Words matter, for they reflect the quality of thinking and affect the judgments we make and the actions we take. In our everyday speech about the Army and what it does, the term “decisive” is often used as an absolute. For example, “The Army is the decisive force.” The problem is, decisive is a relative term in three important and relevant senses. First, decisive is relative to context; second, to combinations; and third, to proper use.
Every branch of service claims it is decisive. Most of the time in war, though, each service contributes importantly to achieving objectives. “Jointness” is the idea that in any given tactical or operational situation, a commander should select the service capabilities necessary to achieve the objectives assigned, but these capabilities are only sufficient when they are combined and employed properly.
This reminds us all that each service’s capabilities and the proper employment of these capabilities are most often necessary, but not sufficient. Individually, each can rarely guarantee the outcome, but together they can. They are decisive only in properly used combinations. When the term decisive is used in an absolute way, it hides the reality of fighting.
Everything said of jointness is also true of combined arms warfare. Many tactical matters are settled only by a proper mix of direct and indirect fires, and of fire and maneuver. Further, producing a definite result in tactical matters often rests on the quality and use of intelligence and effective logistics planning and execution. Fire, maneuver, intelligence and logistics are each absolutely necessary, but they are sufficient only when properly combined.
At this point, many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan would be right to point out that in multiple cases, fighting was resolved only when kinetic, combined arms were mixed with nonkinetic action. In these cases, even properly mixed combined arms could not be decisive in the sense of producing a definite result; depending on the objective, nonkinetic actions were also necessary.
Simply put, decisiveness is a function of at least these elements: the level of war, the type of war, the aim or objective, and the period of the war. Perhaps equally important, producing a decisive result requires not only the right component capabilities—military and nonmilitary—but also their proper use. With respect to decisiveness, the quality of the decision and its execution matter as much as having the right parts.
Level of War
Even though complexity and ambiguity at the tactical level are often quite high, tactical examples are relatively easy to grasp. Actions that have decisive results at the tactical level do not, however, merely aggregate to the operational or strategic levels. The art, science and logic of good tactics are different from campaigning at the operational level, and different still at the strategic level of war. A good tactician is unlikely to succeed as an operational artist if he or she merely expands tactical thinking and procedures to campaigns.
Military campaigns unfold over time. The dynamic nature of war assures that the conditions at the start of a campaign will not be the same as those at the end. So proper use of a particular campaign’s elements requires an adaptive decisionmaking process. Such a process involves the ability to sense the gap between the realities unfolding on the battlefield and the desired outcomes of the campaign, and then the issuing of instructions to adapt actions to reality.
A military campaign is designed to attain part of a strategic aim, or set the conditions for the attainment of a strategic aim. So decisiveness at the operational level may mean not settling a matter, but producing a definitive result that, in turn, sets the conditions for other acts—whether military or not—to settle an issue.
Decisiveness at the strategic level is even more difficult. Strategic leaders use campaigns, but the art, science and logic of attaining strategic aims are different from that of campaigning. Settling a war involves much more than settling a fight. The elements necessary to produce a decisive wartime strategic result include, but are not limited to, military capabilities. And the proper use of strategic elements requires information gathering and analysis, decisionmaking processes and adaptive methodologies wider than just military. Further, because war is essentially dynamic, using existing bureaucracies—inherently not good at doing anything new or fast—often decreases the quality of strategic-level understanding, deciding, acting and adapting.
Types of War
Decisive actions, or actions that produce a definitive result and settle a matter at each level of war, change with the type of war that is being waged. In a conventional war, military force—whether combined arms or joint—can often be decisive at the tactical and operational levels. Such a use of force can settle much of the matter at hand and set the conditions for complete settlement at the strategic level. But not all wars are conventional.
In many irregular wars, military force—regardless of how skillfully used—is merely necessary but not sufficient even at the tactical and operational levels. In an irregular war, decisive force takes on an entirely different hue. The meaning of “force” itself changes to “forces”; that is, military force becomes one of many types of forces necessary to produce a decisive result—diplomatic, economic and informational forces, for example. The term “proper use” also changes. An irregular war requires that the varieties of forces involved be sufficiently integrated from the tactical through the strategic levels because in irregular war, the levels of understanding, deciding, acting and adapting differ from those of conventional wars.
