War Isn't Precise or Predictable — It's Barbaric, Chaotic, and Ugly

War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war on our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out…You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war.[1]
—General William T. Sherman

I fear that policy-makers do not talk enough about the inherent ugliness of war. War is state sanctioned brutality, the outcome of which is death, destruction and suffering in order to achieve a political objective unobtainable through diplomatic means. It is a contest of wills settled through extreme violence where devastation is the rule, not the exception.[2] War is also based on a crude and cruel calculus where success usually relies upon the ability to both inflict and sustain greater casualties than the opposition. Its enduring features are friction, chaos, and chance; all of which lead to uncertainty, and none of which are natural allies of the delivery of precise violence or predictable outcomes, which seem increasingly to be what society, and in turn, policy-makers expect.

While attempts to predict what future wars will look like are obviously important, they should not be to the exclusion of understanding what endures: war is the physical application of violence to compel an adversary to accede to your will.

Future wars may be dominated by precision munitions and drones; however, just like previous wars they will be won or lost at close quarters as a result of one side’s ability to instrumentalise violence and sustain casualties more effectively than the other. As such, while attempts to predict what future wars will look like are obviously important, they should not be to the exclusion of understanding what endures: war is the physical application of violence to compel an adversary to accede to your will. Increasingly, it seems that policy-makers are distracted by promises of predictability and precision, and fail to acknowledge this most basic fact about war. In doing so they fail both to understand what war is, and the way it must be executed to achieve the political objective for which it is fought.

Cloud Shadow UAV drone, Zhuhai China, 2016

Cloud Shadow UAV drone, Zhuhai China, 2016

This is why strategy, if conceived of as a ‘theory of victory’, should be based on war’s nature, with the ability to adjust as its emergent character becomes apparent. As Michael Howard once argued ‘after all allowances have been made for historical differences, wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity’.[3] This understanding allows those with the authority to commit to war the ability to contextualise the war in which they seek to engage in relation to the conduct of all wars. If done properly, this insight should assist in dissuading policy-makers from viewing war as a viable option for geopolitical problem-solving, because an understanding of the nature of war makes clear that war is devastating to all involved and rarely concludes as initially envisioned.

It is here that current discussions about offset strategies and multi-domain battle worry me. While they may not be solely focused on the RMA-esque transformational power of technology, they do seem to promise a great deal about how to succeed in future conflict through the liberal employment of military jargon. This jargon often obscures the bloodletting required to achieve the envisaged effects, and in doing so suggests to the casual observer that future wars are likely to be less bloody affairs than their predecessors. Furthermore, and more troublingly, they also seem removed from a wider understanding of the nature of war, which, in turn, fails to help educate the policy-makers for whom these concepts are intended.

Technology’s ability to achieve greater precision in the application of violence has led many policy-makers to mistake war’s inherently violent nature for a preferred character of future war that sees violence itself as passé.

The focus appears, at times, to be on the clinical and precise use of technology to achieve an effect; rather than acknowledging the inherent messiness that killing at close quarters has historically required. Indeed, stand-off technology, absent the ability to coerce through physical violence, is unlikely to ever provide a winning strategy –a fact many proponents of cyber war would do well to note.[4] Perhaps this is symptomatic of a creeping preference in the Western world for predictability in the use of violence. This phenomenon is characterised by the post-Gulf War popular awareness of precision weapons, a growing strategic reliance on special operations forces, and the ever intensifying pressure to avoid ‘collateral damage’.  Each of these factors is also representative of an ahistorical moral progressivism that is increasingly prevalent in post-Cold War strategic calculations.

Postmodern moral progressives like Steven Pinker argue the human race is becoming too civilised and interconnected to inflict upon each other the vast casualties experienced in wars past. These arguments combined with an insatiable optimism about technology’s ability to achieve greater precision in the application of violence has led many policy-makers to mistake war’s inherently violent nature for a preferred character of future war that sees violence itself as passé. This is dangerous because of the assumptions it makes about future war being less destructive than its previous iterations. Indeed, there is more that connects the physical experience of battle in Mosul today with that of Okinawa, Waterloo, or Alesia than that which separates them. What has changed is the way Western society conceives of the use of violence. Colin Gray suggests this is based on a lack of historical proficiency that not only leads to an inability to differentiate between the nature and character of war, but more egregiously leads to ‘grandiose visions’ of the end of war, or at least ‘systemic change in warfare in a benign direction’.[5]

This misplaced idealism tends to distract society from debating fundamental questions about the use of force in a volatile world, in turn undermining the development of effective strategy. Furthermore, historical illiteracy encourages a belief that military options can be employed to achieve a political objective without the destructive effects inherent to war’s nature.[6] These flawed assumptions about ‘the better angels of our nature’[7] inhibit the psychological preparation of modern Western societies for the physical impact of war, including the sacrifices (human and materiel) necessary to succeed. This in turn makes it difficult to marshal support for the level of violence required to bring wars to their necessary conclusion – that is to ‘defeat the enemy and humiliate his armed forces to such a degree that he submits to the dictates of peace.’[8] While many might consider this an outdated view, I would contend that the conduct of operations in Mosul bears striking resemblance to just this approach.

