Tactical and Strategic Interdependence

Carl von Clausewitz’s On War is oft quoted, but rarely with a holistic understanding. Therefore, many Clausewitzian aphorisms take on a meaning based on context independent of the text. Conceptual confusion ensues and terms like tactics and strategy are thrown around without any real grasp of their theoretical underpinnings or their complex relationship. What, then, are tactics and strategy and what is the nature of their relationship?

Carl von Clausewitz (Wikimedia)

Appealing to the text, Clausewitz explains, “Tactics and strategy are two activities mutually permeating each other in time and space, at the same time essentially different activities, the inner laws and mutual relations, of which cannot be intelligible at all to the mind until a clear conception of the nature of each activity is established.”[1] Although this exposition might seem wanting, and unduly complicated, there is a nested relationship that is greater than a simple means and ends. Moreover, three key points are introduced that form the backbone of the relationship: “essential difference,” “inner laws,” and “mutual relations.” Two seemingly conflicting forces are at work: strategy and tactics are fundamentally different concepts that share a spatiotemporal context, yet they are interdependent. How is this possible? Turning back to Clausewitz, we are reminded that the tactical and strategic understanding is not possible without an eye towards the whole, war.

“Tactics and strategy are two activities mutually permeating each other in time and space, at the same time essentially different activities, the inner laws and mutual relations, of which cannot be intelligible at all to the mind until a clear conception of the nature of each activity is established.”

On War is a prescriptive exposition of strategy and tactics based on a strict definition of war that Clausewitz initially proposes, and from which he then derives the entirety of the theory.[2] Defining war, Clausewitz asserts, “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”[3] War is a deliberate and interactive violent act. War as an act necessarily entails a beginning and an end; it delimits time and space. Further, this act has purpose as it is used with intentions to reach “our will,” our goals and ends. Abstracting from Clausewitz’s claim that an instantaneous blow to completely disarm our enemy is the aim of war, we procure the notion that pure theoretical war is ultimately a “single act.” War, like the singularity at the center of a black hole, condenses into an infinite mass devoid of time and space where means and ends—strategy and tactics—are coextensive. Logically then, Clausewitz muses, “If this fighting was a single act, there would be no necessity for any further subdivision.”[4] War, however, is not a single act, but “composed of a greater or less number of single acts, complete in themselves, which we call combats.”[5] These combats are the subdivisions from which strategy and tactics necessarily emerge.

Artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole. (NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech)

Strategy and tactics disappear as war tends to its ultimate theoretical expression. In reality war is anything but the ideal single act. Instead war is composed of numerous combats separated over time and space. What then is combat? According to Clausewitz, “Combat means fighting.”[6] More specifically, however, “The combat is the single activity in War; in the combat the destruction of the enemy opposed to us is the means to the end.”[7] The definition of combat parallels that of war as deliberate and interactive violence, but it is an activity of fighting rather than an act. In the act of war, the single act is compressed in time and space as a combat; there is only one and that combat is whole. Although strategy and tactics would be coextensive, they disappear—war without subdivision—because in that single act all elements of war are present, layered and mixed together into that ultimate act. Combats, unlike war, imply continuousness. As a result strategy and tactics exist to manage, in various degrees, these combats compensating for the fact that war is not a single act.  

Both strategy and tactics depend on combat, but, and this is their essential difference, they differ in their specific connection to it. Tactics are considered “the formation and conduct of these single combats in themselves” while strategy is “the combination of them with one another, with a view to the ultimate object of the War.”[8] Through the notion of combat we begin to see the differentiation forming between tactics and strategy. Tactics deals with the discrete employment of a single combat, while strategy handles their multiplicity and interdependence. Still we need a rigorous conception. Clausewitz strictly defines “tactics [as] the theory of the use of military forces in combat,” while “Strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the War.”[9] These definitions highlight the difference between the means and ends of tactics and strategy. Tactics considers the permutations of military forces, strategy the combinations of combats, actual and possible.

Additionally, I argue that the use of a specific disposition of military forces (as opposed to another) is the object of the tactics. Of course tactics concerns itself with the result of the combat, but that result, as an object, is only achievable through a certain formulation of the military forces; without this there is no explicit justification for tactics to organize in one way as opposed to another. Stated more clearly: tactics is the use of a specific combination of military forces in time and space in order to achieve the object of the combat. Strategy, however, is the use of a specific combination of combats in a larger spatiotemporal context in order to achieve the object of the war. In phrasing it as such—through combat—we identify the connection and extract the conceptual hierarchy of strategy and tactics.

