Operationalizing Military Operations

While working feverishly to complete an 8,000-word (ok, more like 8,600) chapter narrating the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) – a part of West Point’s massive new e-textbook for their History of Warfare survey course – I got to talking with another author. The discussion quickly descended into that classic game of “I’ve got it worse than you.” My self-serving jeremiad was that I couldn’t pity some of the other authors who had the same amount of space to cover just a few years of a war, say 1805-1807 or a few years of WW2. Which got me thinking (famous last words) about how one could more objectively rate the amount of detail needed to adequately narrate and explain various wars. Given a set number of words to explain the conduct of two wars at the same level of detail (i.e. putting aside the editorial decision to, a priori, declare some wars worthy of more or deeper coverage than others), what makes the task more difficult for one war versus the other? This is what I’ve come up with thus far.

Initial Caveats

First off, we should probably put aside the issue of the comparative size of the literature on any given war. A larger historiography could be a disadvantage (so much more to read and discuss), but most undergrad-level surveys aren’t intended to introduce the reader to debates about the war. Instead they provide a narrative of the war’s causes and conduct. Many short, modern wars have massive literatures, so there are lots of convoluted scholarly arguments and dozens of infinitely-detailed accounts at the tactical level. But the overarching operations might be relatively straightforward in their broad outlines. Competing explanations, the dissection of specific operations, historiographical debates over a war – these add all sorts of complexity to a more sophisticated analysis of a war, but it doesn’t really relate to writing a straightforward, broad narrative for an introductory audience.

Second caveat: If we are being objective, we need to apply the same criteria for coverage from one war to the next. If a chapter on war X must discuss tactics at a certain level of detail, we need to see if all the other wars also require a discussion of tactics at that same level to explain their own war. We cannot really argue that because there are more historians writing about tactics in WW2, therefore its tactics are necessarily more important to understanding that war’s outcome than the tactics in the Thirty Years War. (If the tactics are more complicated, e.g. combining land and airpower, they might well require more coverage.) That means that every topic beyond a descriptive narrative of the military operations in the field (e.g. the diplomatic maneuvering leading to the war, the economic underpinnings of war, the role of women, the role of the press in morale, domestic political influence on the war’s conduct…) is, in theory, equally relevant to any war, unless historians studying that war have already determined it isn’t. So we’re not talking about what a particular author wants to include in his chapter: whether an author feels the need to discuss the twenty years prior to the outbreak of war, or whether an author wants to add a section describing the impact of the war for the next thirty years… We’re talking about the minimum information necessary to provide a coherent and comprehensible narrative of the operations of a war, written a the same level of detail, fit into a fixed length of text. Is achieving that objective more difficult for some wars than others?

Operational Complexity Operationalized

Historiography aside, numerous (more objective) factors make a difference when comparing the strategic, operational and tactical complexity of one war to another. The amount of complexity goes beyond the amount of information to be presented – it also gets at the complexity of understanding the dynamics of any given war – is it even possible to construct a straightforward narrative of a complicated war? What follows are what I see as some of the most important factors needed to determine the relative complexity of a war.

First, the operational factors, including some of the variables Quincy Wright and Jack Levy used to measure the statistical patterns of wars across the centuries:

