Do Battle Lines Still Exist

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It is common in today’s wars to claim there are no battle lines, but this is only because we do not create or at the very least do not want to recognize them as such because the enemy creates them. The creation of battle lines is the intentional act of an army and is, in fact, one of its great powers. In recent years modern armies have seized territory pushing the enemy out and behind the borders of that territory. Only to then stop pursuing them and begin administering the territory they seized.

 It follows then that while the army is thus occupied and unwilling to cross the existing territorial borders in pursuit of the enemy’s final destruction. It becomes an easy thing for that enemy to build a center of gravity, and from the safety of this position across the border (A battle line they created) continue the war in every facet with almost no serious risk to their operations. We’ve seen this time and time again especially in modern warfare. Just in the last century, we’ve seen it in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Columbia, and other places as well.

In these situations. It is relatively easy for an enemy under little or no pressure to recruit train and send small parties across the border to wreak havoc in the seized territory. It’s a very old tactic repeated through history as far back as Sun-Tzu and probably farther. In response to this tactic, the modern army’s response has generally been a desperate attempt to stop the enemy by being everywhere all the time and controlling the seized territory by breaking their army into smaller regional command units acting individually to accomplish this task.

Since the chief power of an army lies in its ability to create and direct a concentration of force. This division of its component parts is folly of the highest order, and the power of an army to create battle lines exists for this very purpose. That is to counter the kind of insurgent strategy in which the enemy operates throughout your territory on their own initiative.

Therefore you must use the power of your army in attacking the enemy to create battle lines, trap them, and then advance these lines until they are completely destroyed. A perfect deployment of this power can be found in the Union army commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant during the American civil war.

Grants armies fought against both conventional army units and unconventional insurgent forces simultaneously, and his enemy’s objective then was the same as our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan. He explained the goal of rebel strategy in his memoir saying their objective was to “protract the war, which was all that was necessary to enable them to gain recognition in the end.

At the time General Grant took command of the army it was organized into regional commands similar to that found in current Afghan operations and elsewhere. Each command having the same goal but acting autonomously within their region, this state of organization, however, would not be able to create and direct the force required to win so he moved to unify the commands into a single cohesive line which could both trap and destroy the enemy:

There were thus seventeen distinct commanders. Before this time; these various armies had acted separately and independently of each other, giving the enemy an opportunity often of depleting one command, not pressed, to reinforce another more actively engaged. I determined to stop this. To this end I regarded the Army of the Potomac as the centre, and all west to Memphis along the line described as our position at the time, and north of it, the right wing; the Army of the James, under General Butler, as the left wing, and all the troops south, as a force in rear of the enemy. Some of these latter were occupying positions from which they could not render service proportionate to their numerical strength. All such were depleted to the minimum necessary to hold their positions as a guard against blockade runners. Where they could not do this, their positions were abandoned altogether.

Now we know this concentration of force was Grant's objective because he clearly states it several times for example here he states “My general plan now was to concentrate all the force possible against the Confederate armies in the field,” and we know that it was his intention to use this concentrated force to create his envisioned battle lines because again he very clearly states it “Accordingly I arranged for a simultaneous movement all along the line

We also know that if someone were to propose such a strategy in our current wars, it would be met with resistance, particularly from politicians. However, this is also nothing new in the playbook of war. Grant himself faced such resistance, and he tells us how he explained the action to the president.

On this same visit to Washington, I had my last interview with the President before reaching the James River. He had, of course, become acquainted with the fact that a general movement had been ordered all along the line and seemed to think it a new feature in war. I explained to him that it was necessary to have a great number of troops to guard and hold the territory we had captured and to prevent incursions into the Northern States. These troops could perform this service just as well by advancing as by remaining still, and by advancing, they would compel the enemy to keep detachments to hold them back, or else lay his own territory open to invasion.

Once Grant deployed his strategy, the stalemate of war that existed between the Union forces and the southern rebels quickly disappeared. As the Union armies advanced, attacking the enemy and depriving them of resources, the battle lines he created closed in around them until the southern resistance was quite simply incapable of continuing the war. In the end, it was Grant's understanding of how to deploy the power of an army through the creation of battle lines that won a decisive victory and ensured the future of a nation. Perhaps its time for us to learn from his wisdom and do the same.

Daniel Covany is a former instructor at the Turkish Military Academy Kara Harp Okul or Land warfare school. 

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