Stephen K. Stein is a Professor of History at the University of Memphis where he teaches courses on American, diplomatic, military, and maritime history, as well as the history of technology. He is also an adjunct professor of strategy for the College of Distance Education of the U.S. Naval War College for which he's taught for more than 20 years. The author of seven books and numerous shorter works, his previous works include From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers and Technological Innovation in the New Navy, 1877-1913 (2007), The Sea in World History: Trade, Travel, and Exploration (2017), which was featured in an episode of "Adam Ruins Everything," Sadomasochism and the BDSM Community in the United States: Kinky People Unite (2021), which is the first comprehensive history of that community, and Teaching and Learning History Online: A Guide for College Instructors (2023, coauthored with Maureen MacLeod). His article "The Greely Relief Expedition and the New Navy," International Journal of Naval History 5 (December 2006) won the Rear Admiral Ernest M. Eller Prize in Naval History. He also writes fiction with his wife, Carolyn Ivy Stein.

Military Strategy for Writers by Stephen Kenneth Stein

Sun Tzu said, "Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

Your characters deserve your best strategic thinking. Are you ready to learn the secrets known by Sun Tzu, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Mao, Clauswitz, and other famed strategists?

War: A source of enduring fascination to readers and the crucible that reveals character. Quality strategic thinking transforms stories from average to unforgettable and brings new depth to characters and their dilemmas. Backed by years of research into military strategy as well as examples from novels, movies, and games, Military Strategy for Writers offers a detailed look at how to incorporate strategic thinking into plots, characters, and structure. Each chapter zeroes in on an aspect of strategy, how it works (or doesn't) in reality and in fiction, and how to apply it to your own narratives.

Designed as a resource for writers, gamers, and editors this book will:

•Build your strategic vocabulary ensuring your military genius characters sound like they know what they are talking about.

•Empower you to use classic strategic thought in your stories

•Dive down into the strategies of sea power to bring richness to stories set at sea

•Soar with strategies of air power and learn why experts argue if air power should be regarded as strategic or tactical

•Discuss out how military and civilian strategists use game theory to formulate nuclear strategy in the absence of historical examples

•Demonstrate how your characters can fight and win an insurgency

•Show how states fight insurgents and how that gives you a secret tool to use in your stories

•Reveal how the types of terrorism show the character of both terrorists and the states that fight it

•Take you to the stars to learn about war in the far future and strategy in space, as well as how to apply strategic thinking to fantasy campaigns

Included at the end is a list of questions to ask as you write, as well as a guide to doing quick military research that will inform you and get you back to the keyboard fast. If you're in the mood for more information, Stein offers ten indispensable books on strategy to further your knowledge.

Clear, engaging, and written with a dry wit, Stein vividly describes major types of military strategy, their advantages, and disadvantages in various situations. Military Strategy for Writers gives you everything you need to ensure that your characters only make mistakes in their strategy when it will serve the plot and your goals as an author. Quality strategic thinking transforms stories from average to unforgettable and brings new depth to characters and their dilemmas.

Be warned! Once you know these secrets, you will see lost opportunities everywhere.



  • "An unbelievable resource for authors, game writers, roleplayers, and husbands who think daily about the Roman Empire."

    – John D. Payne, author of Micronomicon: A Compendium of Magic
  • "I wish I'd read this before I started my previous four novels. A valuable insight in how to write wars both ancient and modern."

    – Ryan English, author of The Acts of Androkles
  • "The historical vignettes Dr. Stein recounts are interesting and informative, delving just deep enough to frame the topics while providing references for further reading. Has given me great insights and resources to reevaluate my own strategic analysis for writing fiction and making games."

    – Konrad Bennett Hughes, game designer and author




Rambo does not win wars.

A thousand Rambos do not win wars.

Wars are won by the application of sound strategy to achieve rational political goals. Battlefield prowess—no matter how impressive—cannot win wars alone. Military forces correct poor tactics as their officers learn from experience. Poor strategy, though, endures and dooms one to defeat. Simply put, you cannot fight your way out of bad strategic decisions. The German army, despite its tactical proficiency, lost both world wars trying to do that. The great alliances that fought Germany in the first half of the twentieth century—and Revolutionary and Napoleonic France a century earlier—succeeded despite repeated battlefield failures. Similarly, the armed forces of the United States have won an impressive number of battles since World War II, but hardly any wars. This, again, resulted from poor strategy. Tactical proficiency cannot compensate for strategic ineptitude.

Yet, in fictional accounts, it often does. Whether heroic fantasy or space opera or more "realistic" technothrillers, heroes win wars by winning a succession of individual battles culminating in a climactic showdown. Their protagonists and antagonists may quote great strategists, but strategy itself is often absent.