  1. Number of operational theaters. More theaters create numerous requirements: on the most basic level, there’s more content to cover if we want to construct our narratives at a constant level of detail. For wars fought in a single theater, you can more easily narrate the actions of two armies (unless #2) facing off against each other. For multiple theaters, you have to do the same narrating each theater. That task is only made more difficult by the reality that the literature on most multi-theater wars tends to focus on one or two theaters, largely ignoring others (I’ll also ignore the fact that multiple theaters usually means more languages to read). With a fixed word count, you must necessarily subordinate some theaters to others, shortchanging those operations in the process, or else narrate all the theaters at a broader level of generalization.
  2. Number of armies. Usually related to the number of theaters, but not always. More armies theoretically require tracking and mentioning more people and movements, as well as describing the interactions between them. Military historians tend to personify individual armies as discrete bodies with their commanders as the head (or perhaps with a split personality); more army actors mean more complexity.
  3. Concurrency of theaters. A related complication occurs when there is fighting in multiple theaters at the same time. This concurrency raises the specter of interactions between theaters, which requires additional space (and consideration). It might even serve as an explanation for the length of a war (#5), as John Lynn has argued for Louis XIV’s wars.
  4. Theater variety. Related, but slightly different, from the number of theaters. Fighting in a variety of theaters not only presents a challenge for the combatants, but requires the reader to abandon a universalistic explanation for operational success – overwhelming numbers in a fertile theater might lead to success, whereas similar numbers in a barren theater can end in disaster. At a minimum, narrating such details requires the author to describe the basic geography and logistical constraints of each theater, a need to briefly recount the operations in each theater, and to weigh their relative contribution to the overall outcome of the war. It doesn’t help narrative simplicity when the theaters exhibit contradictory trends – one side winning in one theater while their opponent wins in another.
  5. Duration of war. Longer wars don’t necessarily require more detailed explanations – a long one-sided conflict might be relatively easy to describe and explain – though my sense is that longer wars necessarily are more complicated. In any case, if the operational details are important, providing an adequate narrative will necessarily require more words than a shorter war.
  6. Number of combats. All else being equal, the more big fights, the more words needed to describe and explain them. A short war, it should be noted, can also be conducted at a rapid operational pace with many engagements – a distinction often made between early modern and modern wars, say from the French Revolution onwards. To decide which combats would be worth narrating, we might need to define a minimum size, e.g. number of forces engaged, or perhaps percentage of field forces engaged. Too often military historians simplify their task by declaring certain types of combats, say field battle, inherently more important to the outcome of a war than others. It’s easy to ignore particular types of combat (e.g. positional warfare) if their results are “inconclusive”, unless of course indecision is part of the operational narrative. Often times the editorial decision of which combats to focus on depends how they accumulate, the next criteria…
  7. Number of operational reverses.  One common narrative shortcut is to collapse numerous operations into stages or phases, focusing on pivot or inflection points. But to understand why one side eventually predominated, it might be important to narrate the ebb and flow – that’s how the participants experienced the war – rather than looking at the results in the rearview window. It’s even more confusing when you have a multi-front war where the momentum swings back and forth from year to year, or where one side gains momentum in one theater while losing it in another. All these factors make it difficult to create a tidy narrative of the “direction” of the war. It’s also worth noting that a common editorial decision to divide some wars into smaller segments (say 1805-1807), whereas in other periods multiple wars are collapsed into a single era (say the wars of Louis XIV), has an impact. The narrative of only part of a war will usually be easier to impart: not only are there multiple chapters dedicated to covering such a war (allowing one to overcome the word limit), but those start and end points were exactly chosen because they create a coherent narrative; the timespan has already eliminated much of the trend complexity. If an entire war must be covered in a single chapter, messy operations on the ground present a significant challenge for comprehension.
  8. Personnel variation. Not only does a larger number of countries require a greater amount of information (even if you simply keep each country’s level of detail simple: ruler, type of government, main commanders), but if a combatant goes through multiple commanders, you should theoretically briefly mention the important ones, their particular command styles, and what made them important. This also requires space in your text.
  9. Tactical variation. Particularly important here is whether a given war is fought only with armies, or whether it includes naval operations as well (and airpower in the 20C) – do they interact? Similarly, how standardized are the tactical systems, across combatants and even within an army? One could well argue that if the battles are indecisive, only an exemplar need be detailed at the tactical level.

All these factors interact with one another. Especially important from an operational narrative perspective are the interactions of duration + theaters + operational reversals.

