Military Strategy Magazine - Volume 8, Issue 1

Volume 8, Issue 1, Summer 2022 43 One canwonder, however, what utility these principles have for the strategist when there are so many. Indeed, no two wars are alike, and in the absence of fixed principles of war, the precepts provided by some famous strategic thinkers in an older era within a completely different context would hardly seem to have any relevance in a present-day conflict. Then why are we still producing principles of war and what are they for? How can they be of any use to the strategist? I argue that while there are no fixed principles of war but rather an infinite multiplicity of principles, depending on the era, author, strategic culture and context; it is neither their number nor even their content that matters most. The utility of the principles of war lies in their confrontation with one another, fostering innovation. Their strength, indeed, is conditional, and “they are only useful once we understand how relative they are”.[ii] Consequently, they are mostly ways for the strategist to feed his intuition. They allow him to internalize features, deepen his expertise and improve his judgement. But the strategist needs to be aware of the relativity of those concepts and understand what their practical assumptions are. Thus, it is all about how these principles are delivered and how they are understood. In this essay, I first look at the principles of war themselves, where they come from and how they are reflective of different understandings of war. Then, I argue that only their confrontation with one another can lead to a useful reflection for the strategist. Finally, I show that this phase of internalization of knowledge into the strategist's own intuition is what is really at stake regarding the principles of war, since strategy is, first and foremost, an art of synthesis. The Principles of War The search for principles governing the phenomenon of war is a long historical journey. We can dissociate, however, different approaches depending on one’s understanding of the nature ofwar. One of these approaches is to considerwar as a science, obeying a clear set of laws and fixed principles. Principles, in this case, are axioms that act as general laws and rules, applicable to any conflict. This approach was especially fashionable during the 18th and 19th centuries, starting with the works of French marshals such as the marquis of Puységur, Folard, Joly de Maizeroy and Guibert. [iii] War was then sometimes merely considered as a branch of applied physics and mathematics. This perspective on war reached its pinnacle with the works of the Welsh general Henry Lloyd and Prussian theorist von Bülow[iv], aiming to completely erase the role of chance and hazard in the conduct of warfare. Jomini, although moderating their excesses, would greatly inspire himself from these theories by presenting war through a geometrical lens and believing in fixed principles.[v] The legacy of these authors goes a long way, and the quest for a scientific understanding of war remained an attractive idea. Indeed, in 1926, British officer J.F.C Fuller categorized nine principles of war that highly influenced the current military doctrine of the United States[vi] and the United Kingdom[vii] : objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity.[viii] In France, Marshal Foch posited three principles that are still constitutive of the French military doctrine: concentration of force, economy of force and freedom of action.[ix] But these principles are, in many aspects, arbitrary. Fuller's own principles went from six, to eight, to nineteen, to nine over the years. Despite some consistency from one country to another, these disparate principles simply reflect a particular understanding of theworld andmost importantly in the case of doctrines, a specific strategic culture. For instance, Chinese principles of war differ considerably from western ones. Relying on the works of two PLA colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui,[x] its doctrine puts considerable emphasis on alternative methods to conventional confrontation. It also relies on a Confucian strategic culture which puts typical emphasis on indirect approaches to a problem. Consequently, principles of war are never fixed, and their refinement is continuous. They always depend on a certain understanding of war situated within a specific context. Principles of war devised by Brodie, Sokolovski or Morgenthau regarding nuclear warfare obviously differ from principles of war devised by Mao Tse Tsung for revolutionary warfare. The same goes for Liddell Hart’s principles for indirect warfare or Ludendorff’s principles for total warfare. New phenomena such as conflicts in the cyber domain, outer space, the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and hybrid warfare potentially call for new principles which do not make previous principles of war irrelevant, but simply account for a change in context.[xi] In that way, Robert Leonhard fails to understand, while making a very interesting suggestion of new principles for the information age[xii], that principles of war are nothing else than a demonstration that, as Clausewitz stated, ‘war is a chameleon’.[xiii] The introduction of new principles is useful not because they are better than older ones – after all, they are subject to the same biases and arbitrariness – but because the contrast they bring with the older ones is thought-provoking. Most importantly, it is not stubborn adherence to the principles that makes them useful and helpful. Adhering to fixed principles would likely reduce the engagement of the strategist with other principles and partially blind his understanding of war. I shall now argue What is the Utility of the Principles of War? Baptiste Alloui-Cros