Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 3  /  

On Two Antecedent Principles of War

On Two Antecedent Principles of War On Two Antecedent Principles of War
Image by @USArmy, Flickr, April 4, 2003
To cite this article: Biszko, John, “On Two Antecedent Principles of War”, Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 3, winter 2022, pages 23-27.


Introduction and Scope

Since as early as the Chinese classicists, military theorists have debated the primacy of different principles of war. Some have argued that all the variations in thought about military strategy essentially boil down to variations on concentration – how to do it, and what form it should take. Others have argued for the primacy of ‘objective’. Without the ‘objective’, they argue, one cannot mass at the right time, concentrate at the right place, etc. Objective, some argue, should have antecedent primacy in the strategist’s mind. This article takes a cognitive theoretical approach to this idea that there might be antecedent principles of war: processes, characteristics, or principles that come before the traditional principles of war. This article puts forward what the author terms interpretation and anticipation as proposals, herein referred to as ‘antecedent principles of war’.

First, in terms of scope, this paper is intended to make recommendations for the grand strategist – someone who takes a longer view than “the problem of winning military victory.”[i] The problem is also “winning the peace.”[ii] The paper is intended for someone who “seeks [advantage in] a strategic situation”[iii] across a conflict continuum, and who idealizes grand maneuvers that minimize the need for costly destruction, with an eye to the “post-war benefit.”[iv]

The First Antecedent Principle: Interpretation

Having clarified the grand strategic scope, the initial ‘antecedent principle of war’ taken up is interpretation. Here is a definition: ‘War conforms to theories; therefore, advantage belongs to those who best comprehend theories of war and translate those theories into principles for practical application.’

Given the definition, consider a Clausewitzian theory of war, that it “is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.”[v] Having this theory in mind, the strategist can interpret how the theory’s explanation of “constituent parts, relationships between those parts, and causes and effects”[vi] translates to advantages. In this case, politics illuminate objectives.

There are two main ways by which understanding war as politics (the theory) serves the strategist in practical application. First, he or she understands where he or she stands as war begins. Paret writes of Clausewitz that “it was obvious to him that the politics of the previous decade had largely decided the issue [the defeat of Prussia in 1806] before fighting began.”[vii] Thus, in understanding one’s own political situation, and its evolution leading into the present, one divines important characteristics of one’s own military situation before the onset of violence.

Like Clausewitz in this example of his thinking from 1806, the strategist may perceive of how some political object has “largely decided the issue [of conflict] … before fighting [begins].”[viii] If the strategist comprehends the political situation correctly to the left of violence on the conflict continuum, or before the application of violent force in coercive diplomatic escalation, then he or she can best assist in “subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting,” because that also must happen to the left of violence. Thus, the strategist may require theories like Clausewitz’s to realize Sun Tzu’s ideals,[ix] because it may prove challenging to subjugate adversaries without fighting, if relying on other sources like instinct or intuition alone, absent any theoretical frameworks. In this way, interpretation may be both a characteristic and ‘antecedent principle’ of war, because some form of interpretation is unavoidable, like friction, and is, therefore, characteristic – but it does not become a vehicle for advantage unless it is done well. Studying how to reason through the application of a theory of war well is a matter of ‘antecedent principle’, as it must precede the application of other principles in order to magnify their qualities.

Second, in addition to understanding one’s own situation before the onset of violence, another benefit of applying theory is that it yields “an estimate of an opponent’s likely course and [enables one to act] accordingly.”[x] Corbett gives a good application example. He describes Britain’s ability to seize distant but valuable pieces of territory from other great powers when the adversary’s political appetite to expend force was too paltry at that time.[xi] In Corbett’s specific example, he illustrates how the British retained Canada after 1763 because she correctly perceived France’s competing priorities. Corbett suggests that the British chose the target, scale, and timing of the conquest in view of the opposition’s political disadvantages at that place and time.[xii]

Having noted two advantages of applying a theory of war, such as comprehending war as a continuation of politics by other means, one can return to the interpretation principle of war to examine potential pitfalls.

Interpreting Badly

The first pitfall is to imbibe, interpret, and apply too few theories. For example, by ascribing to a Clausewitzian theory of war, one interprets that theory and applies related principles, perhaps to some advantage – but the theory is not perfect – and its disciples have known many disadvantages from its application.[xiii] This theory’s exclusive adherents might hesitate to believe, for example, that politics is sometimes prisoner to social or economic forces; therefore, the strategist who can interpret and apply not only Clausewitz’s theory of war, but also macroeconomic theories of conflict would be more successful.[xiv] Sidestep this pitfall by drawing from the strengths of multiple theories of war.

