Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Apr 27, 2010 in War College

Dr. Seuss and the Operational Art of War

By Chris Heatherly

"So you see! There’s no end to the thing you might know, depending how far beyond Zebra you go." – Dr. Seuss, On Beyond Zebra.

It may seem unusual to begin an article on military theory with a quote from an author normally associated with children’s books. Dr. Seuss, however, was a genius whose wisdom extends beyond that of life’s early lessons, and whose thoughts have application far beyond the kindergarten classroom. The above quote, from the classic On Beyond Zebra, explains the need to look beyond the present familiar and search for the future unknown.

Military experts, enamored of quick solutions and easy formulas for success, would do well to heed Dr. Seuss’ words. It is imperative that professional malaise and ignorance of potential threats not stagnate critical thinking among military leaders. Consider the historical precedent set by the devastation unleashed by Coalition Forces upon the Iraqi Army during Desert Storm in 1991. That war witnessed two events-the apex of the AirLand Battle concept and the false conclusion that future US opponents would directly confront American forces in conventional battle. As a result of that conclusion, the United States military was unprepared for 21st century asymmetric warfare in a COIN (counterinsurgency) environment.


It has become cliché to state that 9/11 changed the world in general and the military in particular. The subsequent transformation of the US armed forces from a Cold War force into a lean, rapidly deployable organization is but one effect of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. A second-and far more dangerous-result is the belief that operational art reached its zenith in COIN operations. Advocates of this view support the conviction that no current or future opponent will chose to fight the American military face to face, and instead will opt for insurgency-based warfare. Accordingly, there is no longer a requirement for the American military to maintain the hallmarks of a conventional force such as main battle tanks, strategic bombers, or nuclear weapons delivery systems. Instead, the COIN believers argue for a force structure based upon wheeled Stryker vehicles, light infantry and Special Forces units. This view, that COIN is the ultimate definition of operational art, could not be more mistaken-or more dangerous to the United States.

After nine years of COIN warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Unit training and mission readiness exercises focus on COIN, almost to the total exclusion of conventional operational art. As a result, the military has an entire generation of officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers who are unfamiliar with the unique skill sets associated with high intensity conflict (HIC). They have never performed a battalion or brigade level fire mission. They have never attempted a breaching operation against an entrenched enemy. They have never maneuvered as a division or corps sized formation. More importantly, they have never executed AirLand Battle. The failure to look beyond zebra has struck the United States military again. The armed forces are trained and ready to conduct COIN but are ill prepared for general war.

COIN believers argue this approach makes sense given the very real threat posed by insurgent movements and the ratio of COIN to HIC conflicts fought by the United States since 1776. Under that narrow lens, they would be correct. A less myopic view illustrates the difference between the threat of Islamic terrorism and the existential danger posed by conventional warfare waged through operational art. Only a very naïve person would conclude other nation states, such as China or India, do not pose a danger to the United States. Light infantry and wheeled armored personnel carriers (APCs) may be part of the force that fights in the next general war, but they will not dominate the battlefield. Today’s junior officers have a wealth of experience at conducting small raids and creating local government, but they cannot sequence operations across a conventional corps battlespace. Simply stated, they are unprepared for conventional war.

History is replete with examples of militaries that failed to look beyond zebra. During the American War of Independence, the British were unable to adapt to the guerilla tactics of Nathanael Greene in the southern colonies. General Charles Cornwallis, the senior British commander, failed to recognize the unique character of the war and the impact of his operations on the populace at large. Cornwallis had a number of options available to confront Greene, but was unable to make changes within his own operational art (John Dederer, Making Bricks Without Straw: Nathanael Green’s Southern Campaigns and Mao Tse-Tung’s Mobile War, Journal of the West, 1983).

In the 20th century, France’s horrific experience with trench warfare during WWI led to a defensive mindset, the creation of the Maginot Line, and a loss to the maneuver-oriented German Wehrmacht. To quote author Len Deighton, "the Maginot Line was a formidable barrier not so much against the German Army as against French understanding of modern war" (Blitzkrieg, Castle Books, 2000).

Will the United States make the same mistake with COIN? American military leaders must understand that operational art will never reach an endstate. War is a living organism that evolves over time. The United States Armed Forces are in grave danger of forgetting their primary mission-to defend the nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic, be they insurgents, terrorists, or even regular armed forces. COIN doctrine must not become the American Maginot Line. America must look beyond zebra and stand ready for the next war.

