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The Principles of War in the 21st Century: Strategic Considerations

Authored by Dr. Steven Metz, Professor Douglas C. Lovelace Jr., Dr. Douglas V. Johnson II, Dr. William T. Johnsen, LTC James Kievit. | August 1995

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Throughout history, military practitioners, philosophers, and historians have struggled to comprehend the complexities of warfare.1 Most of these efforts produced long, complicated treatises that did not lend themselves to rapid or easy understanding.2 This, in turn, spurred efforts to condense the "lessons" of war into a short list of aphorisms that practitioners of the military art could use to guide the conduct of warfare.3

The culmination of these labors, from the perspective of the U.S. Armed Forces, may be found in what are called the principles of war.4 (See Appendix A.) Currently contained in Joint and Service doctrines, "the principles of war guide warfighting at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. They are the enduring bedrock of US military doctrine."5

But, how solid is that foundation? While the principles have been thoroughly scrutinized at the tactical and operational levels of warfare, the study of their applicability at the strategic level has been less exhaustive.6 Moreover, the principles of war were derived predominantly from the study of Napoleonic and Industrial Age warfare.7 Whether or how these principles apply at the strategic level of war under the conditions of rapid technological change that many are calling the "Information Age" and its military offspring, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), is an open-ended question.8

Because war at the strategic level is an intellectual process9 and the development and implementation of strategy is a creative activity, some form of intellectual framework is required to shape the strategist's thought processes. The principles of war provide such a structure. At the same time, because theory and creativity have limits, they offer a guide to understanding those restrictions. A good strategist?possessed of a comprehensive understanding of the principles?will be able, therefore, to expand creatively upon them, and will also be able to determine if one or more of them can or must be disregarded.10 Finally, a thorough grasp of the intent behind each principle allows the crafting of strategies that reflect the best possible balance among the principles for a particular strategic challenge.11

Once thoroughly understood, the principles of war also may be used as a decision making aid during formulation, planning, and execution of strategy. They can be used to assess current strategic plans, or as an analytic tool to shape new strategies and plans as they are developed. Further, they can be used to examine past strategic activities to derive insights from success or failure, and to extract the pertinent "lessons" that can be applied to future endeavors.

It is, of course, always easier to use the principles in retrospect to critique plans and activities than to incorporate them when creating strategies--but those who can do the latter will be hailed as geniuses by future historians. In fact, the principles of war are important exactly because, short of war, it is difficult to identify potential "Napoleons" in our midst. A proper focus on the linkages and tensions among the principles can avoid the stultifying, dogmatic, pro forma use of "checklists" which inevitably creates vulnerabilities to be exploited by a more imaginative opponent. At the same time, innovative application of the principles in simulations and war games can provide a useful education for future generals and strategists, who may be called upon to practice their craft with little or no notice. They are aids, too, in the life-long development of patterns of thought found in the true strategist.

Finally, given the growing complexities of the 21st century, there may be a greater, not lesser, need for a unifying set of principles that can assist strategists in the pursuit of their craft.


As yet, nothing known or predicted about the Information Age provides conclusive evidence that the development of strategy in the 21st century will be remarkably different than in the past.

Clearly, however, strategy will remain a creative activity. Future strategists, like their predecessors, therefore must avoid a "cookie cutter" mentality as they create, develop, and execute strategic plans. But that fact does not diminish the utility of having principles to assist in the creative process. Creativity, without bounds, can be a risky enterprise.38 Free-wheeling creativity may be acceptable for the fine arts, but even painters, sculptors, and choreographers employ basic theories and disciplined thought regarding their art forms to guide their creative processes. So, too, must strategists, for the costs of strategic failure can be catastrophic. The fundamental theory behind the principles of war is valid at the strategic level, and will remain so in the 21st century. No better guide for the development of national security or military strategy exists.

Thus, the principles of war retain considerable utility for modern strategists as they delve into the questions of the 21st century. As adapted here for use at the strategic level of warfare and for future conditions, the principles of war can continue to act as a guide?not a prescription?for strategists, helping them navigate through the complex labyrinth of strategy formulation and execution in the 21st century.


1. For example, Sun Tzu, The Art of War (ca. 500 B.C.); Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 400 B.C.); Vegetius, The Military Institutions of the Romans (390); Niccolai Machiavelli, The Art of War (ca. 1510); Marshall de Saxe, My Reveries on the Upon the Art of War (1757); Frederick the Great, The Instruction of Frederick the Great for His Generals (1747); Napoleon, Napoleon's Maxims, (1827); Carl von Clausewitz, On War (1832); A.T. Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783; Guilio Douhet, Command of the Air (1921); Bernard Brodie, Strategy in the Missile Age (1959); Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (1991).

2. Clausewitz's On War immediately leaps to mind.

3. See, e.g., The Military Maxims of Napoleon in T.R. Phillips, ed., Roots of Strategy, Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1985, or any of the lists from Marshall Foch, Major General J.F.C. Fuller, G.F.R. Henderson, B.H. Liddell Hart, Marshall Lyautey, et al., found in John I. Alger, The Quest for Victory: The History of the Principles of War, Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1982, passim.

4. The first American use of the principles of war can be traced to the U.S. Army's 1921 version of Army Training Regulations. These principles have their distant roots in Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini's The Art of War (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, n.d., reprint of 1862 edition), and their immediate roots in the work of Major General J.F.C. Fuller as he attempted to distill lessons from the failed British campaigns of 1914-1915. (See Alger, The Quest for Victory, pp. 113-145) . Although the principles of war disappeared from later versions, they were reintroduced in the 1939 draft version of Field Service Regulations (FSRs) . Since that time, the principles of war have been incorporated into subsequent FSRs,as well as their successor, Field Manual 100-5, Operations (save the 1976 version). The principles of war also have been addressed?in varying levels of detail?in Field Manual 100-1, The Army, since that keystone document first appeared in 1978. See also Colonels Walter P. Franz and Harry G. Summers, "Principles of War: An American Genesis, An Occasional Paper from the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, February 20, 1981, p. 3; and Alger, The Quest for Victory, Appendices 43, 45, 53, and 54.

5. Joint Pub 3-0, Doctrine for Joint Operations, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1993, p. A-1.

6. See, for example, the cursory treatment in B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2d rev. ed., New York: Frederick Praeger Publishers, 1968, pp. 347-350. Jomini's The Art of War addresses the application of the principles of war at what he described as the strategic level, but which modern practitioners would characterize at the operational level of war. Alger, The Quest for Victory, offers the most complete discussion at the strategic level, but his contribution is largely unique.

7. Edward Luttwak, "Toward Post-Heroic Warfare," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 74, No. 3, May/June 1995, p. 114.

8. For a discussion of these issues, see James O. Kievit and Steven Metz, Strategy and the Revolution in Military Affairs: From Theory to Practice, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, June 27, 1995.

9. Clausewitz, On War, Book One, Chapter 3, p. 101.

10. At this point it must be noted that disregard of the principle "objective" is always exceedingly risky. Yet one can argue that, historically, it has been among the most disregarded, not least by the United States, with oftentimes adverse results.

11. Thus, the authors adhere to Clausewitz's view that the principles of war (theory) are a means of study, rather than ". . . a sort of manual for action," (Clausewitz, On War, Book Two, Chapter Two, p. 141. Emphasis in the original) rather than the more prescriptive approach of Jomini. See Jomini, The Art of War.

38. Acceptable risk is a fluid concept that shifts according to conditions and leaders. See Steven Metz, "Analyzing Operational and Strategic Risk," Military Review, Vol. 71, No. 11, November 1991, pp. 78-80.