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Principles of War Revisited

Painting by G. Terborch

Painting by Gerard Terborch, 1648

The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster – Westphalia, 1648

Principles of War for the New Age

by Doctor David Harries

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Principles of a Past Age

For most of recorded history, principles of war were also principles of life, applied to both peace and war. Sun Tzu’s Bing Fa1 laid out 36 principles to guide dealings with friend and foe, in business and in conflict, and they applied to both competitive and consensual relationships. 

Only recently did this change – in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia. It ushered in the era of the nation-state as the focal point of international relations. The sovereignty of territory and the authority exercised therein became the symbols of statehood. Interstate wars became the preeminent form of conflict for governments. A maturing industrial revolution, spurred on by advances in technology, provided the weapons, the mobility, and the communications demanded by larger wars fought over more territory by more states. 

Principles of War – or, more accurately, principles of warfighting – became the warriors’ ‘bible,’ in every sense of that term. They provided direction, doctrine, ideology, and a basis for hope and salvation – hope for victory, and salvation from defeat.

The Principles codified in the 17th Century have proven to be remarkably resilient. The 10 in vogue today2 are little changed from then, even though war and its sustainment have undergone a number of major transformations. 

Pressures Placed upon Principles 

Set piece, short-duration, close quarter, rules-based, politely managed, if nonetheless gory ‘set-tos’ eventually morphed into the lengthy, massive, but generally continentally-contained carnage of the Great War. That saga and its aftermath led to the even longer Second World War, unique for both its truly global participation and its atomic finale. Its outcome, and the concomitant management of the ‘victory,’ heralded in the half-century-long Cold War; a geo-political oxymoron during which the main obstacle to global apocalypse eventually became the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Now, the predominant scenario has become a contest of wills affecting everyone on the globe. The new War on Terrorism is unique, as is every war, with respect to the unpredictability of its outcomes, but also because it resembles so much more closely the War on Drugs than, for example, combat waged during the Second World War. When discussing principles of war generally, this is one characteristic that must not be ignored.

The business of arming forces – military-industrial complexes – has provided ever more goods and services for warfighting, relentlessly exploiting a combination of technological progress and near-universal obsession with sovereignty, once being claimed by a mere handful of states and now by 200-plus national entities or claimants. But, throughout more than three centuries, dozens of different wars, hundreds of defeats and victories large and small, millions of dead, wounded, and dispossessed, and trillions of dollars in cost, the Principles of War have remained generally the same.

Indeed, in this fifth year of the War on Terrorism – a global conflict unlike either of the previous world wars – the Principles dating from the 17th Century continue to command compliance, even though armed forces doctrines are changing apace. This trend should constitute yet another reason to re-examine the Principles of War.

That the same Principles were respected and universally followed for centuries, until the Soviet Union imploded at the end of the 1980s, should not be surprising. Security throughout that period was framed by and handled as an exclusively state-centred concern. But that is no longer the case, and this constitutes perhaps the strongest reason for considering new Principles of War.

In just 15 years, the causes and effects of globalization have spawned a broad new paradigm of security. Although awareness of an expanded and more inclusive security environment is growing everywhere, it is a sad testimonial to politicians, civil societies, and soldiers alike, just how many are unprepared, or unwilling, or unable – individually or collectively – to adapt to, and to adopt processes for, the new and powerful security realities.

The realities of the 21st Century are new. They reflect the increasing spread and pervasiveness of a contemporary security paradigm, one that is both multi-dimensional and not constrainable. Two of the main reasons for this state of affairs involve trade and human security.

Much of international relations is now designed and carried out more by ‘market-states’ than by ‘nation-states,’ so powerful are the needs of, desires for, and efforts to trade anywhere there exists a market. The exploding demand for human security – the security of the individual at the individual level, and legitimized by ever more declarations, treaties and courts – has become pervading. So much so that very few people will either ignore or dispute that security, now and for the foreseeable future, and this is an issue concerning far more than the sovereignty of state territory. Clearly, 17th Century-grounded Principles of War now constitute less than what is either required or even appropriate to engage in the likes of today’s Trade Wars and Human Security Wars, many of which exist. They are even less appropriate for dealing with the consequences of those wars.

