Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 3  /  

The Inutility of Force

The Inutility of Force The Inutility of Force
To cite this article: Mihara, Robert, “The Inutility of Force,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue No. 3, fall 2016, pages 25-28.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[L]egitimacy has to be understood in its own terms, that is, in terms of the ideas people hold about God, justice, man, society, wealth, virtue, and the like.[i]

Francis Fukuyama

Since the end of the Cold War, security pundits in the US have been engaged in an active debate over the meaning of American military power. America’s unipolar moment in the 1990s elicited heady conversations about Pax Americana and a new world order. After the attacks of 9/11, many of these voices became more strident, speaking openly of refashioning the world’s troubled areas through the use of American armed might. Max Boot and others have claimed that fickle policymakers emasculate war as a moral and effective instrument of policy through their reluctance to use it. Boot warned against the great “danger of undercommitment,” prodding American leaders to be “less apologetic, less hesitant, less humble.” Such arguments fail to properly account for many things, but perhaps the greatest defect is their blindness to the contemporary political reality that determines the net consequence of wars. Specifically, their blithe prescriptions ignore the inherent and significant complexity that globalized modernity has bequeathed to the nations of the world. The political awakening of societies has been progressing for centuries where individual identity is self-appropriated and legitimacy is granted rather than assumed. Yet, the concept of legitimacy has not received the kind of attention that it deserves despite its great consequence for the utility of military interventions.[ii]

Clausewitzian View of Military Intervention

The agency of individuals limits the potential of intervention by subverting the influence of rationality (i.e., policy) on the direction and outcome of conflicts. Intervening military forces introduce themselves as armed competitors in the battle for influence and authority and thus they become arbiters in the open discourse on legitimacy regardless of their intentions. By their presence, foreign soldiers provoke a reflexive resistance from those who stand to lose from the policy of the interloping power. The defensive reflex sets in motion a social pendulum as the fortunes of the population swing between the demands of intervening forces and that of their opponents. In an age where every conflict is immediately international, the intervention, as a system, is never isolated from outside influences, meaning that the pendulum never finds stasis. The intervention continues to swing in measured arcs where the countervailing influences have rough parity, or it throws itself to pieces under the strain of accumulating injuries. This dynamic imposes a clear and knowable limit on what military interventions can plausibly accomplish in a subject society which is not already technically, politically, and socially predisposed to state building and where security is contested. A recent study on civil resistance found that even a two percent rate of active participation in a given campaign to undermine or influence a government correlated with the success of that campaign in more than four-fifths of the cases. With such a relatively low threshold for effectively contesting government authority, it is little wonder that contested spaces like Afghanistan and Iraq have frustrated American hopes.[iii]

Carl von Clausewitz’s general theory of war provides a solid basis for understanding the interactions that frustrate such interventions because even the most pacific of foreign occupations is predicated on the threat of violence as a guarantor of the intervening power’s policies. Clausewitz describes war as the complex interplay of three countervailing tendencies that can be succinctly listed as reason, emotion, and chance. For the purpose of analytical clarity, this article uses the taxonomy of rational, irrational (i.e., emotions operate in the same domain as reason but are not beholden to it), and non-rational (i.e., chance and probability are not subject to human reasoning).[iv]

The interactions between rational, irrational, and non-rational factors cannot be fixed to any set formula, but it is possible to generalize their relationship to one another in a given conflict and thereby gain useful strategic insights. Rational tendencies encompass the factors that determine an actor’s calculation of cost-benefit or how it determines its interest. In premodern conflicts, wars could be reduced to simple contests between the calculated aims of individual rulers and their nobility. The scale and scope of warfare in that era did not demand more than compliance from the ruled and did not offer common individuals the means for achieving political mobilization. Conditions present in premodern wars thereby limited the consequence of emotion (i.e., primordial violence, hatred, and enmity) as a political force, largely leaving rational and non-rational tendencies to determine the course of violent conflicts. Beginning in the late-fifteenth century, however, the relationship between individuals and war changed as wars grew in scope and duration. By the late 1700s, intellectuals had translated these changes into the foundational ideas regarding individual rights and state legitimacy that would eventually carry France into the French Revolution and take the rest of Europe with it. Like the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic Wars unleashed great destruction by tapping into the wellsprings of social identity and accessing the military potential of modern nations.[v]

Origins and Consequence of Politicization

By stimulating the collective consciousness of society, the march of modernity narrowed the political space between the sentiments of the population and the policymaking seats in government, making wars more subject to the gravity of the irrational. This proximity between emotion and purpose made possible extended campaigns by great armies as it also opened the door to wars of revolution. In popular struggles as different as the Peninsular War and the French-Algerian War, primordial violence, hatred, and enmity manifested themselves through breathtaking cruelty. It is not as if war is not itself naturally cruel, but the manifestation of irrationality in wars amongst the people points to the particular dynamic that frustrates military interventions. Armed responses to the actions of insurgents are experienced as repression by a constituency in the subject society. Repression initiates a cycle where the irrational builds tension like a great spring accumulating potential energy until the system can no longer sustain its contradictions without transforming or collapsing. In such wars, the fears, demands of honor, and material interests of the population are too expansive to be effectively reconciled.[vi]

