war on the rocks

The Theory and Reality of the Battle

B.A. Friedman, On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (Naval Institute Press, 2017).

Yogi Berra is said (incorrectly) to have said that in theory, theory and reality are the same. In reality, they are different. So it goes with B.A. Friedman’s engaging book, On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle. In theory, Friedman has written a book that explains the relationship between actions and results in battle. In reality, On Tactics is a workmanlike survey of thinking about tactical level ground combat — useful and accessible to the military novice and non-expert, but certainly not a theory of tactical warfare.

Friedman starts with the startling claim that there has never been a tactical theorist — an assertion with which students of thinkers as diverse as Carl von Clausewitz and William Lind might take issue. He distinguishes this gap in knowledge with the sizable library of strategic theory. Friedman dismisses military doctrine as too specific to a particular nation, force, technology, and time. By contrast, he explains that his theory will define terms, explain concepts, and draw lines of cause and effect independent of historical epoch and, curiously, domain within which combat takes place.

There is no question that Friedman set for himself no easy task. Military strategy does indeed have a timeless quality. Politics, social factors, culture, and technology certainly affect strategy. However, the strategic ideas, paradoxes, and dilemmas of even the most ancient wars are perfectly recognizable to today’s scholar and student. It is not so with tactics. What we know from the archeological and written record of the tactics employed by the massive armies of the Chinese Warring States period, for instance, is unrecognizable when placed beside the tactics of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s combinations of artillery, infantry, and heavy and light cavalry in battle are, yet again, dramatically different from the wireless radio-connected infantry, tank, engineer, artillery, airplane, and motorized logistics teams that clashed in Europe and Northern Africa during World War II. In many ways, this tactics-strategy distinction is a case-in-point of the dichotomy between the enduring nature of war and its evolving character.

Friedman (largely, though not entirely) adopts Carl von Clausewitz’s view — or, perhaps, Jon Sumida’s assessment of Clausewitz’s view — of the purpose of theory. Given the innumerable combinations and permutations of combat, any attempt at developing a systematic set of immutable tactical principles or laws is folly. A tactician must go into battle armed with his own military experience gained from training and combat and his natural talent for the fight. For Clausewitz, direct experience was necessarily limited. He argued that military history, properly analyzed, provided a nearly boundless source of synthetic experience that could broaden, deepen, and otherwise expand the tactician’s experience base and hone his talent for warfare. Essential to this process was an analysis of counterfactuals: Based on the historical record, what other decision could the commander have made and what would have been the result? Clausewitz called this process “critique” and believed that it was the best way to train a prospective military strategist. While the concept is certainly not new, Friedman’s promise to provide a means by which contemporary students can master tactics through Clausewitzian critique is exciting indeed.

The rest of the book concerns itself with redefining principles of warfare gleaned from a host of sources into nine broad tactical tenets. Friedman appears to have selected the principles of war that appeared most frequently on lists in as many sources as possible. He then redefined what remained as “tenets” (to avoid the rigidity implicit in a “principle”) and grouped them into J. F. C. Fuller’s physical, mental, and moral categories. Friedman then places these tenets in context using what he calls “tactical concepts.” The physical tenets are, broadly, a list of ways in which a tactical formation might be employed (e.g. mass and maneuver). The mental tenets are — again, generally — goals of physical employment (e.g. surprise and shock). The moral tenet, for Friedman, defines victory in battle: breaking the moral cohesion of the enemy. Tactical concepts include offense, defense, initiative, command and control, terrain, and so forth — the parameters that form the canvas on which Friedman’s tactical artist paints.

