Air University Review, March-April 1981

The Grammar and Logic of Conflict

differing concepts by statesmen and

Colonel Thomas A. Fabyanic

In the opening lines of his final major work, War and Politics, Bernard Brodie reminds us of the Clausewitzian axiom that "war has its own language but not its own logic".1 The language, of course, is the military means to achieve the political objective in war, which presumably is derived through logic. Despite the fact that the axiom may be self-evident, both statesmen and soldiers* periodically have had to be reminded of its fundamental importance. Perhaps, for reasons all too obvious in the current and projected world environment, further need for such a reminder ought to be more than the international community should be asked to tolerate. Yet, the recent history conflict suggests that the relationships of ends and means require our constant attention. Moreover, the growing sophistication of the former and the quantum increases in the potential of the latter argue persuasively for more precise analysis and greater clarity. Such outcomes are both necessary and possible, and perhaps they can be achieved through properly structured intellectual efforts that affect both the attitude and behavior of those who concern themselves with the means and ends of conflict.

*Throughout this article the term statesmen refers to those individuals who formulate the political objectives of war; it includes those who hold high public office and those within civilian educational institutions who contribute, directly or indirectly, to national security and defense policy. The term soldiers is used interchangeably with professional officers or military professionals.

My fundamental hypothesis is that those who practice statecraft and the art of war apparently do so as a consequence of learned behavior, acquired through formal education and practical experience. In a relative sense, the latter is a limited source of knowledge for any one individual, simply because one’s adult experience is too narrow to serve as a basis for questions of war and peace. Formal education, by contrast, offers the benefit of man’s collective wisdom and appears to be the dominant influence for those involved in issues of conflict.2

However, those who practice statecraft and thus set the political objectives for which wars are fought and those who pursue correlative military aims are exposed to intellectual studies that tend to focus primarily on either political or military aims. The argument here is not that statesmen and military professionals tend to ignore the relationship of means and ends in conflict situations but rather that each retains a circumscribed emphasis or focus that reflects one’s education. One is reminded of former Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s statement shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor: "I have washed my hands of it, and it is now in the hands of . . . the Army and the Navy." And General George C. Marshall’s response to British proposal during World War II: "I would be loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes."3 This apparent lack of an interdisciplinary approach becomes more significant when viewed in the context of the increasing complexity of conflict in the modern period, wherein political objectives reflect sophisticated notions of deterrence, behavior modification, perception and misperception in international politics, and other equally abstract ideas. Likewise, military aims are becoming more complex, and at certain levels of conflict the "theory and practice of war" reflect the former than the latter to such that the synthesis of the two needs careful and continuing examination.

The complexities of ends and means tend to become more obvious when viewed through an analytical framework attempts to identify and assess various categories of uncertainty. Four categories of uncertainty, defined as incomplete knowledge used in this analysis of political and military objectives. Though initially developed in the analysis of the impact of uncertainty on weapon system procurement, these categories appear to have general analytical validity.4

• The first category is process uncertainty, and it is external in nature. It is a function of issues largely beyond the control of the military in that it results from initiatives undertaken by one’s own government or an actor in the international community. For example, although the military may have a say in its government’s deliberations concerning arms limitations or arms transfers, the military professional must react to the eventual political decision. Likewise, the military professional must assess and, when appropriate, attempt to respond to political and military initiatives undertaken by existing or potential adversaries. In these and other types of situations, the military’s role is reactive, that is, it accommodated to uncertainty created by processes external to the military institution.

• By contrast, program uncertainty is internal in nature and occurs as a consequence of the interaction among various institutional components. For example, how well a combined arms force can be expected to operate as an orchestrated whole would be, in part, a function of its program uncertainty.

• The third category is target uncertainty. For our purposes, target refers to the real or perceived military aim or objective.

• The final category is technological uncertainty; it attempts to identify the degree to which incomplete knowledge exists about the strategic and tactical reliability of technological systems. This categorization notwithstanding, one should recognize that some overlap exists, and that the degree and type of uncertainty exist at arbitrary points across a continuum of incomplete knowledge.

Complexities of Political
and Military Objectives:
A Broad Framework for Analysis

In an effort to determine political and military objectives, the thought process, decisions, and actions of statesmen and military professionals must, of necessity, reflect a similar set of factors or variables. However, because the two groups tend to view the variables with differing and at times contrasting perceptions, the normative relationship of means and ends is not support of the latter by the former but a relationship that is reciprocal in nature. In theory, the political objectives are formulated with sufficient clarity to permit the establishment of military aims that serve the ends of policy. But in reality, the complex nature of political and military objectives leads to an interactive process that results in outcomes more representative of a synthesis that a priori reasoning.

