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Published Airpower Journal- Summer 1999

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No pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage-ground of truth.

--Francis Bacon



CARL VON CLAUSEWITZ'S theories on military strategy and war have become so ingrained in American military thought that almost every US engagement fought or planned today relies heavily on his concepts. Unfortunately, his most polished writing --the only part of his manuscript he considered ready for publication prior to his untimely death--contains only one specific reference to the law of war: "War is . . . an act of force to compel an enemy to do our will. . . . Attached to force are certain self-imposed, imperceptible limitations hardly worth mentioning, known as international law and custom, but they scarcely weaken it. Force--that is, physical force, for moral force has no existence save as expressed in the state and the law--is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object" (emphasis in original).1 I use the term unfortunately for two reasons. First, this passage suggests that Clausewitz considered international law irrelevant to war.2 Second and more significant, his current-day disciples might infer from it that law is unimportant to the formulation of military strategy and tactics today. This article seeks to refute both inferences. In fact, the opposite is true: the law of war has been, is, and should continue to be a significant factor in the strategic thinking of the US military.

The Law of War Was
Important Then
(And Clausewitz Knew It)

Students of Clausewitz have often deciphered his cryptic passages by putting them into historical context. That context is also critical to understanding his views on the laws of war. Before Clausewitz, particularly dur ing the seventeenth-century "Wars of Religion," European wars generally were brutal and unrestrained. Since religious and ideological differences motivated combatants, these wars were literally no-holds-barred affairs.

After 1648, when the last of these wars--the Thirty Years' War--ended, Europe entered an age of limited war in which smaller, professional armies fought each other for relatively modest political and territorial objectives.3 Intent on avoiding previous excesses, European sovereigns took steps toward limiting the impact of future conflicts. In addition to establishing formal officer-training courses, they revived chivalry by adopting formal articles of war that imposed strict rules governing treatment of prisoners, noncombatants, and private property. In the early 1800s, Clausewitz attended and taught at the Prussian War College. His cynical reference to the laws of war at least shows that at some point in his career he learned them.

Appreciating Clausewitz's true views on the law of war also requires both a brief reference to Hugo Grotius, the father of modern international law, and an understanding of some of the law's principles and purposes. Grotius, a Dutch lawyer and philosopher, died three years before the end of the Thirty Years' War. His most important work, On the Law of War and Peace, was as influential to the study of international law as Clausewitz's On War was to the study of war.

Grotius articulated fundamental principles that were generally observed in Clausewitz's era and that survive to this day in the forms of military necessity, proportionality, and humanity. All three concepts spring from the basic idea that "the prohibition against intentionally harming other human beings is set aside in warfare only to the extent that combatants of opposing belligerent nations may rightfully attack one another."4 Military necessity permits armed forces to attack only those targets that will impair the enemy's ability to make war. Since attacking noncombatants produces no such impact, this rule also protects them. Proportionality prohibits using force greater than necessary to accomplish legitimate military objectives. Finally, humanity prohibits the infliction of unnecessary suffering. This principle protects combatants from attack with weapons that continue to cause injury after their combatant status ends.

Given his historical circumstances, Clausewitz reasonably regarded international law as irrelevant to the application of force. By the time he observed and wrote about war, excesses prevalent during the Thirty Years' War had already moderated. As strategy evolved to require application of force almost exclusively against the enemy army, the law of war must have seemed increasingly superfluous. Nevertheless, Clausewitz's dialectic contrast between absolute and limited war further revealed that he understood and appreciated it.

Clausewitz the absolutist regarded pure war as a "complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence [which] . . . would of its own independent will usurp the place of policy the moment policy had brought it into being."5 As for the law of war in this context, he added, "To introduce the principle of moderation into the theory of war itself would always lead to logical absurdity."6 Just as quickly as he defined it, however, he acknowledged that absolute war in its pure form is not achievable. "War is never an isolated act,"7 he wrote; war can never be disconnected from people and their affairs. Their goals, feelings, and intellect inevitably moderate the practice of war even if moderation in theory would be logically absurd.

