Heroic Warfare

At some point during World War One (I cannot say for sure when, based on my reading), the German ace Ernst Udet encountered French ace Georges Guynemer in a duel. During the eight minute spat, despite finding the frenchman in his sights, Udet could not fire – for his gun had jammed. Upon passing him, and seeing the german struggle with his weapon, Guynemer raised his hand to wave, and then set off towards his own lines. 

In World War two, during early December 1941 in the North African theatre, the Special Air Service were mounting their second raid on Axis airfields to cripple their airpower. The unit’s objectives were to destroy equipment and aircraft, however after a series of early setback en route, Robert ‘Paddy’ Mayne was left in charge of the detachment in a position to complete their objectives. In the process of doing so, he came upon a tent full of Italian and German personnel, enjoying some kind of party – and proceeded to gun them down. 

In the macro view, and often according to commanders, incidents like the latter are much preferable, due to the fact that in these cases, the pilots are harder to replace than the planes, and thus inhibit the enemy’s war effort more greatly than the loss of aircraft – as intended by David Sterling (commander of the SAS). An ace like Ernst Udet is even more irreplaceable, yet there is a nobility in the action of Guynemer, and a certain barbarity to those of Mayne (though he did possess other warrior virtues). 

If there is to be some form of civilised, perhaps even noble war, then instances like this ought to reveal some of those repugnant and inspiring elements. 

The framing of this is important then, and likely the most contentious element. It arises in my view; from the scope of options available which demand an act of will, and can then be informed by virtue to create a noble act. The capacity must be there to make either choice, but the decision is made to pursue the more noble, rather than that which is more barbaric. It cannot remove the threat of pain, struggle, and death, else it would cease to be war, and would instead become a kind of sport. Elements of this are embodied in what we popularly understand as chivalry, but there are elements which escape the popular consciousness which need to be addressed – particularly in the modern day.

The axioms of noble war are as follows then:

  • Maneuvering in order to force a surrender without bloodshed is the noblest form and aim of strategy.
  • Where subduing by maneuver is impossible, the duel is the most noble form of combat, though unobtainable in most situations.
  • Attrition warfare is the least desirable method of conducting war, and ought to be avoided at all costs.
  • The deliberate ending of a life ought to be avoided where possible.
  • Inflicting deliberate discomfort for its own sake ought to be avoided where possible, but is preferable to outright killing if a surrender can be invoked.
  • Killing without the ability of the opponent to respond or protect himself is simple slaughter, which ought to be avoided where possible.
  • Non-combatants are – by the nature of their not taking part in combat – not a target. They are to be spared the privations of war in as much as possible.
  • While war is waged against a state, and by extension – a population, the impact on any civilian population is to be minimised to the extent that it can be while invoking a surrender.

Under slightly different pretenses, many of these cross-over with the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, but unlike in that instance, what is proposed above is more a statement of universal ideals to be strived for, not a multilateral treaty with enforcement mechanisms. Clearly however, if all of these were to be applied, then war would appear as something completely different, and more like a game or a sport – waged on a huge scale. These points should instead be taken as a form of guidance towards an ideal – one which maintains the primacy of the struggle, and the urgency of the goal. There is, however, little expectation of these ideals being met in the majority of situations. The necessities of victory will always work counter to the ennobling impulse, as an enemy slaughtered can neither aid the enemy cause further, nor put strain on one’s own logistics network. So too is the pressure of technology towards ever more distant and riskless killing, thus far culminating in drone strikes, nuclear weaponry, and the deliberate use of tactics which expose civilians to danger. This would necessitate that, in order to be effective, they would have to be practiced by organisations or individuals which have a slightly more distant relationship to the state utilising them. This may go some way towards explaining why examples of this are found where they are.

Before examples are further discussed, it is also worth noting that there are some additional downsides which may hinder the long-term applicability of such principles:

  • In the rush to attempt to avoid slaughter by ethical means, the need is removed that it be averted by technological or tactical means – which is a prime driver of military technological advancement.
  • The autonomy of armies and warriors from their state may encourage corruption, treachery, and perhaps even political ambition.
  • Even according to current doctrine, the most effective ways of waging warfare may be disregarded in favour of alternate, more efficient methods.