This reality of popular consciousness and individual agency limits the utility of intervention for achieving premeditated political purpose. Violence (or the threat thereof) is useful in politics only if it can reliably deliver positive results at an acceptable cost, and the peace that follows a war must be superior to the peace that preceded it. The dynamic between popular emotion and repression frustrates the strategist’s ambition for crafting an approach that is both plausible and profitable. The orderly transition from war hinges on accommodating multiple parties’ demand for legitimacy which in this context means that all actors have accepted the status quo post bellum. In pre- and early modern wars, the threshold for achieving legitimate outcomes was plausibly achievable because the parties relevant to determining legitimacy were members of the political elite. Irrational forces were present but circumscribed by the material scale and scope of conflict as well as the relatively limited agency of peasantry in most societies. By the early modern era, this had begun to change with the growing influence of the professional class apart from the aristocracy.

In the Clausewitzian formulation, the ascendancy of irrationality as an influence on war will tend to unbound its conduct away from the deliberate use of violence for conscious purpose. In limited conflicts, the tendency to delimit the use of violence will tend toward reducing its relative utility because specified ends become less plausibly achieved at an acceptable risk and cost. This situation is a problem for strategists seeking to build a sturdy bridge between the ambitions of policy and available resources. Politicization has resulted in two shifts that have greatly increased the potential destructiveness of war at the same time that it has reduced its plausible utility in achieving desirable political outcomes.

The first such change is that communities, be they state or non-state, can mobilize significant resources for their cause by appropriating the political agency of individuals. Social media and other information platforms greatly empower such activity by lowering the barriers for collective action and eliminating the need to achieve critical mass at the local level. The success that the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has achieved in drawing fresh recruits and other resources from around the world are testament to the potential of such outreach. Second, the investment of individuals in politics also greatly complicates any effort to impose order on the conduct and conclusion of wars towards desired ends. Both derivatives of politicization stem from the unleashed passions of the people that vents individual fears into warfare above and beyond the promulgations of their leaders. In the twenty-first century, this has been further magnified by the vastly more interconnected world which makes nearly every conflict, regardless of scale, an international conflict involving corporate and other non-state entities. Many of those actors bring with them the means to catalyze localized conflicts into conflagrations out of proportion to the interests involved.

The liberalizing process that wrought these changes in the political order have disaggregated the necessary elements of legitimacy that determine the utility of violence. The unpacking of legitimacy does more than multiply the number of elements at play in politics. It also greatly adds to the complexity of interactions amongst social actors in war’s conduct and in its resolution. In premodern and early modern times, legitimacy was predominantly a concern of the elites in large polities. To the degree it existed in tribal societies, legitimacy was a simple product of moral and material rules. Simple subordination was conferred so long as the leadership held fortune’s favor, confirmed the solidity of the rules defining individual identity and social strata, and sufficiently fulfilled a given society’s expectations for basic material needs.

In our politicized and connected world, individuals no longer defer to elites as a matter of social station. Rather, deference to authority is a product of complex social bargaining amongst groups in society. Compliance can be compelled, but the demands of compelling are never-ending and ultimately corrupting. The fundamental alteration of the relationship between rulers and ruled, experts and lay observers, etc., alters the calculus of feasibility for strategy. In the historical experience of state building, working through the existing elite and professional classes has been essential to achieving a functional status quo. The assumption of political agency by individuals, however much circumscribed, reduces the utility of vanquished indigenous elites to the victor should he want to enlist them.[vii]

For the past decade, the subject of popular legitimacy in war has been subsumed within the ongoing debate over counterinsurgency theory, and the effort to accrue legitimacy has become something akin to managing cash flow with military practitioners focused on the art and science of creating a positive profit margin. This approach does great harm in enabling unattainable ambitions, chasing after the hope of what Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus referred to as “getting the inputs right.” Legitimacy is the product of a host of abstractions that define what it means to be just and a member of a given society. Like culture, it is an aggregation of independent variables. Getting the inputs right to secure legitimacy in an intervention is not theoretically impossible, but the state building projects are of such complexity that they often become Sisyphean endeavors with each moment of progress revealing a range of new challenges that must be overcome. It is in this process that great powers exhaust themselves over insoluble social problems.[viii]


The path of political development in the world has progressively constrained the utility of violent conflict by elevating the influence of irrational forces on the conduct and conclusion of limited wars. In the absence of vital interests, continuous wars for influence involving the population become wasting conflicts because none of the belligerents have the will or means to compel a decisive end. In a politically conscious and connected world, decisive outcomes are often only possible through absolutist approaches. In other words, the complexity of popular legitimacy is only solved by doing away with the population. Whether it be by some form of coercive subjugation, ethnic cleansing, or outright genocide, the brutality required by such an approach inevitably provokes its own set of antibodies in the international community and is sufficiently corrupting to one’s security institutions as to be ultimately self-defeating.

