Best Defense

Why I don’t believe there is really such as thing as an ‘operational’ level of war

Out of my tattered Lands End attaché bag this week came Hew Strachan‘s article titled "Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War," which appeared last September in Survival. Yes, I have been carrying it around for months, but only got to it now because, after focusing on My Lai for the ...

purpleslog/Flickr
purpleslog/Flickr

Out of my tattered Lands End attaché bag this week came Hew Strachan‘s article titled "Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War," which appeared last September in Survival. Yes, I have been carrying it around for months, but only got to it now because, after focusing on My Lai for the last two weeks, I needed a break from the Vietnam War. It was either that or a shower or walk around the block every 15 minutes. I think most people have no idea how bad My Lai was.

But I digress. The Strachan article is definitely worth your time. I’ll read anything the guy writes. Even when I disagree with some of his answers, as I did with this article, I find he always asks good questions, which is by far the more important and harder thing to do. (Because why? Because if you figure out the right question, eventually you may find the right answer. But if you can’t ask good questions, you’ll just waste everyone’s time and energy.)

Strachan argues that the operational level of war became important as the U.S. Army sought in the 1980s to regain its self respect. It did this first by elevating doctrine and making it the province of the uniformed military, and so reclaiming that area of thinking from the civilians who had captured that flag in the 1950s and early 1960s when questions of nuclear warfare predominated. Secondly, he says, by talking about the operational level between tactics and strategy, the U.S. Army created an area that was "a policy-free zone, in which military expertise was unfettered and where armies reasserted their authority over war’s conduct." (160)

And so, in 2003, he notes, Tommy Franks instructed Paul Wolfowitz to "keep Washington focused on policy and strategy. Leave me the hell alone to run the war." In other words, says Strachan, "Franks was stressing his desire to focus on the operational level of the war, his professional comfort zone; he did not want to be concerned with strategy, precisely because it lay at the civil-military interface." (165-166)

So far, so good. But then I think Strachan goes off the tracks a bit. Like a doctor whose diagnosis is spot on but who errs in prescribing the remedy, he argues that this sort of operational approach became problematic because it assumed the existence of strategy. But what, he says, if "strategy has been absent throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan"? (166)

I actually think that may have been true in Iraq until late 2006 or early 2007, because until then, American generals tended to offer up aspirations rather than strategy. But I do think we had a strategy under the Petraeus/Odierno/Crocker team. What may have thrown Professor Strachan off the scent is that the strategy couldn’t be stated explicitly. I don’t think I really understood this clearly when I was writing The Gamble, and Strachan’s paper helped me think it through.

Looking back now, I would say that the Petraeus/Odierno/Crocker plan was to extricate the United States from Iraq. In order to do this, they needed to intensify fighting for several months, put the insurgents on the payroll, and keep the American public more or less supportive, or at least not demanding an immediate withdrawal.

Strachan writes, "Crudely put, Field Manual 3-24 took the place of a coalition strategy for Iraq in 2007." Rather, I would say, it was the only part of the strategy whose face could be shown publicly. It was the part of the strategy that was going to help keep the American public (and American officials) engaged. It was a way of saying, Yeah, the U.S. military screwed this up, but we can do better, so give us one last chance.

I also think Strachan underestimates COIN. Yes, it is partly tactical, but done effectively it is has to be more. First, done right, corporals don’t need to understand chapter and verse of strategy, but they can act in ways that support the strategic goal. (I remember Col. H.R. McMaster instructing his 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment troopers that, "Every time you dis an Iraqi, you’re working for the enemy.") Second, done right, it brings non-military factors into the equation. Finally, it must always be judged in political terms, and so inevitably connects the tactical to the strategic.

Bottom line: Talking about the "operational" level just confuses things, I think.     

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1

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