John H. Poole and "Eastern" tactics


Mr. Poole began publishing books in 1997 ("The Last Hundred Yards") and got strong positive reactions for his non-doctrinal approach to small unit tactics.
He's a kind of extension of the 4GW /maneuver warfare crowd.

He has a basic premise that's obvious in all books of him (that I read). It's the assumption that there's an Eastern style of tactics that's different from "Western" tactics. He identifies East Asian (Chinese, North Korean, Japanese WW2 and Vietnamese) armies, the Red Army of WW2 and the German army (at least in the world wars) as practitioners of this tactics set.

The attributes of this Eastern style are greater stealth, deception, use of tunnels, infiltration/exfiltration and relatively limited use of firepower (indirect fire mostly as noise to conceal the use of breaching explosives and hand grenades/RPGs).

He attempts to identify the roots for these tactics as well and identifies Sun Tzu and ninjutsu as suspects, the ninja thing even became quite obsessive in one or two books.

Some parts of his books are interesting and valuable literature, but I wouldn't recommend them as a whole.

I've got to raise an objection to his basic premise.
My studies of military history lead to very different conclusions. The described tactics are very likely not based on the knowledge of a few dozen families in medieval Japan or a 2,200 year-old book.

Instead, it seems that the conditions define the tactics in use.
These conditions include traditions and orthodox teachings (especially in long-established organizations) and can be somehow based on original thought by Sun Tzu or shinobi masters.

There are much more influential factors, though. Actually, there are too many influence factors to list them all.
The terrain, the nature of the enemy, the type of conflict and the availability of resources are important factors, for example.

Ground forces with a lack of artillery capability need to limit their use of artillery to the most efficient fire missions. They also need to develop tactics that can do without artillery.
Let's take two extreme opposites; the NVA in the Vietnam War and U.S. Army troops in Afghanistan today.
The Vietnamese could not use "fix and JDAM bomb" tactics as the Americans do in Afghanistan - they lacked the fire support. The Americans on the other hand could not use the Vietnamese tactics to engage the enemy in Afghanistan - they lack the personnel strength and KIA tolerance at home.

The German army rested its light infantry small unit tactics on the mindset of 19th century J├Ąger units, but this ancestry explains very little of its tactical repertoire in the world wars.
That repertoire can be much easier explained by a lack of resources - the German infantry usually lacked tank support (even in WW2 when Germany had many tanks - those tanks were concentrated in few divisions until assault gun detachments became more available). It also lacked artillery support relative to 1914/1915 Western Entente and its major WW2 opponents. The divisions had a good artillery arm, but were short on ammunition in many engagements.
The inability to solve tactical problems by throwing more resources at them forced them to adapt different tactics.

The same applies to the notoriously artillery- and armour-rich Red Army of WW2; most artillery and armour were usually concentrated on breakthrough and other major battles, leaving the infantry in the rain during most of its smaller battles.

The Japanese army of WW2 wasn't rich on resources either; the infantry had marginal support by artillery and the few tanks were concentrated in even fewer units. The Japanese army of WW2 was remarkably poorly equipped and received few supplies.

The British and French of both World Wars didn't experience such extreme hardware shortages in combat; they had access to world markets (especially to Latin American salpetre as a nitrogen source for explosives and propellants in the First World War).
They didn't experience the severe rubber, aluminum, crude oil and refiner shortages either.

The U.S.Army accepted the French army as its teacher and master during the First World War. The Americans adopted French Army tactics, much of its equipment (like the ubiquitous 75mm RF cannon) and even its manuals (the last U.S. Army manual that was a straight translation of a French one was adopted in the early 30's).

The French artillery-centric tactics were well-suited for the U.S. Army. It didn't experience major shortages of ammunition supply or other material since then. The approach requires only limited infantry proficiency, a good factor because time for training was one of the few significant shortages for the U.S.Army during the World Wars.

It's misleading to speak of "Eastern" tactics and near-futile to urge soldiers to add these to one's repertoire. There's a very simple way how to add these (and new tactics) into the repertoire of Western forces:
Create units that need to do their jobs with very little hardware at hand; limited firepower, strictly limited supply and limited transportation. Paratroopers are ideal, as long as nobody indoctrinates the assumption of lasting air superiority, plenty air transport capacity and available close-air support into their heads.
The artificial scarcity forces the troops to use tactics that are appropriate to the conditions. It doesn't hurt to additionally break down organizational and personnel obstacles to innovation and adaption, of course.

It's not an "Eastern" or "German" or "Russian" tactics thing. We're all humans, and the differences are often exaggerated. Eating rice instead of potatoes doesn't give you a talent for sneaking through barbed wire in itself.
The need to sneak through barbed wire and to plant explosives to achieve a desired effect comes from the inability to achieve the same with a simple call for artillery or air strikes.

This explains why supposedly "Eastern" tactics were sometimes employed by "Western" troops.

It's not some cultural heritage.

Uncommon tactics are an adaption to uncommon conditions. We should be aware of this: Future tactics will be uncommon to us because future conflicts will have new conditions.

John H. Poole did a good job at pointing out that there are very different, resource-saving tactics beyond one's nose - but he did a lousy job at explaining their origin.

Sven Ortmann


  1. I agree with your criticism concerning Poole's cultural explanation of "Eastern" tactics. I was generally disappointed by his books. His description of enemy tactics in Afghanistan is almost useless and is limited to a summary of a few news agency reports. Anyone who can use google is able to a better study on this issue than Poole did.

  2. Poole is an amateur who did the same thing for 20 years. He does not understand war and for that reason he has appeal to all the thousands of other Americans who think they understand war. Poole, like so many other wannabes and ignoramuses believes media interpretations and that's enough for him
    So he repeats the shallow drivel and is acclaimed as a war expert. If you want to read expert analysis see www.quikmaneuvers.com
    Kurt Steiner