There are only two tactics: flanking, and surprise.
Gaining A Local Advantage
Flanking is when you use position to give yourself a local advantage. Humans are strong against enemies in front of them, and weaker against enemies beside or behind them. By making their side your front, you win. You eliminate some of their numbers. This gives you more numbers, making this easier and easier.
Surprise is when you use time to give yourself a local advantage. Humans are stronger when they have time to recognize a threat and prepare for it, and weaker against unknown or untimely threats. By choosing to act when you are prepared and them unprepared, you win. This gives you more numbers, making this easier and easier.
Okay, there are three tactics: flanking, surprise, and outnumbering. Outnumbering is when you use numbers to give yourself a local advantage. Two humans are, in general, stronger than one human, if they are coordinated. By making your side briefly outnumber the other side, locally, you can eliminate some of their side and win. You can do this by putting more of your folks somewhere, or by using terrain or surprise to give you numbers temporarily. This win gives you more numbers, making this easier and easier.
Fine. There are four tactics: flanking, surprise, outnumbering, and superior arms. A better-armed human is stronger than a less-well-armed human. Some weapons are more effective than others. By getting superior arms for your side, you can overpower some of their side and eliminate them. This gives you more numbers and more territory, which lets you build more weapons, making this easier and easier.
Alright. There are five tactics: flanking, surprise, outnumbering, superior arms, and training. Trained opponents are stronger than untrained opponents in the field they train on. By training some of your side, you can have them eliminate the best-trained (but still less-well-trained-than-you) folks on their side. This reduces the average training on their side, making this easier and easier.
Wait. There are six tactics: flanking, surprise, outnumbering, superior arms, training, and supply. Supply lets you get the people and equipment where you need them, when you need them, and keep them there. Well supplied humans fight better than poorly supplied humans. If you can impair the enemy’s supply, they will fight poorly, and you will win. Generally this also means you control territory, which reduces their ability to supply, making this easier and easier.
Except. There are seven tactics: flanking, surprise, outnumbering, superior arms, training, supply, and communication. Communication allows your side to coordinate, allowing them to apply other tactics quickly and fluently. If you can communicate, decide, and act faster than the other side can, you surprise them, and can coordinate flanking, outnumbering, superior arms, and supply. If you can communicate, you can quickly train your side in response to the current information. This gives you an advantage in both time and space, and then you win.
But really, there are eight tactics: flanking, surprise, outnumbering, superior arms, training, supply, communication, and divide-and-conquer. Divide-and-conquer wedges apart the other side, making them fewer in number, fighting against each other, surprised, flanked, and possibly disrupting their own supply and communication lines.
A divided population is much weaker than a unified population. Even a small division, if fundamental enough, can give you an enormous advantage, and then you win. This disheartens the other side, causing them to schism further, and then you win.
There is only one tactic: gain a local advantage and exploit it.
Amazing come-from-behind win
But wait! That’s not fair! That’s boring!
Conflict is a positive-feedback game. The party that is winning tends to win more. It is inherently unfair. It makes a terrible story.
Does that seem wrong to you? Boring? Off-kilter? This is because we spend most of our time consuming narratives and games that are based on negative feedback. Most games are set up this way; when you’re losing, something in the game helps you stay in it, to keep the game going.
Some of this is social. In a game like Munchkin, when someone looks like they’re about to win, everyone else dogpiles on them to keep things interesting. In a video game, this can be very explicit; Super Mario Cart awards powerful weapons to the person in last place, but never the person in first place, with the express goal of mixing up the racing order.
Our movies work this way too. There’s always some exhaust port your Jedi can take out. There’s a boss lever that destroys the enemies wholesale. There’s a magic song that makes the enemies self-destruct. There’s a sudden revelation that disarms the entire opposition. There’s some huge negative feedback to wrap up the story, despite the heroes being badly surprised, outnumbered, outgunned, outplanned. Because otherwise, the first person to get an advantage would probably win.
But wait! That’s boring and disheartening.
Sadly, that’s how real conflict works. In a fight, the first person to land a significant blow is usually gonna win. Fights are often ended by that first shot (though it often takes a really long time to get to that shot—another aspect that is different than the narratives we read and play through).
The fighting sports you see on TV, even when they cause real injury, require real effort, and represent astounding amounts of dedication, fitness, and training…it’s still not real conflict. The rules are tweaked constantly to prevent all-powerful moves and to allow fighters to have careers. The referee makes sure the rules are followed. While the fighter’s goal is to win, the larger goal is to provide a spectacle, and the rules are set up to allow that to happen.
War is the absence of such rules. There is no “playing fair” in true conflict, because the goal of winning is more important. Important enough to use any and all methods to gain an advantage. (This is not a good thing. This is why war is the last resort.)
And getting an advantage is crucial, whether it be time, space, hearts and minds, technology, communication, supply chains, training, or numbers. Because every properly-exploited advantage gets magnified, due to that positive-feedback loop.
The problem is, this does not work out in the long run. In the long run, scorched earth policies and eye-for-an-eye lead to a blind, blasted world.
We impose rules on our war; conventions, perhaps ones signed at Geneva, perhaps other ones. They’re important, and I’ll talk about them in another post.
But for now, remember: there is only one tactic. Gain a local advantage, and exploit it. Be wary when it is used on you.