On Military Theory

By Vego, Milan | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

On Military Theory


Vego, Milan, Joint Force Quarterly


All too often, the critical importance of military theory either is not well understood or is completely ignored by many officers. A reason for this is their apparent lack of knowledge and understanding of the relationship between theory and practice and the real purpose of military theory. Many offices are also contemptuous of theory because they overemphasize the importance of technology. (1)

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What Is Military Theory?

In generic terms, a theory can be described as a coherent group of general propositions used to explain a given class or phenomenon. (2) It is a precise consideration of a subject to obtain fundamental knowledge. It is the teaching of the truth or development of the truth of a subject. (3) In the scientific sense, a theory does not need to be supported or contradicted by evidence. In addition, it does not necessarily mean that the scientific community accepts a given theory. (4)

In the broad definition of the term, military theory can be described as a comprehensive analysis of all the aspects of warfare, its patterns and inner structure, and the mutual relationships of its various components/elements. It also encapsulates political, economic, and social relationships within a society and among the societies that create a conflict and lead to a war. Sound military theory explains how to conduct and win a war. It also includes the use of military force to prevent the outbreak of war. (5)

Military theories are differentiated according to their purpose and scope. General theories of war deal with war as a whole, regardless of purpose and scale. There are also military theories focused on specific types of hostilities and the use of military force such as insurgency and counterinsurgency, terrorism, support of foreign policy, and peace operations. Theories of land, naval, and air warfare are intended to explain the nature, character, and characteristics of war in each physical medium. Theories of military art and of strategy, operational warfare (or operational art), and tactics are focused on explaining, respectively, the methods, planning, preparation, and execution of actions aimed to accomplish military objectives. Each of these theories also describes the inner structure and mutual relationships of the elements of warfare in the respective fields of study. In addition, they have to describe a larger strategic or operational framework.

Clausewitz recognized that every age had its own kind of war. (6) A new theory of war emerges as a result of a combination of drastic changes in the international security environment, diplomacy, domestic politics, ideology, economics, and revolutionary advances in technology. For example, a new theory of war was developed in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II.

Purpose and Importance

Carl von Clausewitz wrote that the primary aim of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become confused and entangled. Only after terms and concepts have been defined can one hope to make any progress in examining a question clearly and simply and expect the reader to share one's view. (7) Clausewitz believed that the main purpose of theory is to cast a steady light on all phenomena. It should show how one thing is related to another and keep important and unimportant elements separate. (8)

The purpose of theory is not to provide rules and regulations for action--to prescribe a certain road that an officer should follow. (9) Military theory should develop a way of thinking rather than prescribe rules of war. Clausewitz wrote that military theory is most valuable when it is used to analyze and critically assess all the components and elements of warfare. It then becomes a guide for anyone who wants to read about war. Theory prevents one from having to start fresh each time, plowing through material and then sorting out the pertinent details.

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