Tag Archives: Shakespeare and Strategy

Dunsinane: Shattering the Vase

This article is part of a series hosted by The Strategy Bridge and CIMSEC, entitled #Shakespeare and Strategy. See all of the entries at the Asides blog of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Thanks to the Young Professionals Consortium for setting up the series.

The Irish poet Thomas Moore wrote:

Like the vase, in which roses have once been distill’d — You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will, But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.

So it is with David Greig’s masterful play Dunsinane, ostensibly a modern sequel to Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but in reality a morality play about the failures of a post-invasion military operation. The play lingers with you, not with the scent of roses, but with the putrid stench of a body decaying before your eyes, ears and nose. That is not a reflection of this stunningly brilliant play as written or acted. Rather, it is the grim reality of the catastrophic consequences when political and military leaders lack a vision prior to embarking on a major military operation.

While CIMSEC has elected to publish essays about the play within the context of military strategy, no essay should omit mention of the truly extraordinary performances of each cast member, especially Darrell D’Silva as Siward, Siobhan Redmond as Gruach (aka Lady Macbeth), and Tom Gill as the boy soldier aged by war. These actors and the entire cast brought an already superbly written play to life.

The opening scenes of Dunsinane  take place in the closing scenes of “Macbeth,” as Great Birnam Wood is marching toward the Scottish king’s castle.1 The English army is led by the English/Danish Earl of Northumbria, Siward. Joining his army are King Malcolm, who claims the Scottish throne himself, and Macduff, Thane of Fife, both of whom have been living in exile in England. Now they have persuaded a foreign army to seize power for them.

Dunsinane engages the audience to determine whether or not it might have been right to depose Macbeth. In the final act of the original play Siward repeatedly demonizes Macbeth as a tyrant – a word used by Siward’s son before he’s killed by Macbeth. In Dunsinane,  Macbeth is viewed by Gruach, admittedly the “fiend-like queen,” as a good king who ruled well for fifteen years. Siward’s victory already has a cost – the life of his son Osborn. The loss of his son is only Siward’s first lesson in what will be a costly and bloody war. The second is lost to him, and perhaps to anyone not paying close attention in Dunsinane.  The body of King Macbeth, the vanquished “tyrant,” is slowly carried on stage by a ceremonial guard with all the dignity of a ruler, his body cleanly covered by a flag. As it is carried off, the body of Osborn arrives covered in a cheap bloody shroud as Siward kneels over him. In death, Macbeth has been given legendary status among the Scots in their fight against the invading English; Osborn will quickly be forgotten by his contemporary English army and history.

Beyond the wars of lords and generals, the English footsoldiers also misunderstand their Scottish counterparts. Reaching the keep after losing twelve soldiers, more soldiers are injured by a single Scottish archer’s hopeless attack. “Why did he fight? Why did he not surrender?” one soldier asks the others. The playwright could have inserted the response, “Because some insurgents won’t quit or see reason,” but that would have been unnecessary.

Victorious in battle over Macbeth, the glory and the raison d’etre quickly evaporate. He is stymied almost as soon as the war is supposedly won. In one of the most demoralizing scenes, MacDuff tries to explain to the intelligent but ignorant Siward the map of Scotland, its factions, and to whom the factions are loyal (Malcolm or Gruach.) Siward has already failed in his mission as he has never seen them before. Why, one might ask, was this Earl not already familiar with the Scottish situation that is on his border. Siward, thinking only in terms of a short-term invasion, has failed to learn the geopolitical situation and plan for the potential consequences.

One might easily think of Iraq or Afghanistan as current examples, but there are micro-examples as well. Last summer I had a discussion with an individual about their pending posting on the other side of the world and started asking the questions Siward should have asked. Instead of thoughtful reflection, the individual’s response, that the study of history and politics had no value and that only tactical issues were important, further revealed how apathetic and unaware warfighters can be of the facets of war . The consequences of that particular posting have borne out the “Siwardness” of that individual’s abilities.