In addition to the pitfall of constraining oneself to too few theories, a second pitfall is when the interpreting strategist ascribes to an invalid theory. Although some writers offer valid criticisms of Clausewitz, his theory still has its uses, especially if the strategist understands its strengths and weaknesses.[xv] Some theories, however, are more misleading than they are insightful. For example, a primordial theory that holds that certain races are predisposed to victory because of genetic superiority could be misleading and damaging for the strategist’s prospects. To avoid this pitfall, the interpreting strategist must be a critical thinker, pairing learning with vigilance.[xvi]

The Second Antecedent Principle: Anticipation

Moving on from interpretation to the next ‘antecedent principle of war’, one should anticipate before beginning with the usual principles. Here is a definition: ‘Change is essential to war; therefore, advantage belongs to the one who can anticipate change – especially in the character of war; in adversary plans, disposition, and movements; and in the post-war conditions.’

As the definition notes, change is essential to war. Fuller describes how “war presupposes changes in force, and particularly in physical energy,” but also in other spheres as well.[xvii] Iklé also notes how “wars transform the future.”[xviii] In Fuller’s estimation, the acute minds of generals or other agents are “transforming the fighting power” of both sides, seeking to strengthen his own army and weaken [the] adversary’s.”[xix] Indeed, the natural and tangible phenomenon relevant to war are in motion. In parallel, while matters of the mind are sometimes controversial, it remains true enough for the purpose of this analysis that one’s intentions and plans are continuously changing, as are one’s adversaries’ intentions and plans.[xx]

Having noted that change is essential to war, it also follows that advantage belongs to the one who can better anticipate the changes. For example, Douhet sought advantages for Italy when he anticipated how airpower “had altered the character of war,”[xxi] and because of this advocated for an independent air force, a “battle plane … chemical weapons … [and certain] force structures.”[xxii] Douhet was an affirmatively influential strategist to the extent that he correctly anticipated the future effects of changes he perceived, and made meaningful, impactful recommendations therefrom. The reverse can also be true. Incorrect forecasts can lead to compound negative effects.[xxiii]

In addition to anticipating changes in the character of war, the strategist ought to anticipate changes in the adversary’s plans, disposition and movements. What Liddell Hart describes as the line of least expectation is separated from a line of least anticipation by a thin semantic difference: that anticipation implies a reaction to purely intellectual expectation. A new intellectual appreciation for the adversary’s plans may pair with emotion to cause transformative anticipation. Thus, the strategist’s anticipations are catalysts for action. In correctly anticipating what the adversary is likely to do next, the strategist may not only inform friendly expectations, but “animate”[xxiv] and “transform”[xxv] a military’s morale, changing the adversary’s would-be indirect approach into a direct approach; his or her line of least expectation into the line of greatest expectation.[xxvi]

Adding on to anticipating changes in the adversary’s plans, disposition, and movements, the strategist can gain advantage in war by anticipating post-war conditions. Iklé describes how strategic foresight leads to lasting political success, which relates back to the grand strategist’s interest in “winning the peace.”[xxvii] Iklé also suggests that one would not know when to negotiate for peace terms if one could not anticipate the probable alternate futures springing from the proposed terms.[xxviii] Thomas’s exposition on Russian military thought connects here also. Thomas quotes Gaivoronsky and Galkin’s assessment of the “highest manifestation of a commander’s military skill,”[xxix] including the “ability to anticipate”[xxx] as it informs risk-based decisions, such as when and how to expand, contract, escalate, concentrate, or negotiate for peace.

Anticipating Badly

Given these three areas in which anticipation yields advantage, one may also note two potential pitfalls of trying to anticipate the future. First, one takes too short a view. Liddell Hart writes of those who at the end of World War II failed to foresee how atomic weapons brought a sense of insecurity in the long run. He writes that they “did not look beyond the immediate strategic aim of “winning the war,” and that they were “content to assume that military victory would assure peace – an assumption contrary to the general experience of history.”[xxxi] This is akin to how Iklé describes anticipating the result of a battle but missing its implications for the war.[xxxii]

In addition to the pitfall of taking too short a view, one can mistakenly focus on means instead of ways. Fuller describes how those evaluating potential adversaries are often tempted to mistake “the mere addition of new weapons and means of movement and protection … [for] progress.”[xxxiii] The means are more significant in the ways’ context. Thus, Fuller writes that the “test of progress is the tactical idea,”[xxxiv] meaning how the adversary conceives that he or she will use the new technology.[xxxv] For example, the key to anticipating the character of a future war with China is not primarily the types of weapons China has added to its arsenal, but instead the tactics, techniques, and procedures they have introduced to coincide with the weapons.[xxxvi] Intent, not technology, is the primary driver of strategy, as people are the primary agents of warfare.[xxxvii]

Tying the Antecedents Together

Considering these two ‘antecedent principles’: interpretation, and anticipation, Fuller explains how the two intertwine. On moving from interpretation to anticipation, Fuller writes that if one “understand[s] the true reason for any single event, then [one] shall be able to work out the chain of cause and effect and, if [one] can do this, then [one] shall foresee events and so be in a position to prepare ourselves to meet them.”[xxxviii] Fuller then works his reader from anticipation to concentration, writing that “an Army superior in activity can always anticipate the motions [of an] … enemy, and bring more men into action … though inferior in number,” and this “must generally prove decisive, and ensure success.”[xxxix] Here one sees how to move from the ’antecedent principles’ to the ordinary.