Perhaps the most important element to be understood in the process of arriving at political and military objectives is the differing perceptions held by statesmen and soldiers. Statesmen appear to view objectives in relatively abstract terms, if for no other reason than to permit some latitude for determining whether objectives eventually are achieved. Moreover, the objectives frequently are characterized by a degree of ambiguity that allows for modifications as events unfold. In short, statesmen usually formulate objectives that seek to affect a change in behavior through the flexible use of force, and they reserve the right to determine when that condition has been achieved.

By contrast, the military professional tends to view military objectives in more absolute terms. While recognizing the preeminence and characteristic abstractness of political objectives, the military professional is required to establish military objectives of sufficient clarity to permit the orderly planning, organization, and employment of military forces. Precise and explicit language is essential in order to assure comprehension and compliance through various levels of organizational command. As the military professional establishes the objectives, certain values, norms, and traditions tend to influence the manner in which he proceeds. For example, by training and education, the professional officer is dedicated to the goal of winning. Expressions such as "Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead!" and "In war there is no substitute for victory." are learned responses that often reach the conscious level and most certainly exist in the subconscious of many professionals. Such notions condition the manner in which the professional officer establishes and pursues military objectives.

One could argue, therefore, that the learned behavior of those responsible for articulating political and military objectives leads each in different directions. Statesmen strive for abstractness and a measure of flexibility while military officers would consider the establishment of an unclear or uncertain military objective as totally unprofessional. These differences become more pronounced as one moves from the issue of formulating objectives to questions concerning the levels at which conflict occurs and the actual process of using force.

The Levels of Warfare
and the Process of Using Force

The levels of conflict have undertaken notable change since the end of World War II, and it is instructive to note that the new formulations are primarily the result of efforts by civilian theorists from within the academic community. Two of these concepts---strategic nuclear deterrence and coercive diplomacy—are at opposite ends of a continuum of conflict and reflect relatively abstract notions of how military force should be used to attain political objectives. For the most part, military professionals forced to accommodate themselves to these new formulations. They have done so reluctantly because of the fundamental assumptions that underlie the concepts are at odds with the learned behavior of the military professional. Of these two concepts, deterrence probably has caused the most concern and some frustration among the military.

strategic nuclear deterrence

In 1946 four civilian analysts at Yale University published a major work that established the basic rationale for the concept of deterrence in the nuclear age.5 Their analysis led to conclusions that differed markedly from traditional military views.

Thus, the first and most vital step in any American security program for the age of atomic bombs is to take measures to guarantee to ourselves in case of attack the possibility of retaliation in kind. The writer in making that statement is not for the moment concerned about will win the next war in which atomic bombs are used. Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.6

Thus, at the outset of the nuclear age, an American civilian educational institution became the source of a concept that challenged the basic objective of conflict as seen by the military professional. Although the notion of deterrence has since become the cornerstone in U.S. defense policy, some military professionals continue to challenge certain aspects of the deterrence concept. Fortunately, little disagreement, if any exists between statesmen and soldiers basic need to deter nuclear war, for it is a widely accepted axiom that no political objective could justify initiation of nuclear conflict. The divergence of views between the two groups stems from difficulty the military officer experiences in an attempt to translate into practice the concept of deterrence; that is, how does an officer translate the abstractions of conceptual thought into military terms that lead to practical application? The civilian theorist can argue that the ultimate objective is to deter nuclear war and that nuclear weapons possess utility only for that end. But it is the responsibility of the military officer to go beyond deterrence and, as Michael Howard stated recently, "think what to do if deterrence fails."7 It is at this point that the learned behavior of the statesman and soldier diverge. Both can accept the validity of deterrence as an objective, but the soldier finds it difficult to establish a compatible military objective.

Some military officers argue that deterrence will possess credibility only if a nuclear war-fighting capability exists. Others carry the debate further by calling for nuclear forces that are capable of "winning" a nuclear exchange. In essence, such arguments by officers are attempts to reduce the degree of uncertainty associated with the deterrence concept. Military training and education make clear to the professional officer that an analysis of the categories of uncertainty is required for any challenging situation, and, given the lack of empirical data about nuclear war, such an analysis becomes essential. Of the various categories of uncertainty, the officer understands that process uncertainty is of utmost importance because it is external to the military scheme of things and thus beyond the military’s influence. As examples, the status and capabilities of one’s allies could change; one’s own government, intentionally or otherwise, might place the military at a disadvantage by political action; or the potential adversary could effect a significant technological breakthrough. In each of these instances, the professional officer needs to consider the net consequences in terms of one’s own capability and, perhaps more important, how to hedge against such eventualities.