Indeed, the needs and demands of security – from global to individual concerns – have become so extensive, visible and convincing, it can be further argued that state sovereignty no longer deserves the status of ‘the foundation security issue,’ and it should be relegated – in terms of time, effort and resources – to a middle position on the list of components of contemporary security. The implication of such an action would be, at the least, a requirement for very different principles for war – war being taken in its broadest context.

Principles and Wars 

Supporting this claim is experience garnered since the Second World War, including the Vietnam War. During this time frame, some of the traditional Principles of War have not been applied at all, and some that were used proved inappropriate at best and disastrous at worst under certain circumstances. Further, since the end of the Cold War, in conflicts such as those waged in Somalia during the early 1990s, more recently in the Balkans, and in Iraq today, either actual or attempted application of several of the old, ‘tried and true’ Principles of War has produced results that were at best unsuccessful, and, at worst, constituted military or political blunders.

War in modern times, especially the War on Terrorism, is not waged in the traditional way. The expanded security paradigm has become both cause and effect. War is now fought almost continuously on several very different fronts. The front one most commonly associates with war – that is, actual combat ‘in the field’ – is intermittent. But on such fronts as politics, economics, energy, health and mobility, engagement is necessarily virtually full-time, especially for state governments. Also, war in its new and fullest sense is more complex and unpredictable than before, because security within a context of globalization and instant communications is always, on all fronts, about both military and civilian concerns. In addition, actions and reactions on all fronts are interdependent, interrelated, or interconnected, meaning that a change in one, suddenly or over time, changes the other. This, of course, intensifies unpredictability.


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Armed Forces: Principles and Wars

Armed forces know they need better Principles of War, even when they do not articulate that need. This is partially due to the following reasons:

  • Virtually all wars are now limited wars, most engaging both private and public armed organizations. 

  • Contemporary conflict is rich in circumstances in which very junior soldiers and civilians from many sectors may, or are required to, take action that provokes strategic consequences.

  • Soldier-warriors are morphing, by design, from the soldier-scholar, and, by default, the soldier-savior, into soldier-diplomats.

  • Technology no longer is an impartial, undiscriminating tool of the soldier. It has come so far and is moving forward so quickly that it is provoking increasing unevenness in military capabilities and security options. It has magnified the demands for, and on, interoperability in an era when interoperability is a key to success in any war. And, not incidentally, the technology explosion has all but destroyed any reason to hope for broad standardization. 

  • War is both art – in the minds and hearts and hopes of those warring – and science – in the weapons, goods, and services at their disposal. Superpower America has learned, again at huge and continuing cost in Iraq, that modern war constitutes much more than just combat, and that security needs encompass much, much more than just technology. New Principles of War have to recognize and embrace the ‘art’ of war. 

  • There is now such a thing as an ‘asymmetrical advantage.’ A ‘failure of imagination’ by combatants can erase virtually every advantage provided by conventional power in a war against a committed, conscientious, clever adversary, on any security front.

  • Wars have no end. There is no longer permanent defeat or permanent victory. Life is becoming experiences of ‘instances of war’ in different places and in various forms, with diverse results and unpredictable, geographically unlimited consequences.

  • Conscript armies are on the way out. Recognizing that even national service armies, such as that of Singapore, need good full-time professionals, volunteers are the true foundation of service. Volunteers will expect the principles of their profession to be sensible in the sense that their ‘unlimited liability’ is at least hedged whenever possible.

  • Contracting for war services has been a long-standing military characteristic. Now renewed and already extensive, the practice may cause a knowledge shift not unlike business out-sourcing, such that soldier know-how, skills, and special capabilities may well weaken, and, in some cases, even vanish from the soldier’s repertoire. 

Civilians: Principles and Wars 

Civilians, if in different ways due to their non-military cultures and ethos, are increasingly aware of the need for principles with respect to the wars that involve them. The ‘homeland security’ challenges imposed upon them may not all come as surprises, but they are extremely uncomfortable, since decisions and choices that have previously been made have become infinitely more difficult to do properly, especially in the almost total absence of relevant principles. Such decisions and choices include, but are not limited to:

  • Entry to war: When (time), for what (cause and values), against whom, with whom, and with what?