We have increasingly viewed war though the project management lens––a mistaken belief that war can be accurately tracked and reliably ‘turned off’ in a predictable fashion.

I would offer, therefore, that the development of contemporary strategy suffers from the confluence of three factors: a lack of understanding about how violence has been used to achieve a political objective throughout human history; the misguided belief that violence in the 21st century can be controlled so as to ensure the precise application of force; and a corresponding inability to acknowledge the great paradox of war: that more often than not it is the successful application of extreme violence that creates the opportunity for diplomatic activity to recommence. Therefore, rather than crafting strategy based on an understanding of uncertain progress, the acceptance of mistakes, and the requirement to adapt after setbacks, we have increasingly viewed war though the project management lens––a mistaken belief that war can be accurately tracked and reliably ‘turned off’ in a predictable fashion.[9]

All I have said so far should come as no surprise to the majority of readers who through study and/or experience are all-too familiar with the brutality of war and its implications. Unfortunately, however, it is often not this audience who makes the decision to go to war. The absence of war between highly-industrialised nations for more than half a century has allowed many in the policy community, and much of Western society at large, to forget just how devastating wars between nation states can be. Indeed, shock at the desolation of the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo demonstrates how remote the experience of Berlin and Tokyo’s destruction in World War II have become for many who presume to understand war as a tool of policy. While distressing, such destruction is not surprising––it is simply the outcome of two sides willing to absorb the attrition that so often characterises war in the belief they can win, regardless of the cost. That civil wars in particular can be this brutal, when erstwhile neighbours can resort to such violence, shows how easy it is for adversaries to become consumed by war’s inherent tendency to greater extremes of violence.[10] While war may not initially be characterised by this level or intensity of violence, it must be understood where the continued and amplified use of violence might lead––and as I have written previously it is unlikely to be either predictable or precise. Indeed, it will most likely change the character of the state that chooses to employ it as a tool of policy, and should therefore be employed with the utmost care.

Homs – 2017, Berlin – 1945, Tokyo - 1945

Clausewitz spoke explicitly about the extremes that war could descend to absent the moderating effect of policy. However, he also foresaw that extreme cruelty may be needed to secure victory and achieve said policy.[11] Clausewitz also understood the importance of identifying the character of a specific war ‘neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.’[12] This ensured his ideas accounted for the differing levels of violence a state might be required to use as a war progresses to achieve its political objective. Therefore, any consideration about the intensity of force to be used in a contemporary strategy must be grounded in appropriate historical context and incorporate due consideration of the nature versus character framework. As Hew Strachan reminds us ‘war has its own nature, and can have consequences very different from the policies that are meant to be guiding it’.[13]

By necessity, war will barbarise its participants.

Indeed, it is a sad irony of war that sometimes you must be barbarous in order to defeat barbarity.[14] By necessity, war will barbarise its participants. This is because the killing of other humans is war’s predominant mechanism by which to compel; and to do so requires the removal of the norms that exist within civilised society. War memoirs like that of E.B. Sledge from Peleliu and Okinawa, force us to recognise that dispassionate killing is not always possible against an implacable foe. Indeed, often it is ‘a brutish, primitive hatred’ that characterises the duel, and we do ourselves no favors from seeking to airbrush this experience or to believe that it is not so.[15] Doing so fails to recognise what combat will do to combatants and the impact this will have on the character of the war being fought.

This is not to imply that the indiscreet targeting of civilians should be encouraged, but rather if war is embarked upon there must be an acceptance that it cannot be fought cleanly; and that collateral damage is an unfortunate, but an unavoidable inevitability. In the belief that we can fight with precision, we fundamentally limit the ability to compel an adversary through force––the very nature of war itself. By unconsciously seeing the act of killing (an inherently messy action) as something that can be clean or precise, let alone avoided where possible, the very utility of war as a tool of policy must be questioned. At best these ideas create the potential for miscalculation about the use of war as a tool to achieve a political objective, and at worst they provide a strategic vulnerability that will be ruthlessly exploited by adversaries who are less inclined to agree with, or be constrained by, this world view.

In the belief that we can fight with precision, we fundamentally limit the ability to compel an adversary through force––the very nature of war itself.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that actions thought inconceivable at the start of a war may become the norm as a conflict progresses due to their perceived military necessity, particularly in response to a highly aggressive adversary.[16] Indeed, a state may start with the intent to fight in a clinical, precise manner, but very quickly it may become apparent that such restrictive use of force impedes the achievement of the political objective. Therefore, if a state determines that the resort to war (the use of sanctioned violence) is the only way to achieve a political objective then correspondingly this should mean that policy-makers are willing from the outset to use all available means to do so. This logic starts to chip away at misguided conceptions of ‘limited war’ and reinforces that all wars are in fact wars of choice, with the decision to escalate often directly related to the choice about victory’s importance.

