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Martin Samuels, PhD, is an independent academic who earned his doctorate in military studies at the University of Manchester, England. He has served in a variety of organizations in the UK civil service, the National Health Service, and local government. His third book, Piercing the Fog of War: The Theory and Practice of Command in the British and German Armies, 1918–1940, was published in 2019. The author acknowledges the support and guidance received from Bruce Gudmundsson and Aidan Walsh, though the article does not necessarily reflect their views. Any errors present are the author’s alone.

The "Finely-Honed Blade":
Clausewitz and Boyd on Friction and Moral Factors

Martin Samuels, PhD
https://doi.org/10.36304/ExpwMCUP.2020.01

Abstract: Most military writing and doctrine focuses on the physical components of warfare rather than its moral or psychological elements. Yet, it is very rarely through the unadorned slaughter of an enemy’s troops that victory is secured, but rather by bringing the opponent to acknowledge that they are defeated. This article examines the writings of Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz to assess his understanding of the moral and psychological elements of warfare and what is arguably his most significant contribution to military theory: the recognition of the nature and central impact of friction. It then explores the criticisms and extensions of Clausewitz’s thinking in these two areas by U.S. Air Force colonel John R. Boyd. This analysis is used to further inform and enhance a model of command approaches, which seeks to form a linkage between the characteristics of friction and the methods by which commanders attempt to control and direct their forces, with different command approaches seen as methodologies to reduce the level of friction experienced by friendly forces and increase that affecting the enemy.

Keywords: Carl von Clausewitz, John R. Boyd, friction, moral factors, command, mission command, military theory, Sun Tzu      

The moral elements are among the most important in war. They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole. . . . Unfortunately, they will not yield to academic wisdom. They cannot be classified or counted. They have to be seen or felt. . . . Consequently, though next to nothing can be said about these things in books, they can no more be omitted from the theory of the art of war than can any of the other components of war. . . . One might say that the physical [components] seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade.

~ Carl von Clausewitz1      

Moral factors count.2 Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz placed them at the center of his analysis, On War, written after the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). Similarly, Napoleon Bonaparte stated, “In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.”3 A century later, a French officer, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, quoted the claim by the late eighteenth-century diplomat and philosopher Joseph de Maistre: “A battle lost is a battle one thinks one has lost; for a battle cannot be lost physically.”4      

It is therefore unsurprising that the moral element of warfare has long been explicitly enshrined in official doctrine. For example, the 1909 edition of the British Army’s Field Service Regulations intoned, “Success in war depends more on moral than on physical qualities. Skill cannot compensate for want of courage, energy, and determination. . . . The development of the necessary moral qualities is therefore the first of the objects to be attained.”5 The manual went on to state, “Superior numbers on the battlefield are an undoubted advantage, but skill, better organization, and training, and above all a firmer determination in all ranks to conquer at any cost, are the chief factors of success [and a] lack of determination is the most fruitful source of defeat.”6 It noted that the decisive point of a battle is achieved when the enemy becomes “morally and physically exhausted.”7 The German Army’s equivalent manual, the Felddienst Ordnung (Field Service Regulations), was in full agreement on this latter point, stating in similar terms that, in war, the principal factor was “the enemy, the will and offensive power of whom have to be reckoned with until both are broken down.”8      

Despite this, both the practice of warfare and literature written about it tend to treat the enterprise in primarily physical and concrete terms. The focus is often on factors such as the size of the forces engaged; the technical capabilities of individual weapons systems; the number of vehicles and guns destroyed and of men killed, wounded, or captured; and the effectiveness of commanders’ plans in putting the enemy into a situation where acknowledging defeat is the only rational response. Even discussions of surprise tend to center on creating circumstances in which the enemy is unable to react quickly enough in physical terms rather than on the psychological impact on the enemy troops and their commanders. The struggle between opposing forces in respect to their morale and commitment to continue the fight, and especially the impact of irrational responses to situations, is rarely considered. The very fact that Jim Storr, once the British Army’s “most prolific writer of military articles,” had to state explicitly, “We cannot attempt to understand combat in any meaningful way without understanding human behaviour,” is evidence that this is precisely what most writers fail to do.9      

Where psychological aspects have been considered in the literature, this has generally been on only a very limited basis. There may be an assumption that the decision to accept defeat is a purely rational calculation, with commanders forecasting their chances of success by thinking through the next series of moves in the same detached manner as might a chess grandmaster. Alternatively, it may become romanticized into a narrow, quasi-mystical belief in the power of the will to overcome even the greatest physical obstacles. This latter perception certainly helped underpin the infamous “ideology of the offensive” that enthralled most European armies prior to 1914.10 Foch, writing in 1903 when he was still a brevet lieutenant colonel in the French Army, not only quoted de Maistre but went one step further, claiming: “A battle won . . . is a battle in which one will not confess oneself beaten.”11 The response of British Army officer J. F. C. Fuller, writing in 1926 as a colonel with vivid memories of the realities of warfare on the western front of World War I, was brutal: “This is magnificent, but it has little to do with the reality of war . . . in fact, it is common nonsense.”12 Or is it?      

Despite repeated references to the importance of overcoming an enemy’s will in much official military writing, there is, as Storr has noted, “little if anything in British military practice which suggests that combat is adversarial. . . . Tactical pamphlets [include] very little to suggest what the impact of enemy action on a procedure undertaken in war might be.”13 Although he was writing in regard to the modern era, Storr’s argument applies more generally throughout history. This may be seen from a brief examination of the manuals used by the British Army during World War II. In 1935, Field Service Regulations, Volume III: Operations—Higher Formations flagged the importance of the enemy when it stated, “The ultimate aim in war is to force the enemy to abandon the purpose for which he resorted to arms. . . . To achieve this aim the will of the enemy nation to continue the struggle must be overcome . . . forcing him . . . to realize that his aim is impossible of attainment.”14 Similarly, in 1941, The Infantry Division in the Attack intoned, “A commander is pitting his personality, determination, and ingenuity against those of his immediate opponent.”15 But while British Army doctrine made clear that warfare was a struggle between two wills and that victory came through overcoming that of the enemy, that concept was not explored further. The 1935 edition of Field Service Regulations: Volume II: Operations—General simply stated, “The main problems which the attacker has to solve in making his plan are: firstly, choice of place . . . secondly, choice of method . . . [and] thirdly, choice of time.”16 In other words, the doctrine focused almost entirely on factors internal to the operations of friendly forces. It is therefore hardly surprising that little attention was paid to how actions taken by a commander might be designed to undermine the enemy’s will to secure victory, even though the doctrine stated this should be the main purpose of those actions.      

The contention of this article, then, is that most military writing and doctrine focuses on what Clausewitz described as the “wooden hilt”—the physical components of warfare—rather than the “finely-honed blade”—the moral elements. Where military writing does consider the blade, it does so in terms that suggest not enduring steel but brittle glass. In essence, this author suggests that most writing on warfare focuses on killing and destruction rather than on the process by which one side or the other comes to the conclusion that they are beaten.17 The author also argues here that victory is secured more often through the process of bringing an opponent to acknowledge defeat than through the mere slaughter of the enemy’s troops. Killing is inevitably a major feature in this process, but it is not an end in itself. Indeed, when simply killing the enemy becomes the prime objective, it may be argued that warfare has crossed a moral line and degenerated into murder or even genocide.      

In seeking to address this deficiency in the existing literature, this article accordingly has three goals. First, it seeks to present an assessment of Clausewitz’s understanding of the moral element of warfare and link that with what is arguably his greatest contribution to military theory: the recognition of the nature and central impact of friction, which historian Peter Paret defined as the totality of “uncertainties, errors, accidents, technical difficulties, the unforeseen and their effect on decisions, morale and actions.”18 Second, it explores the criticisms and extensions of Clausewitz’s thinking in these areas by U.S. Air Force colonel John R. Boyd. Finally, that analysis is used to inform and enhance a command model previously developed by this author that seeks to form a link between the characteristics of friction and the methods by which military commanders attempt to control and direct their forces. Different command approaches are essentially seen as methodologies intended to reduce the level of friction experienced by friendly forces and increase that affecting the enemy.19 This makes it possible to expand the relevance and robustness of the model by incorporating more fully the psychological aspects of warfare.