All of these were evident in the later stages of Italian Condottiere, or Condotta warfare, albeit often for different reasons than pursuing noble warfare. In their final iteration, their armies were largely composed of cavalry, at times focused more on maneuvering, pomp, and negotiations over combat (much to the frustration of their employers), and were reluctant to adopt the new technologies over the older prestigious methods. Consequently they were largely swept aside by successive French, Spanish, and German armies who conducted themselves more practically. 

There is an additional consideration however, as this mindset has often been adopted in the context of a more select group to whom certain expectations apply, but all others are to be treated as fodder. This may seem comparably inapplicable for modern times due to prevalence of egalitarian attitudes but in traditional societies this is not the case. The knights of medieval Europe, the Samurai of feudal Japan, and the officers of later European-style warfare in particular, but likely others as well exhibited this phenomenon. In all of these instances, a select group of warriors are treated as the primary battlefield entity to be respected and captured, while the rest of the soldiery are to be slaughtered at will. There had been instances where these rules had been transgressed due to battlefield requirements, such as during the battle of Agincourt where the English killed the captive French knights for fear of being unable to keep them hostage under the pressure of a second attack which never came. Likewise during the American Revolutionary war, later in the war there were instances of officers being targeted specifically by riflemen and sharpshooters – a trend which was continued during the American civil war, and reached its disgraceful peak during the world wars, wherein officers were suffering casualties at up to twice the rate of the enlisted men. The criticism may be raised that this is more a factor of development of technology which allowed officers to be directly targeted – and it is a valid one, it seems to miss something about the conduct of post-30 years war, pre-napoleonic war conduct. Here warfare became elitist, officer centric, and relatively limited in scope – contrary to the mass mobilisation of later wars, and totalising scope of prior reformation-era wars. Once again, this only applies to those considered peers, and definitively not to those considered savages – where effectiveness ruled. 

As previously stated, it may be raised that these stipulations, if achieved; would sanitise war to such an extent that it becomes more like a dangerous sport. This is true, and vital to avert, because to do so would be to deprive war of its primacy in the realm of experience, and its nature as the extreme pole of recourse and conduct. There would need to be invented a further state beyond war which would replace it as the point of total freedom, for both the state and the warrior. Perhaps for that reason it is not to be considered a universal, but the realm of a particular warrior caste or type, not necessarily identified formally, but one which has a de facto conception of itself as a separate group qualitatively. The presence of the more vulgar type however, is necessary – because it maintains the stakes as being the highest possible, and prevents (as previously stated) the whole affair descending into sport. In addition, while the intentional murder of a man (another warrior in particular) is a vulgar act if it can be avoided, to give one’s life in service of a higher purpose or calling is a great and noble thing. To be deprived of this ability is a significant blow to the ability of any martial tradition to generate meaningful heroes, and to maintain its own mythos and ethic of service.

This contrast was amply noted by Ernst Junger during his recollected experiences of the First World War in his work: “Storm of Steel”. He notes the contrast between his warrior spirit which encourages the kind of civility and chivalry discussed here, as well as a commitment to higher virtues of honour and duty, but this is ever more as the war continues – conflicted with the expectations of the Prussian system of officer training to emphasis the subservience to effectiveness and efficiency of prosecuting the war, regardless of what actions this may entail. Despite the final triumph of his warrior ethic, along the way he is privy to and active in the downward spiralling of his men from respectable gentlemen to bloodthirsty savages, engaging in the slaughter of a valourous but defeated enemy on numerous occasions. 

