GW: I’m here today with Dr. Lynette Nusbacher, who’s a strategy consultant, and her work has included being a logistics officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, a writer of books such as Bannockburn 1314, a lecturer at Reading University, the senior intelligence advisor to the UK Government Cabinet Office, and I’m not making this up, as well as a TV presenter of various military history shows, and she now runs a management consulting company, although she’s also and of course, most importantly, from my perspective, a historical martial arts instructor. So, Lynnette, welcome to the show.
LN: Thank you very much, Guy.
GW: Did I pronounce your name correctly? I forgot to check that before we started.
LN: As far as I can tell, yes, if you’ve gone off piste a little on the name, you’ve not gone far.
GW: OK, marvellous. So what about in the world are you?
LN: I’m in the Surrey Hills. I live in a very small, very pretty village that is nestled between two fascinating ridges of English geography. And we are shielded from harsh weather. I live in a village that is still owned by the feudal overlord whose family has owned it since 1485. And I’m pleased to report that they’re lovely people. I swallowed the resentment of my ancestors who held this very fief of the Crown before 1485 and who clearly backed the wrong horse in the Wars of the Roses.
GW: You’re kidding.
LN: I am not.
GW: So basically, your family was on the wrong side at Bosworth Field?
LN: Correct. Exactly right. So the Butlers, Earl of Ormond used to use this as their near London base and they went their own way. And Henry Tudor was, as he was in all things, utterly ruthless. So the Bray family owns my house and I am the first wave of revenge coming from the mid-15th century.
GW: Okay, so after five hundred years, you want your land back?
LN: Well, I just want to make sure that my garden is of appropriate size and health, that’s all I care about. I’m a reasonable woman.
GW: Okay, fair enough. But I was under the impression you were a Canadian. Were you born in Canada?
LN: I am Canadian. I was born in the United States. Boris Johnson and I have that in common. We’re both born in the US, but not especially American. I’m Canadian. I went to the University of Toronto, where I studied medieval history and economic history. And as you noted earlier, I served in the Canadian Armed Forces for a while. And people mistake my accent for a lot of things. Sometimes Northern Irish. So Canadian is always the safest bet.
GW: Fair enough. So, OK, there’s a story somewhere between joining the Canadian Armed Forces and ending up in the British Cabinet Office and the internet doesn’t tell me much about those intervening steps so would you care to fill them in?
LN: Yeah, I was a finance and logistics officer in the Canadian Forces, in the army, although at the time we were really not meant to call it the Canadian Army. Now that’s changed. I started out as an officer in the 48th Highlanders of Canada, a regiment of ancient history and tremendous pride. And if you get me in just the right mood, I can start reciting battle honours of the 48th Highlanders of Canada for you. And I was commissioned into the 48th, about 100 hundred years after the regiment was founded, and I had a couple of really, really wonderful years with a really wonderful battalion. And the Canadian Army sent me off to Kingston, to Royal Military College. And I did a war studies degree there. A Master’s degree in war studies, and it was an absolutely splendid programme, which had civilians, which had military people, which had a strong distance learning component, which it still has. And while I was there, I rebadged from the Canadian Forces logistics branch into the intelligence branch. And I was an intelligence officer for many years, my total length of service to the Queen was about 22 years from St Andrew’s Day of 1992 to roughly October of 2014. And when I decided to do my Doctorate, when I finished my master’s degree, I came over to the UK to do it. And I went to Oxford and I read history there and I got a DPhil, which was a marvellous experience, which I highly recommend to everyone. And while I was doing it, I was spending my summers going over to Canada and doing army courses and being a reservist. And in 2000, when it was clear that I was going to stay in the UK, I transferred my commission to the British Army. So I went from the Canadian Forces Intelligence Branch to the British Army Intelligence Corp and changed a dark green beret for a light green beret.
GW: I didn’t know you could do that.
LN: The Commonwealth armed forces are really good at verifying former service and getting people from one Commonwealth army to another. Easier for some than others. But the flow back and forth between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK is small but steady. In 2000, when I was finishing up my doctorate, still writing up my thesis. I started lecturing at Sandhurst and it’s a civilian post. And there I was at the time, a reserve officer. And there were a few reserve officers there who were war studies lecturers. And I think that the academy found it useful for us to have a bit of street cred that we were not just civvies talking about war that we’ve read about in books and in late ‘99, still a very new lecturer at Sandhurst, I went to the commandant and I said, “Well, it’s Christmas break. I’m sure there are people in Kosovo who would quite like to spend some time with their families. Can you deploy me there?” And General Arthur Denaro, a wonderful man. Mad as a mad thing, which is ideal in a cavalry officer. He said yes, splendid idea. And he got me stuck onto a plane and out to Kosovo for a couple of months. And so I had a nice short tour in Kosovo as a brigade watch keeper, working the ops desk for 19 brigade. And so I got a bit of operational experience as well. Although I’m far from a rufty tufty soldier. My Iraq War experience, and I was mobilised in 2003 for the Iraq War, my Iraq War experience was very much in the rear with the gear, so I was head of counterintelligence and counterterrorism for the British Army in Germany, as it was. So I was in British forces Germany. I was spending euros. I was, thank goodness, spending a bit of time with my young family, which my friends and colleagues who were out in Iraq did not have the opportunity to do. And it was not terribly satisfying to be that far in the rear with the gear, but it was it was wise, I think, for the army to do that. That is, we didn’t know how difficult or not the first phases of the Iraq War were going to be and we, the British Army, were really well prepared for it to go very badly. And that’s right. It’s right to prepare for rough case scenarios. So I and a lot of my soldiers Int Corps reservists were deployed to Germany to do backfill for the soldiers who had been deployed from the British forces in Germany out to Iraq, to do their jobs because their jobs still needed doing. And that’s all very sound and sensible, but also had it gone very badly for the Gulf 2 Coalition in 2003. Of course, we would have been battle casualty replacements. So I have some operational experience, I have some intelligence analysis experience and there I was working for UK government in the Ministry of Defence. And you teach at a place like Sandhurst for five years. It’s brilliant. By my eighth year there, I was ready for a change. And the Cabinet Office, which is where a lot of UK intelligence assessment capability is based, was coming to terms with the Butler report. Robin Butler, who was a former cabinet secretary, wrote a report on the intelligence assessment around the Iraq War, and he had some pretty pointed critiques. And one of the things he said we needed was more devil’s advocacy. We needed to red team our intelligence analysis. We needed to take sceptical views of it. And I was very good at being sceptical. And so they took me on board as originally my title was senior intelligence adviser and I met my American opposite number and he was called the Devil’s Advocate for the Defence Intelligence Agency. And I said, the “Devil’s Advocate”, that is the job title I want. So I got my job title changed. I said, “Can I be called the Devil’s Advocate?” And my boss, Sir Alex Allan, who was a lovely man, thought about it for a moment and he said, yes, just don’t put it on a business card that you use in a part of the world where “Devil’s Advocate” will get you killed. Advice I took on board. So for a number of years, I worked for the Joint Intelligence Committee. And I brought papers to the Joint Intelligence Committee on subjects that were related to analytical integrity and making sure that the intelligence we have is not biased. And of course, it’s very hard because humans are very biased. And after a couple of years of that, I started a unit which is called the Strategic Horizons Unit, which was a small corner of the intelligence apparatus in the U.K. that took a strategic forward look. And futures as a profession is well-established, there are companies, Shell does a lot of strategic futures work, and there were some very bright people in Number 10 who were very keen to see UK national security strategy backed up with structured strategy work. And there’s me, you know, I could talk your ear off about Clausewitz, I have very clear ideas on strategy. I’ve got clear ideas on structured strategy, and I’m really somebody who is not wedded to any particular corner of the intelligence establishment. At the time, I was a combat major. I was nothing to do with Defence intelligence in Whitehall. I had nothing to do with the security services. And I’m so taking an objective look at the future of national security was something that I was ideally positioned to do and look, there I was already working in the Cabinet Office, so I continued my loan period in the Cabinet Office, doing those strategic futures projects and about which I can tell you approximately nothing. But it was great fun, very interesting.
