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Reconsidering War's Logic and Grammar

Infinity Journal, Issue 2, Spring 2011. Reproduced on The Clausewitz Homepage with the permission of Infinity Journal.

Antulio J. Echevarria II
U.S. Army War College USA

Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II is the Director of Research for the U.S. Army War College. He has over 20 years experience in the U.S. Army, having served in a number of command and staff assignments, and has held a NATO Fulbright. He is the author of Clausewitz and Contemporary War (Oxford University Press, 2007), among many other works. Dr. Echevarria is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army War College, and holds a Master’s and Doctorate in history from Princeton University.

The re-emergence of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine within the U.S. military and the apparent, if tentative, success of that doctrine thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan have given rise to an intense debate among defense scholars. One side of the debate argues that the leading proponents of COIN, the so-called ‘COIN-dinistas,’ are giving the doctrine too much credit for recent successes by misrepresenting the causes of the Anbar Awakening and the effects of the ‘Surge,’ while deliberately downplaying the role of enemy-centric measures in containing the insurgencies. The COIN-dinistas, for their part, maintain that their opponents, the so-called ‘COIN-tras,’ are simply refusing to acknowledge that the population-centric approach is effective, that it can be replicated elsewhere with appropriate adjustments for different cultures; and that, in short, the capabilities associated with COIN are the long-sought answers to the challenges posed by the ‘new’ wars of the twenty-first century. This last claim, in particular, has led to a number of complaints by defense scholars that tactics are (once again) driving U.S. strategy; or, as some have recently argued, the obsession with applying a specific military ‘grammar’ is undermining, or supplanting entirely, the ‘logic’ of employing it in the first place.[i] Indeed, this complaint is not without merit; for the rhetoric of the COIN-dinistas suggests that the optimal grand strategy consists of stringing a series of counterinsurgency campaigns together.

While the debate will likely continue for some time, perhaps even well after the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan have been thoroughly assessed, the reference to COIN as a form of military grammar is an interesting one. COIN, both as a doctrine (as embodied in US FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5) and as a corpus of theory, has been referred to elsewhere as war’s second grammar precisely because its proponents often define it, perhaps too simplistically, in direct contrast to the principles and procedures associated with an enemy-centric or combat-centric approach to war. Moreover, the logic-grammar analogy is an enormously popular one today, despite the fact that Clausewitz used it only once in On War—some two-hundred years ago—when he stated that war has ‘its own grammar, but not its own logic.’[ii] Presumably, this sentence means that, while armed conflict may have any number of fundamental principles, these function more like the rules of grammar in written and oral communications, than the laws of logic that give purpose and meaning to the overall exchange. Today, the analogy has become a convenient way to express what many see as the military’s proper relationship to political authority, and it appears to support the normative argument that war’s aims ought to remain subordinate to policy’s goals.

The recent references to logic and grammar in the COIN debate, combined with the analogy’s long-standing popularity, suggest that a reconsideration of its utility and its limits is in order. That is the aim here. Although problematic in many respects, the analogy does have utility as a form of intellectual shorthand to represent the relationship between political imperatives, such as multilateral restraint as exercised during the Cold War, and military principles, such as mass or concentration. It can, in fact, assist in refocusing attention on some of the fissures that exist both between and within strategic and operational studies, not because it bridges them, per se, but because it exposes them for further research and study. As any scholar would admit, some underlying tensions or dynamics are invariably glossed over for the sake of weaving a coherent narrative, especially in the case of historical studies covering a broad span of time. Because the analogy can serve as the lens that brings some of those tensions into sharper focus, it is a useful tool for considering arguments pertaining to the interface between strategic and operational thinking, of which the COIN debate is but one example. [iii]

The principal problem with using the logic-grammar analogy, as with most of Clausewitz’s expressions, is the gap that exists between what he said, which is not always clear, and what we believe he meant. However, given that a large portion of On War is a discussion of armed conflict’s inner workings and fundamental principles, interpreting the analogy as shorthand for the relationship between political imperatives and military principles is eminently defensible. A second, but equally important problem with the analogy is that it can insinuate another level of abstraction into a field already rich in them. This drawback can be minimized if the analogy remains shorthand, and is not forced to become an alternative (and highly problematic) analytical framework the way ‘strategic culture’ has been.

War’s Logic and Grammar: What We Know

Logic is generally defined as the set of rules that govern reasoning, which is also the definition used in Clausewitz’s day. With respect to armed conflict, it can be likened to the accepted set of imperatives, principles, or customs governing political intercourse, all of which shape the conceptual limits of strategy. These limits, in turn, influence how the purpose of a conflict is defined, how the scale of the effort is settled upon, and how the level of violence is decided. However, logic is clearly not strategy, which is commonly defined as the sum of linking ends, ways, and means. Just as Clausewitz observed that each historical era has its own theory of war, so too the major powers in each era can be said to have generally followed certain political imperatives—whether developed unilaterally or derived from international treaties or alliances—which underpin their strategies, and around, or within which their key military principles must operate. Also, such political imperatives emerge and change in part due to what is known about the potential consequences of employing military power.