A map describing one version of the so-called Schlieffen Plan. Strategy, tactics, neither, or both? (U.S. Military Academy/Wikimedia)

Although strategy and tactics have separate links to combat, combat is also the force that forms the connection for the mutual relation between strategy and tactics. That said, each—strategy and tactics—follows its own inner laws. Distilling out these laws requires looking into the means and ends of tactics and strategy through which we can identify the combat link. Clausewitz explains “In tactics the means are the disciplined armed forces which are to carry on the contest. The object is victory.”[10] Tactical means are military forces; the end is victory in combat. This is quite simple and follows, as it should, from the definition of tactics. Combat is the context within which tactics are engaged and the limiting factor, based on engagement, towards possible victory. Strategy is far more complicated. Clausewitz writes, “By means of this victory strategy gains the object for which it appointed the combat, and which constitutes its special signification.”[11] Strategic means is the victory, obtained by tactics, through the use of the combat. Strategy, however, also determines whether a combat should take place, from which (assuming the tactics enable the victory) strategy gains clout towards the object of the war. Unfortunately the results are not definite and the possible combinations (much more than the tactical) are endless.

More importantly, tactical results are up to a fair bit of chance. Consequently, the ends of tactics, the victory, I argue, should be more precisely defined at the specific disposition of military forces such that contact, actual or possible, with the enemy results in the desired outcome.[12] This comes from the notion that you cannot will yourself to win, but you can place yourself in a position such that when confronted with the other—the enemy—you have the form and potential where the interaction will lead to your desired end state, barring any major unforeseen possibilities. This is because the combat, the actual fighting, is a mixture of physical and moral forces—unknown and unknowable. Both tactics and strategy understand that the potential of military forces in time and space is the only controllable variable, all else depends on interaction (inter-activity) with the enemy at points in space and time. Therefore, combat is like a black box, both in theory and in practice, because as an activity all possibilities (seem to) exist until the conclusion when only the result remains.[13]

Despite the difficulty of elucidating combat itself Clausewitz admits “it is easier to make a theory from tactics than for strategy.”[14] We can reformulate this: it is easier to use the means in tactics to achieve our tactical ends rather than using our strategic means for strategic ends. In other words, a military force engaged in a combat with a desire for victory is easier to achieve than using the various victories from many combats to achieve the object of the war. The reason for this is more than just because strategy is higher in the theoretical hierarchy. If the consequences of tactics are used for strategy, then strategy encompasses tactics as well as other extraneous factors. Nevertheless, the difficulty is in the transcendence of tactics to strategy. While all tactics are a subset of strategy, strategy is (often) indifferent to the inner reality of the tactical engagements within the combat.

All that matters to strategy is the tactical result. Clausewitz notes, “We only speak of the total result, as that only is a strategic quantity.”[15] Even tactical duration and area are compressed into moments in time and points on a map. Clausewitz explains “In the same manner as the field of battle is only a point in Strategy, the duration of a battle is only, Strategically, an instant of time, and the end and result, not the course of a battle, constitutes a strategic quantity.”[16] Even though strategy contains all parts of tactics it only concerns itself with the outer form, the results, ignoring the inner permutations. Further, strategy cannot exist within the tactical realm because results, strategy’s means, do not begin to emerge until the end of the activity of the combat. Clausewitz writes, “It is only when the results of partial combats have bound themselves together into an independent whole, that the strategic result appears, but then, the state of crisis is over.”[17] Therefore it is logically impossible, and bad Generalship, for strategy to involve itself in tactical engagements.

This complication of relating tactics to strategy is a direct consequence of their interdependent relationship. Understanding how to implement the means—the tactical results—in strategy necessitates an understanding of the tactical context without becoming bogged down in details. Yet, tactical means are employed in a combat when strategy perceives that a result, victory, achieved from that combat would be a means enabling strategy to achieve the object of the war. Even though tactics depends on strategy (to determine which combats to engage in) and strategy depends on tactics (to determine the result and its means), the mutual relation between strategy and tactics is biased towards strategic dependence on tactics, the strategic-tactical relationship.[18] Moreover, the strategic-tactical relationship dominates due to the reliance on the uncertain outcome of the combat, disregarding possible tactical prowess. Only through tactical results can strategic means become available. Regardless of the degree of the decision, “[E]very strategic combination rests only upon the tactical results, and that these are everywhere, in the bloody as well as in the bloodless solution, the real fundamental grounds of the ultimate decision.”[19] Clausewitz identifies the priority of the strategic-tactical over the tactical-strategic relationship because it leads to the decision, different only in degree not in kind.

