Agents of Change: Transforming the Principles of War for the 21st Century

By Schneider, James J. | Army, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Agents of Change: Transforming the Principles of War for the 21st Century


Schneider, James J., Army


The philosopher Michael Gelven wrote, "The paradox of war is not only conceptual, it is also deeply existential. It is not merely an abstract problem for those who like to speculate about principles, it is a felt and endured agony of the soul that can be ignored only at the peril of self." Gelven's point is worth emphasizing: that detached speculation ultimately confronts the real world of action. Any incongruities between the two can be dangerous and deadly. It is surprising, therefore, that despite the conceptual importance of the principles of war in their relation to action, their discussion typically offers little more than an argument for either their enduring relevance or their total reformulation. I am renewing the debate by examining the question of whether the principles have changed and, if so, how. I argue implicitly that changing the principles of war is fundamentally an act of leadership, a way to lead military change and transformation.

Have the principles of war changed? It depends on what you mean by "principle." Today the word tends to denote two meanings: the first embraces definitions related to fundamental laws, truths, assumptions or standards; the second signifies precepts, teachings, rules or norms prescribing a particular pattern of conduct or course of action. Laws explain what happened; precepts make things happen. The two denotations, law and precept, have created a semantic impediment to common institutional understanding and has persisted at least since the early 19th century. The law-precept dichotomy was a natural consequence of a major intellectual revolution that culminated in the 18th century when the Enlightenment reached its pinnacle. The Enlightenment preached a doctrine of scientific reason that sought to understand and-more fundamentally-to control nature, most often conceived of as the natural material world. Scientific understanding, knowledge and its application were couched in very precise operational statements called laws. These laws defined reality as it related to the material world. Natural laws were subject to empirical observation rigorously verified in the laboratory. Increasingly, this modern philosophy of science achieved its most extreme formulation under the doctrine of positivism.

During the first half of the 19th century, the French philosopher, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), advanced his idea of positivism. According to Comte, the history of human thought had passed through three stages: the theological, dominated by religious belief and superstition; the metaphysical, dominated by speculative belief; and the positivist, ruled by scientific truth. Comte believed that the method of science could be extended to the study of man and his society. This extension soon included a scientific study of war. Even as early as the first decade of the 19th century, military theorists like AntoineHenri Jomini (1779-1869) could write: "It is universally agreed that no art or science is more difficult than that of war. ... This art, like all others, is founded on certain and fixed principles, which are by their nature invariable', the application of them only can be varied." Thus arose the fundamental claim that persists to this day: military principles are invariant law-like rules about war that only vary in their application.

The positivist turn in military thought, apart from its claim for the existence of natural unchanging laws of war, had another important consequence. All natural scientific laws make claims limited to the material world: if something cannot be measured or expressed in terms of its physical dimensions (space, time, mass, force, direction) it cannot claim any objective existence in the material world. Fundamental military concepts like will, motivation, spirit, courage, leadership and genius had the same scientific status as angels and ghosts. Although Jomini would deny it, and his writings are replete with such denials, the positivist core of the principles of war deemphasizes the human (moral and cybernetic) dimension. …

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