Over the last half decade since arriving at West Point to teach history after three years of Cavalry Squadron command (one of those years in combat in west Baghdad in 2006) I have made a sustained argument in many published works about the primacy of strategy over tactics in war. My argument has basically said that if a state gets its strategy right in war then the tactics of war will fall into place. However, I argued simplistically and wrongly, if a state fails at strategy, then no amount of tactical excellence can save a war fought under a botched strategy. I began to develop this argument in response to a certain narrative that had formed since the Surge of Troops in Iraq in 2007. That narrative offered the attractive proposition that the US Army had failed at the tactics of counterinsurgency in Iraq from 2003 to 2006 but then the army was saved by an enlightened general named David Petraeus who turned his army around, got it doing the tactics of counterinsurgency right, and Iraq was put on the path to success thus giving Iraqis, in Petraeus’s own words, a “new hope.”
I still believe the Iraq Surge triumph narrative is misleading. Petraeus as a general performed in essentially the same way as his predecessor General George Casey, and there was no radical shift in operational method between the Surge army and what came before. Instead, violence in Iraq dropped by the end of 2007 primarily for other reasons, such as the spread of the Anbar Awakening, the effects of the previous two years of sectarian warfare, and the shia militia decision to stand down attacks. There is a growing body of analytical literature to support this explanation.[i]
Yet I also believe that I have become somewhat dogmatic in my sustained argument about the primacy of strategy over tactics. Last year while giving a lunchtime keynote address at a history conference at Columbia University in New York City where I made the argument of the primacy of strategy over tactics, Professor Anders Stephanson, a scholar of American diplomatic and political history at Columbia, pushed back in the ‘question and answer’ period by saying that my argument was “a-historical.” In the weeks following my lecture I reflected on what he said and concluded that he was right. If by rule strategy is always more important than tactics, then the logic of that rule is that tactics in war simply don’t matter. But they do. Any military historian worth his or her salt knows that sometimes in war tactics mean a lot, and wars can be lost by failing at tactics. Consider Louis XIV and the War of Spanish Succession from 1701 to 1713. Louis’s aims in the Low Countries were not stymied by poor strategy but more so by generals who were unable to fight effectively with the emerging technologies and tactics of early modern linear warfare. In fact, if Louis had been asked which one was more important during the war of Spanish Succession he almost certainly would have said tactical competence.
Yet such a nuance of historical understanding was buried by my rule of the primacy of strategy over tactics. By establishing as a rule the primacy of strategy over tactics I have turned into what historians most often fear: the social scientist and the constructionist of models, which lead to the cherry picking of history to confirm the model. I found myself using historical examples that conformed to my rule. My favorite example to support the rule of the primacy of strategy over tactics was the German army in World War II. Probably one of the finest industrialized tactical fighting forces the world had ever seen, I argued, that all of their tactical excellence could not rescue Germany from a dysfunctional strategy and morally perverse policy under Nazism. True enough of course for Germany and World War II, but for the historian just because something is true in one part of history, does not mean it is true for it all. This is what historians call contingency and the uniqueness of historical events.
Being slaved to my model of the primacy of strategy over tactics also caused me to fail at one of the hallmarks of good scholarly history: factual accuracy. Here is what happened to me. About three years ago when I was arguing forcefully that better tactics did not turn the war in Vietnam around under Abrams, nor in Iraq did enlightened counterinsurgency tactics under Petraeus turn that war around either, I came across a quote that was apparently made by Sun Tzu. “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” That reported Sun Tzu quote summed it all up for me in one short, clear, and brilliantly insightful phrase. Get your strategy right and the tactics will fall into place. Get your strategy wrong, however, and tactical excellence is only noise. But Sun Tzu never said it. To be sure it is an apocryphal quote where people believe Sun Tzu said it, though being apocryphal is different from established fact. I had become trapped by my model of the primacy of strategy over tactics and Sun Tzu’s reported quote seemed to sum it up so nicely with the weight of history and the power of the philosophy of Sun Tzu behind it, that I failed as a historian to check the actual primary source, The Art of War, to see if he actually said it.
Such is the seductive power of social scientific models: they order and rationalize things so well and explain present day problems so neatly. For me, the principle of the primacy of strategy over tactics in war became an unalterable rule, which history and my own writings of it had to conform.
But I have seen the errors of my ways and am recovering from the addiction of a rule-bound model that overly simplifies the past. My recovery was aided, naturally, through the study of history and teaching it in the classroom. It is not that I have come to believe that tactics matter most in war, or that tactical excellence can save failed strategy. Instead, through the study and teaching of history I have come to see that tactics do matter, sometimes a lot, and battles matter too.
