Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 4  /  

Why Strategy Is Easy but Difficult (at the Same Time): A Short Study on the Complexities of Escalation

Why Strategy Is Easy but Difficult (at the Same Time): A Short Study on the Complexities of Escalation Why Strategy Is Easy but Difficult (at the Same Time): A Short Study on the Complexities of Escalation
To cite this article: Smith, M.L.R., “Why Strategy Is Easy but Difficult (at the Same Time): A Short Study on the Complexities of Escalation,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue 4, Summer 2017, pages 10-13.

One of the virtues of strategic theory, when properly understood, is that it can dispel clichés and easy assumptions that often abound in popular debate. One of the more obvious timeworn phrases is the notion of military victory or a military solution. Public commentary will frequently refer to one protagonist or another as seeking a military victory or proclaim that a particular problem can, or cannot, be solved by military means alone.[i]

The practice of strategy is, broadly speaking, the endeavour that seeks to use available means, both tangible and intangible, to achieve desired ends.[ii] To have utility strategy therefore has to be rooted firmly in reality, because as Hew Strachan discerns, it is ‘an attempt to make concrete a set of objectives through the application of military force to a particular case’.[iii] Taken together with the observation that war is fundamentally at the service of policy, it makes sense to comprehend the way in which strategies are constructed because it is a pragmatic consideration that connects military operations to political outcomes.

From the perspective of strategic theory, then, the notion that there are expressly military solutions to anything is often a misnomer because they are essentially un-pragmatic, entailing disproportionate effort to enact.[iv] There have been few occasions where protagonists in war have explicitly sought no other goal than the complete extermination of an opponent through say, genocide, or perhaps forms of ethnic cleansing. If such goals can be construed as the seeking of a permanent military solution in the pursuit of an ideological goal, then they have, mercifully, either ultimately failed in that undertaking, or, on closer inspection, reveal themselves to be instances where a combatant has been focused on destroying an adversary’s means of resistance rather than eliminating every last member of a particular group or society through violent means.

As war is the intent to attain the goals of politics, there really only ever are political solutions. That is to say, outcomes that are based, in some form or another, on a mutual agreement about the cessation of hostilities following the ability of one side to assert their primary interests through violence. War is a product of politics. It is begun by politics. It is influenced by politics during its conduct. It is terminated by politics.

The role of the military instrument in war is about one thing, therefore, and – to sound clichéd about it – one thing only: political communication. It is about influencing an opponent to bend or concede to one’s will through violence. It is almost never about seeking destruction for its own sake or even about employing overwhelming force to remove every aspect of the enemy’s means of resistance, but about applying sufficient force to convince an adversary of the seriousness of one’s intent. As John Stone states, in essence, ‘any war emerges as an exercise in coercion. The application of force is combined with a conditional intention to stop once a desired set of political objectives is achieved’.[v]


Applying military force is easy: it is the politics that makes it difficult

Military force is merely the principal means in war to exercise coercion: the tool to communicate political resolve. It is the elusive and contingent goals of politics, however, that make an appreciation of what constitutes good strategy difficult and challenging.

In this sense, we can, perhaps, expand one of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous aphorisms: that ‘Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult’.[vi] We can rephrase his statement to say that understanding the theoretical and technical coercive dynamics at work in strategy is easy, but how strategy becomes efficacious in practice when it embodies the compound values and choices that social actors make in the search to attain their goals and interests – namely politics – is always likely to be complex and nuanced.

So, let’s start with the easy bit, the hypothetical dynamics. How are coercive intentions in pursuit of political objectives communicated? The answer is straightforward: either through escalation or de-escalation.

In conditions of overt war between two opposed armed belligerents, escalation is simply an exercise in upping the ante: increasing the level of aggression, usually by introducing more resources – troops and weapons – into the battle space. For Clausewitz, war in its theoretical essence, would always possess an irresistible momentum towards escalation. Using the analogy of two wrestlers trying to tussle each other to the ground, he suggested each side would, no matter how small the political stakes involved, inevitably begin the process of exertion that would see the maximum effort to overthrow the other.[vii]

In reality, of course, the level of effort each side can bring to bear in any struggle is constrained by any number of variables, not the least of which is likely to be the relative assessment of the value attached to attaining particular objectives in relation to the amount of effort required to secure them. Plainly, a fight for national survival is likely to engender much more willingness on the part of decision makers and the people to escalate than threats deemed to be of lesser scale. Ultimately, escalation is therefore likely to be a conscious – not an involuntary – act intended to send a coercive message that communicates the resolve to continue hostilities until the anticipated goals are secured.