A modern version of this elitist phenomenon may be appearing in the utilisation of unmanned and robotic implements of war. These are thus far outside of the realm of person-hood, and therefore could form the supplemental material which is vital to a warrior, but as readily discardable as the serf would have been thought of in the past. In such cases, once the warrior has been disarmed of his robotic force multipliers, he can be forced to surrender honourably. This is the most amenable method to current sensibilities, but I would suggest more ideally that the 18th century method is preferable overall: the officers are to maintain a strict gentlemanly ethic – schooled in the art of proper warfare developing on the positional theory of strategic theorists like Antoine-Henri Jomini, but aimed at minimising the need for applied force in the case of mastery. Meanwhile the ranks are filled by volunteers and outcasts – unwilling or unable to take part in polite society, and so instead existing on the peripheries of it, enjoying all of the danger and freedom that comes with it. Should these gentlemen-warriors be able to exert some amount of power over which wars are conducted and how, they would cease to require a frenzied appeal to the lowest impulses of democratic mass mobilisation warfare, and could instead be waged on a more limited basis. In such an environment, the above suggested idealised codes of conduct might be able to thrive, but even if a mass mobilisation is required – as would likely be the case if two major powers were to come to blows over a matter of vital national importance; even then the established cadres of warriors can impart their ethic and discipline onto the men they lead, despite these men themselves not being immersed in it. Let us hope then that such a situation does not once again last long enough that it can hollow out the warrior class to such an extent that such ethics are near forgotten.

Morale and Victory Conditions

In war, there are two means of ending the fighting, either in one’s own favour, or to one’s disadvantage: a negotiated settlement, or an unconditional surrender. In order to achieve this, a decision needs to be made early, based on available capabilities, which of these will be sought. The result of this decision will dictate the approach taken by each party. The side which possesses material and/or numerical advantage will tend to seek the unconditional surrender of their enemy through a war of annihilation – hoping to disarm them completely. The weaker party, however, will seek a more limited war – which seeks to generate a negotiated settlement through putting the enemy in a position where the costs of continuing the war are so unpalatable that the negotiated demands of the enemy are preferable. Therefore, while the materially weaker party finds its weakness rather obviously in the lack of force, the stronger will often find its weakness in morale damage caused by the potential losses of continued fighting. This is, on the assumption of all other things being equal, it should be said, because the availability of force multipliers such as favourable geography, or technological advantage would constitute a material factor in determining which side is the stronger of the two.

This morale discrepancy arises from two primary sources: firstly that – for the stronger party, there will often be more geopolitical opponents waiting on the peripheries which would require consideration, or even smaller powers which will gain the chance to increase their own power through intervention; should the forces of the stronger power be reduced too much by the exertions of war, or a particularly disastrous battle. Secondly, by the very nature of the discrepancy, it is far easier to motivate a population and an army against a larger foe, which can more legitimately be portrayed as tyrannizing the smaller nation, and posing an existential threat. The inverse is also true, that all other things being equal, a population will tend to question their cause more if the nation being conquered is obviously weaker. This is cumulative with the fact that smaller combatants will tend to level much more reasonable terms for peace, and due to the previously mentioned tendencies towards waging warfare on the morale front primarily, they will also often tend to make efforts to preserve their own morale as well.

It is imperative that within this context, the strategic leadership of all levels is aware of the strategic direction being pursued, particularly between civilian and military authorities. This is because distinct policies or methods may exist for each strategy, with measures such as civilian priming for a drawn-out war being counter-productive if a state is attempting a short war with limited aims. It should be added that this applies in the case of both the weaker, and the stronger nations, as is the case when one army is defeated and functionally at the mercy of the other. Although this point will vary from case to case, it will typically be such that a limited set of war aims might encourage the army to be allowed to flee is disarray, while the war of unlimited aims would seek to destroy the army totally. This is because the cost of rearming the force, combined with the experience of having nearly – but not actually – lost the army, would make soldiers and civilians alike demoralised by the spectre of loss. If they are destroyed however, there is a risk that it would strengthen the morale of the nation suffering the loss, because the cost has already been absorbed, thus they will be resigned to it, rather than fearful of it. So too would it create a sense that to end the war now would be to have lost those lives for nothing when the option existed to continue, as well as realistically increasing the intensity of the threat. Therefore, should a small nation succeed in such a maneuver, it may actually strengthen the resolve of the larger one, placing them further from achieving their strategic goals.