Dunsinane 2015 Press Image 9


Siward has no long-range plan to “win” though many in the play question how that might be defined. At first, he states that he has come to bring order. However, as Gruach argues, “We had peace until you came along.” Later, the Hamid Karzai-like Malcolm, draped in shimmering golden robes, and Gruach fight their civil war as Siward not only shifts his support from one to the other, but also the reason for the war. From bringing order, the insurgency begins to result in more and more English lives lost. Siward now proclaims the war is about justice. The soldiers, having prematurely cheered for their victory at the keep are now questioning why they are still there. With time on their hands, they begin taking local treasures or passing their time using a religious mural – and eventually a local girl – as target practice. This takes place below the permanently staged giant Celtic cross. Siward is oblivious to the activities of his soldiers and the local populace except for the mounting deaths, until he himself begins to take drastic and more costly measures against the Scots which, in turn, only results in a broader-based insurgency.

Eventually, Siward suggests that, “We will go to the clans and make a parliament,” an anachronism in age of Macbeth and Siward, but still foreign to the Scots in the play and one half-expects the term Loya Jirga to be used by the playwright. Although it appears a Siward-suggested agreement is reached, the factions quickly fall apart and the war is renewed. Both Gruach and Malcolm realize that the increasingly-fatigued Siward has no idea how to win or what “winning” is. They realize before he does that he must step aside for another leader. Eventually, Siward recognizes that the war is futile and hands over his sword to his successor, the pragmatic realist Lord Egham, as he personally delivers the bloody body parts that once were Gruach’s son and heir to the throne.

The ending of Dunsinane  begs for its own sequel. How would Egham continue the operations? With whom would he ally? How would he define victory? Would he bring the troops homes?

As this play demonstrates, wars aren’t won or lost by the bravery of soldiers; they’re won or lost by the political and military leaders who fail to understand history, politics, cultures, linguistics, and, with Dunisnane, plays. Dunsinane ought to be performed at every military academy and war college, the Pentagon, and for policymakers of any nation. But if history tells us anything, the audience would applaud loudly at the conclusion of the play, but the lessons of Dunsinane would soon be forgotten and the vases shattered once again.

Claude Berube teaches naval history at the United States Naval Academy and was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve serving twice overseas. He is the author of more than 50 articles and co-author three non-fiction books. He is the author of the Connor Stark novels published through Naval Institute Press (Syren’s Song, the sequel to The Aden Effect, will be published this fall.) The views expressed are his own and not those of the Department of the Navy.

1.  Thus fulfilling one of witch’s predictions foretelling of Macbeth’s eventual defeat.  . In  the only unfortunate scene, the audience laughs as the English army mobilizes in Great Birnam Wood, disguising themselves as trees and shrubs.  The way the scene is presented and the audience’s reaction undermine what is actually an effective means of military deception – how exactly do you hide an army just a few miles from the enemey’s keep?  It is a version of naval dazzle camouflage or of the efforts prior to D-Day to confuse the Nazis about the originating point of the real cross-channel invasion.

Stumbling on Peace: The exposition of strategic misstep

This article is part of a series hosted by The Strategy Bridge and CIMSEC, entitled #Shakespeare and Strategy. See all of the entries at the Asides blog of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Thanks to the Young Professionals Consortium for setting up the series.

Siward confronts GruachDavid Greig’s Dunsinane, while set in the centuries-ago land of Scotland, offers a modern perspective on the nature of war, peace, language, and politics. The events of the production explore the interplay between Siward, commander of English forces in Scotland, Malcolm, the English-installed King of Scotland, and Gruach, formerly both Lady Macbeth and queen of Scotland. Through several rounds and layers of intrigue, Gruach sows enough discord and mayhem to keep English forces at bay. Malcolm, for his part, does his best to engage with Siward in an attempt to illustrate that the use of overwhelming force is not always tenable. After a betrayal late in the first act, the second act functions as an extended denouement, with less action and less emotion. Indeed, the conclusion of the play, with a wandering Siward numbly stumbling out of the scene, parallels the endings to French and U.S. operations in Vietnam, Russian and ISAF campaigns in Afghanistan, UN experiences in Somalia, and the US adventure in Iraq.1

Nuanced allegiances come to the fore in the first act when Siward and Malcolm discuss their own perceived strengths. Siward wishes for Malcolm to act forcefully and seriously, rather than be thought of as a drunken playboy. Malcolm’s subsequent lecture on the desirability of being perceived as weak while operating from a position of strength mirrors current discussions on the rise of Chinese power in the Pacific, echoing Sun Tzu’s exhortation to “appear weak when you are strong.”

The arbiter of the legitimate exercise of violence in Scotland owes more effort than simply appreciating Gaelic songs and lilts.

