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Writer's question: the limits of tactics, Tolstoy's objection

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  • Writer's question: the limits of tactics, Tolstoy's objection

    Hi, I'm drafting a novel, and one of its themes is realistic heroism. Naturally, I centered it on a sharp military commander, who ideally I'd like to win battles through superior tactics and willpower...assuming that's a realistic idea in the first place. In this era of Hollywood over-glorifying everything, it's sometimes hard for me to tell what's real, so I came to you guys.

    How much control over his destiny does a military commander have? Some sources tell me brilliant, tactical heroism is possible. Some, like Tolstoy, are skeptical of the power of one man, seeing war as a nightmarish game of chance where all men, soldier and general alike, can do little more than stick to their training, pray for the best, and leave the rest to the incalculably complex forces of destiny, of history.

    On the heroic end of the spectrum, you have Captain Winters in Band of Brothers, who leads his company to victory multiple times through strong tactics and leadership. You also, of course, have the legacy of brilliant generals like Stonewall Jackson, Napoleon, Rommel.

    But Tolstoy was skeptical of this view of history as controllable by man, believing war was too complex, chaotic, and terrifying for any "Great Man" to be so arrogant as to assume control over. He lampooned Napoleon, especially, as a vain and petty little man whose rowboat of tactics gave him an illusory control over the monstrous tides of destiny.

    So, on the skeptical end, you have Field Marshal Kutuzov in War and Peace (which I've heard Tolstoy considered less a novel than a prosaic discourse on history). Tolstoy portrays him favorably--though still complex, not without flaws--as wiser than Napoleon, largely because he's humble to the tides of destiny, and therefore wise enough to go with their flow.

    Napoleon's French were confident in their superior strategy, tactics, and manpower. In spite of that, they're defeated at Borodino by (1) Kutuzov's simple "do what must be done" philosophy and (2) the outnumbered Russians' esprit de corps, whose will to fight is much stronger, largely because they're defending their homeland (though they suffer heavy losses). In a sense, Borodino symbolizes Tolstoy's belief that esprit de corps and the tides of destiny are truer forces than the Great Man and his little rowboats of tactics and reasoning, and that pragmatic acceptance of these facts is worth far more than tactical skill.

    It's not just Tolstoy, either. I've got the well-documented legacies of brilliant tacticians on one hand, but well-documented pragmatic, terrifying realities of combat on the other. The more complex tactics are, I hear, the more doomed they are to fail, amidst the myriad of things that can go wrong. I forget the exact quote, but Hemingway wrote something like, "Has there ever been an attack that went as planned?" And Eisenhower, "There are only two professions in the world in which the amateur excels the professional. One, military strategy, and, two, prostitution." (Yes, I shamelessly stole that quote from Jon Jordan's signature here. Thanks Jon.)

    This troubles me, as a writer, because I was hoping for a kind of chess game, or perhaps more accurately, a StarCraft tournament. In StarCraft, a real-time tactics game, the more you practice, the better you become, and the more tournaments you win. I was hoping for a real-life example of this competitive model, because it enables my main characters to spend their lives training, practicing, becoming highly skilled. Not as a game, but out of love, character, and the need to defend from cruel invaders. Unfortunately, Tolstoy won't stop frowning at me.

    Is the "game" of war a game at all? How possible are realistic heroic tactics? My gut tells me the truth lies somewhere in the middle of the heroic-vs-skeptical spectrum, but I need a stronger foundation than my gut-feelings.

    I'd like to portray a realistically dedicated, skilled, intelligent hero without unrealistically glorifying war. Are those two ideas contradictory?

    (Side note: Perhaps the era is a variable. The dogfighting ace pilot seems to have more control over his destiny, more need for skill, than the forlorn hopes. Maybe modern warfare in general allows and requires more tactical skill than the mass tactics of Napoleonic warfare. Or maybe war is hell no matter where you look. I have no idea.)

    Whew, this was longer than I thought it'd be...thanks for slogging through it.
    Last edited by felyks; 17 Aug 12, 18:18.

  • #2
    I suspect it's similar to being in a fight (fist fight/H2H). Certain moves are high percentage moves and being skilled in them increases your chances; however, it's still a fight and anything you do or fail to do can get you killed or at least beaten.

    I can't see how being a good tactician wouldn't help; I can't see how being a good tactician could guarantee an outcome.

    I remember reading something about recon team tactics in John Plaster's book. Something to the effect of, "No enemy unit could stand up to a recon team executing a well rehearsed immediate action drill for about the first minute of a contact. After that, God was on the side of the bigger unit."
    "Shoot for the epaulets, boys! Shoot for the epaulets!" - Daniel Morgan

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    • #3
      Well, success breeds success. What's your scope? A captain, LTC, Col, Gen/Adm? What's his political constraints? Maj Winters was successfully because he was tactically and technically proficient, as well as being in the right place at the right time and lucky. In WW2 it was possible for someone to go from private to colonel or even general ( though I can't think of any Generals who made that). Contrast that with the current situation where no matter how much of a genius you are, you aren't going to progress rapidly at all.

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      • #4
        Originally posted by felyks View Post
        Naturally, I centered it on a sharp military commander.
        Context is important eg 'Master and Commander' shows what a skilled naval commander can do (similar to your fighter pilot example) but there remains the dice roll of who gets hit in combat. On land, or in fleet actions, it is much harder for a single man to make a difference but still possible - look up Wellington's battles in India for what difference a commander can make.