Clausewitz the realist understood that, in practice, war is limited and described the most important limit in his most famous quote: "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means."8 In other words, policy is the national objective, and war is the means of achieving it. Within the broad context of policy lay numerous subsidiary goals and considerations. One is the achievement of peace.

Another constraint Clausewitz ascribed to limited war is its dependence on the characteristics of the people fighting it. He described hostile feelings and hostile intentions as the two different motives that make people fight one another.9 Hostile feelings are based on emotion and instinct while hostile intentions are purely rational, based on intellect. Both are present to varying degrees in any conflict among people; the proportion in which they are mixed dictates how wars are fought and how long they will last. Thus, in a point relevant to this discussion, Clausewitz concluded, "If, then, civilized nations do not put their prisoners to death or devastate cities and countries, it is because intelligence plays a larger part in their methods of warfare and has taught them more effective ways of using force than the crude expression of instinct."10

However, he added that "the invention of gunpowder and the constant improvement of firearms are enough in themselves to show that the advance of civilization has done nothing practical to alter or deflect the impulse to destroy the enemy, which is central to the very idea of war."11 His first observation--consistent with his concept of limited war--assumed that the "civilized" men of his era were not only capable of regulating but actually did regulate the application of force. The second expressed his feeling that, despite their capacity for moderating force, people nevertheless are fundamentally warlike creatures. Together, these observations lead to the conclusion that rather than considering laws of war unimportant pacifist notions, Clausewitz believed that they simply reflect human evolution from instinct to intellect. In their more intelligent search for better methods of war, people abandoned targeting civilians in favor of more effective ways of killing the enemy on the battlefield.

Far from regarding laws of war unimportant, then, Clausewitz actually understood that they imposed necessary limits on people's ability to wage war. He assumed that such self-control would be as much a part of future wars as it had been a part of his and that it would make war more, not less, wars as it had been a part of his and that it would make war more, not less, efficient.

The Law of War
and Clausewitz Coexist
and Remain Important Today

When one's tools are primitive, it is easier to focus them on narrow objectives. In this sense, achieving self-control was perhaps less difficult in Clausewitz's day than today. With limited military resources and an enemy blocking an army's forward progress toward its ultimate political objective, clearly the immediate military object of war became the enemy's defeat. Whether one believed in the law of war or not, one could easily rationalize that those limited resources would be better employed against the enemy's army than wasted on its civilians. Thus, Clausewitz's conclusion that the law of war imposed an "imperceptible" limit on force recognized, at least in part, that force was already limited by practical and technological considerations.

When one's tools become more sophisticated, Clausewitz's dichotomy between the domination of intellect over instinct on the one hand and the constant improvement of firepower on the other becomes especially important. With the advent of airplanes, weapons of mass destruction, and precision-guided munitions, this tension has become particularly strong. No longer must war be waged on the battlefield; today, only policy truly limits the modern army's potential targets.

This trend toward increased military effectiveness that Clausewitz heralded over 150 years ago brought the United States and similarly equipped nations to a crossroads in World War II. The road toward absolute war was our ability to combine the ferocity of chemical, nuclear, and high-explosive weapons with advanced delivery systems such as the airplane to bring war to the enemy's entire population. The road toward limited war required us to forgo targeting civilians and thereby move toward the intellect side of Clausewitz's intellect-instinct balance. Both sides took both roads. For example, each side's strategic-bombing campaigns targeted the other's civilian populations.12 However, neither the Allies nor Germany used its stockpile of chemical weapons, perhaps because the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925 had outlawed them or because both sides considered the prospect of retaliation in kind too frightening.

Where does all this leave us today? As more nations acquire or develop weapons of mass destruction, absolute war becomes a greater possibility. Yet, recent US wars, including the cold war, stand as examples of the restraining power of deterrence and provide optimism for the future. Hopefully, this restraint is part of the policy that will define how we conduct future wars. To the extent that nations have formally agreed to

some of these policies--for example, the policy against using chemical weapons--they have become part of the treaty-based law of war. Policies to which nations have tacitly agreed have become either customary laws of war or bases for deterrence. Today, the labels law of war and deterrence are less important than the fact that restraint exists. Hopefully, this restraint--Clausewitz's "intellect"--will continue to be a critical element of future wars.