  • Exit from war: When (time), why (cause and values), how (means), and a notwithstanding consideration.

  • How much national human, monetary, and materiel treasure can be spent, and will be spent?

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Carl von Clausewitz

Society: Principles and Wars

Further complicating security is the fact that many modern issues engage both civilian and military camps seriously, if not always similarly. The recent emergence of human security expectations, norms, and standards is one such issue. At national and international levels there is now a need for principles to help:

  • Decide the degree of, and manage engagement with, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and

  • Manage compliance with the paradigm of The Responsibility to Protect, the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.3

A second civil-military issue has already been referenced. Much of contemporary conflict is ethnic, religious, ideological, or intrastate, and it focuses intensely on mental and spiritual planes, as well as conventional materiel and technological planes. Consequences of such types of wars are more unpredictable than ever, and they are also more multi-dimensional than ever. They are also often global in reach. Therefore, military and civilian personnel have no choice but to be jointly aware of the urgent need for new ways of thinking, planning, operating, and sustaining security. Old, or ‘stove-piped’ methods are no longer sufficient.

Also, more servicepersons and civilians share an understanding that, whereas the fundamental characteristics of fighting a war of violence – fire and manoeuvre, death and destruction – remain, their features have been changed over time by the wars of the 20th Century and by the contemporary global security paradigm. ‘Fire’ now often includes actions that create and maintain fear. ‘Manoeuvre’ now includes a global mobility offering unlimited choice of time, means, and location of target to an attacker. ‘Death’ no longer is the ‘ultimate liability’ of predominately soldiers in uniform, but increasingly, it has become the lot of modern mercenaries, and also the fate of even more civilians – innocent and otherwise – caught up in war. ‘Destruction’ no longer rains down primarily on the people, goods, and services of the enemy’s armed forces, but combinations of funds, technology, and commitment offer the power to threaten and to destroy the symbols, structures, and livelihoods of tens of thousands of military personnel and civilians in an instant. 

Also, an adversary’s success with any offensive form of fire, manoeuvre, death, or destruction reinforces its reputation and influence, and weakens the confidence of those on the defensive. 

Principles for War

All the foregoing begs the question: Is it most appropriate to retain the old Principles of War, a set of principles assumed valid for fighting any war, and make changes to them only as and when necessary? Or, should there now be a determined effort to codify truly modern principles of war that begin with a consideration of the relevant subject, namely, modern war in its many forms and contexts?

If the former option holds sway, there is clearly an urgent need for changes to some of the old principles, and probably the addition of several new ones. Whatever a renewed list of principles would consider, it must address more thoroughly the new global security paradigm. Also, these principles, in today’s context, could become realistically, and at best, only guides, and not rigid rules. And the same caveat would also apply to any other form of principles adopted.

It is suggested that a far better choice would be to construct a set of Principles for War. These principles could be derived from a selection of war scenarios; scenarios that are plausible, that address context across the range of wars’ military and civilian fronts, and that situate – possibly with a form of generative analysis – major consequences. With respect to such scenarios:

  • It should be easier and quicker to design and construct meaningful Principles for War that are not just about aspects of fighting wars.

  • Principles designed purely for warfighting could be based upon, and updated from, a broader foundation of realities and reasonable future conditions, and reflected in the Principles for War themselves.

  • Principles for War should be more broadly and more enthusiastically accepted, having been designed with consideration, not only of experience and of current knowledge and events, but also of what the future may entail. This latter point is extremely important, since it is obviously in the future when any existing principles would be put to the test.

The Proteus Factor

How will these scenarios of wars be designed and constructed? They have to be built in ways that recognize a key and fundamental need, namely, the requirement to prepare for and to navigate contexts occurring now and in the future. This concept involves ‘getting one’s temporal bearings’ for peace and conflict (sometimes violent conflict) in the future. This formed the intellectual context for a study on strategic research, completed by the American National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 2001. The study was called Proteus,4 and it spawned a group in 2003 known as the Proteus Consortium.5 On 30 November 2005, a sub-set organization, Proteus Canada,6 was established.