Problems of Application and Inculcation

Some might ask ‘so what’? Anyone who can interpret theories and anticipate events is going to be better in his or her profession. Can this even be done in war? Yes. These activities can be done in ways particular and relevant to war, and to varying degrees of quality. Fuller is in conversation with Clausewitz on this point. Whereas Clausewitz was broadly skeptical that one can know very much about one’s adversary in wartime, Fuller parlayed that skepticism into a commentary on delaying commitment until a critical assessment is possible.[xl] Here there is a tension between concentrating immediately without a good understanding of the adversary to preserve initiative and surprise, and holding off on commitment, but perhaps losing one’s chance. The temporal aspect of the balance between these two is in the characteristic functionality of both ‘antecedent principles’ proposed in this article. But even if these things can be done in war, can one inculcate a skill to apply theories and anticipate future events? Yes. Working well with theories is typically taught, not discovered, especially in the disciplines of causal reasoning and logic. Anticipation is typically taught more so than discovered or innate, especially as anticipation of adversary military courses of action takes on an increasingly technological bend, where knowledge of adversary capabilities limits alternate futures and computers enable modelling and simulation that inform alternate futures analyses.


In conclusion, students of military strategy might consider the cognitive theoretical antecedents to the ordinary principles of war and remain aware of associated pitfalls: using too few or invalid theories, anticipating the future with too short a view, or prioritizing means over ways in evaluating an adversary. By capitalizing on the ‘antecedent principles’ and side-stepping the pitfalls, the strategist can achieve the affirmative cascade of effects described by Fuller above: theories illuminate cause and effect – key ingredients to anticipation, which in turn allows for proactive concentration.[xli] Thus, by staying ahead of the adversary in applying force and effects, the strategist can “[win] the peace.”[xlii]


[i] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2016), 349.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Liddell Hart, 325.
[iv] Ibid., 343, summarizing Clausewitz’s Theory of the Object; also, on the exhaustion of resources depriving one of real victory regardless of the military outcome, see Giulio Douhet, “The Command of the Air,” translated by Dino Ferrari, (Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 2019), 136.
[v] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press), 1976, 7. Hereafter referred to as Clausewitz.
[vi] Dr. John D. Maurer, in discussion with author on Lawrence Freedman’s The Future of War: A History, 12 August, 2022.
[vii] Ibid., 13.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid., 162.
[x] Clausewitz, 80.
[xi] Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 1907, Introduction and Notes by Eric J. Grove, (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 54, 56-57, 81, 189, 210, 312, 328, 332.
[xii] Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848, (Oxford University Press, 1994), 439-574.
[xiii] Liddell Hart, 344-345.
[xiv] On macroeconomic theories of conflict, see Freedman, 161.
[xv] See Liddell Hart’s criticism of Clausewitz’s Theory of the Object, 343-345.
[xvi] On primordialist theories in war, see Duško Sekulić, Randy Hodson, and Garth Massey, "War and Tolerance," Revija za sociologiju 33, no. 1-2 (2002): 33-57; also, on disbelief that the German General Staff of WWI could have taken to the idea of Deutschland uber alles, see Douhet, 137.
[xvii] J.F.C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War, (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1926), 119.
[xviii] Fred Charles Iklé, Every War Must End, 2nd rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), xvii.
[xix] Fuller, 177.
[xx] On relative change in the mental sphere and mental economy of force, see Fuller, 104, 126-127, 202-205, 294-295.
[xxi] Douhet, v-vi.
[xxii] Ibid.
[xxiii] Woodrow J. Kuhns, "Intelligence Failures: Forecasting and the Lessons of Epistemology," in Paradoxes of Strategic Intelligence, pp. 90-109, (Routledge, 2004).
[xxiv] Fuller, 80.
[xxv] Ibid., 177.
[xxvi] Liddell Hart, 327.
[xxvii] Iklé, xii – xv.
[xxviii] Ibid., 17 – 38.
[xxix] F.F. Gaivoronsky and M.I. Galkin, The Culture of Military Thought, (Moscow: Voennoye Izdatelstovo, 1991), 19, in Timothy L. Thomas, Russian Military Thought: Concepts and Elements, (McLean, VA: Mitre, 2019), 2-2.
[xxx] Ibid.
[xxxi] Liddell Hart, xvii.
[xxxii] On the danger of confusing victory in battle with victory in strategic conquest and the post-war situation, see Iklé, 19.
[xxxiii] Fuller, 174.
[xxxiv] Ibid.
[xxxv] Ibid.
[xxxvi] Michael Evans, "From Kadesh to Kandahar: Military Theory and the Future of War," Naval War College Review 56, no. 3 (2003): 132-150.
[xxxvii] For a counter argument, see Thomas, 1-1.
[xxxviii] Fuller, 94.
[xxxix] Ibid., 82.
[xl] See Clausewitz’s comments on intelligence, 117-118, and surprise/cunning, 198-203, and compare to Fuller, 262-264.
[xli] Ibid., 82, 94.
[xlii] Liddell Hart, 349.