Green-to-tee Strategy, and other fun

“For smart, talented, and ambitious people, winning is sometimes so easy that it makes true success elusive. That’s because victories, easily obtained, can obscure the ultimate goal.”

That’s a quote out of Hannibal and Me, Chapter 6, which is about life strategy. It’s also how I open my latest “teaser” post in the Harvard Business Review. It segues, as one does, from Hannibal in 216 BC to Carl von Clausewitz to, yes, Tiger Woods. 😉

It’s all about strategy, you see — about thinking backwards, from the green to the tee, no matter what the life situation happens to be. (Thank you to Ryan D., who suggested this angle last time.)

Meanwhile, Doug Desalles and I had a great chat on his cool radio station in Sacramento, Radio Parallax. It’s about a half hour long, but we really go quite deep towards the end.

Going deeper: strategy, tactics, operations

If you’re still into this emerging little sub-series on strategy and Clausewitz, read Kenneth Payne’s rebuttal to my posts and our discussion in the comments.

Kenneth challenges my view that Truman and MacArthur can be seen as archetypes for strategy and tactics, and frames them instead in the perennial tension between civilian and military leadership. In the comments, he then refines that into the idea of operational versus non-operational war-making.

This immediately reminded me, obliquely, of a great (incisive and entertaining) TED talk by Thomas Barnett, a great strategist. His thesis is precisely about how strategy affects operations–ie, the ‘boring’ bits of the Pentagon and State Department.

In a nutshell: The strategic situation of the United States today is one of

catastrophic successes

Sound familiar?

In this context, Barnett means that our military is so strong that nobody is willing to fight us in the “ordinary” way anymore. So what do we do with all our power?

The pattern (Iraq, etc) is this: We kick ass in war, then fail in peace. Because we are bad at the transition. What we have, according to Barnett, is

A Leviathan force.

What we now need to add is a

sysadmin (system administration) force … or  a “Department of Something Else” between war and peace

to manage the messes we create. Speaking like a true strategist–indeed, as I believe Clausewitz would have spoken–Barnett says:

Don’t plan for the war unless you plan to win the peace

So, to me, this is still all about ends and means, strategy and tactics. Here is the talk:

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Tactics vs Strategy: MacArthur vs Truman



  • Knowing means from ends
  • Knowing tactics from strategy
  • Understanding why the first must always be subordinate to the second

These, as I argued in the previous post, are the greatest and most enduring lessons of Carl von Clausewitz, and the reason why I include him in my pantheon of great minds.

Where I have most fun in my forthcoming book is in fleshing out his ideas in contexts other than war, to show that strategy applies to all areas of life. But today I want to make his ideas a bit more concrete in the obvious context: war.

So allow me to introduce the two archetypes:

  1. Douglas MacArthur and
  2. Harry Truman


Here is their story (from one of the best biographies ever written):

Nuke to win, nuke to lose

In June of 1950, Communist forces from North Korea poured south across the 38th parallel in an all-out attack on South Korea. Harry Truman, having come to power late in life, was the American commander-in-chief and had already made history by dropping the first and only two atomic bombs on Asian cities just five years earlier. He knew immediately and instinctively that this Communist attack had to be reversed or contained. And there to execute this purpose, in theory, was Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the United Nations forces in the region, as well as a certified American Hero from World War II and a notorious prima donna.

MacArthur began true to form, with a swashbuckling landing at Inchon in South Korea. He took the enemy by surprise, liberated Seoul in eleven days and, by October 1st of 1950, brought UN forces—primarily composed of Americans—back to the 38th parallel that the North Koreans had crossed. MacArthur now wanted a “hot pursuit” , and Truman authorized him to cross the 38th parallel.

Truman, however, added a crucial strategic condition: Do not to provoke the Chinese to enter the war, lest that should spark World War III and possible nuclear Armageddon!

Right around then, things began going wrong, not only in the war effort but also in the relationship between MacArthur and Truman.

