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War, ‘Moral Forces’, and the ‘Virus of Strategism’

War, ‘Moral Forces’, and the ‘Virus of Strategism’ War, ‘Moral Forces’, and the ‘Virus of Strategism’
To cite this article: Betz, David, “War, ‘Moral Forces’, and the ‘Virus of Strategism’”, Infinity Journal, “The Strategy Bridge” Special Edition, March 2014, pages 17-21.

One of the things I admire most in the writings of Colin Gray is how well they reflect his innate good humour. Over three decades he has written twenty-seven books, dozens of monographs and book chapters, and as many scholarly articles on strategic theory and multitudinous aspects of the practice of strategy. The latter range from 1975’s ‘Salt II and the Strategic Balance’ (a rumination on Cold War arms control) through to 2013’s ‘The Strategic Anthropologist’, an extended review essay on Ken Booth’s Strategy and Ethnocentrism.[i] Particularly noteworthy thesis-in-the-title contributions to strategic studies include ‘In Praise of Strategy’.[ii] He evidently cares deeply about strategy, about which he has a precise understanding honed over many years; and he holds an ‘exalted view of the strategist’ for which some of his peers have taken him to task.[iii] And yet in The Strategy Bridge he warns against ‘an undue reverence for strategy’.[iv] I like that. It seems to me a mark of the best sort of scholar to take one’s subject very seriously and oneself markedly less so.

I like also that he does not cut corners, nor oversimplify that which is inherently complex. This is sometimes pitched as a criticism but I reckon that it ought not to be. In The Strategy Bridge he describes fully twenty-one dicta of strategy in four categories in three parts – theory, practice, and context and purpose – before concluding with six ‘broad, more than a little compounded’ claims tempered with five ‘cautions, or caveats’.[v] This is clearly not a book to be read and digested in a lazy Sunday afternoon. Strategy, as he illustrates in a recurring theme throughout the text, is complicated to conceive and to practice: it is, he writes, ‘possible but difficult’. If one adds ‘but worth the effort’ to complete the epigram it would seem also an apposite description of The Strategy Bridge. It is not that the author of ‘Clausewitz Rules, OK?’ is unable to make a point concisely; it is, rather, that in this case he has quite a few points to convey – and, moreover, they intertwine in complicated ways that defy easy unravelling. I found crossing The Strategy Bridge to be hard going but the effort was amply rewarded. This is not a review, however; it is instead a short essay inspired by the reading.

There are two issues on which I would like to cordially remonstrate with Professor Gray. First, I wonder if (like the Prussian master himself) he gives curiously short shrift to ‘moral forces’ in war and strategy. These are mentioned, of course – indeed, morale is noted by Gray as ‘by far the most important ingredient in fighting power’ while Clausewitz also reckoned moral forces to be supreme.[vi] In my opinion, though, the nettle is not grasped as firmly as one should; for if one seeks explanation of the profound faultiness of Western strategy of late it is, above all, to be found in a deficiency of the ‘spirit which permeates the whole being [and not just the fighting–DJB] of war.’[vii] Second, Gray who lists a ‘canonical ten’ works on strategic theory ordered in four tiers, does, I think, a disservice to his countryman C.E. Callwell whose mettle as a strategic thinker is underestimated – surely he deserves ranking as an ‘other contender’, says I.[viii]


You’ve Got To Be In It To Win It

Chapter One, Book One, of On War is characterised by an aphoristic specificity beloved by staff college readers and grad students, many of whom, one suspects, begin and end their reading of Clausewitz’s masterwork here, taking away a few handy bumper sticker-sized concepts: ‘war is a continuation of political commerce’, it is an ‘act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will’, it is ‘nothing but a duel on an extensive scale’, and so on. That part of the book devoted to moral forces, by contrast, is frustratingly ambiguous and half thought through. Undoubtedly, he considers them important – pre-eminently and irremediably so:

…theory cannot banish the moral forces beyond its frontier, because the effects of the physical forces and the moral are completely fused and are not to be decomposed like a metal alloy by a chemical process… And therefore the most of the subjects which we shall go through in this book are composed half of physical, half of moral causes and effects, and we might say the physical are almost no more than the wooden handle, whilst the moral are the noble metal, the real bright-polished weapon.[ix]

It seems too that Clausewitz does not consider their importance to be purely tactical or simply cognate with ‘morale’ or ‘fighting spirit’, as so often commentators do (though clearly there is a high degree of overlap); on the contrary, he says, they are so important because they ‘…form the spirit which permeates the whole being of war.’[x] But, frustratingly, he makes essentially no attempt to specify these forces or to scale them up from the field of battle to the war councils in which strategizing is conducted – indeed he disparages any such effort as fruitlessly professorial, commonplace and trite:

