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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 21, No. 4, Autumn 2021]
Military History and Theories of War

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The HMCS Toronto while operating in the Arabian Gulf. HMCS Toronto joined the Norfolk, VA based aircraft carrier on a scheduled deployment in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.

Captain Tim Gallant is an Infantry Officer currently employed as a Light Armored Vehicle Captain (LAV Capt) with the Second Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment (2 RCR). He has deployed once as a platoon commander with 2 RCR to Latvia with Op REASSURANCE Roto 9. He holds a BA with a joint major in philosophy and political science from Saint Francis Xavier University.

The more an army lacks war experience… the more it needs to make use of the history of war for its instruction. Although the history of war is no substitute for actual experience it can be a foundation for such experience. In peace times it becomes the true method of learning war and of determining the invariable principles of the art of war.

– Marshal Ferdinand FochFootnote 1

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Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch.

Any military officer, as well as any student of military theory, must be familiar with the principles of war. Around the world, military institutions place the principles of war at the foundation of doctrine and teach them to both soldiers and officers. Nevertheless, their basis for knowledge is often flimsy, and their definition either absent or minimal. The critical obstacle to understanding the principles of war is that they vary from country to country. How is one to understand the principles of war without an explanation? What is their basis in knowledge and are they relevant for future combat?

The principles of war have as well come under criticism from the supposed growing complexity of warfare. Concepts such as the revolution in military affairs, unconventional warfare, cyberwarfare, and network-centric warfare, all claim that there has been a growing complexity to war. This article will classify those authors who defend such concepts as futurists. One of their arguments is that the reduced power of the state is the cause of the growing complexity of warfare and that the previously clear distinctions between combatants and non-combatants are becoming significantly unclear.Footnote 2 This article will instead argue that the institutionalization of the principles of war has uprooted them from their basis in the experience of war and that those who predict the radical nature of future combat misunderstand the nature of war.

Military theory’s purpose is to assist the commander and his staff during the preparation for and the conduct of combat. All the nuance, and potential innovative nature which a new theory may possess, is fundamentally irrelevant if it does not, in a simple manner, benefit combat effectiveness. As Jim Storr, former professor of war studies at the Norwegian Military Academy and retired British Army Colonel, argues, “military thought concerns the ability to win battles, engagements, campaigns, and hence wars.”Footnote 3 Theory assists warfighting because it helps the commander understand what he is engaging in. An artist must know his subject matter if he is to master the techniques of his art. Ignorance does not lead to victory. The practical solution may not sound good nor look reasonable, particularly to those who do not understand the nature of war. If a theory does not accord with the chaos, violence, complexity, and uncertainty of war, then it is useless. The search for a theory that assists effectiveness must account for the fact that such a theory must be effective for what war is. Consequently, theory is essential for the proper conduct of war. The more robust and substantial the theoretical foundations of war are, the more effective the commander will be when he experiences war. Theory without effectiveness is inappropriate, while effectiveness without theory is blind. Neither leads to success.

Following such a perspective, this article will primarily follow three lines of thought. The first will be an investigation into the history of the principles of war. How were the principles of war conceived? What is their foundation in theory, and does it agree with the nature of war? The second line of thought will be determining and understanding the claims of those futurist authors who argue that war has changed. Primarily, there is a persistent belief that unconventional war is fundamentally different from conventional war. Such a belief has led the United States to introduce three new principles of war to their Joint Doctrine.Footnote 4 Such an addition brings forth an important question: How can new principles of war be discovered? Lastly, in contrast to the second line of thought, the nature of war will be defined. A requirement for a proper understanding of war and to, therefore, achieve victory is to understand its nature. To argue for a split nature of war is a contradiction in terms. War is a single indivisible concept. However, what may be deceiving is that the character of war is in constant change. The swords and shields of Roman legionaries differ drastically from the helicopters, UAVs, and ballistic missiles of contemporary combat. Nonetheless, the nature of war does not change. Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century Prussian theorist of war, convincingly argues war is always an act of force to compel an opposing enemy to adhere to a political will.Footnote 5

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Carl von Clausewitz.

