In the Mind of the Enemy: Psychology, #Wargames, and the Duel

Fight the enemy, not the plan.’ – Iron Ranger Rules of Combat

Over the last eighteen months, the Australian podcast the Dead Prussian has asked each of its guests a simple yet deeply contested question: “What is war?”  Answers have ranged from Professor Hal Brand’s insightful “war is a tragic but inescapable aspect of international politics” to my own citation of John Keegan’s “war is collective killing for some collective purpose.”

Nobody so far has said that war is a “game.”  Thankfully this isn’t surprising; anyone who has fought in war, or just studied it, will be aware that this would trivialise the destruction that can lie within.  But it is also of note that nobody so far has labeled war as a duel.

This label would fit a show called the ‘Dead Prussian.’  That war is a duel was undeniably Clausewitz’s view.  In the very first page of On War he defines war as “nothing but a duel on a larger scale.”[1]  He uses a simple, up-front analogy of a pair of wrestlers to conjure an image of war in the reader’s mind.  Clausewitz’s desire to find an abstract, enduring definition of war’s nature was obsessive, and it is therefore of note that at the heart of his conception sits a relatively simple idea – that “war is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”[2]

Military practitioners should hold these twin ideas of force and will close to their hearts.  Every action taken in war is fundamentally an application of force, or a threat of force, to compel others to do our will.  This includes killing; the most fundamental and final way of persuading an individual to change their point of view.  Military art (be it strategic, institutional, operational or tactical) should always be seen through this lens - the skill of applying or threatening the right amount of force, with acceptable risk and reasonable cost, to compel an opponent to do our will.  At the heart of this, I believe, is the need for an intimate, near spiritual connection with an adversary; the quest for a deep psychological understanding of their hopes, needs and fears in order to leverage the nature of war against them.

In war the duel should be all.  My experience, however, is that too often it is not.  The article will discuss how linear doctrine, a lack of understanding of psychology, and ultimately poor strategy leads to a situation where ‘plans’ become an end in themselves, and not a means to win the duel.  It will suggest two ways to address this problem; the establishment of the field of psychology as a pillar of the modern profession of arms, and a reinvestment in the art of the wargame.

Doctrine and Losing Touch with the Enemy

The start point lies, as is often the case, in the application of doctrine.  The story actually starts well.  Most Western capstone publications (i.e. those that seek to articulate a doctrinal philosophy or way of war for a nation) do hold at their centre a concept that is deeply Clausewitzian, that of ‘manoeuvre theory.’  The ties between manoeuvre theory and the duel are particularly clear in the British Army’s ADP Operations, which states that:

The Manoeuvrist Approach is an indirect approach which emphasises understanding and targeting the conceptual and moral components of an adversary’s fighting power as well as attacking the physical component.  Influencing perceptions and breaking or protecting cohesion and will are essential.”[3]

But what is sound in theory can rapidly lose its way in application.  No matter the intention of the doctrine writers, the slope from philosophy to procedure is steep and slippery.  Planners rapidly find themselves in a linear, process-driven mire that draws them away from the higher connection with the enemy.  Take, for example, the summary image of the US Department of Defence Joint Operation Planning Process (JOPP) (Fig 1).[4]  Any real sense of the adversary and the duel are absent, lost in the sheer process of making a plan. The eighteen principles and considerations of operational planning presented by NATO joint doctrine include such topics as ‘gender perspectives,’ but make no mention of the enemy.[5]  In the Australian Defence Force’s Joint Mission Appreciation Process (JMAP) the adversary is tucked away within ‘threat analysis,’ a subset of the ‘Joint Intelligence Preparation of the Operational Environment’ which is explicitly conducted by J2 intelligence experts separate to the JMAP itself.[6]  The profound idea of a ‘battle of force and will’ is lost in a confounding maze of flow charts, process tables and abbreviations.

Fig 1: JOPP Summary Diagram (JP 5-0)

Fig 1: JOPP Summary Diagram (JP 5-0)

Many would argue that the Centre of Gravity concept is designed as the fail-safe against such linearity, forcing a consideration of the ‘primary strength of an actor’ as the modern extrapolation of Clausewitz’s duel.  This could be the case in theory.  The Australian JMAP certainly seems to seek this when it quotes Clausewitz directly:

“One must keep in mind the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind.  Out of these characteristics a certain centre of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.  That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”[7]