We prefer, therefore, to remain here more than usually incomplete and rhapsodical, content to have drawn attention to the importance of the subject in a general way, and to have pointed out the spirit in which the views given in this book have been conceived.[xi]

This is a mistake, or at any rate an elision, that I think Professor Gray also makes. On the one hand, as noted already, the spirit of irremediably complex connectedness of factors in strategy – material, political, societal, and more – pervades The Strategy Bridge. Yet when he finally gets ‘moral forces’ squarely in his analytical sights, quoting the same passage from Clausewitz that I have above, he drops the shot.[xii] Readers are urged to be cautious about the power of will to make up for material considerations in war. This is indubitably good advice. Hitler’s tiresome exhortations of will in lieu of basic strategic acumen and tactical common sense while the combined allied forces relentlessly eroded his actual power to resist has soured Clausewitz’s countrymen on such talk for coming on three generations now. Readers, however, ought also to be counselled as strongly against the opposite foolishness: that material preponderance can make up for a gaping lack of moral self-belief. For insight on the cause of the West’s serial martial failures in the last half-century, especially since September 11, 2001, they need look no further.

While he was the Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld several times expressed incredulity at the way that he saw the United States being outperformed by its enemies in the ‘war of ideas’. His public elucidation of the problem in 2006 was to the point:

Our enemies have skilfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not adapted… For the most part, the U.S. government still functions as a five and dime store in an eBay world… There’s never been a war fought in this environment before.[xiii]

A year later the situation was no better when his successor Robert Gates professed it embarrassing that Al Qaeda was still beating America in the new environment. ‘How has one man in a cave managed to out-communicate the world’s greatest communication society?’ he lamented.[xiv]

The reason is essentially uncomplicated. Back in the 1970s Norman Gibbs, then Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University, explained Clausewitz’s understanding of ‘moral forces’ as equalling ideology, defined broadly as ‘…something more comprehensive than simply political doctrine; something which, operating in the hearts and minds of men, moves them and inspires them to action.’[xv] In modern times we would likely use the term ‘psychological’ to cover much of the topic. We are speaking, in other words, of a coterminous and intertwined element of that part of the trinity that Clausewitz described as ‘passion’. And yet the definitive characteristics of the multitude of theories of victory derived from the never-put-a-man-where-you-can-put-a-bullet logic of the Revolution in Military Affairs, which have so preoccupied strategists for decades, are dispassion and detachment respectively.

It is a profound strategic conundrum of our day, this desire to fight wars the object of which is to compel foreigners to govern themselves in a manner congenial to the West’s interests and in line with its shifting sense of rectitude – at the lowest possible cost in blood, treasure, and political bother. Clausewitz grasped that war requires society to cohere around the project towards which violence is aimed at achieving. That is the real and vital driving force of war. The point is sufficiently basic in principle that it was hardly his unique insight. It is, for instance, the same truth to which Shakespeare makes Henry V give voice in his ‘Cry God for Harry, England, and St George!’ speech at the high point in his dramatisation of the siege of Harfleur. Or a more contemporary reference: Gerard Butler as the Spartan King Leonidas booting the messenger of the Persian King Xerxes in the sternum while bellowing ‘This is Sparta!’ in the 2006 film ‘300’.

After Clausewitz, others made similar sorts of argument. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century French philosopher Georges Sorel, for example, is remembered primarily for his Reflections on Violence in which he remarked,

…men who are participating in a great social movement always picture their coming action as a battle in which their cause is certain to triumph. These constructions, knowledge of which is so important for historians, I propose to call ‘myths’.[xvi]

And yet by the last years of the twentieth century many statesmen and soldiers in the West had come to practice a way of war in which the ‘moral forces’ of war seemingly no longer pertained. As a result, they grossly overestimated their own strength fighting in the name of half-truths and vague hopes, while underestimating that of their principal opponents who in their own minds at least were fighting for the proverbial ‘truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. It is this realisation that forms, in my view, Rupert Smith’s most noteworthy contribution to the strategic canon: ‘wars have become media events far away from any ongoing social reality.’[xvii] Put more simply, the answer to Gates’ question about the fortunes of the War on Terror is that one side is just better at convincing itself that the work in which it is engaged is serious, formidable, and sublime than the other; and so in this case the Islamists have been better able, to paraphrase George Sorel’s comments on the revolutionary socialists of the early twentieth century, ‘to raise themselves above our frivolous society and make themselves worthy of pointing out new roads to the world.’[xviii]

The above is not a value judgment; it is simply the case that material considerations notwithstanding, a civilisation that does not much believe in war anymore will, naturally, struggle to prevail against a civilisation that largely still does.