The Principles of War

The generation and creation of the principles of war is the result of a historical process. The principles of war are fundamentally a product of the Age of Enlightenment. Throwing off the stubbornness of the Medieval Age, the Age of Enlightenment sought the truths of reality without restrictions. In the fields of biology, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy, humanity found success. It was only natural that warfighters should be so inclined to venture and find if such truths were discoverable in the realm of war. Nevertheless, Maurice de Saxe, Marshal of the French armies during the War of the Austrian Succession, declared that “war is a science so involved in darkness, and attended with so much imperfection, that no certain rules of conduct can be given concerning it.”Footnote 6 General J. F.C. Fuller, the most productive British writer on the philosophy and history of war throughout the twentieth century, disagreed strongly with such a mentality. To forfeit the search for established truths or wisdom in the conduct of warfare would leave it in the realm of ignorance and superstition. Maurice de Saxe’s line of thought leads to absurdity, and if accepted, then there is no criteria for whether a plan is or is not tactically sound. “Ignorance is not only always wrong, but it is the evil of the world.”Footnote 7

The principles of war strive to establish a science of war around “organized common-sense” in order to establish truths within the realm of warfare.Footnote 8 If these principles exist, they would necessarily have to be unchanging. To accept, as Canadian doctrine currently does, that there are principles of war but that they are changing, is illogical.Footnote 9 Either there are, or there are not principles of war. Furthermore, the theoretical necessity must form a unity with the necessity for effectiveness. If the principles of war are to be theoretically valuable, they must explain the nature of war and be instrumental to the effective conduct of war. In other words, principles must assist the commander in understanding what war is and make success in combat more likely.

What are the modern principles of war? The Canadian Army’s foundational publication Land Operations, published in 2008, contains ten principles of war and defines them as not being “immutable laws” which “must be considered in light of operational circumstances” but that disregarding them “involves great risk and the possibility of failure.”Footnote 10 On the other hand, the American Joint Publication 3-0, published in 2018, possesses twelve principles of war and are defined upon the basis of “warfighting philosophy and theory derived from experience.”Footnote 11 These twelve principles “do not apply equally,” but most of the principles, if not all, are relevant for combat.Footnote 12

To understand the modern principles of war, it becomes necessary to understand their heritage. The genesis of what modern military institutions know as the principles of war begins in the Napoleonic era. Napoleon himself thought that “the art of war possesses some unchanging principles.”Footnote 13 Likewise, reflecting upon his campaigns, he argued that he conducted them “solely in conformity with principles.”Footnote 14 Napoleon did not write what these principles were and left that effort to one of his subordinate generals Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini. Regarded along with Clausewitz as one of the greatest military thinkers, Jomini wrote about the geometrical science of warfare, of lines of operations, and logistical capabilities. It is Jomini’s argument for the principles of war, which is essential to this article. He thought that there “is one great principle underlying all the operations of war,” and that is “to throw by strategic movements the mass of an army, successively, upon the decisive points of a theatre of war.”Footnote 15 Jomini is one of the first writers to believe that war had principles and that by adhering to them, one would achieve success. His single principle of war lives on in doctrine as either concentration of force or as mass.

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Napoleon Bonaparte Crossing the Alps.

The crucial question is, how does Jomini establish this principle? He defines a decisive point as a position that is “capable of exercising a marked influence either upon the result of the campaign or upon a single enterprise.”Footnote 16 He then classifies decisive points into three subcategories: decisive geographic points, objective points that are geographically valuable or are valuable in relation to maneuver, and political objective points. Here the military officer can see the development of another principle of war; that of the objective, or in Canadian doctrine the “selection and maintenance of the aim.”Footnote 17 What any of the decisive points are in a campaign is dependent upon each army’s lines of operations. At length, Jomini also stresses the advantages of interior lines, a strategy where the centrally located army “can concentrate the masses and manoeuvre with his whole force in a shorter period than it would require for the enemy to oppose to them a greater force.”Footnote 18 The commander is in a situation where he can identify the decisive points of the battlefield and achieve relative density against a dispersed but numerically superior enemy.

