Carthage vs. Mosul: The Utility of Tactical Theory

By 149 BC, after three wars that crossed several generations, the ancient Romans and Carthaginians had enough of war. Carthage itself was besieged, but the Carthaginians refused to surrender a third time, instead opting to resist Roman hegemony in North Africa. They would do so for almost two more years, over the course of which Roman forces under commanding general Scipio Aemilianus assaulted the besieged city by land and sea until finally taking it by storm.

Despite the Roman onslaught, the Carthaginians did not surrender. Instead, they improvised local weapons production, fought the Romans house-to-house in close combat, introduced a third dimension to the battle by fighting from rooftops with flung stones and masonry, and attempted to demoralize the Romans through acts of extreme violence, executing Roman prisoners in grisly fashion on the walls before the Roman camps. Only when the Carthaginian survivors were bottled up in the city’s fortress did some 50,000 Carthaginian citizens finally surrender. Even then, many chose to commit suicide instead of becoming Roman captives. According to the historian Polybius, an eyewitness to the events, the final hours of Carthage’s existence were so horrifying that even the battle-hardened Roman commander Scipio openly wept upon seeing the city’s destruction. Carthage’s survivors were sold into slavery, the city was razed, and after 146 BC when the city finally fell, the Carthaginian civilization ceased to exist.

"Desolation" by Thomas Cole (Wikimedia)

What can this battle tell us about modern warfare? Next to nothing if we seek a how-to tactical example. Ancient Rome’s methods were unnecessarily brutal, and there is little chance modern urban combat will feature arrows and makeshift spears. Yet, if we view the battle with a mind trained by theory to ask the right questions of the military history available to us, the fate of Carthage can be illuminating in both an operational and a strategic sense.

This is, in fact, the purpose and goal of strategic theory as described by the 19th century Prussian scholar and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in On War. He wrote that “It [theory] is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield; just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man’s intellectual development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life.”[1] Every practitioner must build the ability to command in warfare. To build anything one must start with a foundation and a frame of reference. Theory is a framework replete with military history, experience, and doctrine.

Tactical Theory

The above is a pretty basic and frankly banal argument for the value of theory in general, but why tactical theory specifically? Is tactical theory even possible? After all, to echo Clausewitz again, the nature of war remains timeless, and thus is a better anchor for theory than is the character of warfare, which constantly changes. The Prussian himself warned against the adoption of immutable principles. Warfare changes too fast, and the infinite variety of factors quantifiable and otherwise preclude certainty when adopting courses of action.

Warfare changes too fast, and the infinite variety of factors quantifiable and otherwise preclude certainty when adopting courses of action.

Despite the inherent play of chance and probability of tactics, there are still identifiable but general trends in the employment of military forces. These are widely known as the Principles of War. Lists of the Principles of War are varied and numerous, but a few select principlessuch as mass and maneuver—appear on nearly every list. Furthermore, the concept of Principles of War is actually a misnomer. As Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria, of the Army War College Strategic Studies Institute has written, they are actually Principles of Battle, not Principles of War.[2] The widely known Principles of War are essentially tactical theory, but the variety of lists makes them unsatisfactory in understanding the nature of warfare.

Echevarria is undoubtedly correct that the Principles of War are actually principles of battle (or tactics), but there is also the problem of their presentation. Students of tactics are assaulted with various lists they are expected to memorize with little context, and rarely is the interaction between the various principles examined with intellectual rigor. To that end, the Principles should be presented more as tenets organized along the lines of how they affect opponents: whether being physically, mentally, or morally. In my work On Tactics, I propose a tactical theory built upon this framework:

Such a system should never be presented without its context; the probabilistic interaction between the tactician and his opposing tactician. Even if the tactician of one side designed a plan sufficiently intricate to apply all of the principles towards the same end, complete certainty of success is impossible. Rather, any tactical engagement should be seen as a roll of the dice: inherently risky but subject to probability. The tactician’s aim is to weight the die as much as possible in his favor through the employment of his or her forces before the die is cast.

