Strategy and tactics

by | Dec 24, 2009

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is simply the noise before defeat. -Sun Tzu
I am currently reading “The Rhodesian War-A military history” a book which has become a classic study in many military colleges around the world. I grew up in Rhodesia and lived through the transition to Zimbabwe. In my younger years I swallowed hook line and sinker the propaganda of the Smith regime that the the brave “security forces” were defeating the “terrs” on every front so that when the war suddenly ended with a victory for the guerrilla armies my 11 year old mind could hardly believe this sudden reversal had happened. It appeared that the Rhodesian government had achieved the impossible, they had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. I grew older and as Zimbabwe emerged from the isolation that had been Rhodesia I read a little wider and began to hear the other side of the war story but having been thoroughly fooled once I was not too interested in swallowing the new government’s propaganda. As they say there are always three sides to every story my side, your side and then there’s the truth. Today, even though the war ended almost three decades ago the memories of the war, the wounds it left in the national psyche, and the debates surrounding it are as fresh as ever due to the spectacle of Zimbabwe’s national suicide as the new government appears determined to destroy the very freedoms it once paid in blood to achieve. So I picked up this book to try, belatedly, to get some sense of what really happened. It took me back to a time when everyone seemed to be in uniform, when I believed whole heartedly that it was possible to stand alone against the whole world and win. Like many white Zimbabweans scattered around the globe as I read I cannot help but feel admiration for the bravery, fortitude and ability of the Rhodesian forces whilst simultaneously feel ashamed that we ever fought at all, the knowledge that even if the Mugabe regime has fulfilled the darkest prophesies of UDI, Rhodesia was fundamentally unjust and that we were fighting for the wrong side.
The study illustrates perfectly the quote above from Sun Tzu in the “Art of War”. These quotes particularly caught my attention.
” The armed forces of Rhodesia won virtually every battle and skirmish they fought against the guerrilla armies, yet they lost the war.”

“The story of the Rhodesian armed forces during the civil war is one of tactical brilliance and strategic ineptitude”

With hindsight some of Rhodesia’s strategic blunders are clear; amongst the one’s that strike me are.
They defended the indefensible

It could be argued that part of the difference between tactics and strategy is that the former deals with how we fight whilst the latter concerns why we are fighting. As the war dragged on the Rhodesian strategic position on the ground grew steadily worse and as the nations around changed from friends to enemies the Rhodesians found themselves defending ever larger borders with ever shrinking resources and manpower. No matter how well they fought or how bravely, as the years wore on the task became more and more difficult. They were winning all their battles but strategically they lost the war. The longer the war carried on the more enemies they made and the more friends they lost. However, more significant than the war on the ground was the war in the mind. Rhodesians were fighting for a cause that could not be morally defended. Although much was said about fighting to preserve christian civilization against godless communism and the errors and disasters of the rest of Africa’s failed states when everything was said and done Rhodesians were fighting to preserve a privileged way of life for a minority at the expense of the majority and as a result the weight of world opinion was always going to be against them and the more they killed their enemies the more enemies they made, and the fewer friends they found until even aparteid South Africa the last state that had stood with them could no longer stand against the tide of world opinion. Their rationale for fighting became, like their borders, ever more porous and stretched.
They allowed themselves to become isolated.
As romantic and brave as it sounds standing alone is a poor strategic decision. It was the undoing of Rhodesia. As the dominos fell around them and they grew increasingly isolated from world opinion many average Rhodesians lost touch with reality and any sense of the flow of history. We honestly believed Smith when he declared “Never in a thousand years” and failed to notice that the tide was turning against them they defied the winds of change but such defiance can only last so long without some strategy to make long term survival possible. Despite the fact that on the ground they won battle after battle and were tactically superior to their opponents in almost every respect the guerrillas only had to keep stretching them and wearing them down knowing that in the end without outside assistance they could only keep up the battle for so long. The fact that they held out for so long was remarkable, but in the end when even South Africa support fell away they no longer had the will nor the wherewithal to fight on.

They underestimated their enemies.
The Rhodesians own racism blinded them to the strength of their enemies stategy and position. Their tactical victories on the ground further gave them the impression that they were winning a war in which they were steadily losing ground. Towards the end of the war the government had given up holding territory and rather had taken to counting kill ratio’s to bolster moral and to fuel the idea that they were winning the war. What had started as a war to hold territory became a war of attrition as if the government didn’t like the score and so it just changed the way they kept score instead of playing the game differently. When you are a small minority a war of attrition can hardly be called a brilliant strategy. The guerrillas on the other hand had studied the works of Marx and Mao and understood that a long war was in their favour, that numbers and opinion was on their side and so they just kept on fighting, running, hiding, and fighting again.

I can’t help wondering if the present government of Zimbabwe ever look back to draw lessons from their own revolutionary history. They increasingly repeat the strategic blunders of the Smith regime. Whilst they spout words purporting to be defending the revolution current policy appears to be far more dedicated to entrenching the power and privilege of a few at the expense of the many. The oppression of the masses, the testimony of the diaspora, and the disintegration of Zimbabwe’s once thriving economy give the lie to all Harare’s defensive rhetoric. They are defending the indefensible and justice will one day have to be satisfied.Once again the government of this small central African country finds itself increasingly isolated from the world even if on the ground it seems to be stronger than ever as time goes by even they lose support from erstwhile comrades and a once sympathetic world. The same clock that was ticking in government house in Salisbury in the late 70’s ticks in government house for Mugabe now.

What do I get out of this for my own life? If I am going to live and die for something, live for just and noble causes. Selfishness and narrow self interest is a poor strategic life decision. As we seek to extend God’s kingdom and spread revival and bring reformation to the nations we will face many hardships, trials reverses and defeats along the way but if we can keep in our minds a clear picture of the the righteousness peace and joy of the Kingdom we will have the legs to carry our struggle to victory.
Don’t become isolated. We all need true friends around us, and if there is no-one with us we may need to stop and re assess our position, and realise that an isolated man is a tempting target. Many Christians and most churches tend to battle along alone, fighting private wars, winning and losing on our own. Isolation makes us weak and vulnerable to being out maneuvered by our enemy. This current revival is a revival of the body of christ, it is about all christians, and all churches. When we come together in the cause of Christ we will change the course of world history.

Finally don’t under estimate your enemy, he has been fighting this war for millennia. Don’t get obsessed with him or impressed with him but don’t underestimate him. However be impressed with God. He is the greatest strategist of all.

Well, this has rambled on long enough. Post a comment or leave your thoughts for me via my facebook page.

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