The Operational Level of War Does Not Exist

Observation from OIF and OEF

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I served on what was then the Marine Corps Combat Development Command’s Combat Assessment Team. There was a sense of urgency in gathering campaign lessons learned and the team members of the team were imbedded in staffs across the MEF. We contributed as part of the staff during the day and captured observations at night. When Baghdad fell and I MEF was re-deployed home, we spent a couple of months synthesizing what we had learned into something that would hopefully be helpful for future fights. 

Our observations were focused on tactical lessons learned. The Marine Corps, after all, fights at the tactical level. Although I spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the operational level of war, my perspective has shifted, and I now argue the operational level of war does not exist.  It is a construct (and not a useful one) for warfighting, justifying, in the wake of Goldwater-Nichols, general officer positions and massive supporting staff. Every staff, from combatant commanders through joint task forces, and functional component commanders, to the MEF claims to fight at the operational level of war. 

These “operational-level staffs” create a massive demand for tactical information from those doing the actual fighting while diffusing authority, responsibility, and accountability. Accountability and responsibility are vital in war, and it is critical to know who is empowered to make decisions.  He who makes decisions in war is responsible for strategy, and I am not certain our current organizational constructs make it clear who is in charge.   

As a related aside, it should be troubling to recognize the United States won World War II with fewer than a dozen four-star admirals and generals leading sixteen million men and women in uniform. The nature of war has not changed even though its character has evolved with technology. We are creatures of our technology, however, and one could argue war’s complexity has not necessarily become more difficult to manage. Today, we have forty-three four-star admirals and generals, and our win-loss record is not great. I thought the Information Age was supposed to flatten organizations. 

A tactical observation made, but perhaps not captured, by the Iraqi Freedom Combat Assessment Team was the failure in Phase IV planning. Phase IV was the phase that would follow the conclusion of combat operations. To say the Phase IV plan for I MEF was opaque would be charitable. Honestly, though I MEF planners were not negligent, they received no direction from the combined forces land Component commander or from anyone else.   

Arguably, the reason there was no direction for Phase IV is there was no strategic goal for the U.S. war in Iraq for which Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was the opening campaign. There were vague goals surrounding finding weapons of mass destruction. Also, suggestions of ties between the Iraqis and the events of 11 September and after the initial campaign the shift from finding weapons of mass destruction to regime change continued to add ambiguity to our strategic goals. What was to come after regime change? What was the overarching U.S. strategic goal in Iraq? We did not have one. 

We did not have a strategic goal or a strategy in Afghanistan either; if we did, it was a bad strategy. In hindsight, Afghanistan should have been a punitive expedition with the goal of punishing those responsible for the 11 September attacks and those who provided them refuge. The United States had a worldwide charter of approval for a punitive expedition, after which U.S. forces should have been withdrawn.   

On 18 August 2021, following the debacle that was the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen Berger, wrote a letter to Marines who had served in Afghanistan. He said,  

You fought to defend your country, your family, your friends, and your neighbors. You fought to prevent terror from returning to our shores. You fought for the liberty of young Afghan girls, women, boys, and men who want the same individual freedoms we enjoy as Americans. You fought for the Marine to your left and the Marine to your right. You never let them down. 

All of this is true, all of it is noble, and all of it is truly laudable and reflects the values of Marines and the Marine Corps. But through it all, one must wonder, what was the U.S. strategic goal in Afghanistan? Were Marines fighting for the liberty of young Afghan girls, women, boys, and men? Is that the goal for which we invested more than twenty years’ worth of effort and national treasure? 

A popular saying in the wake of the U.S. loss in Vietnam was that we won all the battles and lost the war. We dominated tactically and lost strategically. After Vietnam and through the 1980s, the Marine Corps, the Army, and the Nation writ large went through a catharsis of sorts, working to understand the failure and how to avoid the same again. One of the products of this work was what became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, which amounted to a list of questions and pre-conditions to be met before committing U.S. forces to conflict. The Weinberger Doctrine to many appeared quaint and inapplicable in the “changed world” of 2002. I would argue the tenants of the Weinberger Doctrine were applicable then and are just as applicable now.   

From my vantage point, there has been no effort comparable to post-Vietnam in understanding the failures of Afghanistan and Iraq. The focus has shifted to China and for the Marine Corps, Force Design 2030, kind of like a “whew, I’m glad that’s over, we need to get ready for what’s next.” I hope, at minimum, work has been done, as was done in 2003 to capture tactical lessons learned for the Marine Corps. Those lessons have immediate value and importance.   