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Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini.

There is, however, a critical fault with Jomini’s foundation for the principles of war. He makes the grave mistake of insufficiently accounting for the nature of war, namely, its clash of aims and means. The concept of war requires that there are conflicting parties. It involves the dynamic exchange between at least two different aims and their means. “War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale.”Footnote 19 Jomini’s lack of reference to combat against a thinking enemy is telling of his mathematical approach. The scientific method requires a controlled environment and the isolation of factors to observe change and to prove hypotheses; this process is impossible for the concept of war. War is chaos, where endless factors interact with each other. What may make logical sense can counterintuitively be a foolish plan of action because it runs into the enemy’s expectations. War is, at times, illogical and irrational. Indicative of Jomini’s understanding is his statement that “it is quite possible to combine operations skillfully without ever having led a regiment against an enemy.”Footnote 20 He approaches war more like a mathematic equation rather than a series of violent acts against a thinking enemy. Jomini created a theory with no basis in warfighting.

The Futurist Critique

The principles of war have recently come under criticism. The argument is that they are historically dated and insufficiently account for today’s revolution in military affairs. These criticisms come from futurist theories which detail at length the complexities of modern war with an emphasis on unconventional warfare. The idea of unconventional warfare logically splits the concept of war into the conventional and the unconventional. Here, conventional warfare is defined as state-on-state conflict, i.e., the world wars, while unconventional warfare includes but is not limited to “guerrilla warfare, insurgency and counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, cyber-warfare, cyber-terrorism, information warfare.”Footnote 21

With the introduction of nuclear weapons, the fear of nuclear apocalypse has led the state to renounce the utility of military force. The state had revoked its monopoly on violence through its self-realization that such violence leads to unimaginable destruction. Martin Van Creveld, the renowned Israeli military historian and theorist, is perhaps the most eloquent of all the futurist authors. He argues that “if states are decreasingly able to fight each other, then the concept of intermingling already points to the rise of low-intensity conflict.”Footnote 22 Such unconventional warfare enables asymmetric enemies to hide amongst the people and avoid the strengths of a contemporary military’s vast firepower advantage. Therefore, the argument is that this complex nature of unconventional warfare subverts and undermines the principles of war, particularly mass, surprise, and simplicity. Mass is now understood not as the concentration of manpower, which provides the enemy with an excellent target, but now as the massing of effects. Surprise is considered improbable due to the nature of unconventional warfare’s characteristic of occurring amongst the people. Cellphone messaging and other twenty-first century means of instant communication enables asymmetrical adversaries to report on Allied Forces’ every move and allows them to create a common operating picture from their very living rooms. Likewise, it is the supposed “complex, networked organizational structures,” which prevents simplicity in unconventional warfare.Footnote 23

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Soldiers use a military grade laptop.

An emphasis on networks and systems is another attribute of the futurist conception of war, and it is the foundation of network-centric warfare. Also understood as a revolution in military affairs, network-centric warfare is “an information superiority-enabled concept of operations that generates increased combat power by networking sensors, decision-makers, and shooters to achieve shared awareness” and therefore increases lethality.Footnote 24 Futurists contrast network-centric warfare with platform-centric warfare, which is “a form of fighting where the various military elements, whether they be ships, airplanes, tanks, or soldiers behave as independent actors in the operational environment.”Footnote 25 Furthermore, the internet and its correspondingly extensive battlefield connectivity enables dispersed operations because of the reduced need for a face to face between commanders.

Futurists argue that there are two main effects of network-centric warfare.Footnote 26 The first is that it allows for information supremacy over the adversary. This idea reaches its fulfillment during the Gulf War, where American commanders had to explain to surrendering Iraqi commanders where their subordinate units were. The second effect revolves around the “demassification” of the battlefield. By reducing the need for actual interactions, commanders can now order and monitor a subordinate’s every move from another continent with no delay. Both effects undermine several of the principles of war.