Clausewitz and Friction
As is often the case when exploring new aspects of military theory, there is much to be said for starting with a consideration of what Clausewitz wrote. As the quote with which this article opened makes clear, Clausewitz saw moral factors as central to the reality of war, though his comments regarding the difficulty of subjecting these to academic analysis should be taken seriously. Nonetheless, just because the endeavor is difficult does not mean that it should not be attempted.      

In the following discussion, this author is very conscious of historian Barbara W. Tuchman’s observation that “nothing so comforts the military mind as the maxim of a great but dead general.”20 This echoes the warning given by German military officer Hans von Seeckt, who noted that Clausewitz should be “praised less and read more” and argued that this “great philosopher of war . . . himself becomes a buzzword when we piously repeat his pronouncements without studying his meaning.”21 Studying Clausewitz’s meaning is made far more difficult because his premature death meant that, as he recognized, what has been left to us might “only deserve to be called a shapeless mass of ideas”—though he argued that his pages, “for all their imperfections of form, contain the fruit of years of reflection on war and diligent study of it.”22      

In addition, no author should venture into an examination of Clausewitz’s writings without humble recognition of the immense literature that already exists on almost their every aspect. Even to summarize this great body of work would require more words than are available here. This author has found four routes to be of particular value in navigating that vast library: Michael Howard and Peter Paret’s accessible translation of On War and their supporting essays, reinforced by Jon T. Sumida’s comprehensive conceptual concordance; Beatrice Heuser’s Reading Clausewitz, which provides a guide to reading Clausewitz’s work and to the interpretations of others; Donald Stoker’s biography of Clausewitz, which corrects many misperceptions about his subject’s life; and, finally, the Clausewitz Homepage website, which is “intended as a central source for information, articles, and arguments about the man and his ideas.”23      

Following up on his famous statement that war is “a continuation of political activity by other means,” Clausewitz noted that the objective of war was threefold: to destroy the enemy’s fighting forces, to occupy their country, and to break their will to resist. With regard to the first point, he was explicit that by “destruction of the enemy’s forces,” he meant only that “they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight,” rather than that they should necessarily be physically eliminated.24      

This balance between the physical and moral elements of war was made explicit in Clausewitz’s discussion of the purpose of battle: “While it should not simply be considered as mutual murder—its effect . . . is rather a killing of the enemy’s spirit than of his men—it is always true that the character of battle . . . is slaughter, and its price is blood. As a human being the commander will recoil from it.”25 He further underlined this focus on spirit when he stated, “When a battle is lost, the strength of the army is broken—its moral even more than its physical strength.”26      

Clausewitz therefore placed moral factors at the center of his argument for the means to victory, nonetheless acknowledging that this would almost inevitably involve intense fighting and hence death and injury. Although he explicitly recognized the dreadful nature of that fighting—and it is important to remember that Clausewitz had been under fire on at least 36 separate occasions and was thereby writing from direct experience—he was also critical of those who sought to reduce that fighting at the expense of securing a genuine decision, for in the absence of a decision, further fighting would be necessary, involving yet more bloodshed.27      

If the purpose of war is to break the will of the enemy, and moral factors are central to that goal, what did Clausewitz believe were these factors? He declined to perform the obvious: “We might list the most important moral phenomena in war and, like a diligent professor, try to evaluate them one by one. This method, however, all too easily leads to platitudes. . . . For this reason we prefer . . . to treat the subject in an incomplete and impressionistic manner.”28 Rather than attempt a task against which Clausewitz cautioned, this article will examine the moral factors relating to friction.      

Clausewitz was among the first to understand how friction creates the gulf that so often exists between what commanders intend to happen and what actually happens in battle.29 As he noted in one of his most quoted phrases, “This tremendous friction, which cannot, as in mechanics, be reduced to a few points, is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.” Friction, he continued, “is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.”30 Since friction is a basic characteristic of the military environment, any successful army therefore must address it as a matter of routine. Perversely, however, as military historian Martin van Creveld noted, “it is indeed possible to study military history for years and hardly notice that the problem exists.”31      

Clausewitz wrote that friction can be expressed in many forms. It may be generated within an army itself—for example, as a result of commanders having inadequate knowledge about the enemy or being uncertain of the location and strength of their own forces. This may be expressed as a gap between the intentions and orders issued by commanders and the actions that their troops take in practice. Friction may also be generated by the environment, affected by weather, terrain, or logistics. This may be revealed through a gap between the outcomes expected of troops and the actions taken by them. As Stephen Bungay of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre in London and a group of likeminded researchers have shown, the interaction between these two aspects of friction produces a third gap: that the actions taken by friendly forces, even if these are entirely in accordance with what the commander instructed, may not deliver the desired outcome.32 This produces the following model of friction:

  • Knowledge gap: Plans are imperfect because there is a gap between what commanders would like to know about the local situation and what they actually know. As Clausewitz noted, “This difficulty of accurate recognition constitutes one of the most serious sources of friction in war, by making things appear entirely different from what one had expected.”33
  • Alignment gap: Actions are imperfect because there is a gap between what commanders want units to do and what those units actually do. In Clausewitz’s experience, “A battalion is made up of individuals, the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong.”34 
  • Effects gap: Outcomes are imperfect because the nature of war means that an army’s actions may produce unexpected results. Clausewitz believed that “particular factors can often be decisive—details only known to those who were on the spot.”35

Figure 1. Stephen Bungay’s Three Gaps Model           

Source: Courtesy the author

 

The physical features of friction that underlie these three gaps may be easily listed, as Clausewitz did in 1812.36 But this model also provides the framework that allows us to explore the contribution of moral factors to friction, both in increasing it and reducing it. Before doing so, however, it should be noted that commanders may vary in their perceptions of the ways in which the three gaps express friction. It is assumed here that these differences in perception are to a considerable extent dictated by whether commanders consider warfare to be inherently structured and broadly predictable or nonlinear and fundamentally unpredictable.37      

In what has been described as “perhaps the most important article published on Clausewitz in the past thirty years,” historian Alan D. Beyerchen argued that Clausewitz understood warfare as being inherently nonlinear, in that outputs may be disproportionate to inputs and results may be sensitive to initial conditions.38 Such systems are termed “chaotic” in natural science.39 At the heart of Beyerchen’s argument was that the outcome in warfare is, by definition, the result of the dynamic interplay between the opposing forces. Clausewitz used an analogy of a wrestling match to highlight that the positions and moves adopted by one combatant are often only open to them as a consequence of those previously made by their opponent.40 Although this interpretation was rejected by Terence M. Holmes, who argued that Clausewitz believed detailed planning and a linear approach were central to victory, Beyerchen’s case that Clausewitz did not consider warfare random but merely unknowable has generally been accepted by other writers.41 As Prussian field marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder argued in the nineteenth century, “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the main hostile force. . . . Yet in spite of all this, the conduct of war has never degenerated into blind arbitrariness.”42 Moltke was not saying that commanders should not have a plan, but that they should not be surprised if events unfold differently from their intention and should be prepared to act accordingly.      