When the two men met–for the only physical meeting of their lives–on  a tiny coral islet in the Pacific, MacArthur tellingly greeted his commander-in-chief but failed to salute. The two men then met alone, before inviting others to join them. Truman made clear his overarching concern, one that Clausewitz would have approved of: to keep this a “limited” war,  meaning a war to meet one single objective—rebuffing Communist aggression in Korea—without risking an escalation into what Clausewitz would have called an “absolute” war.

But the following month, Truman’s fears came true and the Communist Chinese attacked with huge force. Suddenly, MacArthur, who had been dreaming of another glorious military victory, was trying to avoid a humiliating defeat. He demanded:

  • huge reinforcements,
  • a wholesale naval blockade of all of China and
  • immediate bombing of the Chinese mainland.

MacArthur wanted to broaden the war and to burst any remaining “limits” on it. For MacArthur, there was only one objective: victory. At all costs!

Truman thought the exact opposite. His first fear had already come true, and he now worried that the Chinese were the advance guard of a Soviet Russian intervention, what he called “a gigantic booby trap”  that could lead to the explosion of World War III.

Truman and MacArthur started issuing competing press releases. MacArthur began publicly blaming Washington for everything that was going wrong. He disobeyed specific orders. He called on Truman

  • to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on the cities of China (!) and
  • to “sever” Korea from China by laying down a field of radioactive waste all along the Yalu River.

MacArthur appeared to have lost his mind. He even issued his own ultimatum to the Chinese government, as if he were president.

Big Man vs Little Man

At last, Truman took the inevitable measure and fired MacArthur. This was an obvious step, but not an easy one. MacArthur, to ordinary Americans, was still a war hero, whereas Truman’s approval was at an all-time low of 26%. (Hard to remember today, but true.) Time Magazine wrote that “Douglas MacArthur was the personification of the big man” whereas “Harry Truman was almost a professional little man.”  In a poll, 69% of the country backed MacArthur. There were calls to impeach Truman. (Never underestimate the capacity of a democracy, whether Athenian or American, to run amok!)

In time, minds cleared. Truman settled for a stalemate in Korea that continues to this day and is as tense and unsatisfactory this week as ever. He chose a “defeat” of sorts that has brought lasting peace. Communism would be contained for another four decades and then crumble, leaving American as the only superpower. Parts of East Asia, like Western Europe, would prosper in relative safety.

Had MacArthur prevailed, America might well have achieved “victory”, at the cost of another world war, nuclear annihilation of millions, and perhaps nuclear counterstrikes on America from the Soviets, who were fast catching up to the Americans in the technology. It would have been the ultimate impostor of a triumph, with nobody left to march in the victory parade through the radioactive planet.

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Clausewitz and you: Life strategy



It’s time to talk about tactics as opposed to strategy in life, because knowing the difference is crucial to achieving success, and avoiding disaster. And that, of course, is the topic of my book.

The person to know about in this matter (besides Hannibal and Scipio, of course) is Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian (and later Russian) officer on the losing side against Napoleon. He also witnessed Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia, which made a deep impression on him. Think of him as the equivalent of an adviser to Scipio or Fabius, the Romans on the losing side against my main character, Hannibal.

Clausewitz is without any doubt one of the great thinkers in world history, even though he is enigmatic and still confuses people to this day. The main reason for that is that he spent his career taking notes–hundreds and hundreds of pages worth–which he meant to consolidate into a coherent whole. But then he died of cholera, at the age of fifty-one. So his great treatise, Vom Kriege, “On War”, was not coherent. Even so, it is now considered the most profound work on strategy ever, thanks to the thoughtful analysis of people such as Kenneth Payne, Patrick Porter and David Betz at King’s College in London.

Let’s look at his most famous and controversial quote:

War is nothing but the continuation of politics (or policy) with other means.

Lots of mediocre minds have, over the years, worked themselves into a fury over the alleged cynicism of this quote, entirely missing its point and getting the meaning backward. Clausewitz was not saying that all politics is potentially like war, but that all war must remain subservient to political/policy objectives. This is subtle.