Clausewitz's Theories and the Laws of War Tomorrow

Does the fact that the law of war is more pervasive and restrictive today than it was in Clausewitz's day make his theories any less relevant for future wars? The answer is definitely no. First, from a practical standpoint, many of the customary rules of military necessity, proportionality, and humanity exist today in much the same form as in the wars he fought and wrote about. The rules first applied in the eighteenth century have now achieved almost universal recognition as laws applicable to today's and tomorrow's wars.

Second, many laws offset technology. As people develop newer and deadlier ways to fight wars, international efforts to regulate them strive to keep up. The point here is that although military technology has advanced geometrically since Clausewitz's day, new laws of war have generally helped prevent war from evolving beyond a contest between military forces.

Third, today's rules simply increase the military efficiency Clausewitz intended his principles to achieve. Most, especially those that distinguish legitimate from prohibited targets, are credible because they actually help focus military power on important military objectives. Our challenge is to preserve that credibility by rejecting counterproductive new rules or changes to old ones.

Finally, the law of war is a critical element of war's "paradoxical trinity." In his effort to define war in terms of its "dominant tendencies," Clausewitz described three forces that influence its nature: primordial violence or the "instinct" discussed earlier, chance and probability that foster creativity, and the reason or "intellect" that underlies war's political objectives. The object, he said, "is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets."13 As an element of reason, the laws of war prevent war from deteriorating into unregulated free-for-alls. By strengthening the "intellect magnet," hopefully they will help keep war within the trinity.


Clausewitz's essential point was that absolute war exists only in theory; in practice, limits exist. The question he probed was how to conduct war successfully within those limits. Although the law of war may not have been a prominent constraint during Clausewitz's era, it certainly was one of the factors that defined the conduct of the wars he wrote about. Today, those laws are no less relevant.

The enduring value of Clausewitz's principles depends, in part, on the continuing validity of his basic assumption that war is limited. Ironically, his theories remain relevant today because the law of war--a concept he viewed skeptically--remains one of those key limits.

Bolling AFB, Washington, D.C.


1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 75.

2. Geoffrey Best, Humanity in Warfare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 63.

3. Russell F. Weigley, "American Strategy from Its Beginnings through the First World War," in Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 409.

4. Paul Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1994), 100.

5. Clausewitz, 87.

6. Ibid., 76.

7. Ibid., 78.

8. Ibid., 87.

9. Ibid., 76.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. W. Hays Parks, "Air War and the Law of War," Air Force Law Review 32 (1990): 50­54.

13. Clausewitz, 89.

When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.




Editor's note: We are featuring Major Hunerwadel's review of the commercial simulation Total Air War as a Way Point to call attention to our expanding coverage of airpower-related educational products. Don't worry, books will still be the focus of our Net Assessment section--just as they will remain the principal instruments for professional learning. But in future issues (and already starting to appear on our Air Chronicles website), you can look for reviews of war games, educational software, multimedia products, and videos.

IN THE LAST 10 years or so, two large families of computer-based games have evolved that should be of interest to military airmen. The first is a group of increasingly sophisticated air-combat simulators (ACS) offering very realistic plane-to-plane play. The second is the family of strategy war games essentially similar to the board and counter games of old--Panzerblitz, Squad Leader, and such. Both families of games have come a long way in the last 10 years. Some in the strategy family still have the feel of the older games: units that look like counters and God's-eye views of hex-based maps. Students in basic professional military education (PME) and intermediate service schools will recognize these; the military's own war games haven't yet evolved past this point. Still, a number of war games have been devised that offer very realistic and sophisticated treatment of linear surface battle at the tactical and operational levels of war.

What has been lacking in this latter group is a game that portrays air warfare in the wider, operational-level context these other games successfully portray. In almost all of the surface-based games, airpower is abstracted into a type of fire support or airborne artillery. The Panzer General series does a fairly elegant job of portraying the value of air in attriting surface forces and providing mobility to them as part of a combined arms team. But this excellent rendition of a "Marine's view of airpower," if you will, ignores much that airpower does. The effects of interdiction in isolating and paralyzing enemy forces and the system-wide shock and exploitation offered by strategic attack are absent in all games currently available. Between the plane-to-plane combat of the flight simulators and the true effects of airpower on warfare, a wide gulf has been fixed. As an airman and a war-game grognard (I started playing when someone gave me a copy of Jim Dunnigan's 1914 back in 1969), I have been waiting a long time for someone to try to bridge the gap.