GW: Fair enough. Yeah, I don’t want to get MI5 on our backs for this.
LN: We absolutely do not. So that is my trajectory that takes me from the Canadian forces to the UK Cabinet Office.
GW: Wow. And where do the swords come in?
LN: Well, swords are at the root of everything, of course. I started doing historical fencing. I used to do armoured combat in the SCA, Society for Creative Anachronism. And I started that when I was 17 and I was reaching for more historicity in what I did, and I was finding the armoured combat wasn’t as satisfying, after ten years, as I’d hoped. So in the early 90s, I and a few friends started a historical combat workshop, and one of my friends was Jeremy Graham. And one of my friends was Jeff Forgeng, and I’m guessing that your listenership, Guy, will recognise Jeff Forgeng’s name pretty readily.
GW: They damn well should do.
LN: You’re right, Jeff was just getting his hands on 1.33 on the Tower Fechtbuch. And we were just starting to see the opportunities to start analysing historical documents, including in the original. And we were all at University of Toronto at the time. I was on staff, Jeremy was on staff and Jeff was doing projects for the Middle English Dictionary. And we got together with the Three Elizabethan Fencing Manuals book, Turner and Soper, and we read Silver. We read Saviolo and we read di Grassi. And from Silver we got the impression he was a bit of a bullshit artist. And I still don’t really view George Silver as a trustworthy source for anything. He’s very happy to talk about how his buddies would go out and beat Saviolo’s students up in the streets. But George Silver does not impress me. A very patriotic Englishman, to be sure, but is a bit of a barroom bore to my mind. So we took a little bit out of Silver and I’ve still got some scars from doing Silver, using sharps in an injudicious way. Saviolo we found overly complex. I think we considered ourselves ‘bears of very little brain’ and we needed something simple. And Giacomo di Grassi is so simple and so straightforward and so down right, to use a Silver term, that we spent a couple of years and we attracted a few other students to join us and we fenced di Grassi in a dance studio at the University of Toronto for a couple of years. This was 1991 or so, there was something somewhere called WMA. And I knew Brian Price at the time through his then wife. So what was becoming Chivalry Bookshelf was something we knew. And a few of my friends, notably Steve Mulberger, who had mentored me in armoured combat, was a prolific author for Chivalry Bookshelf, but there wasn’t a community we were especially aware of at the time. And when we all went our separate ways, Jeff to Ann Arbor, to the University of Michigan and I went to Kingston, to the Royal Military College, we didn’t really keep up with what was becoming HMA around us. I would say HMA rather than HEMA, for which I apologise, but it’s ingrained in my mind.
GW: HMA, historical martial arts. I find the “European” redundant. I’m sorry, we’re having some technical troubles, there’s a delay in the back and forth, we’re getting some connectivity issues, I think. So I’ll just have to try and edits out the awkward pauses.
LN: I think you’re right about the about historical martial arts. At the time, and I remember when I first encountered the term Historical European Martial Arts and it was very clear that we had to fight. We had to find a way of saying that we’re not doing Wushu, we’re not doing Kuntau, we’re not doing Kung Fu. It’s martial arts, but it’s not the martial arts you’re thinking of. And there was there was a real need to differentiate. Western Martial Arts tried to do that. Historical European Martial Arts tried to do that. And now we are in a community with Historical African Martial Arts and martial arts as an Asian set of disciplines is different from what it was. It’s a far more rounded thing. I don’t think anybody is going to think that we’re Steven Seagal wannabes now if we talk about ourselves as historical martial artists.
GW: Yeah, definitely, and I remember when we started out doing this in the 90s in my club in Edinburgh, and we called it historical fencing or historical swordsmanship back then. And then WMA came out and then HEMA became a thing and so it went from there. But listeners to the show should definitely recognise Jeffrey Forgeng’s name because several other people have mentioned him and he’s produced all these amazing books and translations and what have you. But the reason most listeners will have heard of him is because every time his name comes up, I flinch, because for my PhD, he was the examiner for my first Viva and he absolutely correctly tore me a new one. Very politely, but I came out of that an absolute wreck. It took me months to recover. But he was absolutely right. So I did the extra work and sorted things out and got through on my second round.
LN: Which is, of course, the process, the way it’s meant to work.
