Summer Reading: On Tactics

B.A. Friedman’s On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle is an excellent book on the tactical level of war, written for a professional (military) and general audience, and provides pretty much a one-stop primer on combat and battle for undergraduate or graduate students in security studies or strategic studies. Reading it as an academic, it’s clear that the book’s focus is pulled in two directions. On one hand, Friedman seeks to define a general theory of tactics (and the relationship between tactics and strategy), on the other, the functional role of the book is explained in the subtitle, A Theory of Victory in Battle. The book appears to be written primarily for military professionals to understand the relationship between concepts that permit them to win engagements at the tactical level. In this respect, the book provides an overview of various conceptual approaches to tactics in military theory, and his own conceptual framework for thinking about the tactical level of war. At the same time, this means that the book is less about the concept of tactics, and more about how to examine the tactical level of war.

Friedman splits his analysis in two, covering 9 tactical tenets, and then developing his analysis in the second half of the book with more general tactical concepts, like command and control, and the relationship between tactics and strategy. There is also pretty much 50% of the book again in appendices on various issues like planning, force structure and the operational level of war. Still, the most interesting part for me was his analysis of tactics in terms of tenets. In Friedman’s words:

The intent of this tactical system is that the tactician arranges the physical means at his disposal in terms of maneuver, mass, firepower, and tempo to inflict mental effects in the mind of the opposing tactician and his units: deception, surprise, confusion, and shock. The accumulation of these mental effects will at some point overwhelm the enemy unit, at which point they will lose moral cohesion. Every military unit has its breaking point, even if it is propped up by a variety of factors. Once that moral cohesion is broken — usually only temporarily — the broken unit cannot prevent the victorious one from achieving its mission.

As a way of thinking about warfare (and achieving victory in warfare), Friedman’s book is excellent. Yet as an analysis of the concept of tactics, it left me with more questions than answers. After all, what is a tactic? Or, what does tactics even mean? Etymologically, the word refers to arrangement, with tactics being the arrangement of military forces. Yet tactics, as an idea, has far wider reach. We find some mention of tactics in almost any adversarial situation — game tactics, bargaining tactics, trial tactics, and so on. Given the diverse places in which we encounter the concept of tactics, how does Friedman’s theory of tactics hold?

Underlying Friedman’s principles of tactics are expected patterns of interaction in a competitive domain. These take general forms, but could be classed as heuristics derived from experience or study. In any given tactical situation, a person — or commander — has to keep in mind not only the possible reactions to any course of action, but also the opponent’s expectations. The point being that the outcome of certain elements of combat or violent interaction are, at some level of abstraction, predictable to a high degree of confidence. For instance, flanking a pinned opponent’s position presents them with three general courses of action: attempt to drive forwards (probably disastrous), fight in place (risking disaster), or withdraw (trading position for minimal damage). Combat, at this level of abstraction, is less about victory than it is about exchange. The point being is that “the enemy gets a vote” and even a mutual recognition of all possible outcomes by both sides would not necessarily permit either to predict their opponent’s choice, even before factoring in things like resource constraints (notably time and information).

In this sense, tactics are expressions of belief, experience, and common knowledge. Tacticians not only hold a set of beliefs about their own and their opponent’s capabilities — derived from experience — but they also possess a limited form of common knowledge. Common knowledge in warfare is limited precisely because war is an inherently uncertain enterprise. Unlike a game of chess, you can never be sure that your bishop can take that pawn, unlike numerous wargames, you can never be sure of the odds of an individual action, either. At the onset of conflict, commanders will not have much to go on to estimate what both sides can take as a given, as conflicts drag on, commanders on both sides are likely to understand the consequences of small actions. On Tactics provides an excellent scheme for thinking through these kinds of interactions, as well as which are relatively unaffected by changes over time. As Friedman notes, ambushes are a time-honoured way of winning. Moreover, I think Friedman understates the applicability of his analysis when he states that it is restricted to group-level combat. With a bit of an intellectual crowbar, one could easily apply his framework to any boxing match or MMA fight. Sure, fans love to see a knock-out, but most decisive fights demonstrate that breaking an opponent’s willpower is the surest route to victory. In that sense, I see Friedman’s book as a solid foundation for wider thinking about tactics.

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