Nonetheless, while Clausewitz may have regarded warfare as being inherently chaotic and hence difficult to predict, others took a different view. For example, Antoine-Henri Jomini, a Swiss military officer who served on Napoleon’s staff in the French Army, sought to capture the essence of his master’s technique in Summary of the Art of War.43 In contrast to Clausewitz’s emphasis on the uncertain nature of warfare, Jomini presented a “highly didactive and prescriptive approach conveyed in an extensive self-defined vocabulary of strategic lines, bases, and key points.”44 He believed Clausewitz had been “far too skeptical in point of military science.” Instead, Jomini affirmed, “There exists a small number of fundamental principles of war, which could not be deviated from without danger, and the applications of which, on the contrary, has been in almost all time crowned with success,” an essentially linear perception of warfare.45      

Armies that share Clausewitz’s view and perceive warfare as being fundamentally chaotic, or nonlinear, will expect that commanders, given their distance in time and location from unfolding events, will rarely know the local situation as well as or better than their subordinates. The knowledge gap will therefore be wide. Such armies will expect that the absence of linear relationships between actions and results will mean that the outcomes of combat actions will also be less predictable, widening the effects gap. The alignment gap, however, may be less critical to the overall level of friction—if outcomes are hard to predict, it is less important whether subordinates do exactly as ordered. In such situations, commanders are likely to emphasize the importance of subordinates showing initiative, rendering the knowledge gap less significant, and to focus on reducing the effects gap. Since they believe that victory is gained through rapid actions to seize fleeting and unpredictable opportunities generated by chaos, subordinates must be allowed maximum scope within which to apply their initiative, guided by their commanders’ overall intent.      

By contrast, armies that follow the same line as Jomini and perceive warfare as being basically structured, or linear, will expect that commanders will normally possess better knowledge of the local situation than is available to their subordinates. This is a consequence of their control of greater intelligence resources, their access to regular and detailed operational reports provided by friendly forces, and the ability of their staff to analyze a range of alternative scenarios. Consequently, commanders will be able to objectively predict emerging opportunities and obtain detailed knowledge of new situations, which reduces the knowledge gap. If warfare is inherently linear, then the outcomes of combat actions will be broadly predictable, narrowing the effects gap. Since the main remaining aspect of friction is the alignment gap, commanders in such circumstances may be expected to emphasize extensive planning and detailed orders to which subordinates must adhere rigidly.      

We will return later to this issue of different perceptions of warfare as being either linear or chaotic, as this will also affect which of the moral factors a given army is likely to see as of greatest importance.

Clausewitz and Moral Forces
Based on the model of the three gaps and the ways in which they are perceived differently by armies, depending on whether those armies understand warfare to be linear or nonlinear, it is now possible to explore the connection between moral factors and friction. In essence, it is necessary to consider how the various moral factors that Clausewitz presented as being essential for success in warfare may be undermined or reinforced through the vagaries of friction—or, perhaps better in terms of cause and effect, how the events and circumstances of warfare may impact the moral capacity of troops and their commanders, such that their army experiences greater or lesser levels of friction.      

In seeking to do this, it is appropriate to draw a distinction between the troops who are on the battlefield and the senior commanders and their staffs who may be some distance, even many miles, behind the front line. The former are subject to the horrific sights and deafening sounds of combat and suffer the imminent threat of personal injury, mutilation, and death. By contrast, the latter are usually in little or no physical danger, and their experience of battle is more in the mind, though no less real. As Clausewitz noted, “The direct and primary impact of enemy activity falls, initially, on the soldier’s person without affecting him in his capacity as commander . . . but the higher an officer’s rank, the less significant this factor becomes, and to the commander-in-chief it means nothing at all.”46      

For completeness, of course, two further groups should also be identified: soldiers and their immediate commanders who are currently at some distance from the battlefield and senior commanders who come into direct contact with the enemy. It has often been noted that those involved in heavy artillery, logistics, and rear-area administration may be the first to flee when an army’s morale collapses, such as when the British Fifth Army disintegrated from the rear in March 1918. In terms of the consideration of moral factors being undertaken in this article, it may be argued that their flight is primarily due to the anticipation of physical danger when the front line is—or is believed to be—penetrated during a period of defeat. Their reaction is hence essentially akin to that of their peers who are already on the battlefield, rather than having origins similar to the pressures affecting senior commanders, though it is perhaps more the anticipation, rather than actual experience, of physical danger that is the key factor in driving their behavior.      

In terms of senior commanders and their staffs who find themselves in direct physical danger, their reaction will be affected by whether the situation has been deliberately sought or has arisen unexpectedly. Commanders whose headquarters have without warning come under threat of being overrun by the enemy, or those who believed themselves to be at risk in this way, have often succumbed to a flight even more precipitous than that of the rear-area troops considered above, as with the repeated withdrawal of senior commanders during the collapse of the French Ninth Army in May 1940. This might be partially explained through the greater shock of generals finding themselves in such situations, but it is suggested here that it is nonetheless driven by the same considerations of fear of personal danger. In passing, this should not be confused with cowardice—brave generals may still flee when confronted by the enemy, since fulfilling their role as commanders is likely to be impossible if they become directly involved in combat. By contrast, where senior commanders deliberately place themselves far forward, as was German doctrine from at least the time of Hans von Seeckt in the early 1920s, the greater resilience expressed through them making such a choice may insulate them from the pressures of the physical danger.47 That said, it may be suggested that it takes a special sort of officer to be able to withstand both the fear and distraction of physical danger and the stress of command at the same time. As a consequence, the discussion below focuses primarily on the differing contexts of troops on the battlefield and senior commanders behind it.      

With regard to the troops on the battlefield at the tactical level of war, both the soldiers themselves and their immediate commanders, it has been suggested that Clausewitz was “comparatively uninterested in what motivated the individual soldiers,” since he was “principally concerned with military leaders, rather than with those under their command.”48 His writings on the moral factors that affected this group are certainly somewhat limited. Nonetheless, there are sufficient crumbs to allow a broad depiction to be sketched.      

We start with the knowledge gap, the space between what we would like to know and what we actually know. For the troops, the central factor is physical danger, which is associated with fear. In a famous passage, Clausewitz invited his readers to “accompany a novice to the battlefield” and proceeded to paint a vivid picture, surely based on personal experience, of the sights and sounds as he moved progressively closer to the front line, where “life begins to seem more serious than the young man had imagined.” The uncertainty of whether this danger will impact the individual soldier is surely the greatest possible gap between what we would like to know and what we actually know. Even though it might be possible to become somewhat accustomed to this situation, Clausewitz was clear that “the ordinary man can never achieve a state of perfect unconcern in which his mind can work with normal flexibility.”49 He noted that, since war is “the realm of danger; therefore courage is the soldier’s first requirement.”50 He defined courage as “the sense of one’s own strength” and regarded it as “the principal factor that influences judgement. It is the lens, so to speak, through which impressions pass to the brain.”51 As such, what was “most needed in the lower ranks is courage and self-sacrifice . . . [since the] field of action is more limited, means and ends are fewer in number, and the data more concrete.”52      

Clausewitz was clear that “in order properly to appreciate the influence which danger exerts in war, one should not limit its sphere to the physical hazards of the moment.”53 In addition, it was necessary to recognize the mass of “doubts which characterize all information and opinion . . . [and] rob men of confidence in themselves and in others.”54 As a consequence, “with uncertainty in one scale, courage and self-confidence must be thrown into the other to correct the balance.”55 That courage needed to be based on a combination of a permanent indifference to danger along with a more transient feeling of emotion, which might have a variety of sources, including, but not limited to, ambition or patriotism.56      

We turn next to the alignment gap, the space between what commanders wish their troops to do and what they actually do. Overcoming the inertia that physical fear and uncertainty might induce in the troops is one thing, but getting them to act in a positive manner is quite another. It is here that the second element of Clausewitz’s understanding of courage—boldness—is relevant. Drawing on his earlier metaphor of moral forces as the blade, to which physical factors are but the wooden hilt, Clausewitz stated that a soldier

can possess no nobler quality; it is the very metal that gives edge and lustre to the sword. . . . In most soldiers, the development of boldness can never be detrimental to other qualities, because the rank and file is bound by duty and the conditions of the service to a higher authority, and thus is led by external intelligence. With them boldness acts like a coiled spring, ready at any time to be released.57            

