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Strategy Versus Tactics
To win a war, you need to know exactly what you want and how to get it (e.g. what you mean by 'win', never mind whether a war is a/the best way to get what you want in the first place!) But many people don't quite understand how it all works out.

  • Grand-Strategic - level at which War, Economics, Diplomacy, and Politics overlap and the ends of any potential wars are decided. Grand Strategy encompasses all wars and strategies a state is involved in, and the mobilisation of all resources of a state for the creation and maintenance of military forcesnote . This is a level at which there are lots of meetings with loads of politicans, civil servants, senior military figures, and diplomats. There are oodles of graphs and statistics, and the maps are world and continental ones.
  • Strategic - level at which goals/'means'(to 'ends' dictated by Grand Strategy) are determined and military forces are committed and supplied to carry them out. Still has a little to do with economics, diplomacy and politics - but only within the context of the war and its goals note  This is a level at which there are regular meetings between senior military figures (and some civilians and/or foreigners) with some statistics and regional (and some provincial) maps, perhaps with a big arrow or two on them.
  • Operation/Campaign - level at which a goal of the war is singled out and made the focus of a plan of action to be undertaken by a military force with the units assigned to it by the higher-ups. This plan is enacted in an 'Operation' or 'Campaign' of limited duration in which the forces manouevre and engage the enemy, often with the aim of encircling parts of their force and destroying these or forcing their surrender - weakening the enemy force for subsequent operations/campaigns and thereby making it easier to (eventually) achieve the Strategic Goalnote  This is a level at which there are loads of meetings of medium-level commanders with buckets of statistics and schedules and regional+provincial+local maps with some little red arrows on them.
  • Tactical - level at which military units fight enemy ones in various skirmishes/firefights/engagements/battles in accordance with an Operational/Campaign plan, making best use of the personnel and equipment allocated to them under the plannote . This is a level at which low-level commanders exchange messages or meet handfuls of others in hastily-prepared bunkers to pore over a schedule, a provincial map with a big red arrow, and a fistful of local maps marked with the occasional scribble here and there.

Or, according to 19th/20th century German and US understandings of warfare:

  • Strategy is the goal you want to achieve in the long-term; the "What" you want to accomplish.note 
  • Tactics is methods used to try to achieve short-term goals that are supposed to help achieve the overall strategy's goal; the "How" you use to accomplish it.note 
  • Do note that this doesn't work for modern war. At all. Germany lost two major wars by thinking about warfare in this way. In practice the Operational/Campaign level is now indispensible, as The Wehrmacht's performance against The Red Army (a force that prized 'Operational Art' extremely highly) so clearly illustrated.

Focusing only on the short-term often ends up screwing you over in the long-term. In storytelling this is sometimes ignored or glossed over; the immediate result is all that matters. Then there are the stories about how tough it can be to stick to the strategy when it might be simpler and more gratifying to do the thing that looks more honorable or piles up more meaningless victories. As long as there is a polarity of this sort, the story will be able to mine some good conflict.

The trope often takes the form of An Aesop along the lines of "he won the battle but lost the war" (or the other way around). Related to Won the War, Lost the Peace. Also, compare Hollywood Tactics which shows unrealistic battle plans that, logically, should fail but don't. Strategy itself is often dealt with by The Strategist who may or may not also be proficient in tactical thinking. See also We Win Because You Didn't.

