Letter from Winter 2007 MHQ

11/14/2006 • MHQ Issues

For centuries soldiers have used military history to develop a theory of war and principles for planning an armed conflict or campaign. Today’s U.S. Army version of the principles of war has nine tenets with roots in the combat experience, the study of history, and the analysis of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Writing in the 1820s, Clausewitz advised future generals to employ all available forces, concentrate forces where decisive blows were to be struck, move quickly, surprise the enemy, and follow up success. Modern tenets include maneuver: place the enemy in a disadvantageous position through the flexible application of combat power; offensive: seize, retain, and exploit the initiative; security: never permit the enemy to acquire an unexpected advantage; surprise: strike the enemy at a time or place or in a manner for which he is unprepared; and simplicity: prepare clear, uncomplicated plans and clear, concise orders to ensure thorough understanding.

Critics challenged the plan for the initial phase of the 2003 invasion of Iraq aimed at defeating the Iraqi armed forces and toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime for using too few forces over widely separated attack corridors. They believed coalition forces ran the risk of being defeated before they got to Baghdad because the plan violated a principle of war. But it was shown that the plan was in accord with another tenet, the principle of mass: concentrate the effects of combat power at the decisive place and time.

This first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom was quicker and less costly than expected. It was the following occupation phase, with its terrorist insurgency, that has proved so difficult.

Academic critics have often challenged the use of the principles of war. In the 1970s, an economist working in the Department of Defense called them “a set of platitudes that can be twisted to suit almost any situation.”

That kind of disparagement has continued. In 2006 a political scientist with the Defense Policy Board described the principles as “a hazy collection of often-ignored, self-contradictory military platitudes.” These critics never seem to offer an alternative set of standards to use in describing or judging a proposed operation. However, they do make some valid criticisms in saying the principles are occasionally ignored.

For example, the principle of unity of command — for every objective, ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander — was not observed during the 1991 Gulf War. An American general and a Saudi general shared command between them. In this issue we have included excerpts from an award-winning book The Ghosts of Iwo Jima, by U.S. Marine Captain Robert Burrell, who questions the necessity for the costly 1945 invasion of that Japanese island. His book is particularly timely, since U.S. military planning has of late been under special scrutiny and criticism.

In considering Burrell’s book, it might be interesting to use today’s principles to judge the October 1944 decision by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff to seize Iwo Jima. Two of the principles are especially pertinent: objective: direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable objective; and economy of forces: allocate minimum essential combat power to secondary efforts. Should Iwo have been bypassed? Or, knowing only what the chiefs knew at the time, was Operation Detachment a logical choice?