The Rommel Myth

By Robinson, James R. | Military Review, September/October 1997 | Go to article overview

The Rommel Myth


Robinson, James R., Military Review


FIELD MARSHAL Erwin Rommel rode across North Africa onto the pages of history. His legend secure, Rommel will be forever thought of as a military genius who, but for bad fortune and the faults of others, might have changed the course of World War II. His noble nature was crowned tragically by his involvement in the failed attempt on Adolf Hitler's life and his subsequent forced suicide. Legends, however, offer little in the way of direction for students of operational art. Those students must learn, directly or indirectly, from lessons locked in plans, maps, technical comparisons and analyses of others. It is through the disciplined application of critical analysis that campaigns of the past are transmuted into lessons for the future.

What did Rommel accomplish in North Africa, and how should those accomplishments be judged? Is he one of the "Great Captains," or is he more legend than genius, more image than substance? Exploring these issues is germane to future strategists, as it illuminates the tasks, skills and responsibilities at the heart of the operational level of war. Examining Rommel's North African campaigns under the scope of operational art requires not just revisiting battles, but identifying and analyzing the critical elements that constitute campaigns. Of particular importance to current operational-level thinking are lessons that teach us the oft-hidden effects of political, psychological and social factors on a campaign 's purpose and execution.

Analyzing Operational Art

The renaissance in US military thought about the operational level of war provides an enhanced means to examine military efforts-past, present and future -that pursue political or strategic goals. Operational art is the planning and execution of military efforts to achieve political aims. It correlates political needs and military power. Operational art should be defined by its military-political scope, not by force size, scale of operations or degree of effort. Likewise, operational art provides theory and skills, and the operational level permits doctrinal structure and process.

While the emerging corpus of operational art and the establishment of an operational level of war are relatively new, operational art has existed throughout recorded history. Nations have long pursued political goals through military actions, and campaigns of any period can be examined from the existential perspective of operational art. Although a broadly accepted primer of operational art is yet to be written, current schools of thought share the fundamental view that military success can be measured only in the attainment of political-strategic aims. This is, in its broadest sense, a truism, valid for all wars in all times.

Operational art comprises four essential elements: time, space, means and purpose. Each element is found in greater complexity at the operational level than at the tactical or strategic level. This is true, in part, because operational art must consider and incorporate more of the strategic and tactical levels than those levels must absorb from the operational level. Although much can be gained by examining the four elements independently, it is only when they are viewed together that operational art reveals its intricate fabric.

The challenge of operational art is to establish a four-element equilibrium that permits the optimal generation and application of military power in achieving the political goal. Viewing time, space, means and purpose as a whole requires great skill in organizing, weighing and envisioning masses of complex, often contradictory factors. These factors often exist for extended periods, over great distances and with churning mixes of players, systems and beliefs, pursuing political goals which may or may not be clear, cogent or settled. Meanwhile, an enemy seeks to create options beyond our thoughts. Compounding factors from other dimensions of power create further, and inestimable, ambiguity and chance. …

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