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • In Dragon Ball Z, Goku is a master fighter and one of the best. He succeeds by overcoming his limits and learning about his enemies on the fly during combat. However, several times he needs help from people like Kami, King Kai, and Vegeta when it comes to figuring out about bringing back the dead, defeating enemies that are stronger than him, and returning things to normal after everything is all said and done. In fact, at one point, Goku's goal was to have Gohan go SSJ 2 and defeat Cell, but he didn't take in consideration Gohan's mental limits or the effect it would have on his son. Picolo calls him out on it. This action almost doomed the planet and got Goku killed when Gohan berserked and started toying with Cell. They got better as time went on... well, besides in GT where Goku got worse.
  • Code Geass has the tactician versus strategist conflict at its very core. The Magnificent Bastard Lelouch is plotting the downfall of Britannia, but is frequently foiled at individual engagements by the ace pilot, Suzaku. Lelouch mentions the conflict by name during his first internal meltdown, expressing anger that the ace pilot made him lose the battle and thus made him delay the next steps of his larger strategy.
  • As the author of Ravages Of Time said himself, the manhua is all about strategy vs. strategy. Plans are often years, if not decades, in the making, with the levels I Know You Know I Know going into the dozens because each faction has genius-level strategists.

    Comic Books 
  • Nightwing is a masterful tactician, but not much for long term planning or politics. In the DC Universe, he's considered THE Leader archetype, when it comes to uniting any heroic army (no matter how large). This is often contrasted with Superman, who is very politically savvy and diplomatic, but is more comfortable inspiring than commanding. In the end, Nightwing really looks up to Superman—following his example more than Batman's—and Superman often steps aside to let Nightwing take command when needed.

    Literature 
  • Robb Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire is a brilliant tactician who is able to score sound victories against overwhelming Lannister forces. However, he strategic decisions are not nearly as good, and several characters comment that it is probably due to his youth. On the other hand, Robb's nemesis Tywin Lannister concentrates on keeping Robb from winning a decisive battle, and despite losing battles he is constantly strengthening his family's position by creating alliances and thus placing himself in a better position to win the entire war. Sure enough, some of Robb's disgruntled followers leave him in a weakened position, and some others reach out to Tywin, and that's the end of Robb Stark.
  • At Mindouas in the first volume of the Belisarius Series, the title character is rebuked for putting tactics before strategy in fighting a successful but seemingly needless battle with the Persians. In reality the reason was that he needed to gain an armistice as quickly as possible because a new enemy was looming on the horizon.
    • Belisarius' strategy was was a complex one of encouraging insurgency in his enemies home empire and using the navy of his Axumite allies to strike on his enemies flanks. His favorite tactics were to get to a key position before his enemy and bait him into attacking while he had a counterattack waiting on the flank. This worked many times either because the enemy commander absolutely had to attack, or because the enemy commander was Too Dumb to Live.
  • David Weber is well-known for including (usually very detailed) strategy and tactics in his novels. The Honorverse Companion House Of Steel includes an essay co-written by Weber and US Naval Analyst Christopher Weuve on building a military which goes into great detail about everything mentioned in this trope's description.
  • Over the course of the New Jedi Order, New Republic (later Galactic Alliance) fleets relied heavily on both superior strategy and superior tactics wherever possible, countering the invaders' immense numbers and fanatical devotion.
    • On the Alliance side, the "old school" generals such as Garm bel Iblis and Wedge Antilles, having started their careers in La Résistance, were masterful tacticians but relatively lackluster strategists; newer generals like Traest Kre'fey were less effective tacticians but had the eye for strategy that would eventually bring the war to an end. (Admiral Ackbar, being The Strategist who eventually put the Alliance on top during the war's difficult fourth year, was an exception to this trend.)
    • On the Vong side, Tsavong Lah had a brilliant strategy for bringing the Republic to its knees, but his limited tactical skills meant that it was immensely expensive in terms of men and materiel (and he was eventually Out-Gambitted by the Alliance), whereas his successor Nas Choka was less of a visionary strategist, but a much better tactician who countered many of the developments that had let the Republic win up to that point.
  • One of the reasons why the immortal Badass Corwin from The Chronicles of Amber is such a big fanboy of his older brother Benedict, is because he considers Benedict a true master of both strategy and tactics, which is why, when he's not in self-exile, Benedict is the unquestioned commander of the armed forces of a family that likes to think of themselves as gods.