Aim or Objective
Unconditional surrender, the aim relative to both Germany and Japan in World War II, differs from the Korean War’s aim of re-establishing the 38th Parallel border between North and South Korea. These two aims differ from enforcing the Dayton Accords in Bosnia or sustaining a free, democratic and non-Communist South Vietnam—and all differ from the aim of destroying al-Qaida or the Islamic State group. As military strategist Carl von Clausewitz explains in On War, “The smaller the penalty you demand from your opponent, the less you can expect him to try and deny it to you; the smaller the effort he makes, the less you need to make yourself. … The political object … will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.”
Producing decisive results—whether at the tactical, operational or strategic level—differs according to the war’s aim, as do the elements necessary to produce those results. Different aims also require adjustments to methodologies and organizations necessary to understand, decide, act and adapt.
Period of War
Wars have a beginning, middle and end, and decisiveness changes at each point. The Iraq War provides a good example. The actions necessary to produce decisive results at the beginning of the war, which was the period focused on removing the Saddam Hussein regime, changed when that task was accomplished. The Surge of 2007–08 provides another good example. The mix of forces—military and nonmilitary—that were tactically and operationally decisive could not be decisive strategically. Yet because many leaders equated war with fighting, the belief was that the war was over when the fighting seemed to be mostly over.
This false belief was fed by at least three intellectual errors: not recognizing that tactical and operational decisiveness, in this case, meant only that the conditions were set for strategic decisive action; not recognizing that tactical and operational decisive action closed the middle of the war, but not the end; and not recognizing that to achieve decisive action strategically and end the war, both the mix of forces and how they would be used should have changed.
Having the right mix of military and nonmilitary forces is one thing; proper use—in other words, using them well—is quite another. Whether at the tactical, operational or strategic level, using forces involves at least three dimensions.
The first is an intellectual dimension. Here, the task is to align the objective with the ways and means that success at attaining that objective requires. The second, an organizational dimension, recognizes that plans have to be turned into action and thus, includes the need for proper organizations and methodologies for understanding, deciding, acting and adapting. Execution matters, and unity of effort in execution does not happen by chance. War is dynamic at each of its levels so regardless of level, having systems and organizations in place that will allow continual realignment of ends, ways and means and sufficiently cohesive action throughout increases the probability of success.
Last, proper use includes the dimension of moral and social legitimacy. Americans hold soldiers and their leaders responsible for the decisions and actions they take even in the midst of battle. In combat, the hardest decisions are often made by those on the spot, under the harshest conditions and at the highest risks. Certainly, some circumstances might mitigate judgment, explaining why we might accept behaviors in combat that would be unacceptable in other situations.
Mitigations Prove the Rule
These mitigations, however, prove the rule. Reactions to the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the killing of civilians in the Iraqi city of Haditha, the “kill team” murders in Afghanistan and the Marines urinating on Taliban corpses also highlight the rule, not the exception. We not only held responsible those who committed these acts, but also their leaders who knew of these actions but did nothing to prevent them or said nothing afterward. We may understand the difficulty, uncertainty and urgency under which soldiers and leaders make difficult decisions and take actions, but this understanding has limits and does not erase the expectation of moral agency.
Legitimacy has a strategic aspect, too. The American people expect senior political and military leaders to succeed. According to research done by multiple scholars in 2005 and 2006, Americans will support a war and the casualties it produces under three conditions: They generally believe the war is right, that we can succeed, and that we are making progress toward success. Legitimacy on the battlefield and in the capital are equally important.
For the use of force to be decisive, all elements must come into play as a sufficiently coherent set. No doubt achieving decisive results at all levels of war is complex and difficult, but complexity and difficulty don’t change the reality of leadership requirements. Understanding decisiveness accurately matters in how the military profession teaches itself and prepares leaders to fulfill their responsibilities.
An accurate understanding is helpful, too, in constructing education and training programs as well as in making decisions about force structure and composition. It is also helpful in how senior leaders offer military advice to their civilian bosses. And an accurate understanding of decisiveness is very helpful in waging war well. Words matter.