Combat Studies Institute
Command & General Staff College Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 
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The Great And The Grand: Campaign History For The Military Professional

MAJ Bradley T. Gericke

            For the military professional, the study of history holds significant merit. Samuel P. Huntington, in Soldier and The State, defined a profession as a group possessing specialized expertise, a sense of corporateness, and whose purpose is necessary for the functioning of society. The pursuit of military history, in both its theoretical and practical sense, can contribute to each of these aspects of military professionalism. Officers instinctively comprehend this, and while acknowledging that military history is valuable, often fail to apply it effectively. The question confronting the professional officer thus concerns the type of military history that best maximizes its inherent utility.

For good reason, military history long enjoyed a reputation as being the refuge of antiquarians; practiced by aging soldiers and collectors of martial ephemera but shunned by academics and politicians. Many narratives, lightly researched but rich in polemics and anecdotal detail, in fact continue to fill bookstores’ shelves.  Fortunately, numerous works that offer insightful analysis to locate military events within a broader context have over the last twenty years resurrected military arts and sciences.  The contemporary officer can therefore select any number of sophisticated approaches to examine his profession.

One approach is to study the Great Captains. In this case, officers review the careers of military leaders and attempt to glean lessons appropriate to their own situation.  There is no doubt that the Great Captains provide a biographical vehicle suited for the illustration of individual lives and experiences. Service in uniform, particularly in the Army, amounts to the conduct and behavior of people, so officers usually respond favorably to the Great Captains. The problem with this perspective lies in its limited application. Great Captains tend to be such extraordinarily unique characters that their relevance is often not fitting for the contemporary officer. How much of Napoleon’s life, or MacArthur’s genius, can be applied to one’s own leadership?  Should an officer attempt to lead like Patton? And if one attempts to separate the “good” from the “bad” leadership traits, what is left of the historical case? How could a student apply McClellan’s careful organizational methods then set aside his caution in battle, to instead replace it with the tenacity of Grant? What comes from such admixture is no historical figure at all, but the reduction to amorphous “leadership principles” that have little more historical relevancy than anything found in a psychology textbook. Military history offers more than the lives of exceptional military leaders.  Perhaps the realm of combat holds more promise.

            Military history through the prism of past battles is definitely constructive. The battle is the single best lens through which to observe the environment of combat. The tactical level of war can only be understood when the violence of individual and small unit fighting is held to close investigation. But there are two risks to battle studies. First, the tendency towards trivia often arises. For instance, the precise spot that General Lee stood to watch Pickett’s Charge is very interesting, perhaps even important to the understanding of that tactical fight, but unless one plans to fight again in that field in Pennsylvania the benefit of the inquiry must be quite limited. Second, battle studies are by their very nature are typically restricted to the confines of the battlefield itself. The battle narrative unfolds with little or no consideration of events or processes underway that brought the adversaries to the contest and in a thousand different ways set the stage for the possible outcomes. In general then, battle study by itself is inadequate for officers who seek staff and command positions beyond the tactical level. These officers require a fuller comprehension of their profession than the battle-level review can provide. For officers seeking an integrated understanding of history, the campaign is the ideal vehicle.

            The military campaign provides a rich vein of possibilities for the military professional. It is that level of military action that places military events into their political and intellectual context. In a campaign, many actors and processes are evident: states, leaders, weapons technology, supporting arms and services, civilians, and of course, fighting units and soldiers. The campaign involves the role of contingency and chance, of fortune and detailed planning. In short, the campaign is the nexus of the military profession.

            But which campaigns to study? In a vague sense, all campaigns are worthy of study just as all of history merits investigation. The campaign approach to military history is not new. Napoleon’s campaigns have fascinated generations of officers, as did Alexander’s and Caesar’s during earlier centuries. Modern officers are enthralled with the campaigns of World War II, and nearly every facet of the American Civil War enjoys loyal adherents. The approach itself, and the list of campaigns considered to be “Great,” is therefore broad. Nonetheless, some campaigns are more important for learning than others.

Given that there is little time in Army curriculums for misplaced study, it is critical that leaders identify those campaigns whose scrutiny promises the utmost benefit. Dividing a campaign into several constituent categories, and then assessing its effect in each, reveals the significance of the campaign. A survey of campaigns over time will cause a select few to emerge as being even more influential than the Great—they are the Grand Campaigns that every officer should study.