LN: Jeff is just a wonderful human being and an immensely bright and hard working scholar and also an absolute ruthless bastard with a sword in his hand. I know he’s doing a lot of jousting now. I think he’s probably equally a ruthless bastard with a lance. But one of the things that we decided early on was that wearing a fencing mask was taking us away from the historical experience of training as a fencer and that with a fencing mask and everyone listening, I’m sure will know this, with a fencing mask on, the place you would most like to be hit is the face. It is possibly the best protection you’ve got on you. And it’s very intuitive. I’m a tremendous Fabris fencer, and I love the fact that as a Fabris fencer, the two things that are in front of me between me and my opponent are the basket of my rapier and the grill of my mask, because those are very well protected places. But of course, there we were seeking to replicate the experience of being one of Di Grassi’s students in the 1590s. And if you pick up pictures of people fencing in the 1580s or 1590s, you will not see a fencing mask on one of them. And that has to change the way you drill and has to change the way you do free play. It has to change the way you train because nobody’s going to want to lose an eye at the at the gym of an evening. So one of the things we did was we looked at some of these illustrations and we saw what was called a foil in the 16th century. We saw what looked like a medium sized rapier with a great big button on the end of it. And clearly, these were buttons that were big enough that they weren’t going to go into your eye socket, and it’s not possible from the engravings to get a clearer idea of what they are. And I, for one, don’t know of any surviving 16th century foils, that is these training weapons. I’d love to see one if I could. But what Jeff Forgeng suggested we do was take a champagne cork and strap a 2p coin to the end of it, wrap it up in a nice piece of cloth so it didn’t look like a champagne cork with a 2p coin strapped on it, and we stuck those onto the ends of our rapiers and that made them a little bit tip heavy. But because at the time the simulators we were using were from, I guess, James the Just or Darkwood, two of the big suppliers at the time. They were not yet making one hundred and fifteen centimetre rapiers. So we’ve got a thirty six or thirty seven inch and here I am, mixing my inches and centimetres, which is a very Canadian thing to do. We’ve got 80 or 90 centimetre rapiers. But looking back, they handled a lot like my one hundred fifteen centimetre Darkwood or one hundred and fifteen centimetre Balefire handles today. So it was odd, but it meant we could fence without masks and reasonably safely. And I think we were doing a little bit to replicate that training experience from the South Bank in the 1590s.
GW: Yeah, it’s a very interesting balance you have to strike because if you have a fencing mask, then you can really go for the face and then you learn how to deal with someone who’s really going for your face without the fencing mask. Your training partner is unlikely to really go for your face, but there is a saying, could be apocryphal, from the 18th century, you can tell a fencing master by the fact that he’s got one eye and no front teeth. There’s a story of, I think it was Harry Angelo giving a lesson, or maybe it’s his father, and the kind of large champagne cork sized button on the end went into his mouth, some way down his throat, then came out again. So masks were pretty quickly adopted after they were invented because they’re really helpful. But there’s no substitute for the experience of, not that I’m recommending it to everyone listening, but there’s no substitute for the experience of fencing without masks. It does change everything.
LN: It does and we have to be mindful, as scholars of historical fencing, that what we are seeking to recreate is something that was done on sandy floorboards in Paris Garden in London, or in mucky streets of the backstreets of Venice by people who trained without face protection. And that changes things. It really does.
GW: Yeah, I think there’s a book in there somewhere, and I think you should write it.
LN: I shall make a note.
GW: These contexts in which fencing occurred, they do change absolutely everything about what you’re doing. I’m currently working on 1.33, and it’s instructive to think that one of the ways that apprentices or teenagers and what have you blew off steam in the old days was they would go fight their mates with swords and bucklers. And these are sharp swords. And if that was resulting in people being blinded and maimed and dying all the time, they wouldn’t have done it because it would ruin their professional… I mean, the risk has to be there, it’s like hot rodding or boy racers who rush around in their sports cars, pulling handbrake turns in places where they shouldn’t. I think it’s the same sort of thing. And there’s fencing when you’re just trying to kill the person who’s in front of you and there’s fencing when you’re trying to put on a decent display and there’s fencing when you’re basically playing chicken with your mates, in a way. And all of those things may be present as intended context for the art that’s being represented in the source that you’re working with. And it’s interesting to see when and why you might do which.
LN: It’s a really useful point. When Stephen Ambrose was doing interviews with people who were invading France for D-Day. The United States chose to use very young soldiers, to some extent in contrast with the British and Canadian armies, and they did that because young soldiers, they may not be experienced. They had not been in Italy fighting or North Africa fighting. They used fresh soldiers who are very physically fit, which a young soldier often is, but also 18 year olds have no sense of their own mortality. And officers in 1944 were getting up on a soapbox, we’re about to invade France. Look to your right, look to your left, we’re going to take 50 percent casualties on the beach. And all of those young men look to their right and look to their left and said, “You poor bastards because I’m immortal. So it sucks to be you because tomorrow you’re going to be face down on a beach in France.” And of course, they were often right. But we also know when we look at the career of somebody who we know well, like Salvator Fabris, we know that Salvator Fabris was an active fencing instructor until rather late in life. And I’m perfectly willing to accept that Sally Fabris, at 18, was doing reckless stuff with sharps. Just as I, rather older than 18, when I was 26 or 27, I was doing reckless stuff with sharps, but I prized that kind of valiant stupidity. But in his 50s and in his 60s, I will bet that he was not endangering his eyeballs and he was not risking dying slowly and horribly of peritonitis. I mean, one of the things that we know about the pre-penicillin era is that a minor cut could result in slow, horrible death by Staphylococcus aureus infection, or indeed other infections. We have evidence of people who had a scratch from a rose thorn and died slowly and horribly over a period of weeks. And once you’ve witnessed that you are a different fencer, and you assess risk differently. I mean, for me, as a middle aged woman who fences a lot getting a bit of a thump on the chest protector, getting a bit of a thump on the gorget, is pretty low risk, but I have other dreads in my fencing life. I dread the career ending knee injury. I dread that moment when the ligament goes and it’s never going to be the same as it was, because a knee ligament injury at 54 is not going to heal the way a knee ligament injury does at 24. So we do preserve, I think, some of the assessment of risk and the change in the way we assess risk as we grow older. So I think that’s going to have to be a chapter in The Experience of Fencing in the 16th and 17th Century by Lynette Nusbacher. You heard it here first, folks.
