A decision model for justified war and a definition of victory

The development of a decision model for whether war is right or wrong has kept many scholars busy over time. The destructive nature of war calls for special attention to the pro/contra decision in comparison to less destructive decisions.

Here's my take on the subject:

The purpose of war is to achieve a better situation for a defined group of people (nation, tribe, minority, slaves, political wing; in the following: "power") in comparison to all other options.
The eventual outcome isn't the key factor for this - instead, it's the expected outcome. This in turn is a combination of outcome scenarios and their likeliness. This cannot be quantified, but it can be understood - and that's what counts; the expectations regarding the options.

This purpose isn't always an adequate justification, of course.
A war of aggression, meant to ransack another power could fit that purpose, but would be considered illegitimate. The reason for this perception is that groups of people should react socially, compatible with a win-win outcome - and not antisocially like robbers (seeking win-lose outcomes).
This can easily be aligned with Kant's categorical imperative (which is incomplete, but quite good).
This is a limiting condition for justified warfare; the behaviour (of the power that enters a war) must not PROVOKE violent win-lose outcomes. This excludes wars of aggression.

Warfare meant to protect another power - seemingly selfless wars - is another case of interest. A power can wage a justified war on behalf of another power's interest, of course. This untypical selfless behaviour (such wars are usually rooted in own interests) is surely legitimate as long as it's expected to improve the aided power's situation (instead of the own one).

The expectations are the key, and of course prone to misuse. Such misuse by propaganda and other agitation is likely unavoidable but does not question the decision system itself. Lies don't influence the truth.

It's important to re-evaluate the decision for warfare all the time throughout the war.
A war can become an unjustified/illegitimate war when in the midst of it the decision model says so.
This should be the core of a decision model for whether to end a war (if necessary by surrender) or to keep fighting.

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This decision model can be criticized heavily at (at least) one point: It serves the interest of the deciding country (and this includes the decision whether to defend itself or not) only.
I asked for the pursuit of win-win situations, but the decision model still allows warfare if only one power's situation is being improved (in comparison to the peace/surrender scenario) by the war (and war still harms mankind overall more than it serves it).

It would be possible to set an even higher bar (and pacifists would likely do so). Pacifists would likely demand that a defensive war can only be legitimate if it's overall (over all mankind) better than accepting an aggressors conditions (and they would then still call the aggression illegitimate, of course).
This approach would have its merits, but it would be complicated and rendered impractical in some cases. Probably nobody would agree that it's better to see a small nation exterminated (genocide) than to defend it (and thereby inflict slightly greater harm on the aggressor).
This mirrors problems that plague the related philosophy of utilitarianism in general.

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Finally: What's a successful, a "victorious" war?
A war was is in my opinion a success (victorious) if it served its legitimate purpose.
Keep in mind; the purpose requires that war is the least terrible of all options.
A war that achieves little, costs a lot and ends with the enemy's defeat wasn't won in my opinion; it is a failure. Even the ability to hold a parade in the opponent's capital and the fulfillment of official war goals would not change this.
It's important to note that official (and at times shifting) war goals are not the criterion; only the aforementioned legitimate purpose of war is a valid criterion.

The term "Pyrrhic victory" doesn't describe this adequately (albeit it's close).
A Pyrrhic victory is a costly clash that critically degraded the ability to keep up the own effort. It's a term from the operational and military strategic levels of war and too incomplete for the political level of war.
In fact, a Pyrrhic victory is usually no victory at all - and the term is the indication that this was already understood in ancient times.

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The ultimate problem of this decision model is that we have no means, no methods for the evaluation of advantages and disadvantages. Even the weighing of material and human losses is extremely difficult (although we do it all the time with a high degree of inconsistency).

This impracticability is only partial, though. We can in many cases exclude the possibility of legitimacy of war; this is especially easy if one power forces war on another power in obvious pursuit of its interests at the expense of its target.
That's why the nations have been able to agree at one time that wars of aggression are illegitimate.

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You'll probably find my take on this topic influenced by my economic science training, and it certainly is. Economic science is about optimal resource allocation and trading; it's about the welfare of nations and individuals.
War is similar enough to lend some (not too much, of course) elements from economic science; it's about the well-being of powers.

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I am highly critical in regard to the justification of wars and a strong proponent for the limitation of military activities. It's become very difficult to convince me that war is a good idea (the last time I agreed was on the Kosovo air war - and was I duped).

The terms "war of choice" and "war of necessity" are handy, but never really seemed to fit perfectly to my thinking. I merely used them from time to time because they're at least somewhat established, understood and useful.

The decision whether to choose warfare as a method in pursuit of interests or not is the crowning part of the art of war. It's quite irrelevant whether you do fine on the tactical, operational, strategic levels or not if you wage a wrong war.

Sven Ortmann

P.S.: I know no appropriate fancy graphics to decorate this important subject, so this blog post looks like my old ones, it bares graphics. Any deflection of attention from the text seemed to be inappropriate anyway (this time).


  1. A very Clausewitzian decision model. I complement you.

  2. Thanks.
    I had trouble wording one part of it and I'm still not 100% satisfied.

    It's mostly about the 2nd condition: "...the behaviour (...) must not PROVOKE violent win-lose outcomes."

    I meant that the own gain at another power's expense is no justification for war. This part is extremely tricky if you look at the details.

    The decision model is also quite vague about preventive/pre-emptive war and leaves a lot of tolerance for wars driven by excessive fear.

    I guess I'll keep working on it.

  3. Sven-

    Abstractness is necessary in such a model I would suspect since by making it too specific the model would lose its "universality".

    I would also mention that for Clausewitz, war begins with the defense resisting the aggressor's attack. War requires two sides that interact, a sequence of opposing wills . . .

  4. I know I am several days late to the comment, but military computers don't allow that. I love the idea of a decision matrix. I have played with the idea of a similar matrix for the Iraq war specifically. In that case, your model condemns it absolutely for one reason: at no point did the Bush administration clarify what its intended outcome was. They couldn't use your model because they themselves didn't know.

  5. The other problem was that they had a very wrong idea about the amount of post-invasion troubles.

    My model favours inaction (default = illegitimate) over unfounded action. It would have served the U.S. well in 2003.

    The problem of ignorance and incompetence of decisionmakers cannot be solved by a decision model anyway.

  6. Years late...

    Great post, Mr. Ortmann. I have used and cited parts of this in a paper on the wars of the First French Republic.

    On the topic of Iraq, and the neo-conservative movement, there was a stated intention to liberate the populace, and impose a modern, pluralistic style of government.

    There are no successful examples, post 1946, of nation building that I can think of. A possibly critical difference is that the rebuilt Axis nations were the aggressors.

    A thought provoking essay. Thank you.


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