Strategy is a field riven with selection bias. Academic audiences are more interested in cases of great strategists/strategies rather than those that failed absymally. Thankfully Infinity Journal is seeking to remedy this problem with a special edition on Strategic Misfortunes. Why is this useful? As A.E. Stahl points out in the introduction, we can learn to avoid strategic misfortunes by studying their bloody history. But studying them is also instrumentally useful for devoloping a better appreciation of strategy. Only by looking at both failures and triumphs in strategy holistically will we get a better understanding of it.
I have an article on the Chinese Civil War in the edition, but there are many useful and interesting pieces by authorities such as Antulio Echevarria, Colin S. Gray, and Gian P. Gentile. Gray’s piece on the Battle of Britain is particularly intriguing to me, as Gray successfully argues that, while German strategic failures were legion the sheer scale of their defeat can only be explained by the strategic acumen of British defense planners and tactical skills of the Royal Air Force.
While such a judgment may seem obvious, or even banal, it speaks to the complexity of analyzing failure. When we write about military campaigns and why they succeeded or failed, what explanations do we privilege? There were many, many problems with the Luftwaffe such as poor intelligence and planning, tactical rigidity, and means-end mismatch in strategic aims. But if one is looking for critical factors that a battle hinges around there is no way to improve on Gray’s assessment:
There were systemic reasons why the Luftwaffe of 1940 performed as it did in the way it did. Dowding was certainly fortunate in his enemy’s incompetence, but that is not to argue that he succeeded because he was lucky. It was true that he was the fortunate command legatee of two decades of high British competence in air defence. It is also true to say, however, that Dowding personally contributed very significantly to the future strength of that air defence by virtue of his enthusiastic endorsement of vital technical developments both before and after he assumed command in July 1936. Of course, the successful defensive performance in 1940 was won by a team of outstanding contributors to Fighter Command’s combat potency, but the overarching and most persuasive explanation for the victory was that the Command benefited from superior strategic leadership for long enough to give it decisive advantages over the Luftwaffe..