10 October 2014

Winning the Moral Level of War: A Recommendation for the Army’s Operating Concept

October 6, 2014

Winning the Moral Level of War: A Recommendation for the Army’s Operating Concept

John Oliver Jr.

Unified Land Operations are not only fought at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war, they are also fought, according to Air Force Col John Boyd’s theories, on the physical, mental, and moral levels. While the physical (represented by the tenets of simultaneity, depth, endurance, mobility, lethality) and mental (initiative, innovation, adaptability) levels have been well discussed in our operating concept, we must also fight and win on the moral level of war to be successful and to live up to our oaths to the Constitution. In fact, according to Boyd’s theories, the moral level of war is superior to the mental and physical levels. Failing to achieve moral victory may result in strategic defeat even if our Army is victorious in all of our tactical, physical battles.

In order to win on the moral level of war, we must ensure our operations are designed and planned not only to achieve physical and mental victory over our adversary, but also to be representative of our Army Values. Values are not only something we are – they are something we must do, especially in combat. While we may judge ourselves on our intent, others can only judge us on our actions – that’s all they can see. The means we use to achieve victory are just as important, perhaps more important, than victory itself. A victory achieved through immoral or amoral means may become meaningless, and it may cost us the faith and trust of the American people.

To use just and virtuous means to achieve victory in unified land operations, we must plan and conduct those operations in line with our values: 

[i]Loyalty: “Bear true faith and allegiance to the U.S. Constitution, the Army, your unit and other Soldiers.” Cohesion and leadership are forms of combat power. Task organizations must be designed to maximize command and control relationships between units who have trained and prepared together and who have established relationships. Pickup teams are dangerous in combat. Soldiers on the battlefield fight for each other. This fact is important for unit cohesion, but leaders must understand and always enforce that that our first loyalty is to the Constitution and that all operations must reflect that first loyalty.

Duty: “Fulfill your obligations.” The laws of land warfare and Geneva Conventions represent the minimum legal obligations we must fulfill in combat. Article VI of the Constitution requires that we treat these treaties as “the supreme Law of the Land” just as the Constitution itself.

Respect: “Treat people as they should be treated.” Operations must be designed to respect our Soldiers by providing them clear task and purpose and the resources to achieve it. Operations must be planned to respect indigenous populations by minimizing destruction and civilian casualties. Our operations must even respect the enemy by observing the laws of land warfare as we capture or kill him.

Selfless Service: “Put the welfare of the nation, the Army and your subordinates before your own.” Shortcuts to intelligence gathering, detainee operations, urban operations or other difficult tactical and operational questions may lead to short term successes, but can be disastrous to our strategic long term victory. We must choose the harder right in our operations, even at the expense of ourselves. 

Honor: “Live up to Army values.” The Army Values are not simply personal rules to live by. They are the values of our entire Army and must be embodied in every action and every operation that we conduct.

Integrity: “Do what’s right, legally and morally.” Truth and honesty must be hallmarks of Army operations. Even as we deceive our enemy in combat, we must ensure truthfulness to the American people and our civilian leadership.

Personal Courage: “Face fear, danger or adversity (physical or moral).” Most leaders do not fear our own death or injury, instead we may fear failure and the death or injury of our Soldiers. While we are committed to victory, we can never lack the personal courage to refuse to use immoral or illegal means to achieve that victory.

Our operating concept recognizes that warfare is a violent contest of wills. In such deadly contests with such high stakes, the temptation to use any means for victory will be ever present. As American Soldiers, we must possess the courage to win in a complex world with honor.

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