Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Strategical Buffoonery

Hi all...ltdomer98 here, long time poster, moderator, and purveyor of snark over on the Samurai Archives message board. Kitsuno asked me to throw something together for the blog in response to some recent discussion and questions that came up on the message board, so here I am. Maybe I'll make an occaisional appearance in the future...or maybe I'll stink it up and Dr. K won't be tempted to ask me back.

Anyways, the reason our esteemed leader asked me to generate some verbage was to cover a recurring question that comes up time and again: the misunderstanding of "strategy" vs. "tactics". Most people seem to think the words are interchangeable. This is fine if you're watching Bugs Bunny use some "strategery" to best Yosemite Sam. However, when you're discussing military history, it's important to use the correct terms. This is because they imply completely different things. I'll quote the US Army's definition, but it's recognized by most militaries around the world:

US Army in FM 1-02:
Strategic level of war– The level of war at which a nation, often as a member of a group of nations, determines national or multinational (alliance or coalition) strategic security objectives and guidance, and develops and uses national resources to accomplish these objectives. Activities at this level establish national and multinational military objectives; sequence initiatives; define limits and assess risks for the use of military and other instruments of national power; develop global plans or theater war plans to achieve these objectives; and provide military forces and other capabilities in accordance with strategic plans.

Explanation: This is the highest level of national action. In modern terms, a country would have a strategy. Strategy is how a nation accomplishes it's national goals. It would be what guides whether or not a nation goes to war--what is it trying to accomplish? If sea trade routes are vital to it's economy, then it could go to war to protect them. Bringing it into the Sengoku, if we consider each daimyo house as a separate "nation", it would be what they do in order to further their interests. The Oda-Tokugawa alliance would be a strategic move. The decision to march on Kyoto would be a strategic move, because it's the decision to move from the regional to national stage.
Operational level of war–The level of war at which campaigns and major operations are planned, conducted, and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or operational areas. Activities at this level link tactics and strategy by establishing operational objectives needed to accomplish the strategic objectives, sequencing events to achieve the operational objectives, initiating actions, and applying resources to bring about and sustain these events. These activities imply a broader dimension of time or space than do tactics; they ensure the logistic and administrative support of tactical forces, and provide the means by which tactical successes are exploited to achieve strategic objectives.

Explanation: This is the intermediate level of warfare. In modern parlance, it commonly refers to the subnational military activities down to the Army/Corps level. The general on high maneuvering large contingents of men and material into positions to fight is looking at the operational level. Eisenhower, for instance, was directing the invasion of Europe--the strategic goal was defeat Germany; the operational effort to do so was Eisenhower's decisions to invade at Normandy, in Italy, etc. Again, in the Sengoku, it would be Nobunaga's various campaigns around the Kinai. The Strategic goal is control of Japan; the operational level was the subjugation of the Ikko-shuu, the campaigns against the Mori, Uesugi, Takeda, Rokkaku, etc.

Tactical level of war– The level of war at which battles and engagements are planned and executed to accomplish military objectives assigned to tactical units or task forces. Activities at this level focus on the ordered arrangement and maneuver of combat elements in relation to each other and to the enemy to achieve combat objectives.

Explanation: The lowest level of military activities. Generally everything Corps/Division level and below in modern usage. A battalion attacking a position is tactical. A squad laying an ambush is tactical. A special ops raid is tactical. It serves an operational or strategic purpose, but is more refined and specific. 1st Infantry Division capturing it's objectives on Omaha Beach is tactical. Tactical is the actual DOING that accomplishes the Operational Plans and the Strategic Goals. For the Sengoku, let's say that Hideyoshi's capture of Takayama-jo was tactical; the battle of Nagashino was tactical.

Okay, great, LT, you say--you've copied and pasted everything you've already written on the message board. What's the "so what"? What does it matter? Why do I have to be so precise when talking about this stuff?

Good question, skippy. Let's discuss. First off, if you don't care about using terms correctly, you probably should pack your bags and head down the road to Anime Mura. We here at the Samurai Citadel are a serious group, and attention to detail is important. Secondly, it makes a ton of difference in the meaning of what you say. For instance: "Yamamoto Kansuke was a brilliant strategist." You see this kind of comment all the time. But was he? Most of his referrenced accomplishments, such as devising the "woodpecker operation" at the 4th Battle of Kawanakajima, aren't strategic at all-- they were tactical. A brilliant strategist would have developed a structured plan to put the Takeda family in position to rule all of Japan (for the sake of illustrating the point, we're assuming this is the goal). The Takeda wasted entire decades focusing on Uesugi Kenshin; by the time Shingen looked west towards the capital, he had just enough time to beat down Tokugawa Ieyasu at Mikatagahara before he kicked the bucket. Poor strategic focus; Yamamoto Kansuke is best described as a "brilliant tactician"--ultimately his plan at 4th Kawanakajima worked, just too late to save his skin.