About the author:
Major Chris Heatherly is an active duty U.S. Army military intelligence officer with deployments to Iraq, Kuwait, Mali and Nigeria. He is currently assigned to the School of Advanced Military Studies in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.

For further reading he suggests "The Loose Marble and the Origins of Operational Art," by James Schneider, Parameters (March 1989); "In the Words of Alfred Adler;"  and, of course, On Beyond Zebra, by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1955). 


  1. Exellent article. An exclusive focus on COIN would create the very conditions under which an opportunistic enemy would be able to conduct a HIC against us.

  2. What about, “Dr. Seuss Goes to War” (The New Press, 2001) for further reading?
    Dr. Seuss’s editorial cartoons from WWII were used to keep up morale on the homefront, which seems a forgotten area these days.
    Yes, they were rather prejudicial, but so was the enemies America faced then as well as now.

  3. The subsequent transformation of the US armed forces from a Cold War force into a lean, rapidly deployable organization is but one effect of the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.
    Are you under the impression that this transformation has actually occurred? If so, you are sadly misinformed. The purchase of light armored vehicles and “COIN” training does not, in itself, transform a behemoth like the U.S. military into a “lean, rapidly deployable” force. All we’ve done is buy some new toys for the same old military-industrial complex.

  4. Reynardine,

    Thank you for your comment. I stand by my article and base my views on research and having served on active duty for the past 16 years. The Army has definately transformed from a high intensity conflict (HIC) driven force into a COIN formation. Consider how many air defense units, artillery units and armor units are simply gone and replaced by strykers, light infantry, military police and civil affairs units. Additionally, consider the skill sets required for HIC and how rarely, if at all, they are exercised into today’s COIN centric training.

  5. I wouldn’t quite say that the Military as a whole has forgotten this, In my Battalion we still Drill in battle drills that cover tactics used in a linear war.
    I will say that its been a hard concept for me to understand and ive been researching and learning both models for several years now and the thing that made my mind click in understanding the current U.S. Doctrine is after my units Dining out formal our quest speaker touched on this same topic. Are we forgetting how to dominate linear field for COIN? In around about way he explained that we could very well forget how to fight in a HIC

    His answer was Adaptive leadership. The Major explained that Leadership at all levels must operate in an environment that changes from the classic linear firefight to dealing with village elders. Knowing when and how to blend into each situation on the battlefield will be key and is something that Leaders must take up learning on their own. understanding details and seeing past those to understand how to think ahead. Knowing that local actions can effect a global view of situations on the ground and then transitioning into a firefight takes the ability to understand both doctrine and adaptive leadership to transition fluidly between the two.

    The Major was attending GCSC in addition, one of my mentors is currently an instructional designer at GCSC and develops the course material based of doctrine. Both have told me the Army is realizing the importance of knowing both. If anything they wont adapt fully to COIN before they would give up on maneuver warfare

  6. The Army seems to be constantly reinventing itself. When I went through CGSC in the 80s it was Team Yankee, heavy units fighting, and eventually, defeating Warsaw Pact heavy units. By the first Gulf War the Army changed itself again with LIDs (Light Infantry Divisions), However, they did not last long ad we went back to the expensive toys (Bradleys and M1s). This change, again, to the less glamerous Strykers and light forces will not last long.

    The current emphasis, however, seems to me to be an emulation of USMC TOE and tactics as emphasised in the Small Wars Manual. Light, mobile forces with a thick dose of pacification. However, while the Marines can dedicate themselves to this mission, for the Army to do so could be catastrophic if war were to break out, as the article mentions, with an opponent whose heavy units would simply drive over our light forces. Remember how long it took to get enough heavy forces in place in both Gulf Wars. We should not count on having the gift of that time again!

  7. Major, you and I share the same name. We should connect someday.

    Best, Chris Heatherly

  8. Thanks for the article. I learned something new because of this!

    Thousands of thanks dude/dudes!


  1. Dr Seuss Quotes Videos | Broadcasting News - [...] Dr. Seuss and the Operational Art of War » Armchair GeneralDr. Seuss, however, was a genius whose wisdom extends…