    Live Action TV 
  • This can often be seen in competetive Reality Shows. If you focus on tactics and try to survive each round at any cost, you might sabotage your chances in the finals. On the other hand, being strategic and focusing too much on the endgame could keep you from getting there in the first place.
    • In Survivor, Russell Hantz exemplifies the "too tactical" side. He did anything he could to backstab his tribemates and make it to the finals in two separate seasons, but one he was there he had to face juries of evicted players that hated him and would never vote for him to win.

    Sports 
  • In Professional Wrestling, the tag team of Pretty Boy Doug Somers and "Playboy" Buddy Rose are versed in different fields. In more than one promo, Rose claimed that they were unbeatable in part because he was a master of strategy and Somers was a master tactician.

    Tabletop Games 
  • This concept has a special meaning in the context of wargaming. It means "how big of a scenario does your game represent" and has a number of aspects including the number of forces a counter represents (usually bigger in a strategic game) and the details accounted for (usually there is more detail in a tactical game).

    Video Games 
  • A general example: in many multiplayer games with an objective more complex than wiping out the opposing team, players frequently get caught up in repeatedly killing the enemy without regard for whether this serves the actual objective of the current game round.
  • In Dead Space, specifically, Dead Space 2, Nolan Stross comes up with a good long-term goal and got Isaac back on track by telling him necessary details. However, he only ever talks about destroying the Marker and fails tactical thinking when he fails to get it together and fight back due to the Marker driving him slowly insane and letting his guilt consume him. If it wasn't for Isaac's and Ellie's tactical thinking, the plan would have failed miserably.
  • Pick an RTS game, any RTS game. You have general goals (objectives and missions) which you have solid tactics to win.
  • In Dragon Age: Origins, Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir and Arl Eamon Guerrin are the tactician and the strategist, respectively. Loghain is an excellent general in the field, but his abrasive personality and heavy-handed, tyrannical leadership leave him with few allies where it matters most, and the country is fragmented in the face of the Blight. Eamon, in contrast, is well-spoken, courteous, and diplomatic, but nothing is spoken of his skill as a general. The Warden's quests for him in Denerim before the Landsmeet are focused on acquiring political support for Alistair's campaign for the throne, and Eamon is mainly concerned with ending the civil war as quickly as possible to deal with the Blight, which demonstrates his ability to see the big picture.
  • Colonel Mael Radec in Killzone is regarded as a gifted tactical genius, yet a "merely competent" strategist.

    Web Comics 
  • In Erfworld, Stanley the Tool is a genius when it comes to battle. He is an expert fighting and rose from the rank of piker to Overlord of his side. However, he is not a strategist and, though he had success in the short-term, he failed to have a grand strategy and he was very close to being killed by his enemies. That is until Parson was summoned.

    Web Original 
  • In the cartooning competition Strip Search, Amy originally tried applying some basic reality-show tactics, but the stress of the competition started getting to her after a surprise ruling by the judges. Tavis helped console her and pointed out that trying to win could be getting in the way of some of the real benefits of the show; the opportunity for the artists to hone their craft and make professional contacts with one another. She took the advice to heart and changed her strategy to simply being as good a artist as possible.