Elsewhere he had set up the basic tension in war: War can in theory be:

  1. absolute, or
  2. limited

In practice, all wars must be limited but simultaneously “want to” escalate. And here we get into Clausewitz’s wisdom:

Means vs ends

A tactical mind always and only wants to win the battle–whatever battle is being waged. (Remember Pyrrhus?) This is the mind that wants to escalate any war toward its absolute extreme. In future posts I will give some devastating examples of what this can lead to.

A strategic mind wants to win “the war” or, better yet, “the peace”! Battles are simply a means to an end. So it makes perfect sense to adjust your battle tactics not to the goal of victory but to the goal of achieving the kind of peace you ultimately want. This almost always introduces moderation and limitation into your tactics.

As with so many bits of profound wisdom, this is deceptively easy to shrug off. But consider how earth-shattering it was in its time. There was, for instance, a pompous strategist named Heinrich von Bülow, who defined tactics as “the science of military movement in the presence of the enemy,” whereas strategy was “the science of military movements beyond the range of cannon-shot of either side.” What banal and trivial drivel!

Now consider how earth-shattering Clausewitz’s insight can be for your own life: “The object of war,” he said, and I will add emphasis in bold:

as of all creative activity, is the employment of the available means for the predetermined end.

And here you see why I include Clausewitz in my pantheon of great thinkers: Simple, profound and specific, and yet expandable to other areas of life.

Have you ever “won” a fight with your lover only to feel that you’ve lost something far greater? “Won” a promotion only to feel that you’ve lost something? “Won” in a bout of office politics only to feel that you should not have entered battle to begin with?

Are you, in your life, confusing tactics with strategy, means with ends? You need some Clausewitz.

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Kudos to other Hannibal lovers and thinkers

I’ve always noticed that, although Hannibal is ever so slightly less of a household name than, say, Alexander or Caesar (or should that be because, rather than although?), he seems to have the more passionate, sophisticated and thoughtful following.

Read, for instance, 100falcons on the subjects of Hannibal’s most ingenious trick, his famous boyhood vow to his father, and some of the lessons that Hannibal has to teach us.

In my book and this blog, I’ll be offering my own lessons. But today I’ll just quote excerpts from 100falcons’:

1. Take the initiative, keep the initiative. […] His enemy had constantly to try to guess his intention and defend himself against several alternative attacks. The enemy Roman consul was forever on the defensive, waiting, wondering, guessing, bracing himself for the blow. […]

2. Be quick. Surprise. Hannibal decamped by night from Capua and got to Rome before the Romans in Capua ever realized he was gone. He crossed Etruria through a swamp because that was the way everyone assumed he wouldn’t go.

3. Be crafty, lay a trap. [see also: Hannibal’s most ingenious trap] ….

4. Be flexible. Have a plan but be able to alter it or even drop it as circumstances change. […]

5. […] Think two steps ahead, not just one.

6. Understand your enemy; learn his weaknesses. Hannibal always sent out spies to learn the enemy’s plans. He interviewed prisoners and guides to get information. As soon as new Roman consuls were given command, he sent informers to find out who they were. Was the new general a hothead? Had he ever led troops in battle? What was the result? Was he cocky or impatient, did he like to tip the bottle? […]

7. Be daring. Come down with your army across the Alps with elephants and attack Rome on Roman ground, far from your own country and without logistic support except what you can steal.

8. Keep your mouth shut. Hannibal never told anyone what he was doing.

9. Be all of the above except when you are faced with an enemy who is all of the above. In that case, be like Fabius, […]

My comment at this stage is that the above lessons fall into the how-to-win category. Some of my lessons will zoom out to contemplate how you can win and yet–mysteriously–lose. That, of course, is half of the point of my book, which is that success can be one of Kipling’s impostors.

Incidentally, Erikatakacs left a comment underneath 110falcons’ post which he/she then began to answer in another post. In essence: why on earth did Hannibal not take Rome itself? Isn’t that why he went to Italy in the first place? Well, there are good reasons why he did not. But this also presents us with his fascinating paradox. If he was so good at thinking several steps ahead (as in Lesson Nr 5 above), why didn’t he… think that one extra step ahead as well. Let’s remember, that this winner ended up …. losing! Kipling indeed.

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