War is like life: complicated

It is, of course, the political content that an act of escalation or de-escalation is meant to convey, which transforms the simple theoretical architecture of war into a complex reality of bargaining through violence. Again, this underlines the point that, no matter their destructive capacity, wars always remain exercises in political communication. ‘Even when military action is formally conducted with a view to rendering an enemy defenceless’, Stone observes, ‘it ceases before that state of affairs is completely achieved’. ‘Under these circumstances’, he continues, ‘the loser capitulates not because he is deprived of all means of resistance, but because the costs associated with further resistance are unlikely to produce any discernible benefits. At this stage, too, the winner stands to gain very little in relation to the costs associated with continuing hostilities’.[viii]

The role of effective strategy in war – as in life generally – therefore presents itself as a careful weighing up of options about the kinds of values and interests that are worth preserving and the proportion of effort deemed necessary to defend or advance them. A range of context-dependent, and sometimes continuously fluid, judgements inevitably governs such considerations. It is this that makes strategy beyond the theoretical mechanics demanding and problematic.

If we return to the theory of escalation then, once again, we are presented with a parsimonious understanding of how to succeed in gaining one’s objectives. Carl von Clausewitz points out that to coerce one’s enemy requires that ‘you must place him in a situation that is even more unpleasant than the sacrifice you call on him to make. The hardships of that situation must not of course be merely transient – at least not in appearance’.[ix]

It is in the actual attempt to exert coercive pressure on the enemy in the hope that they will receive, understand, and react to the message that they are likely to face the prospect of further unpleasant, and avoidable, sacrifice where things once again become complicated. They are complicated for the prosaic reason that war is, again as with most dilemmas in life, a reactive environment. Thomas Schelling noted in his study of coercive bargaining that ‘the ability of one participant to gain his ends is dependent on to an important degree on the choices or decisions that the other participant will make’.[x]


It really isn’t just about you

In other words, the enemy has a vote. ‘War is not the action of a living force upon a lifeless mass’, Clausewitz perceived, ‘but always a collision of two living forces’.[xi] Good strategic analysis means that we have to appreciate the reciprocal nature of war and understand not merely that which seems logical, desirable and efficient from one’s own point of view but to take into account that the adversary is also a calculating, ‘living force’, in pursuit of its own values and objectives, acting and reacting to the events around it.

Once more the theoretical premises present themselves as elementally simple: the choices and decisions in war involve one thing only: to escalate or de-escalate. This is how political communication is conducted. The ultimate aim will be, via Schelling’s understanding of coercive bargaining, to communicate sufficient resolution of one’s willingness to escalate, and thereby sustain the necessary determination to prosecute the war beyond that of the adversary. Once the adversary has accepted that point, the war ends, and the enemy is likely to come to terms.

The complication arises because the capacity to escalate is constricted in any number of ways, not least by the finite level of resources one might have at one’s disposal and by the elemental universal force of friction that will forever place physical and logistical impediments in the way of the application of the maximum concentration of effort and resources.[xii]

Above all, it is the politics of any situation – the goals and values that a society strives for and the degree of effort that it will devote to advance them – that will most complicate the process of escalation, because the political actor will, no matter how consciously or unconsciously, be making continual evaluations about the level of commitment to meet desired objectives. That is to say, the aims that any social actor seeks, and the degree of effort it is prepared to exert, will be subject to a means-ends calculus to ensure that war is kept within the realms of rational conduct.

Consequently, a political entity is unlikely – or certainly will be ill advised – to seek an escalation of its activities beyond what it thinks its society is prepared to tolerate in pursuit of any particular cause.


Communicating through escalation is inherently risky

Beyond Clausewitz’s philosophical reflections on the mechanics of escalation in war towards a theoretical extreme, most of the other writings on the subject evolved out of the Cold War, when analysts like Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling contemplated the possibilities for controlling any potential spiral towards all-out nuclear confrontation between the superpowers.

Cold war theorists postulated that superpower conflict would progress through a series of perceptible boundaries and thresholds: commencing from an initial attack and thereafter intensify via a greater range of targets, geographical settings, and numbers and types of weapons. Kahn notably envisaged an escalation ladder comprising some 44 different steps, proceeding from ‘crisis’ to ‘insensate war’.[xiii]

Kahn’s escalation ladder sought to articulate the individual thresholds of conflict that he believed each superpower would tacitly recognize. Each threshold would require a conscious decision to cross, and thus comprise an implicit limitation in war. As war progressed up the escalatory chain, each superpower was assumed to be ever more reluctant to breach yet another threshold lest it prefaced even greater levels of conflict that would result in a spiral towards all-out nuclear confrontation. The fear of this spiral itself, so the thinking went, would form a restraint in the escalation process. In this manner, these steps up the escalation ladder constituted the potential basis for tacit cooperation in order to curb any slide towards catastrophe.[xiv]