The most prominent examples of this are the Confederacy during the American Civil War, more or less any guerilla war, the Irish War of Independence, the Russo-Japanese war, and the Crimean War (to an extent). Most particularly in the case of the US Civil War, the actions of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia can, and usually are seen as pursuing this goal of demoralising the Union public and civilian leadership into a settlement – by attacking areas with large population concentrations to maximise disruption, and targeting political symbols such as Washington DC. Conversely, the Union pursued a strategy of capability reduction, through measures such as the Anaconda Plan, and Sherman’s March to the Sea, both of which served to decisively reduce the stocks and flows of resources to the Confederacy, and thus their ability to wage war – until their ultimate capitulation resulting from their hopeless situation.

Likewise during the Vietnam war, the asymmetric availability of information, and requirements of conduct meant that the North Vietnam-aligned forces merely had to continue applying pressure, while enjoying the morale advantage afforded by suppression of their own news sources which might diminish morale, while the same does not apply on the US side – the media outlets had free reign. This contributed to the perception that the US was a malignant force in the region, and thus an immoral actor which ought to be opposed (to the end of capitulation to the demands of the North, in effect). The US meanwhile largely sought to create a favourable casualty ratio (particularly under Westmoreland), thus depriving them of their ability to keep forces in the field, however in doing so, morale was not taken into account; and so although the US was trading favourably in the material sense, the morale losses taken were disproportionately in-favour of the North Vietnamese-aligned forces. In the end this turned political will in the US away from continued involvement in the war.

In both of these cases however, there are foiling factors to this analysis – it should be noted. The strategy of the Confederacy was not solely devoted to the morale-diminishment strategy, as the aid of European powers was also sought via the ‘King Cotton’ stratagem which would have given the Confederacy at least implied parity/superiority of force in order to settle a treaty – or even outright intervention. While this strategy was unsuccessful in enlisting European aid, it did hurt the ability of the Confederacy to wage the war as it required, due to the stockpiling of cotton (which would otherwise be exported) while the blockade was not yet truly in force. This missed opportunity could have bolstered the reserves of supplies early in the war, and helped to empower the crucial early armies. The war did however, help to induce the Second French Intervention in Mexico – an overt move into the US sphere of influence while the Union was occupied with the US Civil War. Had these two forces been able to coalesce, the fear of demotion from their otherwise strong position might have persuaded even the more bellicose voices the Union to come to terms with the Union – for fear of both a diminishment of their position internationally, and a general expansion of the war into a more general affair which permits other countries to get involved without the public-relations damage of seeming to defend slavery (which is part of what forbade such intervention prior). This latter outcome would pose an existential threat to the US, as it would open the door to a European partition of the Union.

In the case of the Vietnam war, the analysis may not work as it is unclear how conscious the strategy was on the part of Northern Forces until it was in full swing and generating tangible results. It would still qualify as an emergent strategy under these circumstances, but it might put a question mark over the applicability of the strategy as a deliberately applied guide to action.

As a counterpoint to the Vietnam War, the similarly sized partisan groups of the Baltic countries (most notably the Forest Brothers) were successfully suppressed by the Soviet military due to a strategy of extreme supression, punitive punishments, and regulation of information. As such the partisans were given few avenues of achieving independence through a negotiated settlement, as the Soviets had no reservations about waging the war in as brutal of a fashion as they deemed it to require, and they lacked the material means to make the war sufficiently costly that a rational disentanglement could be sought. The Soviet-Afghan War was something of a reversal of these factors, which allowed them much more success than the Forest Brothers before them.

The Irish War of Independence is perhaps a better example of the strategy generating results for a materially weaker force – the IRA and affiliated forces. From the beginning it was undertaken predominantly as a guerilla war, taking advantage of the divided attention and precarious position of the British Empire in relation to its rivals. This is particularly true if the Easter Rising in 1916 is taken as a preliminary stage of the conflict before its second flaring up in 1919. The conflict primarily involved ambushes of patrols, and assassinations, which clearly had no hope of reducing the British Empire to a state where it could no longer protect its interests, but made it unwilling to do so for the sake of a costly and relatively unimportant but troublesome province, at a time when it was important to give attention to matters elsewhere such as the Greco-Turkish War, the Russian Civil War, and the Polish-Soviet War, all of which had the potential to damage British geopolitical interests much more (should they be resolved unfavourably) – than the loss of direct control over Ireland. As a result, Britain’s willingness to continue the fight abated first, and terms were agreed.

