This book is an excellent size and weight. Small, portable, yet solid. It’s published by the Naval Institute Press, they who took a chance on an unknown insurance man named Tom Clancy who’d written a thriller called The Hunt For Red October.
Amazon suggested this book to me as I was browsing translations of Sun Tzu. Military history has interested me since I was a boy, maybe because 1) the stakes are so high and 2) the stories are so vivid. Metaphors and similes drawn from famous war events are powerful and stark. Consider for example Friedman’s description of the Battle of the Bulge:
… Although the Germans had caught the Allies at their culminating point, the Germans reached their own far too early. Newly created infantry units were filled with hastily trained and inexperienced conscripts. These green units could not effectively hold the territory gained by the leading panzer units. On 22 December the fog cleared and Allied air units hammered the German formations from the skies. Despite the prestaged fuel reserves, panzer units still ran out of fuel, just when they needed it to escape the Allied aerial counterattack.
Buried in there is a tactical lesson, and also an intense story about some poor children getting blown up right before Christmas.
The author was a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. If I understand right, might make this book the equivalent of a book called like Writing A Hit TV Show by a staff writer. But Friedman seems like he’s gone deep on the knowledge, and there’s a quote from Gen. Anthony Zinni on the back. Good enough for me.
Alexander The Great would not be in the least bit perplexed by the enemy that we face right now in Iraq, and our leaders going into this fight do their troops a disservice by not studying — studying, vice just reading – the men who have gone before us. We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years and we should take advantage of their experience.
So goes a quote from James Mattis that opens this book. Friedman cites the example of Cortes in 1520 CE, referring to written accounts of Alexander’s battle at Gaugamela eighteen hundred years before to design his tactics against the Mexica/Aztec.
What is strategy? What is tactics? Where do they divide? Friedman summarizes Clausewitz:
Clausewitz divided warfare into tactics, actual combat between opposed military forces, and strategy, the latter being the overarching plan for using tactical engagements to achieve the ends as set forth by policy… The strategy acts as a bridge between the tactical actors (military forces) and the desired political end state of the entity those forces serve.
Much of this book is summaries of Clausewitz, really and Sun Tzu as well. How could it not be?
What I thought I remembered most of all from Clausewitz is the concept of Figerspitzengefühl, fingertips-feel, a sensing of what’s going on, and where. But I don’t have my copy of Vom Kriege at hand, and searching for fingerspitzengefühl it seems possible the term may be of later origin. Maybe it was discussed in the introduction.
Clausewitz is very concerned with will, the imposing of one’s will on the enemy, breaking the will of the enemy. Given the time and place where Clausewitz was coming from, 1800s what’s now-Germany, I can’t help but think this idea of will was connected to other philosophers like Kant who were pondering the meanings and dimensions of will around then.
Friedman picks up on the idea of will, or what he refers to as moral cohesion. He digs in on the idea of destroying the enemy’s moral cohesion.
Clausewitz defined the destruction of an enemy as “they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight” (emphasis added). This does not mean that the enemy force must be totally destroyed. Indeed, he went on to say, “when we speak of destroying the enemy’s forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: the moral element must be considered. In other words, breaking the moral cohesion of the opposing force is destruction of that force as an effective unit and the true goal of tactics.
In a whole chapter on moral cohesion, Friedman quotes Marine Major Earl “Pete” Ellis speaking of how important it was to marines fighting insurgents in the Philippines to believe that the United States was acting from “purely altruistic motives.” Jim Storr’s The Human Face of War is quoted as well: “In general, defeat occurs when the enemy believes he is beaten… Defeat is a psychological state.”
Friedman brings out Clausewitz’s concept of “the center of gravity,” too, and points out, in a thought-provoking way that it’s not totally clear what Clausewitz meant or understood by “gravity,” and what Clausewitz understood about physics. Clausewitz died in 1831 — have we even figured out gravity now? Clausewitz noted that the center of gravity could be a capital city, an ally, the shared interests of an alliance, particular leaders, or popular opinion. The North Vietnamese correctly located the center of gravity of the US in the Vietnam War as American political will. They destroyed our moral cohesion.
Friedman is tough on the U.S war in Iraq, which he says is “a glaring example of tactics, strategy, and policy in disarray.” We need to maintain our sense of moral cohesion. It’s slipping away from us.
We get some Boyd, too, a favorite here at HelyTimes. As a bottom line lesson on tactics, this is pretty clear and cool:
Boyd says if you move and decide faster than your enemy, you will win.
Friedman concludes by pointing out that tactics are subordinate to strategy.
The tactician employs tactics that will best serve the strategy, but he must also know when a flawed strategy cannot be achieved with reasonable tactics. Duty might still demand that he try to accomplish the mission, but he will need to inform the strategist that his aims are improbable.
Taking on a big concept like tactics and attempting to codify and create a short, comprehensible theory or unified system is a nobel mission. I found On Tactics profitable to read and full of stimulating ideas and examples.
From a list of cool things in Michael Ovitz memoir:
10. Sun Tzu Move II: “I’d wash my hands 30 times a day and insist that my assistants not touch my food.”
11. As a result, he never got sick, except when he took vacations.
12. Sun Tzu Move III: “When the leading figures in television entered our lobby, we kept them waiting long enough to be spotted by anyone who happened to be in the building.”
by Richard Rushfield in his newsletter The Ankler ($45 a year to subscribe, recommended if you are interested in Hollywood).
Rushfeld points out, how many agents even have a favorite philosopher?
I got down this Penguin edition. Impressed with this John Minford translation:
How do we even translate whatever character represents “dispositions”?
Whom did Ovitz consider “the enemy”? WMA? When Sun Tzu used the word enemy, what other meanings could that word have had, in English, I wonder?
