In advance of the publication of Praxis Tacticum: The Art, Science and Practice of Military Tactics, we wanted to take the opportunity to speak with Colonel Oliviero and ask him about the experiences—as a soldier, a student, and a professor—that led him to writing this book.
Within the Canadian Army, you are well known as a strong proponent for the correct use of Armour. What attracted you to joining the Armoured Corps in the first place?
I joined RMC as a naval cadet. I loved the idea of going to sea and commanding a ship. Unfortunately, after my first summer at sea, I discovered that I was highly prone to seasickness. A second summer at sea confirmed my propensity.
It says something about you that you went back for a second summer!
At that time the only way to leave the Navy was to transfer into the combat arms. My girlfriend’s father had been an Armour Officer and commanding mechanized troops sounded as close as I would get to standing on the bridge of a warship. In the end, I was wrong; commanding armoured troops from a tank turret has NO equivalency.
Is there anything that is roughly equivalent?
I suppose that commanding a large, mechanized infantry combat formation would be similar but as I mention in the book, infantry has a different role than armour and so the commander is looking at the battlespace differently. It is less about long-range firepower and manoeuvre and more about local control and dominance. But as far as equivalent? No.
Can you point at the event or experience that made you so passionate about teaching tactics?
Difficult to say. My early experiences as an Armour Officer baffled me a little because so few of the officers around me seemed interested in battles or tactics or maneuvering forces. Gunnery was always a focal point but to me it was boring. I liked the idea of learning to pit my wits and my command skills against others. My dad and I used to play chess a lot and tactics was a more violent (and deadly) form of chess. The more I studied the subject; the deeper I was drawn in.
Chess is often used as an analogy for tactics and warfare, but I wonder if it is very apt. In chess, each player has perfect situational awareness of the battlefield, and the outcome of every “battle” between pieces is known in advance. I wonder if another game might be a closer analogy, such as poker. In cards, as in warfare, you can bluff your way to victory.
That is a good question, and even though I am a better poker player than I am a chess player, poker is a more tactical game than chess. It is true that you can bluff your way to victory, but you cannot use it as a long-term game strategy. Eventually the other players will start calling you just to force you ‘to put up or shut up.’ A chess match can last almost indefinitely and when played at the highest levels it can be quite astounding to watch one player slowly entice his opponent into a situation where suddenly and even unexpectedly, the latter realizes that there is no escape and abruptly resigns. To be clear: battle is NOT a game, but until you are engaged in real combat, you need to find ways to teach your brain to develop certain thinking patterns and to recognize certain behaviours.
You spent a year in language school learning to speak German, and then two years at the German Armed Forces Command and General Staff College. You then stayed in Germany and returned to your regiment, which included working with German units. How did your experience with the German Army change your military outlook?
The instructors I had had at the Canadian Army Staff College were primarily interested in procedures. The exception was Colonel Michael Davis Barr who was a larger-than-life personality constantly talking about tactics and battle. In Hamburg, I had the good fortune to have as an instructor Oberstleutnant Horst Förster. Although he was an Artillery Officer he was keenly interested in leadership and tactics. Our Course Director, Oberst Einar Hermannsen, a Panzergrenadier, was likewise so. They pushed me to see that my Anglo-Saxon view of warfare was too mechanistic, too drills oriented. They encouraged me to visit the College’s famous library and to understand that tactics was about outthinking your enemy rather than just killing everything in view.
Thus, my two years with the Bundeswehr were a professional coming of age and this experience was broadened and deepened after I returned to regimental duty, where we frequently worked side by side with Bundeswehr units.
Perhaps this points to the real problem with the adoption of manoeuvre warfare and mission command by Anglo-Saxon armies – there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what tactics even are, much less how to apply them effectively.
