Lind argues that the modern U.S. Navy would do well to heed Corbett’s advice, though in his opinion the Navy still prefers the Mahanian model of large ships projecting power globally, with grey-hulled titans perpetually preparing for decisive battle.  Lind frames the dichotomy thusly, “Were the U.S. Navy really to turn to Corbett, it would build lots of ships designed for operations in coastal waters and on rivers, often with troops on board. But such ships are small ships, and the U.S. Navy hates small ships.”  Would Corbett, having personally witnessed an empire struggle to secure the flow of commerce in far off lands, endorse this tendency?  We can only speculate…


The birth of economic theory is often traced to Adam Smith’s highly influential treatise of 1776, The Wealth of Nations.  This of course does not mean that economic behavior was absent before its publication, merely that the tools to describe and analyze such behavior were not yet fully defined.  Fabius Maxiumus, one of history’s great captains, might have missed the birth of economics by almost 2000 years, but his understanding of its principles was excellent.  The most evident in his campaign against Hannibal Barca was his mastery of the most basic concept of them all: supply and demand.

The Fabian Strategy as we know it today is often referred to as “war of attrition”, or the gradual exhaustion of the enemy’s will or ability to fight.  This contrasts with a direct approach wherein adversaries’ relative strength is tested in the form of decisive battle.  During the Second Punic War, Fabius understood that his army was no direct match for Hannibal’s, therefore he fashioned himself into a pest, opportunistically preying on Hannibal’s extended supply lines and setting fire to crops as ways of sapping his opponent’s ability to fight.  It was a brilliant approach.  In addition to the materiel weakness it inflicted, Hannibal’s seemingly unstoppable army was left unable to exert its prowess in pitched combat, most notably as it attempted to draw Fabius into battle in the seemingly Roman-favorable terrain of Apulia (the Puglia region of modern Italy).  Fabius’ strategic patience was rewarded for a lengthy period before he succumbed to tactical temptation at Cannae, lured into the very sort of decisive fight he had long avoided.

So did Fabius fumble his way into his famous stratagem out of necessity?  Has history conferred too much credit on a cowardly commander, as his critics argued?  Probably not.  First, it is worth noting that Fabius was a well seasoned hand when he was named dictator of the Roman Republic (a kind of emergency position imbued with strong, central control).  As such, Fabius had served in several governmental positions before developing his eponymous strategy.  Most notable of these was his tenure as Roman Censor.

As the name implies, Censors were responsible for conducting a popular census, but also with numerous financial responsibilities.  These included the collection of taxes, the sale of real property owned by the Republic, and the development and oversight of new construction projects.  In all, a tremendously complex undertaking for a vast empire, and one constantly concerned with sustainment: of finances, of material resources, of economic prestige, and of military might.  Is it any wonder then that when in command Fabius conducted a quick calculation of his and Hannibal’s relative combat power and elected to match Roman strengths with Carthaginian weaknesses?  His service as Censor certainly granted him an uncommon foresight and ability to “budget” his combat power across time.  As Sun Tzu observed, “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought.”  Fabius had been calculating far longer than most.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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