Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 3  /  

Problems of Strategy in Wars of Honor

Problems of Strategy in Wars of Honor Problems of Strategy in Wars of Honor
To cite this article: Milevski, Lukas, “Problems of Strategy in Wars of Honor,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue No. 3, fall 2016, pages 15-19.

To connect strategy to the wider context surrounding it and to recognize that the political motives underpinning any war must necessarily influence their work, strategists rightly rely upon Clausewitz’s dictum that war is political intercourse with an admixture of other means. “The political object—the original motive for war—will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.”[i] Strategists often go one step further by endorsing Thucydides’ ancient trinity, expressed by the Athenians to Sparta’s ruling council on the eve of the Peloponnesian War, on the motives which impel polities to go to war—fear, honor, and interest.

Less often do strategists, however, seek to understand how the practice of their craft may actually be shaped by these motives for war. To a certain extent, fear and interest are self-explanatory. Fear incentivizes preemptive, if not preventive, war. Interest is often held up as the idealized standard of realpolitik, in which states go to war for limited and clearly definable objectives, achieve them in a straightforward manner, and easily persuade the adversary that violence serves no further purpose and that peace would henceforth be the reasonable policy option to pursue. Yet Thucydides’ third motive, honor, has largely fallen by the wayside in strategic studies. Acknowledged in passing but rarely understood, honor is generally considered no longer to be a policy goal for which war should be-or even could be-fought, despite the importance that Thucydides ascribed to it. “Most modern students of the question assume that states want power to achieve tangible and practical goals such as wealth, prosperity, security, and freedom from external interference. But the range of goals that move people to fight wars is broader and not always so practical.”[ii]

Honor fits poorly into most approaches to considering and practicing strategy, for one obvious reason. As Clausewitz wrote to a colleague, who had asked for feedback on a war planning thought exercise,

[w]ar is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means. Consequently, the main lines of every major strategic plan are largely political in nature, and their political character increases the more the plan encompasses the entire war and the entire state. The plan for the war results directly from the political conditions of the two belligerent states, as well as from their relationship to other powers. The plan of campaign results from the war plan, and frequently—if there is only one theater of operations—may even be identical with it. But the political element even extends to the separate components of a campaign; rarely will it be without influence on such major episodes of warfare as a battle, etc. According to this point of view, there can be no question of a purely military evaluation of a great strategic issue, nor of a purely military scheme to solve it.[iii]

How does a strategist go about translating honor into a guide for military operations? Clausewitz’s metaphor of war as naught but a duel on a larger scale is potentially misleading to the uncritical. In the past, duels arose specifically out of an affront to personal honor and were governed by rules and bounded by societal expectations about both the duel’s conduct and its conclusion. War, by contrast, enjoys no determinative rules governing the relationship between adversaries, or their management of their path from tactical action to political consequence. No law dictates when wars must end, despite the extensive legal work which has been devoted to moderating the conduct of war. This article will consider the problems waging wars of honor poses to the practice of strategy, for wars of honor have by no means been relegated to the dustbin of history. Honor remains a relevant motive for war even today and therefore must be thoughtfully reincorporated into strategic studies in general and into the consideration of potential practices of strategy in particular. Contemporary relevance is most apparent with regard to any potential NATO war in defense of the Baltic states against Russia, which would be a war of honor and an excellent case of the real affect which considerations of honor may have upon strategic practice.

What is Honor?

Honor appears to be an old-fashioned concept whose relevance has long since vanished. Yet when synonyms replace the word honor, such as “deference, esteem, just due, regard, respect, or prestige”, then it is apparent that “[p]ower and honor have a reciprocal relationship”.[iv] Other alternatives may also fall under the broad rubric of honor. Colin Gray has suggested that culture may be a worthwhile reconceptualization of honor.[v] Cultural and political values have indeed played a large role in impelling western states to go to war in many recent liberal wars of the post-Cold War era. Other (OED) synonyms are “credit, reputation, good name”, i.e. credibility—as an actor in international affairs. If a person or polity has no credibility, if it does not honor its commitments, it will become untrustworthy, lose its reputation and prestige, and merit no just due, or respect. (It might still be feared, however, but fear and honor are clearly not the same.) Credibility is the very foundation of honor. It derives from personal or political decision-making and subsequent implementation; therefore the honor or credibility of a nation largely devolves upon the policymakers of the moment. Any serious divide between policymakers and citizens has potential consequences in war. Credibility was a particularly important motive for the United States’ involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars. American policymakers believed that they must prove that the United States would fight communism on a global scale and that this resolve could be demonstrated by fighting in Korea and Vietnam.