Boldness is the moral factor that allows troops to go beyond mere endurance of danger, such that they master it and still take action.58 Clausewitz noted, “Only when boldness rebels against obedience, when it defiantly ignores an expressed command, must it be treated as a dangerous offense; then it must be prevented, not for its innate qualities, but because an order has been disobeyed, and in war obedience is of critical importance.” Essentially, troops should narrow the alignment gap through possession of a spirit of boldness that drives them to act in ways that are guided by the will of the commander. Clausewitz made some allowances here, noting, “Even foolhardiness—that is, boldness without any object—is not to be despised.”59      

Finally, it is necessary to consider the effects gap, exploring how troops should respond to the moral pressure that arises when events do not turn out as expected.60 Clausewitz was clear that it is the moral response of the troops to the ebb and flow of battle that is central to victory, rather than the physical losses incurred. Indeed, he noted that the great divergence of losses that normally distinguishes victor from vanquished “usually only starts to gather weight after the issue has already been decided. . . . The decision rests chiefly on the state of morale. . . . Every engagement is a bloody and destructive test of physical and moral strength. Whoever has the greater sum of both left at the end is the victor. In the engagement, the loss of morale has proved the major decisive factor.” He was clear that “the loss of moral equilibrium must not be underestimated merely because it has no absolute value and does not always show up in the final balance. It can attain such massive proportions that it overpowers everything by its irresistible force.”61      

Clausewitz’s response was to require that troops show perseverance, a “steadfastness that will earn the admiration of the world and of posterity,” and the resolution or determination to stick with decisions even when events have turned out other than as expected.62 Whatever the specific word used to describe this moral factor, he was clear that it represents an act of temperament, which draws on the soldier’s fear of wavering as a means to enable them to overcome all other fears. Since it is not an act of the intellect alone, Clausewitz suggested that it is strength of mind, rather than mental brilliance, that is vital.63 It may be suggested, then, that Clausewitz was broadly in agreement with Joseph de Maistre in his belief that “a battle lost is a battle one thinks one has lost,” and that even Ferdinand Foch’s stretching of this—“A battle won . . . is a battle in which one will not confess oneself beaten”—was not completely outside Clausewitz’s argument.64      

When pondering the response of troops to the three gaps through which friction is expressed, Clausewitz argued that the key moral factor required is courage. But he divided this characteristic into three variations: courage and indifference to danger, to overcome the uncertainty inherent in war and narrow the knowledge gap; boldness, to ensure action occurs in line with the orders given by commanders and reduce the alignment gap; and resolution, to withstand the erosion of moral equilibrium when events turn out differently than intended and limit the effects gap. It was on these factors that victory or defeat depended, and they provided the edge of the sword.      

Considering more senior commanders, who can be characterized as providing the hand that wields the sword, we begin with the knowledge gap. Clausewitz noted, “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgement is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth. . . . War is the realm of chance. . . .  Chance makes everything more uncertain and interferes with the whole course of events.”65 In dealing with this challenge, where even “[Isaac] Newton himself would quail before the algebraic problems it could pose,” Clausewitz argued that commanders needed to possess “an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth.”66 For this ability, he used the French term coup d’oeil, which he elsewhere defined as the “ability to see things simply.”67 Here, Clausewitz was following in the footsteps of Prussian ruler Frederick the Great, who wrote that the term referred to “that art to learn at one just and determined view the benefits and disadvantages of a [situation] . . . This is, in a word, the true meaning of a coup d’oeil, without which an officer may commit errors of the greatest consequence.”68      

Clausewitz complained that, although coup d’oeil did indeed require intellect, “skill in this area has been confused with the sum total of a general’s intellectual powers, which is a serious mistake. We must repeat that, at times of great decision, a general’s other psychological qualities may control the power of circumstances.” Understanding comes “from flashes of almost automatic intuition rather than being the product of a lengthy chain of reasoning . . . waging war is not merely an act of reason, nor is reasoning its foremost activity.”69 The moral stability and assuredness of the commander therefore played as much a part in the commander’s ability to reduce the knowledge gap as did rational factors.      

Having grasped the essence of the situation in one insightful glance, the commander was faced with narrowing the alignment gap, ensuring that the troops actually acted as they were expected to. We have already noted the importance that Clausewitz placed on boldness as a means to overcome inertia caused by fear on the part of the troops. With respect to the commander, he argued that “it takes more strength of will to make an important decision in strategy than in tactics.” The commander has “ample room for apprehensions. . . . Conviction is therefore weaker. Consequently, most generals, when they ought to act, are paralyzed by unnecessary doubts.”70 He consequently placed greater emphasis on boldness within leaders rather than within their troops: “a distinguished commander without boldness is unthinkable . . . we consider this quality the first prerequisite of the great military leader.”71      

But Clausewitz was also clear that the boldness required of the commander was different from that of the troops: “The higher up the chain of command, the greater is the need for boldness to be supported by a reflective mind, so that boldness does not degenerate into purposeless bursts of blind passion. . . . In a commander a bold act may prove to be a blunder. Nevertheless, it is a laudable error, not to be regarded on the same footing as others.” The challenge for the commander was to ensure that, as they became more senior, their growing capacity for rational thought and a lucid understanding of the situation did not overwhelm them, otherwise “the realities of war will impose their conditions and concerns on him,” sapping the spirit that fired them as a junior officer. Clausewitz was clear that “this kind of boldness does not consist in defying the natural order of things and in crudely offending the laws of probability,” but that “it is rather a matter of energetically supporting that higher form of analysis by which genius arrives at a decision. . . . Boldness can lend wings to intellect and insight.” As such, boldness “must be granted a certain power over and above successful calculations,” for “it will take advantage of its opponent’s weakness. In other words, it is a genuine creative force.”72 It was this reflective boldness that generated in the troops “an overwhelming belief in the greatness and infallibility of their commander” and caused them to act rather than remain passive in the face of the fears and uncertainties of battle.73      

Finally, the commander could expect to be faced with situations when events did not develop as they had expected them to, widening the effects gap. Again, Clausewitz noted that, although the commander, like their troops, needed to display determination in these situations, more was demanded of them. They must display what Clausewitz termed courage d’esprit, or “moral courage,” which was “an act of temperament” that served to “limit the agonies of doubt and the perils of hesitation.” This linked with presence of mind, which Clausewitz considered to be “nothing but an increased capacity of dealing with the unexpected.”74 Only in this way could the commander resist the erosion of their moral stamina by the multitude of local setbacks that occur during battle—setbacks whose psychological effect might otherwise be to make them “aware of the likelihood of defeat long before he decides to concede the battle.” Nonetheless, Clausewitz ended with a note of caution: “No matter how highly rated the qualities of courage and steadfastness may be in war, no matter how small the chance of victory may be for the leader who hesitates to go for it with all the power at his disposal, there is a point beyond which persistence becomes desperate folly, and can therefore never be condoned.”75 The skill of the military genius, of course, lay in recognizing that point.      

The response of commanders to the three gaps through which friction is expressed needs to be different from that expected of the troops. Clausewitz argued that troops required indifference to danger to overcome the uncertainty inherent in war and limit the knowledge gap, boldness to ensure action and reduce the alignment gap, and resolution to withstand the erosion of moral equilibrium and narrow the effects gap. The position of commanders was in many ways very different, due to the greater burden and uncertainties placed on their shoulders by dint of larger responsibilities. The commander required coup d’oeil, the ability to grasp the whole situation through a single glance, centered on moral assuredness to accept the inevitable uncertainties of battle, which reduced the knowledge gap. They then needed to convert their appreciation of the situation into a decision that would inspire the troops to action, therefore narrowing the alignment gap. This again required boldness, but of a reflective kind that took full account of the realities of the situation while resisting the temptation to fall prey to doubts and consequences. Finally, when faced with the many inevitable local setbacks of battle, the commander needed not only the resolution to maintain their moral stamina and avoid becoming convinced of their own defeat but also to display presence of mind to judge when the situation had indeed reached a point where perseverance became mere obstinacy, thereby limiting the effects gap.

