Maintaining the Distinction Between Strategy and Tactics
10 March 2012
What is called “losing” in chess may constitute winning in another game.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a discussion of Gödel’s incompleteness proofs
I have for quite some time been intending to wade into the COIN debate (that’s “counter-insurgency,” for those among you without an absolute command of inherently ambiguous acronyms), and while this post is not going to be that post which takes COIN as the leitmotif, I will here approach COIN indirectly by taking a bit of the debate on the margins of COIN. To paraphrase Wittgenstein’s well known remark about Gödel — “My task is, not to talk about (e.g.), Gödel’s proof, but to pass it by.” — I can say that, in the present context, my task is not to talk about COIN, but to pass it by.
And I will pass by COIN by way of a detour through SoT. Now we have another acronym, so I must tell you that “SoT” means “strategy of tactics.” I found this on the Ink Spots blog, in a piece by Jason Fritz titled be-SoT-ted: COIN tactics and strategy through the lens of ends, ways, means. Fritz makes several interesting assertions that I would like to review. Fritz notes that Gian Gentile originated (or popularized) the notion of “COIN is the strategy of tactics,” implying that COIN has no true strategic content, and that a military force that makes COIN its central doctrine is a force essentially without a strategy.
Fritz links to several interesting pieces by Gian Gentile, who has written an excellent essay on this idea. Here are a couple of excerpts from Gentile:
Nation-building using population-centric COIN as its centerpiece should be viewed as an operation. It should not be viewed as strategy, or even policy for that matter. But what is occurring now in Afghanistan, for example, at least for the American Army, is a “strategy of tactics.” If strategy calls for nation-building as an operational method to achieve policy objectives, and it is resourced correctly, then the population-centric approach might make sense. But because the United States has “principilized” population-centric COIN into the only way of doing any kind of counterinsurgency, it dictates strategy.
…the most damaging consequence to the American Army from the new zeitgeist of COIN is that it has taken the Army’s focus off of strategy. Currently, US military strategy is really nothing more than a bunch of COIN principles, massaged into catchy commander’s talking points for the media, emphasizing winning the hearts and minds and shielding civilians. The result is a strategy of tactics and principles.
GIAN P. GENTILE, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, Autumn 2009
Of Gentile’s dismissal of COIN as a “strategy of tactics” Fritz has this to say:
My main beef with COIN as a strategy of tactics (I’m going to go ahead and call it SoT from now on) is that all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics. In the ends-ways-means calculus of strategy, a large chunk of the “ways” section is the aggregation of tactical actions based on operational concepts and/or TTPs… This is an elegant way of saying it, but all military strategies are in part SoT, in a non-pejorative sense. You can’t have strategic success without tactical successes. COIN, IW, UW, maneuver warfare are all common in this regard.
…for now I disagree that COIN is inherently a strategy of tactics any more than any category of tactics can be labeled a strategy. Those tactics may be part of a military strategy that logically connects ends, ways, and means. On the other hand, COIN tactics may be the commander’s ways in an illogical or inaccurate strategic equation and thus we may see COIN as a SoT.
While I am in complete agreement that you cannot have strategic success without tactical successes, it is important to point out that tactical objectives can be antithetical to strategic objectives, so much so that a “successful” tactical move may involve a local defeat in the interest of a global strategic victory (and here I mean “global” not as “worldwide” but simply as a contrast to “local”). If your skirmishers can flush out an ambush before that ambush can be sprung on the main body of your troops, the skirmishers may lose this engagement but in so losing they may have saved the day for the force on the whole. What is called “losing” in tactics may be called “winning” in another game, namely, the game of strategy.
Still, both Gentile and Fritz are on to something (though they seem to take distinct positions) in the analysis of a collection of tactical methods and principles that are thrown together as an ad hoc strategy without the benefit of what might be called strategic vision (for lack of a better term). Gentile is somewhat dismissive of a “strategy of tactics” cobbled together on the local level, while Fritz seems to suggest that all strategies are ultimately strategies of tactics, since, “all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics.”
The problem here (if there is a problem) can be neatly illuminated by interpolating a distinction into this discussion, so I am going to make a distinction between formal and informal strategy, or formal and material strategy (either set of terms will do). Although I am introducing my own terminology, the idea is not at all new.
Actually, I’m going to make two distinctions. Among strategies of tactics we can distinguish those that add up to more than the sum of their parts, and those that fail to add up to anything. A number of tactics thrown together in an operational context may only apparently have little or nothing to do with each other, but it emerges in time that they do in fact function coherently as a whole. This whole turns out to be a strategic whole. This is when tactics add up to more than the sum of their parts, and this is what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” and what Hegel called the “cunning of reason.” Sometimes, things get done quite without our knowing how they get done.
Fritz, in suggesting that all strategies may be strategies of tactics comes close to this idea that strategy is emergent from a coherent body of tactics. But this, as we know, is not the only possibility. A number of tactics thrown together for an operation may reveal their essential incoherence by ignominiously falling to pieces under the extraordinary stresses of combat. Tactics combined without any overarching idea of what is to be accomplished may be pursued at cross-purposes to each other and become self-defeating. This would be an instance of tactics turning out to be less than the sum of their parts (what I have elsewhere called negative organicism and submergent properties). This seems to be Gentile’s primary concern.
History provides adequate examples both of strategy emergent from tactics and strategy failing to emerge from tactics, so we can’t really say that Gentile is right or Fritz is right, because they are both right — just in different circumstances. So here’s where we come to formal strategy and material strategy.
A formal strategy is an explicitly formulated doctrine of strategic objectives distinct from the tactical objectives that may be employed to achieve the aims of the strategy. When a formal strategy is formulated, those who are formulating it know that they are formulating it, they know what they want to accomplish, and if any time lines are given for the strategy they will be able to say eventually whether that strategy was successful or a failure.
An informal or material strategy is that strategy that emerges in the absence of a formal strategy. A material strategy may be grasped intuitively or instinctively by military commanders on the ground or by politicians in their negotiations in smoke-filled rooms. It is probably the case that most US strategies are informal strategies, which is why US military forces must so often get by with strategies of tactics, because no one can explicitly formulate exactly what is going on. Even when such an explicit statement of a strategy is lacking, however, we should not sell informal strategy short, because in some cases everyone understands, from the Commander-in-Chief to the foot soldiers slogging through the mud, what it is all about. When men die for freedom and democracy without being able to define either freedom or democracy (or the tactics that are consistent with a free and democratic society) they are dying for an informal strategy.
Given this distinction, then, between formal and informal strategy, the distinction between strategy and tactics is maintained; in other words, it is not the case that all strategies are strategies of tactics, but rather that informal strategies are strategies of tactics when these tactics do turn out to be coherent and to accomplish something. When strategies of tactics fall apart and a fiasco ensues, then there was no strategy at all — not even an informal one.
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