Historical analysis can be a rather slippery endeavor, with a broad spectrum of views from historians and military analysts alike looking at the same episodes and reaching entirely different conclusions. Adding a relatively new term, such as operational art, to the mix makes the process even more delicate. It seems clear that some military theorists and practitioners recognized an operational level of war (although no such term was used at the time) even as modern warfare began. But a century would pass before the term and its actual practice would be consciously applied, and then it would be on the battlefields of Western Europe. The operational level of war was a long time in being recognized and eventually studied. While France and Germany had an early start in the process, the marshals of the Soviet Union fully mastered the concept in World War II. The United States was a slow learner and did not officially recognize the operational level of war and incorporate it into its doctrine until 1982.1
The selective examples and narratives contained in this study have attempted to provide some historical perspective to a concept that always existed but only recently has been fully recognized and defined. The embryonic formulation of operational art developed under the keen eye of Napoleon Bonaparte, and further revisions followed with the French Army’s grand tactics and the critical precision of the German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke. But the French and German military, perhaps still influenced by their past training and experiences, tended to overcentralize their resources and focus on recreating another Cannae - a climactic battle of annihilation that would resolve an entire campaign, or maybe even the war. Curiously, in spite of the tactical brilliance of the original battle, it did not resolve Hannibal’s campaign in Italy - and the Carthaginians still lost the war. During the American Civil War, the leadership of both sides always seemed entranced with the prospect of fighting one defining engagement that would resolve the entire conflict. The lure of what some would view as the Jominian way of warfare has indeed been commonplace, if elusive. But in pursuing the scheme that would achieve both tactical and strategic success, the generals of the nineteenth century almost stumbled upon the method that later leadership would identify as the operational level of war.
The Russians learned from these predecessors (and from their own mistakes as well) and eventually adapted a highly sophisticated operational art of war. The latter half of World War II demonstrated their masterful grasp of welding a series of tactical decisions together to form operational objectives that met the strategic goals of the Soviet Union - the defeat of Nazi Germany. In the years following World War II, the operational art of the Soviet military was refined to meet changing technology and national goals. Today, with the dissolution of the Soviet Empire, the Russian Army appears to be adjusting its military doctrine, and particularly its scope of the operational art, to a less grandiose scale.
In the United States, these doctrinal developments progressed more slowly. As one contributor already suggested in his discussion of the Gettysburg campaign, the concept was evident as early as the Civil War. Sadly, however, even by the time of the war in Korea nearly one hundred years later, American military leadership was still grasping to understand and implement the military connection that tied national strategy and battlefield tactics together. Poor intelligence and an awkward command and organizational structure - critical components of the operational art of war-clearly contributed to the American and United Nations reversals on the Korean Peninsula in November 1950. Those associated with the war in Vietnam are even more well known. One of the most obvious and successful demonstrations of the operational art was seen in the first Persian Gulf War (1991–1992).
The scope of this study was to introduce the origins of the operational art of war, and more importantly, highlight both the practice and the impact that it has had in modern military history. Now, over a decade after Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM, the U.S. Army must be careful not to become enamored with sophisticated technology and limited (albeit successful) small-scale incursions that are designed to achieve short-term political solutions. Operational art is a proven and critical component of military doctrine, and it should not be sacrificed or forgotten in the wake of changing technology and political environments.
Words move people, but examples draw them on. In this anthology, the reader has encountered a variety of examples that may provide some additional perspective of how wars have been fought and won - or lost. Why did Napoleon and Moltke succeed, while defeat met the French at Sedan in May 1940 and the Americans were forced to retreat in Korea in November 1950? Operationally, what could have been done differently during the Gettysburg campaign, and what should have been done better during the contest in Normandy? With these historical examples and at least an introduction to the evolution of this concept, perhaps the reader may develop a clearer understanding of the operational level of war, particularly as it may be applied in current doctrine and practiced in future conflicts.
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