That Malcolm channels Sun Tzu is not an accident — throughout the play, Malcolm uses a longer, strategic vision of conflict, whereas Siward focuses on the operational level. Siward initially senses that, having “ended” the fighting through the regime change at the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, peace is nigh for Scotland and its clans. Throughout the play, Siward’s lack of vision and misunderstanding of the country that he now occupies enables Gruach and the Scottish clan leaders to undermine the English vision for peace. Gruach’s admonition at the end of the play — “you’ve been in Scotland a year, and you still don’t know the language!” — drives home the point that Siward, as the arbiter of the legitimate exercise of violence in Scotland, owes more effort than simply appreciating Gaelic songs and lilts.

Siward’s lieutenant, the tactical supervisor, has no appreciation for Scotland beyond its resources and his survival. He realizes through collaboration with his ostensible foes along with exploitation of war trophies that he has no investment in Scotland, and indeed survives through tactical fits of inaction. His inaction comes back to haunt him at the end of the first act, when, after witnessing a brutally treacherous and suicidal act, he helplessly cries out “we have got to get the fuck out of here,” an exclamation that could be heard on any of a dozen fields of quagmire.2

The slower, more deliberate second act has a scene with the line

“We win because if we don’t win – we lose – and if we lose – then what?”

Here again the play foreshadows discourse about assumptions of a zero-sum world of power. In instances such as China’s increasing influence in the Pacific and the adventures of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, there exists a tendency to leave alternatives to military-centric actions on the table. This unexamined default course of action leads to a path dependency wherein strategic leaders are stuck; they cannot simply withdraw, nor can they simply win. Strategic leaders in those situations, as Malcolm remarks about the English in Scotland, are committed to an extended dance of saving face. In this case — as well with Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, et al — peace operations entail vastly increased losses of materiel, personnel, and treasure.

Greig acknowledges the creeping existential dread that has accompanied interventions since Korea.

Put another way, assumptions of power as a zero-sum game are increasingly outmoded.3 Dunsinane anticipates requirements for transitioning towards alternative concepts of power and peace. Interestingly, through Siward’s downward spiral, Greig acknowledges the creeping existential dread that has accompanied interventions since Korea. In doing so, he makes the case that hard, coercive methods may only have existed as an effective means of exerting power and making peace for a narrow slice of the early 20th century.

Dunsinane’s last and most vivid impression — that of the formerly upright and powerful Siward stumbling around a frozen loch, trying to “find a new country” — conjures images of Africa, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent in the mid 20th century, with former powers retreating from far-flung lands and their subsequent search for a new identity. At the same time, Siward’s search for “a new country” calls to mind Hamlet’s “undiscovered country” of a life after death. Judging from Grieg’s narrative, newly post-colonial countries may indeed have to undergo a rebirth if their Siwards are to find peace.

LT Vic Allen serves at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command and serves as CIMSEC’s Director of Social Media. He can be followed at Medium here. All posts contain the authors’ opinions alone and do not represent any of the military services or the Department of Defense.

1. Ramberg, B. (2009). The Precedents for Withdrawal: From Vietnam to Iraq. Foreign Affairs, 88, 2.

2. The mostly civilian audience laughed at this line, which struck me as oddly incongruent with the sad and violent end of the first act.

3. Read, J. H. (2012). Is Power Zero-sum or Variable-sum? Old Arguments and New Beginnings. Journal of Political Power, 5(1), 5-31. Retrieved from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1900717

Scotland, Counter-Insurgency, and Sea Control

This article is part of a series hosted by The Strategy Bridge and CIMSEC, entitled #Shakespeare and Strategy. See all of the entries at the Asides blog of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Thanks to the Young Professionals Consortium for setting up the series.

1_FYwDrMPjtw8FffAcTb8iwQWhen curtains close on Shakespeare’s 1606 The Tragedy of Macbeth, audiences are left to ponder the fate of Scotland. Contemporaries of the playwright were well aware of the Union of the Crowns a mere three years prior in 1603, uniting the rule of England and Ireland under James the VI, King of the Scots. But few could claim to know the events that followed Macbeth’s toppling by the hands of an English army half a millennium earlier. Part of the problem is that as with many popular pieces on Scottish history, such as Braveheart, a factual recounting – if one could be determined in the first place – is sacrificed to good story-telling.

