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The "Art" vs. the "Science" of War

Over at WriteToDone last week, Eric C argued that before you can break the rules, you have to know the rules. Thelonious Monk knew how to play harmonious music, he choose not to. Pablo Picasso knew hot to paint photo-realistically, he choose not to.  James Joyce certainly knew how to use quotation marks, he chose not to.

The last Executive Officer I worked for coined the phrase, “doctrine is not dogma.” Because he was a SAMS (School of Advanced Military Studies, the Army's premier planning course) graduate, he knew Army doctrine. He knew the rules so, like any artist, he knew when he could break them.

I loved this. Returning to the home of Army doctrine--US Army Training and Doctrine Command, the parent organization of the Military Intelligence Career Course--shocked me after my time on staff at the ROCK. Too many Commissioned Officers, NCOs, Warrant Officers, and contractors forget that guidelines are not rules, that doctrine is not dogma, and that the science of war cannot replace the art of war.

Of the above problems, the worst mistake is turning guidelines into rules. In other words, the Army creates well meaning guidelines to help plan and conduct operations, but over time those guidelines become rules. Rules become constraints. Fight under too many constraints, and you will lose.

Here is an example: a Cold Warrior (Cold Warrior means those officers who trained heavily under Cold War force-on-force, US-vs-Russia doctrine) recently told me that you always use your weapons at their maximum effective range. In practice, this means if you are occupying a battle position, you should have a couple hundred meters in front of your position. This is a good guideline. Who doesn't want a few more shots at the enemy that an extra couple hundred meters provide? As a rule, though, it stinks. Ambushes rarely use weapons at their full maximum effective range, but they are devastatingly effective. Machine guns work as well at close range as at long ranges.

As a guideline, the rule above is great. As a rule, it is limiting. Through repeated planning exercises, yearly training rotations and the re-use of old products, guidelines became rules. Because of tradition or lack of creativity, rules became dogma.

Definitions. A guideline is a good rule of thumb. It is something you should follow most of the time, but doesn’t apply in every situation. A rule is something that if you violate it, the results will usually portend disaster. The distinction is subtle, but huge.

The great commanders of history all had exceptional knowledge of the art of warfare, the science of warfare, doctrine, and military history. Based on this knowledge, they knew all the guidelines, and used that to their advantage. Think about General Patton. He understood his enemy and his doctrine. When he faced Rommel he threw that doctrine right back in his face. Is the US Army today more like General Patton or General Rommel? If we obey doctrine to the letter, will the enemy use this to his advantage?

As we slowly transition to a post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan world, the guidelines-turned-rules will return from their ten year hibernation. We must relegate them back to their status as guidelines; good advice but not absolute laws. This post, I acknowledge, is vague on details. Over the next few weeks, I am going to debunk a few of these guidelines that have become rules.

nine comments

I never would have expected this classic writing/art rule to apply to war, guess I never thought about it.

Expect more on this, as we said, but not a “series” per se, we tend not to do well with those.


TRADOC sucks, they´re more about molding soldiers into what the Army wants soldiers to be than about actually setting the pace for Army doctrine, but TRADOC is largely responsible for institutionalizing the structural / cultural problems you mentioned within the Army in your last post.

If its best to start engaging your enemy at the maximum effective range, then why is the Army issuing carbines as the standard weapon for most combat units? For urban combat and inside vehicles a carbine makes much more sense. I think this has a lot to do with the Army becoming comfortable and used to a Standard Operating Procedure, and rarely if ever reevaluating it to critique its effectiveness.


@ Chris C – I love your bluntness.

Anyways, On Friday I’m reviewing Generation Kill, as per your recommendation.


Yes I will agree with you Chris C that TRADOC is part of the problem. Or almost the entire problem. But so is the regular army. The best word for it is groupthink.


Michael C,

Great post. You are so right, guidelines guidelines guidelines. The best thing young PVT Williams was ever taught was that the Infantry Bible, FM 7-8 was a guideline. I was taught to know how to execute the battle drills found in the back of the book by muscle memory. However, I was also taught how to think outside the box and use the lessons and basics of those drills to adapt, fight and win in any situation. That is perhaps the most important thing you can teach any young soldier, how to be flexible and adapt to any situation.

And therein lies the problem with the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command. Now there are something like 30 different Warrior Battle Drills and Tasks that everyone is expected to know. But guess what experienced professional Non-Comms are teaching their soldiers? Those good ‘ol FM 7-8 Battle Drills. Now, instead of React to Contact and React to Ambush (Near and Far) we have React to Contact(mounted) React to Contact (dismounted) React to Ambush (Mounted and dismounted) React to IED React to Contact in a MOUT environment. I meant, come on!?

How can we expect Soldiers to learn all of these different drills to the point where they become reactionary instead of the few basic ones that can be adapted to any situation they might find themselves in?

That brings me to Army Suicide Prevention training. Suicide rates are at an all time high in the Army. How does it make sense to force ALL soldiers to sit through a couple of extra hours of PowerPoint slides and cheesy videos to prevent more suicides? The common Soldier would actually WANT to kill themselves after all that.

Instead, Senior NCOs and Senior Officers need to get better at DEVELOPING Junior NCOs and Junior Officers at being caring compassionate leaders while still maintaining tough and exacting standards.

So I guess the bottom line here is that our Army is getting away from the Bottom Up approach to developing training that had made it the best Army in the world. Generals shouldn’t be telling us what to and not to train on. Sergeants and Lieutenants should be training their Soldiers based on their knowledge and experience without straying too far away from basic small unit tactics and doctrine.

Sorry, a little random. But I hate how policy changes in the US Army since 2003 are just CYA type functions. Knee-jerk reactions to shitty things that are happening instead of looking at the root of everything. From suicide prevention, to changing our basic tactics so they resemble TTPs for our CURRENT wars instead of our current wars+future wars we may or may not be in.


The term SOP (Standard operating procedure) is slightly annoying to me because it assumes that most combat situations will be fairly similar. We have SOP for the EMS field for how to run an emergency call based upon the information known prior to arrival. But not every call is the same and those very same rules that are designed to help on scene can come to inhibit your ability to transport a patient quickly. That’s why I like you focus on terms Michael, because having a guideline is not the same as an SOP. An SOP can lead to legal issues even when followed exactly, but a guideline is a recommendation and not a standing order.


I really enjoyed this discussion, both the post and the comments… but rather than going on an on about some of the points like “suicide” and “not looking at the root of things”… I think I might send you something per E-mail, Eric.

You guys mentioned the desert fox in your post. I think it’s rather interesting what kind of a person he was and how he once in a while had the guts to do what he knew was right.
On the other hand it’s so clear how it brought him down, that on the whole he just wasn’t quick enough to realize what was going on and that he had ended up on the wrong side, because he was so bloody naive and stupid!


One of the points we need to highlight is that our grasp of doctrine as guideline is based in how we teach that guideline. I’d assert that that the more depth we teach of why the doctrine says what it says and how it was intended to interact with reality (environment, threat, etc.) then produces a richer understanding of the doctrine and almost naturally leads to better judgement in application. The flip side to doctrine as dogma is the mentaility to “throw away the book” or “think outside the box”—all without first really knowing why the book says what it does, what experiences or theories underwrite the “books,” or whether “thinking in the box” might really work if applied as intended. This is where education and critical thinking are fundamental to subsequent training. Semper Fi


@Phil- excellent point, I completely agree.