It's Time to Return to the Principles of War

Newfangled theories distract from the unchanging art of war.

Most modern military doctrine should be scrapped. The Pentagon would be far better served if our military thinkers got back to the basics and taught the principles of war—and little more.

Conflict just keeps getting more complicated. In the modern era, the general response has been to develop new concepts for the how the armed forces ought to conduct themselves. “Bold reimaginings” have sprung forth as quickly as weeds. Getting the “strategic narrative” right is but the latest doctrinal flavor of the month.

But while explanations of how we should fight keep getting more cerebral, sophisticated and sensitive to the conditions surrounding contemporary conflicts, the fighting hasn’t gotten any easier. Occam’s razor suggests that maybe all that fresh thinking isn’t helping win wars.

Why do smart, elegant doctrines come up short? The easiest explanation would simply dismiss modern military theorists as feckless pseudo-intellectuals. Colin Gray has compared the defense community to the fashion industry. “Expert defense professionals quite literally follow the fashion in ideas. . . The bigger the idea, the greater its conceptual reach and hence its organizing potency, and hence the more compelling the felt need to jump aboard the intellectual bandwagon.” There may be some truth there, but more is going on.

Defense thinkers are not fashion designers. Their debates are about changing outcomes, not aesthetics.

Sure, Pentagon brass may be quick to embrace the latest terms of art. But new terms don’t enter the lexicon unless there’s an original idea that gets people talking. And, make no mistake, thinking anew is important. Attacking orthodoxy, convention and unquestioned assumptions in pursuit of a competitive edge—that’s a good thing.

What’s wrongheaded, though, is the premise of the modern defense debate. The presumption seems to be that, just as farmers must plow the fields and rotate crops every year to get better results, so military thinkers must turn over fundamental military concepts on a regular basis. The belief that intellectual advances will inevitably deliver a better understanding of complex phenomenon is a tenet of faith—and one of the biggest blind spots—in the modern world.

As the Western world moved from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, the Western mind embraced the notion that it had embarked on a sure, steady march of human progress—one that would ultimately lead to a perfect understanding of the physical world. This transformation was most profoundly seen in the scientific revolution.

In search of absolute dominion, other fields of human enterprise, including military affairs, began to don the trappings of scientific thinking. We see it quite plainly in Clausewitz’s magisterial On War. That nineteenth-century treatise is suffused with jargon that appealed to the Enlightenment crowd.

The tradition continues to this day. Western military writers commonly embrace scientific jargon, symbolic of the faith that there is always a better way to think about the natural world. But shoehorning thinking about war into a scientific-sounding narrative is insufficient.

In an essay on rethinking military concepts, James Dubik invokes an Enlightenment-sounding answer about progress in military affairs. “A brief look at scientific revolutions,” he writes, “provides a glimpse of how fundamental is the continuing transformation in the profession of arms.” Yet the comparison is nonsensical. Dubik is trying to comprehend the changing conditions of contemporary conflict. Physical science is trying to gain a greater understanding of an unchanging physical reality.

Even science has a hard time discovering truth, and war is not a science experiment. There is no preordained path to military enlightenment.

More military thinking doesn’t lead inevitably to better thinking. Indeed, lately it seems to have put more trees in front of the forest.

When General Mattis took over Joint Forces Command in 2007, he spearheaded an effort to fight back against overthinking war. At the time, “effects-based operations” served as favored term of art. Mattis pushed back. “We must return clarity to our processes and operational concepts,” he wrote. Military doctrine had created “unrealistic expectations of predictability and a counterproductive information appetite. . . requir[ing] unattainable levels of knowledge about the enemy exercising its independent will.”

Mattis argued that a far better approach would be to “re-baseline our terminology and concepts by returning to time-honored principles.” He was right. Military minds need to get back to first principles.

What if military thinking stripped itself of the modern era’s futile effort to mimic the Enlightenment goal of gaining perfect knowledge and mastery over the affairs of men? What would be left?

They are called the principles of war. Specifically, they are: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise and simplicity.