Table 1. Moral factors and friction             

 

Troops

Commanders

Knowledge Gap

Indifference to danger

Coup d’oeil (insightful glance)

Alignment Gap

Boldness

Reflective boldness

Effects Gap

Resolution

Courage d’esprit (moral courage)

 

Discussion of how these factors have been reflected in military doctrine must be left for another time, but it is worth reflecting here that in 1914 the British Army’s Field Service Regulations manual emphasized the importance of “courage, energy, and determination.”76 These three characteristics align closely with those we have identified as being required of troops to reduce friction. The characteristics required of commanders, meanwhile, were listed as being “energy, perseverance, and resolution.”77 While these are very similar to those expected of the troops, it may be noted that they are rather different from those suggested by Clausewitz.      

Having explored Clausewitz’s discussion of these moral forces and their links with the gaps through which friction is expressed, there arises the question of what this implies for obedience, a topic about which he was remarkably silent. It has been suggested that this omission was an inevitable consequence of the line of reasoning: “Why should anyone blessed with coup d’oeil, courage d’esprit and boldness follow orders which do not make any sense to him?”78 This issue will be considered later, when we explore the issue of command approaches as the means by which armies seek to respond to the challenge of friction.

Moral Factors and Boyd
Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, the first president of Marine Corps University and later commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, recently wrote that he considered Clausewitz to be among “the world’s [three] greatest military theorists.”79 The others were the Chinese general Sun Tzu and Colonel John Boyd. It should be noted that Van Riper is by no means a lone voice in his regard for Boyd’s work—political scientist Colin S. Gray, for example, similarly ranked Boyd among the outstanding general theorists of strategy of the twentieth century.80      

Despite the widespread impact of Boyd’s theories, it was long difficult to be precise about his thought since he normally communicated through the military model of oral briefings.81 Boyd’s thinking was primarily encapsulated in the slides for four standard presentations: “Patterns of Conflict,” “Organic Design for Command and Control,” “The Strategic Game of ? and ?,” and “The Essence of Winning and Losing.”82 These presentations were repeatedly revised as he developed his ideas through delivering his briefings hundreds of times between 1976 and the early 1990s. Because the slides represent prompts or notes that can be expanded orally, as opposed to full statements of thinking, Boyd’s meaning is not always clear from these alone.      

Although author William S. Lind sought to bring Boyd’s work to a wider audience in the mid-1980s, he tended to oversimplify the depth and nuance of that approach.83 Fortunately, it has become possible in recent years to access Boyd’s thinking much more directly. First, Frans P. B. Osinga, a Royal Netherlands Air Force officer, compiled a detailed, at times slide-by-slide, exposition of each of the seminal briefings. Second, Ian T. Brown of the U.S. Marine Corps provided a further interpretation of “Patterns of Conflict” in his book A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare, drawing not only on the slides already examined by Osinga but also on audio recordings of Boyd’s presentations that were not available to Osinga.84      

Having considered Clausewitz’s views regarding moral factors, it is appropriate to move on to an examination of Boyd’s perspective on these matters, especially since, as retired Air Force colonel James G. Burton argued, “No one, not even Karl von Clausewitz, Henri de Jomini, [or] Sun Tzu . . . shed as much light on the mental and moral aspects of conflict as Boyd.”85      

It is necessary to start with Sun Tzu, since, as Osinga argued, he was “the true conceptual, albeit ancient, father of Boyd’s work” and his writings provided both the starting and concluding points for “Patterns of Conflict.” In this, Boyd was perhaps encouraged by the work of British Army officers J. F. C. Fuller and B. H. Liddell Hart, whose writings significantly influenced “Patterns of Conflict” and who both paid tribute to Sun Tzu.86      

Osinga’s summary of Sun Tzu’s thinking highlights key points regarding his perception of moral factors. According to Sun Tzu, the basis of the mechanism rests on three elements: “according with the enemy,” foreknowledge, and cohesion. In turn, these elements are delivered through the following actions: surprise, deception, and deceit; formlessness and being unfathomable; high tempo; variety and flexibility; orthodoxy and unorthodoxy; and vacuous and substantial actions. Together, these actions allow a commander to throw the enemy off balance and achieve victory. However, while emphasizing the need to simultaneously attack the physical, mental, and moral balance of the enemy, Sun Tzu gave little indication of what this might involve. He stated that actions are things a commander does, not indications of which aspect of the enemy is being undermined or signs of the moral factors of their own troops that might need to be strengthened or protected.87      

The importance of Sun Tzu to Boyd’s thinking is revealed by the length of time for which Boyd dwelled on the Chinese writer during his presentation of “Patterns of Conflict.” The transcription for the section on the single slide centered on Sun Tzu fills four pages of text, whereas Boyd’s discussion of the following eight slides takes up only two pages.88 Boyd emphasized how Sun Tzu focused on the importance of generating surprise and shock in the enemy’s mind through shaping their perception of the world and creating ambiguity, which are clear moral factors. Building on his exposition of Sun Tzu, Boyd proceeded to argue that a commander’s intent should be to “shatter cohesion, produce paralysis, and bring about collapse of the adversary by generating confusion, panic, and chaos.”89      

This provided the lens through which Boyd assessed Clausewitz in “Patterns of Conflict.” In author Robert Coram’s rather purple prose, “Rarely has [Clausewitz’s] book been studied as Boyd studied it. . . . Boyd was doing more than reading: he was engaging von Clausewitz in combat. It was his mind against that of von Clausewitz.”90 The result was that “Boyd revealed the gaping flaws of von Clausewitzian theory.”91      

Focusing on the moral elements of war, Boyd noted that Clausewitz understood the nature of war as having certain key characteristics: “[A] duel or [an] act of human interaction [is] directed against an animate object that reacts”; “Uncertainty of information acts as an impediment to vigorous activity”; “Psychological/moral forces and effects (danger, intelligence, emotional factors . . .) either impede or stimulate activity”; and “Friction ([the] interaction of many factors, including those above) impedes activity.” Boyd concluded that Clausewitz saw the aim of the commander as being to “render [the] enemy powerless,” with an emphasis on “the destruction of his armed forces.”92      

Boyd’s critique was that Clausewitz “overemphasized decisive battle and underemphasized strategic maneuver” while “emphasiz[ing] method and routine at the tactical level.” Boyd believed the reasons for these errors were that Clausewitz “was concerned with trying to overcome, or reduce, friction/uncertainty [but] failed to address the idea of magnifying [the] adversary’s friction/uncertainty.” He also commented that Clausewitz was looking to “exhaust [an] adversary by influencing him to increase his expenditure of effort” while failing to “address, or develop, the idea of trying to paralyze [the] adversary by denying him the opportunity [to] expend effort” at all.93 Boyd also stated that Clausewitz “failed to address if you [should] want to try to magnify [an] adversary’s friction and uncertainty. The point is, if you have routine in your own services and become predictable, you’ve also lowered your adversary’s friction relative to you. You’ve got to think of it both ways.”94 Boyd argued that the result would be operations that “end in a ‘bloodbath’—via the well regulated stereotyped tactics and unimaginative battles of attrition suggested by Clausewitz.”      

It should be noted that although Boyd had clearly engaged extensively with Clausewitz’s text, his understanding of what was written there was strongly influenced by the negative views of Fuller and Hart, whose regard for Sun Tzu has already been noted.95 Hart was “persistently and bitterly critical of Clausewitz,” whom he labeled the “Mahdi of Mass,” arguing that he had “reduced strategy to the simplistic act of bludgeoning the enemy to death with overwhelming numbers.” As historian Christopher Bassford has noted, these “condemnations of Clausewitz must be rejected as fundamentally wrongheaded.”96 Fuller, while starting from a similar position of hostility to Clausewitz in his early writings, did in time come to take a more positive view, though this was not expressed clearly in his work.97      

Boyd later built on these discussions of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz in “Patterns of Conflict” when he turned explicitly to issues of moral conflict.98 In a possible echo of Clausewitz’s tendency to express concepts as a series of trinities, Boyd too set out his thinking here in several sets of three. He argued that the essence of maneuver conflict could be expressed as being to create the following states in the enemy: “disorientation,” a “mismatch between events one observes or imagines and events (or efforts) he must react or adapt to”; “disruption,” the “state of being split-apart, broken-up, or torn asunder”; and “overload,” a “welter of threatening events/efforts beyond one’s mental or physical capacity to adapt or endure.” While clearly drawn from Boyd’s analysis of Sun Tzu, these states can also be easily related to the three factors that were earlier identified as underlying Clausewitz’s argument, with “disorientation” blocking the enemy commanders’ coup d’oeil, “disruption” undermining their reflective boldness, and “overload” crushing their moral courage.      