Once again, however, the original spirit of On War can too easily become lost in the translation from theory to practise.  All modern Western doctrine seeks to operationalise Clausewitz’s original concept by adopting Dr Joseph Strange’s ‘Critical Capabilities (CC) – Critical Requirements (CR) – Critical Vulnerability (CV)’ model.  In theory this is sound.  Strange’s original proposition explicit sought to keep hold of the idea of the duel, critiquing (for example) the Howard and Paret translation of On War for diluting ‘the adversarial nature of Centres of Gravity’.[8]

The problem appears when your everyday military planner (of which I am one) seeks to apply Strange.  As Antulio J. Echevarria II argues, our industrial forces have tended to view the concept in their own image.[9]  Doctrine explicitly encourages us to define CCs, CRs and CVs in material terms; tanks, planes, ships and fuel. While many support this, I believe such linear simplicity comes at the cost of the idea of the duel.  Fixated on the physical, we spend no time seeking to understand the psychological will of the enemy so as we can apply force to defeat him.  Doctrine is but one example of how we have become disconnected from the duel; we need to rediscover our enemy in human terms if we are to achieve even an approximation of ‘victory’.

Solution Step 1 – Establishing Psychology as a Pillar of the Profession of Arms

The first step in a solution involves adjusting how we define, and then teach, the modern profession of arms.  In early 2016 a small team led by Brigadier Mick Ryan conducted a root and branch review of the Australian Army’s education, training and doctrine system.  This review sought to propose a simple model (Fig 2)[10] through which Army could articulate mastery of the profession of arms.  The model, designed to be specific to the Australian way of war, broke the profession down into seven pillars - ranging from ‘Tactical and Technical Mastery’ through to ‘Mastery of Strategic Thinking’.

Fig 2: A Model of Mastery of the Profession of Arms

Fig 2: A Model of Mastery of the Profession of Arms

The establishment of a pillar dedicated to ‘Psychological and Cognitive Mastery’ was an important step for the Review.  It sought to place the study of the human mind and the science of decision-making on a par with facets like leadership and history (long considered central to the profession).  This is not the first time such a proposal has been made.  A 2012 Australian Strategic Policy Institute Special Report identified ‘behavioural science’ (a discipline blending psychology, sociology and anthropology) as the missing link in the education of the Australian professional military officer.  The 2016 Ryan Review sought to turn this sage advice into reality.

What does the review mean by psychological mastery? One way to unpack this idea is through examining the developing field of Operational Psychology.  This field, defined as “the use of psychological principles and skills to improve the effectiveness of military and intelligence operations”, has a history that reaches back to World War I when Robert Yerkes, the president of the American Psychological Association (APA), “threw the machinery of the Association behind mobilisation for national service’ in his belief that ‘the human factor was as important as the materiel”.[11]  The relationship between war and psychology in such times of existential crisis was explicit and highly valued.

Modern Operational Psychology is split into two sub-categories.  The first is Collaborative Operational Psychology.  This is the use of the field of psychology to “maximise the performance and survivability of the warfighter.”  Such purely defensive work, which seeks to condition against factors like post-traumatic stress, has been wholeheartedly embraced by modern armies as they seek to deepen individual and collective resilience against constant war.  However there is another, more aggressive, aspect that must be examined.  Adversarial operational psychology ties the field of psychology to the direct support of “coercion, deception and assault in military operations.”[12]  It is here that the study of the human mind and decision-making may be used to understand our enemy’s will, so that we can apply (or threaten) just the right amount of force to drive a change in perspective or action.  This is the duel.

In our search to re-engage with the duel, we must seek all legal tools that will help us to maintain an advantage over our enemies.

This assertion is controversial, especially for any psychologists who happen to be reading this.  Many believe it was a brand of Adversarial Operational Psychology that was used post-9/11 by the military and the CIA in the conduct of ‘Enhanced Interrogations’ at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.  As such, a dark and foreboding cloud hangs over the field, such that it was rejected by practising psychologists (including the APA) on ethical grounds.  But with all due respect, I do not believe the military profession has the luxury to ignore it’s utility due to connections with the abusive acts at Guantanamo.  In our search to re-engage with the duel, we must seek all legal tools that will help us to maintain an advantage over our enemies.  The art here is finding the correct balance between tactics, psychology, ethics and adherence to international law; a challenge, but not one that is either new or insurmountable.

Solution Step 2 – Rediscovering the Art of the Wargame

The second step is complementary to the first.  The establishment of psychology as a pillar of the profession of arms must be ‘weaponised’ by a renaissance in wargaming amongst Western militaries.  This would help us reconnect with the duel in two ways: through the honing of an adversarial edge, and through ensuring our operational planning is fully engaged with the enemy and thus adaptable enough to win.

