A Study in Strategy: Mara of the League
One of the paradoxes of war is that although it is horrible to live through, it is fun to read about. Not only does it make good story material, such scholars as Charles Hill argue that fiction writing is a promising medium for exploring the real-life art of strategy. In that spirit, I have published a four-volume series of fantasy novels titled Mara of the League. This series tells the story of a Cassandra-like woman named Mara who struggles to rally her people against enemies many hope to appease. In the process, it explores the grand strategic problems of defending a polity which aspires to be free.
Here, I provide a sample of what Mara of the League offers. In what remains of this essay, I recap one of the ways in which writing this series has allowed me to illustrate the relationship between politics and war. By so doing, I flesh out the ways in which one may use novels to analyze strategic topics. For those who want more, I provide links to the novels in the conclusion.
It is not too much of a spoiler to reveal that the series ends with a major war. A country known as the Commonwealth of Waan invades Mara’s homeland. Victory and defeat hinge upon a range of factors, many of which will seem familiar to students of military history and analysts of contemporary defense issues. Waan fields a centrally organized army of horse archers, while Mara’s country relies on a hodgepodge of primarily infantry-based units. Mara’s people have traditionally relied on fortification to hold populated areas, and on sea transport to counter the Waanling cavalry’s land mobility.
Economic development has allowed both sides to deploy forces of unprecedented size, raising the fear that a long campaign could devastate enough agricultural land to trigger a catastrophic famine. Gunpowder artillery is a recent invention, and although both sides have been experimenting with it for decades, neither can be sure how it will change the dynamics of large-scale conflict. Meanwhile, Mara’s country faces rebellion from within. Book Four of the series shows how the contending forces fight for advantage in this chaotic situation.
Book Three depicts a different kind of battle. In Book Three, the opposing sides make decisions which determine the circumstances under which the campaigns of the final book will take place. Mara perceives this at an early stage. At a crucial moment, she gives her country’s ruler shocking advice.
To find out whether the ruler follows Mara’s recommendations, you will have to read the series. Even after reading the series, you will have to decide for yourself whether Mara was right. Mara’s great strength — or perhaps her great weakness — is that she has an unusual perspective. To put the matter in contemporary terms, she constructs a different narrative from the people around her.
Real-life strategy is also largely a matter of choosing the most appropriate narrative. Widely-respected military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote that the first, the supreme and the most far-reaching task which state leaders and military commanders must undertake is to establish the type of war which they face. (1) Clausewitz described this task as one of judgment. Roberta Wohlstetter developed a similar idea in her classic study of strategic surprise when she argued that the problem of foreseeing a sneak attack is one, not merely of collecting information, but of decision. (2) The importance of judgment and decision means that strategy is inseparable from the character of the people who practice it.
A novel is, almost by definition, a study of character. Therefore, novels offer a useful tool for exploring the ways in which strategic thinkers acquire their perspectives on their art. The first two books of the Mara of the League series take readers back to Mara’s adolescence and childhood. They explore the ways in which she developed her attitudes toward the turbulent politics of her world. Mara’s tale is both a war story and a human story. All war stories are.
The books of the Mara of the League series are available here:
Book One: The Witches of Crannock Dale
Book Two: The Rebels of Caer City
Book Three: The Hideous Garden
Book Four: The Rending of the World
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1. Charles Hill, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2011).
2. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (London: The Folio Society, 1976), p. 34.
3. Roberta Wohlstetter, Cuba and Pearl Harbor: Hindsight and Foresight (Santa Monica: RAND, 1965), available on-line here, accessed December 1, 2021.
Art by Robin Birrell.