Boyd bolstered his argument by referencing the views of Hermann Balck, one of the most effective German Army commanders of World War II, and Cyril Falls, an author of the British official history of World War I and a noted military historian in his own right. Possibly reflecting his education in an army that had, at least in theory, worshipped at the altar of Clausewitz, Balck’s ideas closely fitted the trinity already presented above. Leaders, he believed, must possess physical energy, mental agility, and moral authority, encouraging their subordinates by demonstrating their courage alongside the troops and thereby displaying an indifference to danger. They should also show support for those who display initiative and take risks, proving their boldness. Finally, they must possess the “dedication and resolve to face-up to and master uncomfortable circumstances that fly in the face of the traditional solution,” showing their resolution. Trust between commander and subordinate is therefore central. Putting this together with Falls’ emphasis on the impact of menace and uncertainty, Boyd concluded that the key task of a commander was to create a situation of menace, uncertainty, and mistrust amongst the enemy’s forces.      

Drawing these various strands into a single synthesis, Boyd set out both the negative factors that commanders should seek to generate among the enemy and the positive factors, or counterweights, that they should aim to strengthen within their own forces. These may be compared with the moral factors emphasized by Clausewitz:

Table 2. Boyd and Clausewitz compared

Boyd’s “Negative Factors”

Boyd’s “Counterweights”

Moral factors from Clausewitz

Menace

Initiative

Boldness

Uncertainty

Adaptability

Indifference to danger

Mistrust

Harmony

Resolution

             

Boyd argued that the disintegration and collapse of the enemy should be achieved through: “lethal effort,” in which an army should “tie-up, divert, or drain-away adversary attention and strength as well as (or thereby) overload critical vulnerabilities and generate weaknesses”; “maneuver,” where the army can “subvert, disorient, disrupt, overload, or seize those vulnerable yet critical connections, centers, and activities as basis to penetrate, splinter, and isolate remnants of adversary organism for mop-up or absorption;” and “moral,” in which the army should “create an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and alienation to sever human bonds that permit an organic whole to exist.”99      

In short, Boyd’s presentation of the moral factors in warfare aligned closely with Clausewitz’s concepts of troops needing to display indifference to danger, boldness, and resolution and their commanders needing to possess insightful glance, reflective boldness, and moral courage. Although Clausewitz certainly focused more on how these characteristics could strengthen friendly troops rather than on how undermining them could bring defeat to the enemy, a deficiency for which Boyd took him to task, it is also clear that through his awareness that these factors formed the underpinning of the “finely-honed blade,” Clausewitz had laid the foundations for commanders to appreciate that these aspects should also be their target in seeking to overthrow their opponents.

Command Approaches and Moral Factors
The discussion of military cultures and their differing understandings of warfare, as well as their different emphasis on the moral factors affecting both soldiers and commanders, leads us to consider that interrelationship more directly in terms of command approaches and the three gaps that express friction outlined above in the exploration of Clausewitz’s thinking. Each of these gaps can be addressed through commanders favoring one response over another. Concerning the knowledge gap, commanders may know either more or less about the local situation than do their subordinates and, if less, may seek to close this gap either by demanding more information or by adapting their command approach to cope with less. Regarding the alignment gap, subordinates may implement their commanders’ instructions to a greater or lesser extent. Where these instructions are not implemented, commanders may seek to close the gap either by limiting themselves to orders setting out their general intent, leaving implementation to their subordinates’ initiative, or requiring their subordinates to follow detailed orders precisely. Considering the effects gap, events on the battlefield may or may not turn out as the commanders had intended, and, where they do not unfold as expected, commanders may respond to this gap either by intervening or by allowing their subordinates to react to the changed situation.      

Knowledge, alignment, and effects can be seen as three broad “either-or” axes, producing a simple model comprising eight permutations.  

Table 3. Eight permutations

Knowledge Gap

Alignment Gap

Effects Gap

Permutation Title

Superior knows less than subordinates

Subordinates should use initiative

Superior will intervene

Enthusiastic Amateur

Superior will not intervene

Directive Command

Subordinates should do as they are told

Superior will intervene

Restrictive Control

Superior will not intervene

Detached Control

Superior knows more than subordinates

Subordinates should use initiative

Superior will intervene

Directive Control

Superior will not intervene

Umpiring

Subordinates should do as they are told

Superior will intervene

Logistic Control

Superior will not intervene

Neglected Control

             

Detailed analysis indicates that four of these command approaches—enthusiastic amateur, detached control, umpiring, and neglected control—are inevitably dysfunctional.100 They are inherently misaligned with the nature of warfare and so lead to a widening of the effects gap. The history of war, nonetheless, shows that many commanders have adopted these approaches, normally inadvertently. But their relevance to the current discussion is limited and they will not be considered further in this article.      

The next step here is to consider the different emphasis likely to be given to the various moral factors by different armies, depending on the command approach that is dominant in that organization. A more detailed description of the four-viable command approaches is set out below.101

Table 4. Describing command approaches             

Permutation Title

Description

Context

Directive

Command

Superiors will not intervene because they know less than their subordinates and are confident that their subordinates will use initiative.

Equating the concept of “mission command” used by the U.S. and British armies, this permutation is widely held to be appropriate to the armed forces of many states but requires significant levels of responsibility, initiative, and training on the part of subordinates.

Restrictive

Control

Superiors know less than their subordinates but issue definitive orders and intervene to ensure compliance. In practice, superiors act as if they know more than their subordinates do.

This permutation may arise where a small professional army has experienced rapid expansion at the start of a major war. It may also reflect arrogance on the part of superiors, where the potential ability of subordinates to display initiative is discounted, perhaps because of the selection and training of commanders.

Directive

Control

Superiors know more than their subordinates and will issue definitive orders and intervene, but they also require their subordinates to use their initiative.

This permutation suits a situation where a senior commander takes personal control at the critical point but has subordinates with the training, education, and experience to also display their own initiative. It is also appropriate during large-scale operations where the bigger picture is more important than local detail.

Logistic

Control

Superiors know more than their subordinates and issue definitive orders, then intervene to ensure their orders are acted on, recognizing or believing that their subordinates cannot be relied upon to use their own initiative safely.

A very highly centralized command system, this permutation may be representative of the position sometimes achieved in modern high-technology warfare, where sophisticated intelligence systems may appear to give commanders more information than can be gathered by their subordinates. Subordinates and formations are treated largely as inanimate objects.

 

The different command approaches may result from different perceptions of which of the three gaps is likely to be the most important and widest. The term perception is used deliberately here, since the central factor is the understanding of the situation held by commanders, which may be different from the objective reality. Each of the four effective command approaches should therefore be examined to determine which of the three gaps is considered to be widest and how it should best be narrowed. This may be expected to provide a sense of which of the moral factors noted earlier in the exploration of Clausewitz’s writings are likely to be emphasized by an army adopting a given command approach.102      

Under logistic control, commanders believe that they have greater or more relevant knowledge of the local situation than do their subordinates, narrowing the knowledge gap; that their troops are unable or unwilling to exercise effective initiative, widening the alignment gap; and that there is a linear relationship between commanders’ instructions and the results achieved, reducing the effects gap. Under this command approach, therefore, armies may be likely to emphasize the troops’ indifference to danger to enable them to withstand the strain of having limited knowledge of the situation, while commanders should display moral courage, or courage d’esprit, to hold fast to the conviction that their understanding of the situation will indeed lead to the desired result.      