GW: Yeah, yeah. And honestly listeners, when that book comes out you can all thank me and go and buy it. But to your point, it’s also worth remembering that Fabris was teaching Christian IV, King of Denmark. And if he blinded the king, that would not have done much good for his career. They were handling this risk, and most people didn’t end up seriously injured or blinded. Most people went through their fencing life pretty much uninjured.
LN: Well, when we see people grinding an axe for fencing masters, for instance, when the City of London authorities are grinding an axe for fencing masters, they say fencing masters cause brawling, but they don’t talk about fencing masters causing maiming and serious injury. And brawling may have resulted in maiming and serious injury, but that is clearly not part of that presumption. And you’re right. Fabris was teaching the king. And not only would that have meant that he had to create an environment in which the King of Denmark is safe to train as a fencer. And of course, I’m sure he won an awful lot of bouts in free play at the weekend because he was king. But there is also the fact that if King Christian didn’t feel like he was being given a serious workout, and if he didn’t feel like he was doing well in free play with the courtiers, then Sally Fabris would have been out on his ear and on his way back to Italy. So there had to have been realism. There had to have been athleticism. There had to have been a genuine sense of jeopardy, a genuine sense of progression in the art of arms, if not the profession of arms. Well no, it was the profession of arms because of course, fencing was a military skill for the King of Denmark and for anyone else who was employing a fencing master. In the HEMA world and also in the SCA, which is not far, I sometimes hear fencing referred to as recreating the civilian art of swordsmanship. And for me, as someone with a doctorate in 17th century history, the idea that there is such a thing as a civilian in the sense of somebody who uses a skinny sword instead of a fat sword, who is not going to be murdered in the sack of Magdeburg, who is the civilian in this period, right? The idea that we now have post Geneva, post Red Cross, post First World War, the idea of “civilians” means nothing to a 16th or 17th century sword wielder. So this was this was mil. skills for the King of Denmark. It was mil. skills for the gentleman who paid Giacomo di Grassi to train them in London, and it was mil. skills for George Silver.
GW: And Silver goes on about how it must be valuable in the service of the prince as well as in service of your own honour. But I think that even in the 18th century when we have, I think it was Godfrey who wrote that the smallsword is the call of honour and the backsword is the call of duty. So he’s clearly distinguishing between smallsword fencing, which is for private duelling and the backsword, which is for military service. But it’s effectively the same system, you just adapt it towards one weapon or towards the other. So the point of it is your smallsword stuff should make your backsword stuff better and vice versa. It’s the same art just applied to this context or to that context, rather than it being a strict division between this is a military thing, soldiers do it, and this is a civilian thing and civilians do it.
LN: Quite. And the spadroon is there to be carried on the field and although the backsword, you know, we see this in Angelo, where you’ve got whatever it is, one hundred and fifty pages of smallsword. And then you’ve got the supplement on Scottish backsword because it’s in the news, right? And you’ve got to be able to pick up the backsword. But the idea of, well, the idea that they’re separate skills is absolutely given the lie by the fact that Angelo puts templates or whatever it is of backsword and absolutely no word on how to actually use the backsword. There is clearly not, in his mind, a difference in the way you use it, which says a lot about how he was using his smallsword as well. And what I love, and here’s me being a little bit of a ‘violence in cinema’ buff. When you see that excellent film of Rob Roy with Liam Neeson, the climactic fight between him and Tim Roth is Tim Roth fencing the first hundred and fifty pages of Angelo and Liam Neeson fencing the plates at the back with the Highland backsword or Highland broadsword. And as you say, it is absolutely superb.
GW: Yeah, it is probably my favourite swordfight on screen. Not least because also they get the characters right, and the way they’re fencing is a perfect representation of the character they’ve shown us over the previous two hours of the film. Yes. In fact, we will find it. We shall find it online and stick it in the show notes.
LN: Absolutely. Please do. Fight choreography ought to be all about developing character.
GW: Absolutely. OK, so we could carry on talking about history of fencing for a while. We may even come back to it. But one of the reasons I wanted you on the show, I didn’t actually know quite what a historical fencing geek you really were. I used the fact that you’re into historical fencing as a kind of pretext to get you on the show, because I really wanted to interview someone who does strategy for a living because that is fascinating, I mean, it should be fascinating to anyone who fences. But so I have a question here. Let me let me ask it. So your current job description is Strategist and Devil’s Advocate. So what exactly does that entail? Tell us all about strategy, Lynette, you know you want to.
LN: I know I want to. There are a lot of people who want to be strategic, certainly in the commercial world, and there are a lot of people, some of them very dear friends of mine who are strategy directors for businesses, indeed for businesses of significant size. And over and over again when I talk to them about their jobs, they express a wistful desire to practise strategy, and they never do, or they rarely do. Their lives are taken up with firefighting, corporate firefighting. And there’s a reason for that. In the corporate world, the only person who can really make strategy is the chief executive. The board can give strategic guidance. The chief executive can make strategy and then they appoint a Strategy Director to do it for them to delegate that responsibility. And anybody who a chief executive appoints to a strategy director job is someone they trust implicitly. And that person then becomes the chief exec’s troubleshooter, and the strategy gets pushed back and it doesn’t happen. That’s something I observe when dealing with the corporate world. And it’s not far off what I observed in UK government. When the first UK National Security Strategy was published, I think it was 2008. The response from Number 10 was to chuck it back at them and say show again. Which, I apologise, it’s a British Army term. It was to do that over again because you did not do it right the first time. And when the people, there wasn’t even a national security secretary at the time, when the people in the Cabinet Office said, “What did we do wrong?” They said, “You didn’t do a thing right. You didn’t consider the strategic context. You didn’t start with horizon scanning and scenario development. All you did was say a bunch of stuff about the world situation and expected us here at Number 10 to buy that because you think we’re political peasants over