Honor in all of these incarnations may be reduced to identity, in particular self-identity. The polity along with its domestic public sees itself as honorable, that it is due deference from other foreign polities, that affronts to its cultural or political values should be punished or remedied, that it is indeed a credible actor in international relations. The challenge for strategists is readily apparent. How can one’s own self-identity or self-image be translated into a strategy aimed at defeating a second party adversary? One may simply suggest that honor and power have a reciprocal relationship, that honor is defended or restored upon victory because the relative power of adversaries has been ascertained. “Wars usually end when the fighting nations agree on their relative strength, and wars usually begin when fighting nations disagree on their relative strength.”[vi]

Yet this does not actually help the strategist to define the victory he is to pursue. If the enemy does not capitulate, then by definition honor has not been defended. If political constraints prevent the strategist from seeking a decisive victory over the opposing polity, then it is impossible successfully to defend one’s honor. These are real problems when waging wars of honor or any of their conceptual doppelgangers, yet they are not even the primary difficulties of waging such wars.

The single greatest problem is the impossibility of a strategist and his polity determining when honor, especially when defined as credibility, has been satisfied. Neither honor in general, nor credibility in particular, can ever be judged by the belligerent polity itself. These are qualities conferred upon it by outside observers, potential allies as well as potential enemies. With but minor modifications Gray’s words about deterrence may be applied to honor: “[d]eterrence is a relational variable that works at the discretion, though admittedly not wholly at the volition, of the candidate deterree.”[vii] Does the observing polity, whether friend or foe, trust the observed polity to perform (or not) a particular act, to fulfill a specific commitment, to be credible and honorable in its actions?

The Geopolitics of Credibility

Going to war to preserve the credibility, i.e. commitments, of a polity as a foreign policy actor poses a quandary for the strategist: it assumes a particular geopolitical appreciation by the observing polities who are meant to be the recipient audience of the signal. The common underlying assumption is that observers will believe that all geopolitical issues and theaters of potential operations are equally valuable. That is, simply because polity A intervened in region X, it has proven that it is also ready, willing, and able to intervene in region Y—a logical fallacy.

This was the thinking behind the United States’ interventions in Korea in 1950 and in Vietnam after 1964. The Truman administration had implicitly designated South Korea as outside its security perimeter; subsequently and with Soviet backing the North Koreans invaded; then, having decided it was not in their interest to allow a communist conquest of the rest of the Korean peninsula, the United States retaliated. Despite General Omar Bradley’s well-known description of the Korean War as the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, American credibility concerning the containment of communism and defense of the free world appeared to be on the line. Similar considerations governed American motives to involve themselves directly in the war in Vietnam, and then to escalate their involvement.

Yet such oversimplification of geopolitical analysis is unlikely to comfort real or likely allies, because not all regions of the world are equal in value. Europeans were comforted neither by the Korean nor the Vietnam War, but rather were concerned that these wars to uphold the credibility of the United States would be counterproductive by pulling resources away from theaters, such as Europe, to which the United States had also made commitments. “Indeed, just prosecuting the war in Vietnam (which must count as something like two-thirds of a war, in the Pentagon lingo of the time) led the Defense Department to hollow out U.S. forces in NATO (especially noncommissioned officers, signal equipment, and other supporting infrastructure) and strip the central reserve of troop units in the continental United States.”[viii]

Wars to uphold one’s credibility may endanger other discrete commitments by starving them of necessary resources to meet new challenges fully. Allies and potential friends will notice this and worry. Enemies and potential adversaries may notice this and plan to take advantage. The effort required to signal that one’s credibility really should not be doubted has therefore the real potential, despite declarations of great political will, to obscure the signal itself by actively leading observers to distrust the polity’s ability to fulfill its other commitments and to doubt its word of honor.

Strategists waging wars of honor consequently have difficulty managing the first relationship of strategy, that between military action and political result. The logic of the situation and probability of its further development are stacked against successful achievement of the desired beneficial political effect. The strategist’s task is not only to produce a specific political effect, but one which is also of the second-order—a specific reaction on the part of an uninvolved polity.

Adversaries in Wars of Honor

The relationship between military action and political consequence is but one of strategy’s primary relationships, the other being that between adversaries. This second relationship is equally fraught with difficulty, which stems largely from the political context surrounding the question of credibility.

