Strategy vs. Tactics

I meant to post something on this after the first presidential debate, and my recent wargame post reminded me. John McCain’s attempt to school Barack Obama on the meaning of “strategy” was incredibly annoying.

Here’s the thing. McCain is absolutely correct in terms of the doctrinal use of the term “tactics” within the US military. E.g. in the wikipedia entry on tactics someone (presumably trained by the US military) has written that tactics involve units no larger than a division. The problem is that the US military is stupid.

Tactics are how. Strategy is why. Strategy is picking goals. Tactics is figuring out how to achieve them.

Petraeus changed our tactics in Iraq. He did it for strategic reasons (our old tactics weren’t working), but that doesn’t make it a strategy. If we gave our troops faulty ammo and switched to giving them good ammo, would that be a change in strategy? Of course not! (It wouldn’t be a tactic either.) Would it have a strategic impact? Of course.

Important note: being really good at tactics doesn’t make General Petraeus less of a man than if he were really good at strategy. For that matter, he may be really good at strategy, I don’t know. He probably is. He’s certainly good enough at strategy to recognize when a strategic goal isn’t being served by current tactics. Tactics aren’t “less important” than strategy. Executing well is great; executing the right thing is even better.

There’s no evidence to suggest that McCain is any good at strategy or tactics. He seems to think that the US could have won the Vietnam War. He certainly seems to have sucked as a pilot (crashing twice and nearly a third time in training, and being shot down by the Vietnamese who were at a huge technological disadvantage).

Our strategy in Iraq did not change (or did not change much). We’d already given up on turning Iraq into a western-style democracy — a beacon of hope for the yearning masses in the Middle East, and we’d simply decided to settle for a not-obviously-failed state. That was a huge strategic change (really just a recognition of the unattainability of our earlier goal), but nothing to do with The Surge. The one way in which The Surge was a strategy and not a tactic (creating a bit of breathing space for the government to congeal) it was a spectacular failure — the breathing space was created (the tactics worked) and nothing happened (strategic assumptions incorrect). Again, the strategic goal (leaving Iraq a non-obviously-failed state) hadn’t changed, merely the means of achieving it (reducing violence for a bit). So, calling even this aspect of The Surge a strategy is stretching it.

Unless you’re using a boneheaded definition such as “tactics is anything you do with a small number of soldiers”.

  • I had wondered about that. He seemed to have some special definition of tactics that wasn’t easy to for me, at least, to understand. Doctrinal straight-jacketing at Fort McNair might help explain it.