On Operations by B. A. Friedman

During the American Civil War, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Valley Campaign is frequently pointed to as an example of expert maneuver. In fact, Jackson’s success was due more to excellent information. His small Confederate army was weak in everything except information. Jackson had lived in the Shenandoah Valley before the war and knew the ground. He also employed on his staff a local civilian mapmaker, Jedediah Hotchkiss. Finally, he had an excellent, if undisciplined cavalry commander who understood reconnaissance. Jackson’s ability to rapidly outmaneuver Union forces was grounded in his more accurate understanding of his opponent and the environment.

B. A. Friedman’s book On Operations is sort of sequel to his book On Tactics, which we reviewed here (a surprisingly popular post, actually). The subject is operations: planning, preparing, conducting and sustaining campaigns to accomplish strategic objectives. This lies somewhere in between tactics and strategy. Friedman’s book comes out of Clausewitz’s On War. For Clausewitz,

the logic of tactics is to gain battlefield victory; the logic of strategy is to use those victories for the purpose of the war.

Operations then lies somewhere in between:

operational art comprises the disciplines requires to place military forces in an advantageous position to employ tactics to achieve strategic effect

Some excerpts from the table of contents provide some sub-topics: Administration, Information, Operations, Fire Support, Logistics, Command and Control. Within a pretty technical discussion of these topics are interesting insights. Friedman says that the study of

operational art became the safe space in which Soviet officers could discuss their trade.

You couldn’t talk “strategy,” that was Stalin’s job. However, even operations turned out not to be quite safe:

By the 1930s, Svechin and Tukhachevsky were rivals. Tukhachevsky’s ideas won out in part because he denounced Svechin as a traitor to the Marxist-Leninist cause, whereupon Svechin was arrested. As adept as he was at playing Stalin’s games, Tukhachevsky was not adept enough. Neither he nor Svechin would live to see either the outbreak of the war they were preparing for the Red Army’s eventual victory, as Stalin had both men executed.

Friedman goes through some history of military administration, noting that the Prussian army had a system where a commander would have an Ia, whose job was running the general’s staff, handling communications, and serving as a principal advisor. Sometimes the Ia and the commander would rise in the ranks as a team. There’s some discussion of Boyd’s OODA loop idea. Throughout the book there are some case studies of operational success and failure, and a section of five detailed case studies as a sort of appendix. These were all pretty interesting, but into that stuff. I liked learning, for instance, that Carlson organized his Raiders using ideas he learned as an observer with Chinese Communist guerrillas.

This quote jumped out at me:

British general Nick Carter, who has had extensive experience in command in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan has observed, “As a commander you now live in a fish bowl; war is a theater and you are a producer of a spectacle that must appeal to a range of audiences. For success is invariably defined by the triumph of the narrative.

Anyone aspiring to manage complex operations or human organizations could probably benefit from examples in this book. And in the US, where we have civilian control of the military, good for all of us to think about some of these topics.

Too often, the US officer corps uses the operational level as a shield behind which it deploys “best military advice. But no military advice can be beneficial if stripped of its inherent political nature.

If I can get in touch with B. A. Friedman I’m gonna see if he’ll endure an interview with Helytimes on how deep military thinking can be applied in civilian life. It’s a pleasure to take advantage of the work of someone who’s studied deeply on such a topic.

Here’s a Hotchkiss map:



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