Tactics Win Battles, Strategy Wins Wars

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu

Tactics win battles and strategy wins wars. Example #1: Hannibal won the Battle of Cannae, one of the greatest military victories in all of history. However, the Romans still won the Second Punic War and gained absolute domination of the western Mediterranean. Everyone knows about Rome. Nobody remembers Carthage.

Tactics are the means used to gain an objective or goal, while strategy is the larger, overall plan. Strategy is the big picture, and it is what truly matters if you plan to achieve greatly.

Example #2: The Tet-Offensive of the Vietnam War. This was a decisive tactical victory for the U.S and the South Vietnamese, as we were able to defeat and repel the North Vietnamese. However, the larger strategic goal of the North Vietnamese was propaganda — to be seen by the media. They aimed for locations where they would be seen and recorded by American cameras and photographers, and that is exactly what they got. Americans, already angered by the war, were even more agitated after seeing footage from Tet. Furthermore, General Westmoreland was, for lack of a better word, inadequate. “Hanoi’s high command was terrified that the Tet surprise could be too good and General Westmoreland would be replaced by an individual with some brains” (Source: Vietcong Spy who was surprised by Westmoreland’s incompetence). Westmoreland thought inflicting as many casualties upon the North Vietnamese as possible in as short a time as possible would win the war; obviously, this was bad strategy. It didn’t work for Germany in the Eastern Front or the Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War. Westmoreland should have been wise enough to see that winning a few battles is meaningless if all it leads to is empowering the competitor.

Example #3: Ted Turner. Ted Turner pioneered television as we know it, making the first major cable network CNN (Cable News Network).

“I’ve often compared business strategy to a chess game, and when it came to Turner vs. the networks, they might have had more pieces on the board, but they only thought about their next move while I was planning ten moves ahead. As hard it was for me to believe, all the evidence suggested that neither ABC, nor NBC, nor CBS was getting into cable news anytime soon. I decided it was time to try it ourselves, and if we were going to do it, we had better move quickly. We were so much smaller than our competitors, the only way we could compete effectively was by taking advantage of opportunities before they became obvious.” Source: Call Me Ted — the autobiography of Ted Turner.

Result: CNN is now as significant, if not much more significant in the news business than its network (ABC, NBC, CBS) counterparts. Ted Turner also brought us: TBS, TNT, and TCM. He also helped to bring the U.S bison population from under 1,000 to over 500,000. How did he help to make this happen? The same way we keep cows alive, by eating them. (though we should probably work on this because cows are destroying the ozone layer).

My point here is this: Strategy, what one truly wants and how he/she plans to get it, is just as important as the decisions one makes on a day to day basis. Many people take pride in making decisions quickly, but they often fail to overlook the second and third-order consequences of those decisions. Accordingly, many people derail themselves from the path towards what they truly want.

Being decisive is imperative to success. However, in making decisions, it is also wise to ensure three things:

  1. That the decisions you make are rational
  2. That the decisions are conducive to your long-term objective
  3. That you are (or will be) ready and able to handle the second, third, and nth order consequences of the decisions


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