Reading for War
'On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle' by B.A. FriedmanBy Chris Johnson December 3, 2018
“Tactics should not be executed, and neither should they be studied, in a strategic vacuum” from 'On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle' (p138)
B.A. Friedman has written ‘On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle.’ for the grass-roots practitioners of war; the tacticians. The book offers readers a rare intellectual insight into the theory of tactics, with excellent historical examples and easy to interpret explanations as to why certain tactics exist. Friedman gives a contextual framework to many of the seemingly confusing aspects of tactics by blending lessons from the past with insightful contemporary observations. Importantly, he explains the inherent link between tactics and strategy, known as the strategy bridge, and only sometimes gives in to the temptation of discussing the widely studied strategic and political landscape.
Friedman defines tactical theory and confirms the tactician’s role in the art rather than the science of war. He rightly points out that the seemingly impossible task of balancing doctrine, experience, and historical study generally falls upon some of our most inexperienced personnel at the coalface; our junior officers and junior non-commissioned officers (NCOs). To assist the tactician to understand their role and eventually achieve victory in battle, part one of the book provides nine tactical tenets which have been organised along three planes: physical tenets, mental tenets, and (only one) moral tenet. Friedman’s extensive research analyses a number of doctrinal texts and military publications which have allowed him to identify the most common, and the most relevant tenets in the tactical domain.
- Maneuvre (sic)
- Moral Cohesion
Although I very much enjoyed reading part one, I am still not entirely convinced that deception and surprise should have been discussed separately as the former seems to be a method for achieving the latter (eg: not once has deception been achieved and the enemy not been surprised). Notwithstanding, his tenets go beyond the ‘shopping lists’ that are given to students on promotion courses and provide a solid basis from which to draw logical conclusions. Of particular note, Friedman discusses the Clausewitzian definition of friction in a brilliant and straightforward manner:
“Every question, every delay, every layabout private and shifty sergeant, every order countermanded by meddling and uncertain officers contributes to an immense friction infecting the military machine and preventing it from pursuing its purpose. The inherent friction in military operations can be mitigated by training, efficient procedures, and repetition, but it can never be eliminated. The paralyzing fear and blanketing confusion that accompanies actual combat magnifies this friction to an almost literal physical level.”
His historical examples are relevant, engaging, and appropriately brief. I particularly enjoyed the way he rapidly changed pace and swung from the Peloponnesian Wars one moment, to Operation Desert Storm the next. I feel he had more to offer and wanted to provide additional depth and historical context to some of his arguments, but in the interests of maintaining brevity to appeal to junior commanders, he seemed to omit a fair amount of detail. Friedman admits that delving deeper into each tactic, and providing the reader with historical context for the ambush for example, could form the basis for an entire book itself.
Friedman provides some excellent discussion and context regarding mass and clearly articulates its relationship with manoeuvre as well as the relative merits of maintaining internal or external lines against an opposing force. His straightforward style provides the reader with a coherent understanding of each term, using historical and contemporary comparisons.
In part two, Friedman discusses wider tactical concepts including the offence, defence, and the initiative as well as command and control, and the environment. This opens the aperture for the reader and gives lateral context to each of the individual tactics discussed in part one. Why were some tactics effective in certain circumstances but not others? Where have tactics been used appropriately/inappropriately? What were the second and third order effects of these decisions for other levels of command?
This broader discussion leads Friedman nicely into finally covering the relationship between tactics and strategy in depth. His assessment is simple; one should not be considered without the other, and failure to understand this (and apply it appropriately) often leads to catastrophe. Time and time again, Friedman reinforces the fact that history is by far our best resource for learning. His well-chosen examples give the perfect backdrop for his argument and drive home the message.
Lastly, the book contains six appendices ranging from the principles of planning, to conventional vs guerrilla warfare. This collection of thoughts and, again, more references to poignant military history serves as an opportunity for Friedman to discuss more distantly related topics in greater detail. His principles of planning are frustratingly simple but serve as an excellent primer for budding staff officers or NCOs in their first staff appointment.
This book should be seen as a welcome addition to the library of all junior officers and NCOs. It is the type of book that deserves to be in the field on exercise, or on deployment with the reader, rather than stored comfortably at home on the bookshelf. Friedman cuts through the confusing and banal strategic jargon and gets into the weeds, which is perfect for those with limited experience, or interest, in the strategic domain. Certainly, for students on the Regimental Officers Basic Course and Subject 2 Sergeant course at the School of Infantry, it will form the basis for some robust professional discussion and examination in the near future.
Copies of 'On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle' are also available from the Defence Library Service
About the author: Chris Johnson is currently the Senior Instructor of Tactics Wing at the School of Infantry. He was a Company Commander and Operations Officer in the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment and has held numerous other command and staff appointments in Australia and with coalition partners.