You raise a good point. Although I agree that some people will disagree that we do not teach tactics, that is not the real issue with the adoption of Manoeuvre Warfare. In my view, our failures (shared by many of our allies) rest on how we determine career paths for leaders. To borrow a hackneyed American phrase, ‘nothing succeeds like success’. The command culture is strongly biased against allowing failure, even though we all agree that failure offers more lessons than does success. Leaders who are ambitious look for the path of least resistance and too often it is seen as not allowing subordinates to fail. This attitude, whether intentional or accidental, erodes trust and as I explain in Praxis trust is the foundation of Manoeuvre Warfare and Auftragstaktik.
A lot of the military theory that has been introduced into Canadian doctrine in the past thirty years has its roots in the practices of the German Army prior to and during the Second World War. How much of that practice and thinking transferred to the Bundeswehr? Is the current German military as tactically adept as its forebearers?
This is a highly complex issue, which I address in the book that am currently writing regarding Auftragstaktik. The Bundeswehr, as the tactical heir of previous German militaries (Reichswehr) does not suffer from any internal cognitive dissonance regarding tactical doctrine. The German military is catholic in its understanding of war and warfare; it is Clausewitzian and has been so for more than 150 years. German officers certainly appreciate that they need to understand Jomini and other theorists because their major allies base much of their doctrine on theorists other than Clausewitz, but they are routinely reminded of their own doctrine and despite belonging to NATO since 1956, they continue to use doctrine that was confirmed in their capstone manual in 1923 by the Chief of the General Staff. As far as tactical proficiency, again, not a simple question but let us consider that Germany is now in a fundamentally different political position than ever in its history. It is no longer surrounded by enemies; rather, it is a keystone partner in an alliance that is at once military, political, social, and economic. With that in mind, the Bundeswehr keeps alive its battle-tested doctrine, without needing to be so ruthless in its practice. Maybe we can address this again when I finish the next book!
Praxis Tacticum is aimed at junior leaders, both officers and NCOs. What advice could you give to a junior leader who was just starting their own journey of professional development?
I am reluctant to offer blind advice but to answer your question, the best thing that any junior leader, whether officer or NCM, can do is find a regimental Senior NCO who understands tactics and ask to be mentored. In conjunction with that, the junior leader can learn a great deal from studying how past leaders have developed their tactical skills by reading not only battle studies but biographies of successful combat leaders.
Reading and professional development used to be nearly synonymous, but it seems to have become less common, in favour of things like military games and films.
I have nothing against military films or military games, but the former is entertainment that often changes the reality for the sake of the story and the latter is too often based on a misunderstanding of tactics and how soldiers fight. For instance, the film Fury with Brad Pitt was fun to watch but the idea that a Wehrmacht parachute unit could not disarm a single tank is breathtakingly STUPID. The reality is that the commander could have dispatched two soldiers to destroy the lone tank and kept moving without even breaking cadence. There are certainly good military games that can be used to teach tactical lessons but they are few.
Is there one thing that you’d like readers to take away from Praxis Tacticum?
Yes. Being a tactical leader takes long study and years of practice. There are no shortcuts.
Which means that whatever stage in their career they are at, if they haven’t already started a scheme of professional development, then they should start now.
And it bears mentioning that the study of tactics doesn’t need to be a narrow field. There is a real diversity of material that is useful to draw upon stretched across millennia of time as well. Reading Praxis Tacticum, it’s clear that you have broad interests. What are the things that you’re really curious about?
Everything. Seriously, there is almost nothing that does not pique my curiosity. OK, maybe lawn bowling. I was lucky to grow up with a father who was widely read and who indulged my constant questioning. He never told me to be quiet and go away. If he had had a hard day at work and I was nagging him, he would ask me to please be quiet and that he promised to answer my questions when he had had a rest and some supper. Looking back, I see now that although we had some great conversations over the decades, there was much more that he could have taught me that I was too shallow to concern myself with. He lived through the rise and fall of Italian Fascism, he was passionate about opera and he had an amazing grasp of Italian literature and we never spoke of any of these things before he shuffled off this mortal coil. My loss.
