The biggest challenge for American officers today, says the author, is to understand the nature of the war upon which they are embarked. He doubts they will find the answer in a list of principles of war.
Principles of war are an organizational necessity. They are also an evil—an overly rigid acceptance of these so-called principles can result in sterile, fetishized thinking. We need military officers who think innovatively, however, and so we attempt the impossible: instilling rules about creativity by creating dogmas about how to produce innovation. In short, the principles of war are a necessary evil. Since they are necessary, we need to think about how to minimize the evil that they do.
Attempts to discover the principles of war are doomed to failure. There are no principles of war out there waiting to be discovered. Principles of war are rules of thumb that we invent. We do not discover them because they do not exist in reality, waiting to be unearthed. They are nothing but concepts and rules we have invented. They have no independent reality. We cannot say that they are true or false, only that they can be more or less useful as a guide to action in certain situations. At their most useful they are a mental checklist of considerations to bear in mind when initiating military operations.
As a mental checklist, the idea of principles of war has some merit as a form of doctrine, because they state a general consensus concerning the main things to be considered when engaging in war. As a pragmatic rule of thumb, or list of things to consider, principles of war are a useful way of making sure that we organize our thinking rigorously.
They are also a higher, more abstract form of military doctrine, which is nothing more or less than the distillation of informed common sense. We know that while it is generally a useful guide to action, there are inevitably circumstances when current doctrine will not serve well. No doctrine can foresee all contingencies. War is complex and not entirely predictable. There will be times when it is appropriate to throw doctrine to the winds. But the majority of officers, in the majority of circumstances, are best off following the prescriptions of doctrine—the distilled lessons learned by previous generations. The same holds for the principles of war. They cannot be universally valid principles. There are no such things. At most the principles can suggest the important things to bear in mind when thinking about war. Principles are like folk sayings. It is always possible to find contradictory ones. The adage, "look before you leap" has its counterpart in the suggestion that "a stitch in time saves nine." There is a reason for this. Human action generally involves choice. As engineers say, you can do something quickly, cheaply, or well, and you can maximize on only two of these dimensions in any particular case. There can never be a universal rule of conduct that is invariably true. Human action involves choice under conditions of uncertainty. Guides to conduct—like principles of war—must therefore be hedged about with implicit qualifications. Indeed, the great captains are celebrated because they throw away the rulebooks.
But what about the rest of us mere mortals? We cannot all aspire to be geniuses, and we need rules to guide our actions.
Some lists of principles will be more useful than others, and so a debate about which principles of war are the best guide for the 21st century is a great idea. But there is a danger.
The danger is that the principles are made into an absolute. This can happen in two ways. On the one hand, the less intellectually curious members of the military profession have a tendency to seek rigid, hard-and-fast rules that they can apply to all circumstances. At the extreme, the rules and principles substitute for thought. This sometimes takes the form of a tyranny of common sense. Often, efforts to instill doctrine in the minds of military officers are too successful: Officers come to believe that their newly acquired common sense will be a sufficient guide to action. In most instances it will be, but when novel situations emerge, as they surely will, relying on common sense will not work.
The other way that principles become endowed with magical powers is through the search for an essence of war or, in a less sweeping formulation, the essence of modern war. Much debate about whether or not there has been a revolution in military affairs takes this form. Has modern war really changed its fundamental nature? The temptation to seek the underlying essential nature of things is universal. It is also philosophically unsound.
Thanks to work by a number of social scientists and historians, we are now familiar with the dangers of analogical reasoning. We understand that when decision-makers debate whether or not to go to war they draw on stylized notions of what happened in the past, often use only a few of these comparisons, and seldom consider the limitations of the analogies they employ. What we understand less well is how the fundamental concepts we use to think about military operations—notions of centers of gravity, will, the enemy as a system, OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loops, complex adaptive systems, and so on—are all inherently problematic. We cannot do without such metaphors, but we must appreciate their limitations and dangers. Elaborating a new set of principles of war promises simply to re-create this essentialist problem.
The American military has an ambivalent, troubled, and deeply mystified relationship with the thought of Carl von Clausewitz. On the one hand, lip-service and reverence is paid, more-or-less universally, to Clausewitz. On the other hand, much of this is purely ritualistic and in practice many military officers are Jominian (after Antoine Henri Jomini) and Moltkean (after Helmuth von Moltke, the elder), rather than Clausewitzian, in their thinking. Moreover, Clausewitz, even when interpreted properly, is an uncertain guide to the understanding of war.
Clausewitz's On War, excellent and thought provoking though it is, contains formulations with which it is difficult to agree. The most important of these is Clausewitz's misguided efforts to uncover the essential nature of war. Deeply influenced by Hegelian philosophy, a notion embedded in the pages of On War is that there is an essence of war, a grammar that can be discovered. This essentialist notion is most visible in Clausewitz's distinction between real war and absolute or ideal war. The latter is a Hegelian construct; it is the state to which war inherently tends.