The point of the above example isn't to debate the what-if's of Yamamoto Kansuke & the Takeda family--had he lived, he could very well have survived and been a great strategic advisor to Shingen. The point is that the words have very different and distinct meanings, and you cannot use them interchangably. They are most assuredly different. Case in point: Nazi Germany. The Wehrmacht was a collection of brilliant minds at the operational level and deadly efficient soldiers at the tactical level. Their failures weren't poor fighting by their soldiers (tactical) or poor decisions by their generals on what/how/where to advance (operational). Germany failed to capitalize on these assets because the strategic decision maker (Hitler) was a nut-job who hamstrung his superstar generals with idiotic strategic decision making.

WWII is a "modern" war and fits modern doctrinal definitions easily. But, we're not a WWII Wehrmacht blog (though Kitsuno does sometimes treat us like we're in a Stalag), so let's relate it to the relevant topic. I'll give three examples of strategy, operations, and tactics, each from a diffrerent era of Japanese history, cross-walking it to show how they differ. Rememer, these are to illustrate a point, so if I gloss over certain aspects of each scenario, don't go breaking out your Jeffrey Mass to correct me. Chances are I've got the same book.

Scenario 1: Gempei War

"Nation": Minamoto
Goals: Wrest control of the court & government from the Taira;
Establish Minamoto clan as the dominant power in Japan

Strategic Steps necessary to accomplish national goals:
1. Destroy Taira Army (main rival)
2. Control Kyoto (court & government location)

Okay, so obviously in order to be the new boss, you've got to replace the old boss. The Taira held power, so Yoritomo needed to destroy them to replace them as the new holder of power. Secondly, destroying the old guys doesn't matter if you don't have control of Kyoto, as without Kyoto you have no influence on the Court, nor do you have any influence (legitimacy) from the Court.

Now, let's take it to the Operational Level:

1. Destroy Taira Army (main rival)
  • Find, Fix, & Destroy the Taira Army
  • Eliminate Emperor Antoku (Taira Kiyomori's grandson, their link to Imperial legitimacy)

In order to destroy the Taira, Yoritomo must obviously defeat their army. Control of the capital, eliminating Taira influence there, is key. Yoshinaka is replaced with Yoshitsune as the operational commander, who then hunts down and destroys the Taira. He must also sever the link between them and the Imperial Court, the boy Emperor Antoku.

2. Control Kyoto (court & government location)

  • Place significant military force in Kyoto
  • Get Imperial sanction to legitimize actions
  • Establish control over taxation/land apportionment system (maintains control vis-a-vis the nobility).

To control Kyoto, enough Minamoto forces must be present to intimidate the Court. Retired Emperor Go-Shirakawa must have a sense of Yoritomo's power and influence, and be concerned enough to attempt to curry favor. This will in turn force Go-Shirakawa to name Yoritomo the Imperial champion, legitimizing the Minamoto cause legally. Yoritomo will then be recognized as most able to enforce taxation rights, can receive position of enough importance to justify granting taxation/land rights, and codify it into permanent system.

Now, breaking it down into the tactical level:

1. Destroy Taira Army (main rival)

  • Find, Fix, & Destroy the Taira Army
  1. Defeat Taira at Kurikara
  2. Force retreat from Kyoto
  3. Dislodge from Yashima
  4. Corner at Dan-no-Ura & defeat decisively

Each of these would be tactical tasks that would have tactical sub-tasks. For example, for #1, one of the subtasks would be "conduct demonstration of force to occupy Taira attention in order to enable flank attack under cover of cattle".

  • Eliminate Emperor Antoku (Taira Kiyomori's grandson, their link to Imperial legitimacy)
  1. Find Antoku
  2. Kill him

These are pretty simple but necessary parts to accomplishing the operational goal of eliminating Antoku.

2. Control Kyoto (court & government location)

  • Place significant military force in Kyoto
  1. Occupy Kyoto with Yoshinaka
  2. When Yoshinaka acts in manner detrimental to Minamoto influence in Court, replace with Yoshitsune.

The objective could have been met with the first; however, Yoshinaka's actions were detrimental to relations with the Court; Yoritomo had to make the operational decision to eliminate him in order to maintain progress towards his strategic goal of controlling Kyoto.

  • Get Imperial sanction to legitimize actions
  1. Maintain good relations with Court, yet keep strong presence.
  2. Receive title of sufficient rank to allow maximum control of warrior and economic system.

Yoritomo needed Imperial favor and sanction, but also had to maintain sufficient independence to pursue his own agenda. As you can see, his decision to take the title of "Sei-i-taishogun" fit nicely into this plan.

