Another paradox of war

I think I mentioned Luttwak's "Strategy: The logic of War and Peace" before. It's a great book, and really helps in regard to the (seeming) paradoxes in warfare.

Warfare is tricky and complex, a superficial idea is very often 180° wrong because some tiny factor was ignored or misunderstood. That's especially difficult for politicians because they have usually not enough background on their own to detect such problems.

- - - - -

Here's one paradox about which I thought recently:

Let's consider all military action as a mere method of demonstrating the enemy the disadvantage of further resistance. It's not meant as total disarmament (that's impossible in many conflicts due to geographical barriers or guerrilla warfare anyway). Instead, the military is tasked to create the conditions in which the war can be concluded satisfactorily in negotiations.

The spontaneous assumption would be that more military success (destruction, dead, wounded, prisoners, terrain under control) advances the cause.

Think about it. Does it really advance the cause?

Imagine this scenario: An enemy island nation has an air force, an army, an industry and a navy. You destroy the air force, then the navy and the industry. Only the army and its unassailable control of the enemy country is left.
Did this preliminary result help to convince the enemy that they should accept your conditions?

I don't think so. They have (almost) nothing left to lose. They will certainly mourn over what they lost, but considering the past losses as relevant for decisions about the future would mean to fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. The enemies may fold if they're irrational, but they would not be particularly motivated (by the destruction) to fold.

It may be a better idea to play the "threat" card as much as possible and as long as possible in support of the policy. Mere destruction of military force is not necessarily advantageous. That's not intuitive, but this is a (seeming) paradox of war, after all.
You cannot threaten to destroy an industry any more if you already did so. The only major ace left in the scenario are the opportunity costs of a delayed recovery from the war.

This false paradox was probably at work in many wars.
* It may have delayed the Japanese surrender in 1944/45 (although that was no war with moderate U.S. war goals).
* It would have been a problem for Hitler if he had continued to focus on the UK in 1941 (that case wold have come very close to my hypothetical scenario).
* The paradox may also have been a prolonging factor in the 1999 Kosovo Air War when NATO air strike planners ran out of good targets.
* Finally, it's probably always at work against underground forces (guerrillas), who after all, have very little to lose besides their lives (unless the have to fear the 'Hama' tactic).
It has generally a great potential of prolonging wars.

There's a difference between warfare that pursuits the unconditional surrender of an enemy and warfare that aims for a moderate, negotiated peace. The unconditional surrender version is relatively rare, but was most prominent in WW2 - exactly the war that coined many (most?) people's understanding of a conventional war.
An unconditional surrender can best be achieved by actual or guaranteed disarmament.
A moderate, negotiated peace treaty can best be achieved by threatening to inflict additional damage to the opponent.

Sadly, WW2 skewed our understanding of conventional war with its absoluteness and totality. The mad Cold War, especially in its "mutually assured destruction" phase, added to this distortion.

We (actually, first and foremost our foreign and national security politicians) need to re-learn the dynamics that lead to successful limited wars.

I don't advocate limited wars of choice, of course.

Sven Ortmann


  1. I think that you make many good points. However (as you seem to have indicated) they work only within the framework of the assumption that total destruction is NOT the goal. If it is, then clearly your scenario doesn't work. However, even within the framework of "limited" (I use that word sparingly as all destruction is, of course, destructive ;) ) destruction, I think you can still effect a positive result. One example of course is the First Gulf War. The US and its allies did not want to annex Iraq, but they wanted to inflict as much damage as necessary to prevent Saddam from controlling the tremendous amount of oil he could have captured. They could have completely destroyed the Iraqi military and industrial capacity, and this tremendous threat caused Iraq to capitulate. It was unnecessary to destroy their military completely because the objective was achieved without it. Granted, we didn't really want to engage Iraq or negotiate with it (only for POWs, but we did not go in wanting to negotiate any sort of agreement if I remember correctly) but we did achieve a true strategic goal using "limited" destruction. However, we were indeed prepared to completely destroy Iraq at the same time (though that was clearly not the intention). Therefore, I believe that you can effect a strategic victory using limited destruction if you go in expecting to completely dominate and destroy the other country. Dictators and rulers in general only care about staying in power and maintaining the perks, and if ending a war with someone facilitates that, I think we can expect them to go ahead and do it. If they don't, then we simply get rid of an oppressive enemy regime and still achieve a strategic objective at the same time, only at a higher cost of blood and national treasure (but then again, before you go to do battle, you must always assess the costs and risks anyway, so if you are prepared it is not as much of a loss). Just my rambling two cents ;)

  2. War is complex and diverse.

    This blog post was merely about a factor that deserves more attention.


Use a nickname and stick to it! I may block anonymous comments. Offensive comments may also be blocked, in part due to the duties of a blogger in Germany.