Small Wars Journal

Operational Art is Not a Level of War

Mon, 03/14/2011 - 11:02pm
Thinking and Acting Like an Early Explorer:

Operational Art is Not a Level of War

by Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege (US Army Ret.)

Download the Full Article: Operational Art is Not a Level of War

Operational art is not a "level of war" as our current western military doctrines assert. It is, rather, thinking and acting like an explorer before the days of Google Earth, The Weather Channel, and Global Positioning Systems. While tactical and strategic thinking are fundamentally different, both kinds of thinking must take place in the explorer's brain, but in separate compartments.

To appreciate this, think of the metaphor of an early American explorer trying to cross a large expanse of unknown terrain long before the days of the modern conveniences mentioned in the previous paragraph. The explorer knows that somewhere to the west lies an ocean he wants to reach. He has only a sketch-map of a narrow corridor drawn by a previously unsuccessful explorer. He also knows that highly variable weather and frequent geologic activity can block mountain passes, flood rivers, and dry up desert water sources. He also knows that some native tribes are hostile to all strangers, some are friendly and others are fickle, but that warring and peace-making among them makes estimating their whereabouts and attitudes difficult. He also knows that the snows are less likely to be deep in the south, and that some fur trappers have reported an extensive mountain range running north to south. They have also provided vague descriptions of several ways to cross them. Finally, the expedition must head west because turning back can only lead to shame and penury; even perishing in the attempt to cross the wilderness will bring honor; and reaching the ocean will mean certain fame and probable wealth.

Download the Full Article: Operational Art is Not a Level of War

Huba Wass de Czege is a retired U.S. Army brigadier general. During his career as an infantry officer, he served two tours in Vietnam and gained staff experience at all levels up to assistant division commander. General Wass De Czege was a principal designer of the operational concept known as AirLand Battle. He also was the founder and first director of the Army's School for Advanced Military Studies where he also taught applied military strategy. After retiring in 1993, General Wass De Czege became heavily involved in the Army After Next Project and served on several Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency v advisory panels. He is a 1964 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and holds an MPA from Harvard University.

About the Author(s)

Huba Wass de Czege, Brigadier General, USA Ret., an independent military theorist, is a veteran of ground combat in Vietnam, and command at all levels through brigade and assistant division command. He founded the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, KS. As a special strategic policy assistant to the NATO SACREUR and Secretary General, he helped formulate the strategy to end the Cold War.


As always, I applaud BG-R Wass de Czege's attempt to relate military concepts to philosophy...I believe he is spot on in that effort. Philosophy provides the basis to "see" and critique frames/schemata that we otherwise objectify.

My only complaint (and this is the scholar-wannabe in me) is that BG-R Wass de Czege does not cite the works that support his thesis. This is incredibly important if we are to critique each other in a collegial -respectful ways. The key to design is continual professional discourse which requires attention to detail in scholarship. I have tried to develop a habit of scanning end/foot notes or bibliographies before I read an article or book to help establish the author's frame of reference. I get it that Pierce is the central figure in the argument -- but from which of his works and page numbers does he draw upon? Any others who influenced him here?

Dale Eikmeier

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 12:39pm

Operational Art is a cognative activity. The levels of war; tactical, operational, and strategic are "locations" where descrete activities take place. Activity and location are entirely diffrent but often confused.

I'm a big fan of BG WdC, but this article is something of a disappointment. From the title one might suppose this article is about what operational art <i>is not</i>, i.e. it is not a level of war.

However, the article itself goes on to describe what operational art <i>is</i>, i.e. an integrative process which melds strategy with tactics.

Does this mean that the "operational level" does not exist? Or, does it mean that "operational art" and the "operational level" are not synonymous (this might very well be the case since the word "operation" and its numerous forms is perhaps the most overused and least understood word in the US Army lexicon besides "hooah").

Furthermore, what defines a "level" of war>? And why doesn't "operational art" and/or "operational level" qualify?

Lastly, the use of the early explorer as a metaphor doesn't seem to add much to the clarity of the subject at hand.

Vitesse et Puissance

Tue, 03/15/2011 - 2:38pm

As interesting as it is to see BG Wass de Czege invoke the pragmatic philsophy of Charles Peirce, one should not ignore the fact that Peirce looked at truth itself as essentially statistically in nature, and measurable as such. So it is Peirce who declares that something is true "when it is true". There is a pragmatic tone in this article that echoes the history of American military thought, which, if nothing else, is more than willing to shuck off outmoded truths. One might wish a bit more rigorous approach to military science, one that is not so easily subjected to the fallacies of abduction (otherwise known as inference to the best explanation)- what is formally known as the affirming the consequent, or post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies. Still, abduction is a vibrant and dynamic mode of thinking, and Peirce was probably correct in asserting that it is the only mechanism by which new knowledge is generated. So - it was a bit jarring to see the reference to Popper's theory of falsification follow immediately upon the reference to Peircean abduction, as if this were somehow a useful correction of fallacious logic. One is tempted to point out that the Black Swan problem gets worse if one arbitrarily changes definitions - and thereby the concepts supported by said definitions - at will. Thomas Kuehn has written at length and to good effect on this issue, and yes, even N.N. Talib's Black Swan book is a useful excursion into the world of radical empiricism.