Knowing your place

December 2011


It is always difficult when people you greatly respect find themselves in conflict; physical or in this case intellectual. Then again, it can be very healthy to the larger effort.

In a great example of “creative friction” at its highest level of practice, we find ourselves with the authors of Red Star Over the Pacific on one end – and a great naval mind, Dr. Norman Friedman, on the other.

In the latest edition of the U.S. Naval War College Review in an article titled The Tip of the Iceberg, Norman Friedman reviewed Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes’s book mentioned above.

Not very happy with his review, to say the least, Toshi and Jim responded in The Diplomat with a counter article, The Meaning of Sea Power.

I think good people can fall on either side of the arguments presented – and I encourage you to read both articles to decide for yourself even if you have not read the book in question. That isn’t what this post is about though.

In their response to Dr. Friedman, the authors brought up a topic that will have everyone with an Operational Planning background nodding their heads. Especially those who have taught Operational Planning or better yet have had to lead an Operational Planning team – their words will ring true, and might even open up a scar or two – or even trigger a migraine.

Friedman’s worst sin, though, is to succumb to (if not revel in) what the late Michael Handel termed the “tacticization of strategy.” Battlefield commanders and many civilians are prone to become spellbound by technological and tactical wizardry. In so doing, they lose sight of the higher – and ultimately decisive – levels of competition and warfare. Since World War II, observes Handel, “technological means have started to wag the strategic dog.” Andrew Krepinevich strikes a similar note in The Army and Vietnam, faulting the U.S. Army for prosecuting a “strategy of tactics.” U.S. forces seldom lost a tactical engagement with Vietnamese regular or irregular forces, yet they were unable to derive strategic or political gains from these engagements. Conflating equipment and tactics with strategy rendered an unbroken string of battlefield triumphs largely moot.

Knowing your place; a concept even more difficult to accept in the era of the “Strategic Corporal” and all the implications of it. To keep your place takes discipline, knowledge, and better yet a command climate that allows someone to pull you back when you drift away from your proper place.

Strategic planning does not need to concern itself with tactical details (AKA 3,000 nm screwdriver) if all three levels function properly. Not just a Strategic level problem, the temptation is even greater at the Operational level where the tendency to drift down to the Tactical is greatest. People plan where they are the most comfortable, and if you just came back from the Tactical level and haven’t mentally adjusted to the fact you now have to think and plan at the Operational or Strategic – you are setting yourself up for disruptive planning, intrusive direction & guidance, and eventually Tactical level paralyses.

Worse that that – if you are in a decision making position at the Strategic or Operational level – and you are not doing that job from that perspective – who is? The answer is, no one. That is where historians have their fun.

Adding to that problem is the amplifying effect. A poorly constructed or ill-disciplined Strategic guidance results in disjointed and inefficient Operational level direction & guidance. That in turn leads to Tactical anarchy. Where does that lead? Well, not to the “W” column.

Fun stuff … fun stuff. As a side note, if you are interested in hearing the authors discuss their book and China in general, EagleOne and I interviewed them back in Jan; you can hear the archived show here. We’ve also interviewed Dr. Friedman twice, once in 2010, and again earlier this year.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Books
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  • Adversus Omnes Dissident

    If my Joint Maritime Operations NWC professor is reading this posting, I know that he is smiling.


    Our technology has created both the Strategic Corporal and the Tactical General.

  • Adversus Omnes Dissident

    Isn’t the problem with the Army’s fad-like focus on being Expeditionary that it will severely compromise their ability to think Operationally / Strategically? By contrast, the USMC fights tactically. Always has, always will. It is even set up that way: The MAGTF concept. The Army, until recently, was not set up that way. But when you have the Brigade Combat Teams trying to capture some of the goodness of the MAGTF–flexible, scalable, adaptable, deployable–they lose themselves on what the real purpose of the MAGTF is. It is not to do major Corps-level force on force action. So if the Marines are trying to return to the sea, and the Army is trying to become even more expeditionary, who is going to do the job of the Army?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    The MAGTF (broadly)is specialized to carry out tactical operations to achieve an operational level mission as part of the theater strategy, which makes a strategic aim of the grand strategy manifest.

    example: seize a lodgement for landing follow on forces which will marshal and commence operations to penetrate enemy territory to achieve the strategically decisive objectives to advance the theater strategy, advancing the grand strategy thereby.

    Units of the Army and Air Force (jointly) can do the forcible entry and sieze the lodgement and units of the Corps can be the follow on forces. Which, how many and what type are selected by the OPPLAN as informed by the strategy and the nature of the theater, et. al. So a raid on Makin
    Atoll is different from invading the mainland of Europe to penetrate Germany and destroy the Nazi state, but both OPPLANs are operational decisions. Hostage rescue, non combatant civilian evacuation, coup de main in Panama, all three in Grenada (more or less), the Haiti earthquake humanitarian aid ad hoc call it what you will, are all special cases. But all contingency plans are special cases, the final OPPLANS ditto. All operational.