So, why is this important to the Marine Corps and readers of the Marine Corps Gazette to think about strategy? Because many of the Marines reading the Gazette today will soon find themselves in the position of shaping national strategy. But our national strategy for Afghanistan and Iraq was the responsibility of our Nation’s civil leadership, right? A cornerstone of our constitutional republic is civil control of the military, they define our national goals. The military supports the national strategy.   

All of this is true, but at the same time, nobody in the Nation understands conflict and security better than those in uniform. The Nation invests in cultivating this knowledge and should be able, when necessary, to harvest the fruit. Senior military leadership has spent decades in uniform, in operational roles, in supporting roles, and attending schools. By the time these leaders arrive at the pinnacle of their careers, none of the civilians they support and advise can hold a candle to their training, education, and experience in matters of national security. 

Moreover, throughout their careers Army and Marine leaders at least learned the importance of well-defined goals for tactical-level operations. They recognize tactical goals are the pinnacle of a pyramid resting on the foundational layer of strategy and strategic goals. As was seen by I MEF in 2003 during phase IV planning, tactical goals are impossible to divine absent strategic guidance.    

This begs the question, why were we conducting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without defined strategic goals military forces were fighting to achieve? If we did have a strategy, why did we fail to attain our goal? Why, when former Commandant, Gen Berger penned his letter to the Marines, was he unable to point to or mention what had been achieved or not achieved in terms of worthy and defined strategic aims? Why is there an after-the-fact questioning by many Americans of why we were even in Afghanistan, countered by vague assertions, with foundations of support resting in the shifting sand of assumptions of it being better to fight potential terrorists abroad rather than at home?   

Developing strategic goals implies the need for political consensus and approval. This means Congressional approval. In both conflicts, the use of force was authorized by Congress for initial operations, but there was little to no Congressional oversight focused on validating or shifting strategic goals in subsequent years of these long wars. There are many reasons for this lack of oversight. 

Strategy is not stagnant nor is strategy limited to planning. Developing plans is merely the first step of strategy, the most important part being the identification of the strategic goal, followed by a reconciliation of that goal with means and ways. Strategy continues beyond planning, however, with an endless series of decisions, adjusting to the changing reality to attain the goal. With each decision comes another round of reconciling means and ways to ensure they remain sufficient and feasible.   

Perhaps, with so few members of Congress having prior military experience, there was a dearth of understanding of the requirement for continuous oversight. Perhaps Congress simply trusted the military and State Department with the mission. Perhaps there was Congressional consensus, spoken or unspoken, for the need to project unity in the face of conflict. Perhaps political discussions of strategic goals were intentionally avoided precisely because doing so would create unwelcome controversy. It certainly is easier to simply approve generous annual appropriations to continue tactical actions than it is to wrestle in strategic discussions.       

The various war colleges are the capstone educational experience for officers. Much time is devoted to the discussion and understanding of civil-military relations. These institutions are probably one of the best venues to at least begin discussions on what has gone wrong in recent conflicts with the goal of improvement. While these discussions would make interesting non-attributional fodder for lectures and seminars, something formal and attributional resulting in a product with recommendations would better serve the Nation’s needs. 

Two questions that should be explored are what was the relationship between senior military officers and civil leadership from 2001 to 2021 and was it sufficient? In the over twenty years of conflict, no senior military officer ever spoke publicly with real misgivings in either conflict. Was this because of misplaced confidence in the status of ongoing operations?   

If this is the case, our armed services have a training and educational shortfall that precludes leaders from accurately assessing conflict. In July and August 2021, most civilians with common sense recognized the looming disaster in Afghanistan. It is puzzling to hear assertions that military leadership saw no warnings and indicators of imminent collapse.     

There would be true value when those who participated in Iraq and Afghanistan were available to examine these questions and to determine why we keep failing to get our strategy right. It would be valuable to re-consider the roles of military leadership in determining strategy in conflict. It may be of value to re-consider our organizational constructs. Is the geographic combatant commander and associated joint task forces construct still appropriate and are they effective?   

We should ask strategic questions today about the fighting in Ukraine. While U.S. troops do not appear to be overtly committed, the United States is nonetheless supporting tactical actions, committing resources totaling more than three times the Marine Corps annual appropriation, without clearly articulated strategic goals. We hear platitudes of “defending democracy” or dubious assertions we need to stop Putin from his plans to conquer all of Europe—but no real strategic goals. 

As noted, military leadership has more experience and qualifications than anyone else in understanding how to best shape our Nation’s strategy during conflict. Understanding how our strategy became insufficient in Iraq and Afghanistan and how it remains insufficient in Ukraine is important. Understanding and either validating or modifying for better results the roles of military leadership in defining strategy should also be considered. It is time to repeat the post-Vietnam efforts to understand what has gone wrong and determine how can be precluded from happening again. 

>Col Vohr served as a Logistics Officer and MAGTF Planner.