The president—after weeks of consultation with the joint chiefs, national security advisor, cabinet officials, and others—has reached a conclusion. Instability in a particular country featured increasingly in the news is a threat to vital US national interests. The danger is real that the country will become a safe haven for terrorists, and the president will announce in a televised address that the United States will deploy a force to help train the foreign country’s military and enhance its institutional capacity to defeat the insurgents. Within weeks, teams are on the ground advising local military forces on counter-insurgency operations. These actions are a direct result of the president’s declared objectives. However, the translation of the president’s objectives into military action is a complex and often difficult process. Converting these political objectives into direct, tactical action is the role of what the US Army calls “operational art.” But while strategy and tactics have been studied independently for millennia, operational art theory is a comparatively young concept. Indeed, the operational level is a surprisingly new feature in US Army doctrine, only formally emerging in the 1980s.

The US Army defines operational art as “the pursuit of strategic objectives, in whole or in part, through the arrangement of tactical actions in time, space, and purpose.” Operational art now forms a fundamental element of Army doctrine—as depicted in the simplified vignette above and practiced in real-world scenarios in all of America’s modern wars. Yet in no place within current doctrine does the US Army make explicit reference to operational art’s theoretical roots. Theory and history trace three inherent concepts within this definition: first, war as an extension of politics; second, the chaotic and unpredictable nature of war; and third, the distributive character of modern warfare. These concepts are derived from an amalgamation of past theorists, particularly the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz and Soviet commander Georgii Isserson. By understanding these theories and concepts, military planners can gain a greater appreciation for doctrine’s concept of the operational art in order to apply its theoretical underpinnings to modern military operations.

War as an Extension of Politics

The goal of military operations derived from operational art is, foremost, “the pursuit of strategic objectives,” but where does the military receive guidance as to what those objectives are? The answer may seem obvious, but the institutionalization of the political nature of war was not generally held until the widespread publication Carl von Clausewitz’s On War in the mid-nineteenth century.

Clausewitz, a Prussian army officer, observed during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars tremendous social and political upheaval. These changes accelerated an evolution in the relationship between the military and the government that occurred over a millennium in Europe. According to historian Charles Tilly, in medieval Europe, the military and monarchy were much the same: the king and his knights were the political powerholders. The king directly led his troops into battle; politics and warfare were innately linked. Yet, as nations and bureaucracies grew to support large national armies conducting large-scale campaigns by a professional military class (rather than the king), a gap developed between political “reason” for wars and military objectives. Clausewitz described the variance between these two elements metaphorically as two among three tendencies in his “paradoxical trinity.” Political reason and military objectives are examples of the variable relationship between the tendency of war as an instrument of policy (the realm of the government) and war as a play between chance and probability (the realm of military commanders). The gap between the two tendencies has only increased with modern war.

Prior to Clausewitz, theorists mostly wrote about the proper execution of warfare on the battlefield; but Clausewitz sought to describe what he saw as the nature of war itself—the relationship between military objectives and the political goals of the government—without which “battle” would be pointless. As Clausewitz described, “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” Based on this connection Clausewitz observed that “the political object—the original motive for the war—will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.” His logic would derive his well-known observation that war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.

When doctrine articulates that the purpose of operational art is the pursuit of strategic objectives, this concept is a derivative of Clausewitz’s theory. Political rationale determines political and strategic objectives, which in turn frame military objectives. This notion is an important concept describing the nature of war itself—a contribution to a theory of war. Clausewitz’s concept would have a tremendous influence on the Prussian and later German army. By the early twentieth century, the German army was a widely emulated model—its doctrine was absorbed by many foreign armies, including that of the United States after World War I.

The Chaotic and Unpredictable Nature of War

The second concept inherent in the definition of the operational art is that the nature of war is chaotic and unpredictable. This concept is inferred by operational art overcoming “the ambiguity and intricacies of a complex, ever-changing, and uncertain operational environment,” also a Clausewitzian concept. Clausewitz’s contemporaries, like the Swiss general Antoine-Henri Jomini, were products of the Enlightenment era. The Enlightenment was characterized as a celebration of human reason, where all phenomenon, when applied through the scientific method, could be reduced to basic principles—Newtonian physics, for example. The same scientific methodologies were applied to the study of war. Writers like Jomini advertised that their scientific analysis had discovered fundamental principles of war that, when applied correctly, could lead to victory. Clausewitz, among others, resisted this approach. The zealotry of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinking resulted in a Counter-Enlightenment movement, particularly in Germany. Historian Azar Gat explains that this movement challenged the fundamentals of the Enlightenment’s worldview: “The world was for them not basically simple but, on the contrary, highly complex, composed of innumerable and unique elements and events, and always in a state of flux.”