    Real Life 
  • In The Punic Wars, Hannibal was an amazing tactician who defeated Roman armies with ease and slaughtered their forces. The Romans were unable to compete with his brilliance, but they didn't give up. You see, Hannibal had sacrificed his siege equipment to avoid a large battle. Without them, Hannibal was unable to breach the thick walls of major Roman cities. The Romans simply began a war of attrition and cut off Carthage's supply lines to Hannibal using sea vessels that Hannibal could not counter (the last Punic war ended with an agreement that said Carthage had to give up its fleet). Hannibal rushed to his country's aid, but was defeated at the Battle of Zama. He is now one of the best examples when discussing the importance of strategic thinking used in conjunction with tactical thinking.
  • In The American Revolution the British could usually win engagements by their greater tactical skill. However the Americans figured out that they could win strategically just by continuing to exist until the British got tired of it.
    • The Battle of Valcour Island is seen as a tactical defeat but a great strategic victory for the Americans. The fleet assembled by Benedict Arnold for the fight was destroyed without inflicting much damage on the British fleet, but just by fighting the battle Arnold delayed the British advance until late enough in the year that snow was beginning to fall. The British decided not to continue that year, which gave the Americans time to regroup for the Saratoga campaign and may have saved the entire war.
  • The idea of Thermopylae was to delay the Persian army's advance into Greece for as long as possible, until the city states could raise their own levies, but because the battle only lasted 3 days, it was a strategic defeat for the Greeks who had intended to hold out for longer. However, an unintended consequence of the early loss was that the Greek fleet retreated from the simultaneous sea battle of Artemisium instead of fighting to the death (because their strategy depended on holding both points). This led to the Persian fleet growing overconfident, overextending themselves, and suffering a devastating defeat against the surviving Greek fleet at the Battle of Salamis weeks later. This ultimately cost the Persians the war by forcing their fleet to withdraw to Persia and destroying their army's supply lines, effectively showing just how well long-term planning and war go together (i.e. not at all).
  • In their war with Sparta the Theban's showed a mastery of both strategy and tactics. At the Battle of Leuctra they overweighted one side of their phalanx to collapse the Spartan host. Their strategy however was to remain in Spartan territory long enough for the Helots to run away. With most city-states, the agricultural economy couldn't be destroyed by raiding simply because destroying crops is even harder then farming them. But the Spartans' agriculture, based on slave Helots kept in line by the other citizens, could be ruined simply by taking the workers away.
  • In World War II the opening stages sometimes seem like a series of opportunistic attacks and desperate reactions called strategy after the fact, or not as the case may be. To some degree this is true; it is harder to develop strategy then it sounds, and the combatants were feeling each other out. As it developed the main German strategy seems to have been to expand their territory eastward. Britain's strategy was to survive and annoy Germany. Russia's was to wear Germany out by attrition until it could start attacking and roll over her (once nicknamed "the steamroller"), allowing Germany the initiative until the middle of the war. When America entered the main strategy of the Allies was to concentrate on Germany (the "Europe First" grand strategy) as Germany and Japan were to far away to help each other, all the allies could get a chunk of Germany; and Germany had more resources which meant if they ended up only able to subjugate one they could afford to think about Japan later but not vice-versa.
  • Because countries can seldom change their geographical position and usually don't want to change their culture at least not to much, this often means that both strategy and tactics will take on recognizable similarities through several wars. Especially strategy as tactics is affected more acutely by technology changes. However tactics is also effected by environment; for instance a mountain country will want more snipers whether they use old time Pushtun jezails(a local specialty type of musket with a long barrel) or modern sniper rifles and a flat desert country will want more cavalry-type for mobility, shock, and pursuit whether mounted on horses and camels, or driving tanks.
    • Germany, which is a valley country with a well organized system of cities and cultivated land, concentrated from the nineteenth century onward on the strategy of winning enough victories to scare any enemy into making a favorable peace. This worked as long as they had an enemy like themselves who was willing to make peace, which in turn assumed German leadership willing to demand no more than a tolerable adjustment of political hegemony (I.E. someone like Otto Von Bismarck or Wilhelm I). It did not work with Adolf Hitler who in Eastern Europe wanted his foes to become a Slave Race and was often fighting in unfavorable terrain (the Soviets made peace offers in 1941 along the lines of the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, but Hitler rejected all of them because he wanted nothing but total annihilation for the USSR). In effect German strategy was the same as its tactics, or rather the same as its operations. However its tactics and operations were extremely well developed and when used by a leader with common sense against a state like an Habsburgs, who were beset on multiple sides and more concerned about a peace that would maintain them as as the resident Feudal Overlord of Austria than about fighting for total victory.
