Statistics, Real Estate, and the Principles of War: Why There Is No Unified Theory of War

By Breemer, Jan S. | Military Review, September-October 2006 | Go to article overview

Statistics, Real Estate, and the Principles of War: Why There Is No Unified Theory of War


Breemer, Jan S., Military Review


Callicratus: We're lucky men, you and I. We've been present at the moment the world changed.

Eupolis: What's that supposed to mean?

Callicratus: What's new, what's going to change the world, is that once they've beaten us they don't let us go. They're going to destroy this army, whatever it takes. I've been thinking about it, since we got cooped up in here, and I can't think of a single instance where it's happened before. Those men don't want to win a battle and set up a trophy and be big heroes. They want to kill us, and they want to do it as efficiently as possible.

HAD HE HEARD of the principles of war, Callicratus might well have told his comrade-in-arms that their enemy had changed the principles. (1) The above dialogue, from Tom Holt's story of the Athenians' last stand against the Syracusans in 413 BC, is fictional. (2) The event itself is real. Hunted relentlessly by their enemies, Callicratus and Eupolis, together with thousands of other Athenian soldiers, had taken refuge in a walled olive grove. Here, they were subjected to a constant barrage of javelins and arrows. When the survivors surrendered, they were sold into slavery. (3)

For the Athenians, the slaughter in the orchard was a different kind of war. An army used to fighting wars for limited objectives, they faced an enemy whose aim was unlimited. As Victor Hanson has observed, battle for the classical Greeks meant that after an hour or so of intense, close-in fighting, victory went to the side that still held the field. The winners had won the right to build a trophy; the losers fled, leaving most of their weapons behind, but rarely in fear of being hunted down and killed by the equally exhausted victors. (4) In 413 BC, the Syracusans broke the rules. They had defeated the Athenians by the "normal" standards of victory and defeat, but they decided to eliminate them once and for all; they would finish them off. (5) They did so by violating another principle. Instead of fighting according to what Hanson has called the "Western way of war" and battling their opponents face-to-face with spears or swords, the Syracusans bombarded the Athenians with "cowardly" stand-off weapons. (6)

All Wars Not Created Equal

War has always changed. Few people will disagree, but most will quickly add that this is true only for the conduct of war, not its nature. This essay disagrees: all wars are not created equal. Clearly the essence of insurgency wars is different from that of conventional wars, and both are intrinsically different from nuclear war. The difference between the three turns on the relationship between politics and violence. It necessarily follows that the bundle of ideas called "principles of war," which apply to one "population" of wars, may have little or no relevance for others; those wars have their own principles. There is one other consideration. Principles of war not only vary between kinds of wars, they also change within wars. Some principles that appear cemented in stone today had no meaning in the past; conversely, principles we may not recognize today will be at the heart of tomorrow's military doctrines. (7)

What are these things called "principles of war"? "Principle" has a dozen or so dictionary definitions--"axiom," "fundamental," "law," and such synonyms. Whatever these martial principles are, they clearly do not have the same stature as scientific principles. Not even the most committed student of military science will claim that the principles of war can describe, and even predict, phenomena that are invariably true. The best we can say is that they describe tendencies about the conduct of warfare, tendencies that can inform military strategic and operational decisions.

The principles of war are somewhat analogous to statistical probability statements. In statistics, a group of values is commonly displayed by way of a curve. The curve shows that as long as the group is drawn from a "normal population," nearly 70 percent of the values lay within one standard deviation of the mean value in the group. …

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Statistics, Real Estate, and the Principles of War: Why There Is No Unified Theory of War
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