For modern liberal democracies, the political context of credibility is usually considered in relation to defensive alliances such as that which the United States had with South Vietnam or that which binds NATO together. The political goal of any war of honor in such an alliance-based situation is therefore negative, to prevent a particular outcome—as defensive alliances react to threats and seek to prevent the fulfillment of their aggressive geopolitical goals. Thus offensive operations against any target other than the enemy military force are often prohibited by policy-makers. The experience of MacArthur’s push into North Korea and the consequent Chinese counterattack of 1950-51 scarred American strategists and resulted in a long-standing prohibition against pushing into North Vietnam a decade and a half later. Only later in the Vietnam War was the US Air Force finally allowed to bomb certain politically sensitive targets in North Vietnam, such as the capital Hanoi, the port city of Haiphong, and along the Vietnamese-Chinese border. In other words, wars of honor are strategically, and often operationally, defensive.

Such political restrictions increase the strategist’s difficulties in defeating the enemy. Clausewitz argued that the philosophy of the defensive is embodied in the assumption that the passage of time will improve the situation. “The idea implies, moreover, that the situation can develop, that in itself it may improve, which is to say that if improvement cannot be effected from within—that is, by sheer resistance—it can only come from without; and an improvement from without implies a change in the political situation.” Related to this is the defender’s lack of ability to bring about an end to the threat his opponent poses. “We are left with the conclusion that if the attacker sustains his efforts while his opponent does nothing to ward them off, the latter can do nothing to neutralize the danger that sooner or later an offensive thrust will succeed.”[ix] Recent strategic history bears out this danger. The Chinese may ultimately have settled willingly in 1953, having changed policy after Stalin’s death, but the North Vietnamese did not waver in their determination to see through their policy of unification of Vietnam by force—and in the end they triumphed, their last offensive thrust being a success.

With no offensive pressure exerted by an honor-bound belligerent upon his foe, that adversary may make peace purely at his own pleasure. Defeat in battle may be unfortunate, but Clausewitz believed that the decisive phase of any battle was not the clash itself, but the ensuing pursuit of the defeated by the victorious. He considered battles which were bereft of a successful pursuit to be incomplete as engagements. Such partial battles would connect military means to political goals only sporadically, even in offensive campaigns—Borodino in 1812 was one of Clausewitz’s examples of an incomplete battle. In defensive campaigns, neglect of pursuit results in abdication of any real control over the course of the war besides that of a purely negative, denying input.

In wars fought to maintain the credibility of a defensive alliance, that credibility is usually linked to an actual physical, geographical dimension, as the political goal is to protect the borders of a specific country. A corollary to this geographic component of honor is that operations beyond the designated borders may provoke domestic or even international disapproval. This echoes the experience of the Korean War, when a move beyond the borders of South Korea into the north eventually triggered a Chinese counterattack. Disapproval may ensue even if the borders were being routinely violated by the adversary without consequence. As Henry Kissinger noted of the Vietnam War, “Washington had convinced itself that the four Indochinese states were separate entities, even though the communists had been treating them as a single theater for two decades and were conducting a coordinated strategy with respect to all of them.”[x] The American public was convinced that the attacks into Cambodia and Laos in 1970 and 1971 were an inexcusable escalation of the war by infringing upon sovereign state borders, even though the strategic significance of the borders had long since vanished due to their routine violation by the North Vietnamese.

Yet the consequence of this strategic restraint with respect to the honor of borders is that areas beyond the borders become de facto sanctuaries where the enemy can freely prepare for his next offensive, while the defenders simply cannot maintain incessant maximum operational readiness.

[I]t turns out to be impossible to maximize readiness in general, to reach and keep one level of it indefinitely, because readiness is not all of a piece; the components move at different rates and in different directions. If readiness is to be conceived broadly enough to be a basis for strategic, budgetary, and organizational choices, it must be seen as a complex system composed of numerous variables, some operating in linear and cumulative fashion, and some in a nonlinear, self-negating, and cyclical way.[xi]

In contrast to the variable level of a defender’s military readiness, particularly over longer periods of time, the attacker’s readiness concerns are effectively linear. The enemy can prepare to be maximally operationally ready by a specific date and so begin a new offensive campaign with an advantage in operational military capability. In strategic terms, this translates into JC Wylie’s observation that the aggressor would not “have dared start” war if he was not confident in establishing some degree of control, and that “the [operational] pattern set by the aggressor” would be a relatively strong one, as otherwise “he would not have selected that pattern to start with.”[xii]

The issue of borders reinforces resistance against offensive operations by denoting a specific line on the map which must be respected—not infringed by the enemy, but arguably by implication also not by oneself. The policy governing war appears inconsistent and hypocritical when it defends the honor of a certain state’s borders on one hand but contravenes the neighbor’s borders on the other hand. Policy may thus twice-over require that the strategy to defend one’s honorable alliance commitment be a purely defensive one, as long as one’s own military forces actually sit upon the borders of the defended state. Yet this is also twice-over a mistake in pure strategic logic as it offers the initiative without challenge to the enemy while placing no military pressure on him to bring about a peace.