I feel the same way about several people in my life. I just didn’t know what to ask, and by the time I did, they were gone. That makes me think of the parlour game where you imagine spending an evening at the dinner table with any group of people, alive or dead. Who would you invite?
I would certainly want to start with Alexander of Macedon. Galileo Galilei would have to join us as would Isaac Newton and Niccolò Machiavelli. Albert Einstein would be a must. My last two guests would be Winston Churchill and Henry Kissinger. That would make eight of us. Just imagining such a dinner party makes me hope that there really is a heaven after this world because I might get to fulfil this dream.
Your optimism is admirable – thinking that Machiavelli made it into heaven!
I have no doubt that Niccolò Machiavelli is in heaven and probably arguing with the Almighty.
I know that you have recommended reading Machiavelli as part of the education of a military leader, but he is more often associated with amoral (or at least highly pragmatic) politics. What value does he bring to a military education?
In my opinion, Machiavelli has a bad reputation based on the moralism that grew in political circles shortly after his death. Without going into a long discourse on philosophy, what reading Machiavelli brings is an understanding of realism and pragmatism to the sphere of political science. I do not suggest that reading The Prince or The Art of War is a necessity early in a military career, but if the military leader wishes to be professional and expand his or her horizons, then this author is a must.
Your retirement sounds busier than most people’s working years. Are there any new projects that you’re working on now?
Indeed. I am writing a history of the early development of Auftragstaktik, the most talked about leadership philosophy that almost nobody employs. I’m also preparing a book explaining more fully my Complex Web Theory of military theory, which I introduce briefly in Praxis and I am taking a stab at writing a military novel. I am confident about the first two books, because it is my chosen field of study and I know my stuff, so to speak. The novel is just something to relax my fevered brain, a sort of mental yoga.
I am always curious to ask: with Praxis Tacticum under your belt, what are you reading now or have you just read that you’d recommend?
I am one of those fools who always has several books open at a time because I have the attention span of a carrot. So, when I get bored I can put one book down and pick up another. I do not read much fiction although I am addicted to Daniel Silva’s series featuring the Israeli spymaster, Gabriel Allon. I just finished General Siegfried Westphal’s The German Army in the West, which was highly insightful as well as William L. Shirer’s The Nightmare Years: 1930-40. In between these two German-focused works, I read Alan Schom’s One Hundred Days, an investigation of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and ultimate loss at Waterloo. I recommend all of those. Two that I am still ploughing through are William Safire’s Freedom, a novel about Abraham Lincoln and Safire’s old boss, Henry Kissinger’s The White House Years. Both these tomes (each is more than 1200 pages) is as worthwhile for learning how to manipulate the English language as it is enjoyable for what’s between the covers.
Colonel (Retired) Chuck Oliviero, CD, PhD is an internationally recognized expert in simulation supported training and has twice been the Keynote Speaker at international training conferences and fora. He has over four decades’ experience as an educator and trainer. For two decades, he was responsible for designing, developing and delivering some of the most complex collective training events ever conducted in synthetic environments for military, government and corporate entities. Colonel Oliviero served more than 30 years in the Canadian Forces, retiring as a Colonel. His career included command of Canada’s then only tank regiment, The 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise’s), establishing Canada’s Arms Control Verification Unit and being both an instructor and the Chief of Staff of the Canadian Army Command and Staff College. He is a graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada, holds a BA (Hon) in History, an MA and a PhD in War Studies. He is also a graduate of the two-year German War College (Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr) course. His last military duty was as Special Advisor to the Commander Canadian Army. In 2011 the Minister of National Defence appointed him as Honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the Queen’s York Rangers (1st Americans). For more than a decade, he was an Adjunct Professor of history and strategy at both the Royal Military College and Norwich University in Vermont, USA. He is married and has two sons, both of whom are serving officers in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Praxis Tacticum: The Art, Science and Practice of Military Tactics launches on 20 September, 2021.