The Principle of the Possible War

29 December 2011


Yesterday in A Review of Iranian Capabilities I mentioned the current foreign policy debate over the idea of a preventative war against Iran and recounted some of Iran’s known capabilities.

Reflecting the these attempts to make a case for or against preventative war with Iran, I was led back in my thoughts to a post I wrote last summer about what I called The Possible War. In this post I tried to emphasize that ex post facto criticisms of conduct in war — like criticisms of the Allies’ strategic bombing of Germany during the Second World War — presume a parity of capability and opportunity that almost never obtains in fact. Military powers do not engage in ideal wars that meet certain standards; they fight the war that they are able to fight, and this is the possible war.

Moving beyond a description of the possible war, the idea can be formulated as a principle, the principle of possible wars, and the principle is this: in any given conflict, each party to the conflict will fight the war that it is possible for that party to fight. In other words, no party to a conflict is going to fight a war that it is impossible for it to fight. In other words again, no party to a conflict is going to fight a losing war on the basis of peer-to-peer engagement if there is a non-peer strategy that will win the war. This sort of thing makes good poetry, as in The Charge of the Light Brigade, but in so far as it ensures failure in a campaign, it exerts a strong negative selection over military powers that pursue such policies.

The military resources of a given political entity (whether state or non-state entity) will always seek to maximize its advantage by employing its most effective means available against its adversary’s most vulnerable target available. This is what makes war brutal and ugly, this is why it has been said since ancient times that inter arma enim silent leges.

There is a sense in which this principle of possible wars is simply an extension of the classic twin principles of mass and economy of forces. Each party to a conflict concentrates as much force as it can at a point it believes the adversary to be most vulnerable, and the enemy is simultaneously trying to do the same thing. If we think of concentration as concentration of effort, rather than mere numbers of battalions, and we think of vulnerability as any way in which an enemy can be defeated, and not merely a point on the line that is insufficiently defended, then we have the principle of possible war.

War is not always and inevitably brutal and ugly, and the principle of possible wars helps us to understand why this is the case. Previously in Civilization and War as Social Technologies I discussed how in particular historical circumstances warfare can become highly ritualized and stylized. There I cited the non-Western examples of Samurai sword fighting, retained in Japan long after the rest of the world was fighting with guns, and the Aztec Flower Battle, which combined religious rituals of sacrifice with the honor and prestige requirements of combat. However, there are Western precedents for ritualized combat as well, as when, in the ancient world, each party to a conflict would choose an individual champion and the issue was decided by single combat.

Another example of semi-ritualized forms of combat in Western history might include early modern Condottieri wars in the Italian peninsula. Before the large scale armies of the French and the Spanish crossed the Alps to pillage and plunder Italy, the peninsula was dominated by wealth city-states who hired mercenary armies under Condottieri captains to wage war against each other. With two mercenary armies facing each other on the battlefield, there was a strong incentive to minimize casualties, and there are some remarkable stories from the era of nearly bloodless battles.

Another example would be the maneuver warfare of small, professional European armies during the Enlightenment, who sometimes managed to fight limited wars with a minimal impact on non-combatants. This may well have been a cultural response to the horrific slaughter of the Thirty Years War.

In these latter two examples, limited wars were the possible war because a sufficient number of social conventions and normative presuppositions were shared by all parties to the conflict, who were willing to abide by the results of the contest even when a more ruthless approach might have secured a Pyrrhic victory. Under these socio-political conditions, limited wars were possible wars because all parties recognized that it was in their enlightened self-interest not to escalate wars beyond a certain threshold. Such social conventions touching even upon the conduct of war can only be effective in a suitably homogenous cultural region.

After the escalating total wars leading up to the middle of the twentieth century, limited wars emerged again out of fear of crossing the nuclear threshold. Parties to the conflicts were willing to abide by the issue of these limited wars because the alternative was mutually assured destruction. Also, all parties to proxy wars knew they would have another chance at achieving their goals in another theater when the proxy war would shift to another region of the world. Thus limited wars because possible wars because the alternative was unthinkable.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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