George Washington and the year 1776 in the American Revolution come to mind. It was a difficult year for the Continental Army, Washington, and the Revolution itself. The previous year saw a string of apparent American victories by militia forces at Lexington-Concord and at Bunker Hill. But in 1776 the British became focused and allocated resources toward crushing the rebellion. Thus, the Continental army under Washington felt the full weight of British imperial power at the Battle of Long Island, White Plains, and the embarrassing retreat of Washington and his Continentals across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
Washington’s army was poor at tactics relative to British regulars, and the general knew it. Let’s play with history here a bit. Let us say we went back in time, put ourselves down in Washington’s headquarters in November 1776 – as his army was in tatters – and we told him of two famous aphorisms about counterinsurgency warfare from the modern world. First, that strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Second, that in an insurgency (like the American Revolution) the insurgent wins if he doesn’t lose. I think Washington would have laughed at those two aphorisms. He would have scratched his head and said my big problem right now at this point in time is not strategy, but the simple fact that my army can’t fight effectively at the tactical level, and it has shown at such battles as Long Island in August 1776. He would have also been puzzled by the concept of simply not losing, for Washington knew that to maintain the morale of his army and the citizenry, there came a time when he needed to win a battle or two. I think he would have also said that at least in his war bad tactics could lose the war for him, and conversely that tactical excellence was a key component to rebel victory.
But back to the present. If I had stuck with my model of the primacy of strategy over tactics it would have led me to a false understanding of Washington’s situation in late 1776 and the criticality of tactical performance of his army. I would have concluded that for Washington tactics simply didn’t matter, as long as he got his strategy right. In a sense this is what American counterinsurgency expert John Nagl, sometimes whimsically called a Coindinista by American investigative reporter Carl Prine, did in his 2005 book Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. He constructed a model that said if an army learns and adapts following a certain set of steps, and if it has as a certain end point of learning – call it the perfection of population centric counterinsurgency – then it can win.
With that model in hand Nagl undertook a study of the British in Malaya and the United States in Vietnam. Using his model of organizational learning as a template Nagl concluded that the British in Malaya followed his model and therefore they won, and the American’s didn’t follow his model and therefore they lost. It is a strikingly clever and seductive conclusion and one that led many to take that very template and apply it to Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is also a conclusion that horribly distorts the past and one fundamentally not supported by primary evidence. In so trying to make his model work Nagl severely misinterpreted Clausewitz and Jomini. He then went on to distort history by characterizing 18th Century warfare as made up of single battles “that often decided a war.” Yet the historian is hard pressed to find even one example of such a battle that ended a war during that age. More importantly Nagl’s apparent addiction to his model led him to misunderstand the two wars of Malaya and Vietnam. In the former the concern of senior British leaders was never really about the Army’s performance but of the Malayan police. And in Vietnam, the primary evidence shows quite well that the American Army followed Nagl’s learning model to a tee, but the US still lost the war.
Such are the perils of social scientific models when applied to the past in an attempt to explain it through history. In my journey back from the dark side and addiction of social scientific model through the study of history I believe that I have come to a more balanced understanding of the relationship between strategy and tactics in war. Generally speaking, history does show the importance of good strategy in war and that if it is not done right dubious results will often follow. But history also shows that bad tactics can cause a state to lose a war, or at least cause it to modify its original war aims. And I also think that in some historical cases one can find examples of where a war was fought with a faulty strategy but solid tactics from the start generated opportunities for strategy to reform itself.
Even though I have jettisoned my rule-bound model of the primacy of strategy over tactics in war, I still believe that the problems America faces in Afghanistan today are widely tied to a broken strategy.
Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes in his new book on Afghanistan, Little America, of a war fought by the United States that has seen buckets and buckets of wasted energy and effort, bungled military operations, dysfunctional command and organizational structures, and naïve, misguided priorities. To be sure the American war in Afghanistan has seen those things from the very start, just like in Iraq. But wars in general and the militaries that fight them are never models of efficiency – far from it. The Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz in his seminal book, On War, first published in 1832, introduced the idea of “friction” in war. Since wars are fought between peoples and militaries with opposing wills in the realm of death and destruction, friction has the effect of making seemingly smooth running military organizations quite imperfect, and at times, dysfunctional. The American military in Afghanistan in this regard is no different.
Consider some examples from military history. In the American Civil War the Union Army’s command structure never produced efficient staffs at the higher levels to adequately convey orders and plans to subordinate units, and the Confederates were even worse. Nor did the Union Army prioritize its resources in the most efficient way throughout the war, as evident in its telegraph systems being concentrated solely at the highest levels of command and never really making their way down to where the telegraph could have assisted lower level commanders. Moreover, the Union Army, arguably, never really got its organizational structures for combat right. It never developed a powerful striking force of all arms that could exploit victories in battle to make them truly decisive. Union commanding General George Meade at Gettysburg had soundly defeated Lee’s army but since he lacked a powerful counteroffensive force of cavalry and infantry and artillery he could not destroy Lee’s Army through exploitation.
