Olivia Garard: How best should a tactician integrate their study of doctrine, experience, and history?
B.A. Friedman: The whole book is an attempt to answer that question. Everyone learns and evaluates information differently, but a common set of basics is essential for any school of knowledge. Tactics is no different. Some of that integration happens just through consumption but I think it’s important to have a plan of organization beforehand, and that’s what theory does. If you have a basic idea of what war is and is not, everything you learn about it thereafter either fits in with your cognitive framework or it doesn’t—at which point you need to expand your framework. Some doctrine attempts to serve as a foundation, like MCDP-1 Warfighting, but most tacticians are going to put far more focus into the doctrine pertaining to their specific job (and rightly so).
But let’s be honest: not every tactician wants to put in the time to read and re-read On War and think deep thoughts like a strategist. There was a need for a basic tactical text, a theoretical line of departure, to help leaders with that integration. That’s why I designed On Tactics to be short and accessible.
Given the importance of the moral sphere, what else can the military do to steel their soldier’s (or marine’s) mettle?
The best way is hard, realistic, but also variable training. It’s important to drill—over and over again—a unit’s basic actions, but it’s also vital to impose stress, friction, and to avoid getting in a rut. There’s an element of shock when it comes to training; surprising your troops with a new and novel training exercise keeps them better engaged. I’ve forgotten dozens of training exercises over the years and the training that occurred, but I’ve never forgotten the ones that really challenged me. Easy, repetitious training doesn’t build resiliency and it’s not good troop welfare.
When it comes to troop welfare, I disagree with the common U.S. military refrain that mission accomplishment comes before troop welfare. One, it’s usually an excuse for lazy leadership. Secondly, taking care of troops binds them together as a cohesive unit, increases their faith and loyalty in the institution, and increases their engagement with their training and education. In short, troop welfare—to include hard, realistic, variable training—builds a morally cohesive team that will do better in combat than a group of individuals. We’ve got it backwards: troop welfare is a prerequisite for mission accomplishment, not a follow-on mission.
That also means decentralizing command and control as much as possible. You can’t stifle decision-making in garrison and then expect it during wartime. My philosophy as a commander was to train my battery as if I knew I was going to die on the first day of the war; they had to be able to operate without me. Since that’s quite possible, leaders that do anything else through micromanagement, insecurity, risk avoidance, or anything else are doing their troops a disservice. By taking care of the troops through effective training, delegation of authority, and all the general forms of troop welfare, you build resilient units composed of resilient people.
You show a breadth and depth of historical examples—both Western and Eastern—to support the timelessness of tactical tenets. Based on their enduring nature, how do you foresee their application in near-term future warfare? Do you think the balance between the physical, the mental, and the moral will redistribute in importance?
I think we’re on the cusp of a magnification of the mental aspects of warfare. The industrial revolution vastly expanded the physical means of violence, which led to a focus on the physical destruction of enemy forces. World War I was the peak, especially Verdun and Passchendaele. The technology available fostered that focus.
Today we’re in the information revolution and that’s already having an effect on warfare. If you look at a lot of the emergent capabilities in information warfare—electronic attack and defense, offensive and defensive cyber, and the like—they offer commanders more opportunities to inflict surprise, deception, and shock on enemies more than ever before. The power of these tools to manipulate, corrupt, slow or shut down, and deceive enemy commanders is vast. The future battlefield belongs to those who can effectively integrate these emergent capabilities with existing ones, that’s why there’s such a heavy focus in the new Marine Corps Operating Concept on information warfare and the Commandant has directed the creation of a new unit at the MEF-level to coordinate information warfare.
None of this is to say that the physical means of warfare will be less important or that warfare will be less physically violent; it won’t. But physical means won’t be as dominant.
It seems that based on the military’s fetish with the so-called operational level of war, understanding the commander’s intent two-levels up is far from sufficient to become a “servant of the strategy.” What (or how) can a junior officer or NCO be responsible not just to, but also for that strategy?
Well, the two-levels up rule is a simplification, not necessarily a bad thing, and it holds true for most. But it also assumes that every level understands the commander’s intent two levels up and that at some point two levels up is a policymaker handing down a political endstate and a strategy. That’s not always the case, if it ever is. Someone, at every level, needs to be thinking about the strategy, the big picture. That’s the officer’s job and it’s why we expect our officers to be better educated than their enlisted counterparts. The logic of strategy is paradoxical, to echo Luttwak, and it takes a broad mind to understand it. The small-unit leader has to be prepared to explain that what makes perfect sense tactically may make no sense strategically and that the strategic sense must override the tactical sense. Always. That’s a tough job and no service does a great job preparing officers to do it.
What is your ideal hope for this book? Are you the butter bar’s Clausewitz?
It sounds hubristic—and I’m not saying that it isn’t a little hubristic—but that’s what I was trying to do. I made no attempt to outdo Clausewitz in the book, just to do what he did at a lower level. Clausewitz organized the intellectual field of strategy in a way that had never been done before. He didn’t do that for tactics, that wasn’t his goal. So, I gave it a shot. Maybe mine will stand the test of time or maybe someone will take the idea of a tactical theory and come up with a better one. I certainly hope it becomes the go-to text for company grade officers, but we’ll see. In the meantime, I’m going to avoid cholera outbreaks.
You write, “Military catastrophes are born of military bureaucracies that fall in love with a certain set of tactics and become too beholden to their strict execution." How do we dissuade such lust? How do we reframe and reorient to focus on the emerging complexities that exceed our current paradigms?
The antidote is a broad understanding of military history. Take the military’s obsession with the Spartans. It’s all based on Thermopylae, a three-day battle. But if you understand the full history of Sparta you know their focus on maintaining tradition allowed their enemies to continually out-innovate them. The finest hoplites in the world did little for Sparta by the end of the Peloponnesian War; they had to create a navy to win. Then Epaminondas of Thebes developed better hoplite tactics. Then Macedonia developed real combined arms warfare, integrating hoplites with cavalry and missile troops. Sparta had begun to use these but they had always gotten less attention than the hoplites and thus were never truly integrated in a cohesive manner. There’s a lot of hay made about how Alexander never conquered Sparta. Why would he? By his time, Sparta was irrelevant.
This goes back to the information revolution and figuring out how to integrate emergent information warfare capabilities with infantry, armor, artillery, and other capabilities. If we choose the route of the Spartans and focus only on ways of fighting that we’re already good at, we’ll very quickly become irrelevant. Maybe the next great fighting force will put our helmets on all their challenge coins, but we won’t be around to see it.
I hope to see this, at the very least, on the Commandant’s Reading List next year. While we wait for that to happen, what's your next project?
Nothing right now besides writing and editing for The Strategy Bridge. Now that I write concepts and information papers for full-time for a living, I don’t have the mental bandwidth for a big project.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.
Header Image: Marines rush a simulated combat town during the mechanized assault portion of a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Exercise at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., Dec. 9, 2015. (Lance Cpl. Devan Gowans/USMC Photo)