Thus, it was with some anticipation that I read announcements for a new game: Total Air War.* It boasted being able to show the full use of air across the spectrum of war as well as offering the most sophisticated ACS yet. The game developers even hired retired Air Force colonel John Warden (of Instant Thunder fame) and his Venturist, Inc., team to help design it. The game promised to be the first truly sophisticated portrayal of air warfare in all its aspects.

*Digital Image Design, Ltd., distributed in the United States through Infogames Interactive, Inc., 333 W. Santa Clara Street, No. 820, San Jose, California 95113, 1998, $29.99.

The game finally delivered is really two games in one, joined fairly seamlessly. The first game is a very elegant air-to-air and air-to-ground flight simulator based on--really, a sequel to--Digital Image's highly successful F-22 Air Dominance Fighter. The second is an entire ongoing air campaign, viewed and controlled from an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) simulator. This part of the game starts with a notional air tasking order (ATO), which can be modified by the player. The player can (but does not have to) plan individual packages or ingress/egress routes and add sorties to the given ATO. Once tactical planning is completed, the player acts as an air-battle manager, running the air war from the AWACS.

It is possible to easily jump between the games while in progress. The game system's artificial intelligence (AI) routines take over the AWACS while the player is out flying and take over individual engagements once the player is back aboard the AWACS. All this seamless sophistication comes at a cost, however. The game is very memory-intensive. I ran the game on a 333-megahertz machine with 128 megabytes of random access memory and an eight-speed CD-ROM player, and portions of it still ran slowly. Attempting to run it on a slower machine might remind old-head computer gamers of the ancient Commodore 64.

Overall, I was impressed with the sophistication of the game's graphical user interface (GUI). This game has the best graphics of any air-combat simulation I have yet seen. It is unequaled in its ability to let the player see a particular air combat from all aspects and to easily switch between views. Even playing as an AWACS controller, you get to watch the action you have highlighted in a small screen to the left of your main display (which does not interfere with the ability to simultaneously monitor the "rest of the war" in symbols on the main display). The AWACS controller interface itself allows the player to selectively highlight any target or target set on the ground, see threat envelopes, switch between various forms of familiar symbology (including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] standard), and see the entire ongoing air war depicted three-dimensionally. The only drawback I saw was that the AWACS controller main display became too cluttered to effectively use with more than a couple of ground target sets selected (especially in 3-D display, which I tended to use most). This problem may be unavoidable, however.

Navigating through the game was fairly intuitive and was well described in the rule book. The over-view screens easily led me to the scenarios the first time I played, but, for some reason, would not let me into the AWACS function the second time. This happened only once, however. This did reveal a shortfall in the rule book: its lack of useful troubleshooting information. The 336-page rule book is devoted mostly to explaining the extremely complex set of controls for the F-22. This part of the book looks and reads like a Dash-1 (aircraft flight manual) because that's basically what it is. It proved too much to easily wade through. The first time I flew the F-22 simulator, I just got in and started pushing buttons. This seemed to provide a more entertaining (if somewhat bloody) tutorial. It didn't take long to get fairly proficient at flying the simulator, though. Most of the keyboard controls are well thought out--an advantage over many such games, which assume the player is using a joystick. The integration of keyboard and screen mouse controls also works well.

Apart from its strength as an air combat simulation, this game is a strong tool for showing integrated management of an air battle. The AWACS function (when it worked) was fairly intuitive and was graphically brilliant. It was necessary to switch to 2-D display using NATO symbology to use the replanning function, but I found this only a minor annoyance. Replanning is used to retask scenario air-to-ground assets away from their default targets but has no impact on active management of the air-to-air battle. The focus of the AWACS game is on what I would call the "grand tactical" level: managing an ongoing tactical battle space to accomplish preset operational and strategic objectives. In this role it is superb. It really does depict a God's-eye view of the air-battle manager's role very well. The game might be very useful as a teaching tool for air-battle managers or others trying to learn the AWACS function. It could probably be modified in subsequent versions to present an airborne "surface battle manager's" view (à la the joint surveillance, target attack radar system [JSTARS]) very nicely as well. Running the game from this perspective was also quite a bit more fun and challenging than I expected it to be. Obviously, most of the development brainpower went into the game's air combat simulator aspects, but there is enough in the AWACS game to please most gamers.