The Proteus Consortium then constructed a dynamic strategic vision model. Initially called Protean Media, its first application was to experiment with a ‘many-to-many’ interaction of eight factions actually existing in contemporary Iraq. The work was based partly upon the referenced study conducted at the NRO, as well as upon research into complex visualization systems at the US Naval Postgraduate School. 

The Proteus Consortium has also developed a novel business model that prototypes a technology designed to experience and to apply ‘educated intuition’ as knowledge ‘sensors’ and ‘weapons’ that can be used alongside classic force sensors and weapons, such as those used by the military for contemporary operations. While this technology is new, some results were surprisingly positive, and they portend a rigorous, real-time analytic capability for force application that could lead to a ‘navigation-of-change’ tool for both non-military and military purposes. 

This business model is a network-centric acquisition model. The technical construct is a game that applies a four-dimension knowledge query/acquisition function to a complex environment. The most novel feature of this game is its ability to adapt to the play and to the choices (actions) of the players. Thus, it does not follow or depend upon a prescribed and set scenario. 

The temporal bearings construct mentioned earlier is based upon acquiring knowledge while operating with different time scales in an environment consisting of three operational zones for force projection. Those three zones, in which the complex environments carry on simultaneously, are:

  • The source zone: analogous to an image, map, or chart, or a geographical context.

  • The local zone: analogous to the locale on the receiving end of a projected force.

  • The internal zone: reflecting the human experience at the local zone involving perception, as well as psychological or emotional elements.

Projected force is characterized by the classical descriptions of hard, soft, coercive, and persuasive forces. Force modifiers take many forms, and they reflect key insights grounded in the Proteus Project’s research. 

Game play reveals both effects-based consequences, and the gaps in knowledge that need to be filled in order to navigate changing situations. Play has also highlighted the weaknesses and incompleteness of the traditional Westphalian Principles of War with respect to modern conflict and as criteria for strategy. This is not surprising, given that:

  • Every threat or target promoted or provoked by the hugely complicated and changing mix of human security,7 military security, global security, environmental security, state security, democratization security, social security,8 food security, water security, energy security, and culture security is a moving target.

  • It is either a military’s established role, or its new responsibility, or its professional concern, or its fate, to have to be engaged, more or less, with all these security fronts.

New Principles of War must embrace changes in security contexts. Change demands better foresight, analysis of uncertainties, and consequence management. Needed are strategic charting, navigation-of-change, and measurement and exploitation of relationships among temporal and positional bearings. Knowledge shifts associated with changing tasks, and even greater changes to traditional ‘divisions of labour’ have to be better appreciated, as does how and when to apply knowledge and experience to the internal zones, classical forces, and force modifiers within the scenarios we will use to prepare for the future.

Proposed Principles for War 

The collective experiences of the members of the Proteus Consortium, bolstered by the philosophy of principles expressed in earlier sections of this article, could become the basis for a first set of Principles for War. They flow from the Proteus insights and they reflect a belief that, for any scenario to be valid, intellectual space must be provided for all security fronts. In effect, the Principles for War that are itemized below are seen as dynamic boundary conditions for military and civilian actors to prepare for, and to make and to manage decisions for, future wars that will materialize, with or without warning. They are:

  • Intelligence in all directions, in time and space, using Proteus scenarios and responding to the capability gaps they expose.

  • Strategy criteria; ways and means, together with their metrics, to influence planning and decision-making for security futures.

  • Conciliation; active and patient tolerance for differences as a tool for preventing, when reasonable, or mitigating, when necessary, or bringing closure, when possible, to any form of conflict.

  • Cooperation; to foster interoperability. Cooperation includes ‘neutral buy-ins,’ or ‘non buy-ins,’ if there is no cost associated with the objective.

  • Arbitration; to recognize the potential for international treaties, laws, norms, and standards as a basis for conciliation. Particularly important issues are property rights and identity rights.

  • Readiness; to acknowledge the causes and effects of factors on all security fronts, as a means to ensure mental, materiel, and monetary readiness of processes and people to fight a necessary or discretionary war.