Dunsinane, written by David Greig and playing in an excellent National Theatre of Scotland production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harmon Hall in Washington, DC, through February 21st, brings a few elements of the story closer to what is known: Macbeth ruled for over 15 years and wasn’t widely considered a tyrant. The narrative largely picks up where Macbeth left off, chronicling England’s attempt to establish a friendly regime across its northern border and the subsequent insurgency and counter-insurgency campaigns. Greig uses this context to explore military, political, and moral themes (more on those later) quite familiar to those who’ve lived through or in the shadows of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But what does sea power have to do with a land war and occupation of physical territory? A monologue from a boy soldier opens the show:

“We boarded our ships at the Thames mouth.
There were two thousand of us and also
Some horses for the knights to ride and animals
For us to slaughter on the way.

_MG_0095 (2)We stood on the Essex shore a mess of shingle,
Some of us new and eager for a fight and others
Not so sure but all of us both knowing and not knowing

What lay ahead of us.


Scotland. Where we would install a king.


Of the river Forth and we landed in a place called Fife –
Which is wild compared to Kent –
And there we camped in woods near the abbey of Inchocolm.

And waited until at last he came to us – Siward
Our commander – and he told the sergeants it was time
To prepare us to fight.

Clearly sealift and local sea control can smooth the path for an initial military assault. The sea journey described above is just shy of 400 nm, and would have taken far less time than a northward march, thereby increasing the chance the expedition maintains some element of surprise. Whether the landing force is completely unexpected or merely arrives sooner after word reaches Macbeth and his advisors at Dunsinane, seat of his power, the force would have faced less entrenched and ready resistance. Additionally, had Macbeth received early warning, the mobility afforded by the sea would still have allowed the expedition some latitude in choosing where to disembark – a perennial complication for military planners facing an amphibious landing, from the American revolutionaries accounting for the movements of the British to Nazi Germany awaiting the Americans.

Invasion by sea would also have impacted the campaigns’ logistics. The initial requirements for foodstuffs and military supplies would have been greater than on a march, which could have offered a mix of supplies provided by other vassals when available and foraging in their absence. But the fact that the force set off from Essex indicates many of the forces were raised by southern nobles, easing the burden on the expedition’s northern commander, Siward, Earl of Northumbria. A march through his lands, bordering Scotland, would also have risked engendering a hostile populace enroute that might have joined Macbeth’s cause.

As in a later invasion of Scotland during the (2nd) English Civil War, the sealift could have been retained for resupply over open sea lines of communication (SLOCs) to limit the need of the expedition to disperse and forage after landing. It is unclear in Dunsinane whether the ships were kept at hand. But indications are that the English did not anticipate a long phase of contested nation-building to defend their installed king’s regime, and likely expected to rely on Siward’s neighboring realms as the situation changed. They may also have believed local sea control and predictable SLOCs would be challenged by other powers such Norway, which commanded more allegiance from some Scottish chiefs than the king at Dunsinane. This allegiance in turn was easier to command when, due to Scotland’s extensive coastlines, sea control could be no more than a localized or transitory thing, meaning other foreign powers could provide even overt support to prop up local proxies with little risk of interception.

Whether fleeting or near-absolute, a mastery of the waves confers both advantages and dangers. When it comes unchallenged at the start of a campaign it can breed an overconfidence that the rest of the endeavor will be as easy. Additionally, while command of the seas can be a great enabler in projecting power against an enemy state, it is of more limited use if a war transitions to a counter-insurgency phase where the nexus of success resides with the support of the people. This is not to say it’s of no use – the success of the U.S. counter-insurgency campaigns in the Philippine-American War were possible only through extensive naval activities – but unhindered SLOCs could only set the stage in cases such as Vietnam and Iraq, where what happened ashore was in many ways divorced from what happened at sea. It’s a lesson those eying an enemy (or wayward province) across the waters would do well to remember.


In Dunsinane, sea power is a minor character, and the end of major combat operations it supported does not mark the beginning of peace. That comes with acceptance of defeat by the enemy, which as Clausewitz notes cannot always be imposed through the mere “total occupation of his territory.” And, as the German states learned in the Franco-Prussian War, the destruction of a regime’s forces can create a power vacuum filled by those even more loathe to throw in the towel. In the face of a recalcitrant foe, an occupier that increases its stay tempts provoking the people and swelling the ranks of the enemy.