    • British strategy from the days of Elizabeth I to World War II was truly imperial in concept depending on the navy for both defense and offense as well as using money as a weapon and habitually thinking of the whole world as a battlefield. They would often buy time in Europe and shore up allies there while using the navy to cut off their enemies (usually France and often Spain, later Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent Vichy France) from their overseas empires which they seized as Plunder using them after the war to build their own empire, or to bargain with at the Peace Conference. Britain also had numerous contacts, allies, and vassals all over the world, which it used as a source of resources(sometimes including troops) and military officers, diplomats, spies, and bureaucrats trained in colonial politics who could translate their skills reasonably well(a classic example of this was Wellington himself). Once its enemy had reached a certain point a killing blow would be struck. British tactics were generally reasonable but not dazzling, often little more than a Rocky Balboa style "hit each other until somebody falls". As their personnel were usually tough and well disciplined this was often sufficient, especially as they were often used for picking off outposts and only made the killing blow at the later stages. For this to work British troops had to be hardy, and able to adapt to a wide variety of environments, but did not need the large and highly specialized armies typical of Continental Europe nearly as much as they were able to intervene or refuse to intervene in Europe as they thought best(World War I was a partial exception; most of the British army was in Europe from the beginning but the British still played the game of overseas warfare as shown in the movie Lawrence of Arabia). In a way Britain is a curious example of an empire that habitually uses Hit And Run Strategy against other empires on a global scale, but is fairly straightforward tactically.
    • The Byzantine Empire habitually refused battle, knowing they had only so many soldiers, and instead raided their enemy's foraging parties, used their castles(including Constantinople) to take shelter in, and bought off the clients of invading princes with their large supply of money and fabled skill at conspiracy. Byzantine tactics were fairly sophisticated for the era depending on a part-professional, part-feudal army that still retained Roman traditions. It involved heavy use of technology and a scientific study of war, both of which were uncommon at the time though less rare then many think. On land they were famous for their cataphract, heavy Horse Archer / lancer cavalry. At sea they were famous for their "Greek Fire" Naphtha grenades and flame throwers.
    • A classic example is Russia, a nation which spans half the globe. Due to its enormous landmass, invaders need to be incredibly well-stocked as they push deeper and deeper into Russian territory. Meanwhile, Russians simply withdraw ahead of advancing invaders, destroying any infrastructure that will be useful to the oncoming armies, waiting for them to become weak and vulnerable to counterattack, especially during the brutal winters. While it worked flawlessly against Napoleon, this strategy only half-worked against the Wehrmacht. Unable to simply surrender the Ukraine, the Baltic states, or Leningrad due to their new industrial and supply importance, millions of Russian troops were killed or forced to surrender. Though Operation Barbarossa failed to decisively defeat the Russians in a single campaign, the Germans remained in control of much of Western Russia for the next two years. During the Cold War, Russian strategy shifted to having satellite states in Eastern Europe that were well-armed and would take the blows any invader from the West would send. Russian tactics could be very mixed. They are often stereotyped as We Have Reserves, but while Russia has seldom been shy about using this, they have tended to be more sophisticated then all that. They have often had armies of extremely mixed quality, some being quite crude tactically and led by incompetent officers, and others as good as the best any other country can field. However though they had weaknesses they had strengths including a large supply of manpower that grew up in harsh conditions. The flip side is that, despite the enormous landmass, the majority of the population is concentrated in the western, or European, area of the country, and they are not as easy to move as armies. In both the Napoleonic Wars and World War II Russia was forced to resort to guerilla warfare on a large scale while building up it's forces, and the enemies long supply lines made them very vulnerable to partisans. Russia also had a large supply of cavalry dating from the steepe warfare traditions, and while it was very weak at sea it's navy has a strong heritage of riverine and coastwise combined operations with the Army which was noticeable in the Turkish wars and in World War II. The tactics of the Red Army in World War II could be odd by Western European standards, but they were often very ingenious making clever use of nature and elaborate deception operations. By the last stages of the war they had enough tanks to engage in blitzkriegs in the German style and while these weren't usually carried out with the German smoothness they had their own touches like support from aforesaid guerillas and fresh-water vessels and a large supply of horse cavalry which they maintained long after the other allies had phased it out.
