On Tactics

On Tactics

A Theory of Victory in Battle

B. A. Friedman

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2017, 256 pages

Book Review published on: September 8, 2017

Intended to be digestible for company grade leaders, On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle is a great addition to any practitioner’s library. It meets B. A. Friedman’s primary intent and stimulates thought and debate for more academic audiences. This book swiftly gets to the point of providing readers a brief yet comprehensive indoctrination into the author’s interpretation of historical and doctrinal works concerning tactical warfare.

He focuses primarily at the level where engagements and battles are conducted while acknowledging the greater strategic and operational frameworks. Friedman seeks to provide a theoretical framework of tactics in the context of warfare as Carl von Clausewitz sought a general theory of war from political and strategic aspects. Using Clausewitz and other theorists of war and warfare to build his working theory the author clearly injects his own experience and education as a Marine Corps officer.

Friedman restates the timeless claim that like war, combat has an immutable nature that does not change. Combat’s character, however, is malleable and must change within the context it is waged to be effective. On Tactics is written to assist novice tacticians in a basic understanding of not only a theory of tactics in warfare but how tactics also fit in the greater overall context of war itself.

The principles of war, as his starting point, represent a common system used by tacticians in the practice and evaluation of tactics. Friedman states early on that he intends to correct perceived issues with how the principles are currently conceptualized. He achieves this by briefly explaining their inception and evolution over time before synthesizing them into the core material for his critical analysis.

Friedman’s eventual presentation is that the principles are actually tenets. He explains that, “Classical theorists intended them [the principles] as a list of tactical methods that would increase the probability of success in battle but not guarantee it.” For this reason, he purposefully reframes the principles into tenets to avoid the rigidity implicit in a “principle.” The astute student warfighter will recognize Friedman’s influential exposure to U.S. Marine Corps doctrine in his analysis, particularly Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP) 1-0, Marine Corps Operations; MCDP 1, Warfighting; and MCDP 1-3, Tactics.

Once the principles of war are dissected and reorganized into nine tenets, the reader is introduced to John Boyd and his expansion of J. F. C. Fuller’s use of a three-part framework of physical, mental, and moral powers represents the overall environment that a tactician operates within. Grouping the nine tenets of war into this framework, he contextualizes them into what he calls “tactical concepts.” Using historical anchors to support his analysis, Friedman leads the reader through an intriguing examination of timeless principles and well-known theorists’ concepts through reframing and synthesis. These tactical concepts categorized within the framework of physical, mental, and moral powers are the central focus of the book and the author’s working theory of tactics.

Friedman’s process is informative and rewarding to the astute reader. Exposure to a number of past theories on war and warfare combined with a rich bibliography provide the reader valuable resources to further exploration of topics presented. At a brief 205 pages, the reader is artfully exposed to an intriguing conceptualized theory of tactics and excellent appendices on principles of planning, the operational level of war, the concept of centers of gravity, conventional and guerrilla warfare, training, and organization.

Friedman’s work is not focused on tactics alone but also clearly states the necessary supporting role that tactics play within operations and strategy toward achieving policy aims. This ambitious work goes far toward his stated objective of a working theory of tactics while exposing the reader to a wealth of foundational material to promote further research by the reader. Much like Clausewitz’s On War, On Tactics provides additional food for thought and will certainly spark lively debate and conversation. It is insightful, well written, and an immediately accessible resource I wish I had as a young officer. I look forward to sharing it with others.

Book Review written by: Maj. William A. Ault, Pennsylvania Army National Guard, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania