Since the operational level sometimes requires a bit of further explanation for it to "click" in the minds of someone unfamiliar with it, I realized another example might be useful. If you look at ancient and medieval warfare, the dividing line between the operational level and other levels is far more clear.
Take the operations of the Roman legions. Before modern communications, the commander of the legion couldn't afford to split up his force and fight across hundreds of miles of terrain, the way modern armies do. The Roman army on the march might temporarily break down into smaller formations, but recombined as a single force once battle was joined. In fact, every ancient and medieval army fought this way--which is why you can drive around the battlefield of Agincourt in a few minutes, while driving around the D-Day beaches takes at least half a day (if you decide not to stop anywhere for long).
The Roman army--republican, early imperial, or late imperial--fought at the operational level in essentially the same way.For example, when waging an offensive campaign against the Celtic barbarians, the army would stay on the move until it came into contact with the enemy. The legions would then try to force the Celts to fight on the ground of the Roman's choosing. Although the barbarians normally outnumbered the legionnaries by as much as ten to one, Roman training, tactics, and technology would normally win the day. After the decisive battle, the Romans would pursue the remnants of the Celtic army until the region was safely subjugated.
Obviously, not every campaign followed this model. However, the ones that do fit this picture--such as Julius Caesar's operations in Gaul--show clearly the contours of operational strategy. In pursuit of a theater objective (conquering or re-conquering a province), the Roman army--including the main legionary force, auxiliaries, scouts, and spies--found, fixed, and finished the enemy in a highly efficient way. The battles--Zama, Pharsalus, Alesia, Teutoburg Forest--normally were the decisive moment in the campaign.
How well the Roman infantryman fought, or the deficiencies of Roman cavalry, are important tactical questions. Here's another one: as one contemporary observer noted, the Romans trained with the ferocity and seriousness of actual combat, so that combat seemed as easy as training. This tactical superiority certainly made spectacular Roman victories possible, even when their opponents vastly outnumbered them. But the tactical and operational levels are obviously two different (if interdependent) things.
I had another reason for bringing up the Roman example. I used a modern phrase--find, fix, and finish--to describe a classic operational approach. Cornering the enemy, fighting at the time and place of your choosing, and ruthlessly pursuing the remains of the enemy army--these steps seem like simple common sense, an energetic and rigorous approach to fighing a war.
Finding, fixing, and finishing Iraqi insurgents, as I said in my last post on operational strategy, appears to be the primary concern of US troops in Iraq today. American forces, like the Roman legions, are extremely efficient at the tactical level. Unfortunately, the situation is a bit more complicated than the find, fix, finish formula:
- The Romans had to apply this formula once when fighting the Gauls. US troops have to find, fix, and finish the enemy every single day in Iraq.
- Unleashing the full efficiency of the US military will increase casualties among innocent bystanders, level homes, and damage not only mosques, but sacred sites like the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.
- We're not always sure we're shooting at the right people. Sometimes, barbarians would engage in hit and run attacks on the Roman legions, then melt back into the population. Normally, however, the Roman army had few problems identifying the enemies, or anticipating when they would attack.
- Find, fix, and finish is only one "vertical" dimension of counterinsurgency strategy. "Horizontally," the United States needs to be doing a lot more than military sweeps to ensure a stable, friendly Iraqi regime will someday govern from Baghdad. Once the warriors of a Gallic tribe were defated on the battlefield, the Romans had the region under control for the time being. In Iraq, the situation is not nearly as easy as that.