Grammar is typically defined as the collection of rules that govern oral and written communications. With respect to war, it can be thought of as the military principles, rules, or procedures that govern the use of armed force. Grammar is, thus, both more and less than military means: it is not the hardware, nor its capacity for violence, as much as it is the accepted guidelines regarding its use. Explicit rules of grammar can be found in most forms of military doctrine, including the much debated ‘principles of war’ or ‘principles of operations’. However, grammar also consists of tacit rules, such as seizing the initiative or deferring to the judgment of the forward commander, which are cultivated by numerous traditions and put into practice by military institutions. Logistical requirements also impose material limitations on grammar, forcing it in some cases to be rewritten entirely.

Logic also frequently obliges grammar to accept additional rules, either to restrict the application of several of its principles or to expand their scope. However, there is typically a counterforce of sorts at work because ignoring or finessing too many of the rules of grammar increases the risk that the desired message will fail, no matter how sound the logic. Principles of grammar can also influence or shape logic by creating expectations about what war is, and what it can or cannot accomplish, and at what cost. In many historical situations, these expectations were more or less in line with what could be achieved; but in others they were clearly not. The latter case was spectacularly illustrated by how quickly the unilateralist impulse in neoconservative thinking at the beginning of the new millennium was drawn to the so-called ‘new’ American way of war as a transformative instrument, as a means for putting democratic peace theory into effect. It is also clear that military institutions will attempt to apply what they believe are the most critical principles of grammar, and sometimes will do so quite aggressively, whenever political imperatives appear indistinct or incomprehensible to them, or seem in their eyes to violate the ‘true’ nature of war. The influence between logic and grammar is, in other words, reciprocal, even when the two are not necessarily in accord.

In short, if policy and war are indeed indissolubly linked, then they are likely connected where, and in much the same way, as logic and grammar are joined. Logic and grammar are found in any conflict, no matter how brief or primitive, and no matter how consummately or incompetently waged. The logic-grammar analogy is merely the microscope that helps isolate the tension behind that linkage and bring it into sharper relief.

War’s Logic and Grammar: What We Stand to Learn

This sharper focus can augment the field of defense studies by bringing to light dynamics that lie at the edge of the definitional limits of its two primary lines of inquiry—strategy and operational art. Each of these is more or less healthy, as evidenced by the quality of recent contributions, such as Colin Gray’s The Strategy Bridge and Beatrice Heuser’s The Evolution of Strategy, as well as The Evolution of Operational Art, edited by John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld.[iv] From a practical standpoint, the bifurcation along two lines of inquiry makes sense: strategy and operational art are complex and developed enough to warrant separate fields of study. Moreover, with respect to professional military education, students at war colleges need to understand what strategy is, while students at staff colleges must learn how to plan and conduct operations. Thus, the split is justified: research efforts parallel the division of labor with respect to teaching.

Still, both lines of inquiry are necessarily limited by the fact that their subjects are almost too well defined. Strategy is taught as a sequential process involving the identification of ends, their alignment with means, followed by decisions concerning the ways that link means to ends. Operational art begins with the presumption that operations were, or were intended to be, linked together as part of a larger campaign, which was, in turn, to complement a general military strategy. However, the rub is that studying strategy involves more art than science whenever strategic processes are too informal to be worthy of the name, which is not infrequently the case. Similarly, the literature on operational art does not adequately cover critical topics, such as stability and reconstruction operations, the very activities whereby, some would claim, wars are really won; nor does it give much attention to cases where the ‘artwork’ reduces to the blunt arithmetic of attrition. The term operational science would seem more appropriate, the protests of young officers notwithstanding. Again, these cases are too numerous to be called exceptions. In contrast, political imperatives are usually to be found even when a formal strategy has not been formulated; military principles are often being followed, even if their application is not in the least artistic. Thus, the logic-grammar lens is useful even in situations where the main lines of inquiry are thin. It does not replace either one, but rather serves as a point of reference for discussing the dynamics that informed political expectations and shaped military planning.

As such, the logic-grammar prism can facilitate consideration of some of the assumptions underpinning contemporary strategy debates. While most scholars would agree that grammar influences logic as much as logic shapes grammar, this understanding is not apparent in many of the current debates, particularly the row over COIN doctrine. Indeed, the tone is quite the opposite. The COIN-tras assume that grammar’s influence is something to be minimized, that it is improper or out of order; while the COIN-dinistas assume that a set of ‘proven’ operational principles is the missing link in a strategy that is otherwise ready to execute.

