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Principally Right: Addressing the Challenge of Thinking

28 October 2019
Cognitive edge

“[I]f one is to understand ‘the great mystery’ one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace a larger view of the force.”

Darth Sidious (Senator Palpatine) to Anakin Skywalker; Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Master Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi to Darth Vader; Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

Principally Right: Addressing the Challenge of Thinking

Several converging debates hold a similar premise to the above quotes: war’s character has so fundamentally changed that previous knowledge and theorists—such as Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, Jomini, and Liddell-Hart—are of limited value. Examples include: modern war does not need physical violence (‘Winning Without Fighting’ Part 1 and Part 2Rise of Cyber), and the current principles of war are irrelevant.

When considering the Principles of War, this blog suggests the above is an absolute that fails to recognise the different ways of viewing and practicing war’s theory. Some scholars argue these opinions are presentism: the belief that the current, novel, and technological outweighs past experiences and knowledge. This is reinforced by our brains.[1] To better understand war and warfare, we ‘…must embrace a larger view’.[2]

This blog reframes the Principles of War through the two military theory schools-of-thought. Such grounding enables the Principles to fulfil three functions: axioms for sound tactical action, a framework to guide education, and a means to test and consider alternative approaches. The first step into this larger world is recognising war’s schools-of-thought.[3]

Schools-of-Thought: Shaping How We Act

Military theory [PDF] consists of two schools-of-thought: war as art and war as science.[4] Both have similarities with two metaphysical concepts: idealism—reality is perception, reflecting mental models; and realism—reality exists independent of mental models; an ontological view. These mindsets, and their overlaps, directly influence how we consider problems and implement military concepts.[5]

For war as art, idealism creates ‘…a belief that reality does not conform to universal laws’.[6] It views knowledge of war as dependent on observation, meaning reliant on human understanding within a specific context.[7] Under this paradigm, military theory creates a framework that guides understanding in different situations, but cannot provide direct solutions.

War as science leverages realism to generate ‘…certain principles and rules guiding the conduct of war’.[8] This creates a view that knowledge of war is independent of observation and human nature.[9] Under this paradigm, military theory provides rules and solutions. Both schools-of-thought are valid and should be applied at differing levels of war: war as art influences strategy, war as science supports tactics, and both work together in operational theory.[10] They also shape our views on the Principles of War.

Principles of War: A Deterministic View for Tactics

Research highlights both the variety and common themes within war’s principles.[11] It also identifies two prevailing views.[12] The first—argued by Jomini and Liddell-Hart—is that principles are an expression of ‘…truths of experience which seem so universal, and so fundamental, as to be termed axioms’.[13] It is this view that we, as practitioners, often take-as-given. And why not? At the tactical level, where war’s violence is very real, who could argue against concentrating force?

Even though these principles have relevance for tactical action, it is this deterministic—war as science—view that some argue is ‘…inappropriate and inapplicable to contemporary, and likely future, praxis of war’. This implies an absolute worldview that sees these principles used in the same way at every level of war. Such arguments may be founded if this was the only way to view war’s principles. Yet—as Clausewitz and Sun Tzu argue—it is not.

Principles of War: Shaping Thinking and Education

Another viewpoint, argued by those summarily dismissed foundational theorists, is that principles provide a mechanism to ‘…educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education’.[14] This thinking, reinforced by Jominian strategic theory, leads to the following conclusion:[15]

…[t]he principles of war were not the final product in an analysis of military history, but …a tool for the commander to understand and analyse the problems that the history of …war provided examples of.[16]

By framing the principles within war as art thinking, two benefits exist. Firstly, they provide a lens to assist students of war—particularly junior officers—to frame past experience and history. This helps them understand before the crucible of battle. The second is in planning.

Principles of War: A Framework to Consider Context and Alternatives

When viewed as a framework, the Principles provide a means for practitioners to test assumptions, contest perceptions, and consider alternatives. In this vein, they form an ideal-type, or an abstract approximation that holds the common characteristics and elements of a phenomenon—in this case warfare—that can be used to compare and consider cases, theories, and methods. As Sun Tzu advocates, these ideal-types assist in framing problems to enable more direct processes, such as the Military Appreciation Process, to solve them.[17]

It is not the principles that are wrong. Using them through a war as science worldview outside direct tactical combat is the problem. Instead of treating the symptom by creating new principles, we should seek to address the cause: failure to adjust mental framing. Such thinking stops us falling into the same absolute trap as Master Kenobi: assuming something without wider consideration. It makes us realise the same absolute paradigm cannot be applied to all levels of war—and by extension how we view and use tools like the Principles of War.

[1] This is due to the availability heuristic and cognitive bias. For summary of heuristics, see: Ralph Hertwig, Ulrich Hoffrage, and Laura Martignon, "Quick Estimation: Letting the Environment Do the Work," in Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart, ed. Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and A. B. C. Research Group (Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 213-18.

[2] Darth Sidious (Senator Palpatine) to Anakin Skywalker; Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (film)

[3] This is a paraphrasing of Ben Kenobi’s quote to Luke Skywalker after his first attempt to use the Force on the Millennium Falcon: ‘You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope (film)

[4] For a summary, see: Milan N. Vego, "Science vs the Art of War," Joint Force Quarterly 3rd Quarter 2012, no. 66 (2012): 62-63, 66; Jan Angstrom and J.J. Widen, Contemporary Military Theory: The Dynamics of War  (New York City, New York, USA: Routledge, 2015), 170-74.

[5] For summary, see: Dan Gardner, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail - and Why We Believe Them Anyway  (Melbourne, Victoria, AUST: Scribe Publications, 2010); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow  (New York, New York, USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

[6] Vego, "Science vs Art," 67.

[7] This relates to the philosophy of science’s idealist tradition, as described by Dummett (cited by Papineau). See: David Papineau, "Introduction," in The Philosophy of Science, ed. David Papineau, Oxford Readings in Philosophy (New York, New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 1996), 4-6, Table 1.

[8] Vego, "Science vs Art," 62.

[9] This relates to the philosophy of science’s scientific realism. See: Papineau, "Introduction," 2-6, Table 1.

[10] Nicholas J. Bosio, Understanding War's Theory: what military theory is, where it fits, and who influences it, ed. Australian Army Research Centre, vol. 001, Australian Army Occasional Paper - Conflict Theory and Strategy Series (Canberra, Australia: Australian Army Research Centre, 2018), 38-41.

[11] Maintenance of the aim and concentration of force are two common themes. Angstrom and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory: 76-82.

[12] Ibid., 87.

[13] Basil H. Liddell-Hart, Strategy, 2nd Revised (1st Meridian) ed. (London, UK: Meridian, 1967; repr., Meridian 1991), 334.

[14] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Indexed eBook ed. (New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press, 1989), 141.

[15] Antoine-Henri Jomini, Précis de l'Art de la Guerre [Summary of the Art of War], trans. G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill, Complete 1862 PDF ed. (Arc Manor, Rockville, USA: Arc Manor, 1836; repr., 2007 revision ). 9, 49; Azar Gat, A History of Military Thought: From the Enlightenment to the Cold War, First ed. (Oxford, England, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001), 129-31. 

[16] Angstrom and Widen, Contemporary Military Theory: 87.

[17] See: Michael I. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, 3rd Revised and Expanded Kobo eBook ed. (Southgate, London, UK: Frank Cass Publishers, 2005), 2.8, 11.19, C.7-8; Tao Hanzhang, Sun Tzu's Art of War: The Modern Chinese Interpretation, trans. Yuan Shibing (New York, New York, USA: Sterling Innovation, 2007), 188-90.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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