Liddell Hart on strategy: The synaptic lapse twixt conception and execution


By Mike Fogarty*

“The difficulty lies in operating the policy rather than in conceiving it. Policy, like strategy, is an art in which everything depends on execution. Or to quote Clausewitz (pictured) rather than Napoleon: Everything about it is simple, but the simple is always difficult.”

Errors at the tactical and operational level may be redeemable, but those at the strategic level are usually catastrophic. This observation has been sourced from readings below. Consider Liddell Hart. ‘As regards the relation of strategy to tactics, while in execution the borderline is often shadowy, and it is difficult to decide exactly where a strategical movement ends and a tactical movement begins, yet in conception the two are distinct. Tactics lies in and fills the province of fighting. Strategy not only stops on the frontier, but has for its purpose the reduction of fighting to the slenderest possible proportions.’ This over-states ‘indirect strategy.’

What is their division? ‘The problem of strategy is located along the fault line between policy and the operational level. The consequence of politicians pretending that policy is strategy and of soldiers focusing on operations has been to leave strategy without a home.’ This should be further exampled. ‘There is no denying the consistent failure of strategy through the pursuit of political goals beyond military means as illustrated … in Iraq and Afghanistan.’ Quoting Clausewitz, Rothfels surmises. ‘Tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat; strategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the war.’

Gray located the case of a US soldier in Vietnam. Contested ground was captured but not held and army units would return to fight the enemy later. ‘A junior officer could not relate purposefully his daily activity to any strategic purpose.’ Morale suffered as soldiers were fighting and dying without measurable tactical progress. In Vietnam, the US won many major battles yet Hanoi’s strategic aims were realized in 1975. Tactically, the 1968 Tet offensive was a failure, as many Viet Cong cadres and their leadership were decimated. While it was a collateral error in execution, Hanoi achieved a corollary result. At the strategic level, it incurred a psychological blow on Washington and Saigon. Public opinion turned against the war.

An enemy possesses its own countervailing strategies and tactics. Two authors accentuate the frailty of strategy. ‘Reality is far too subtle and complex to accommodate mere theory.’ Luttwak discerns the paradox. ‘Strategy is paradoxical in that what works well today will not work well tomorrow, precisely because it worked well today.’ Gray includes the variables; tyrannies of geographical distance, the terrain and (spheric) time. States can withdraw from coalitions, as Russia did, in WWI. Luttwak reduces strategy to horizontal and vertical axes.

Liddell Hart arrayed the psychological metrics of warfare. Errors of conception can be directly correlated with the character flaws of the individual strategist. Hitler was a messianic leader beguiled by his concept of lebensraum, an unsustainable ideological and racial construct which was as flawed as his personal psyche. His neighbours cleaved to their own political culture and ‘living space’ and they resisted that ambitious hostile challenge: ‘Germany went (too) far to beat herself.’

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) left a note which was found with his uncompleted writings. ‘Should the work be interrupted by my death, then what is found can only be called a mass of conceptions not brought into form … open to endless misconceptions.’ Liddell Hart sagely observed that his obsession with total warfare may well have encouraged Germany to embark on two ruinous world wars. Hitler had not learned from Napoleon. Yet conversely, the early blitzkriegs were brilliant conceptions at the outset, but they were executed badly, in that Berlin under-estimated the resolve of the allies and the industrial might of America. Hitler’s armies invaded Russia in June, 1941. At the news, when it reached the Kremlin, Marshal Stalin could be forgiven if he rolled his eyes and turned to General Zhukov and sighed: “Oh those Prussians.” In time, Nazi Germany’s overly ambitious strategic assumptions against Russia in WWII also failed tactically.