This approach is likely to be favored by armies that believe warfare is broadly linear and predictable. Indeed, in such circumstances, logistic control can be highly effective. Should conditions become chaotic, however—and armies that perceive warfare as inherently unpredictable will expect them often to be and will seek to exert their efforts to make them so—the basic assumptions on which logistic control rests will be undermined. Instead, commanders will have less knowledge of the local situation than do their subordinates, widening the knowledge gap, such that attempts to employ logistic control will actually result in restrictive control. In these circumstances, the emphasis on troops’ indifference to danger and commanders’ moral courage may result in the dogged pursuit of a course of action that is increasingly out of kilter with the actual circumstances, a stance condemned by Clausewitz as a desperate folly that can never be condoned and is likely to lead only to heavy casualties and possible defeat.103      

Restrictive control, however, should not be seen only as an attempt to apply logistic control in an inappropriate context. At times, it may be the most suitable approach for an army, especially in circumstances during which commanders recognize that they have limited knowledge of the situation, widening the knowledge gap, but also understand that their troops are unable or unwilling to operate other than through detailed instruction, increasing the alignment gap. In these circumstances, armies may emphasize the resolution of the troops, such that they keep going even when events unfold in ways that may be unexpected by the troops, while commanders draw on their moral courage for the same reason.      

Armies in these circumstances may seek to change the impact of the gaps, given the unwelcome nature of a situation where commanders know they have to provide their troops with detailed direction even when they themselves have only limited knowledge of the situation. Where an army sees warfare as inherently chaotic, it is likely to make strenuous efforts to increase the capability and motivation of subordinates, such that they act with boldness to narrow the alignment gap. Commanders too may be expected to draw on what limited knowledge of the situation they do have and press forward in the spirit of reflective boldness. In practice, this shift in focus leads to the adoption of directive command.      

Notwithstanding that warfare may often be chaotic, there will be occasions when commanders do indeed have better knowledge of the local situation than do their troops, leading to a narrow knowledge gap. In these circumstances, when the period during which the commander has superior knowledge may be expected to be fleeting, armies may emphasize the commander’s ability to grasp the essence of the situation in a moment through a coup d’oeil. This flash of inspiration on the part of the commander should give the troops the necessary confidence to maintain their efforts, even should the course of local events at first not seem to flow toward the intended outcome. In such situations where the commander seeks to apply directive control, the focus may still be on the boldness of the troops, for they are expected to use their initiative within the context of the commander’s clear direction.      

This summation of these four command approaches reinforces the central factor in the framework—that the correct assessment by commanders of their level of knowledge, compared to that of their troops, is the driving force behind the subsequent steps taken to reduce friction.104 If commanders have less knowledge of the local situation than their subordinates, resulting in a wide knowledge gap, they must counter this by reducing the alignment gap. The most effective way of doing so is to adopt a system of command by intent, which relies on troops using their initiative and skill to exploit emerging opportunities that only they perceive, thereby employing directive command. Where it is not possible to rely on such initiative, detailed orders based on commanders’ greater professional knowledge must be employed using restrictive control. In either case, the aim is to ensure that the troops act as desired by their commanders.      

By contrast, if commanders have better knowledge of the situation than do their subordinates, which narrows the knowledge gap, and the outcome of actions can be predicted, a system of close control through detailed orders that must be followed precisely offers the best route by which to reduce friction, thereby using logistic control. Where it is not possible to predict outcomes with certainty, close personal control coupled with the exercise of initiative by subordinates, therefore employing directive control, may be more appropriate. Again, the aim is to ensure that commanders’ superior knowledge is translated into the troops acting as desired.      

The conclusion of this assessment regarding the effectiveness of the different command approaches must be that none is inherently superior to the others. All are dependent on context, and all should be acceptable in practice. Further analysis may be developed by considering the following table, which draws from the discussion above to state which of the gaps is likely to be considered widest by commanders using each of the four command approaches. This table can also be used to identify the moral factors that may be emphasized by armies as they seek to reduce the level and impact of friction on their own forces.      

Table 5. Moral factors and closing the gap             

 

Directive Command

Restrictive Control

Directive Control

Logistic Control

Knowledge Gap

Narrow

Wide

Narrow

Narrow

Alignment Gap

Wide

Wide

Narrow

Wide

Effects Gap

Wide

Narrow

Wide

Narrow

Emphasis on Troops

Boldness

Resolution

Boldness

Indifference to danger

Emphasis on Commanders

Reflective boldness

Courage d’esprit (moral courage)

Coup d’oeil (insightful glance)

Courage d’esprit (moral courage)

 

It may be seen that armies using directive command are expected to emphasize the importance of troops showing boldness and using their initiative within the context of the general orders given to them by their commanders to narrow the alignment gap. Similarly, because the knowledge gap for commanders will be wide, the commanders themselves may be expected to display reflective boldness, acting forthrightly even in the absence of a sound understanding of the situation while taking due account of the inherent risks.      

Conversely, under restrictive control, armies may require their troops to respond to the effects gap through a firm resolution, continuing to execute their orders despite the uncertain situation around them. The lack of knowledge of the situation also means that commanders will need to act, even if they have a limited sense of what will happen as a result of those actions, and focus on maintaining their moral courage.      

With both directive control and logistic control, commanders have a greater understanding of the local situation than do the troops. The latter are therefore expected to maintain confidence in the orders given to them, persevering even in the face of adversity and displaying resolution. There is a key difference, however, in terms of the role of the commander. Under logistic control, the belief that the situation has a relatively predictable nature means that the commander should primarily seek to “hold their nerve” through moral courage. Conversely, under directive control, the belief that warfare is inherently fluid means that the commander is considered likely to have a good understanding of the local situation mainly through their own rapid assessment of the information gained through their personal observation, such that the insightful glance is their prime response.      

Under logistic control and restrictive control, emphasis is placed on both troops and commanders having a dogged determination to stick to the plan, keeping their nerve and implementing orders given even if the situation may suggest that the tide of battle is not flowing according to that plan. This can be a successful approach, since maintaining the will to win in this way may allow one’s troops to withstand blows from the enemy and ultimately impose the commander’s intention on the situation. This focus on the resilience of friendly forces, despite what the enemy may try to do, may be considered typical of armies that perceive warfare as being inherently linear and predictable.      

One further consequence shared by these two approaches is that armies can be expected to rely on the resilience of friendly forces to be the vital factor that allows them to withstand the moral strain of warfare longer than can the enemy. Victory therefore goes to the side that preserves its own resilience and moral courage longest. One is reminded of Ferdinand Foch’s suggestion, “A battle won . . . is a battle in which one will not confess oneself beaten.”105 Perhaps J. F. C. Fuller was too quick to label this as nonsense.106 In turn, such focus on the resilience of friendly forces may favor an approach that emphasizes attrition as being a reliable and predictable means by which to wear away at the enemy’s resolution, while perhaps hoping that massed use of firepower and sheer weight of numbers will be sufficient to limit the casualties suffered by one’s own forces.      

By contrast, directive command and directive control have a rather different focus. Under directive command, the uncertainty of the situation, with the context changing rapidly and unpredictably for both troops and commanders, means that the emphasis is on boldness. That of the commanders should be reflective, taking full opportunity of what knowledge of the situation is available to them, such that their drive forward does not become foolhardy stubbornness. This seizure of fleeting opportunities comes to the center with directive control, where the commander’s insightful glance converts their limited knowledge of the situation into an inspired understanding of the whole and of the means to focus on its essence, confident that the boldness of the troops will make the most of the directives given.      