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US Air Force fighters patrol the no-fly zone over Iraq during the Gulf War.

Such arguments place the defenders of the principles of war in a dangerous position. They must defend a list of words against warfighting operations, which argue from the standpoint of effectiveness. Such a disagreement splits apart the necessity of theory for effectiveness. The problem of defending the principles of war rests precisely with their lack of an institutionalized basis in knowledge. There is no framework in which the arguments for, or against, the principles of war can occur. Such a dilemma is fundamentally a failure of doctrine. Doctrine exists as a military organization’s only means to educate and understand what war is. The popularity of new and novel approaches to warfare are theoretical attempts to maintain pace with the rapid technological advances occurring. Such approaches, however, do not educate or enlighten the military officer. Futurist theories of war can only argue from effectiveness, but there is a crucial fault with their argument.

Contemporary doctrinal innovations such as dispersed operations, the effects-based approach, and network-centric warfare all insufficiently understand the nature of war. The value that they do have, if any, is that they provide a descriptive analysis of the changing character of war. There is, however, an important limitation. The lack of conflict against a peer or a near-peer enemy indicates that the character of contemporary war has not yet revealed itself. Contemporary doctrinal innovations characterize a framework of conducting warfare that rests itself firmly upon a vast technological superiority. The one-hundred-page-long orders and the seamless synchronization of kinetic and non-kinetic effects across a battlespace with perfect situational awareness are indicative of a military structure that has become content fighting an enemy which presents no threat to its organizational survival. The futurist claims to operational effectiveness can only validate themselves through combat against an opponent, which can disrupt and overcome our technological advantages; this challenge has not yet occurred.

With no theoretical basis, and a weak basis within the realm of combat effectiveness, the futurist arguments for the revolution in military affairs are questionable. What the principles of war need are a grounding within a theoretical framework. This grounding is an understanding of the nature of war. Instead of emphasizing the changes in contemporary war, as the revolution in military affairs suggests, the required framework focuses on the nature of war, which has been continuous throughout. Jim Storr, in his The Human Face of War, stresses that all combat is human combat and that it is purely human factors that characterize the nature of war: “combat is fundamentally a human activity.”Footnote 27 No matter the technology, information connectivity, or intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets a military force has available, combat will always be a human affair where “men think, move, and commit violence.”Footnote 28 The platoon commander’s experience coming under contact and making real-time tactical decisions, whether it is in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, or a stability operation in Afghanistan, is the same. Focusing our intellectual efforts on technology without factoring in the dynamic human element misses the mark. Technology is not an end in and of itself. It is a means which educated and competent commanders can utilize to their advantage. Institutions must train their soldiers and officers and not rely upon technology to fight the battle.

The Scientific Foundations of the Principles of War and The Nature of War

Jomini’s writing influenced the institutionalization of the principles of war throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the principles of war that are now taught in lecture halls receive their direct parentage from J. F. C Fuller’s The Foundations of the Science of War.Footnote 29 Born in the late nineteenth century, Fuller fought in the First World War as a staff officer and was a creative writer on military history on topics ranging from Greek Ancient history to the American Civil War. Fuller is the greatest defender of the principles of war. Fuller built a substantial philosophic system to support his principles. Establishing a threefold order of man, inspired by the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, and understanding that war is a human affair, Fuller argues that the three conditions of war are mental, moral, and physical.Footnote 30 From these three conditions of war, each has three elements, corresponding to either command, the offensive, or the defensive, thus creating nine principles of war. Fuller provides the most intellectually robust explanation of the principles of war, and his work is its most vigorous defence.