This is unfortunate, because outlining the strategic situation and asking the hard questions posed by great strategic thinkers will clarify a story's context and stakes. Why are soldiers at a particular place? What strategic purpose does their mission serve? How will it help win the war? Why is Robert Heinlein's starship trooper Juan Rico battling "Bugs" on an alien world? Why is George MacDonald Fraser's cowardly Harry Flashman in Afghanistan? How will Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers solve the communications problems of First World War battlefields? What's the importance of the Death Star? Will destroying it win the war for the Rebel Alliance? (Apparently not, since the Empire keeps "striking back.")

The emphasis on climactic battle also helps authors avoid discussing the complex aftermath of wars. J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is among the few exceptions. Following the destruction of the One Ring and annihilation of Sauron's army, Frodo and his victorious companions return home only to discover they have a mess to clean up. Sauron's henchman Saruman has wrought no end of violence and destruction on their beloved Shire. The victorious heroes must both end Saruman's evil reign and rehabilitate war-ravaged lands, as the Belgians and French had to after the First World War. Since the object of war is a better peace, it's worth saying more about that peace and how wartime decisions led to it.

While some novelists demonstrate an intuitive understanding of strategic issues, they often miss the practical details and subtle nuances of executing effective strategy. This is hardly surprising. Many military officers have trouble grappling with matters of policy and strategy. They spend most of their careers studying tactics and operations, turning to strategy only at higher rank. Military academies and similar undergraduate institutions focus on small unit leadership and tactics.

Postgraduate military institutions, such as the various U.S. war colleges, focus their attention on operations, strategy, and policy. Yet students at these higher institutions of learning, and senior officers in general, often remain more comfortable thinking about tactics than considering issues of strategy and policy.

Tactics involve how troops maneuver and fight in battle. The operational level of war describes the movement of military forces over larger spaces and periods of time. It describes how military forces position themselves advantageously for battle or to seize or threaten important places.

Strategy is the process that connects your goals to the actions you take to achieve them. What do you want? What resources do you have? How will you use these resources to achieve your goal? What are your military capabilities? In other words, what means will you apply to achieve what ends? What are the most effective ways to use your military, industrial, and other resources to achieve your political goals?

Strategy encompasses a host of high-level decisions, including resource allocation, operational targets, and, most important, how one expects to win a war. It is not about storming a hill or sinking a battleship. Strategy is not about winning battles, but rather about winning wars.

Anyone with goals, whether saving for retirement, getting into a good college, or finishing a novel, develops strategies to achieve them: invest in a balanced portfolio of mutual funds, couple good grades with extracurricular activities, write every day, and so on.

Whether it's time to write, money to invest, or the troops, industry, and allies needed to wage war, one's resources are always finite. Goals, though, can approach the infinite. Even Alexander the Great, perhaps history's most able general, faced this reality. He could not conquer the entire world. Successful strategists reconcile means and ends.

The Persian Empire fielded far more troops and warships than Alexander and generated more money than its ruler, Darius III, could effectively spend. Yet, Alexander consistently out-thought and outmaneuvered his Persian opponents. While impressive in themselves, Alexander's battlefield victories at Granicus, Miletus, Issus, Tyre, and Gaugamela were part of a coherent strategy in which Alexander systematically dismantled and conquered the Persian Empire. Alexander approached battle carefully and fought only when necessary. A master strategist, he ensured every battle served his strategic purposes and advanced him toward his final goal.

Military Strategy

This book describes and explains military strategy, often defined as the use of military force—or the threat of military force—to achieve one's political goals. It is neither a primer on military culture nor an explanation of weapons and weapons systems. Rather, it is about how people—scholars, senior military officers, and political leaders—analyze, plan for, and win wars, and how understanding the strategic issues involved can inform fiction writing. It offers an introduction to military strategy aimed particularly at novelists and other writers. It aims to help them think more deeply about strategic issues and avoid common mistakes, such as confusing tactics and strategy.

Throughout this book, discussions of strategy are illustrated by historical, film, and literary examples, the latter from historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, the genres in which military strategy most appears. These necessarily involve spoilers. You have been warned.

While this book focuses on military strategy—and the robust literature on it—one can apply strategic principles to a host of non-military situations, from orchestrating the perfect heist to advancing the cause of true of love. One can develop strategies for career advancement, retirement planning, and even writing novels. Almost any endeavor benefits from strategic analysis. Since the publication of H. Igor Ansoff's Corporate Strategy in 1965, people have applied strategic concepts to a host of topics, particularly business and marketing, hence such titles as Business Secrets of Attila the Hun.

Developing and executing military strategy, though, is more complex than beating a corporate rival to the next hot trend, planning your retirement, or writing a novel. Military forces operate in a dynamic environment in which enemies actively work against them—often in unanticipated ways. How much progress would you make on your novel if rival authors bombarded your office with discordant music, deployed malicious viruses against your computer, or arranged mysterious accidents to sap your time and energy?