War with Implacable Foes: What All Statesmen and Generals Need to Know

By de Czege, Huba Wass | Army, May 2006 | Go to article overview

War with Implacable Foes: What All Statesmen and Generals Need to Know


de Czege, Huba Wass, Army


When nations are faced with war against implacable foes, the details of warfare may change, but the principal logic of war does not. Historically, war results when political conflict escalates to violence, and predates the formation of the modern nation state. War is usually the last resort in a bitter political conflict, after options short of violent force have failed to attain important political ends. No proper definition of war, or warfare, limits it to a struggle among nation states. In fact, it doesn't matter how the sides are organized or who or what the parties to the conflict are. War has occurred between political bodies within states and between states and transnational political bodies, as it will in the future.

War is always complicated, imprecise and often imponderable. Clausewitz defined war as political conflict that has crossed the threshold from the use of "peaceful" means to "primordial violence." Crossing this threshold introduces discontinuities, and while the conflict still remains political at heart, its nature changes states as much as when water becomes ice. Statesmen should know that the logic of war may be significantly different from the logic of peaceful political intercourse, and that policing and warring are two very different things.

Clausewitz warns both civilian and military senior strategists of the new landscape and logic that awaits them across the divide from peaceful political intercourse to war. Every war is unique; it is chameleon-like in that its apparent features adapt to the conditions and forces in the greater environment. This makes its course and potential outcome unpredictable. Forces beyond the control of leaders on either side of the prewar political conflict combine in unpredictable ways.

Clausewitz speaks of a trinity of factors in constant tension that affect the course and outcomes of war. These are primordial violence, chance and reason. Violence begets violence. It enflames passions on both sides and tends toward escalation. While it is true that "peaceful" policies and actions can also enflame passions, violent acts do so significantly more rapidly and effectively.

In the domain of war, causal chain reactions are much more rapid and tend to be explosive compared to peaceful intercourse. And while decision makers attempt to apply reasoned judgment to their decisions and actions, passions kindled by violence cloud reason, original aims are transformed by new influences, and chance intervenes to introduce unintended consequences.

The tensions among this trinity introduce complications enough, but the judgments of statesmen and generals are made even more difficult when several additional sources of imprecision and unpredictability are added.

Clausewitz warns that even though the logic of any intended action may be clear and simple, its execution will be subject to fog (incomplete knowledge), friction (the stresses of the combat environment on failure-prone human beings), and chance (interventions by forces of nature and other human actors outside the framework of the two-sided contest between the identified friend and foe). Because of such unpredictable and impeding factors, and unforeseen actions by the enemy, any offensive action or initiative may culminate before its intended aims are achieved. On balance, it generally takes less energy and resources to thwart the initiative of an opponent, than to change the status quo. While this is generally true about any political or social intercourse, the added complexities of war exacerbate the problem considerably.

This creates a dilemma for the side intent on changing the status quo through any form of warfare, especially when means are limited, because the calculation of what is enough to prevail is very inexact. The cost of underestimation is failure, and the costs of failure in warfare are often greater than expected. The cost of overestimation is an incalculable amount of waste in exchange for success. …

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