here in Number 10,” I’m paraphrasing here. And so the Cabinet Office was put in the awkward position of having to apply structured strategy. And it was kind of serendipitous that in the building at the time and holding a very high level clearance and doing interesting intelligence assessment work, was me. And I just happened to know a lot about structured strategy. When I was at Royal Military College in Canada, we had a course that we did. I guess a module is what it be called here, called The Dead Germans. And it was not all Germans, although they were mostly dead. And we went really in-depth at a postgraduate level into Clausewitz and into Jomini and into Julio Juez. And we looked at all of the people who have chapters in Makers of Modern Strategy. We looked at their writing and their context and their ideas. And in the first instance, that meant that I had spent a lot more time than a lot of other people really trying to understand Clausewitz in particular, and I’m very Clausewitzian, so I hold him out above all those other strategists I named. And then when I started teaching at Sandhurst, one of the things that we used to teach the officer cadets and one of the things we used to teach in Junior Division of Staff College to the captains in the British Army was not just how to fight, but why we do what we do when we fight. And of course, the question, why do we do what we do when we fight, is a strategy question. Why do we do anything? Why do we get out of bed in the morning and confront the enemy and risk our lives? The answer to all of that has to be strategy. That is, there is a set of strategic imperatives that are part of government policy. Governments have many ways of achieving policy. There are many categories of strategy, but if they use armed force to achieve their policy, then they are using military strategy, naval strategy, air strategy. It can contribute to the idea of a geostrategy, which Halford Mackinder wrote about, which is a strategy devoted to understanding geography and space. But when you come right down to it, you’ve no business using armed force in service of the state unless you understand how this is going to achieve policy aims and coordinating ends and means. That is the aims of the state, the policy aims of the state, and the means of achieving it. That is what strategy is about. And the British government has an uneasy relationship with strategy. And so when a couple of very bright people in Number 10 said start using structured strategy methods and do this again, I put my hand up and said I would dearly love to do that. And so I started as I said earlier, I started the Strategic Horizons unit. When I left government in 2010 one of the things that I found significant was that everyone in the United Kingdom and everyone in North America who is thinking seriously about cybersecurity was thinking about it in a technical way, was thinking about it in an operational way, but almost nobody was thinking about it in a strategic way. There’s a woman called Anne Bader, an American woman who was doing some very good work on strategy and cybersecurity. And to this day, she has a band of devoted followers who worship the ground she walks on. But everyone was taking a view of cybersecurity that said we’ll protect government systems. They were taking a view of cybersecurity that said we will perhaps seek to protect critical national infrastructure, but these are all operational responses. There wasn’t a strategic approach, and I thought that people would want a strategic approach. So I started a consultancy to do that. I started a strategy consultancy, a boutique strategy consultancy. I was astonished that there are branding strategists out there, there are consultancies that that do a bit of strategy here and there, but I was not in a crowded room when I started doing strategy. I also discovered that nobody wanted cybersecurity strategy at the time, so I branched out into other areas of strategy. But you know, strategy is a way of thinking. It’s a way of operating, it’s a way of aligning ends and means. And the same strategic principles that apply in a national security environment apply in a corporate environment. The stakes are different. The people are different. The power structures and the levers of power different. But if you want to achieve your aims at the highest level, the way to do it is to make strategy. And there are a lot of people who will sell you a strategy, they’ll sell you a text, they’ll sell you a glossy publication with lots of nice pictures and lots of nice graphs. And it will say it’s a strategy on the cover. And a lot of bookshelves are filled with these. A lot of coffee tables are covered with these. But that is not strategy, that’s not making strategy, that is writing about strategy. And I respect that, there are customers for that. No problem getting customers for that. But when we look at how governments and companies try to achieve their aims, they often do it based on day to day questions. Month to month and quarter to quarter questions. Over the last few years, I have been looking at strategic questions for clients, especially for very brainy clients, I’m pleased to say. I started doing Brexit strategy in 2016, in February of 2016. And I did it for Pinsent Masons the City of London law firm, and I started with an American client doing Trump strategy in April of 2016. And in February of 2020, I started doing pandemic strategy and post-pandemic planning. And taking a strategic view of these things requires you to take a cold, hard view of the future, requires you to conduct realistic scenario development, and not everyone is capable of making strategy. Not every company is capable of acting strategically. But there are some who can and it’s great to work with them. So that’s what I do.
GW: I wish I could afford to hire you to talk strategy for my company, that would be great because, yeah, I’m also sort of involved in this self-publishing world. It’s very often the case that, particularly beginners entering the field, confuse a specific tactic with an actual strategy. So, for example, like publishing a book is usually a tactic, but deciding, OK, basically say I want to have loads of people reading my books, which is actually true for me. So what I need to do is obviously produce a book and then advertise it. Well, no, that’s not going to it. So what I need to do is do all these various reputational building things so that when the book comes out, people notice it and then have some kind of long range goal for what the book is supposed to do for my career. So, for example, I have friends in academia who what they need is to get a book out published by the one of these four or five academic publishers, because if they publish it themselves, it won’t work at all. Because what they need out of that book is reputation and prestige, which will help them get the next job. Whereas the same book published by somebody who is independent, what they need to make out of that book is money, and the approach is completely different. So having that kind of long range goal determines the tactics we’re going to use to get there. But if we can just bring this to fencing. I mean, generally speaking, the strategy in a fencing match is hit your opponent without getting hit. That’s it. I would like to hear your take on it because I think you could probably flesh that out a bit.