Correspondingly, if a state is unwilling to escalate force to achieve victory, then the state should cut its losses. Maintaining the status quo and ‘hoping for the best’ is a recipe for disaster.[17] Furthermore, this approach does not meet the criteria for being a ‘theory of victory’ and demonstrates why Iraq and Afghanistan have been such abject failures: the lack of will to escalate the use of violence to compel the enemy, due to the absence of a clear political objective that drives an appropriate strategy. Therefore, if a nation is not prepared to use violence in its most extreme and visceral manner then the decision to go to war is innately flawed. Unfortunately, in the absence of truly understanding the ugliness and horror inherent in war’s nature it becomes far too easy to employ it as a tool of policy in the vain hope that its emergent character will eventually suit the political purpose. The conceit of modern Western society has led many to believe that all problems can be solved cleanly and equitably, in accordance with rules and process. But the nature of war has not changed, it remains an ugly, brutal business; and if we choose to view it otherwise then the ability for the military instrument to achieve the political objective (regardless how ill-defined) is fundamentally undermined.

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Ultimately, democracy will always benefit from the requirement to persuade the public––to gain consensus on, and legitimacy for, the use of force in order to defend or pursue national interests. If this opportunity is ceded for fear of being unconvincing, or in fear of explaining the ugliness it will entail, then a society will find itself bereft of clarity in the political objective and therefore unable to craft strategy appropriate the task at hand. Furthermore, the failure to have these discussions leaves the populace underprepared for the brutality and sacrifice that war may require.

Attempts to characterise war as anything other than what its nature implies are certain to render its application flawed and its chances of success unlikely. However, through close examination of the nature of war we can hope to understand the limitations of its use as a tool of policy. By truly understanding what war means for both friend and foe alike it forces a nation to employ all other options, because never should the destructive power of war be unleashed until it is agreed that the ends are truly worth it. Indeed, in circumstances where national or ideological survival are at stake, few would argue that the ends actually can justify the means. What matters, presuming that the use of force will continue to play an important role in the arsenal of democracy, is for policy-makers to communicate openly and honestly about the ugliness of war and its devastating impact on all involved. Otherwise, we risk continuing to fight wars without conclusion because of a failure to contend with the ugliness that war requires to achieve the political objectives envisioned.

Mark Gilchrist is a serving Australian Army officer and is a Featured Contributor at The Strategy Bridge. The views provided here are his own, and do not reflect any official position.

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Header Image: "Siege of Atlanta" by Thure de Thulstrup, 1888.


[1] In H.W. Brands, The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace (New York: Doubleday, 2012) 339.

[2] Philip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (New York: Penguin, 2002) Kindle edition, loc 469.

[3] Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983) 214-15.

[4] I do not question the utility of cyber-attacks as part of a comprehensive military strategy. I do question whether they fundamentally change the way that war is fought. I would contend that cyber-attacks are a form of sabotage aimed at undermining or degrading an adversary’s ability to fight, however they also have the potential to escalate a conflict necessitating a greater physical response from the aggrieved party. I would offer that cyber, like air before it, may be a new and potent domain but one which will not change the nature of war. These recent and very detailed articles from War on the Rocks and Wired on ‘cyber warfare’ have only confirmed my thinking: https://warontherocks.com/2017/07/struggling-with-cyber-a-critical-look-at-waging-war-online/ ; https://www.wired.com/story/russian-hackers-attack-ukraine.

[5] Colin S. Gray, ‘Clausewitz, history, and the future strategic world’ in Williamson Murray, The Past as Prologue: The Importance of History to the Military Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 119.

[6] Ibid, 119.

[7] Abraham Lincoln made famous ‘the better angels of our nature’ quote during his first inaugural address on 4 Mar 1861. The tone of his address was downcast with civil war looming over the nation. While in isolation the quote itself seems optimistic about human nature’s ability to avoid war it must be read in the context it was meant. Lincoln may have trusted that man’s better nature must come to the fore eventually, but with full understanding of the sacrifices required through war that would be necessary to make the South realise that unity was truly the better option. As such, the quote was made in full understanding of what war would mean for the Republic, rather than with great optimism that the dire situation could be salvaged without resort to violence.

[8] Victor Davis Hanson, The Father of Us All: War and History – Ancient and Modern (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010) 202.

[9] Davis Hanson, 235

[10] John Keegan, The American Civil War: A Military History (Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2009) Kindle edition, loc 5969

[11] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) 732-733.

[12] Clausewitz, 88.

[13] Strachan, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cornwall, 2013) 55.

[14] Throughout history this understanding has underpinned the physical separation of the military from the population it represents because these men (historically speaking) were required to undertake actions in the name of the state that often made them a liability in the maintenance of domestic good order.

[15] E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa (Ballantine Books: New York, 2010) Kindle edition loc 865.

[16] I contend that prior to World War II few Americans would have viewed the use of flamethrowers as an ethical use of violence, however by the end of the War in the Pacific in particular they had become a normal, necessary, and an acceptable means to dislodge a fanatical adversary.

[17] Davis Hanson, 187.