Other uncertainties associated with deterrence are just as significant, yet they fall within ones internal structure and thus are subject to some control. The first of these is program uncertainty—a function of what Clausewitz refers to as friction. It is the element that makes the simple things of theoretical war so difficult in practice. "Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper."8

Perhaps the only means through which one can reduce the consequence is through practice and experience. But since practice and experience are unavailable and unlikely for nuclear war, the professional officer must accept a high degree of program uncertainty or friction. The only real alternative option for the professional officer is to convey his sense of concern to the statesmen, and quite frequently that approach results in demands for redundant military capability, that is, larger force structures. If the demands are viewed as unreasonable, statesmen can rationalize rejection by pointing out that the military officer "will always argue that the danger of war requires increased armaments; but he will seldom argue that increased armaments make war practical or desirable. He always favors preparedness, but he never feels prepared."9 In such an instance, statesmen may tend to minimize real or perceived uncertainty by relying on assumptions that may have little basis in fact.

Another internal category of uncertainty that produces tension between soldiers and statesmen is the issue of targetry, establishment of deterrence as the cornerstone of U.S. defense policy intensified this stress. The military officer who concerns himself with the question of targetry in strategic warfare tends to place primary emphasis on the need for counterforce targeting, that is, the use of one’s strategic forces against selected military capabilities of the adversary. By contrast, statesmen concerned with the issue of deterrence quite often view such an approach as dangerous because counterforce targeting may be perceived be the adversary as a threatening first-strike capability. Thus, what the professional officer sees as risk avoidance is seen by the statesman as risk escalation.

The final category of uncertainty, classified as technological uncertainty, is particularly serious within the context of deterrence. Military professional are aware that an inverse relationship usually exists between technological sophistication and tactical success when new weapon systems are employed. Rarely do highly sophisticated weapon systems perform "as advertised" until the "bugs" have been worked out in extensive operational use. Therefore, there is concern about the reliability of systems integral to the concept of deterrence, and a perceived need exists to reduce the uncertainty in ways that may not be acceptable to statesmen. For example, the military professional may insist on various means of testing weapon systems under conditions as realistic as possible in order to increase the confidence factor. Alternately, he may argue for considerable redundancy, which at times requires the use of backup systems of more proven reliability. Statesmen, of course, may well view such approaches as expensive, wasteful, and provocative, the complexities of technological uncertainty notwithstanding.

coercive diplomacy

At the opposite end of the conflict continuum is the notion of coercive diplomacy, and like deterrence, it is a product of scholars and not soldiers.10 Coercive diplomacy is characterized by attempts to affect the motivation or will of the opponent; it is more a test of commitment or resolution and less a test of strength or capability. Coercive diplomacy calls for the use of military power in "an exemplary, demonstrative manner, in discrete and controlled increments, to induce the opponent to revise his calculations and agree to a mutually acceptable termination of the conflict."11 Force is coupled and orchestrated with inducements and incentives a "carrot and stick" approach to conflict resolution.

Under appropriate circumstances statesman would tend to favor such an approach to conflict for several reasons. Perhaps foremost is the fact that military force clearly is subordinated to political objectives throughout the process of force application. The circumscribed tasking of the force tends to limit its size and capability and, moreover, permits the exercise of direct, high-level command and control systems and procedures. Such characteristics provide greater assurances to statesmen that military organizational structures and their tasking can be controlled to accommodate a changed political environment. Since compromises, negotiations, and bargaining with the adversary are part of the conceptualization of the employment of military force, the use of limited force and the existence of high-confidence command and control capability permit a relatively assured response to escalation and deescalation efforts. Coercive diplomacy has a measure of appeal to statesmen in that its aftermath presents fewer political problems and thus tends to assure a greater degree of stability to the settlement.

However, the very factors that make an approach to the use of force attractive to statesmen are those that cause concern to soldiers. Indeed, translating into practice a theory calling for the use of force in a discrete and controlled manner poses formidable challenges and provides a major test for military competency.

