It doesn’t take watching much cable news to see the words “tactics” and “strategy” bandied about as if they’re interchangeable, and that’s before you throw in the concepts of “operations” and “policy.” The dirty secret though, is that even in some history circles these academic guideposts are misused on a regular basis. To bring some clarity, I thought I would offer a brief explanation of policy, strategy, operations, and tactics using an analogy every human being can relate to: food.
Policy is decision-making at its highest and most expansive level. In terms of military history, it’s executed by the political leadership of the armed forces—this could be the recognized government or an insurgent group. It’s a relatively broad idea for achieving a desired outcome. Ideally, policy shouldn’t be too expansive or to narrow, rather a Goldilocks-like set of ideals that allow the people that have to execute them space to work, but still gives them a clear notion of what their political leaders are asking them to achieve.
For example, you and your doctor are discussing your health. Your doctor may decide that you should “eat healthier.” That’s a legitimate policy solution to improving your wellbeing, but it’s still a bit broad. Ideally, you two would narrow that down to “cutting carbs,” and/or “lowering your cholesterol,” and/or “eating more vegetables.” These are still generally broad guidelines but they help to clarify for you, the person that has to execute the policy, what measurable outcomes your doctor is looking for.
With your policy guidance in hand, you now enter the strategic phase. Strategy is where we see more concrete plans for how you intend to put policy into action. To continue with our dietary metaphor, this is where you would start to research and accumulate recipes that will correspond to the goals your doctor gave you.
Next, we enter the operational phase. This is perhaps the least understood of the different levels of warfare because, historiographically, it is the one most recently codified. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it didn’t exist prior. This is the point where strategic decisions are executed: supplies begin to move, troops begin to march, possible battle sites are selected; assuming any battle is necessary at all. This is where you draw up a week-long meal plan and go to the grocery with a shopping list in hand, or decide takeout or delivery is your best option.
Finally, there is the tactical level. This is where battles are fought, or for our purposes individual meals are cooked. This level can be further divided in order to make a point. There are grand-tactics—a general deciding to hold a particular force in reserve on the battlefield or a chef deciding to sauté vs. roast, and then there are micro-tactics—a lieutenant deciding to have scouts investigate a suspicious farmhouse or a cook deciding to dice rather than chop a carrot. Either way, tactics occur on the battlefield in the immediate presence of the opposing force. You’ve got to be able to smell the gunpowder, or the onions…
In this idealized framework, tactics exist to further operations, which exist to execute strategies, which exist to realize policies. Sometimes this can require policy makers to fret about tactics. For example, if your doctor wanted you to lower your cholesterol, that’s a policy outcome that should require the decision early on that deep frying your dinner is not an acceptable tactical option; that would undermine the larger goal. Similarly, if the policy objective was to establish a peaceful occupation after the end of combat operations, the political leadership would be well advised to bar their armed forces from using tactical methods that might alienate the civilian population and encourage armed resistance.
While battles and Instagramable dinners receive the majority of public attention, lots of times their outcomes were determined before the first shot was fired or shallot was minced. You can be the best chef in the world, if you don’t have oil, you’re going to have a hell of a time sautéing something. If the soldiers don’t have enough ammunition, if the generals don’t have enough troops, if a country has not clearly defined what it wants to accomplish, it’s all but impossible to find “victory.” It’s the successful flow of policy into strategy into operations into tactics that most enables means and ends to align.
Now, in the back of the room, someone is shouting, “but these are modern concepts. We can’t use these as the basis for historical analysis!” Nonsense, I say.
Just as Adam Smith did not invent economics with The Wealth of Nations, the ‘discovery’ of the operational level of war in the 20th century did not create military operations. It merely applied a common academic framework to a concept that already existed under a myriad of different terms at different points in history.
These concepts are harder to tease out for the early modern period and prior because a political head of state was often also a military commander in chief and the battlefield commander of a kingdom’s singular field army. This means that historians of these earlier periods need to have an even better understanding of the conceptual levels of war than historians of the 19th century and beyond because the historical actors we study were often wearing many hats and operating on multiple levels at the same time.
Anyway, I hope this explanation was helpful and provided some clarity to jargony words that can be thrown around with pretty reckless abandon in 21st century America. In a subsequent post, we will take a look at what words 18th century military leaders and theorists used to discuss these same concepts. If you think it’s bad now, wait until you see what its like before the terms are codified, and when there isn’t even standardized spelling. Don’t believe me? Try searching “strategy” in the Papers of George Washington. It’s not going to get you very far.