Despite this strategic vulnerability, in other ways the geographic component of credibility actually enables strategy’s first relationship—between military means and political ends—to be fulfilled even while the second relationship—between adversaries—remains tenuous. Even if war continues and the defensive waiting posture is occasionally broken by enemy attack, as long as the border remains inviolate then the primary desired political goal has been achieved—despite the potential need for indefinite border maintenance in the face of an obstinate foe.

Ceaseless border vigilance in a contentious context is an exhausting and difficult task. Moreover, limitations placed on the opportunities available to the practicing strategist by considerations of honor open up significant strategic possibilities to the enemy, such as exhausting his honor-bound foe and achieving success through long, arduous conflict. The Vietnam War was characterized by such honorable limitations on one side, and the de facto adoption of a strategy of exhaustion by the other. The honor-bound defenders lost the war, as politicians and strategists could find no answer to exhaustion, without violating policy, save exhaustion.

The difficulty of the honor-restrained strategic task is also exacerbated because the specifics of honor concern policymakers, not necessarily those who actually fight. The soldiers’ reality is that apparently poor policy or strategy is dominating the war, and that politicians or generals are not taking the measures necessary to defeat the enemy and thereby are wasting soldiers’ lives for no clear purpose. This became a defining aspect of American soldiers’ experience during the Vietnam War. Although it did not derail American strategy, it did exacerbate the difficulty of executing it. Because the relationship between adversaries does not seem to be working to one’s own benefit to result in a win, the general integrity of the strategy as practiced may be called, rightly or wrongly, into question and may lead to ultimate defeat.

Contemporary Relevance

Wars of honor, especially concerning alliance credibility, have again become salient due to recent aggressive Russian actions in the Caucasus and Ukraine. Any war over vulnerable NATO members such as the Baltic states would be a war of honor, of alliance credibility, because most western publics and national political decision-makers tend to see the region as marginal with comparatively little geopolitical significance. While fighting to prove a single alliance commitment may be counterproductive, often this is because the polity in question is waging war to prove its credibility to fulfill all commitments in general. This includes signaling its resolve to alliances which are wholly unrelated to the war or region involved in the present theater of operations—the Korean and Vietnam Wars are examples. A NATO war of honor for the Baltic would, on the other hand, be action by an alliance for its own credibility to its own constituents. In such a case, honor could not be more relevant, as it is honor alone which binds the whole of NATO together into a single alliance despite its various countries with various interests and various threats.

Although there are many legitimate questions concerning Russia’s political intentions and whether or not Russia would ever actually attack the Baltic states, hoping or doubting a threat away is not an element of prudent defense planning. As Bernard Brodie argued during the Cold War about waging nuclear war, “[s]o long as there is a finite chance of war, we have to be interested in outcomes; and although practically all outcomes would be bad, some would be much worse than others.”[xiii] In this vein, and more than a decade after NATO’s collective defense clause was actually extended to the Baltic, US and NATO defense planning for the Baltic states has finally kicked into gear.

As defense planners grapple with the quandaries of Baltic defense—even assuming that defense would be resourced as heavily as RAND analysts assess to be necessary—questions of strategy inevitably come to the fore.[xiv] Once NATO forces are in theater, how can they, should they, must they be employed to achieve the desired results should fighting occur? The peculiarities and pitfalls of wars of honor, which a war in the name of Baltic defense necessarily would be, may trip up the unwary strategist.

Neither US nor NATO strategists and defense planners appear currently to have answers to the problems highlighted above. In July 2015, American strategist Richard Hooker, Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, published an article which, highly unusually, was identified as written on behalf of the US government, therefore representing an official US perspective. It was a fictional future history of a war for Estonia—and one of the revelations of the paper was that there was a war, despite some alliance hesitation, unwillingness, and foot dragging. The article was clearly intended to send a message of deterrence from Washington DC to Moscow, via the pages of RUSI Journal. Yet how did the imagined future war end? NATO forces successfully defended Estonia and Latvia from Russian-led, but allegedly local, separatist forces. It deterred the Russians from attacking Daugavpils and recaptured Narva from the ‘separatists’. Diplomacy was then called upon to resolve the conflict.