    Some things are pure and easy. “Darter this is Dace, Have contact, Let’s go, Over.” Pure tactics. “We are NOT in the place we planned, very well, here is now Utah Beach, we start the war here. Inform all concerned.” Pure Operational. Europe first, Pacific next, China-Burma-India last. Pure Strategic.

    Where we screw it up is getting into the next layer down’s baliwick instead of paying attention to breaking intell, preparing for success and failure in terms of the next plan and considering the requirements imposed on the next plan by the completion of the existing plan (POW holding and processing, demobilization or utilization of defeated enemy troops, military government of the defeated enemy’s territory, who goes home and who stays as the forces of occupation, and etc.

    Tacticians live in the now, Operational level commanders execute and adapt the OPPLAN and work up the follow on, and strategists monitor and plan for the next operation and adapt the strategy to reality. Or should.

    The higher you go, the more logistics rule, Logistics Rule, LOGISTICS RULE.

    Roles and missions, cutting up the tonka toy set between the services?
    Strategic. Make a decision. A Strategic Decision. As informed by the Grand Strategy. Assuming we have one.

    Anybody know what it is these days? Anybody?

  • Adversus Omnes Dissident

    Grandpa, not to disagree with you, but I thought that the Marine Corps was designed around fighting at the tactical, not the operational level?

  • Adversus Omnes Dissident

    Butch, you are leaning on my JMO paper due on wednesday….

  • Grandpa,

    The Grand Strategy is in that big warehouse, next to the Ark of the Covenant . . .

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    The strategic decision (concentrate on amphibious warfare for advance base seizure [see also Mahan, A. T.] or forcible entry for initiation of a land warfare campaign or etc.) flows to the operational art/strategy boundry (relieve the surrounded force isolated at the end of the peninsula by seizing a port city astride the enemies key logistic (there’s that word again)LOC to cut same) which requires developing an OPPLAN with a time phased force designation and deploy list based on geography, forces available, force capability based on the course of action chosen, enemy capability/forces yadda yadda- which is all operational art but is informed by tactical options (landing craft, amtracs, NGFS, carrier strikes, how much, how long, what targets and so forth…

    The point being the combat units have a tactical focus, but what types of unit are selected for the course of action selected/plan resourcing, in what proportion, used in what manner supported by what logistic units are all op art, and you have to understand or determine with your staff (more pragmatically – MacArthurs are scarce) both op art and tactics in order to develop a sound strategy.

    So sorry, miner kleiner teufelhunden, you have to learn it all, if not all as a Second John. If only to defend your beloved Corps from the Army Generals who want use you’all up in penny packets as MP’s/intersection and gate sentries, not to mention that whole Air Force doctrine – every Marine (including all aviation) supports the rifleman running knife fight.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Eagle One: You sure it isn’t in it, rather than next to it? Maybe relying on the guys who’s statues are on the lid of it is our strategy…”Advance relying on divine favor/intervention by guardian angels”.

    It sure as hell isn’t deterrence and forward deployment, the logistics will never handle it.

  • Sperrwaffe

    Grandpa Bluewater:
    Just one small objection regarding the “Teufelhunde”:

    Mein kleiner Teufelhund = Singular
    Meine kleinen Teufelhunde = Plural

    A “Hell Yeah” salutation from the other side of the Atlantic 😉

  • Grandpa Bluewater


    Danke shoen (forgive my spelling), grammatical correction much appreciated, mine herr und kamerad (op cit re spelling) 😉

  • GIMP

    Great post! It terrible when those who should be thinking and planning operationally or strategically do their thinking and planning tactically. It is worse when those who should be executing strategically or operationally try to drive the tactical execution as well. This, I think results from hubris and insecurity.

    Hubris in the form of “I can do the tactical work here better than the guys actually assigned to do it.” Translation is that “everyone’s an idiot but me.” Insecurity in the form of “I have to control everything because I can’t trust that the people assigned to do the job have been adequately prepared to do it right.” This translates to “everyone’s an idiot but me” too.

    Technology’s edged handle is that, while it allows for better knowledge of the battlespace, it also allows the kind of reach forward that hampers tactical execution. Our technological “edge” allows us to put incompetents incapable of making decisions without perfect information in charge because we’ve deluded ourselves into believing that if we use technology to give them perfect information, they will make the right decisions.

    Ultimately, only intelligent, creative, individuals, possessed of a knowledge of human behavior, and willing to commit to a course of action with less than perfect information, are cut out to lead large scale combat action. Those individuals are rare, and the bureacracy often prevents them from being in position to lead when we need them. We use technology to make up for having the wrong people in charge when the time comes. Those same wrong people are the ones most likely to not know their place, be it tactical, operational, or strategic, not trust their people, and not have the discipline to let tactical leaders lead.