In the cases of both the Russo-Japanese War, and the Crimean War, the totality of the resources available to Russia, particularly manpower, overshadowed those of their rivals (though more dubiously so in the case of the Crimean War). Japan in particular could not hope to match the reserves of manpower, or war material available to Russia if it came to total war. Instead then, in both cases a series of short sharp blows were delivered, which made continuing the war a highly expensive prospect, and one which might contribute to a destabilisation of the domestic political situation (as eventually did take place during the First World War). Therefore, despite not having disarmed the Russian state, it is brought into highly disadvantageous negotiations by the erosion of its will to continue the fight. As an aside, with the exception of the Mongol Invasion, this has been the only way that a conventional offensive war against Russia has been conducted successfully. Although, as per a previous essay, if we consider unilateral government replacement, then there are other successful examples and methods.

In conclusion then, for a smaller power attacking a larger one, in material terms, it is often necessary to maintain a morale advantage, and use this to attack the enemy, as it is often the weaker link in a strong nation’s ability to wage war. Existing internal divisions can be weaponised, as can the precariousness of relationships with existing international rivals. For both parties it is necessary to have all strategic parties made aware of the strategy, as decisions may otherwise be made which would compromise the overall strategy, either weakening one’s own morale, or strengthening the enemy’s. For the stronger power then, it is important to focus on morale in a defensive capacity, through information control primarily, but also demonstrating to the opposing force that continued resistance would only deteriorate their negotiating position, and do everything possible to extinguish the hope of an improved situation by isolating them from potential allies, and removing capabilities. Under these circumstances, a generous offer such as amnesty for all combatants will often be accepted.

A Broader Perspective of Warfare

If I may, let me be provocative for a moment. We may have been too hasty to dismiss an idea raised by Hillary Clinton. Having read the title of this article, it is likely no surprise which, but I shall state it more plainly – we require a broader perspective of warfare, and Clinton may have been correct in her assessment that a government sanctioned hack or digital attack of some kind – does qualify as an act of warfare. The term war has been defined variously, so I shall take one of the most famous examples: that of Von Clausewitz’s On War; (Book 1, Chapter 1, 1909) wherein it is defined as: “…an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”. It is also, however, “…a duel on an extensive scale [where] …each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will.”
I shall pose a question then: if it is possible to achieve the desired unilaterally acquired ends, without the necessity of outright physical violence, is it still warfare? I would suggest that it is, yes.

Our collective sensitivity to organised outright violence as an aggressive action, and act of warfare deserving of a response has been heightened over time. So too has, at various times, the sensitivity to perceived imminent threats, or threats to the international order, such as that presented by the Second Defenestration of Prague, the French Revolution, and Russia’s involvement in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. However, in all of these cases, the objective has been to remove a government. What about if this is achieved without state sanction?
The picture here becomes immediately more murky, as in the case of the Barbary pirates of Algeria, the central government being either unwilling or unable to stop raiding for slaves by Algerians was seen as reason enough to annex Algeria to France in 1830 – which did stop the raiding. Meanwhile, in the case of the banana republics of Honduras and Guatamala, the coup d’etats of national governments with the tacit approval of the US government are typically not considered wars, or warfare.

Next there is what is commonly referred to as a proxy war, which we are somewhat more sensitive to – wherein a party or faction is supported, often with arms, in order to achieve the desired objective of government replacement.

Finally then, there is the last type, wherein a government is toppled or instated without violence – such as in the case of Boris Yeltsin, who was aided by the CIA, and the long list of widely accepted examples of election interference, along with all of the other instances which are less readily acknowledged – perhaps because they are still relevant to the state of play at time of writing.

A further wrinkle was raised earlier however, that if a private individual or faction is operating from within the control of a state, possibly furthering the strategic aims of the state, and the state does nothing to impede these activities, can that be considered an act of warfare?
The haziness of these relationships becomes an important tool to those involved in these decisions, as they are surely well understand, but if the strategic result is the same – unilateral acquisition of power, or concessions, then we surely must consider it as existing on the continuum of warfare.