Then there are political, strategic and diplomatic factors that also affect the complexity of a war narrative:

  1. Number of sides. Alliances necessarily add another dimension of narrative and explanation, often allies serve as scapegoats to explain one nation’s defeat (or less-than-decisive victory). For narrative simplicity, the tidiest alliances are two groups that act in unison. Who’s fighting whom becomes more complicated when combatants switch sides during the war itself – the Italian Wars of the early 16C are infamous for this diplomatic legerdemain.
  2. Domestic political rivalries. On occasion a country’s war effort might be complicated by political change – military strategies, and even commitment to a specific war, quickly become politicized. If political parties with different strategic visions alternate in office, their country’s war effort will be affected. This also applies if the government isn’t dominated by one political party, in which case the country might attempt to pursue multiple, possibly even conflicting, strategies.
  3. Institutional rivalries. Often an extension of political rivalry, a country’s war effort becomes more complicated when different departments seek to implement their own pet projects. Branch and service rivalries (army-navy…) also apply here.
  4. Technological changes. Some wars are waged during periods of significant technological (or other structural) change, while other periods in Western history may witness a century or more of static weapon technology. These technological changes require discussion in the text. Progress can stretch beyond weapons systems of course, encompassing technologies involving energy, transportation, communication, manufacturing, computation, and so on. Nor are broader structural changes limited to technology. Current militaries, for example, seem to consider changes in climate as increasingly relevant as well.

Other factors probably have little impact on how complex a narrative must be. Take combatant motivation, for example. Soldiers likely drew their inspiration from the same range of sources, particularly if one equates modern ideological motives (e.g. French Revolutionary republicanism or Cold War communism) with the religious motives of earlier centuries.

The reality is that every author must make a decision of which information to include and what to exclude. Some wars will have far more of this information to sift through, and some wars won’t have a clear trend or pattern to narrate. An author must often decide which would be worse: a bloated narrative filled with all sorts of contradictory details, or a narrative lacking coherence when so many factors have been left out.

But back in the real world, other factors are more important than all of the above. Military history in the US will necessarily be focused on American wars, and the most recent wars (at least from the Civil War on) will receive the most attention because they are seen as the most relevant to current concerns. My task here is rather to envision what an alternate universe would look like where nationalistic and current professional considerations didn’t apply. That would be a very different world.

A future post will look at the case of the War of the Spanish Succession, and how we might visualize such operations, making it easier to compare such operations across wars.

Now it’s your turn. Other factors I’ve left off? Examples from the literature of scholars already addressing this issue? Sound off.

One thought on “Operationalizing Military Operations

  1. Personalities—some wars with have great continuity of personnel at one level (although perhaps not at all levels) while another war will have great discontinuity. Contrast the political leadership in the American Civil War (Lincoln and a few key players in his cabinet, Seward, Cameron, Stanton, Wells, and perhaps Chase) to the Vietnam War (Kennedy administration, Johnson administration, Nixon administration, and the Ford administration for the final collapse of South Vietnam).

    Unit organization. An entity known as a division is found in all of our major wars from the French and Indian War on but the organization of, training of,and combat power of that entity is different for each war. And sometimes it is the key unit of organization. Other times it is not. The author needs to explain this to the reader

    You can argue that in U.S. military history at least beginning with the Continental Army that some variety of “combined arms” has been practiced—but I would argue that World War I produced a sea change in that practice. This leads to the larger issue is what is doctrine and how has it shaped operations. How did the drill field battlefield morph into the doctrinal battlefield.

    To what extent has the Army (or other military institution) been a learning institution during and after combat operations. How was the military organized to disseminate this learning?

    To some extent the nation’s military forces reflect the larger society and its culture. How in each war does the Army or Navy or Air Force reflect the changing American culture? What for example was the impact of Republican ideology on military discipline in the early years of the Republic? Of the cult of the professional expert in the Progressive Era?

    When did officership become a profession in the American context and why? How did this impact the conduct of war?

    This has been a great blog comment. Very mind stretching. Sorry if these random thoughts do not measure up to your very disciplined and well ordered ones.

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