February 1, 2012  

A new principle of war

‘Understanding’ must take its rightful place atop the pantheon

Reflecting revered assumptions and long-standing paradigms, The Principles of War are a list of tenets enshrined since 1949 in the Army’s Field Manual 3-0 “Operations” and more recently in other service and joint doctrines. These foundations — Mass, Maneuver, Unity of Command, and the rest — have stood largely pat for a half-century. That reflects their enduring utility, yet is prima facie evidence of a need to seriously re-examine them, particularly as conflicts in the ancient battlefields of Mesopotamia and Afghanistan wind down.

The post-Cold War era has generated new vulnerabilities and new forms of adversaries and combat applications. A decade of combat and complex operations has pulled up the roots of strategic thought and operational habits framed in response to a monolithic threat. That threat no longer exists, but it is imprinted into the U.S. military culture. The challenge is adapting to new demands, new threats and an evolving character of conflict. We must discard what is no longer relevant and reinforce everything that is immutable or enduring.

The following is offered for consideration by the joint war-fighting community: a new principle for the list, and indeed one to be placed atop the rest:

Understanding: Craft strategy and operations upon a detailed understanding of the nature of military conflict and the specific context (cultural, social, political and geographic) in which military force is to be introduced and applied.

Strategy, Anthropology, Sociology

Strategist Bernard Brodie once observed that “good strategy presumes good anthropology and good sociology.” Fundamentally, war involves an iterative competition between peoples whose behavior patterns will be a result of a complex combination of factors. Our national security community has experts who monitor and study the strategic and military culture of adversarial states and assess an opponent’s military capabilities. During the Cold War, we created a cadre of experts in Russian history, language and culture. After the Cold War, we lost that expertise. We became what Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former Central Command commander, calls “order of battle oriented” — focused on quantifying a known opponent and laying out his capabilities in neat templates. Then-Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn’s 2010 critique of intelligence operations in Afghanistan reflects the consequences of this mentality.

We need to gain a deep and nuanced understanding of any conflict we are about to embark on and acquire as thorough a grasp of the nature of the adversary as possible. This includes becoming well-informed about the culture of the adversarial social and political systems.

This will help us in the future, due to the nature of what Harvard’s Samuel Huntington calls “fault line” wars. These are the sorts of culturally intensive, ethnic or religiously divisive conflicts that occur between different cultures or civilizations. Such wars are protracted, violent and highly contagious. Unfortunately, these are exactly the kinds of conflicts we will be involved in for the next few decades (although not the only ones). Fault-line wars place a premium on an in-depth knowledge base of the other component of a nation’s strategic culture — its societal culture. This is not a new thought, as Michael Howard stressed many years ago, “Wars are not tactical exercises writ large. They are … conflicts of societies, and they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the society fighting them. The roots of victory or defeat often have to be sought far from the battlefield, in political, social, or economic factors.”

Nor is this news to those familiar with the Marine Corps’ classic “Small Wars Manual,” which notes, “The campaign plan and strategy must be adapted to the character of the people encountered.”

It is impossible for either policymakers or the military to succeed without an intimate appreciation of the local culture, and one can see this in America’s past interventions. Our lack of understanding of both the nature of the Vietnamese civil war and the weaknesses of the South Vietnamese government was instrumental to our debacle there. Likewise, our misunderstanding of the ethnic divisions in Lebanon, where our support for the Christian-dominated government risked our Marines and sailors in Beirut. Likewise, the American intervention in Somalia in 1992-93 was undermined by a limited understanding of the clan framework in that impoverished country.

The same problems worked against our efforts in Iraq for a long time. We have made progress at the operational and tactical levels over the past decade, and need to assess and institutionalize the frameworks, educational base and organizational improvements to preserve and increase the ability of American forces to think in terms of culture and see things from the perspective of others.

One can see the need for cultural intelligence and understanding in almost every phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Numerous stories and anecdotes have emerged about the pervasiveness of the effects of culture and the additive complexity it brought to the battle space.

“We are absolutely newcomers to this environment,” said one young officer. “It is so foreign to us. You couldn’t pick a place in the world that would be more foreign to most Americans than Iraq.”

“The complexity of their culture has been overwhelming,” said another.

Others express surprise at the importance of religion: “It was nothing I was prepared for.”

Efforts to instill some grasp of culture in professional military education programs and pre-deployment training programs were ultimately made. Additionally, initiatives like the Human Terrain Team were undertaken. The results of these efforts are mixed, per Flynn’s negative assessment a few years ago. It is clear that we have made progress but less clear that we have locked in the right changes or that we have yet recognized best practices to retain despite coming budget cuts.

