All strategies are tactics

But not all tactics are strategic

When is a tactic a tactic? When is a tactic part of a strategy?

On some level these are trick questions. Every tactic should advance some strategic purpose. Otherwise it’s wasted effort.

In reality that’s not the case. Take the statement of Lt. Jerry Headley, who served in Vietnam:

“There wasn’t anything different in Vietnam from the day I arrived to the day I left.  We were still fighting over the same terrain, the same areas [Tay Ninh and Hau Nghia provinces]. Where an ambush or a fight had been a month before, you were fighting again. You never, never held anything. You’d fight in an area one day and come back again and fight on another. It was very frustrating to know that it didn’t matter what you did or now many of the enemy you killed or how many you captured. He was going to be there again tomorrow. And so the more you did this, you kept wondering, what the hell am I doing here? I’m not getting anywhere. It’s just the same thing over and over again.”

Activity without progress. Doing stuff and doing stuff and doing stuff and getting nowhere. So yes, there are people out there hammering nails just to hammer some nails.

But there are also some people out there hammering nails in order to build a shed or a skyscraper. That is, people connecting physical activity with higher intent.

It seems like we often trip ourselves up over terminology. I’ll never forget Emile Simpson’s book, War From the Ground Up, referring to journalistic confusion over the term “counter-insurgency.” A single Financial Times article from 2011 referred to counter-insurgency as a tactic (in the title), a strategy (in the first paragraph), and then as “counter-insurgency policy” (in the second paragraph).

So let’s get back to some basics. A tactic is some physical activity. A policy is some objective (physical or otherwise). Strategy is how we use tactics to achieve some desired policy/objective. Thus, all strategies are made of tactics.

We can tell the difference between a standalone tactic and a tactic built for strategic effect in their purpose. Is the activity entirely about the moment, and undertaken for its own sake? Then, like a one-night stand or binge-eating cookies, this is a tactic untied to any strategy, policy, or purpose. (That’s not a moral judgment. Humanity’s full of pleasure-seeking behavior that’s untethered to any higher purpose than a moment of joy.)

Alternately, is the activity undertaken for some higher purpose, physical or otherwise, often to be achieved later, with intended lasting impact. In this way we can make nearly any tactic strategic. The sex from that one-night stand can be the beginning bond on which to build a meaningful relationship or a marriage; over-eating cookies may be the just-right fuel an endurance athlete needs to defeat a competitor and win a race.

Here’s where it gets sticky. Sometimes a tactic serves simultaneously as a strategy. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Think of nuclear weapons. They’re physical weapons, which puts them in the “tactic” category. But they also carry so much weight and destructive power that their use necessarily will have strategic impact. Parts of the US defense community even argue that their mere existence (not even use) has strategic effect. The US military command responsible for their control is called “Strategic Command.”

Thankfully there are few cases where the Venn diagram between a tactic and associated strategy overlap so completely.

Sometimes this isn’t as easy as discerning between apples and Chevrolets. It can be much harder. Yet it’s still crucial to be able to tell the difference. Otherwise you leave your organization open to wasted effort.

Start with the chain of causation. How closely linked is the action to the higher purpose? How crucial is a tactic to the objective? Can the objective be secured another way?

For my money, a tactic with intended strategic effect is one that’s critical to the accomplishment of a particular strategy. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (later president), considered the flat-bottomed “Higgins” boats crucial to the outcome of World War II. “If [Andrew] Higgins had not designed and built those [boats], we never could have landed over an open beach,” Eisenhower once said, “The whole strategy of the war would have been different.” No boats, no beachhead, no Berlin.

Beyond importance, tactics can be arranged in two different ways. There’s sequential: 1 leads to 2 which leads to 3.

Then there’s a cumulative approach, when one doesn’t know which straw will bring the camel to its knees. Most competitive commerce is cumulative, as is bombing, submarine warfare, and, yes, counter-insurgency efforts.

One other notable tactic designed for cumulative strategic effect were the “Thunder Runs” into Baghdad in the opening days of the Iraq War in 2003. These were just a bunch of tanks and armored vehicles punching their way into the Iraqi capital. Tactical activity, through and through. But they were meant to demonstrate to the Iraqi people (and world) that Saddam Hussein no longer controlled Iraq. That action alone wasn’t going to end the war. But it was a meaningful effort—one of several—to change the way Iraqis saw their country.

In hindsight it’s easier to see how actions register impact.

It’s much harder to predict a path for a series of tactical actions to ensure strategic impact. The world’s so messy. It’s bloody difficult, sometimes difficult and bloody. But we’re still meant to try our best. Sometimes that’s cutting out what’s not essential, sometimes that’s sequential operations, sometimes it’s cumulative.

Sometimes you’ve just got to hope the camel’s tired enough to fall at the weight of the next straw, because you’ve only got one straw left.