The starting point for military theory


Let's go to the absolute starting point for thinking about deterrence & defence.

There are foreign violence threats to our well-being and we cannot provide sufficient security for ourselves individually. We could presumably become assassins to punish hostiles for their aggressions, but that simply doesn't work on a grand scale and it doesn't help us individually.
To deter an aggression or to defend against an aggression requires a collective effort.

Deterrence and defence has been one of the tasks of government for hundreds of years in most countries that old. We should know the answer to the question "Why?" at this point.

We do things together that are best done together, not individually. We then call this 'doing together' government. The government is not some exogenous evil, incapable of solving problems (as American-style moderate anarchists like to assert), government is us doing things together.

Let this sink in; government is us doing things together.

Most of the things that best be done together are about repeating or continuous needs, so we establish rules, plans, organisations.

"Government" itself is an illusion in service of the community - whenever it has actual effects that's actually us doing things together.

We had intended privileged beneficiaries of our collective action before we had democracy. The state of our art at organising collective action led us to assign some monarch as this intended privileged beneficiary. The leader was a kind of agent for the people, but being in power enabled such leaders to suppose that their own well-being was the sole purpose of the collective action. Good riddance we got rid of that notion.

Nowadays government is us doing things together that are best done together, and all this is meant to be to our collective benefit. There are still unintended privileged beneficiaries and governments still do net harmful or simply wasteful things, of course. It's a work in progress.

- - - - -

I wrote "our collective benefit". This is a really difficult expression. Philosophy and science cannot provide accurate guidance about the utility of things. What's the utility of a night watch employee in a public museum to you? How highly does a guy next street value public radio? Are a hundred units of your currency as important to you as to some super-rich guy and some homeless person? We don't know each other's preferences at least until they were voiced.

It's impossible to accurately calculate the benefits of collective (public) action, even in hindsight. Yet there are ways to determine relative cost efficiency and ways to identify outright waste. There are also ways to identify obvious suspects for wasteful action.*
A prime suspect for wasteful collective action are avoidable wars. It is very difficult to discern utility from wars, and unsuccessful wars usually provide only marginal (if any) benefits, while incurring huge costs.

I mentioned before that utility of collective action is difficult to grasp with accuracy. Wars' benefits are especially difficult to at least estimate because they're no more about plundering or conquering. We don't conquer arable land, plunder, capture ships or take punitive payments from defeated enemies. Modern categories of 'benefits' from military action are rather about reputation (prestige), influence, military experience, marketing for arms, relationships and (very rarely) access to economic resources (which still need to be paid for in trade after the war).**

It's much easier to point out the benefits of defensive war: In the most extreme case, this saves our lives. In nearly as extreme cases, this saves our property and freedom. Deterrence saves even more than does defence, and can be supposed to cost less. Successful deterrence is superior to successful defence.

This is a bit less clear-cut in alliance defence. It's difficult to tell how the Portuguese would directly benefit from NATO defending the Baltic countries in a hot conflict, for example. A case could be made that maintaining an alliance with short term net losses may save enough military expenses in the long term to be a sensible decision.***

Again; government is us doing things together that better be done together to our own benefit.
Military policy (deterrence & defence) should be done by us in a fashion that we expect to benefit us the most.

There's still the issue about unknown utility (benefits), but economists have reasoned there's a kind of solution to this. Nobody really knows the preferences of other people, but said preferences influence our individual decision-making.
Economists thus know a practical way around the problem of hidden preferences; let everyone judge issues individually, and then let them voice their individual decisions. This simplifies things a lot and is the least inaccurate way of pursuing interests known to mankind. In other words; go vote or participate in a market. The latter works fine if the problem is about allocating your own resources.

The ultimate legitimation for us shouldering the downsides of collective action (such as taxes) is that we as a community agreed in democratic process to do it. We as a community voiced our preferences through voting. An improvement of the accuracy of the democratic process should thus tend to cause an improvement of military policy.****

(One could say that technocrats know best how to achieve an objective, but all their specialist knowledge means little if they don't know the correct objective, and they don't know the community's preferences directly, either.)

Such improvements may take different shapes. We could have more specific votes (such as direct election of minister of defence, direct election of a defence committee, or a vote on whether to buy those expensive combat aircraft or not as the Swiss have them). We could be informed more and better. We could discuss more and better. We could begin to pay attention at all (probably not a common issue among readers of this blog, but in the general public). We could better shield our representatives from manipulations by special interests and ideologues.

All those "how to" military theory facets that military theorists wrote about for 2,250+ years started past these starting points.***** They're like prescriptions for medicinal drugs without knowing the patient's interests. It's awfully expensive to blindly prescribe a one-for-all-illnesses cure package.


*: Examples: special interests influence, path dependencies, supervisors of bureaucracies who agree with bureaucratic self-interest, sunk costs influencing decisions, some natural experiments (comparisons).
**: Except for Russians and maybe Chinese. The Russian Federation actually went to war to annex land, which was an outlier in the post-1973 world. It's very questionable whether this was a net economic benefit to the status quo ante citizens, though.
***: Many confused people appear to believe that being in an alliance is a reason to spend more on military power. To join an alliance reduces the pool of potential hostile powers and increases the pool of potential (very likely) allies. This REDUCES the need for military spending (or makes deterrence & defence feasible at all). The idea that being in an alliance requires higher military spending than was spent before as a country without allies is irrational, propaganda and a perversion of the purpose of a modern alliance.
****: Which fortunately happens to justify the articles that I wrote on this subject on "Defence and Freedom" years ago. 
*****: In case you thought I need a justification for recycling that cat GIF. ;-)

In case you erroneously read a justification for any 'my country first' ideology in here: There's also a community of nations, and to behave as a super-egoistical participant in such a community for long will lead to severe tit-for-tat treatment penalties. Almost everyone will be worse off afterwards, and especially so the super-egoist nation.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. "The means for violence can be used to further one's interests (...)"

      Avoidable violence gets sanctioned in a way by the international community that it doesn't yield net benefits - even for UNSC veto powers.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Re European defence, the argument that supports Portuguese input to collective defence can easily, though not briefly, be made. Is that of any use in todays media environment? That thought leads towards the choice to use noble lies to simplify intent such that it can be communicated effectively. This however comes with obvious slippery slope problems (which may be the main problem of the world order at the moment, too many noble lies being revealed or becoming ineffective at once).

    The easy to reach, default noble lie would be a type of European nationalism (theres a good German youtube channel that discussed this tangentially "Three Arrows", "Germany's Demographic Demise? - A Response to The Iconoclast" by going through Kalergi, who I'd never heard of). But nationalism again has its many obvious, unavoidable problems.

    My grandfather fought in the war to get out of his shitty munitions job. My father joined the navy in the cold war to get out of being a farm slave. My grandmother used to say that everyone knew the "fight them on the beaches" stuff that came over the radio during the war was rubbish, noone believed it.

    So what was the purpose of the noble lie in the first place? In order to reduce intent sufficiently to be taken up by the population, a strategy that obviously can be used by any ideology. A self defeating, fools game.

    If the population is not capable of understanding geopolitical dispositions and futures, that population is weak, is vulnerable and the weak lose to the strong.

    Even if the strong are only temporarily so. Then that itself is recursive. "History is just one thing after another isn't it?"

    All waffle. Apologies. My head is full of string lately.