The first and perhaps most difficult task is the establishment of the military objective that correlates with the political objective of modifying the calculations of the adversary. Unlike more traditional approaches, wherein the military objective could be the acquisition of territory, neutralization of the opponent’s military capability, or some modification of the adversary’s political or socioeconomic system, coercive diplomacy requires military efforts that appropriately can challenge the resolution of the adversary. In the Cuban missile crisis, for example, the United States established a quarantine of Cuba as a tactical military objective. Formulated by statesmen and not soldiers, it could do little to affect the Soviet missiles already deployed in Cuba. Nevertheless, it conveyed the proper message, and subsequent steps taken by the United States added to its viability. The United States quickly withdrew inward the perimeter of the quarantine by about one-third of the original distance, and eventually it allowed two ships to pass before halting a Panamanian ship under registry to the Lebanese but chartered by the Soviets. For the military planner, who must consider a multiplicity of contingencies for the type of operation described, the establishment of a clear and forthright statement of the military objective becomes extremely difficult.

Moreover, the execution phase of such an operation challenges the learned behavior patterns of the military professional. Actions that he may wish to take as a mater of prudence concerning the size, composition, capability, and disposition of force may be viewed by statesmen as inappropriate or counterproductive. The timing of force deployment and employment, view as critical by the statesmen, may be inconsistent with established military procedures. More significantly, it may become necessary to pass command and control of the tactical situation to the statesmen. On this latter point, one should recognize that the military finds it professionally embarrassing to have civilians interfere in the conduct of military operations, the rationale for such control notwithstanding.12

In addition to the obvious complexities inherent in the process of coercive diplomacy, its intricate nature becomes more fully manifest when viewed in terms of various categories of uncertainty describe earlier. Process uncertainty, which is external in nature and beyond control of those employment coercive diplomacy, is a major issue of concern. Successful coercive diplomacy, requires the existence of numerous preconditions, some of which largely are dependent on the perceptions one holds of the adversary. For example, the belief by the United States that there exists a favorable asymmetry in motivation between it and an adversary may prompt the United States to apply coercive diplomacy. But if the asymmetry favors the adversary (as was the case in Vietnam), then coercive diplomacy is unlikely to succeed. How to hedge against this major source of uncertainty is a formidable problem for the soldier and one that is likely to place him at odds with the statesmen. The former understand that if the asymmetry in motivation or resoluteness is judged erroneously, then the most likely eventual military recourse is to embark on a course of graduated escalation, an option that probably will not be favored by the U.S. military for the foreseeable future.

Of equal seriousness is that element of incomplete knowledge we have referred to as program uncertainty or friction. Coercive diplomacy is highly sensitive to precise timing for threat conveyance, force application, and force withdrawal. Because of friction (once again we use the term in a Clausewitzian sense) and the inherent nature of coercive diplomacy, a well-orchestrated military undertaking cannot be assured. The military professional must deal adequately with numerous, complex, and interrelated variables such as lack of high-confidence level intelligence, hastily organized units from different services, unorthodox procedures, possible geographic remoteness of the target area, limited combat support, and a host of other factors. Both the nature and number of these variables suggest that operations to which they apply will not be characterized by efficiency and that the probabilities of success can be increased only slightly through detailed planning and a high degree of competence at every level of command.

An equally significant category of uncertainty associated with coercive diplomacy is the proper identification of the target. Since the political objective of coercive diplomacy focuses on the calculations and not the capabilities of the adversary, it is likely that the military professional will find it particularly difficult to identify a suitable target. In a sense, the vagueness of the political objective virtually assures similar uncertainties about the military objective. Some military officers might find this condition sufficiently frustrating to warrant abrogating this responsibility to statesmen who, by training and education, feel more comfortable with abstract notions. But aside from the issue of formulation, there remains the uncertainty about attainment. Since a fine line appears to exist between realistic perseverance and stubborn adherence, one may not know when a given level of military effort has achieved its purpose. One should also recognize that the learned behavior of the military would tend to encourage him less toward prudence and more toward assertiveness.

Finally, coercive diplomacy lends itself to high levels of technological uncertainty, particularly because the demands are quite high and the margin for error is small. The inverse ratio between technological sophistication and tactical reliability referred to earlier is particularly relevant for coercive diplomacy. Since the right amount of force, used in the appropriate manner, remains an essential ingredient in this process, one must have a high confidence level in the systems to be employed. Higher than expected failure rates for certain systems might significantly reduce force capability and send an erroneous signal in what is essentially a test of resoluteness. On the other hand, adding redundant systems to compensate for possible technological failure may send an equally erroneous signal.

