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Book Review of “On Tactics – A Theory of Victory in Battle” by B.A. Friedman

By Mr J. Kent


In his book “On Tactics” B.A. Friedman argues that while works and theories of strategy are perennially popular amongst military theorists and practitioners, theorists have not dedicated an equal effort to the study of tactics. The author contends that this subordination is due to a pervasive misunderstanding of tactics as being simple or below the consideration of military theorists. He further argues that this results from an incomplete understanding of the relationship between strategy and tactics as articulated by Clausewitz, a problem that the adoption of the operational level of war into Western military thinking has amplified. The result is that tacticians are left without a robust theory of tactics, instead, military doctrine offers only defined and often contradictory principles of war as a framework for conducting tactics. By writing “On Tactics”, Friedman aims to provide a universal ‘theory of tactics’ that explains and predicts success in battle across the range of warfare.

“On Tactics” begins with an attack on the validity of our collective understanding of tactics and the principles that underpin it. Friedman commences this by separating the concept of tactics from that of techniques and procedures to define what tactics are not. Techniques and procedures are specific to a conflict’s character and the organisations involved in said conflict. In contrast, tactics, defined as “the arrangement of military forces to defeat the enemy,” consists of the timeless methods by which tacticians defeat their adversaries in battle. He is careful to preface his argument with the caution that no application of tactical tenets, derived either from genius or study of military history, can guarantee success due to the constant presence of chance in war.

It is ironic that after being so dismissive of checklists of principles of war, Friedman offers the reader yet another list of principles, or in his case, ‘tenets of tactics.’ However, Friedman places his tenets into a logical and structured conceptual framework which distinguishes it from the New Zealand Army’s principles of war as an aid for tactical commanders. He achieves this structuring by organising the tenets against JFC Fuller’s three planes of conflict; the physical, the mental, and the moral, and describing an associated hierarchy of effects to guide their application. The purpose of this framework is to enable the tactician to arrange the physical means at their disposal to inflict mental effects on the adversary, overwhelm their ability to function, and ultimately their moral cohesion.

Unlike in much of Western doctrine and military theory, Friedman’s tactical tenets are well articulated, and the book provides historical examples of how tacticians have applied each tenet throughout the history of warfare. In the physical plane, he places mass, manoeuvre, firepower, and tempo, and explains how tacticians can use each in isolation or, better yet, in conjunction with the others to generate a tactical advantage. Friedman draws heavily from the works of John Boyd when describing his tactical tenets applicable to the mental plane. At first glance, his inclusion of surprise, deception, confusion, and shock as principles seems excessive, but Friedman does an excellent job of explaining the difference between the four, including their utility and how tacticians can achieve them at the tactical level. Finally, he offers moral cohesion as the only tactical tenet assigned to the moral plane. Friedman argues that defeat is fundamentally a moral condition rather than a physical one; a force is defeated not when it suffers a certain number of personnel or equipment losses, but when it no longer believes there is a purpose in continuing to fight. This assertion is not novel, but it is crucial given that the usual focus of the New Zealand Army’s tactical training is on destroying an adversary’s personnel and equipment.

The second part of Friedman’s book guides tacticians in considering the real-world implications of command and control, terrain, and the Clausewitzian concepts of culminating point and initiative. Throughout these sections and explicitly in the concluding chapters, he speaks of the imperative of linking tactics to strategy. This linkage is an often overlooked element of tactical art which can cause immense frustration to junior tacticians. By explaining the relationship between the two, and why strategy rightfully constrains tactics, Friedman’s work supports the junior tactician’s employment of tactical art in service of strategy.

On Tactics concludes with appendices expounding on some of the topics covered by the book, including some excellent insight into military planning and how historical forces have applied his tactical tenets to achieve tactical success. However, his thoughts on the operational level of war and centre of gravity betray his pedigree as a renegade amongst contemporary military theorists. This review does not seek to debate Friedman’s ideas. However, readers who are not already familiar with these concepts should be aware that Friedman’s conceptualisation of the centre of gravity and the operational level of war differ significantly from that of much western military theory and NZDF doctrine and that they would do well to balance their reading on these topics accordingly.

Friedman’s logical structuring of his tactical tenets into a system of conducting tactics is an innovative but logical approach to thinking about the art of tactics, despite the simplicity of many of the concepts involved. As such, On Tactics would serve as an invaluable complement to the New Zealand Army’s system of tactical education and is highly recommended to officers and soldiers seeking development as tacticians and those responsible for their instruction.