While Siward and the English may have factored in the risk of rising resentment in their decision to invade by sea, they seem to overlook that of outlasting their welcome. In lines that could have been taken from The Accidental Guerilla, a book by Gen. Petraeus’s senior counter-insurgency advisor, David Kilcullen, Siward’s subordinate Egham says:

They’re not fighting us because of their Queen. They’re fighting us because we’re here. The Scots will fight anyone who’s standing in front of them. They like fighting. In fact – they’re fighting us partly because we’re stopping them from fighting each other.

Image-5 470x394Successful insurgencies and counter-insurgencies make this fighting personal. The former try to provoke an emotional (over-) response from the latter, while the later try to win the hearts and minds (or at least acquiescence) of the people through a return to a semblance of normalcy. In the forthcoming novel Ghost Fleet, by Peter Singer and August Cole, which also draws inspiration from the recent decades of counter-insurgency, a colonel chides another commander for “taking the losses from the insurgency personally…missing [the] greater responsibilities.” The death of Siward’s son at the beginning of the play makes the campaign immediately personal for him. While he and Egham both try to protect their men from harm by seeking accommodation with their former enemy, once the blood of their comrades is spilled in the insurgency phase Siward quickly goes through the seven stages of grief to punitive violence.

I don’t have as much experience with counter-insurgency as others writing in this series do, so I can’t say with certainty how I would handle the personal nature of it. Twice – in 2009 and in 2015 – I was ordered to spend a year with the war in Afghanistan, but twice those orders were cancelled – after 1 week and 4 hours respectively (I learned after the first time to wait awhile before telling my wife, just to be sure). But I’ve been lucky. Sailors by the thousands have been called from Active Duty assignments and the Reserve to serve in the counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some are still being sent to the latter to this day. This is to say nothing of the contributions of the U.S. Marine Corps. Sea control may not make much difference in the counter-insurgency campaigns of Dunsinane or Afghanistan, but at the individual level the line between sea power and land power, between sailor and soldier, has blurred.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council.

Maritime Security and the Arts

Earlier this year we ran a short series of submissions highlighting fiction’s power to illuminate insights about possible futures. Our colleagues at War on the Rocks and the Atlantic Council run a similar, on-going project – the Art of Future Warfare – that is well worth checking out.

Next week we’ll use the power of historical fiction to likewise draw out timeless themes of warfare and security with the help of our friends, the Scots. If you’re in DC and would like to participate, let us know. Here’s the official press release:

Introducing #Shakespeare and Strategy

Image-5-470x394This February, the Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) is bringing the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of David Greig’s Dunsinane to the nation’s capital. The STC’s Young Professionals Consortium, in partnership with The Strategy Bridge and the Center for International Maritime Security, has organized #Shakespeare and Strategy, a special online seminar to accompany this exciting play.

Dunsinane picks up where Macbeth leaves off, telling the story of the fight to restore order and stability to Scotland after regicide. Grieg’s work is much more than a sequel to one of the great entries in the Western canon; written during the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Grieg explores both the clash of national identities as well as the challenge of restoring peace and nation building in a hostile foreign land. As STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn says “Dunsinane is a timely and powerful piece, and one that serves our mission to produce works inspired by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, delivered in a modern voice. This is a play that will resonate with today’s audiences.”

For the rest of the run of the play, you can look forward to hearing from the unique perspective of part of Dunsinane’s audience – young veterans, military officers, and defense professionals who will share their reactions on the play and how it relates to their own experiences and challenges.



Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Young Professionals Consortium is an enthusiastic network of innovative young professionals from around the Nation’s Capital with a mission to cultivate an appreciation for theatre among young professionals through the productions of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Learn more about the YPC on Facebook.

The Strategy Bridge is an online publication on strategy, national security, and military affairs. It is edited by Nathan Finney, Rich Ganske, Mikhail Grinberg, and Tyrell Mayfield and features writing from a diverse collection of military officers, defense civilians, and academics. Join the conversation at www.thestrategybridge.com.

The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) is a non-partisan think tank formed in 2012 and as of 2015 has members and chapters in more than 30 countries. CIMSEC’s mission is to build a global community of professionals, academics, and forward thinkers from a variety of fields who wish to further international maritime peace and security through an exchange of ideas and the rigor of critical thought and writing. Join us at www.cimsec.org.


Follow all of the entries, including those from CIMSEC and Nate Finney’s kick-off post at the STC’s Asides blog. If you have the chance to see the show and would like to participate, let us know.