No doubt, this assumption stems, in part, from the tendency to see Clausewitz’s observation that ‘war has its own grammar, but not its own logic’ as normative. On War, though, is a blend of descriptive and normative observations, which Clausewitz referred to as objective and subjective, respectively. To be sure, the distinction between the two is not always clear; and there is certainly a normative argument in Book VIII, Chapter 6B, ‘War is an Instrument of Policy’. This is that war planners ought to put political objectives foremost in their calculations so that political purposes are not set aside for the sake of military aims. However, the phrase is also unquestionably descriptive in that it expresses the relationship between war’s principles and procedures with respect to the larger context of political practices. The sense it conveys is that this relationship is an objective fact, and would not—indeed could not—be altered whether military objectives are in line with political ones, or whether a civilian or a military government is running the war. The exchange takes place regardless, and it is ultimately political in nature. In short, the normative concern over the proper relationship between political purposes and military aims has obscured the objective description of the linkage between logic, as political imperatives, and grammar, as operational principles.

Accordingly, grammar’s influence is hardly improper; it is, in fact, unavoidable: discussing what should be done goes hand in hand with considering what can be done. The real problem lies less in the influence than in the failure to distinguish between the two. The question is not whether grammar should influence logic, but rather which grammar should. In fact, the argument that grammar is driving logic is an admission that COIN principles have a certain attractive power with respect to the existing political imperative to protect the homeland, and despite the egregious costs of putting those principles into practice. Attempting to prevent or limit that attraction is in many ways a fool’s errand, unless another grammar with comparable drawing power is offered in its place. The problem with the existing alternative—the so-called counter-terrorism approach—is that it does not have the same attraction because it requires accepting the probability that terrorist groups will reconstitute at some point, somewhere, and that they will eventually launch a successful attack against the United States or one of its allies. The cruise missile strikes against al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and Sudan 1998 are a case in point; a counter-terrorism approach which looks like that and accomplishes just as much is singularly unattractive. Of course, the risks are also the same and just as high with the COIN approach; but these have been skillfully obscured by a steady flow of rhetoric claiming that establishing local security and governance will prevent the return of terrorists, as if going elsewhere is not an option for them. Only one failure is needed to disprove that.

In many ways, the COIN debate reflects an uneven practice on the ground. The grammar that is actually being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan is a compound one, shaped less by conflicting principles than shifting (though not mutually exclusive) priorities: (1) destruction of hostile forces and (2) protection of the indigenous population. As several studies show, many of the skills required to fight so-called traditional wars are the same as those required to defeat insurgencies. The key competency is understanding when and how to shift priorities—a skill that doctrine can facilitate, but, not surprisingly, requires considerable experience. As far as logic is concerned, the imperative to protect the homeland still holds enormous power, even a decade after 9/11. Any alternative grammar will have to address that more directly, and more persuasively, and preferably sooner rather than later.

In sum, the logic-grammar analogy is useful as a form of intellectual shorthand, and its chief value lies in what it draws attention to—the dynamic interface between political imperatives and operational principles. A detailed history of war’s logic and grammar, for instance, would prove quite difficult to scope, and might well result in forfeiting the analogy’s principal value in the process: it is more useful as a precision strike than a prolonged campaign. Also, as mentioned earlier, a discipline already embarrassed by a richness of abstract concepts is not likely to welcome yet another one. In other words, the analogy ought not to be elevated to the level of a theory, but instead used as a reminder to challenge our assumptions, which would in turn clearly benefit the larger discipline of defense studies.

Nonetheless, the stimulative value of this particular shorthand should not be discounted. Indeed, it could well encourage scholars to ask new questions: Is the relationship between policy and war truly indissoluble? To what extent do the laws of logic depend on the structure that grammar provides? How closely connected is war’s political logic to its military grammar? How often does logic change in the course of a war? In which periods, or in which kinds of wars, was the change more frequent or more significant than in others? How often does grammar change and which factors are most responsible? How have apparently new domains, such as cyberwar and biotech and nano weapons, begun to change grammar? And how will or should political imperatives adjust as a result? Answering these questions can, in turn, benefit defense studies as well as shed new light on some of the debates characterizing defense literature today.


[i] For example, see: David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, ‘Grammar but No Logic: Technique is Not Enough—A Response to Nagl and Burton,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 3 (June 2010): 437-446.

[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, 19th Ed., Book VIII, Chap. 6B, p. 991.

[iii] Another example is: Brigadier Justin Kelley and Dr. Michael James Brennan, Alien: How Operational Art Devoured Strategy, Carlisle, Pa: Strategic Studies Institute, 2009.

[iv] Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010); Beatrice Heuser, The Evolution of Strategy (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010); John Andreas Olsen and Martin van Creveld, eds., The Evolution of Operational Art: From Napoleon to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010).


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