Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Rear Admiral Holland is a submarine officer who commanded PINTADO (SSN672), Submarine Squadron One and the Submarine School. He has been frequent contributor to THE SUBMARINE REVIEW.

Last year, the Navy sponsored a contest soliciting short essays on the principles of war. This effort was to elicit views of a wide audience and foster innovative thinking and exposition in the new era of insurgent and terrorist adversaries. The winning essays of this Principles of War contest that appeared in the October 2005 Naval Institute Proceedings, elegant in expression and interesting in exposition, could as well have been written at the time Clausewitz wrote On War (1832). Nowhere in the three prizewinning essays is there any mention of nuclear weapons, any clue as to the influence of technology, any mention of the role of public communications and only one allusion to the training of the soldiery.

These writers seem to assume that the principles of war are insulated from the world where war is waged. But in relation to the shortcomings mentioned above, when Clausewitz formulated his principles, the technologies involved had not changed for two hundred years and would continue with little change for another forty or so until the rifle and machine gun were fielded ashore and steam propulsion and armor went to sea. Further, the monarchical governments of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century did not depend on support of anyone except a small elite. And perhaps most significantly, in Clausewitz’s time, blind obedience was the most desired attribute of the soldier.

While thinking about nuclear weapons seemed to have slipped into oblivion with the end of the Cold War, now as North Korea tests and Iran continues to seek a nuclear capability, interest and concern are being rekindled. However, if the results of this contest are examples, those thinking about military affairs are placidly unconcerned with their importance and impact. To assume future conflicts will be confined to conventional weapons by wishing it so is pollyannaish. The first necessity in the approach to, planning for or executing any future war will be to address the potential role of nuclear weapons. Because of their individual explosive potential, nuclear forces need not be equitable to have great influence. Similarly, targets for nuclear weapons are not evenly distributed among nations: a desert sheikdom has vastly fewer aim points than New England. The vigorous intellectual thought that was a mainstay of the Cold War considerations seems to have vanished from our strategic landscape-but the weapons have not.

While Clausewitz’s fog and friction will remain even in an idealized network centric battlefield, technology does determine tactics. Modern war cannot be planned or fought ignoring the effects of continually improving technologies on space, time, weaponry, communications and logistics. Technology’s importance and influence grows as the world becomes more politically complicated and military capabilities expand in nature and scope. Failure to recognize and exploit technology leads to fighting today’s war with yesterday’s weapons. Nowhere is this ignorance more evident than calls from persons who consider themselves knowledgeable for the United States to construct conventionally powered submarines.

Unfortunately, the experience of the present Iraq War demonstrates that Clausewitz’s first principle of war, “The strategic objective must be clear” is honored more in speeches than in strategic analyses. Today, clarity of objectives articulated persuasively not only provides the necessary information to direct operations, but more importantly serves to convince the people who will have to fight and support the war effort of the necessity for and value of the sacrifices involved. In this age of mass communications and instant analysis, the importance of communicating the war’s aims and progress clearly to the general public on both sides cannot be overstated. Since” … war is nothing but a continuation of policy by other means”‘, the policies need to be carefully formulated, well stated and widely understood.

Finally, while the best soldiers of Clausewitz’s time were, as they had been for two hundred years, unthinking automatons, modern battlefields require a high degree of individual initiative and skills. No longer is it enough to be brave and do what one is told. War is too complex, too technical and too diverse in occupations and geography to win through simple bravery. Those with experience in highly technical equipment and operations easily echo Admiral Rickover who was known to say, “You can’t whip the reactor into performing”.

The individual and collective skills of the forces, their use in single actions and their ability to operate in conjunction with each other, count for more today than ever. Because the battlefield is much less dense, individual soldiers must contribute to the collective effort through force of their own will and not because of fear of punishment or shame. The complexity and dispersion of the battlefield today ashore and afloat are beyond what Clausewitz and his heirs up through World War II could grasp. Individual skill and knowledge are defining assets on the battlefield and the key to gaining and maintaining momentum. If there is a first principle among the principles that govern war, it is train.

None of this suggests that Clausewitz’s dictums have no place in modem thinking or that the discussions in the prize-winning essays are of no value. However, for all their elegant sociological discourse, if these essays represent the thrust of the current thinking about the principles of war, then the policy and analytical community seem to be steering by the wake. The challenge to those with technical expertise and operational experience is to influence the crystal ball gazers at every opportunity and let no proposition that fails to acknowledge the realities of the modem world or the laws of physics go unchallenged.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League