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The Levels of Warfare, Part 1: The Ancient Legacy
Among the most enduring innovations of 18th-century theory was the division of warfare into the formal levels of tactics and strategy. This has influenced our understanding of war, the division of command, and how military objectives should be selected—it is one of the most fundamental abstractions in military thought. Yet this conceptual division emerged surprisingly late, and in a far from straightforward manner. It is instructive to trace its evolution.
The concepts of strategy and tactics date back to the ancient Greeks. Yet the Greeks’ understanding of them was very different from our own. Tactics, from the Greek taktike, is an adjective derived from taxis meaning order or arrangement—this was used to describe the formation of soldiers in a phalanx. Strategy, or strategeia, is derived from the word for general, strategos, and simply meant generalship.
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Tactics were seen as crucial for winning in battle. Classical Greek accounts usually attributed defeat to an army becoming disordered (ataktos), so it stood to reason that the better-ordered army would usually win; by logical extension, tactics could mean everything that contributed to victory in battle, whether it took place on the battlefield or not. Cyrus the Great was said to maintain that:
tactics did not consist solely in being able easily to extend one's line or increase its depth, or to change it from a long column into a phalanx, or without error to change the front by a counter march according as the enemy came up on the right or the left or behind; but he considered it also a part of good tactics to break up one's army into several divisions whenever occasion demanded, and to place each division, too, where it would do the most good, and to make speed when it was necessary to reach a place before the enemy.1
Strategy, by contrast, was an altogether different sort of concept. Rather than refer to a specific domain of activity, it meant anything associated with a general: his qualities as a commander, his period of service, or the skills he possessed. Only occasionally was strategy used as an abstraction comparable to tactics, when it referred to a general’s plans.2
It should be emphasized that to the Greek ear, these concepts remained firmly rooted in their etymological meanings. Tactics could refer to any kind of military arrangement, whether the formation of a column for the march or the layout of a camp; strategy was likewise always something done by a general, never a plan in the abstract.
Ancient Levels of War?
Discussion of the relationship between tactics and strategy also dates back to the Greeks. Xenophon, writing in the 4th century BC, was the first to draw an explicit connection between them. In two separate dialogues, he mocks the idea that good strategy (i.e. the art of command) consists solely of tactical skill; instead, he specifies that it also entails provisioning, pitching a camp, posting sentries, training, enforcing discipline, and leadership.3 This should not be taken to imply levels of war in the modern sense, but it is significant that he establishes a hierarchical relationship between the two.
Questions of tactics and strategy continued to be discussed throughout antiquity. A number of Greek and later Roman authors wrote on the subject: Arrian’s Taktika, Frontinus’ Strategematicon, Aelianus Tacticus’ Peri Strategikon Taxeon Hellenikon, Polyaenus’ Taktika and Strategemata, Onasander’s Strategikos, and Asclepiodotus’ Taktika Kephalaia, among others.
Ancient military theory reached its zenith around the year 600 with the Strategikon, written by the Byzantine emperor Maurice or one of his generals. This manual reflected the lessons learned in a long series of wars against the Persians and various barbarians along the Danube frontier. It contained advice on how to conduct a campaign, how to train and organize soldiers, and how to fight different enemies. It also laid out a complex scheme of battle, instructing commanders to draw up their armies in two battle lines, each a mixture of skirmishers, heavy infantry, and cavalry, augmented by several other bodies of outriders, ambush troops, and guards positioned around the battlefield.
The importance of tactics and strategy is a constant refrain throughout the Strategikon. A general achieves victory by “employing tactics and strategy”; and “one cannot defeat an enemy without tactics and strategy”.4 One remarkable passage explicitly contrasts the two. In a section on drilling the army, the author advises:
Apart from actual battle, the army should never draw up in its full combat formation; that is, when it is just drilling it should not be formed in a first and second line, with flank guards, outflankers, troops hiding in irregular formation or in ambushes. These dispositions are matters of strategy rather than of tactics, and they ought not be made known ahead of time during drill, but should be decided on the spot to meet a specific need.5
There are a few interesting points to this. Unlike Xenophon a thousand years earlier, Maurice does not present tactics as an essential skill of good strategy (i.e. of generalship). Instead, strategy is presented as an entirely separate domain comparable to tactics, which is itself much more limited than Cyrus’ expansive definition. The placement of major formations on the battlefield (strategy) is something for the general to study on his own (e.g. by reading the Strategikon), whereas the forming of the battleline (tactics) is something that subordinate officers must train to. It would still be a stretch to describe these as levels of war in the modern sense, but they are certainly abstract domains that exist on separate planes.
Most striking to the modern reader is where Maurice draws the line between them. Rather than make battle itself the divider, both tactics and strategy occur within battle. Yet strategy is not limited to battle—in another passage, he specifies: “Strategy makes use of times and places, surprises and various tricks to outwit the enemy with the idea of achieving its objectives even without pitched battle.”6 Thus tactics could be described as the art of forming a battleline to defeat an opposing line, while strategy was the art of using the entire army to defeat an enemy army.
These usages are even more distinctive for what they lack. Only rarely is the word tactics used to describe anything other than a battleline (such as a marching column or camp), while strategy is never used to describe other aspects of generalship. Thus the germ of our modern concepts is already present in the Strategikon. But these would only emerge twelve centuries later, shaped by the distinctive intellectual environment of the 18th century.
In the next post, we will look at how tactics reached its modern form.
Xen. Cyrop. 8.5.15.
See, for instance, Onasander 10.19-20 and especially 32.5, which mentions strategies in the plural (στρατηγίαις).
Xen. Cyrop. 1.6, Mem. 3.1.6.
The word used for tactics is the noun taxis: “καὶ τῇ τάξει καὶ στραηγίᾳ....κεχρημένος” (1.1); “οὐκ ἔστι πολεμίους καταγωνίζεσθαι τάξεως καὶ στρατηγίαϛ ἐκτός” (7.1).
3.5, p. 40 of the Dennis translation. “These dispositions are matters of strategy rather than of tactics” appears as “Τὰ γὰρ τοιαῦτα στρατηγίας μᾶλλον ἢ τάξεως εἶναι” in the original—once again, the noun taxis is used to mean tactics.
2.1. Interestingly, this was very close in meaning to Sun Tzu’s dictum that “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” Contrary to popular interpretation, he meant that it was best to triumph without risking pitched battle, not by avoiding any kind of combat at all. That is to say, it was better to win through raids, ambushes, and other asymmetric engagements that avoided great losses: https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2020/6/15/sun-tzus-fighting-words
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