There are other dimensions to technological risk that deserve mention. The first concerns the perceptions of less technologically advanced adversaries who may be unable to comprehend the potential capability of high technology systems. The high-kill probabilities offered by precision-guided munitions, for example, may not have the desired influential effect on an adversary whose frame of reference is quantitative and not qualitative. The second dimension concerns the extent to which proliferation of advanced systems within the world community affects the planning and execution phases of future military operations. Although one might be aware of the types and numbers of technologically advanced offensive and defensive systems in the adversary’s force structure, the actual combat readiness capability and the effectiveness of such systems may not be known with sufficient certainty to plan a precise operation. Consequently, one could err considerably in the attempt to determine how much force is necessary. Too little force would demonstrate lack of commitment, while too much force might "entail costs in prestige, reputation, or self-respect that outweigh the threat."13

Modern conflict, with all its potential for sophistication and destruction, can find relevance in the Clausewitzian axiom that "war has its own language but not its own logic." Although both the means of war and its objectives have changed considerably since Clausewitz’s time, the need for their comprehension remains. Indeed, even the briefest and most cursory examination of modern conflict demonstrates that the complexities of means and ends demand that their respective practitioners, soldiers and statesmen, reach a level of analysis hitherto reserved for a small, intellectual minority within each group. Moreover, the complexities of means and ends, the levels of warfare, and the process of using force, as well as the attendant categories of uncertainty, suggest that both statesmen and soldiers are involved in pursuits that increasingly appear to be characterized by reciprocity. Therefore, the effort to define the logic of modern war must go far beyond the relatively narrow conceptual frameworks used earlier. Likewise, the formulation of the grammar of war requires an understanding of the logic to such an extent that explanations about means and ends between statesmen and soldiers would become unnecessary.

At present, however, it appears that the efforts of statesmen and soldier continue to move largely along independent lines, that is, focus by the former on the logic of war and concentration by the latter on its grammar. Moreover, each group continues to reflect an intellectual preference for conceptual frameworks derived from circumscribed learned behavior. Perhaps we have reached a phase point in the history of conflict wherein the extant learning of statesmen and soldiers is no longer appropriate and the immediate task for both is to unlearn. If this tentative conclusion is correct, then perhaps the first step to affect change would be an attempt at modification of attitudes and behavior through an extensive and systematic cooperative studies effort. How, where, and under what circumstances this approach should be attempted requires considerable analysis. But that it must be attempted appears to this soldier as a moral and professional imperative.

Air War College
Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama

Author’s note: I am indebted to Dr. Paul H.B. Godwin, Air University, for his assistance in the formulation of the conceptual framework used in this article. I also wish to thank Secretary A. A. Zimmerman of the International Standing Conference on Conflict Studies (England) for permission to publish this article.


1. Bernard Brodie, War and Politics (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 1.

2. Wilbert E. Moore, The Professions: Roles and Rules (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1970), pp. 43-47.

3. Quoted in Colonel Robert G. Gard, Jr., "The Military and American Society," Foreign Affairs, July 1971, p. 699.

4. I am indebted to Lieutenant Colonel John F. Guilmartin, USAF, for this conceptualization. For further discussion, see Colonel Robert R. Lochry et al., "Final Report of the USAF Academy Risk Analysis Study Team," United States Air Force Academy, 1 August 1971.

5. Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946).

6. Ibid., p. 76. Emphasis in the original.

7. Michael Howard, "The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1979, p. 983.

8. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 119.

9. Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1957; reprint edition, New York: Vintage Books), p. 69.

10. Alexander L. George, David K. Hall, and William E. Simons, The Limit of Coercive Diplomacy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).

11. Ibid., p. 18.

12. Gard, p. 701.

13. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 89.


Colonel Thomas A. Fabyanic (B.A., Syracuse University; Ph.D., St. Louis University) is Director, Airpower Research Institute, Air University (ATC). He served as an air operations staff officer, United States Strike/Readiness Command; Chief, History of Warfare Studies, Air War College; and USAF Research Associate at Columbia University. During the war in Indochina, he completed 200 combat sorties in the F-4 Phantom aircraft. He is author of Strategic Air Attack in the United Stales Air Force: A Case Study (1977) and several articles on military subjects. Colonel Fabyanic is a Distinguished Graduate of Air War College and a previous contributor to the Review.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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