The Combat Leader’s ‘Bible’

reviewed by Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr.

MASTERING TACTICS: A Tactical Decision Game Workbook. By Maj John F. Schmitt, USMCR. Marine Corps Association, Quantico, VA, 1994. 108 pp., $14.95. (Member $11.95)

The ability to make decisions is at the very center of tactical ability. It is the commander’s decision that translates the mechanical process of techniques and procedures into living, breathing action. It may be, as T. E. Lawrence said, only 10 percent of tactics, but it is the vital spark that separates excellence from mediocrity.

This timely and useful book will help put a spotlight on a greatly undervalued skill. The author, Reserve Maj John P. Schmitt, is particularly well-suited for this task. For several years, he has been the primary contributor to the running series of tactical decision games (TDGs), solutions, and game commentaries in the Gazette. This book is a compilation of 15 scenarios most of which are drawn from that source. There is also a section on infantry weapons, a glossary, map symbology, and selected essays on various aspects of TDGs and tactical decisionmaking.

A Little History

The TDG is an outgrowth of the “applicatory method,” an educational tool of the German General Staff. The applicatory approach presented the student with a hypothetical problem; to solve it, the student prepared a response in the form of orders to subordinate units. No less a figure than the elder Moltke himself prepared a book of exercises of this nature. Gen Albert C. Wedemeyer, USA, a graduate of the Kriegsakademie class of 1936, reported that exercises of this type were a large part of his curriculum.

This approach to thinking about tactical problems has always been at the core of the German approach to military problem-solving. It is founded on the idea of (1) rapidly estimating the situation; (2) making a decision, expressed in the form of appropriate orders; and (3) justifying the decision. Underlying principles and assumptions that may not be immediately obvious are also a part of this approach. They can be summarized as follows:

* There will always be insufficient information.

* The desire for more information must not slow the decision.

* Details must not paralyze the decisionmaker.

Is the applicatory approach useful? I think it is. The great value of this book is that it will help professional military education (PME) programs at all levels illuminate the most difficult part of tacticsthe decision. All to often, in talking about tactics, the emphasis is on techniques and procedures. The issue of command itself-the soul of the problem-is often assumed away, lost in a procedural maze. While technical mastery is certainly required, the “missing link” of critical, original thinking can be underemphasized.

TDGs provide a remedy for this. They are opportunities for players to reach decisions and then justify them-a skill that is useful in many ways. They provide a ready, repeatable, and infinitely variable opportunity for Marines to experience vicariously the dilemmas of command. This can be done cheaply, in garrison, aboard ship, and as a supplement to field exercises.

The Gazette staff plans future editions of Mastering Tactics. It will be important that they keep the same style of these problems, where the emphasis is on the problem rather than the author’s solution. It is probably best utilized in a group setting, where decisions can be defended before peers. The solutions presented in this book are of value principally to readers who do not have the opportunity to participate in a group TDG, and while it remains of value for those readers, it is an order of magnitude less useful than when solutions can be compared and justified in a group setting. Solutions in a book like this can become dogma unless they are properly presented. One of the strengths of this book is that Schmitt has refrained from falling into this trap.

A word of warning: Both a technical mastery of details and the ability to think independently and critically are necessary for tactical success. One cannot be neglected at the other’s expense. It is the role of a good PME program to balance the two.

While readers may find approaches to tactical situations they don’t necessarily agree with in this book (and I certainly did), this in no way diminishes its usefulness or relevance. The enduring utility of this book will prove to be its role as a catalyst for stimulating tactical ideas and promoting the exchange of them. This is one of the most original and thought provoking books published for Marines of all grades in a long time. It should be read and, most important, discussed widely.