The adversarial edge comes first.  Historically, the practise of wargaming and Clausewitz’s original idea of the duel are intrinsically linked.  Indeed both are products of the same environment.  It is no coincidence that Clausewitz took over as the Director of the Prussian Kreigsakademie in 1815, just three years after Lieutenant Georg Leopoldo von Reiswitz designed the first Kreigsspiel (wargaming) table and introduced it to the Prussian Army.  It was in the context of On War and Kreigsspiel, energised by Moltke the Elder, that the Prussians were able to defeat the Napoleonic forces in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 – 1871.[13]  Their adversarial edge, developed as part of the ‘DNA’ of the force and contextualised by a deep understanding of the nature of war, proved decisive.

The engagement of Adversarial Operational Psychology, supported by the remarkable capacity of modern forces to gather intelligence, could allow modern planners to use wargaming to far surpass the Prussians.  Drilled through endemic wargaming at all levels, the modern adversarial edge would be able to focus beyond the physical and into the behavioural; seeking and then exploiting a deep (and increasingly evidenced) understanding of the hopes, needs and fears of the enemy.  Such games do not need to be complex, they just need to focus on understanding and influencing the psychology of the adversary.  Even chess, an entirely binary game without an environmental frame, can hone our adversarial understanding.

The final way to improve the contribution of wargames is to re-look at the way we teach, prioritise, and apply our doctrine.  Wargaming in planning needs to come forward in prominence, focused on testing our plans against the nature of war and the concept of the duel.  While wargames are already an established stage of all Western planning doctrine (including those highlighted above), the issue lies in their prioritisation in the ‘process’.  The wargame is currently far too small a cog in what is a vast, cumbersome planning machine.  While perhaps a poor metric, the number of pages devoted to wargaming in current publications is telling.  The ADF JMAP dedicates just twelve pages of a 217-page document to wargaming, the JOPP just ten of 264.  The wargame receives no special emphasis or prioritisation amongst the other steps.  In my experience all it takes is a lax or compressed planning timeline, compounded by a weak Chief of Staff, and the wargame disappears.  It is equally worrying that the wargame currently sits in doctrine as part of ‘Course of Action (COA) Analysis,’ conducted prior to the commander’s decision.  It is not sufficiently explicit that the final plan must be wargamed, against a realistic enemy, with the commander and all key staff present and engaged.  It is this final wargame that tests ‘the’ plan (as opposed to ‘a’ plan) against the reality of the duel of war.  The result should be a set of operational tools (and a series of CONPLANs) that are deeply flexible and adaptive to the most likely enemy actions and reactions.  This is what Eisenhower was talking about when he said “plans are nothing, planning is everything.”[14]  Wargaming should be primus inter pares (first amongst equals) in the planning process, and ignored at peril.

Once we have brought wargaming forward in prominence, we then need to help military professionals to run them well.  If we want them to engage the psychology of the enemy, and add value to the flexibility and adaptability of planning and execution, wargames must have the following traits:

  • Apply Friction and Uncertainty.  All too often wargames are anodyne pieces of theatre where a dispassionate enemy interacts all too predictable in favor of a linear plan.  This is unrealistic.  As Clausewitz says in his chapter on friction, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”[15]  Wargames must seek to emulate this unpredictable friction for both adversaries: a broken-down vehicle on a chokepoint, comms failures at critical points, the lucky round that kills a key commander.  Whether controlled through an umpire or even the roll of a dice, the ‘plan’ must be tested against the frictions of war.

  • Focus on the Psychological and not the Tactical.  The aim of the wargame should be to engage the duel; to test not just the ‘plan’ but also the commander’s capacity to outwit a thinking, cunning and unpredictable enemy.  Good tactics are generally simple tactics, executed by well-drilled troops.  The real skill is the commander’s capacity to ‘read’ his opponent; pre-empting actions, closing off options and (eventually) forcing acquiescence.  Wargames should focus on sharpening and testing the commander’s intellect and guile; this intellectual component of fighting power is the real battle-winner.

  • Be Exploitable through Insights.  Wargames must be exploitable, particular when conducted as part of an operational planning process.  The outcomes of ‘turns’ must lead to insights into the inherent flexibility (or otherwise) of a ‘plan’.  These insights must then be exploited through the refinement of command and controls tools: adjusted main efforts, specific control measures, pre-established contingency plans, identification of key decision points, and the allocation of ISR to feed these decisions.  Once rounds are flying and friction is in play, it is these tools that allow the ‘plan’ to evolve and adjust to the chaos of war.