In World War II, prior to the Normandy invasion, the American Army under General Omar Bradley had badly conceived the use of airpower to destroy German defensive positions on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach. There was an assumption that American high-flying strategic bombers would pulverize the beach defensives so that when the 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions landed they would easily move off of the beach and on to the high ground. But airpower did not have the assumed effect so that the plan that the assaulting divisions carried out went dreadfully wrong, and there was a high payment in blood as a result.
But in both cases — the Union Army in the Civil War and the American Army at the Normandy landings — the wars were fought under a broader strategic framework that made sense. When a state gets its strategy right in war, problems with tactics, organizational structures and procedures, and even problems with generalship tend to be subsumed and improved within a functioning and rational strategy. The Union Army in the American Civil War and the American Army in World War II, to be sure, had their fair share of “friction” but good strategy smoothed those problems out in the end. What Chandrasekeran essentially exposes in his new book on the Americans in Afghanistan is nothing new in war: friction. But when a state fights a war under a botched strategy — as the United States is currently doing in Afghanistan — without that umbrella of a functioning strategy then such friction is exposed to, and laid bare with, nothing higher for cover. Without good strategy the flaws and dysfunction that Chandrasekeran exposes is seen as instrumental noise, but without the melody of music — good strategy ¬— to make sense out of it and give it direction and purpose.
Although Sun Tzu never said “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat,” he did actually say something similar in The Art of War about the meaning and relative worth of strategy and tactics in war: “All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer,” argued Sun Tzu, “but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.”[ii]
The problem with American strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is that everyone could see the tactics of counterinsurgency, but as they saw them they also saw the strategy. And therein ultimately rests a profound point of which history teaches, and that can’t be reduced into a simplistic, social science rule. In some wars there may be times where tactics, in terms of relative importance, are more important than strategy. But as long as strategy is seen for what it is, and viewed in a separate light, then it can employ effectively tactical action. But let the two become one, as in Iraq and Afghanistan where it was not uncommon to hear pundits and generals referring to a “counterinsurgency strategy,” then we have lost the bubble on the proper relationship between tactics and strategy in war and the end result is nothing more than a hopeless strategic muddle that wastes blood and treasure.
Oh yes, Sun Tzu said another thing about the temporal aspect of war: “ There is no instance of a country having been benefited from prolonged warfare.”[iii] By merging the tactics of American counterinsurgency with strategy in Afghanistan, the United States has allowed its military to adhere to a tactical imperative of counterinsurgency — that counterinsurgency campaigns take a long, long time.
Commenting in 2010 on how long the United States would be in Afghanistan, General Petraeus said, “this is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”[iv] With regard to his strategic assessment of Afghanistan relative to Sun Tzu’s aphorism of the perils of protracted war for states, General Petraeus was wildly off the mark.
Time is a calculation of strategy, and good strategy in Afghanistan should have discerned long ago that such an investment of time combined with massive amounts of blood and treasure was simply not worth the cost.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.
[i] For example see: Andrew W. Koloski and John S. Kolasheski, “Thickening the Lines: Sons of Iraq, a Combat Multiplier,” Military Review, (January-February, 2009); Juan Cole, Shawn Brimley, Marina Ottaway, and Mathew Duss to “How Important was the Surge?” American Prospect, 25 July 2008, (http://prospect.org/article/how-important-was-surge); John Agnew, Thomas W. Gillespie, Jorge Gonzalez, and Brian Min, “Baghdad Nights: Evaluating the US Military Surge Using Nighttime Light Signatures,” Environment and Planning, (October 2008); Patrick Cockburn, “Who is the Enemy?” London Review of Books, (March 2008); Joshua Thiel, “The Statistical Irrelevance of American SIGACT Data: Iraq Surge Analysis Reveals Reality,” Small Wars Journal, 12 April 2011, (http://smallwarsjournal.com/blog/journal/docs-temp/732-thiel1.pdf); also see Carl Prine “David Ucko is Wrong (Mostly),” Line of Departure, 30 November 2011, (http://www.lineofdeparture.com/2011/11/30/ucko-is-wrong-mostly/)
[ii] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, translated by Lionel Giles, (Harrisburg: The Military Service Publishing Company, 1944), 62.
[iii] Ibid., 45.
[iv] Quoted in Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 332-33.