The game's "grand tactical" focus, however, is its greatest drawback as an operational-level simulation. Each of the game's "campaigns" is a preset scenario, with everything from national-level objectives down to intended target sets already determined. John Warden's consultation seems to have been reduced to a few operational-level buzzwords in the final version of the rule book. There is a rudimentary discussion of center-of-gravity analysis, for instance (using the too-familiar Five-Ring Model), but it plays no part in anything the player actually does. It's just

"nice to know" stuff, like a lot of the "designer's notes" musings in many old board war games were. (In fact, Total Air War's designers threw out Warden's "Holy Rings" in favor of their own [somewhat unusual] set of 10 target categories in the final version.) The scenario introductions do give objectives and strategies. In many cases, though, these are conceptually flawed. Most often the two are confused. What the player should accomplish (the objective) is called the "strategy," and how he should accomplish it (the strategy) is called the "objective." This is worse than useless; it's negative training from the point of view of teaching operational art. The bottom line is, though, that this whole aspect of the game is merely what's known in the war-game business as "chrome."

Some thought apparently went into trying to show operational-level effects on target systems, at least according to the rule book's introductory comments. Each scenario's victory criteria are based upon percentage degradation of selected target sets or systems (like the enemy's national electrical grid). As far as I could tell, however, bombing seems to accomplish linear percentage degradation of targets; so after a predictable number of successful sorties, the targeted system will go down by the requisite percentage and victory will be achieved. I could be wrong. The rule book hints at nonlinear (or at least random) solution components in the game engine, but if they were there, I was unable to see them at work. Perhaps they are invoked at more advanced levels of play. Regardless, as the game now plays, it reinforces the simplistic notion that "target X + target Y + target Z = Victory." This is an idea that pervades too much of the military (the Air Force in particular) and would be negative training for a student trying to learn how to defeat a thinking, reacting enemy. (This problem, of course, is inherent in most all computer war games in which the opponent is a computer AI routine.)

In the larger sense, the game structure also does nothing to show why the player should be hitting a given target set at all. It wouldn't really matter to the player whether he was hitting the enemy's national command structure or a herd of elephants, as long as degradation of the target set met the scenario victory conditions. The game does nothing to show strategy-to-task methodology or reinforce the reasoning behind effects-based targeting. Consequently, it would probably be counterproductive to use this game as an operational-level teaching tool, since it would merely reinforce the typical midlevel Air Force officer's deeply ingrained tendency to "get lost in the weeds" and focus on purely tactical considerations. Thus, as a portrayal of "total air warfare," the game--though a fine tactical-level simulation--is a failure. Having said that, I must say, it is fun!

The game would be greatly improved, from a professional military point of view, if it could be modified to include the following features:

1. A higher-level planning function that allowed the player to take a conflict and National Command Authorities (NCA)-level objectives concerning that conflict and derive theater-level objectives, strategies to accomplish those objectives, center-of-gravity analysis to shape targeting priorities, and actual target sets. Players could then take their plans and execute them. The computer would have a concealed preset list of actual victory criteria, which the player could then measure his or her plan against after execution.

2. An introductory chapter to accompany the planning function, discussing principles of campaign planning. It would be even better if written by someone who knew what he was talking about.

3. A modem/network play option that would allow head-to-head human red and blue (and/or gray) play, as well as team play on a given side. As an example of team play, each player could be given a portion of friendly forces and one or several airborne warning and control systems, from which he would run an AWACS-display game as part of a larger "campaign." (At any time, of course, just as in the current game, it would be possible to drop down into a cockpit and turn AWACS over to AI. If this could be made to run along the lines of the Marines' team version of the game Doom, this could have great advertising potential for the United States Air Force.

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

I always considered statesmen to be more expendable than soldiers.

­­Harry S. Truman


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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