  • Objective; which is peace, not at any cost, but directed towards a state of affairs in the future more peaceful than that existing at present. 

  • Economy; the design and maintenance of interactive overlapping business plans for the funds, manpower, power elements, and time required to stage a necessary or a chosen war.

  • Education; to equip every actor to be a better ‘soldier-statesman-scholar-saviour,’ by promoting interdisciplinary knowledge and skills, and by fostering an awareness of other players who possess what you do not.

  • Consequence criteria; to conduct impact measurement employing human-run compatible process technologies. 

  • Competence;9 including, among other components, ‘farsight’ (all foresight beyond the ‘next’ target of the Principles), willingness, ability, authority, means, legitimacy, and luck.
Painting by Heist

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam –
painting by Bartholomeus van der Helst,

Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster 

Principles of Warfighting for a New Age

The context for Principles of Warfighting is, not surprisingly, the Principles for War themselves. Relative importance of the elements listed below will depend upon the war being fought. Also, varying customs and beliefs related to technology, the possession and use of weapons, fighting ethics, the perceived value of life, and ‘Just War’ considerations will promote different interpretations of the list’s elements. The suggested Principles of Warfighting should look very familiar from a traditional vantage point. In no particular order of merit or importance, they are:

  • Security

  • Interoperability

  • Concentration

  • Objective

  • Mobility

  • Economy


The case for new Principles for War is based upon the fact that the security paradigm of the contemporary and foreseeable international system encompasses much more than the security of a sovereign state’s territory. ‘War’ has many faces, all interconnected in ways of interest and concern to all human beings. Therefore, the need is for Principles for War, as well as for Principles of War.

The Principles for War recognize that wars often, but not always, include violent fighting. The Principles of Warfighting recognize that technological times are forever new, and they reflect that the traditional Principles of War are no longer suitable for today, or for the future.

The proposed Principles for War and Principles of Warfighting presented here are not ‘cast in stone,’ because that should never occur. The hope – personal, professional, and protean, is that these proposals, and others, will promote an environment for peace, one of continuing review and renewal of all principles of all wars on all fronts. The goal, naturally, is fewer wars, and certainly no apocalypse.

As a postscript, it is hoped that somewhere, someone is working on a list of Principles of Peace. Surely, there should be codified principles for what rational man desires, not just for what he does not. Perhaps the answer lies in a ‘return to the past,’ to the Bing Fa and the Principles for Life.

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Colonel (Ret’d) David Harries, a former army engineer, is the Executive Director of the Master of Arts Program in Security and Defence Management at the Royal Military College of Canada, and he is internationally engaged in strategic foresight on security and governance. 


  1. The Bing Fa were a foundation of Sun Tzu’s Art of War.
  2. Principles of War: Objective, Offensive, Surprise, Mass/Concentration, Economy of force, Security, Movement/Mobility, Cooperation, and Simplicity.
  3. The Responsibility to Protect. Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. IDRC, Canada, 2001. The message is that sovereignty is not absolute. Governments not only have authority over their citizens, but also responsibility for their well-being. Those shirking this responsibility must not be allowed to do so with impunity.
  4. Michael S. Loescher, Proteus Insights from 2020 (The Copernicus Institute Press, 2000).
  5. The Proteus Consortium is an informally associated group of academics, researchers and intelligence practitioners. 
  6. <www.Proteuscanada.org>
  7. Major natural disasters, which respect nothing and no one, are increasing at a rate of 11 percent a year (1999 figure), and not infrequently happen where war is underway, such as, the 26 December 2004 tsunami assault upon Aceh, Indonesia.
  8. The combination of rising urbanization, general population growth, and spreading development is producing an as yet unmeasured rate of increase in the occurrence of ‘accidents’: Bridge collapses, building collapses, dam failures, and road wash-outs. These events tend to increase where there is already a natural disaster and/or a war underway. Crowded cities, such as Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Kashmir are ripe already for major structural collapses. These would add to the promotion and provocation of social problems and unrest that could become crises, both violent and non-violent.
  9. Competence: a time-sensitive, event-dependent, value and consequence-variable set of at least 23 elements, as determined by this writer.

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