Crossing a threshold of understanding – implicit or explicit – is therefore one of the key modes of political communication in war. A threshold itself may be defined as a prominent or salient boundary. Therefore, contravening that boundary is an act that is potentially replete with risk for the simple reason that one has no control over how the other side will react. Will they back down or merely accelerate their own efforts in the face of escalation? Any act of escalation, as Richard Smoke observes, ‘is one that crosses a saliency which defines the current limits of a war, and that occurs in a context where the actor cannot know the full consequences of his actions, including how his action and the opponent’s potential reaction(s) may interact to generate a situation likely to induce new actions that will cross more saliencies’.[xv]


But uncertainty and risk is also political communication

Yet, as other theorists speculated, the associated risk and uncertainty of escalation can also form an important part of political communication in war. Schelling, for example, postulated that manipulating the risk around these salient boundaries could yield political advantage. A perceived willingness to cross an escalation threshold could potentially signal resolve, demonstrating the readiness to assume risk. Thereby, the fear of upping the scale of conflict, be it broadening the nature of the targets, increasing the scale of destructive power, through more the introduction of more resources or more effective weapons systems, or expanding the geographic scale of conflict through the launching of new fronts, could be employed to communicate intent to the enemy.

Whether an adversary will understand or accept the intended political message delivered by an act of escalation will, however, remain uncertain. The success of strategy in war – that is a campaign of violent action – is therefore likely to be premised on the quality of the combatant’s analysis of its opponent. Understanding the enemy: what informs its value system, what motivates it to fight, and what levels of conflict it might be prepared to tolerate thus reveals itself as the simple, but most complex, of matters of strategy because it calls upon a qualitative understanding of the mind of the adversary that can be gained only through close study of the enemy’s society of the kind that cannot be reduced to any mechanistic application of destructive power.

© Jason Schulz | – Soldiers wait for Helicopter in Iraq


Conclusion: the paradox of strategy

Regardless of the relative strength and weakness of any side in war, all belligerents must engage in a continuous effort to calculate the political efficacy of violence. Specifically, a sophisticated strategy calls on the individual belligerent to carefully consider the political effects it wishes to seek through escalation. Above all, this is why strategy is hard, because it rests on the quality of analysis in any given moment, not on any scientific basis. The point further discloses that war is a deeply calculating environment where many actions, certainly those short of massive clashes for survival, should be gauged in terms of when is enough escalation enough, and whether any coercive influence should be converted into political capital through dialogue and compromise.

In reality these are invariably finely balanced decisions that do not lend themselves to standard lessons learned notions beloved by practitioners, policy makers, and, regrettably, academic analysts as well. Because of the difficulties inherent in political judgement, it becomes all too easy for decision makers to fall back on clichés and tactical level understandings as the basis for war planning. This functions as a substitute for strategic thinking and, indeed, is often the harbinger of strategic disappointment, whether it be German thinking before the First World War that led to the belief that tactics rather than politics could deal with the prospect of a two-front war, the US failure to comprehend the willpower of its adversary in the Vietnam war, or the lack of coalition planning to deal with the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

All such failures have their origins in the mistaken belief that strategy is superficially easy. In concept it is easy, but rarely in practice. This illustrates perhaps an enduring paradox of strategy, which is that in many ways strategy is difficult because it is under theorised, yet it remains under theorised precisely because it is difficult.


[i] See for example David Dolan and Asli Kandemir, ‘U.S. says prepared for military solution against Islamic State in Syria’, Reuters, 23 January 2016, available at: (accessed 9 August 2016); Frederic C. Hof, ‘Putin shows there is indeed a military solution in Syria’, Newsweek, 12 February 2016, available at: (accessed 9 August 2016); Barbara Crossette, ‘There is no military solution to Syria’, The Nation, 18 March 2016, available at: (accessed 9 August 2016): Zalmay Khalilzad, ‘Sometimes, there is a military solution’, The National Interest, 10 June 2016, available at: (accessed 9 August 2016).
[ii] Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars (London: Counterpoint, 1983), p. 36.
[iii] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2013), p. 64.
[iv] Similarly pronouncements about the impossibility of military solutions are also truisms.
[v] John Stone, ‘Escalation and the War on Terror, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 35, No. 5 (2012), p. 639.
[vi] Carl von Clausewitz, On War (ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 119.
[vii] Ibid., p. 75.
[viii] Stone, ‘Escalation and the War on Terror’, p. 639.
[ix] Clausewitz, On War, p. 77.
[x] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 5.
[xi] Clausewitz, On War, p. 77.
[xii] Ibid., pp. 119-121.
[xiii] Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2009), p. 194.
[xiv] Stone, ‘Escalation and the War on Terror’, p. 641.
[xv] Richard Smoke, War: Controlling Escalation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 35.