With this context established, however, we are able to put to rest the myths that pervade around the supposed peacefulness of the late 20th and early 21st century. The needs of the state did not change, but the methods and options available did. Both the US and the USSR in particular engaged in a lot of this kind of activity, that much is uncontroversial, but there are two additional dimensions to this which might be. Firstly, this clearly changes the nature and structure of warfare. Far from the mass citizen armies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, if the desired aims can be achieved via subterfuge instead; using extensive information networks, internal disloyalty, and one or two highly leveraged individuals – then the dynamics of warfare have taken on a significantly more elitist quality in the vast majority of cases. And secondly that; in effect, warfare can be conducted with much less reliance on public opinion, or even public knowledge. An army, instead, becomes one tool among many available to a government which is not necessarily estranged – but has the capacity to become increasingly distant from those it rules.

There are a number of reasons for this development, I dare say. As previously alluded to, developments in communications and information technology have allowed for much more precise applications of force, and a more complete understanding of where to apply it. In combination, the fractured and internally divisive nature of democratic and republican government creates many natural avenues and cover for these activities under the guise of genuine opposition. Therefore the explosion of republicanism in this same period from the late 20th century into the early 21st, and associated rise in the aforementioned style of warfare are – if not related, then certainly complementary to one another. Mutually so, because a useful strategy for ensuring the constant possibility of launching an attack of the former kind remains an extant option should the government and population remain internally divided. Conversely, then states with more internal unity, and authoritarian governments are much more resistant to these attacks, not only because the resources at their undisputed disposal are more numerous, but all other things being equal; they can more easily identify where an attack is taking place, due to the sudden appearance of, for example: an extremely well funded and highly skilled opposition group.

Possibly the most famous example of this defensive advantage is displayed in 1917 Russia with the German-sponsored arrival of Lenin, among other revolutionaries supported in the same manner. This was understood, and correctly identified as a threat at the time, but the government had been weakened so much by that point that the attack was ultimately successful (though with a lot of other relevant factors playing a part). Conversely, in post-war Japan, on the assurance that the leftist parties were receiving funding from the USSR, the US gave funding and support to the centre-right Liberal Democratic Party to maintain US influence. I have deliberately tried to avoid claims of more recent election interference, as that particular accusation has become a popular one to level for political reasons over the last few years, but I don’t doubt that in light of what I have already laid out, at least some of these accusations are correct, or perhaps even more than are accused – for a competently executed attack would not be detected.

One final point to note is that, despite both this described form of precise warfare, and conventional warfare; falling into the same category of unilateral extra-legal state-level action, they are typically handled as separate entities. This can be explained in a number of ways, with possible explanations including; the timeline of the development of these capacities, to the siloing of capabilities to minimise the hard power of particular officers and/or bureaucrats (particularly when those capabilities include controlling the outcomes of elections and toppling governments). With this in mind, however, it is a restriction which has the effect of creating two distinct organisational perspectives (and thus institutional pressures on policy outcomes) which will view the issue through very different lenses. For example, being that the purpose of both the current war in Afghanistan, and the Iraq war were ostensibly a change in government, then a unified command structure may have come to the conclusion that a more limited application of force would have been more efficient, and possibly even more effective. In addition, it may have averted whatever internal political pressures were taking place which would have pushed for the deployment of military assets and personnel.

To conclude then, pending further discussion on this topic; warfare ought to be considered as unilateral action (or lack of action) taken by a government in aid of strategic aims. Therefore, matters of election or government interference via espionage, conventional warfare, or selective legal prosecution (in some cases) ought to all be considered within the purview of warfare. Integration of all of these capabilities will therefore likely yield a great deal in effectiveness and efficiency of achieving strategic aims. Institutional barriers may exist, due to the reluctance to centralise such power, but doing so will clearly grant a strategic advantage. As well as the obvious counter-intelligence efforts, undisputed, centralised, and non-elective governance provides a significant defensive capability, and thus a strategic advantage within this paradigm. Going forward, therefore, all other things being equal, republics and democracies will face a competitive disadvantage, and risk becoming a battle-ground between groups wishing to capture the government – to the strategic disadvantage of the republic.