    • When not in periods of isolationism, the United States has been protected by the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, making strikes on the mainland logistically difficult. The only times in its history that it's been under a full-invasion since independence were the War of 1812, where the British invaded with second-rate units as they were more occupied with France, and the Civil War. When fighting overseas, America puts a particular emphasis of its strategy and tactics on science and industry. Without the ability to directly attack America, enemies find themselves being outproduced in everything, from boots to assault rifles to ships (even in relative peacetime). Being a vast and diverse nation with a population of immigrants from all over the world, the United States is able to pool its intellectual resources, giving it an immense technological edge. However, since the latter half of the 20th Century, America has found itself engaged against guerrilla fighters, so this resource has been all but useless. Meanwhile, America's longstanding emphasis on logistics and mobility has historically meant they could quickly deploy forces to far flung corners of the globe, allowing them to deliver overwhelming force in any particular operation, even quickly pivoting their forces between different parts of the same theater (such as the famous "Left Hook" during the 1991 Gulf War, where the Iraqis were lead to expect a massed amphibious operation in Kuwait, only to be met by a land invasion from Saudi Arabia)
    • An example of a tactical victory and a strategic loss is the Battle of the Glorious First of June, between the British and the French in 1794. The French harvest in 1793 had been bad, and the French government feared a popular uprising because of it. To avert this, in the spring of 1794, they bought over a hundred shiploads of grain from the United States, and sent a fleet of warships to escort the convoy of grain ships. Of course, the French couldn't buy such a large amount of grain without the British hearing about it. So the Admiralty sent the Channel Fleet under Lord Howe to intercept the convoy. The cheerful French Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse, commanding the French escorts, after a few preliminary brushes with the British fleet, joined battle with Howe on June 1st (13 Prairial in the French Revolutionary calendar). Howe won a great victory, taking or sinking seven French ships and damaging 13 more, with none of his ships taken or sunk. HOWEVER, the grain convoy, which was the centerpiece of the whole affair, made it into Brest, losing only one ship, and that to bad weather. The French people were fed, the government was saved and Howe screwed the pooch. Howe was given the Order of the Garter, more for propaganda reasons than anything else, and his retirement from active command was accepted. (Admittedly, he was 68.)
    • Much like Britain, Japan is an island nation that is dependent on foreign trade. Unlike Britain, it did not even have enough resources to help kickstart its economy when it moved to industrialization. One of the main reasons for its empire building in the early half of the 20th Century was to help make Japan less dependent on foreign trade. Tactically, Japan was one of the first nations to fully demonstrate the capability of aircraft carriers. Even then, Japan still failed to appreciate their importance since they pretty much threw strategic planning out of the window. Admiral Yamamoto used his carriers as support ships for his battleships rather than as the lead offensive weapon, as the Americans were forced to do after Pearl Harbor. He and the Imperial Staff envisioned that the final decisive battle would employ the mighty Yamato. Then came Midway, and the Japanese offensive was crushed.
  • The difference between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons is thus: unlike the former, the latter are never meant to be launched. Tactical nuclear weapons are produced to be deployed against particularly well-entrenched military installations of the enemy in order to win the war. Strategic nuclear weapons are produced so that politicians can have leverage in diplomatic negotiations—as well as to make sure that nobody ever gets the idea of actually using them, because all it will achieve is a Mutually Assured Destruction.
  • The American Civil War saw a conflict between a master strategist and a master tactician when Ulysses S. Grant fought Robert E. Lee. Lee was by far the superior tactician, and would typically come out on top of any one engagement. Grant, however, had a clearer view of the big picture, and understood that every battle they fought left Lee's position more and more untenable. As a result Lee won most of the battles, but Grant ultimately won the war.

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