            Four distinct categories serve to define the essential relationship of a campaign to the profession of arms: political, doctrinal, technological, and war’s outcome. A Great Campaign is one in which a decisive event, process, or outcome was achieved in a single category. A Grand Campaign is one in which the same can be observed in multiple categories. Assignation of a campaign to the status of Grand requires that a number of questions be asked in each category.[1] 

Political refers to the relationship between the campaign and the states in conflict. This category captures Clauzewitz’ trinity of state, army, and people as carried out during a campaign. Did political leaders identify political objectives? Did military leaders direct the campaign towards the accomplishment of those objectives? Was the campaign organized to achieve a decisive outcome? Did the will of the people on both sides affect the armed forces and the campaign?

Doctrinal addresses the intellectual understanding of the military art and science operative at the time of the campaign. Did the armies and leaders involved create novel approaches, or maximize existing trends and practices? Did leaders raise, organize, and fight their forces in ways to maximize the doctrine? Or did leaders improvise by creating new doctrines and tactics and employed them successfully or unsuccessfully during the campaign?

Technological considers the weapons and machinery of war. Were new weapon systems employed? Were instruments of war used in new ways?  Did leaders maximize the potential of existing weapons, or did they squander them extraordinarily? Were new weapons created or old weapons used in manners unanticipated before the campaign?

War’s Outcome pertains to the significance of the campaign within the context of the war in which it was conducted. Was the campaign decisive to the outcome of the war? Did the campaign mark a turning point? Was the campaign similar to the ones preceding or following, or was it singular? Did the campaign directly lead to significant economic or political consequences?

Any campaign to which general affirmatives can be shown in more than one of these categories suggests that the campaign is Grand. Emblematic of their age, Grand Campaigns are the keystones of military history and essential to the growth of today’s professional officer.   Some Grand Campaigns since 1775 (history of the United States Army) and a brief rationale for their status as Grand[2]



GRAND CAMPAIGNS AND SUPPORTING RATIONALE

Campaign/Category

Political

Doctrinal

Technology

Outcome

Remarks

Saratoga, 1777:

X

 

 

X

American forces gain French recognition; British attempt at broad operational offensive; Cooperation of militia and regulars in battle

Jena, 1806 and Waterloo, 1815:

X

X

X

X

Napoleonic systems of war in place; Decisive battlefield victory ultimately failed to secure political objectives at Jena, but Allies end an era at Waterloo

Atlanta/Sherman’s March and Wilderness,1864

X

X

X

X

Grant and Sherman cooperate to fulfill strategic and operational objectives; Employment of weapons and doctrine in service of a nation-state

Wars of German Unification, 1866-71

X

X

X

X

German leaders use military campaigns to create a nation; Example of staff planning, execution, and modern weapons technology with decisive military and political outcomes

German Spring Offensive, 1918:

 

X

X

X

German military leaders adapt tactics to break the gridlock of the Western Front but lose the war

France, 1940:

X

X

X

 

France and Germany go to war with contrasting doctrine, political organization, weapons, and lessons from World War I

Battle of Britain, 1940:

 

X

X

 

Sustained use of airpower in the attempt to gain strategic and operational advantage

Pearl Harbor, 1941:

X

 

X

X

An operation intended to employ new weapons for decisive strategic effect; Example of operational success but strategic miscalculation

Hiroshima/Nagasaki, 1945:

 

 

X

X

The world’s greatest conventional war ends by unconventional attack with novel technology

Tet, 1968:

X

X

X

X

Nation-state v. Insurgency; Contrasts in every facet of the campaign

 



[1]My definition of Grand Campaigns pertains to modern war. Grand Campaigns have occurred since the beginning of human conflict, but the categorical definitions applicable to earlier periods would require re-definition to accommodate different political, economic, and intellectual systems in place.

[2]Greats that are nearly Grand:

-Indian Wars: 1865-1890: A modern nation adapts its armed forces to eliminate an asymmetric threat

-Marne, 1914: Attempts to replicate the successes of the previous war (1870-71) fail; New technologies and old doctrine stymie military leaders

-North Atlantic, 1940-1944: Unprecedented organization for war at sea

-Midway, 1942: Naval battle fought in the air by contestants with similar strategic outlooks

-Berlin, 1945: Destruction of a city and defeat of an empire; All aspects of modern war in play

-Gulf War, 1991: Culmination of doctrine and technology underway since World War I—but within context of limited political objectives

   Contact the Combat Studies Institute   Updated:  16 Apr 2003