Statesmen on all sides agreed, privately if not publicly, that an overt Russian defeat, whether military or political, would not in the long run serve anyone’s interests. There must be compromise – each side must make painful concessions. The NATO offer, made discreetly through intermediaries, was simple and direct. All Russian military and subversive activities on the soil of NATO member states must cease. NATO would make a public declaration announcing that Ukraine should not join NATO, but would be free to choose its political and economic future for itself. Resolution of the Crimea issue would be deferred until a future date under UN auspices. Economic sanctions would be lifted and NATO forces would return to their home garrisons, with a promise not to be permanently stationed on the territory of any state formerly a member of the Warsaw Pact. A reinvigorated Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) would monitor the disengagement of all parties and the stationing of their forces. The NATO-Russia Council would be reactivated to take a lead role in addressing the concerns of ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic republics.[xv]

What is notable is that NATO made the diplomatic approach as if it were a supplicant to the victor rather than the winner of a brief strategically defensive campaign to restore Estonian territory. The article’s “painful concessions”, which each side had to make, stemmed disproportionately from NATO and hardly at all from Russia, which in any case could hardly be expected actually to adhere to its treaty commitments—their support of supposed separatists was ambiguous and ‘deniable’ in the first place, and would be so again. These features reflect the poor strategic situation in which even a successful defender politically bound by credibility is likely to find himself.

In Hooker’s scenario, there is no pressure for Russia to make peace (especially since it is not officially at war!), therefore the peace agreement must be sweet indeed for Russia to consider it. If peace is not swiftly forthcoming after military action, the political decision-makers of NATO’s constituent states may become fractious as the immediate threat has died down and their honor and credibility have been, at least in their eyes, satisfied. However, the divide between policymakers and soldiers in understanding honor and the consequent vulnerability to exhaustion may not be as fatal as in previous wars, such as the Vietnam War, if only for the simple reason that in the face of NATO’s military power Russia itself probably could not maintain a long and exhausting ambiguous intervention without escalation to more conventional interactions.

The implicit choice in Hooker’s imaginary future scenario is between continuation of a tense stand-off—as Russia did not actually escalate to overt military force in response to NATO’s restoration of Estonian territory—or a disproportionately unfavorable deal through which NATO could well lose the peace despite winning the war.


Strategy is demanding as it is. Public attempts such as this RUSI Journal article to think about how to wage wars of honor indicate just how difficult it is to practice strategy in a political environment constrained by questions of honor and credibility. Wars of honor may often become unsatisfactory wars, and may often create unsatisfactory peaces, due to the restraints imposed by honor-related motives upon strategy. Europe now faces challenges along its southern, southeastern, and eastern frontiers. The immediate national interests and fears of many NATO states are beginning to point in diverging directions. In this context, honor may be one of the few political motivations which will continue to bind Western countries together even should the outcome be war. Honor is clearly a significant component of contemporary policy. As such, it is incumbent upon strategists to recognize that honor remains an important motive for war and to understand and plan for the particular complications it brings to the practice of strategy, not just in potential near-term defense of the Baltic states but generically within strategic thought as well.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP 1984), 81.
[ii] Donald Kagan. On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. (New York: Anchor Books 1995).
[iii] Quoted in Peter Paret & Daniel Moran (eds). Carl von Clausewitz: Two Letters on Strategy. (Fort Leavenworth: US Army Command and General Staff College 1984), 21.
[iv] Kagan, On the Origins of War, 8.
[v] Colin S. Gray. “Mission improbable, fear, culture, and interest: peace making, 1943-1949” in Williamson Murray & Jim Lacey (eds). The Making of Peace: Rulers, States, and the Aftermath of War. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2009), 265-292.
[vi] Geoffrey Blainey. The Causes of War. (New York: The Free Press 1988), 122.
[vii] Colin S. Gray. “The Definitions and Assumptions of Deterrence: Questions of Theory and Practice”, Journal of Strategic Studies 13/4 (1990), 13.
[viii] Richard K. Betts. Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences. (Washington DC: Brookings Institute 1995), 206.
[ix] Clausewitz, On War, 613.
[x] Henry Kissinger. Diplomacy. (New York: Simon & Schuster 1994), 660.
[xi] Betts, Military Readiness, 32.
[xii] J.C. Wylie. Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press 1989), 74, 76-77.
[xiii] Bernard Brodie. “The Anatomy of Deterrence”, World Politics 11/2 (January 1959), 178.
[xiv] David A. Shlapak & Michael W. Johnson. Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. (Santa Monica: RAND 2016), 1.
[xv] Richard D. Hooker, Jr. “Operation Baltic Fortress, 2016”, RUSI Journal 160/3 (2015), 33.