The Russian Way of War: Operational Art, 1904-1940. By Richard W. Harrison. 366 pages. $39.95. Reviewed by Stephen J. Blank, Professor of National Security Studies, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College.
Operational art, or what Harrison calls "the theory and practice of waging war at the operational level," is a Russian theory and played a critical role in the development of Soviet military thought during the interwar period and after World War II. The Russian or Soviet military of 1921-39 was arguably the most theoretically advanced and profound in terms of thinking about the nature of future wars, the requirements for waging them, and about the conduct of operations (the actual practice of that theory, with which this book is not concerned, was probably a rather different affair). The military's attention to these issues, however, or, perhaps more precisely, its ability to learn from contemporary practice, was lost after 1936 due to the politicization of the military and all other Soviet thought, along with the purges throughout Russian society. Only through enormous and probably unnecessary suffering and travail did the Soviet army begin to relearn what it had known in the 1943-45 period and to build its postwar doctrine on that foundation.
Because so much of the literature of the interwar period was banned or lost, Harrison has performed something of a miracle. This is a stunning piece of scholarship, for the author has resurrected this literature or discovered its analogues in the hitherto closed Soviet archives and he presents it to readers in exemplary style. In so doing Harrison demonstrates that the concept of operational art originated in Tsarist thinking and practice before and then during World War I as a direct outgrowth of the negative experiences of those wars and the subsequent civil war and war against Poland. Subsequently the concept of the operational level and of operational art developed haltingly, step by tragic step. The lessons that ultimately gave this concept substance emerged out of those horrible wars of 1914-21 which presented Soviet commanders with novel problems and circumstances, not to mention political and ideological requirements quite unlike what had occurred in Western Europe.
After 1921 the Soviet debates regarding the nature and scope of the operational level, and its strategic and logistical requirements, grew steadily in sophistication among a brilliant group of Tsarist and Soviet military thinkers who fought endlessly and lethally over such issues. …