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        • #5
          Dump Tolstoy, he's a long winded flowery tosspot. If you want a fallible super Hero you'll not do better than Sharpe. When you read some of his more staggering escapades, storming breaches, killing enemies hand to hand and capturing Eagles, remember they're all based on true events that happened to somebody!

          The long toll of the brave
          Is not lost in darkness
          Over the fruitful earth
          And athwart the seas
          Hath passed the light of noble deeds
          Unquenchable forever.

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by Von Richter View Post
            Dump Tolstoy, he's a long winded flowery tosspot. If you want a fallible super Hero you'll not do better than Sharpe. When you read some of his more staggering escapades, storming breaches, killing enemies hand to hand and capturing Eagles, remember they're all based on true events that happened to somebody!

            Lol. Praise Sharpe over Tolstoy, it's like praising a Opel over a Ferrari. But for someone who believes that the world rotates over an island called GB, I'm not surprised.
            There are no Nazis in Ukraine. Idiots

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Emtos View Post
              Lol. Praise Sharpe over Tolstoy, it's like praising a Opel over a Ferrari. But for someone who believes that the world rotates over an island called GB, I'm not surprised.
              I don't believe the world rotates over an island called GB and I like Sharpe; although the storyline is similar from book to book:

              Sharpe has an affair with a woman out of his class; Sharpe gets jilted and is bitter; Sharpe recovers and saves the day; Sergeant Harper kills about half the French Army.

              What's not to like?
              "Shoot for the epaulets, boys! Shoot for the epaulets!" - Daniel Morgan

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Emtos View Post
                Lol. Praise Sharpe over Tolstoy, it's like praising a Opel over a Ferrari. But for someone who believes that the world rotates over an island called GB, I'm not surprised.
                If you like yer Heroes fireproof stick wiv Sharpey and his lads!!!

                http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/...in-flames.html

                The long toll of the brave
                Is not lost in darkness
                Over the fruitful earth
                And athwart the seas
                Hath passed the light of noble deeds
                Unquenchable forever.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Trying to arrive at a direct comparison between Tolstoy and Cornwell is pushing things a little.

                  Personally, I enjoy both.
                  "I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight".
                  Samuel Johnson.

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                  • #10
                    While I was reading through War and Peace, I always felt Tolstoy was playing favorites a bit much, and demonized Napoleon but practically put Kutuzov on a pedestal. I'll admit, I never knew much about the 1812 Russian campaign before reading W & P, and the novel served as my main source of information about the invasion, but it seemed to me that Tolstoy somewhat saw Kutuzov's desire to trade land for time as subscribing to Tolstoy's theory of the effect of one man upon History. I felt like the Kutuzov of War and Peace was therefore molded somewhat to perfectly fit Tolstoy's own theory, and the other generals of the period got shafted.
                    Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
                    And sorry I could not travel both
                    And be one traveler, long I stood
                    ...
                    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
                    I took the one less traveled by,
                    And that has made all the difference.

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                    • #11
                      While you can't discount "destiny/luck/random chance," superior training and tactics as well as dogged determination will greatly improve your chances of a successful outcome. One example might be Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who was a college professor before the US Civil War. He dedicated himself to learning the profession of being a soldier and employed sound tactics at Gettysburg, thus holding the line for the Union. From what I've read, it was not only tactics, but his character and charisma that held the desperate defense together against the Confederate attacks.

                      Another example might be Trafalgar, where Nelson defeated a numerically superior fleet through novel and bold tactics as well as superior gunnery.

                      I believe even Alexander the Great is attributed with having said that he would rather fight an army of lions led by a lamb than an army of lambs led by a lion.

                      My opinion is that many actions are won through a combination of factors from luck to morale to logistics, but a charismatic and excellent leader will propel the force to do greater things while a terrible leader can destroy that force.

                      In the "traps" thread, I mentioned the Japanese Gempei Wars of the 1180's. Up until about then, the Taira Clan held supremacy in war through the excellent leadership of Taira Kiyomori. Upon his death, his incompetent son, Munemori took control and drove the excellent Taira samurai to utter defeat in just a few years.
                      TTFN

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by BELGRAVE View Post
                        Trying to arrive at a direct comparison between Tolstoy and Cornwell is pushing things a little.

                        Personally, I enjoy both.
                        I'm not trying for anything so arse splintering as a perch on a fence here... Tolstoy's tale is long winded bollocks, Sharpey's an action man who makes things happen upon the stern Fields of Mars.
                        In case you missed it our budding scribe's actually looking for a Hero... not a cure for insomnia!

                        The long toll of the brave
                        Is not lost in darkness
                        Over the fruitful earth
                        And athwart the seas
                        Hath passed the light of noble deeds
                        Unquenchable forever.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by KRJ View Post
                          I don't believe the world rotates over an island called GB and I like Sharpe; although the storyline is similar from book to book:

                          Sharpe has an affair with a woman out of his class; Sharpe gets jilted and is bitter; Sharpe recovers and saves the day; Sergeant Harper kills about half the French Army.

                          What's not to like?
                          James Bond of 19th century ? Not really my style. Maybe because I don't believe in super heros. Things like "All quiet on the Western Front" are more interesting for me.
                          There are no Nazis in Ukraine. Idiots

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Von Richter View Post


                            If you like yer Heroes fireproof stick wiv Sharpey and his lads!!!

                            http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/...in-flames.html

                            Hot latino cars...
                            There are no Nazis in Ukraine. Idiots

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              I'll take Harry Flashman over Sharpe any day of the week.

                              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Paget_Flashman
                              "The blade itself incites to deeds of violence".

                              Homer


                              BoRG

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