Clausewitz's essentialism is also apparent in many of his metaphors. The notion that the adversary has a center of gravity, an inherently vague term, is but one example of a questionable analogy. His muddled discussion of what should be the appropriate target of an army—the enemy's army, capital city, territory, will, or economy—are the result of a slippage from the notion that war is an extension of politics by other means, which implies that targets and centers of gravity must be defined politically and sociologically, into a Hegelian notion that the essence of war is to become absolute.
That adversaries have centers of gravity, and that the purpose of military strategy is to operate against such centers of gravity, is the kind of principle of war that needs careful reappraisal. As a rule of thumb, it has its merits. But center of gravity is a metaphor, and not all adversaries have a single point at which they are most vulnerable. Moreover, it is an internally inconsistent metaphor. In judo, one does not aim at an opponent's center of gravity. Instead, a judo fighter pivots his opponent around the opponent's center of gravity by applying pressure at an extremity. Stating that an adversary's center of gravity is his army or his will tells us nothing, if we take the metaphor seriously, about where we ought to apply pressure. It is hardly surprising that so much ink has been spilt to so little avail when the metaphor itself is so unhelpful.
Clausewitz was fond of metaphors. Writing in an atmosphere engendered by Newton and linear mechanics, his work is filled with terms like friction, center of gravity, and mass. In a rather different metaphor in a passage toward the end of On War, he likened war to a language by saying that it had its own grammar, though not its own logic (which was political).1 Ultimately, essentialism on Clausewitz's part has produced a number of metaphors and images that continue to create confusion among modern military planners, leading to sterile and theological debates about the true nature of an opponent's center of gravity, how to break his will, etc.
In On War, Clausewitz sought to distinguish the eternal verities—the principles of war—from the circumstantial and superficial manifestations of particular wars, which changed from one epoch to another. This distinction between essence and appearance is also one that appeals to common sense ways of thinking. If we can discern the essence of a phenomenon, in this case war, then we can bring order to an otherwise confusing variety of human activity.
He was not alone in this search for the essence of war. Antoine Henri Jomini and numerous other military theorists have sought to discover the fundamental nature and principles of war. Jomini's method differed considerably from that of Clausewitz in that he employed a positivistic approach, rather than the Hegelian idealism that underlies much of Clausewitz's thinking. They do, however, agree on one thing: War has an inner essence that is invariant across time and space. And there's the rub: that misguided search for the essence of the phenomenon. It is a philosophical error to believe that there is some deep essence of war that is fixed and underlies all the historical variation in war. There are no essences in nature, much less in human behavior.
Again, metaphors can be helpful, and they can be misleading. The metaphor of war as language takes us down an interesting road, one that does not necessarily lead to obvious conclusions. The point about language is that there are always several, and they have different grammars. If we continue with Clausewitz's analogical statement that war has its own grammar, distinct from that of politics, the conclusion surely is not that there is a single "grammar of war," but several. Each culture establishes its own rules and understandings for the conduct of war, its own language and grammar of war. There is no single set of principles of war; rather, there are as many sets of principles as there are languages of war.
When we consider war between culturally similar societies, then it might make sense to talk of a single grammar of war. We can then confidently talk about the principles of war and new rules. We can do this because the actions of the contending parties are reasonably predictable. Although military commanders will attempt to surprise the enemy, they will do so within culturally intelligible parameters. When culturally dissimilar societies enter into conflict, however, the likelihood of misunderstanding and misperception increases greatly. Almost by definition, we do not fully understand the adversary's way of thinking, and this puts us at a disadvantage. This is what asymmetry is really about: the potential for strategic surprise because the adversary culture is different.
Having said this, it is important not to overemphasize the concept of culture. Some decades ago it was all the rage to talk about national cultures and to explain behavior by reference to deep and unchanging cultural values. Nowadays anthropologists are hesitant to talk in such terms. The Department of Defense has not yet caught up with the shift in thinking by professional anthropologists. The irony is that just as DoD is coming around to talking about the importance of culture, social scientists are backing away from the concept of national culture.
Today, social scientists think of culture with the metaphor of a toolbox. The toolbox contains the ideas and images people need to solve their problems and orient their action. They select from the toolbox the tools they think appropriate. Not everyone will select the same tools. Moreover, societies will differ in what tools they have in the toolbox. Some toolboxes will be full; others will have only a few options. A carpenter's toolbox will be different from a plumber's. Culture does not determine action; it constrains it. We are familiar with the saying that "For the person who has only a hammer, all problems look like nails." This is the right way to think about culture.
By extension, people will often find themselves without the right tools for the job, or will argue with each other about what tools are appropriate. They will often have at their disposal different sets of tools which allow them to do the job in quite different ways. So it is with culture: The culture of a society or an organization does not determine what those people will think and do; it offers them a menu of ways of thinking about problems. Like all menus, it offers both choice and constraint. What we need to remember is that the menus they have will be different from those that we peruse.