Gray noted of Clausewitz. ‘Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy.’ Strategy cleaves to multi-disciplinary imperatives. It is subjected to many forces, beyond politics and military, which might encompass: ideology, diplomacy, religion, ethnicity, cultural and socio-economic factors. Self-doubt also influences military planning. Hitler exemplified this at Dunkirk, in 1940. With the British army in retreat, he considered invading Britain. Yet he smartly calculated that it was erroneous both in conception and in any tactical execution, for the might of Britain’s considerable naval and air power, which would check any more of his adventurism. Elsewhere, the US suffered an initial strategic setback when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Despite some early reverses, the US gained the initiative and sustained the operational momentum to help defeat Japan in 1945.

This journal article argues that there is a proportional relationship (direct as inverse) between strategy and tactics. An optimal result is when they are both positively resourced and aligned to achieve their stated political goals. War does not submit to linear theory so critical path analysis might be a better guide. A fork in the road to victory or defeat is still any prisoner’s dilemma. For the outcome of a war can be determined by a combination of qualitative and quantitative variables, which is also a function of a nation’s strategic culture. For example, Germany kept re-enforcing defeat in two world wars. They had not learned from an emphatic defeat in 1918. An application of Rubik’s cube theory is a clumsy and forced model. One could try matrices; whether inverse, skew-symmetric or transposed. but even that mathematical toy has to surrender to the very ambiguity of combat itself. Markov chains do have their limits when confronting concrete if often indeterminate reality.

Chaos theory should not be used to dignify war which should never be ennobled. Maybe we should give stochastic theory greater respect, and make a wild guess (if patriotically informed) about the outcome of any war? Stochastic gaming is the enemy of determinism for we must consider the interplay of variables, known as unknown, which are characterised by having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analysed statistically, but may not be predicted precisely, or even wisely. West Australians are comfortable with the ambiguity of unscripted events. They would acknowledge that such phenomena are ‘pretty random’, as is war itself. In warfare, which is not abstract, there will always be ebbs and flows in tactics, as much as in the warp and weft of strategies, which also adjust and adapt to developments. One cannot be too inflexible as known invariables are conditioned by unknown variables. The imponderables and the impedimenta of warfare create their opposing frictions. Consider Vietnam. The denouement of the war was hardly progress, despite some measurable successes on the battlefield, at least to late 1972, before the so-called 1973 honourable withdrawal, which was realized in the fey outcome of 30 April 1975, when Saigon fell, as a consequence of many decisions, when the US Congress failed to appropriate sufficient military aid to replace and bolster the South Vietnamese armoury to combat North Vietnam, which in turn, was being resourced by China and Russia. Washington had tired of Vietnam and it no longer had the political will to support a beleaguered ally so far away, in a war which could no longer claim its discursive space. Strategic overreach is still a workable concept. Footnote four above offered a workable challenge which demands our attention, as invited within. Strategy and tactics can be odd bed-fellows, in their cohabitation. Politicians and military leaders must enjoin that these constructs are never homeless. Strategy and tactics are twinned in warfare. We should now meet their parents, as these children of military and political history have been orphaned for too long.

*Mike Fogarty is a former naval officer, retired diplomat and a postgraduate of ADFA.



Raymond Aron, The Imperial Republic, The US and the World, 1945-73, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey, 1976.
Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.
B.H. Liddell Hart, Thoughts on War, Faber and Faber, London, 1943.
B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, Meridian, London, second edition, 1991.
B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, The Indirect Approach, Faber and Faber, London, 1967.
Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace, Belknap Press, London, 2001.
Williamson Murray and Mark Grimsley, in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox and Alvin Bernstein, The Making of Strategy, Rulers, States and Wars, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
Gav Reynolds, ‘Book Review’, Colin S. Gray, Strategy and History: Essays on Theory and Practice, Australian Army Journal, volume III, number 3, summer, 2006.
H. Rothfels, ‘Clausewitz’, Makers of Modern Strategy, Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler, ed. Edward Mead Earle, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1973.
Hew Strachan, quoted in, Michael L. Roi, ‘The Strategy Gap’, ‘Contemporary civil-military relations and the use of military power’, Routledge Handbook of Diplomacy and Statecraft, ed. B.J.C. McKercher, Routledge Group, New York, 2012.

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