Dr. Melfi tells Tony Soprano if he wants to become a better gang leader, he should read Sun Tzu. How much would it help him?
learned the origin of the word “drugs” from:
an intense book!
(source is this Vanity Fair article). The ancient sages and strategists would’ve enjoyed that one. The intersection of becoming and fighting.
The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting
Sun Tzu said. Maybe. Can’t vouch for the translation. Elsewhere rendered as:
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
to defeat the enemy without battle is the whole of my art
Marines Hit Three Feet of Water as They Leave Their LST to Take the Beach at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. Photographer appears to be Sgt. Robert M. Howard.
O’Byrne’s corpse was butchered and for months the head and quarters hung on pike staffs on the wall over Dublin Castle drawbridge. Several months later the pickled head was presented to the council secretary at London by an English adventurer, who was disappointed to find that the head-silver due on O’Byrne* had already been paid in Ireland. The queen was angered that, “the head of such a base Robin Hood was brought solemnly into England“.
Read enough Irish history and you gain a grudging respect for Queen Elizabeth I. She’s always delivering withering remarks and savage putdowns to people giving her bad news.
In 1603, Elizabeth had seemed a foolish old woman, as men looked expectantly to a Stuart king. By 1630, when Stuart kings had proved rather a disappointment, she had become the paragon of all princely virtues.
Christopher Haigh,The Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth I—Myth or Reality? Awake! magazine, 2010, 1/10 pp. 19-22.
At this remove, who can say if Elizabeth was a foolish old woman or one of history’s canniest power players, but I’m team power player. She managed to survive rebellions, armadas, assassination attempts, plagues, you name it!
Just surviving as a queen is tough.
The (current) Queen did not seem that into the wedding. The Crown may have fooled us into thinking the Queen is more woke than she is.
* was reading about O’Byrne after seeing convo on Tom Ricks’ twitter about the origin of “firebrand”
Believe me, it killed me to drive across South Carolina and not have time to stop and make a study of the battlefield at Cowpens.
Cowpens is an American story about local amateurs beating foreign professionals, with an A+ villain in Banastre Tarleton.
How satisfying must it been to have kicked this guy’s ass?! Tarleton, a rich boy dandy, was in command at age 25. Very cocky. At Cowpens he charged right into a trap.
conducted a double envelopment of Tarleton’s force, and suffered casualties of only 12 killed and 61 wounded… Morgan’s army took 712 prisoners, which included 200 wounded. Even worse for the British, the forces lost (especially the British Legion and the dragoons) constituted the cream of Cornwallis’ army. Additionally, 110 British soldiers were killed in action, and every artilleryman was either killed or incapacitated by wounds. Tarleton suffered an 86 percent casualty rate, and his brigade had been all but wiped out as a fighting force.
But don’t worry!
Tarleton was one of around 160 British troops to escape.
Tarleton went on, of course, to a career in politics.
He is especially noted for supporting the slave trade, which was highly important to the port of Liverpool. Its ships were deeply involved in slave trading. Tarleton was working to preserve the slavery business with his brothers Clayton and Thomas, and he became well known for his taunting and mockery of the abolitionists.
His romantic life?
For 15 years, he had a relationship with the actress and writer Mary Robinson (Perdita), whom he initially seduced on a bet.
LOL this guy. What? Mary Robinson was at the time a notorious babe and former mistress of the King:
Prior to [Tarleton], Robinson had been having an affair with a man named Lord Malden. According to one account, Malden and Tarleton were betting men, and Malden was so confident in Robinson’s loyalty to him, and believed that no man could ever take her from him. As such, he made a bet of a thousand guineas that none of the men in his circle could seduce her. Unfortunately for Malden, Tarleton accepted the bet and swooped in to not only seduce Robinson, but establish a relationship that would last the next 15 years.
Tarleton was famous for killing prisoners trying to surrender — “Tarleton’s Quarter” – after the Battle of Waxhaws. In Tarleton’s version of the story this was because his guys were so upset that he was hurt:
Colonel Tarleton’s account, published in 1787, said that his horse had been shot from under him, and that his soldiers, thinking him dead, engaged in “a vindictive asperity not easily restrained”.
Then came Cowpens.
The charts and diagrams that are used to explain battles have always interested me but they have some real problems. In a word they are bloodless.
What we’re talking about here didn’t look like a bunch of tidy arrows and lines. It was violent chaos, a bunch of guys murdering each other in fire and smoke.
But a little more reading suggests Daniel Morgan, the Continental commander, with the benefit of some time to plan, made some good moves.
Daniel Morgan turned to his advantage the landscape of Cowpens, the varying reliability of his troops, his opponent’s expectations, and the time available before Tarleton’s arrival. He knew untrained militiamen, which composed a large portion of his force, were generally unreliable in battle, and in the past had routed at the first hint of defeat and abandoned the regulars. (The Battle of Camden had ended in disaster when the militia, which was half of the American force, broke and ran as soon as the shooting started.) To eliminate that possibility, he defied convention by placing his army between the Broad and Pacolet rivers, thus making escape impossible if the army was routed.
Morgan asked the militia to fire two volleys, something they could achieve, and then withdraw to the left, to re-form in the rear
Tarleton meanwhile drove his foodless, sleepless men all night in a damn hurry to get another victory.
John Eager Howard quoted Maj. McArthur of the 71st Highlanders, now a prisoner of the Americans, as saying that “he was an officer before Tarleton was born; that the best troops in the service were put under ‘that boy’ to be sacrificed.”
An American prisoner later told that when Tarleton reached Cornwallis and reported the disaster, Cornwallis placed his sword tip on the ground and leaned on it until the blade snapped.