Picture courtesy of Picture courtesy of “Off the Couch”

Submitted by Lukas Milevski, PhD student under Professor Colin S. Gray at the University of Reading (UK):

              What will future conflict look like?  This inquiry is a hardy perennial of strategic studies.  It is also, unfortunately, impossible to answer in detail.  The future is unknowable; no trove of evidence for it exists.  Yet strategists have an invaluable resource in the four and a half thousand years of recorded history.  Thus one may confidently predict, as Colin Gray does, that this will be another bloody century.  Yet perhaps one may anticipate details of future conflict by emphasizing the enduring nature which unites all conflicts.  As Michael Howard rightly noted, “[f]or after all allowances have been made for historical differences, wars still resemble each other more than they resemble any other human activity.”[1]

            War sits between two poles, both of which decide its nature.  First is violence, the means which distinguish war from all other human activities as Howard noted.  Second is politics, the distribution and employment of power.  Thus violence is employed to modify, or to preserve, current power relationships among polities.  Politics may appear to be above the pay grade of the junior or mid-career officer, or even of the general officer.  Even high in the ranks, military professionals tend to be most comfortable with the operational level of war.[2]  Yet politics necessarily permeate the whole conception and conduct of war, and are the final standard of success or failure.  Strategy, which aims to achieve political ends through the use of violence, is achieved through tactics as practiced by soldiers.  The interacting policies and strategies of adversaries are what determine the character of any conflict.  One may anticipate future war by reflecting on how tactics and politics fit.

            One must begin with politics, for in general it is the tactics which must fit with the politics.  This is not to be regretted; it is inevitable.  Clausewitz thus admonished his readers that such influence is only to be regretted if the policy itself is bad.  Bad policy is not that which attempts to restrict or otherwise qualify the use of force, but rather that which mistakes violence for something which it is not and so expects results of it which cannot be delivered.  Western experience during the past two decades has indicated that changing cultural values is not a task violence can usually achieve.  Even outside of a context of war it is an arduous task prone more toward failure or heavily qualified success than not, as the United Nations and later European Union rule of law missions to both Bosnia and Kosovo post-interventions indicate.  In the midst of war it is probably impossible.   Simple prudence dictates that civilians hedge their bets until the outcome of the conflict is known.  Politics, the power relationships, come first.

            Tactics might be considered the power relationship in action at the lowest level during wartime.  In the most mechanistic interpretation, “[w]ar itself is a dispute about measurement; peace on the other hand marks a rough agreement about measurement… Wars usually end when the fighting nations agree on their relative strength, and wars usually begin when fighting nations disagree on their relative strength.”[3]  All tactics practiced in action influence the overall power relationship, although the degree to which this is so depends heavily upon the context.  Most tactics most of the time probably have only infinitesimal individual influence on the overall politics of the war.  One of the great historical exceptions are the tactics by which the Romans fought the Greek general Pyrrhus, who won his battles but at such cost that he was forced to abandon his campaign.  How the battles were won (at great cost) ultimately mattered more than the actual victories.

            Concluding war successfully remains elusive, as the conditions under which adversaries abandon their political goals are ever variable.  That point of acquiescence rarely maps proportionally onto the relative power relationship between belligerents, particularly because of the disparity in how they perceive it.  As Lawrence Freedman suggested, strategy is “the art of creating power”.[4]  Each belligerent comes with its own power-maximizing intentions, portrayed by strategy and practiced by tactics.  This entails an escalatory dynamic in war, which inhibits peace-making.  Yet those wars which end, end ultimately because one belligerent sees no credible way to continue generating the power necessary to achieve its desired political goals.  That is,  the belligerent is unable to perform tactically and operationally to achieve any effect with the physical bases of power which remain to it.  As the French General André Beaufre once suggested, “[a]ny dialectical contest is a contest for freedom of action.”[5]  Those who accept defeat have lost their freedom of action, or anticipate that they cannot reverse a negative trend of ultimately losing their freedom of action.  No path to their political goals remains.  One belligerent gains control of the course of the war, the other suffers from lack of control.

            War is always adversarial and reciprocal, the direct clash of two different interpretations of a mutual power relationship.  The character of any war is determined by the adversarial competition for tactical, strategic, and political advantage.  The character of future war is indeterminable because it depends on tactical, strategic, and political choices not yet made, made by belligerents not yet identified, in contexts unforeseen.  It may be worthwhile to consider ‘the character of war’ as a historian’s tool, a shorthand method of generalizing the known adversarial interactions of past tactics, strategies, and national politics into a single specific idea.  As such, members of the armed services, particularly the junior and mid-career officers, should concern themselves not with the character of future war, which suggests an unfortunate static conception of war.  Instead, to prepare for future conflict their concern should be with comprehending fully the general theory of strategy, with identifying their professional role therein, and with imagining how their efforts may contribute toward shaping the character of future war to the advantage of their side.


[1] Michael Howard.  “The Use and Abuse of History” in The Causes of War and Other Essays.  (Cambridge: Harvard UP 1984), 194.

[2] On this see Hew Strachan.  “Strategy or Alibi?  Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War”, Survival 52/5 (September 2010), 157-182.

[3] Geoffrey Blainey.  The Causes of War.  (New York: The Free Press 1988), 122.

[4] Lawrence Freedman.  “Strategic Studies and the Problem of Power” in Lawrence Freedman, Paul Hayes, & Robert O’Neill (eds). War, Strategy and International Politics: Essays in Honour of Sir Michael Howard.  (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1992), 283.

[5] André Beaufre.  An Introduction to Strategy.  R.H. Barry trans. (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 110.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page