Campaigning to Victory: The End of An Era? A bit on the “theory” of campaigns

Throughout history there has been a focus on various campaigns, battles and wars. Each of these has their definition and place within military history. A campaign is a long term, large scale military operation that incorporates multiple battles and is usually a part of a larger scale conflict (a war). Campaigns have an end goal, a larger objective to show that victory in the geographic area was achieved. Sometimes this meant sacking a city or a group of cities (the Mongols did campaigning and pillaging the best, if you ask me). Other times this meant extracting resources, or conducting punitive measures.

What separates a campaign from an operation or a battle? A battle is the simple meetup of two opposing forces that fight. An operation is a pre-planned military activity, like the takeover of a hilltop, or even the invasion of a country. A Campaign, for the purposes of this article (and I would argue, some precedence in history) is the combined effort of ALL military activity in a given geographic sector to achieve victory or a certain objective. A campaign has a set of “victory conditions” that is not rooted in simple battlefield dominance the way an operation is. A campaign has high level, strategic implications and directions, and an operation or a tactical maneuver is simply concerned with winning the immediate victory (something that is also vitally important).

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There is a huge difference between “trying not to lose” and “fighting to win at all costs”

With the exception of the Falklands War, World War II seems to be the last time in recent military history that Armies and belligerents have campaigned their way to victory. It was attempted, on both sides, during the Korean War, but after that, campaigns seem to have fallen out of vogue. There was the Normandy Campaign, the Stalingrad Campaign, and many others. However, there was no Kabul Campaign, or Baghdad Campaign. Just operations to secure the geographic area, it seems (I am purposely keeping this vague because folks will want to debate semantics on whether they “campaigned” to Baghdad or “invaded” or conducted an “operation”). Coincidentally, World War II seems to be the last major war convincingly won by any Western Power.

Campaigns are essential in a war because it allows high level commanders to identify key objectives (“secure this city and eliminate their ability to manufacture ammunition”) and distill information down to subordinate commanders and units (“cordon off city blocks a-d and conduct house to house searches in order to ensure there is no stockpiles of ammunition or explosives”). It also gives commanders the ability to identify where they are currently, and where they need to be in order to declare victory.

The current state of the military seems to prioritize tactical level security and strategic level victories. We can declare a “victory” because Afghan citizens voted in an election, and this was accomplished because at the local, tactical level, security was provided. But the missing piece everyone forgets: if the Afghans are simply participating in a weak, ineffective system, is this really a victory? A successful commander may identify weak areas and mount a campaign to rectify the issue.

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