LN: There’s a sense in which fencing is a tactical rather than strategic game. And since we’ve come back to actually putting our fencing kit on, one of the things I’ve been teaching recently has been tactics and I have always found tactics to be a weak spot in fencing training. I took a tournament once, it was the last but one Astolat tournament. Where I spent an entire pool watching Pim Terminello like a hawk and making notes, and I spent another entire pool watching Mike Prendergast like a hawk and making notes, and I gave them both debriefs afterwards because I know how hard it is to understand your own fencing style and indeed what I was looking at for them was tactics. When the when the ref says fence, what’s the first thing they do? What’s the second thing they do? What’s the third thing they do? How do they respond to different actions on the parts of their opponents? And I largely ignored the opponents and largely focussed on the one person, which is something you can do when you’re judging in a human environment, right? You watch you watch one person like a hawk, especially if there are plenty of judges and which is where I got the idea. And I was very interested in their in-bout tactics, and that is it’s one of the things that I like to teach. But as you say, that is the strategy is to stick the pointy end in the opponent without getting stuck yourself and all of all of what I’m talking about are tactics in achieving that goal. But it is possible, for instance, to take a strategic approach to a tournament. When we decide what events we’re putting in for, we are to some extent making strategic decisions. People who fence at a high level need to be not only fencing but judging. And that means deciding what you’re going to fence and what you’re going to judge is, to some extent, a strategic decision. Nobody in HEMA is in HEMA for mercenary reasons. We’re not there because there’s going to be a big scholarship. We’re not there to play pro sports. Nobody’s there because their parents made them. And my daughter Abigail, who is a much better fencer than I am, can tell you that she’s there because she wants to be there, not because I made her, and my daughter, Matilda will tell you that she’s not fencing because she is not interested in doing what I want. So nobody fences in HEMA because somebody made them. Nobody fences in HEMA because it’s the way to athletic heroism at a school, right? So why do we do it? We do it because we have certain aims in mind. Policy aims. There was a time, you know, I fenced, as I told you earlier, in the early 90s. The last time I taught in the nineties was 1996, 97, teaching fencing in the SCA in Ontario. And then I put it down for a while, for years, and I did my doctorate and all that because it’s no fun doing historical stuff for pleasure when it’s also what you’re doing for your day job, I found. But when I started fencing again I was looking for fitness. I was looking for fun and I was balancing in my mind, do I want to go back to historical fencing? Do I want to go to a club and do modern fencing? Do I want to go and do roller derby? Because roller derby is the kind of thing that queer women like me do a lot, and it’s physical and it’s fitness oriented. And in the end, I decided to go back home to what I wanted to do. So that’s a strategic decision. When we approach our training and preparation, we have strategic decisions to make. Goal setting, which is something that not everybody does. But goal setting and engaging with coaching or even with coaches requires us to understand why we’re doing what we’re doing. Understanding how we approach free play in our training regime requires us to understand strategy, and those are all individual fencer strategy points. We’re all there to achieve certain goals. We’re not always mindful of them. But that’s why we’re there, even if it’s just to have fun, which is, of course, the best reason to be doing historical fencing. But one of the places where I think strategy is very important is at the school level. We make our own syllabus. We decide what we are going to teach, when we teach fencing and the kind of training we do will dictate who we fence with and how we fence. I train at School of the Sword. School of the Sword is a school which as long as I fought there has, for instance, been a light touch school. It’s a school where people don’t hit hard, and that for me as a woman of a certain age, I quite like the idea of seeking to fence with exquisite control rather than to be out there pelting away with the edge of my weapon. I like going off to Scandinavia. I like going to Sweden and getting into a bit of rough and tumble with much more, I would say more physical, but much more kinetic fencers. But I like that I train week to week at a school that made a strategic decision: We want to be diverse. We want to have men and women fencing together. We want to achieve excellence with a light touch. And nobody can say that School of the Sword does not win the medals, because School of the Sword does win the medals, but one of the ways we get there is by controlling everything we do with the blade, including controlling how hard we hit people. That is a strategic decision. Now, I’m not sure that what I’ve just been saying about strategy is what you’re after.
GW: There is so much to unpack there. Honestly, I don’t have an agenda, really. I tend not to think things out terribly in depth, what I tend to do is my instinct says, OK, I should talk to that person and then I get in touch and basically at the end of the conversation, I usually know why my instinct told me to do that. And actually, what my instinct was telling me in this case is that after this recording is done, I should try and book you for a time because I need to talk about my school strategy with you in depth. So this is actually not a job interview, exactly. But the reverse. It’s like you’re interviewing me as a potential client. So my interest in the strategy thing, it’s largely because now that listening to you talk about it, it is easier to articulate it. I think that one of the issues I see with my students and with the historical martial arts world generally is not necessarily a lack of strategy, but a confusion between what is tactics and what is strategy. It’s like confusing a particular set of tactics for a strategy, rather than having this long reaching overarching fundamental idea of what it is you’re trying to do and then picking your tactics accordingly. So if you would care to riff on the difference between tactics and strategy and that would be very helpful for the listeners.
LN: Broadly speaking, strategy is the way you coordinate ends and means to achieve policy. Of course, policy is what we say in government. And UK government in particular has tremendous difficulty differentiating policy from strategy, and they certainly don’t read enough Clausewitz, the people who talk about this in UK government and I suppose that’s something we all have to deal with. I’ll give you a real world big picture example. Everything that we did in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021 involved British forces, American forces, Canadians, Australians, lots of people from non-English speaking countries as well working hard together to make things happen on the ground in Afghanistan. There was poppy eradication. There was aid to civilian ministries. There was state building. There were all kinds of things that were going on there. There was Taliban eradication. There was hard work being done by a lot of people, and all of it was excellent. The difficulty I found was during the period of that war was that we weren’t exactly sure what it was all in aid of. The strategy that we were pursuing was invisible and it was invisible to everyone. If you asked ten different British Army officers, why are we there, and if you ask them, interestingly, at ten different times during the war, the answer would be different each time. So they were all tactically excellent. But their tactics were not aligned to pursue a strategy. And if you want a big picture answer to the question, why did we leave that war without achieving our aims? The answer is we never really understood what our aims were. As you can tell, that particular war is much on my mind now, just as it ends and not ending happily. And so strategy is the process of aligning ends and means, goals and resources. And tactics are the much more mechanistic ways that we achieve strategic aims. Battle is tactical, war is strategic. You win the war at the strategic level by success at the tactical level. One soldier sticking a bayonet into another soldier’s guts is the core of tactical action. Killing and destruction is what tactics are about in war. It’s not the