Preparing Future Warriors

What is perfectly clear is the need to master foreign cultures and embrace a deeper level of understanding, if strategic and operational effectiveness matters at all. This is true at the summit of policymaking in Washington as well as in the dusty markets of Marjah or Kandahar.

“What will matter to the military forces of the United States in the 21st century,” notes American historian Williamson Murray, “is how well American leaders at all levels understand their opponents: their history, their culture, their political framework, their religion, and even their languages.”

It should be clear by this point that understanding stands primus inter pares when it comes to the principles of war. Without a deep understanding of the nature of war and the societies involved, defining an achievable objective or end state is an exercise in delusion. Without a deep grasp of history and war, it is impossible to design a campaign for an offensive or to retain the initiative after the first clash of arms. Good planning requires branches and alternatives, not a fixed path.

Understanding on the part of the commander and his staff is required to prepare these various paths, and thus understanding is the foundation for adaptation and flexibility. When to concentrate or distribute one’s combat power, or when to apply economy of force, is dependent upon an understanding of the adversary’s capabilities and an inkling of his proclivities. Likewise, achieving surprise and maintaining one’s own security require an understanding of what the opposite decision-maker is anticipating or positioned to accept. All deception by the Great Captains is based on feeding the enemy what he is inclined to look for. Unity of command also requires shared understanding of what the senior commander wants to achieve and how he intends to achieve it, as well as knowing the context in which the operation is being conducted. There is no unity of purpose toward a common aim without true understanding.

All the existing principles presume understanding, while our historical performance suggests the presumption is not warranted. Understanding must be an explicit principle for both the preparation and conduct of war.

We must therefore prepare a generation of future warriors with the general skill sets of working within foreign cultures, while learning how to access specific knowledge and understanding of crisis areas on short notice. Rather than focus on network-centric forms of war, there is great merit in calls for cultural-centric warfare, in which our soldiers and sailors are prepared with an acute degree of cultural awareness and the need for “global scouts” to advance our interaction with foreign societies. This is not the type of information that can be quickly absorbed by satellites and drones. Instead, it is a degree of understanding that must be acquired from human networks, and it is information that can be successfully interpreted only by a military imbued with a deep understanding of the historical and cultural context that has generated the conflict to begin with. The military and educational reforms suggested by these recommendations are wide-reaching.

Thus, despite the pending fiscal crunch the Pentagon is facing, the American military is going to have to place education at the center of how it prepares for the future, including both history and cultural studies.


The principles of war are neither immutable nor irrelevant if one understands their proper purpose. Inasmuch as the ways of war are constantly changing, we should expect to see alterations in the way the principles are articulated and applied. The principles were not developed to simplify things for those with no tolerance for critical inquiry, no taste for contemplation or no patience with the deep study of history. They can be shorthand for lazy students of war. But for those ready to grasp the imponderables and endless complications of human conflict, principles alone will never suffice. They help only to frame our study of war and to facilitate the transition of theory to actual practice. What we need is a clear grasp of the inherently timeless elements of human conflict and an abiding respect for the changing characteristics and ways of war.

This conclusion is consistent with a key point made by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a speech at Duke University in January.

“I think one of the challenges of education for this century, and certainly one of the challenges for us in our development of leaders,” he said, “is we’ve got to develop leaders who can take the facts of the situation, apply context and understand.”

This is the essence of understanding. Our military education system must strive to impart this perspective in tomorrow’s officer corps, and our civilian graduate schools would not hurt themselves if they ensured that they continued to inculcate a thorough understanding of strategy and supporting military operations in their studies as well. Many strive to do so.

But we should not embrace another principle if we’re going to pay lip service to the true purpose of codifying principles. They can never replace serious and rigorous study, and they are not a template for application without judgment to the particular continuities and the distinctive discontinuities of a specific context. Once again, Brodie nails it: “Without this perspective we have nothing, nothing save the clichés that parade under the name of old and presumably unchanging principles. These clichés are also thought by many to give us the conclusive answers in tomorrow’s problem. Would it were so. If it were so, things would be so much easier.”

But winning tomorrow’s messy and ambiguous wars will not be easier. The conduct of warfare never is, and conclusive answers to tomorrow’s problems can never be found in a list of generic bromides or bland statements. Both the art and science of war have to be fused by the creative use of the human mind. There are “no formulas for the successful framing of strategy or conduct of war.” However, adding understanding as a principle of war would be a good step forward toward creating the necessary context to frame future strategies and guide the conduct of future wars. AFJ