We should ask less about what the principles of war and the rules are, and ask instead "Who sets the rules?" Since war is a contest of wills, no one entirely sets the rules. They emerge as part of a process of struggle, and there will always be disagreement over what the rules actually are. While the dominant party may have disproportionate influence in setting the rules, it will not be able to do so entirely to its satisfaction. To return to the language metaphor, when people speaking different languages come together, they can communicate in many different ways. Sometimes there will be a dominant language, but not invariably. And so with war. Our expectations about the dynamics of war, its rules and principles, will be upset if an adversary can impose his definition of the situation on us. We must then acknowledge that our rules and principles of war were nothing more than our own limited understanding of what can happen when human societies clash.
There is one candidate for the status of principle of war that stands out above all others: War is an inherently political act. Throughout On War, Clausewitz is at pains to stress that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." War, in this sense, is both purposive and rational. War is not divorced from politics, as von Moltke claimed. It is simply not true that when war starts, politics stops. The belief that politicians should leave military professionals to conduct war as they choose, in the light of their supposed technical competence, is not merely politically unsound; it is empirically unsustainable and logically defective.
American society is congenitally anti-Clausewitzian in its understanding of war. This is true both of professional military officers and of civilian political leaders. The notion that war is an instrument of politics is a hard sell. War is generally seen either as a crusade on behalf of some ideal, or as an act of self-defense. Americans are deeply reluctant to think of war as simply another instrument of politics. In thinking this way they are anti-Clausewitzian. For Clausewitz, by contrast, because war is an extension of politics, the principles of war are fundamentally principles of politics. This means that war is not only about overturning states but also about rebuilding states. Americans, by contrast, tend to view war and state-building as two quite distinct activities. Many of our troubles stem from this false distinction.
The statement that war is the continuation of politics has a corollary: the need to understand the nature of the adversary and the nature of the war upon which one is embarked. In Clausewitz' words, "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking."2 Sun Tzu put it more pithily: "Know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered."3 To understand the kind of war on which they are embarking, both political and military leaders need a deep understanding of their own aims and limitations and of what the enemy seeks. This is something much broader than military intelligence; it requires that senior military leaders possess a sophisticated sociological and anthropological understanding of what they are trying to achieve.
It involves understanding one's own limitations, both political and intellectual, as well as the goals and limitations of the adversary. It is here that one comes up against the limitation of Clausewitz's dictum that war is an extension of politics. This notion turns out to have only limited validity. Not all wars are rationally conducted enterprises aimed at realizable goals. Sometimes there is a large non-rational element in the decision to wage war or to pursue particular military operations. Moreover, the state is seldom a unitary, much less a rational, actor, and the purposes of component organizations, publics, and groups will influence the final outcome of policy. Graham Allison and a generation of political scientists have demonstrated how misleading it is to think anthropomorphically about the state as if it were a single, unitary actor: "France did this, Germany thought that." What states and military organizations do is often the result of a very complex set of debates and struggles within the political system, and the notion that there is a single coherent, rational purpose behind it all becomes harder to sustain.
This is the biggest challenge for American military officers today: to understand the nature of the war upon which they are embarked and how the adversary operates. They will not find the answer in a list of principles of war.
Despite our fondness for quoting Machiavelli, we don't have anything like a science of how to manipulate society. We must be very modest here. Social scientists know something about how societies operate, but they don't know very much, and if military officers think they can do better than professional social scientists they are deluding themselves. "Political Science 101" will not, in fact, take you very far. As strategist Bernard Brodie wrote: " . . . good strategy presumes good anthropology and sociology. Some of the greatest military blunders of all time have resulted from juvenile evaluations in this department."4
Social scientists do, in fact, have lots of detailed understanding of the mechanisms of political and social processes. What they don't have is any reliable master statement about political dynamics in general. There is no textbook you can buy that will tell you what you need to know about how the adversary society operates and what you need to bomb in order to get their political rulers to do what you want. Societies are pretty complicated, and the answers to these questions tend to be complicated also. It is unhelpful to look for rules for politics; instead, we need one central objective: Understand the adversary. This means not just getting into his head and understanding his culture, but also understanding how the society fits together, how it operates, what are its contradictions, stresses, tensions, etc.
So . . . let the debate about the new principles of war flourish. But let's not fool ourselves into thinking that we have found the magic key to understanding the nature of war in the 21st century. There will be surprises galore. And the more we think we have discovered the true principles of war, the more we will be surprised.
Dr. Roxborough is professor of history and sociology at Stony Brook University, New York, where he teaches military history.
1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 605 back to article
2. p. 88 back to article
3. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Trans. Samuel B. Griffith, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 129. back to article
4. Bernard Brodie, War and Politics, (New York: MacMillan, 1973), p. 332. back to article