only thing soldiers do, but it is the core of a soldier’s job that is what armed forces exist for. The ideas of tactics and strategy can be applied elsewhere, but only by analogy to armed force. So when we as fencers simulate the act of killing and destruction, we are training, we are simulating, but what we’re training for and simulating is the core act of tactics, which is killing and destruction. So a fight is pretty much, by definition, tactical. Interestingly, in 17th century English usage, the term “fight” and the term “battle” were used interchangeably. The battle of Naseby, as we would call it today, was always called Naseby Fight or something very much like that during the Civil War when it took place. So fight and battle are tactical. The logistics of how we ensure that people can fight and win a battle, that starts to take us away from the core of tactics, away from sticking a bayonet into somebody’s guts and takes us towards the idea of coordinating the means to do that. It starts to take us a little bit above the basics of the tactical, but bringing the bullets and the beans to the boys is tactical logistics. The sergeant major of a company making sure that after a tactical action, there is appropriate resupply, that is tactical, even though it’s logistics, even though it’s a step away from that bayonet going into somebody’s guts. And in armed forces, we often, especially in the British and Commonwealth forces, we seek to connect tactical logistics with the basics of tactics, I just said that it’s the company’s sergeant major who is going to make sure that the bullets and the beans go to the boys, who is going to make sure that resupply of ammunition and another key things happen right away. The company’s sergeant major is someone who has done the job of sticking the bullets into the weapon. He is a guy who has done the job of sticking the bayonet into the enemy. The company’s sergeant major is a rufty tufty combat soldier, and he’s in charge of logistics to ensure that the logistics remain tactical in nature because of his tactical understanding. When we go to make war in faraway places we start to ask strategic questions about logistics. How do you get tanks from Germany to Afghanistan? Tough call. How do you get tanks from Britain to Afghanistan? Well, the tanks are in Germany, so you put them on a boat and then you ship them over to Afghanistan and they take them off the boat there. Now we have questions that significantly distance us from the tactical. What ports can we use and what ports can we not use if we want to move tanks by rail to Afghanistan from Germany? One of the ways we can do it is put them on a train in Germany and send it across Russia and across Kazakhstan and perhaps offload them in Pakistan and send them into Afghanistan. That requires a certain kind of set of relationships, doesn’t it? If we want to have tanks in Afghanistan and Afghanistan hasn’t got a seacoast. We need to get on the phone and talk to Pakistan about it. Is Pakistan happy for us to be on their doorstep in a neighbouring country blowing the place up? Interesting question. What will make them happy? Interesting question. So there are strategies that are required here, and this touches on the idea of geostrategy I talked about earlier. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s, one of the things that we said at the time was that the Soviets were seeking to make Afghanistan a Soviet satellite as a stepping stone to making Pakistan a Soviet satellite because the Soviet Union wanted a warm water port. And if they were influential in Afghanistan, and if they could Finlandise Pakistan, then perhaps we would see a Soviet naval base in Pakistan and we would see the Soviets getting much stronger in the Indian Ocean. That’s geostrategy. It’s the strategy of seacoasts and straits and seas. And nowadays, of course of space. So we’re in between our sergeant major doing an ammo resupply. And the guys in the Foreign Office and the guys in defence diplomacy at the MoD and their American and global equivalents are making sure that the conditions exist for being able to move a tank from here to there. Where does the strategic end and the tactical begin? In the olden days, I’ll take a broad view of the olden days here because I’m a fan of George MacDonald Fraser, and he took a broad view of the olden days, in the olden days you won a war by seeking a single, decisive battle of annihilation. You won or lost a war with the single decisive battle of annihilation. Was that always the case? No, but that’s the way people thought. That is the classical idea. When I say classical, I mean classical. Arguably, every German general of the 18th, 19th and 20th century spent his entire career trying to refight the Battle of Cannae in order to achieve a decisive victory over the over the enemy. And that decisive victory at the tactical level, what is the word “decisive” mean? It means the battle which decides the victory, which decides. You would create a victory which caused the enemy no longer to be able to fight. So you are seeking to use tactical action, battle, fighting, sticking a bayonet into somebody’s guts to achieve strategic effect, and you are seeking to do it all at once and it was possible to do that all at once in the olden days. You could fight your Battle of Blenheim.
GW: Bosworth Field. One battle.
LN: Bosworth Field, quite. So there is one day, one field, we emphasise that when we say Bosworth Field, we restrict the geography, don’t we? When we restrict it, it’s not even the battle of Market Bosworth. It is the battle of Bosworth Field, where, as you say, a tactical action achieves strategic effect. And right through the 20th century, we saw commanders trying to achieve strategic effect with tactical action. They generally had a pretty clear idea of where the strategic ended and the tactical began because the strategic ended for, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, the strategic ended at the end of his nose or at the end of his fingertips. The strategic was all happening in Napoleon’s brain. He did not have a staff, as we would now understand it, his staff were people who relayed his commands, who supported him in various ways, but they didn’t help him do his thinking. That was a German idea at the time, which was developed in response to how complicated war was getting. But Napoleon was a military genius. So anything he was doing was strategic. When he was pursuing the strategy of the central position, that is putting his army between an enemy’s divided army, then he himself was the source of strategy, and even his marshals and generals were making tactical decisions based on strategic direction from Napoleon Bonaparte. So that is very simple, that is where the strategy ends and the tactical begins. Once you are outside of Napoleon’s tent, you are tactical. And he, of course, was the last person who could do that. He’s not the last person who tried, but he was the last person who could do that. When you look at the American Civil War, you see George Brinton McClellan, the Union general who had to be called the young Napoleon as a young officer, before he left the army and became a railroad manager, because these skills transfer well and he really thought that he could do what Napoleon did with industrial warfare, and he was wrong. He couldn’t, and he failed repeatedly. And Bobby Lee, Robert E. Lee, brilliant man, starts to see the problem of bringing that idea to modern industrial warfare, the idea of the single decisive battle of annihilation. And starting in 1863, Robert Lee tries to find a new way of achieving strategic victory. And he doesn’t succeed, which is probably a good thing. And it’s not until the 1920s,
GW: A lot of our listeners will agree it was a good thing he didn’t succeed. America would look very different if he had.
LN: Well, quite possibly. And I’ve got a wonderful counterfactual book with a picture of a victorious Robert E. Lee on the cover, Alternate Generals I think it’s called. What I think is important here to bear in mind is that not until the 1920s did people understand that there have to be sophisticated ways in a modern industrial world to wire the tactical to this procedure. So your question is an apt one, but it is a very difficult one to answer. And the fact that I’ve just given you a kind of chunky lecture for a while in answer to the question is, I think, an indication of that.
GW: Well, very, very useful and I don’t need to ask the easy questions because they’re boring, it’s the hard ones that are interesting. OK. A couple of questions that I tend to close things up with, and the first, I think it’s going to be quite tricky for you to answer is, what is the best idea you haven’t acted on?
