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Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky (1893–1937): Practitioner and Theorist of War

August 7, 2006

Few people today, excepting perhaps students of military and Soviet history, know much about the Soviet military officer Mikhail (Misha) Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky. Even those who have studied and written about his life find him difficult to characterize. Author Shimon Naveh asserts that some of Tukhachevsky’s colleagues considered him a “charming intellectual, a sensitive and artistic human being who possesses a penetrating and creative mind, and an admirer of Western Civilization.” But Naveh found others who characterized him as

a prince of darkness, Bonapartist, the Anti-Christ, anti-Semite, admirer of Nazis, butcher, militant Communist inclined toward pragmatism, and romantic Mongol, a veritable Genghis Khan.

Another author, Richard Simpkin, presents Tukhachevsky in an equally paradoxical way: “One can see him as the brilliant idealist of irreproachable integrity, slightly gone to seed as a result of the rigors of war and the problems of family and marriage.” At the same time, “One could equally well present him as a flamboyant opportunist, driven by ambition to the ruthless exploitation of ideas, people and events alike.” Simpkin concluded that perhaps he was both at the same time, a sort of “Jekyll and Hyde in conscious cooperation; and perhaps that was the secret of both his achievements and his downfall.” This final assessment of conscious cooperation is particularly insightful, particularly in light of an examination of Tukhachevsky’s personal life, his life as a practitioner of war, and his writings as a military theorist. Such an examination reveals an officer who, whether a Jekyll or Hyde, was able to practice and convey in writing an uncanny conceptualization and prescient vision of modern warfare at the tactical, strategic and operational levels. His efforts significantly affected the development of the Soviet military and the conduct of modern warfare in the 20th century.

To understand Tukhachevsky’s contributions to warfare, one must be familiar with the levels of warfare (tactical, strategic and operational) and the concept of operational art. For simplicity, this paper will categorize the levels of warfare using the contemporary U.S. operational framework of tactics, strategy and operations. At the lowest level will be tactics, those aspects of warfare ranging from the individual soldier to corps-size  units. At the highest level will be strategy, those aspects of warfare ranging from the theater of operations to the very head of a nation’s government. Operations are the bridge between tactics and strategy. This third level of warfare is especially significant because its genesis in written form is found with the development of Soviet military theory in the early 1900s, and Tukhachevsky was a major catalyst in its formulation.

Furthermore, a military leader’s ability to handle these levels of warfare with a focus on their integration to achieve operational success has become known as the operational art. In fact, operational art in the current U.S. Army, which is also arguably a function of Soviet interwar thought, is defined as “the use of military forces to achieve strategic goals through the design, organization, integration and conduct of theater strategies, campaigns, major operations and battles.”6 For the U.S. military, this definition has become fundamental to understanding and designing modern military operations.

When and how operational art emerged onto the battlefield can ignite hours of heated discussion and debate among knowledgeable military officers or historians, who tend to fall into one of four groups that are essentially separated by periodization. A first group holds that operational art is nearly as old as warfare itself and is evidenced through well-known commanders of antiquity such as Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Others suggest that operational art is a function of Napoleonic warfare and is arguably manifested through Napoleon himself and Grant in his orchestration of the campaign of 1864. A third group asserts that operational art really had its genesis with Soviets thinkers such as Svechin, Tukhachevsky and Triandafillov. And a fourth group suggests that operational art’s genesis was really a result of U.S. military theoretical and doctrinal development in the 1970s and ‘80s as chronicled in the U.S. Army’s capstone doctrinal manual, Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, in the idea of Airland Battle.

While its conceptual genesis is debatable, the writings of Soviet theorists during the interwar period, including those of Tukhachevsky, clearly reveal an articulation of the operational art. It therefore had its genesis no later than the interwar years if not earlier. Tukhachevsky and other like-minded officers of his time were theoretical forerunners in not only conceptualizing but also writing about operational art. They visualized and articulated a conceptual and practical application of the operational level of warfare which provided theirs and future militaries a foundational understanding and lexicon for operations that comprehensively bridged the gap between strategy and tactics, with far-reaching impact for the future Soviet military and modern warfare in general.