In Strategic Trouble? Better Callwell!

Over the last decade or so alongside the resurgence of interest (for obvious reasons) in counterinsurgency, citations have mounted to the British strategic thinker C.E. Callwell. Born in 1859, Callwell had a long and distinguished military career, starting in the Royal Artillery in 1878. He fought in the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and the First and Second Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902), also taking part in the Greco-Turkish War (1897) as an interested observer. He retired as a colonel in 1909 but was recalled at the beginning of the First World War to serve as the director of military operations and intelligence with the rank of major general. He died in 1928. His seminal work, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, was first published in 1896, then revised and republished in 1899 and again in 1906, the last edition becoming the standard reference.[xix]

A classic in the small wars sub-genre, though no doubt more widely cited than read, it deserves more attention for its contribution to strategy generally. Indeed it is in this context that Gray in a delightful turn of phrase references his work as ‘a useful prophylactic against the virus of strategism’. Specifically, he notes Callwell’s observation that strategy is not the ‘final arbiter in war. The battlefield decides.’[xx] This ought not to be a controversial point. As Gray avers, the defining characteristic of war is that it is waged by violence – warfare: ‘War may be much greater than warfare, but warfare lies at its black heart.’[xx] It is controversial, though, to the extent that contemporary doctrine has internalised gnomic utterances such as Sun Tzu’s ‘a victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory’ to such a degree that battle – the destruction of an enemy’s ability to materially resist the political object imposed on him – seems almost incidental.[xxii]

To be sure, Callwell’s relentless enemy-centrism and offense-mindedness (he entitles one chapter ‘The Object is to Fight, Not Manoeuvre’) tends to hit modern readers raised on ‘manoeuvrism’ like a slap in the face with a wet fish. It certainly puts him at odds with the orthodox population-centrism that currently reigns in doctrine and staff college curricula on counterinsurgency, the prevailing war type of the day. As it was put by General David Petraeus a few years ago, in reference to the NATO campaign in Afghanistan:

…you don’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency, which is what faces Afghanistan. Rather, it takes a mix of every aspect. It takes a comprehensive approach, and not just military but civil–military.[xxiii]

One suspects Callwell would reckon the first half of that statement nonsensical and the second half just plain obvious. ‘It cannot be insisted upon too strongly’, he advised,

…that in a small war the only possible attitude to assume is, speaking strategically, the offensive. The regular army must force its way into the enemy’s country and seek him out. It must be ready to fight him wherever he may be found. It must play to win and not for safety.[xxiv]

To the contemporary reader the stridency of such pronouncements is striking, particularly as, it must be said, a good deal of what Callwell says is freighted with the blithe racism characteristic of his time and place. That does not make them incorrect. Consider as a case in point Mark Urban’s evident discomfort with the finding of his own detailed research into the British involvement in the ‘secret war’ in Iraq by SAS units operating with American Special Forces in Baghdad, that the ‘truly disturbing (to those of a liberal mind, in any case) things about the special operations campaign in Iraq is that it suggests a large terrorist organisation can be overwhelmed under certain circumstances by military force.’[xxv]

Why would this be disturbing except that it conflicts with a by now deeply embedded ideal that force is if not incidental then decidedly secondary to success? Post-Second World War wisdom on counterinsurgency, for instance, especially that of the French practitioner cum theorist David Galula, holds that the counterinsurgent force’s strengths are ‘congenital’ and in large part unusable. As he put it, for a regular force ‘to adopt the insurgent’s warfare would be the same as for a giant to try to fit into a dwarf’s clothing’.[xxvi] And yet, it seems, the giant’s donning of the dwarf’s clothing was the key to success (such as it was) in Iraq.[xxvii]

Perhaps even more pertinent to the present discussion, though, is the importance Callwell placed on what he called the ‘moral force of civilization’. Ultimately, his point here is not primarily tactical, nor even at the military strategic level on which Gray focuses in The Strategy Bridge. Take, for instance, this line from his chapter on the ‘Need of Boldness and Vigour’:

It is not a question of merely maintaining the initiative, but of compelling the enemy to see at every turn that he has lost it and to recognise that the forces of civilisation are dominant and not to be denied.[xxviii]

It seems to this reader that Callwell conceives of moral force as an approximation of what we might describe as ‘civilisational confidence’, a firm belief that the object of one’s efforts, tactical, strategic, and political, is right (if not just) and in some sense an inevitable part of the natural order. Though it was already on the wane by the time the final version of Small Wars was published, in the wake of the Second Boer War – the last, greatest, and probably most humiliating of Britain’s imperial wars – the Victorians possessed this confidence.[xxix]


Where Have You Gone, Joe Dimaggio?

