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The Chancellorsville Operation and Modern Operations: Operational Ignorance?

As a follow-up to my recent post on Gettysburg, I went on another staff ride, this time to Chancellorsville. The ride was not entirely an Ender’s Game-style free-play decision game, but participants on both teams had to discuss and formulate decisions on the spot. Although the historical context was obviously important, it took a back seat to operational and tactical decision-making. It was more important, in essence, to do what we thought was right to try to mimic history. Although I was not personally familiar with the specifics of the Chancellorsville operation and purposefully kept myself ignorant in order to get the best benefits out of the exercise, I did re-read my copy of Edward Bruce Hamley’s The Operations of War (1909 edition). Hamley’s book represented the British Army’s consensus view of operations during the high point of the 19th century, with some discussions of Civil War and Russo-Japanese War operational history and lessons. I also read more of Archer Jones’ book Civil War Command and Strategy, which gave me a grounding in the importance of the strategic turning movement in Civil War operations. Finally, I also brushed up on the basics of operational maneuver in Milan Vego’s book Joint Operational Warfare: Theory and Practice.
      Not surprisingly, the turning movement was crucial in the eventual resolution of the operation. The Union communications were disrupted and once turned they were obliged to withdraw. Participants briefly raised the possibility of an envelopment but rejected it because it was incompatible with the numbers, combat power, and distribution of the Confederate fielded forces. Close to 150 years ago, Confederate field commanders took a similar view. Although the idea of “concentration in time” or “simultaneous advance” is seen as the major strategic innovation of the war this is in many respects an retrospective view taken by historians. The combatants at the time thought of the Napoleonic campaigns–which European authors still studied even on the dawn of World War I. Hamley’s book has extensive discussions of Napoleonic warfare, and even an otherwise commendable book like Ferdinand Foch’s The Principles of War is still fixated on Napoleonic operations.
      Although Robert Citino and Antuliuo Echevarria are right to point out that 19th century operational designs grew increasingly sophisticated, they still missed the realization that operations that were practical in an era in which a single commander could control the entire battle from a well-placed lookout point were inappropriate for an era of million-man armies. Shimon Naveh’s commentary on Schlieffen-era doctrines of “strategic envelopment” castigates these visions for “operational ignorance” with some justification–it is difficult to defend the extrapolation of historical battles such as Cannae and Leuthen to massively larger operational spaces and industrialized armies. Nevertheless, the power of these interrelated set of ideas was ultimately too strong to dislodge–especially since the limited experience of late 19th century and early 20th century campaigns offered contradictory evidence open to wide interpretation.
      In my last post, I talked about the operational vision that emerged in the late 20th century–an idea of centralized operations that utilized systemic metaphors to visualize and direct the operational space. Effects-Based Operations (EBO), or at least the most extreme interpretations of it, was the now-discredited high point of this vision of operational design, although it still survives in some shape or form. I would submit that we face a similar problem as military commentators did a hundred years ago. We are on the cusp of something different that will change conventional land warfare in ways that few can ultimately predict–although many have tried. The ideas of the “military-technical revolution” and “revolution in military affairs” and the other assorted concepts of the last thirty years each have a grain of truth but fall flat in describing the method, scope, and practical application of future operations.
      We have a woefully limited template to extrapolate from, as neither of the conventional Gulf Wars really give us a good picture that can be extrapolated beyond the immediate tactical and operational lessons learned. Just as the Boer War illustrated some aspects of World War I but did not give anything close to a complete picture, the irregular conflict of the last 20 years gives us some lessons. The netwar literature, for example, illustrates flexible concepts of organization and tactics. But modern irregular conflicts are unlikely to be the “hedgehog idea” of future operations. The post-1945 conventional Third World conflicts and compound wars also are a source of inspiration as they are likely to be a major part of future conflict. But they, like the American Civil War was to World War I, also offer an incomplete or muddled picture.
      Will we overcome our operational ignorance? That’s ultimately an open question. The culprit isn’t counterinsurgency, and many claims about a COIN fixation are ultimately overheated. But it is indisputable that the international security environment and U.S. strategy has privileged the development of irregular warfare strategy, and offers little time or incentive for serving military thinkers to examine operational questions. In turn, civilian academics do not study war as a part of “war studies”–most academic study of war focuses on system-level aspects of international relations rather than operations and tactics.
      I’m ultimately optimistic, however. The analytical energy and collaboration between soldiers, academics, journalists, and scientists seen in the modern American irregular warfare discussion is a portent of the kind of resources that could be redirected toward other questions of future warfare–given the right incentives, structures, and communities. While the strategic questions of the day are extremely important–as evidenced by the recent turmoil in Mexico–we should also be conducting net assessments of the future.