Conclusion – Fighting Wars Without Enemies

‘We war-game because we must.’ [16]

Since 9/11 the Western world has spent sixteen years fighting a war with no enemy.  The long-term, organisational impact of the decision to declare a global war on ‘terror’, a decision labeled by Professor Sir Hew Strachan as ‘profoundly astrategic’[17], should not be underestimated.  Organisationally and doctrinally, the lack of a defined enemy has incrementally robbed us of our connection with the duel.  Clausewitz’s central concept of ‘force and will’, and the concomitant need to focus on the adversary, has been steadily diluted as Western militaries have tried to adjust to an expanded role that included everything from police mentoring to reconstruction.  This is not a strategic situation that we should seek to emulate in the future.

Western armies now need to, deliberately and with aforethought, repair this damage.  There is no time to waste.  The ‘peace-dividend’ expected by many to emerge in the aftermath of the ‘Global War on Terror’ has not appeared, and we rapidly find ourselves in the next phase of what is becoming a generational series of conflicts.  However there is hope for change.  Ironically, the emergence of Daesh in Iraq and Syria has given a face to the duel; a fact that has given valence to a more carefully bounded ‘by, through and with’ military strategy that seems (at this early stage) to be having a positive impact.  The re-emergence of state threats also presents a doctrinal opportunity in terms of preparing to face, and overcome, a definable enemy.  While military institutions are ungainly, we must seek to rapidly wrench them back towards a connection with the true nature of war and the need to understand ‘force and will’.

None of this will happen by accident.  It will need to be deliberate.  When General Karl von Mueffling, the Chief of the Prussian General Staff, recognised the potential of Kreigsspiel to sharpen the adversarial edge of his force, he went as far as to use a Royal Decree to direct every Regiment to play it regularly and to fund the purchase of tables from ‘public funds.’  Our need to refocus on the duel must be attacked with this same spirit.  Senior leaders should place the study of psychology as a central pillar of the ‘modern curriculum’ of the Western ‘way of war’ and we should then hone this skill through a directed and resourced renaissance in wargaming.  In an age where armed conflict seems more and not less likely, these two endeavours (both achievable with low cost and drag) may prove to be decisive.

Tom McDermott is an Australian Army officer who also spent fifteen years serving in the British Army.  He is the Director of the Cove, the Australian Army’s professional development network.  He is currently conducting higher research at the Australian National University, focused on the UK’s strategic decision-making in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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[1] Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, On War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 75.

[2] Clausewitz, On War, p. 75.

[3] Ministry of Defence, Army Doctrine Publication: Operations (Shrivenham: DCDC, 2010), para. 0502. 

[4] US Department of Defence (DoD), Joint Publication 5-0: Joint Operation Planning (Suffolk, VA: Joint Doctrine Support Division, 2011), p. 127.

[5] Ministry of Defence, AJP 5: Allied Joint Doctrine for Operational-level Planning (Shrivenham: DCDC, 2013), p. 1-6 to 1-11.

[6] Australian Defence Force, ADFP 5.0.1: Joint Mission Appreciation Process (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service), p. 1-2.

[7] Australian Defence Force, Joint Mission Appreciation Process, p. 3-6.

[8] Joseph L. Strange and Richard Iron, ‘Centre of Gravity: What Clausewitz Really Meant’, Joint Force Quarterly, Issue 35, 2004, p. 24.

[9] Antulio J. Echevarria, Clausewitz’s Centre of Gravity: Changing our Warfighting Doctrine – Again! (Carlisle: Strategic Studies Institute, 2002).

[10] Australian Army, The Ryan Review: a Study of Army’s Education, Training and Doctrine Needs for the Future (Canberra: Defence Publishing Service, 2016), p. 90.

[11] Jean Marie Arrigo, Roy J. Eidelson & Ray Bennett, ‘Psychology Under Fire: Adversarial Operational Psychology and Psychological Ethics’, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 2012, p. 3.

[12] Arrigo, Eidelson & Bennett, Psychology Under Fire, p. 4 – 5.

[13] Milan Vego, ‘German War Games’, Naval War College Review, August 2012, Vol. 65, No. 4, p. 108 – 112.

[14] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Speech to the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference in Washington, D.C. (November 14, 1957), recorded in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, National Archives and Records Service, Government Printing Office, p. 818.

[15] Clausewitz, On War, p. 119.

[16] Robert C. Rebel, ‘The Epistemology of War Gaming’, Naval War College Review, Spring 2006, Vol. 59, No. 2, p. 111.

[17] Hew Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 9 – 25