We do not. As popular as the term ‘dominance’ is in the lexicon of doctrine writers it is hard to imagine it deployed alongside the word ‘civilizational’. The devastating world wars of the twentieth century followed by a couple of decades of fruitless wars of decolonization, the latter fought under the Damoclean Sword of the Cold War’s nuclear stand-off, largely put paid to the West’s belief in the efficacy of war and, more generally, to its self-belief of moral purpose. On the whole, it is for the better that the West has lost the appetite for ruling others directly, by force. It has not wholly, however, given up on doing so indirectly – by proxy, as it were – with largely unhappy results. The most recent Afghanistan war illustrates very well what happens when one’s strategic endeavours rest upon a nullity of moral conviction.

Forty-nine countries have contributed to the ISAF mission one way or another at the time of writing – every single one of them dogged by the simple question: why? Even the United States, by far the largest contributor and driver of strategy, has had no particularly compelling answer. In his recent memoirs, Gates recounts this startling realisation during a March 2010 cabinet-level meeting on Afghan strategy: ‘As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his.’[xxx] Considering that for the other forty-eight contributors to ISAF the bottom line is that they were there more or less purely to be alongside America, their strategic position proved even more invidious.

As an illustration, consider the words of Major General John Cantwell, an Australian officer with thirty-eight years of service encompassing three wars from Operation Desert Storm in 1991, through Iraq in 2006, and Afghanistan in 2010 where he headed the Australian contingent. In his memoirs he recorded his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. At the root of the painful expatiation in his book was gnawing doubt about what it had all been for:

As I paid a final salute at the foot of yet another flag-draped coffin loaded into the belly of an aircraft bound for Australia, I found myself questioning if the pain and suffering of our soldiers and their families were worth it. I wondered if the deaths of any of those fallen soldiers made any difference. I recoiled from such thoughts, which seemed disrespectful, almost treasonous. I had to answer in the affirmative, or risk exposing all my endeavours as fraudulent. I had to believe it was worth it. But the question continues to prick at my mind. I don’t have an answer.[xxxi]

In war, it is perfectly natural to confound one’s enemy – indeed, that’s the main point. A degree of dissembling amongst one’s allies is also sometimes necessary to paper over contradictions in respective aims and objectives – provided the overall goal is sufficiently mutually vital, a degree of diplomatic falsity is not fatal. It is wholly undesirable, however, to deceive oneself. This is the essential gist of the oft-quoted remark by Clausewitz that the supreme and most far-reaching act of the statesman and commander is to establish ‘the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.’[xxxii]

That, however, unfortunately, is basically how we do it. The West fights deliberately passionlessly, which makes its material strength belie a weakness of heart. It is like a heavyweight boxer fighting with one hand behind his back and both bootlaces tied together. The other side is a scrawny flyweight by comparison, but at least it knows what it is fighting for and the ‘moral force’ that animates its adherents is more secure and coherent.

It seems odd to argue that strategists must grapple much more directly with the moral force of war, that that is the Kryptonite source of their current strategic enervation. There is more than a hint of Spenglerian scolding of civilizational decline about it.[xxxiii] Nonetheless, that is where we are.

Moreover, I feel that Clausewitz’s own simultaneous highlighting and prevaricating on the subject ought to be something of a red flag to present day followers of the major philosopher of war. Indeed, it should have been long ago. Paul Simon’s 1968 song ‘Mrs Robinson’, written as the theme of the film The Graduate (itself a sort of morality play disguised as a rom-com) contains this wistful lament of a verse:

Laugh about it, shout about it
When you’ve got to choose
Every way you look at it you lose.
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

After DiMaggio’s death in 1999, Simon penned an obituary cum op-ed in which he explained the meaning of the lyric. It drew upon the fashion for using baseball as a metaphor for America, in which context DiMaggio represented, for Simon, the clash of old values including ‘excellence and fulfillment of duty (he often played in pain), combined with a grace that implied a purity of spirit’ with the ‘iconoclastic, mind-expanding, authority-defying’ new values of the 1960s. The lines resonated because, in Simon’s words, they reflected the wider culture’s subconscious, unsatisfied, and necessary yearning for heroes.

