As a student of military history I often ponder different ways to win for leaders. Many readers of military history are particularly fond of tactics, because they occur on the battlefield and because most readers of military history (myself included) are quite fond of battle maps. Nonetheless, there are many ways to victory and so it is worthwhile to at least examine what those ways look like because many generals and leaders have been successful using all of the approaches. Let us therefore not to be too married to one approach that we neglect how others think and behave differently.
The Tactical Victory
The first, and most easily recognizable victory, is the tactical victory. Tactical victory is all about winning on the battlefield. Most of Napoleon’s victories were tactical victories (and most of his defeats were diplomatic defeats (it is not coincidental that tactics and diplomacy are at opposite poles of the personality chart). Epominondas was a tactical genius with a pretty strong diplomatic and political suit, allowing him to augment his armies and weakening his enemies through winning the support of the Spartan helots and then building a city for the, thus permanently crippling Spartan strength.
However, let us look at Frederick II of Prussia as a consummate tactical general. His battle at Leuthen, where he led a vastly outnumbered host to victory against the Austrians in Silesia, is a textbook example of a tactical victory that was very similar to Lee’s victorious attack of Hooker at Chancellorsville. A seriously outnumbered foe successfully attacked the flanks of a more numerous but somewhat ineptly led opponent and won a costly victory. In neither case was such a victory decisive though—Lee ended up bloodying his army in Gettysburg and losing the Civil War and Frederick II was saved from total defeat by the fortuitous death of his most implacable opponent, leading to a status quo ante for Prussia (which amounted to a victory, considering Prussia had been fighting nearly single-handedly against France, Austria, and Russia simultaneously).
A tactical victory works in a straightforward way—like Napoleon’s victory over the Prussians at Jena in 1806. A victory on the battlefield combined with moderate terms, or an overwhelming victory combined with a lack of inability to resist leads to an acceptance of more draconian terms. Prussia’s victories in 1864 against Denmark, in 1866 against Austria and the majority of German states, and in 1871 against France were of this sort as well. Smashing battlefield victories combined with fairly moderate goals led to a negotiated victory in all three wars. This sort of war requires a strong army and moderate enough aims that they can be won on the battlefield, as well as enough political and diplomatic savvy no to cause your opponents to fight to the bitter end.
The Diplomatic/Political Victory
The second type of victory, the diplomatic or political victory, is of a far different sort than the tactical victory. Diplomatic and political victories can end up being won on the battlefield, but they are more often won through excellent personal relationships and the ability of people to make friends and influence others through soft power rather than through coercion. Bullies have a poor time with political and diplomatic victories because they cannot build strong enough coalitions to achieve overwhelming force.
When one thinks of victories diplomatic of political leaders in warfare, generals like Dwight Eisenhower, Winfield Scott, the Duke of Marlborough, and the Duke of Wellington come to mind. For me, I also think of leaders like Tokogowa Iyeshu, founder of the Tokogowa Shogunate. Though these leaders may have shined on the battlefield, their true genius was in marshaling coalitions of nations together to oppose massive and powerful enemies. Their strength was in preventing conflicts between allies and in turning the combined forces of nations against powerful foes.
Eisenhower, the Duke of Marlborough and the Duke of Wellington turned this skill into success in European wars against powerful land armies. Eisenhower got the Americans, English, Canadians, and Free French to fight together against Nazi Germany, and his mildness and diplomatic savvy caused plenty of areas, like French North Africa and even Italy to flip against Nazi Germany. The Duke of Marlborough got the English, Dutch, Prussians, Austrians, and Piedmontese to combine forces against the French and win battles like Blenheim. The Duke of Wellington worked first with the Portuguese and the Spanish guerrillas to weaken Napoleon’s forces in the Iberian peninsula and then worked with the Austrians, Prussians, Russians, and Swedes to take out Napoleon’s attempt to regain power. What all of these leaders had in common was enough tactical brilliance to win battles combined with large amounts of ability in creating goodwill and forming strong alliances with political leadership in multiple countries, keeping friction and rivalries from becoming too serious a threat to overall victory. As a result, many of these leaders were able to turn their victories into political victory at home (it is not coincidental that Wellington got to be a Prime Minister of England or that Eisenhower got to the President of the United States.
A diplomatic victory looks a lot different from a tactical victory. A tactical victory is won through the brilliance of arms, while a diplomatic victory is won through building a strong enough coalition to win a victory when no nation could do it alone. Sometimes a diplomatic victory is in avoiding a needless war, as Winfield Scott showed his prowess as a diplomatic and political general in avoiding warfare with Great Britain in three occassions—in the early 1840’s in Maine over the disputed border between Maine and New Brunswick, in the mid 1840’s over fillibusters crossing from the Great Lakes area into Ontario to enflame Canadian desires for independence, and in the late 1850’s over some disputed islands off the coast of what is now Washington state. In all of these cases his savvy and essential goodwill allowed him to smooth over disagreements and encourage either compromise (in the case of Maine) or third party arbitration (in the case of the Juan de Fuca islands). In all of these cases, though, a diplomatic victory is won through the ability to work with other people, rather than making neutrals or potential allies into enemies. This is an important, if often under-recognized skill.
The Logistical Victory
Let us now turn our attention to the logistical victory. While the tactical victory has the thrill of victory on the battlefield and the diplomatic of political victory has the savvy of working well with others, the logistical victory is one largely devoid of military glory but often no less important. The consummate logistical victory is one where holding an army together and using the support of the people as well as preserving military strength and resources allow an outnumbered and largely untrained military to outlast a stronger army with a weaker will to win.
