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The Growing Imperative to Adopt "Flexibility" as an American Principle of War

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel Robert S. Frost. | September 1999

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The difference between the almost-right word & the right word is really a large matter?it is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.92
? Mark Twain

This monograph has focused on one word. More specifically, it has focused on the absence of the word?and the warfighti ng principle of?flexibility. The purpose was to underscore the seemingly subtle, yet significant and positive influence this single word would have if codified as a principle of war. Some would argue we live in a world of sound bites and aphorisms, and the modern-day principles of war are no more than a dangerous manifestation of that, not warranting serious attention. Yet to ignore this 78-year, institutionalized practice is to ignore the principles? very real influence on the fabrics of U.S. military Joint and Service cultures. Senior leaders must understand and appreciate that this simple list called the ?principles of war? carries transcendent powers to affect behavior and thought in manifold ways. Further, we must never take lightly a list that speaks directly to this profession?s reason for being.

U.S. military doctrine recently received a much-needed shot in the arm, sparked by the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, resulting in a renewed emphasis on Joint and Service doctrinal publications. As a result, warfighters are paying more attention to doctrine. At the same time, titanic and revolutionary changes in the global security environment are creating uncertainties on a grand scale. ?Conflict? will take on new forms, yet traditional forms will remain. Warfighting resources will remain at a premium, and strategies to fight and win at all levels of conflict must continue to evolve in highly adaptive, innovative, and creative ways.

This all combines to underscore the imperative to adopt flexibility as a principle of war in basic doctrine. Through doctrine, a deepened cultural appreciation for flexibility would be instilled, as would the capability of warfighting units to effectively adapt and respond to the prevalent change and uncertainty of the times. Ultimately, flexibility becomes the synthesizing force to prioritize the application of all of the principles of war to meet each unique challenge, across the wide range of military operations.

As Mark Twain suggested, words do make a difference. Pronouncing flexibility as an American principle of war in Joint and Service doctrine would drive a subtle yet profoundly important heading change as the U.S. military confronts its growing responsibilities into the next millennium.


92. Letter to George Bainton, October 15, 1888. See Justin Kaplan, ed., Bartlett?s Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition, Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1992, p.527.