Friedman’s process provides a workable theory for developing a synthetic experience in a student of tactics. Clausewitz, to whom Friedman extensively refers, does precisely this in On War — albeit for the commander-in-chief of an army. As I briefly mentioned above, Clausewitz posits that military experience and training can never, in themselves, be sufficient. A true military education would have to rely on a specific reading of military history. Clausewitz was well aware that the available record was flawed. Eyewitness accounts were limited to what the author saw and heard, were subject to various sorts of bias, and could well be self-serving justifications in hindsight. Accounts written by historians depended on the above flawed record while introducing the author’s own mistakes and omissions. For Clausewitz, theory could correct errors and fill gaps in the available facts.

Armed with a corrected factual record, Clausewitz’s student would conduct a detailed analysis of the war or battle he was studying. In particular, he would focus on the decisions that commanders made with the information they had. The student would review other options that commanders had and did not take. Finally, he would critique each commander assigning credit and blame as they were deserved. This case study approach, Clausewitz believed, would produce the synthetic experience that actual combat experience and training did not.

My 25 years’ in the Marine Corps have taught me that an educational approach of the sort Clausewitz practiced is invaluable to becoming an educated tactician. The process of gathering available facts about a specific battle or engagement, assessing the validity of what you have gathered, understanding what the opposing commanders meant to do, judging the decisions those commanders made, and, finally, exposing your judgment to the critique of others is immensely useful.

First, this sort of critique exposes the theoretical continuity for which Friedman grasps. Tactical level military force — from the charioteer to the tank, from the hoplite to the modern infantryman — must be organized and ordered in certain ways to accomplish certain things. Politics, policy, strategy, terrain, and weather inevitably shape and attenuate the options the tactician has. Disorder, fear, uncertainty, and friction further limit what is possible. The enemy is never an inert object.

Second, the process shows that Friedman is right in avoiding referring to his theoretical terms as principles. Indeed, his tenets are general system behaviors. The things Friedman identifies are, in some way, almost always present in any battle or engagement. However, given the mass of variables that affects each tenet and the myriad of ways that the tenets interact with one another, the precise manner in which the tenets will manifest themselves can be dramatically different from encounter to encounter. Successful application of mass and firepower in one battle does not imply equal success if one attempts to do the exact same thing in another.

Third, learning in the manner that Clausewitz suggests reveals certain patterns to how the tactical system behaves. Pattern recognition — the juncture between talent, combat experience, and training — emerges from many, many repetitions. The tactical master differs from the novice in that he intuits the pattern even as it emerges in battle from the interaction of friendly force employment, enemy actions, and system behaviors. The novice doesn’t see it. Clausewitz’s approach to the historical record essentially provides the tactician with a nearly limitless opportunity for repetitions. With enough repetitions, a sufficiently talented student can become something more.

Friedman unfortunately concludes his book without explaining how his theory might achieve its goal — that is, how his tenets and concepts (which are, without a doubt, an improvement on the ever-increasing lists of principles) can aid the creation of virtual tactical experience through disciplined analysis of military history. This is not to say that Friedman doesn’t use military history. He clearly does. For instance, he uses examples as diverse as the campaigns of Alexander the Great, the Second and Third Punic Wars, classic Napoleonic battles, the U.S. Civil War, the World Wars, Vietnam, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Unfortunately, he only uses the available record to illustrate his tenets and concepts. He never takes the next step — a step his first chapter suggests — of showing the reader how to use the theoretical structure he built to learn about tactical warfare. This necessarily limits his book to a very readable primer of ground tactical tenets and concepts. It is certainly useful, but, to some degree, disappointing given his clear grasp of the subject matter and skill as a writer.

 

Col. Michael V. Samarov is the Commanding Officer of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force Southern Command. Col. Samarov was commissioned through the NROTC Program in 1992 following graduation from Boston University. He is a career infantry officer with command experience at the platoon, company, Recruiting Station, battalion, regimental, and SPMAGTF levels. Col. Samarov has also served in a variety of staff assignments with the III Marine Expeditionary Force and Headquarters Marine Corps. He is a graduate of The Basic School, Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, the School of Advanced Warfighting, and the Air War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of Southern Command, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Anthony J. Brosilow