Security Studies Program Seminar

Do the Classic Principles of Warfare Still Apply?

Geoffrey Wawro
Center for the Study of Military History, University of North Texas

April 20, 2005

At the Naval College we undertook an exercise that asked whether Clausewitz's nine principles of warfare should updated. This talk discusses the results of that exercise.

The nine principles are:

1. Objective
2. Offensive
3. Mass
4. Economy of Force
5. Maneuver
6. Unity of Command
7. Surprise
8. Security
9. Simplicity

There is an engineering approach at most military colleges. This is good for the promulgation of doctrine, but it also creates conformity and groupthink, the opposite of what Clausewitz called genius. When the principles of war are hammered home this way, they become a sort of religion, a fetish, like jointness.

The principles of war can make the idea of war, the plan, become scripted, like a football team that enters a game knowing the order it will run all its plays. But war is a duel. You have to react. And victory is often a perception. Saddam after all managed to convince large numbers of people that Iraq won the first Gulf War.

The nine principles do not account for everything, nor did Clausewitz himself intend that they should. For instance, Al Qaeda's morale is still high despite the fact that two thirds of its leaders are dead or imprisoned. Principles are means not ends.

The Army Field Manual, written in 1921, enshrines the nine principles. The adoption of the principles by the Army is interesting because they come from Germany, a nation that was crushingly defeated twice in the twentieth century in part because they made a fetish of the principles and ignored their broader strategic content.

One question asked was whether asymmetry had to be included in some tenth principle that dealt with what's often called fourth generation warfare, typical in insurgencies.

The United States is still in the second generation with lines and conventional forces using mass and fire. Other nations have learned not to fight the United States this way. There is a lot of evidence that Saddam had figured this out, and intentionally spread out arms to prime the insurgency. The Defense Department had not anticipated this sort of reaction.

There was also consideration of an eleventh principal: agility, a quality we invent unmanned aerial vehicles and Future Combat Systems to acquire. But this concept is captured by maneuver.

In operation Iraqi Freedom, for every time of the nine principles was used, one was violated. Shock and awe and the drive to Baghdad hewed to simplicity, surprise, and offense, but violated security by allowing for anarchy, which aided the insurgency. Rumsfeld stressed economy of force, whereas Shinseki had advised mass. Franks wanted overwhelming power in small numbers aided by technology. Later, we realized we needed both this power and greater numbers. Preemption creates more problems than it solves. By pursuing vaporous threats, it violated the principles.

Technology has unofficially been made a new principle, embraced as magic. There is tension between the hopes for technology and environment in which it is deployed. High tech solutions are often undone by low-tech means.

Planners thought that Iraq would be an easy war, but it turned out to be full of insoluble problems. There was over reliance on formulaic thinking. The principles are supposed to keep you flexible, to be a tool you can use to embrace uncertainty, not a straitjacket.

In conclusion, we decided that the nine principles do not need to be torn up. They are fine. We might need to add asymmetry to deal with fourth generation warfare.

Geoffrey Wawro is the Major General Olinto Mark Barsanti Chair in Military History and Director of the Center for the Study of Military History at the University of North Texas. Formerly, he was a professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College . Wawro earned a doctorate at Yale University in 1992. Since 2000 he has appeared on cable television as the anchor of the History Channel's program Hardcover History. His most recent book is Warfare and Society in Europe, 1792-1914 (Routledge, 2000); his shorter publications include journal articles, op-ed pieces, and entries in the Oxford Companion to Military History (2001).

Rapporteur: Ben Friedman

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