The Rock and Mortar of the Strategy Bridge: #Reviewing On Tactics

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

"Strategy is not, however, the final arbiter in war. The battle-field decides.”[1]
—Charles Caldwell

As Colin Gray said, “If Thucydides, Sun Tzu or Clausewitz didn’t say it, it probably isn’t worth reading.”[2] Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Thucydides, and their fellow strategic soothsayers, however, are of limited use to leaders charged with employing tactical formations. The battalion commander dutifully keeps her blue-striped white copy of On War from Command and General Staff College, but does the Prussian’s influence extend to her tactical mission? What about her platoon leaders? Fresh out of college, should Clausewitz’s strategic masterpiece rate high on their initial order of merit list? To a field grade officer, Clausewitz has cachet, and his book is ubiquitous. Platoon commanders, though, are less interested in the Prussian than they are in maneuvering their formation to close with and destroy the enemy, and to achieve that end at that level, tactics are king.

The leader can reference the slew of books relaying various tactical exploits and from these can glean lessons learned, but is there an overarching tome that seeks to outline the theory of tactics as Clausewitz outlined the theory of war? B.A. Friedman seeks to close this gap with his aptly titled, On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle.

Friedman explicitly states his goal in authoring On Tactics: “A chaotic mix of overgrown strategic theory, dense doctrine, and of course military history hides the underlying nature of tactics. Unlike strategy itself, there is no organizing structure such as that provided by Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. This work is an attempt to provide that structure or at least the beginning of one.”[3]

In that effort, Friedman succeeds, despite the obstacles inherent in creating a theoretical structure both inoculated from the current technological bewitchment and also relevant across tactical actions separated by time, geography, and intensity. Tactics are the realm of the artist, yet Friedman superbly provides a palette of tactical tenets and concepts to guide the tactician.

From Jomini to Joshua, Friedman recounts battles and leaders that employed, or failed to employ, these tenets and concepts to great illustrative benefit.

Friedman distills the slew of existing lists and principles into nine refined tactical tenetsorganized by physical, mental, and moral planes of conflictand four tactical concepts. Each of these then comprises successive chapters in his book. The reader will find the familiar tenets of movement, maneuver, and firepower alongside the less common, yet well-defined and argued, tenets of confusion, shock, and moral cohesion. Indeed, the moral cohesion chapter dives deeply into the guts of military leadership and could stand alone as an important read. 

Lists of tactical tenets, principles, and concepts have a long history tracing back through J.F.C. Fuller to Clausewitz. Friedman makes a compelling case early in the book that these lists often exist without any underlying logical exploration. A manual will contain some derivative of Fuller’s thoughts without explaining to the reader what the tenets actually mean, how they work in concert, or when and how they diverge from other similarly titled verbs contained even within the same doctrinal manual. Laying no claim to inventing these tenets, Friedman seeks to define, refine, and provide an intellectual base where very little existed previously.

Dividing his tenets into physical, mental, and moral planes provides a construct that lays bare where recent operations have failed or succeeded. A military force can excel across the physical tenets (mass, maneuver, firepower, and tempo) yet fail to account for the mental (deception, surprise, shock, and confusion) and therefore find itself in the unenviable position of confusing a successful degradation of the enemy’s military power with, as Friedman says, “shattering the enemy’s moral state.”[4] He argues the latter is the only definition of tactical success.

Utilizing a depth and breadth of historical examples that belie the book’s length, Friedman’s recounting of battles and tactics past greatly and effectively enriches the narrative. From Jomini to Joshua, Friedman recounts battles and leaders that employed, or failed to employ, these tenets and concepts to great illustrative benefit. These examples both effectively anchor the offered tenet or concept in the reader’s mind and impart a historical lesson that provides a foundation for future and further exploration.

Friedman intentionally authored a quick read, believing the work should fit in a leader’s cargo pocket, and he strikes the perfect balance between brevity and gravity. Supplementing the main body are six appendices, each of which are timely, important, and worthy of reflection. Two of them, “Conventional vs. Guerilla Warfare” and “Training and Education” are particularly insightful.[5] Friedman dissects the tactical false choices and damaging binary vision of war in the former and the imprisoning effect on our creativity that blind obedience to doctrine creates in the latter. Both topics are paths well-worn, but Friedman strikes an urgent, compelling, and fresh tone.

The appendix entitled “Center of Gravity” is also a welcome addition, as it introduces to the tactician an oft-debated and misunderstood concept and establishes a conceptual baseline for that concept. Pulling from such heavyweights as Peter Paret, Antulio Echevarria, Jon Sumida, Colin Gray and J.C. Wylie, Friedman serves as a maestro coordinating their supporting and conflicting thoughts to illuminate this concept for the reader. As he so often does throughout the book, Friedman then uses a historical engagement to cement the lesson in the reader’s mind. In this instance, Friedman employs the Battle of Stalingrad to expertly illustrate Clausewitz’s center of gravity.

Beyond the main effort of introducing an outline of tactical tenets and concepts, Friedman’s work also introduces strategic titans to the new tactician.

This book excels in part because it offers so much. Beyond the main effort of introducing an outline of tactical tenets and concepts, Friedman’s work also introduces strategic titans to the new tactician. This foreshadowing is an invaluable secondary benefit, as it creates scaffolding for later exploration in leaders yet unexposed to these thinkers. In the tempo chapter alone, Friedman presents thoughts from John Boyd, Clausewitz, J.C. Wylie, and Hannibal. One could be excused for thinking Friedman’s work might lose coherence through the frequent calling forth of these tactical and strategic visionaries, but he altogether avoids the trap of confusing the narrative and masterfully weaves a tapestry of their individual thoughts that surgically and powerfully complement his work.

On Tactics, then, is invaluable to the current and future tactician. But what of the strategist? Does Friedman’s work apply? Yes. Calling forth the familiar strategy bridge analogy, tactical proficiency serves as the abutment upholding the military force's side of the bridge. Without this abutment, the bridge—despite the efforts of the political forces and the strategist dutifully manning the bridge—collapses and the enterprise fails.

In sum, Friedman’s On Tactics fills a critical gap and is an important read for both the emerging tactician and seasoned strategist alike. A vital addition to the professional military library for its organizing theory on tactics alone, his substantive appendices and the interwoven historical examples and insights from fellow intellectual heavyweights make this book a must-read for the individual and a must-share for the leader.

Let us continue to revere Clausewitz but phase his entrance. A leader who fully understands and has exercised these tactical tenets and concepts will immediately be a more agile and effective leader, and they will ultimately be a much more talented strategist. Remember the tactical abutment to our strategy bridge. Friedman provides the rock and mortar.

Erik Archer is a U.S. Army officer whose leader development efforts can be found on Facebook and Medium. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: U.S. Marines with Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, storm the beach after exiting an amphibious assault vehicle, February 3, 2010 (Marine Corps photo by Staff Sergeant Leo A. Salinas)


[1] Colin Gray, Fighting Talk (Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2009), 53.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] B.A.Friedman, On Tactics (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017), vii.

[4] Friedman, 141.

[5] Friedman, 181, 191.