Why do we do this even as we know the attribution of heroic characteristics is almost always a distortion? Deconstructed and scrutinized, the hero turns out to be as petty and ego-driven as you and I. We know, but still we anoint. When the hero becomes larger than life, life itself is magnified, and we read with a new clarity our moral compass. The hero allows us to measure ourselves on the goodness scale: O.K., I’m not Mother Teresa, but hey, I’m no Jeffrey Dahmer. Better keep trying in the eyes of God.[xxxiv]

In my view, for strategic theory to regard this aspect of war and strategy, the clarity of our moral compass, as Clausewitz did – as important to understand but incompletely and unspecifically elucidated – is perilous. Moral force is not about what is objectively ethical in war (a thing which I, frankly, am resolutely ambivalent –damn the oxymoron) but about what is subjectively societally inspirational, motivating, and resonant. The fact that a verse from a forty-year-old pop song illustrates the point shows its fundamentality to the social reality of which war is a part and not its triviality.


[i] Colin Gray, ‘Salt II and the Strategic Balance’, British Journal of International Studies, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1975), pp. 183-208, and ‘The Strategic Anthropologist’, International Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 5 (2013), pp. 1285-1295.
[ii] Colin Gray, ‘Clausewitz Rules, OK? The Future is the Past—with GPS’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1 (December 1999), pp. 161-182; and ‘In Praise of Strategy’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2003), pp. 285-295 – an article which was actually a reply to Martin Shaw’s sharp critique of him in ‘Strategy and Slaughter’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2003), pp. 269-277.
[iii] To quote Lawrence Freedman, one of the few to match Gray’s output in quality and quantity, in his recent tome Strategy (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 238. Freedman devotes a chapter ‘The Myth of the Master Strategist’ to Gray, which is high praise indeed notwithstanding the distance between their views.
[iv] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 84.
[v] Gray, The Strategy Bridge, p. 238.
[vi] Gray, The Strategy Bridge, p. 215; Carl Von Clausewitz (J.J. Graham, trans.), On War (Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1997), p. 150.
[vii] Clausewitz, p. 150.
[viii] Gray, The Strategy Bridge, pp. 240-241.
[ix] Clausewitz, p. 151.
[x] Clausewitz, p. 150. Emphasis added.
[xi] Clausewitz, p. 152.
[xii] Curiously, too, as it is a topic he has covered well elsewhere. See Colin Gray, ‘Moral Advantage, Strategic Advantage?’, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2010), pp. 333-365.
[xiii] Donald Rumsfeld, ‘New Realities in the Media Age’, Council on Foreign Relations speech (New York: 17 February 2006).
[xiv] Robert Gates, Landon Lecture, Kansas State University (Manhattan, KS: 26 November 2007.
[xv] Norman H. Gibbs, ‘Clausewitz and the Moral Forces in War’, Naval War College Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 4 (January/February 1975), p. 15.
[xvi] Georges Sorel (T.E. Hulme, trans.), Reflections on Violence (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915), p. 27.
[xvii] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2005), p. 9
[xviii] Sorel, p. 29.
[xix] Charles E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2010).
[xx] Callwell, p. 90, quoted in Gray, The Strategy Bridge, p. 84.
[xxi] Gray, The Strategy Bridge, p. 105.
[xxii] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, in Thomas Cleary (ed., and trans.), Classics of Strategy and Counsel, Vol. 1 (London: Shambhala Press, 2000), p. 94.
[xxiii] ‘Interview: General David Petraeus’, PBS Frontline: ‘Kill/Capture’, 14 June 2011,
[xxiv] Callwell, p. 75.
[xxv] Mark Urban, Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq (London: Little, Brown, 2010), p. xvi. The theory that killing one’s way to success is in fact possible in certain circumstances is bolstered by other analyses, including Christopher Lamb and Evan Munsing, ‘Secret Weapon: High-Value Target Teams as an Organisational Innovation’, Strategic Perspectives 4, (Washington, DC: Centre for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defence University, March 2011). Also see, William F. Owen, ‘Killing Your Way to Control’, British Army Review (Spring 2011), pp. 34-37.
[xxvi] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (London: Praeger, 1964), p. 73.
[xxvii] A point, not incidentally, which applies well also to Britain’s pacification campaign in Iraq in the early 1920s. See Mark Jacobsen, ‘Only by the Sword: British Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 1920’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1991), pp. 323-363.
[xxviii] Callwell, p. 75.
[xxix] See Thomas Pakenham, The Boer War (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1979).
[xxx] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (London: W.H Allen, 2014), p. 557. Emphasis in original.
[xxxi] John Cantwell, Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2012), p. 13. Emphasis added.
[xxxii] Clausewitz, p. 100.
[xxxiii] Oswald Spengler (Charles Francis Atkinson, trans.), The Decline of the West, 2 Vols. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922).
[xxxiv] Paul Simon, ‘The Silent Superstar’, The New York Times (9 March 1999).