  • Establish control over taxation/land apportionment system (maintains control vis-a-vis the nobility).
  1. Once right title procured, twist it to maintain control of warrior class.
  2. Manage to work taxation enforcement into the "policing" duties of the military title given.
  3. Place key followers in posts of most importance: Shugo and Jito in lucrative areas.

All of these obviously feed into the operational goal. I think you're getting the point now.

The idea is that each set of tactical steps completes an operational goal; reaching operational goals completes the strategic goal it supports.

Scenario 2: Imagawa Yoshimoto
"Nation": Imagawa Yoshimoto
Goal: Control of Kyoto and the Ashikaga Shogunate
Strategic Level Step necessary to accomplish national goal:
1. Secure other fronts
2. Seize Kyoto
Operational Level actions:
1. Secure other fronts: N/A. The alliances with the Hojo and Takeda were strategic moves. Successful.
2. Seize Kyoto
  • March on Kyoto
  • Take Kyoto

Tactical Actions:

2. Seize Kyoto

  • March on Kyoto
  1. Take Kiyosu; eliminate Oda <------- POINT OF FAILURE
  2. Defeat Saito, move through Mino
  3. Defeat Rokakku & Asai, move through Omi
  4. Arrive in Kyoto with army intact, able to defeat Miyoshi/Matsunaga

Imagawa Yoshimoto failed in his strategic goal of establishing himself in Kyoto because of a tactical mistake; everything else he had done correctly was nullified, and there's no way to know if he could have completed steps 2, 3, 4, or the operational goal of taking Kyoto from the Miyoshi.

Just for grins, let's try a third example, from one of the first commanders who could really be equated with a modern commander, Oda Nobunaga.

Scenario 3: Subjugation of the Mori

"Nation": Oda Nobunaga

Goal: National Hegemony


1. Eliminate power holders who refuse to submit to Oda authority

  • Defeat Mori house
  1. Secure Harima as base of operations (Subtask: take Himeji-jo, Miki-jo)
  2. Push into Bizen & Mimasaka (Subtask: secure castles to expand control)
  3. Take Bitchu (Subtask: Take Takamatsu-jo)
  4. Secure Bingo
  5. Seize & hold Aki, home base of Mori family

Oda Nobunaga is really the first leader to assign operational tasks to subordinate leaders. We're going to use the subjugation of the Mori to walk through the process. Nobunaga, obviously, planned on national sovereignty; his "national" goal was complete control of Japan. One of the obvious strategic tasks (there would have been many, but we shall focus on one) was to eliminate potential obstacles; not just rivals for national power, but any regional power holders who would refuse to accept his national control. I chose the Mori because they were the latter; Mori Terumoto never expressed any desire to be a rival to Nobunaga for control of Kyoto, but he did refuse to accept Oda control and supported others who fought against Nobunaga. In 1577 Nobunaga gave the operational task of eliminating the Mori to his general Hashiba Hideyoshi. You could also phrase the task "Subjugate the Chuugoku region", but since the Mori controlled pretty much the entire Chuugoku region, the effect is one and the same. As the Operational commander, it was Hideyoshi's job to determine what was necessary in order to accomplish his task. Much like a corps commander today who's told to "eliminate the enemy", Hideyoshi would have to evaluate how best to do that. The tactical tasks above would be the obvious "gates" he'd have to hit in order to defeat the Mori. Hideyoshi would determine what tasks needed doing, then assign subordinate commanders the subtasks necessary to complete them. For instance, if the first step in taking Himeji-jo is to encircle it, he might give Takenaka Hanbei the task of sealing off the eastern portion, while Kuroda Kanbei gets the assignment of cutting off the western side. Kuroda would then look at his job, and assign his subordinates tasks (seal off the E-W road on the western side of the castle to prevent enemy messages from getting through, take up defensive positions on Yamayama Hill to prevent any relief force from breaking through, post scouts to warn of enemy movements, etc.) in turn.

As it stood, Hideyoshi took 5 years to get to step 3, but it was enough--the Mori sued for peace and accepted a settlement. He accomplished his lord's strategic goal of eliminating the Mori as an independent power. Of course, Nobunaga died right at this time, but for our purposes Hideyoshi accomplished his operational goal.

I hope this explanation clears up the issue of "strategic" vs "tactical" (not to mention operational!!) for the laymen out there. It really is important to know which one to use. Imagawa Yoshimoto didn't make a strategic mistake, he made a tactical one, but it upset his whole strategic plan.

Until next time, my young ashigaru!



  1. Great explaination Domer! The breakdown of Okehazama was simply awesome.

  2. Ha! And I haven't even read your book yet!