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The essential question is, what purpose does Fuller intend for his principles of war? Tellingly, they appear at the end of his argument. Their foundation is his understanding of the nature of war and man’s central role in the conduct of warfare. Here the principles of war are a theoretical system; “it is not possible to correctly apply any one of the principles of war without references to the remainder.”Footnote 31 Fuller’s principles of war cannot be divorced from the fact that war is a mental, moral, and physical activity. The commander is representative of the mental activities in war. He uses reason and imagination to enforce a will upon his military organization. His soldiers possess offensive power, protective power, and the ability to maneuver this force around the battlefield. The commander must have the courage to enforce his will, and his soldiers must have the morale to obey. Both the commander and his soldiers must overcome fear. The entire structure of a military fighting force rests upon fear. The lack of a courageous will from an army’s command will lead to disaster. Fuller wrote that “the shot through the brain,” was the ideal method of victory.Footnote 32 “The brains of an army are its staff… could we suddenly remove these from an extensive sector of the enemy’s front the total collapse of the fighting personnel would be but a matter of hours.”Footnote 33

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Major General J.F.C. Fuller.

Furthermore, Fuller, like Jomini, argues that each principle of war is subordinate to a supreme principle of war, but for Fuller, it is the economy of force. “The side which could best economize its force, and which, in consequence, could expend its force more remuneratively, has been the side which has always won.”Footnote 34 Fuller’s concept of military force does not merely represent numbers, equipment, moral strength, nor is it generalship but is instead a combination of all three conditions of warfare.Footnote 35 It is only through his extensive historical examples and logical arguments that Fuller’s principles of war derive their value. His theory is a far cry from what now exists within contemporary military doctrine. Currently, the principles of war are an “intellectual framework,” which “are vital to efficient war planning and effective command.”Footnote 36 They are orphaned from any intellectual foundations and are philosophically no more than a body experiencing rigour mortis. Indeed, when even doctrine admits that “circumstances will dictate the relative weight and importance of each principle,” and that it is the commander who must decide what to value given the circumstances, the question must become what value do these principles have if their effectiveness is dependent upon the commander’s ability?Footnote 37

If the principles of war as they are currently institutionalized have no positive effect upon combat effectiveness, then why were they so widely accepted? The Swedish scholars Jan Angsrom and J. J. Widen argue that the reasoning why military forces adopted the principles of war is contrary to common perceptions. One such common opinion is that “the principles served as a simple, yet effective, pedagogical tool to teach tactics” to soldiers and junior officers.Footnote 38 They argue instead that principles of war are “understood as less a reflection of rationalistic concerns of military effectiveness and more as a result of the creation and maintenance of a separate identity of staff officers.”Footnote 39 If today’s principles of war’s only basis in knowledge comes from other’s experience and if they do not contribute towards military victory, then, reasonably, they can have no value for the military officer preparing for the first battle of the next war. What is necessary is the establishment of a theoretical foundation for the principles of war.

As opposed to the previously described revolution in military affairs, the concept of the continuity war, centred upon its fundamentally human foundation, is also understood as the nature of war. The concept of the nature of war opposes the split conception of war, which sees revolutions or dramatic changes in war from the past into the present. Sir Hew Strachan, the renowned British military historian and professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, argues that “war shows both continuity and change reflected in the distinction between its character and its nature.”Footnote 40 Every war is different. The weaponry is different; the principal actors, both human and institutional, are different, and lastly, the ground is different. There can be no two identical wars. However, all wars are bound together by the very fact that they are wars. War, as per the law of logical identity, is understood only through the concept of war. “One war is more like another than it is any other human activity, and that is sufficiently true across time for us to identify the nature of war.”Footnote 41 Adopting the perspective of the nature of war enables the military officer to understand that human fighting lays at the heart of warfare and it, therefore, depends on moral factors, and that war is reciprocal which means that the “seizure of the initiative and the ability to do the unexpected” is essential to victory.Footnote 42

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Sir Hew Strachan.

