JDB Communications, LLC is proud to announce the availability of Three Essays on Strategy by John D. Beatty in paperback and PDF from The Book Patch.
Walcott, Iowa, and Wall, South Dakota may seem to be unlikely places to talk about in an essay collection on strategy, but examining these institutions is a good introduction to the ideas of how strategy is made. For those who have never been to Walcott, Iowa, it is the home of the world’s largest truck stop. To earn this distinction, the ne plus ultra of road trip rest emporiums rises from the Iowa prairie along Interstate 80. It began in 1964 as a simple gas station and lunch counter, according to the web site, and has by this writing grown to a sprawling complex that offers everything from a museum to a pet wash stand, four eateries, a laundromat and even a chiropractor and a regular doctor, in addition to the usual fuel found at any such, smaller establishment. Wall Drug started even earlier, in 1931, offering free ice water to thirsty travelers in the Badland’s summer heat. When this correspondent saw it, Wall Drug had been joined by over fifty-odd other store fronts plying everything from food to footgear, from books to jewelry, and from tourist souvenirs (including the ubiquitous bumper stickers) to fuel. How these two mid-America roadside behemoths got where they are, how they got to be bigger than their host communities, is part marketing of course, but also by employing the theme of these essays: strategy.
Alfred T. Mahan’s series of Naval War College lectures, published as The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) were inconsequential, but the 110-page introduction formalized strategic thought and theory for the first time. Using Britain as a model, he outlined a fleets-make-bases-make-ports-make- trade-makes-money-makes-fleets formula that had been in use, if unacknowledged, ever since wood was made to swim and carry a load. This model of strategy was designed not for just for military gain but to advance and secure economic power. To emphasize this point, Mahan wrote his introduction out of economic necessity: his original manuscript had been rejected, and he penned the famous introduction to get it sold.
That this formalization of what every major state since the beginning of recorded history had practiced should come from a naval officer from the greatest commercial power of its age was almost anticlimactic. Of all human enterprises, up until Mahan’s time ships and the sea were simultaneously the most lucrative and the most expensive to build and maintain. The United States, of all the world’s commercial powers, took advantage of America’s many international coasts and harbors to build an overseas trading empire that dwarfed both its competitors and its partners by the middle of the 20th century.
Scratch any historian, politician, wargamer, monarch, or businessperson and you’ll likely get a different definition for “strategy” from each. Each will be correct—as far as their specialized viewpoint is concerned. Politicians need to keep getting elected, so their concern is for their electorate, which often means jobs. Monarchs have some of the same concerns—though usually for their own fortunes and for those of their supporters. Business always looks for markets, for resources, for labor, but most often for political and economic stability. Wargamers, working in a different kind of environment altogether from the rest, seek to succeed in whatever game they are playing at the moment, but only within the confines of the game. For the historian, “strategy” is the sum of what social groups and states plan to do, and what they actually execute, to achieve their goals. As such, “strategy” is the overall idea that monarchs, tradesmen, politicians or anyone else start out with—or what they develop over the course of years or centuries—to either achieve a defined goal, to ensure their commonweal, or to just survive.
These essays were written in a time when the concept of “strategy” had been formally defined for over a century, and in a world where the concept of “strategy” was intentionally driven by policy. As these essays show, strategy has been an evolution, a development of policy-making that stretches back millennia, and was sometimes driven by accident, sometimes by design. During the time period covered by the first two, dealing with the Mediterranean’s ancient world and with Europe and Asia in the early modern period, strategy was a matter of royal prerogative and trade demands. In the third, dealing with the United States and Japan in the Pacific in the 19th century, strategy was the prerogative, at least in part, of democratically elected representatives. What is interesting is how similar the strategic choices are, and how similar the alternatives are. The greatest difference is that of scale.
But too there’s geography, and the tremendous role played by simply stopping in the right place. Human communities grow where there are resources and conditions that support them. Even if commercial enterprises like the I-80 truck stop and Wall Drug make their own conditions, that’s not always possible. Drive along an interstate highway in the US on either side of Wall or of Walcott, and that becomes apparent. The successful stops are built where on and off ramps provide easy access, but there are nearly as many tall road signs standing next to empty concrete slabs as there are those next to bustling enterprises. Those that are further down the frontage roads or farther from the ramps rarely survive more than a few years unless they offer something else that weary travelers needed or, like Wall Drug did in the beginning, gave away ice water in summer. In some places along the highway are the artifacts of failed truck stops, motels and even whole towns that may have thrived once, but no longer. Many of the abandoned gas stations along the highway lost business when the range of vehicles increased, others because the price of fuel made their continued operation unprofitable, and still others because the owners retired or died. But, these relics of bygone days were often the casualties of strategic changes made by their competitors and the changing tastes of consumers that they failed to meet. Often as not, they are the losers in a strategic game that they lost, or perhaps that they didn’t even consciously play.
The social groups and countries described in these essays, like the truck stops and the drug stores that fail while others succeed, are all subject to someone’s strategy. The trick is being in a position to take advantage of successful strategies or be able to withstand bad ones.
Three Essays on Strategy is another of the growing essay collection from JDB Communications, LLC. that retails for $3.99 for paper, $1.99 for PDF from The Book Patch.