The Importance for Tacticians

Tactical theory is useful for the tactician during the earliest stages of training and education. The practitioner of tactics has three main sources through which he or she can learn about tactics: military history, experience, and doctrine.

Military history is the most accessible source for learning about tactics, and in some ways it is the most popular. The reading lists of various military leaders are filled with military history tomes. However, military history has shortcomings. Clausewitz himself noted the challenges of trying to learn from the experiences of others and carrying that knowledge forward to battle. His main purpose for writing theory was to mitigate this shortcoming by providing a framework and to “educate the mind” of the practitioner to learn from engaged reading.[3]

Experience is undisputedly the best teacher, but it is also the most limited. One can only experience so much, and experience is usually limited to where one is assigned. The US military goes to great lengths, and astronomical expense, to broaden the experience of its personnel. Experience is usually valued over education, as any Second Lieutenant is constantly reminded, but few give much thought to how to integrate and analyze experience once it is gained. A tactical theory can assist with that introspection.

Lastly, practitioners learn their trade from doctrinal publications specific to their role and organization. Doctrine is an expression of a specific military organization’s best practices for their specific way of doing things with specific equipment in a specific situation. While doctrine plays a vital and important role in the training and education of tacticians, it is also limited and rarely, if ever, up to date. Again, a strong foundation in tactical theory can assist practitioners as they read and re-read their own doctrine to stay current.

We can expand on Clausewitz’s idea that theory assists the practitioner in organizing, understanding, and learning from military history to include doctrine and their own experiences. Theory acts as cognitive framework just as the frame of a house is built first and helps determine the shape and form of walls, rooms, and the roof. It should be an integral part of officer education early in their career, so that the experience they gain and the doctrine and military history they are assigned can be better understood and exploited. Unfortunately, in most militaries serious education in theory is deferred until well after officers need it.

The Importance for Strategists

Strategy can never achieve what tactics do not deliver. The strategist cannot ascertain a plan to achieve policy ends in a tactical vacuum. Rather, the strategist must understand what can be realistically achieved through the means at his disposal. Tactical theory, therefore, is a useful sub-component of strategic theory. Most strategic theorists, academics, and practitioners can never achieve the granular detailed knowledge of tactics that long-time tacticians can achieve. Nor can they achieve the searing experience of combat itself unless they were tacticians. A common tactical theory, however, can increase the understanding between the two communities and their harmonious cooperation.

At the time of this writing, a Coalition of partners led by the United States is engaged in large-scale urban combat in the Iraqi city of Mosul. ISIS fighters run makeshift weapons production factories and use every available means of introducing verticality to the battlespace, including the use of weaponized unmanned aerial systems and tunnels. Suicide is again an option, now in the form of vehicle-born improvised explosive devices driven against Iraqi Army forces. The use of violence for intimidation is another well-known ISIS tactic. Desperation breeds improvisation, whether in Carthage in 146 BC or Mosul in 2017. These two urban battles, separated by centuries and oceans, do bear a striking resemblance to each other. There is little that ISIS can do that someone with knowledge of military history would be surprised to see.

Battle for Mosul

No tactical situation is entirely new, but none are ever entirely the same either. Applying theory to an original situation in an original way is the art, in both tactics and strategy. It’s also why tactical principles can never be immutable and are always subject to the play of probability. By understanding tactical theory, tacticians can train their minds to recognize the ways they can weigh the dice of probability in their favor.

Brett A. Friedman is a wargame analyst and officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a Featured Contributor for The Strategy Bridge. He's the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy and the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle. Brett holds a B.A. in History from The Ohio State University and an M.A. in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

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Header Image: "Destruction" by Thomas Cole | Wikimedia


[1] Howard, Michael and Peter Paret, trans. Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976. Page 141.

[2] Echevarria, Antulio J. “Principles of War or Principles of Battle?” in McIvor, Anthony D. ed. Rethinking the Principles of War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2005. Page 58.

[3] Ibid.