Military interventions begun under the premise of decisive outcomes ignore this complex reality. Decisiveness is, in part, a product of intersecting ideas of legitimacy that must be satisfied. These conceptions of legitimacy are held by different social groups many of whom are in conflict or competition with one another, making reconciling them problematic if not impossible. As Niccolò Machiavelli observed, you “end up making enemies of all those you have offended during your conquest,” including erstwhile allies “since you cannot satisfy them in the way they had envisioned.”[ix]

None of this is to suggest that war no longer has a place in policy. It remains a viable tool for achieving positive aims (i.e., to effect) as well as negative aims (i.e., to prevent). The issue for strategists and policymakers is the need to understand how the complexity of the post-1798 world precludes us from directly achieving certain high ambitions. Such an understanding would prevent us from militarizing policy where patience and soft power should lead us. The US response to the attacks of 9/11 provide a case study in how ignorance of politicization in our time can lead to failing policies.

The preventive wars of President George W. Bush succumbed to the reality of a politically mobilized world in addition to his administration’s gross under-appreciation of the material demands of those wars. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq evinced no understanding of the state of political development in the world or the requisites for state-building in those two states. Instead, US policy and strategy embraced a crude belief in the power of force and of liberal democratic ideology to remake societies. Many Afghans and Iraqis were eager to take up the Bush Administration’s vision, but their enthusiasm and American hubris glossed over a sea of rage and discontent. Large segments of the indigenous society wanted nothing to do with Western state-building dreams and stood to lose significantly from the imposition of American technocratic and liberal democratic norms. The dependence of US-led forces on deadly force to retain some semblance of control against wily insurgents further spoiled the social dynamics. Insurgents proved the case in reverse in episodes such as the so-called Sunni Awakening in Iraq’s Anbar province where Sunni tribesmen rebelled against their Al-Qaeda guests after the latter abused their privileges.[x]

The counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan produced such paltry returns, in part, because the politicization of stakeholder populations multiplied the complexity of such conflicts, begetting an interminable cycle of action-counteraction without the possibility of culmination through the achievement of positive aims. The same things that draw outside powers to intervene in the first place stand in the way of achieving plausible aims at an acceptable cost. Reconciling social wounds that predate an intervention as well as those suffered through the subsequent occupation represent high challenges that may well be insurmountable in most instances. Even in the absence of enemy sanctuaries, putting states together through military means has little to support any claims for its efficacy in recent history. The current state of affairs in Afghanistan and Iraq do nothing to change the historical ledger in that regard.[xi]


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


[i] Francis Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 445.
[ii] Max Boot, Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 346-52; Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol, War Over Iraq: Saddam’s Tyranny and America’s Mission (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2003), 112-25; Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (New York: Random House, 2016), 360-61.
[iii] David Betz, “The Strategic Bystanders: On Mayhem in Century 21,” Infinity Journal 5 (Spring 2016): 31; Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2011, Kindle e-book, location 891; Max Fisher, “Peaceful protest is much more effective than violence for toppling dictators,” Washington Post, November 5, 2013, (accessed July 13, 2016).
[iv] Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, “Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity,” Parameters (Autumn 1995): 9, 13; Janeen Klinger, “The Social Science of Carl von Clausewitz,” Parameters (Spring 2006): 85-87; Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), 89.
[v] Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 323, 325; Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, trans. Michael Jones (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984), 30-32, 238; James W. Davis, “Introduction to Clausewitz on Small War,” in Clausewitz on Small War, trans. and ed. Christopher Daase and James W. Davis (Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), 17; Clausewitz, “Testimonial,” in Clausewitz on Small War, 216, 221.
[vi] Clausewitz, “Testimonial,” 204-209; James D. Le Sueur, Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics during the Decolonization of Algeria (Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2005), 17-31.
[vii] Fukuyama, State-building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century (New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 2004), 103.
[viii] David Petraeus, Testimony, on March 15, 2011, to the Senate Armed Services Committee, 112th Congress, (accessed July 12, 2016); Fukuyama, Origins of Political Order, 42-43 and 444-445; Fukuyama, State-building, 91.
[ix] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, in The Essential Writings of Machiavelli, trans. and ed. Peter Constantine (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), 9.
[x] Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, 223; Fukuyama, State-building, 100-102.
[xi] Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work? (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 183; Betz, “Strategic Bystander,” 32.