People who win logistical wars are often the fathers of their country, using the moral strength of their peoples’ desire for freedom to overcome armies that have greater ability to win in battlefields but are forced to defend one post too many or who alienate one group of people too many. Leaders like George Washington and Mae Zedong were logistical leaders par excellance. Neither of them won too many glorious battles (and they certainly all had their share of Valley Forge and Long March moments of grim defeats turning into the development of moral fiber that keeps an army together). Some great logistical generals, like Nathaniel Greene, never even managed to win a single tactical battle, but ended up being great generals by forcing opponents to retreat despite winning on the battlefield.
Let us take George Washington’s victory in late 1776 and early 1777. Despite not being a great tactical general (he lost more than half of his battles), he managed to draw his opponent into dividing his forces into too many posts, and then defeating his opponents in detail at first Trenton and then Princeton. Then he managed to preserve his army after dispiriting campaigns where both New York City and Philadelphia were lost in consecutive years through rather grim conditions in Morristown and Valley Forge, and then lead these same troops to victory when he was able to work with Lafayette and Rochambeau to trap Cornwallis at Yorktown. Here logistics was combined with diplomacy for victory.
Mao’s victories were of the same sort. Despite an inability to initially defeat Chiang Kaishek’s forces in the field, and a disastrous initial attempt to win using urban guerrillas, a switch in location to the countryside, a political appeal to peasants angry at the exactions of corrupt warlords, and the diversion of the most powerful units of their enemies to a secondary theater in Manchuria led to a bloody victory after over two decades of conflict in 1949. To win in the logistical way, one has to be willing and able to fight a long time because logistical victories are wars of attrition, and often brutal and ugly.
Let us now close our examination of different approaches of victory with the strategic victory. A strategic victory is a difficult one to recognize, because it is often disguised by other elements. Strategy is all about the plan behind the victory, rather than the way that victory is obtained. One can, for example, engage in a tactical strategy, or a diplomatic/political strategy, or a logistical strategy. What makes these strategic is that they are means to an end, rather than being pursued blindly. For example, a rebel group without resources may behave in a logistical fashion without having any real plan, but Mao Zedung consciously promoted a logistical strategy that was also based on achieving the political support of the people.
The best and most effective strategic victories involve a complete and balanced picture. To take one example, let us look at the victory of the Union in the American Civil War over the rebels. The South had a goal—to win their independence, but they really had no strategy, only a commitment to tactical victories. The North had a strategy—the Anaconda Plan, a combination of control of the rivers, blockading the coast, and taking advantage of the South’s exposed territory to reconquer little by little, and the North’s strategy ended up working in the absence of an alternative by the South and the massing of the North’s logistical advantages to deadly effect. A victory is not cheapened by it being strategic rather than merely tactical (though it is in the eyes of the battle fanboys).
What makes a strategic victory distinctive is that it is based on an intelligent and rational understanding of the big picture of a given conflict, and then utilizes what strengths and mitigates what weaknesses exist to lead to the desired result. There are people who can only win one way. For example, Epominondas tried to win every battle by using the oblique assault, which is how Frederick II tried to win all of his battles too. Likewise, the lack of the tactical brilliance of a Mao or a George Washington (along with the respective state of their armies) forced a logistical strategy. But what makes something strategic as opposed to merely logistical or diplomatic or tactical is the ability of the commander to change when circumstances allow. The fact that Mao switched to battles when his army became stronger suggests that he had a strategy and adapted to circumstances in a way that Frederick II did not.
Nor need we limit our concern to military strategy. The same types of victory that exist for military affairs exist for other types of competition as well. Wherever people compete they can do so in terms of tactics, diplomacy/politics, logistics, or strategy. For example, a team in sports might compete tactically, using set pieces or formations. They might compete diplomatically or politically, through having a favorable relationship with the umpires. They might compete logistically, wearing out the opponent through attrition by injuring or tiring out the opposition to win in a gritty defensive battle. Or they might win strategically by utilizing their own flexibility based on their knowledge of their own and their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. However they win, a win is a win.
The same is true in business also. For this reason people read books like Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings or Sun Tzu’s Art of War from a business perspective. For trade too is warfare, just as sports is. A business can with with tactics, through its manipulation of sale prices and its utilization of new products or services. It can with with diplomacy or politics by forming networks with other businesses or using friendly relationships with the government to ensure success. It can with with logistics, by using its size advantages to gain price advantages through bulk, as in the Wal-Mart approach. Or it can win strategically by adapting its approach differently depending on the situation and utilizing its flexibility to remain nimble and impossible to pin down.
In order to utilize different approaches we must have different strengths either personally or within our organizational leadership. To be tactical one must be attuned to circumstances and must have knowledge of a particular technique. To be diplomatic or political one must be able to motivate and influence and gain the support of other people. To be logistical one must have advantages in either willpower or supplies or manpower (or, better still, all of the above). To be strategic one must have an understanding of both one’s self and the opposition, and be committed to gaining an advantage in information and remain flexible as to the approach of achieving one’s ultimate goals. However one commits to victory, though, the goal is to win. We will be judged on how we win, as well as the causes we fight, for whether they are worthy or unworthy. But if we have committed to warfare we know this in advance, and may prepare ourselves accordingly.