Fundamentally the devotees of technology who argue for the revolution in military affairs mistake the character of war for the nature of war. War is, as Clausewitz argues, a chameleon that adapts itself to changing circumstances.Footnote 43 The characteristics of every war will be different and varying. Understanding this has a significant impact on military education. To focus training upon an aspect of a specific war is to be ill-prepared for the unforeseen. Split conceptions of warfare are indeed not new or novel. In the late nineteenth century, the British found themselves at odds with preparing for a great continental war while also maintaining their overseas empire in so-called colonial wars. Instead of focusing upon one over the other, the answer which the British Army sought was a theoretical confrontation with the diversity of war and an attempt to find coherence amongst it.Footnote 44 The goal of military education, as exemplified by the British 1909 Field Service Regulations, is to “train the judgement of all officers so that when left to themselves they may do the right thing.”Footnote 45

Such arguments do not doubt that the structure of current military organizations is highly efficient. Efficiency is, however, not necessarily combat effective. The efficiency which commanders demand from their headquarters and their staffs is a result of deliberately long planning cycles and an emphasis upon synchronization. Such “close coordination is vulnerable to disruption” and is therefore tactically inflexible.Footnote 46 One must never forget that war is chaos. What is effective is not military organizations that attempt to control this chaos. Effective military units are those who thrive in chaos. “The flexibility to respond to rogue outcomes as they arise is far more important than methodological precautions that attempt to prevent them.”Footnote 47


The principles of war, as now taught, do not contribute to either the theoretical understanding of war or to combat effectiveness. If the commander has not learnt the value of the principles from his own experience or from years of rigorous study, then they are merely words to memorize. It is important to stress that not all historical research is created equal. A study of a historical campaign with the intended purpose of defending a pre-established list of the principles of war proverbially puts the cart in front of the horse. The search for the truths of military history requires that these truths are not already accessible. Wisdom is a result of research, not a prerequisite. The flaw with the principles of war is that no matter the complexity of their defence, they are not understood from reason alone. In other words, there is no mathematical equation that will assist the student in understanding the principles of war. Only lived experience can teach the principles of war. How then can theory, in the expression of contemporary military culture, be a force multiplier? This article mentioned that Napoleon did not list any principles of war. He did not do so because he understood that war is not a static law-abiding subject matter; “circumstances change everything.”Footnote 48 The purpose of military theory is, therefore, not to provide doctrinal answers to the military officer. Instead, theory is, as Clausewitz wrote, “meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield.”Footnote 49

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NATO logo on the side of an aircraft.

The military institutions of NATO should either do away with, or reinvigorate, the principles of war as they currently neither assist in the understanding of what war is, nor increase combat effectiveness. How can this argument coexist with this article’s previous rejection of military ignorance? The answer lies in the distinction between education and schooling. “To cram facts into our men’s heads” is the current means of military schooling.Footnote 50 Military effectiveness demands proper military education. There is a need to integrate a program of serious military history into officer and non-commissioned officer (NCO) training regimes. Such an institutionalization of military history must not force students to search for the confirmation of a pre-set list of principles but have as its only guiding light the dynamic, human element of warfare. The principles of war are only valuable if they contribute to this program.

Fuller wrote that the “central idea of an army is known as its doctrine.”Footnote 51 However, he warned that “the danger of doctrine is that it is apt to ossify into a dogma, and to be seized upon by mental emasculates who lack virility of judgement.”Footnote 52 It has been nearly a century since Fuller published his work, and since then, the principles of war have indeed become a hollow and empty laundry list, which reaffirms his characterization of military men as being slaves to tradition.

The principles of war have become a cheat sheet for military officers unwilling to study military history in width and in depth.Footnote 53 Memorizing the terms mass or concentration of force will not assist the commander in the decisive moments of combat. A serious study of Napoleon’s decisions at the battle of Austerlitz will, however, develop the commander and help him understand how a thrust into the centre of an enveloping superior army can seize the initiative and lead to victory. As Sir Archibald Percival Wavell, a British general in the Second World War argued:

Study the human side of history… to learn that Napoleon in 1796 with 20,000 beat combined forces of 30,000 by something called economy of force or operating on interior lines is a mere waste of time. If you can understand how a young unknown man inspired a half starved ragged rather Bolshie crowd; how he filled their bellies; how he outmarched, outwitted, outbluffed and defeated men who had studied war all their lives and waged it according to the text-books of their time, you will have learnt something worth knowing.Footnote 54

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Field Marshal Archibald Wavell who commanded the British Army forces in the Middle East during the Second World War.

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