It is necessary to look from the whole of war down through strategy to tactics, not vice versa.

Simply, the use of tactical results is more important than the choice of combats. The tactical result is actual, whereas the choice of combats is potential and dependent upon the results achieved. An ideal General would ask, “If I am successful in the battle, what is the first use I shall make of the victory?” And, according to Clausewitz, “The object to be gained, as indicated by the answer to this question, shows the natural direction for his blow.”[20] It is necessary to look from the whole of war down through strategy to tactics, not vice versa.

Therefore the means of strategy is more than just the tactical results, but the act of using the tactical results in a special signification: “By bringing these things into combination with the results of a combat, strategy gives this result—and therefore the combat—a special signification, places before it a particular object.”[21] The combats that tactics should undertake are constrained by strategy and further limited by the context of the war, whereas the dependence of strategy on tactics is necessary by definition.

“In Strategy there is no victory;” rather there is “success.”

From this we understand the emphasis when Clausewitz explains: “The signification of a combat is its very soul in Strategy, and we cannot too often repeat, that in Strategy the leading events always proceed from the ultimate views of the two parties, as it were, from a conclusion of the whole train of ideas.”[22] Although there is a multiplicity of possible arrangements and conditions for the organization of military forces within a combat (tactics), in strategy there is one outcome. The strategic result, however, falls prey to the myriad combinations within tactics as well as "the whole train of ideas" that change the interpretation of what has happened. A further complication is this: “In Strategy there is no victory;” rather there is “success.”[23] Clausewitz continues, “On the one hand, the strategic success is the successful preparation of the tactical victory; the greater this strategic success, the more probable becomes the victory in battle. On the other hand, strategic success lies in the making use of the victory gained.”[24] Strategy depends on the preparation, the potential and the form of the tactical engagement prior to combat, but also on the making use of the result regardless (almost) of the manner in which the combat was undertaken: the interdependence of strategic duality and tactical singularity.

When war fails to reach its logical conclusion tactics and strategy emerge as separate entities. Yet, despite their individual inner laws there is a necessary connection based on combat. Although the strategic-tactical relationship emerges stronger, the dynamic is still reciprocal. Extrapolated out to the context of war itself, two opponents react to one another without waiting for the other to act in order to react. Both are acting and reacting independent from and yet dependent on the other. So too are tactics and strategy. Neither waits for the other to delimit their possibilities, only the holistic notion of war and its object is necessary. Consider the implications that “The Plan of the War comprehends the whole Military Act; through it that Act becomes a whole, which must have one final determinate object, in which all particular objects must become absorbed.”[25]

Only by understanding the proper framework and context within which to place and employ the means towards the ends can tactical victories and strategic successes possibly be achieved. Strategy and tactics are absorbed and coextensive in the mind of the commander, within the plan of war, which decides combat, the crucial key connecting and explaining strategy, tactics, and their relationship.

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Header Image: Napoleon's retreat from Moscow by Adolph Northen (Wikimedia)


[1] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. trans. Colonel J. J. Graham (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2004), 76. In the Howard and Paret translation, however, much of this quote remains intact except for “inner laws,” which they phrase as “inherent laws.” Not only is “inherent laws” a stronger assertion than “inner laws,” but also it fails to presuppose individual and separate theoretical containment of each concept such that strategy and tactics follow their own separate laws. Carl von Clausewitz. On War. trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 132.

[2] Of course it is possible to debate or deny the validity of his definition, but doing so refrains us from evaluating the results of the derivation, specifically the relationship between tactics and strategy. Instead it is far more productive to deduce alongside him.

[3] Clausewitz (2004), 3.

[4] Ibid., 70.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 200.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 70.

[9] Ibid., 71.

[10] Ibid., 88.

[11] Ibid.

[12] It is conceivable, although Clausewitz does not really explore the possibility, that a tactical defeat in a specific combat is desired for strategy and the larger object of the war. The possible context for such, most likely deception, would be quite unlikely. Nonetheless, tactical victory is not always necessary (as long as we are in non-idealized war).

[13] Clausewitz, however, also notes, that even the “result” is not necessarily final because it depends on what each individual side perceives. Ibid., 576.

[14] Ibid., 86.

[15] Ibid., 439.

[16] Ibid., 415.

[17] Ibid., 172-173.

[18] Tactics without strategy would just be unbounded and unlimited actions without determined combats.

[19] Ibid., 410.

[20] Ibid., 626.

[21] Ibid., 89.

[22] Ibid., 576.

[23] Ibid., 379.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 666.