LN: There is an absolute bastard of a question and I quite like it. It makes me scrape the inside of my head. My dad once gave me an idea for a significant improvement on the selfie stick, which had I devoted a couple of years to developing that might have made me a wealthy woman today. But something which I struggle with as a strategist indeed, is the fact that I am often thinking about the future and commercial consequences of a future action. And so my mind is filled with opportunities that both I and others have identified and then not acted on. And I will give you one example. In about 2012, I realised that the 3D printer, as we still call it, although I really think we ought to call it The Replicator. The 3D printer is going to be, and micro manufacture is going to be very important in the years to come, and indeed the last 10 years has shown that a lot of people have brought the 3D printer into their homes in sort of the way that people have sewing machines in their homes. Not everybody has one. It is a bit of a niche hobby, but they are something that that people have in their homes. And I know that a lot of my friends delight in producing custom dice, custom cosplay things, custom parts. And indeed, I say this citing some recreational examples. But I also know a fellow works over McLaren, and for 10 years now, they have been 3D printing car parts for high-performance automobiles. And one of the things I said to someone at the time was that there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect to see car parts no longer stocked going forward. Why should I fill a warehouse with car parts when I can fill a warehouse, perhaps even a smaller warehouse, with substrate and have a laser printer and just a 3D print car parts as required? Why would I want to waste space on storing and securing plastic when I can just make it as required? And so the idea that I had in about 2012 was to create a street corner shop that would be in every town around the world where you would walk in with a 3D rendering and you would walk out an hour or indeed 10 minutes later with whatever it is you had walked in with the 3D rendering of. And that would be the way to the future, and I did not act on that, and I don’t think it is sadly something that I can act on.
GW: That is not what I expected.
LN: Well, this is because I’m super commercially minded.
GW: That is not what I was expecting you to say. Actually, maker spaces do that sort of thing for people. I mean, we have a maker space here in Ipswich and we have 3D printers and people need stuff done, they’ll contact their local maker space. But I think we haven’t quite got to the point where people think of getting something 3D printed as a solution to a problem. I think that’s maybe why it’s not quite ready yet.
LN: But they will.
GW: They will eventually, yeah. OK. So my last question. Somebody gives you a million pounds or dollars or whatever. It’s imaginary money, so stretch the budget as required, to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. What would you do with it?
LN: If I had between, say, one and 10 million bucks or quid or Simoleons for the HEMA-verse, I would create a risk fund so that businesses that support historical martial arts could do so better and do so at scale. I think that I would love to see a business like Balefire Blades scaling up. I would love to see some of the makers of basic blades like Kvetton and Pike, like Castille be able to both improve their offer, although Castille’s pretty swept up and scale up. So I’d like to be able to see Kvetton and Pike. I’d like to see Regenyei Peter. I’d like to see Balefire be able to scale up successfully. I don’t mean scale up to the point where the product is ruined or anything. And I would love to see protective equipment, makers of protective equipment scale up. We have seen in recent years that scaling and really successfully getting into e-commerce has been elusive for some businesses. I think that Neyman is instructive. And I think that if there were a risk fund that could offer some backing to people who wanted to scale and could offer backing to people who wanted to go from being an amateur to being a pro, I think would be really useful. We have a lot of bright people who are doing good things.
GW: I could use it.
LN: I’m sure, absolutely and I don’t have an in-depth understanding of your business model, but I know that I see you doing a lot of bootstrapping type stuff, and I know I have participated in some of your bootstrapping type stuff, and I know I’ve got some of your stuff here on the shelf. And anybody who’s bootstrapped a business knows full well that it would be better if they could make riskier decisions, if they could decide to quit the day job, if they could decide to use better materials. One of the things I love about Castille as a maker is that although they do some very basic stuff, they also do really nice custom work. And I would love to see the level of basic stuff raised. And I would love to see the real artists be able to produce. I’d love to see Marco Danelli able to act to give direction to a business where he did not have to put his health at risk as a shop floor worker. So I think that we are an undercapitalised sport. I think there are advantages to that, but I think that helping capitalise the kit aspects, I think is important. And amongst other things, it would bring prices down. I think that seeing Pike and Kvetten’s stuff come onto the piste all over Europe and now starting in North America is great, and I think that will bring the price of entry level kit down. And I have no illusions. Much of what I’m seeing is entry level kit and that’s fine because the people who will be going to Balefire for their second or third blade will be coming from a sound basis. I think it’s a pity that Hanwei did not prove to be the promising future of historical fencing production that I guess 10 years ago we thought it might be. And it’s a pity that our kit suppliers are so precarious. Now one of the bits of advice I had when I picked up a sword again after years away from fencing was you should have bought a Hanwei last year before the fire, and that is really precarious.
GW: Yeah, that is a really interesting answer, and several of my guests have answered the question along the lines of we need to put money into developing better kit or whatever. But the you’re first person who suggested doing it with a risk fund and that’s a really interesting way to do it because it doesn’t commit the money to just one maker or just one idea of how to produce things, but it’s sort of just allows you to capitalize better. That’s fascinating.
LN: And just having makers put together business cases and pitch for money from a risk fund and having to think in a structured way and getting support from fund managers of a risk fund. Doing that, I think, would make a big difference as well.
GW: Indeed. Yeah, I definitely have to hire you to discuss this issue, but that’s not something for the podcast. But though just for the sake of listeners who may not be familiar with the story, Neyman. Am I correct in thinking that the kit manufacturer who they started out making some really good stuff, then a whole bunch of people ordered it and they couldn’t keep up with the orders and ended up going bust? Is that the company I’m thinking of?
LN: Neither you nor I is an insider. Neither you nor I have looked at their books and can say something like go bust. But they seemed to have made a really good go at operating at scale and operating as a full e-commerce business. And they appeared to have tremendous difficulty with order fulfilment and they appear to have ceased trading.
GW: Because not every listener will be familiar with that.
LN: And it’s very sad because they made beautiful jackets.
GW: And perhaps if they had had access to funding, they could have expanded a bit of manufacturing production and been able to fulfil those orders in a timely manner and things would have been fine and now we would all be wearing even better kit than we are now.
LN: Yeah, quite right. And we would have paid less for it.
GW: If I had the money, I’d give it to you.
LN: I appreciate that.
GW: So that’s why I have to get you to give me some strategic direction for my company so I can make the money and give it to you for a risk fund for all of us.
LN: I’m all for it.
GW: Brilliant idea. Well, thank you very much indeed for joining me today, Lynette. It’s been a very instructive and educational talking to you.
LN: I’m so pleased. It’s been a real pleasure to chat and I look forward to chatting again soon.