BOOK REVIEW – From Sun Tzu to Hyperwar a Strategic Encyclopaedia

Lars Wedin, From Sun Tzu to Hyperwar a Strategic Encyclopaedia. Stockholm: The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences 2019. 319 pp.

Review by Chuck Steele, PhD
International Journal of Naval History

Lars Wedin, an accomplished author on strategic studies and retired surface warfare officer of the Royal Swedish Navy, has composed a noteworthy encyclopedia of military thought and strategy that, in some regards, might also be considered a series of personal meditations on those subjects. Citing heightening tensions between great powers and other sources of global insecurities, Wedin seeks to address a growing need for better understanding the evolution and components of strategic thought. In this endeavor, he sets his objectives as defining key terms, while placing them in proper contexts, and facilitating “structured discussions and analysis.” (3) Quite often, the author achieves his objectives, yet, there are instances when the work is abstruse, and his tasks go unattained.    

Among its strengths, is that the book is sensibly structured and easy to use. The author has divided his focus into three distinct parts. The first portion of Wedin’s work is a very brief discussion of the evolution of Western military thought from antiquity to the modern era. The second and strongest section of the book is a succession of topical discussions, starting with command and control and ending with Swedish strategy in the Cold War. These topical considerations are the entries that are most in keeping with the expectations of an encyclopedia and the author’s intent to provide structured discussions of important subjects. The book culminates with a series of short biographies highlighting the achievements of some of history’s better-known strategic thinkers. Interestingly, the subjects in this last section are drawn exclusively from the ranks of land warfare and sea warfare theorists, as no space is given to the likes of air power proponents Guilo Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell, although they are mentioned in other places.

The greatest strength of this book is that it gives readers from English speaking countries, with long histories of close cooperation and shared views on military and naval affairs, the opportunity to see how the evolution of military thought and strategy is viewed by someone outside the usual channels. Specifically, the author brings the unique outlook of a career naval professional from neutral Sweden to bear on summarizing the salient points in the development of strategic thought. Considering Sweden’s long-standing ability to protect its neutrality in a region teeming with historic and potential threats, it is not a perspective that should be casually dismissed. It is also worth noting that the author draws upon the works of French thinkers, and thus affords readers an opportunity to assess the influence of one more non-English speaking center of strategic thinking. (4)

Unfortunately, what this book offers as its great strength comes at a price exacted in patience. The book seems to lose something in transitioning from the mind of a Swedish naval officer to becoming a useful text for an English reading audience. The examples provided in the book are not always fully developed, and they can be inconsistent in quality. This problem is most acute in the book’s first section. In several instances, Wedin mentions theorists, commanders, or book titles without providing sufficient details to clarify their importance. Additionally, the book suffers from various editing issues. For instance, the first time Alfred Thayer Mahan is mentioned, he is called TH Mahan. (16) two pages later, he is correctly identified as AT Mahan. In some instances, historically significant characters are introduced merely with their last names. This issue is indicative of poor-quality control that makes reading unnecessarily challenging at times. In short, the book suffers from a lack of editorial oversite.

Balancing its strengths and weaknesses, and beyond its value as a window into Wedin’s world, the book could serve reasonably well as either a reference or a generator for discussions in a strategic studies seminar. The quality of editing hampers its value as a reference work, but it still contains much that is of value. As a rule, Wedin offers definitions and topics for discussion that illuminate many significant developments and concepts in strategic thinking. These topical explorations could serve as good entry points for broad discussions of the concepts, or Wedin’s emphasis on particular concepts. 

(Return to December 2020 Table of Contents)

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