Wars are fought to achieve a distribution of political power that is satisfactory to the victor. Political power rests on the acquiescence of a population--however that is attained. Therefore, the fundamental challenge in war is to assemble a sequence of actions that seems likely to change the minds of a (hostile) population. Some stratagems, tactics, or weapons may be, or become, inimical to that shift in the popular consensus and be counterproductive. Some may have mixed impacts, influencing different parts of the target community in different ways. Actions to overcome armed resistance may alienate sectors of the population, while failing to do so may be a path to defeat. Shifts in the circumstances on the ground, in the domestic politics of the belligerents, or in the wider international community may validate, invalidate, or alter the strategic objectives sought, the campaign plan pursued, or the tactics employed. Although these complexities are not new, they are becoming increasingly salient in the contemporary setting.
The aphorism "strategy proposes but tactics disposes" is important here. Unless strategy includes a tactical view, it may seek objectives that are practically unachievable, or it may miscalculate the costs and benefits likely to emerge from a conflict. These costs are not limited to the direct economic and social impacts of war on the belligerents but extend to international public opinion and international politics. The consequences of tactical actions can, more than ever, decide not only who wins the war but also the shape of the peace that follows it.
Equally, tactics need to serve strategy, and tactical action without strategic purpose is merely senseless violence. The strategic direction of a war needs to be intimately connected to the details of the warfare being conducted to ensure both that it is making realistic demands and that the warfare remains appropriate to the wider conduct of the war. Moreover, tactics need to be constantly seeking to contribute to the ends laid down by strategy with economy and efficiency, and with nuance shaped by an awareness of the wider conduct of the war. A two-way conversation between strategy and tactics is fundamental to the successful prosecution of any war.
Sound theory attempts to deal with this reality. The German school of military theorists that emerged around the end of the 18th century, for example, saw war as a "giant demonic force, a huge spiritual entity, surcharged with brutal energy." (2) For those responsible for the management of this beast, it was clear that to be understood and properly directed, war needed to be seen in the round. As Gerhard von Scharnhorst asserted, "One must habitually consider the whole of war before its components." (3) Michael Handel expands on this proposition, arguing that war needs to be viewed as a gestalt, or complex whole comprising concrete and abstract elements, and explaining that "because of its infinite complexity and non-linear nature, war can only be understood as an organic whole not as a mere compendium of various separate elements." (4)
Nowadays, political leaders are not prepared from birth to be students of war, and war has expanded beyond a localized cluster of tactical actions. In the face of today's complexity, the understanding and managing of war as a whole are shared across a bureaucracy. The military's interaction with that bureaucracy is colored--if not quite regulated--by its doctrine. This article argues that the existing understanding of the meaning and role of operational art is based on poor theoretical foundations, is implicated in a pattern of U.S. failures of strategy, and is not able to accommodate the evolution of warfare as it is currently anticipated.
From Strategies of a Single Point to Modern Campaigns
The need for operations was a product of changes brought about by the Napoleonic concept of the nation-in-arms and the impact of the Industrial Revolution. …