Clausewitz’s On War reflects the ideas of the Counter-Enlightenment movement. Clausewitz explains, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.” Clausewitz also describes war as “the realm of chance. . . . Chance makes everything more uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events.”

In stark contrast to the ideas of Clausewitz’s contemporaries, his theory of war was deeply rooted in the complexity and unpredictability of war. Today, US Army doctrine recognizes Clausewitz’s inherent uncertainty of warfare by appreciating the importance of skill, knowledge, experience, judgment, and an agility of mind to help compensate for the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the battlefield.

The Distributive Character of Modern War

The third concept, the distributive character of modern war, reflects operational art’s approach to arranging tactical actions in time, space, and purpose. Modern war is characterized by the employment of forces in deep distributed operations. The characteristic of warfare prior to modern operations was that of a strategy of a “single point.” According to Soviet military theorist Georgii Isserson, for centuries armies marched and came together for battle in a dense mass on a single point in the theater of operations; this was the most efficient use of force during this period due to limitations of logistics and command and control. This strategy reached its apex during the Napoleonic Wars as corps maneuvered separately but concentrated together in battle.

By the US Civil War, however, modern conditions altered the logic behind a strategy of a “single point.” Concentrated armies were penalized with very high casualties due to the increased lethality of modern firepower. Inversely, modern firepower and trench defenses incentivized armies to disperse their forces. Other innovations, like the railroad and telegraph, empowered armies to conduct widely dispersed yet coordinated operations. The results of these changes resulted in a profound revolution in a general theory of warfare that elevated maneuver as the dominant aspect. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864–1865 campaign serves as an example of this new form of warfare characterized by coordinated, distributed operations driven by large-scale maneuver. Grant’s campaign consisted of several distributed operations: in the West, Sherman drove along one axis with three armies toward Atlanta; supporting Sherman, an army under Nathaniel Banks conducted an operation from Alabama towards Atlanta; all the while Grant directed three operations against Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia. These five operations, aggregating their effects, robbed the Confederates of freedom of action against the North. The resulting paradigm that emerged was that forces should be employed in deep distributed operations—tactical actions coordinated in time, space, and purpose.

Soviet general Mikhail Tukhachevsky articulated the concept of distributed operations in 1923 as “a series of destructive operations conducted on logical principles and linked together by an uninterrupted pursuit may take the place of the decisive battle.” Isserson, a brigade commander and contemporary of Tukhachevsky, codified this concept into Soviet doctrine by 1936 in The Evolution of Operational Art. “Under present conditions,” he wrote, “we must refer not to a series of successive operations, but to a series of successive strategic efforts, and to a series of separate campaigns in a single war.” Coinciding with Isserson, the German army, under Gen. Hans von Seeckt, also developed its own distributed, maneuver-focused doctrine during the interwar period: Bewegungskrieg (maneuver warfare). As German doctrine highlighted, “the goal of modern strategy will be to achieve a decision with highly mobile, highly capable forces, before the masses have even begun to move.”

In both the Soviet and German cases, the linking of multiple battles through operations and campaigns to achieve strategic objectives resulted in a conceptually new level of war—the operational level. While the US Army certainly fought distributed, maneuver-centric operations during World War II, it would not adopt conceptual frameworks like the “operational level” of war into its own doctrine until the early 1980s. During the post-Vietnam era, Col. Huba Wass de Czege developed the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) to study theory and large-unit operations to cultivate operational art doctrinal concepts. The result of SAMS’ studies of Clausewitz, Isserson, and historical campaigns, was a 1986 revision of US Army Field Manual 100-5: Operations that included the concepts of distributed operations at the operational level of war. These concepts continue to influence US Army operational art, especially in current doctrine like Army Doctrine Publication 3-0: Unified Land Operations.

Why Theoretical Roots Matter

In order for military planners to apply judgment in the application of the US Army’s concept of operational art, a historical and theoretical understanding of its origins is critical. In an era of newly emerging threats that are combated in rapidly changing domains, conceptualizing operational planning as a mere link in a chain of orders is a mistake. Commanders and operational planners that understand their roles in translating strategic, political objectives into tactical actions will perform better because of that context. And that context must necessarily be based on a recognition that operational art is rooted within a rich foundation of theories of both war and warfare, particularly three specific concepts: war as an extension of politics, the chaotic and unpredictable nature of war, and the distributive character of modern warfare. Knowledge of the historical lineages of these concepts gives commanders and planners a greater appreciation of operational art—an understanding of the nature of war and the battlefield logic it operates within. While the logic of operational art remains mostly unchanged since the mid-nineteenth century, understanding its historical roots is as important as ever on today’s battlefields.



Major William J. Denn is a US Army military intelligence officer and a student at the US Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. He holds a BS from the US Military Academy, an MPP from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and an MMAS from the US Army Command and General Staff College. Denn is a recipient of the General George C. Marshall Award and the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any  agency of the US government.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page