A consequence for these two command approaches is that it may be expected that the focus of commanders will be on reducing the resolution of the enemy, such that they collapse quickly under the pressure placed on them by the rapid and intelligent maneuvering of the friendly forces. While those friendly troops will need more than a little resolution to cope with the strain and uncertainty of the dynamic operations generated through both directive command and directive control, the focus is on the boldness and split-second understanding of the situation displayed by both troops and their commanders as the prime means by which the moral cohesion of the enemy can be attacked.107

Concluding Thoughts
Armies have long argued that victory in warfare tends to be the result of moral factors—imposing one’s will on enemy commanders rather than simply killing their troops and destroying their weaponry and resources. However, although Sun Tzu may indeed have been correct that “supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” this will rarely be possible, and armies should always accept Clausewitz’s warning that “while [war] should not simply be considered as mutual murder—its effect . . . is rather a killing of the enemy’s spirit than of his men—it is always true that the character of battle . . . is slaughter, and its price is blood. As a human being the commander will recoil from it.”108      

Despite this age-old recognition, armies have tended to be remarkably vague about what “imposing one’s will on the enemy” actually involves or what the moral factors are that troops and commanders should be expected to display. As Clausewitz noted, “The moral elements are among the most important in war. They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole. . . . Unfortunately, they will not yield to academic wisdom. They cannot be classified or counted. They have to be seen or felt. . . . Consequently . . . next to nothing can be said about these things in books.”109 And, indeed, relatively little has been written. The confusion and surprise that greeted the very obvious moral collapse of tens of thousands of soldiers during World War I, which rendered physically unharmed troops unable to function due to “shell shock,” was perhaps the most apparent demonstration of this gap between the general principle espoused by all of the armies involved and the reality of their understanding of what it might mean in practice.      

This article has attempted to take some initial steps toward filling that gap. It has examined Clausewitz’s writings to draw on his thoughts regarding different moral factors and understand that he believed were of greatest importance in the varying contexts of warfare, linking this to his most profound contribution to the theory of warfare: the concept of friction. It has also explored the arguments of Boyd to highlight his major contribution: the argument that it is as important to focus on undermining the moral resilience of the enemy forces as it is to bolster that of one’s own army. This has made possible a further level of understanding to be gained of the model of command approaches, linked to the three gaps that underlie Clausewitz’s concept of friction. It also helps identify which of the moral factors are likely to be considered most important by an army depending on which of the command approaches it favors, recognizing that this will be a consequence of both the culture operating within that army and the actual context within which the army seeks to engage in warfare.      

Two final thoughts emerge from this exploration through some of the more difficult areas of military theory. First, it enables us to recognize the different and complementary contributions of the key writers considered in this article. Clausewitz was the one who provided the concept of friction and made it possible to understand the connection between this and moral factors. Boyd took this a stage further, illustrating the importance of commanders focusing on the goal of destroying the enemy’s moral resilience and hence creating such a level of friction in their forces that they could no longer operate effectively and were compelled to recognize defeat. Second, this article offers not a simple spectrum of “good” and “bad” command approaches or aspects of moral factors that are preferred over one another. If, as Clausewitz argued, moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely-honed blade, then it must be recognized that blades come in many different forms, and that part of the skill of commanders is to understand what sort of sword they hold in their hands and wield it appropriately, lest they become prisoners to a single style of swordplay. Therein lies the acme of excellence in swordsmanship.

Endnotes

  1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and eds. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 184–85.

  2. The term moral is used here in the sense of psychological or spiritual, rather than ethical.
  3. Elizabeth Knowles, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 538.
  4. Marshal Ferdinand Foch, The Principles of War, trans. Hilaire Belloc (New York: Henry Holt, 1920), 286.
  5. Field Service Regulations, Part I: Operations (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1909), 13.
  6. Field Service Regulations, Part I: Operations, 126, emphasis was bold in original and has been italicized here. 7
  7. Field Service Regulations, Part I: Operations, 137.
  8. Field Service Regulations of the German Army (Felddienst Ordnung 1908) (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1908), 8.
  9. Jim Storr, The Human Face of War, Birmingham War Studies Series (London: Continuum, 2009), 5, 39.
  10. Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 9–40.
  11. Foch, The Principles of War, 286.
  12. Col J. F. C. Fuller, The Foundations of the Science of War (London: Hutchinson, 1926), 144.
  13. Storr, The Human Face of War, 37.
  14. Field Service Regulations, Vol. III: Operations—Higher Formations (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1936), 2.
  15. Military Training Pamphlet No. 23, Part IX: The Infantry Division in the Attack (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1941), 4.
  16. Field Service Regulations, Vol. II: Operations—General (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1935), 111.
  17. One of the very few pieces that does directly consider the mental processes involved is David A. Grossman, “Defeating the Enemy’s Will: The Psychological Foundations of Maneuver Warfare,” in Maneuver Warfare: An Anthology, ed. Richard D. Hooker (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), 142–90.
  18. Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 202. The only other piece this author has found that explicitly considers Clausewitz’s writings in this aspect is Ulrike Kleemeier, “Moral Forces in War,” in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, eds. Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe (Oxford, UK: Oxford University, 2007), 107–21.
  19. Martin Samuels, “Friction, Chaos and Order(s): Clausewitz, Boyd and Command Approaches,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 15, no. 4 (2014): 38–75.
  20. Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (London: Macmillan, 1962), 19.
  21. Hans von Seeckt, Thoughts of a Soldier, trans. Gilbert Waterhouse (London: Ernest Benn Limited, 1930), 8–10. This translation uses the term catchword for the German Schlagwort, but buzzword seems a more appropriate term.
  22. Clausewitz, On War, 70.
  23. Clausewitz, On War; Beatrice Heuser, Reading Clausewitz (London: Pimlico, 2002); Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Jon Sumida, “On Indexing On War,” Clausewitz Homepage, accessed 7 January 2018.
  24. Clausewitz, On War, 89–90, emphasis in original.
  25. Clausewitz, On War, 259.
  26. Clausewitz, On War, 271.
  27. Stoker, Clausewitz, 289–90; and Clausewitz, On War, 265.
  28. Clausewitz, On War, 185.
  29. Hew Strachan, Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), 153.
  30. Clausewitz, On War, 120–21.
  31. Martin van Creveld, Command in War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 11.
  32. Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results (London: Nicholas Brealey, 2011), 30–35. The author of this article has benefitted greatly from the opportunity to discuss the ideas and concepts presented here with Stephen Bungay, Jim Storr, and Aidan Walsh.
  33. Clausewitz, On War, 117, emphasis in original.
  34. Clausewitz, On War, 119.
  35. Clausewitz, On War, 595.
  36. Bungay, The Art of Action, 34.
  37. For a fuller discussion of this issue, see Samuels, “Friction, Chaos and Order(s),” 49–51.
  38. Alan Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security 17, no. 3 (Winter 1992/93): 59–90, https://doi.org/10.2307/2539130.
  39. James Gleick, Chaos: The Amazing Science of the Unpredictable (London: Vantage Press, 1998), 306–07.
  40. Clausewitz, On War, 75.
  41. Bungay, Art of Action, 36–39. 4
  42. Daniel J. Hughes, ed., Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 92–93.
  43. Baron de Jomini, Summary of the Art of War, trans. Maj O. F. Winship and Lt E. E. McLean (New York: Putnam, 1854).
  44. Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815–1945 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17.
  45. Jomini, Summary of the Art of War, 14, 18.
  46. Clausewitz, On War, 104.
  47. DVE 487: Führung und Gefecht der Verbunden Waffen (Berlin: Offene Worte, 1921), 35.
  48. Strachen, Clausewitz’s On War, 124; and Kleemeier, “Moral Forces in War,” 115.
  49. Clausewitz, On War, 113–14.
  50. Clausewitz, On War, 101, emphasis in original.
  51. Clausewitz, On War, 137.
  52. Clausewitz, On War, 140.
  53. Clausewitz, On War, 138.
  54. Clausewitz, On War, 108. 5
  55. Clausewitz, On War, 86.
  56. Clausewitz, On War, 101.
  57. Clausewitz, On War, 184–85, 190.
  58. Kleemeier, “Moral Forces in War,” 115.
  59. Clausewitz, On War, 190–91.
  60. Clausewitz, On War, 193.
  61. Clausewitz, On War, 231–32.
  62. Clausewitz, On War, 193.
  63. Clausewitz, On War, 102–3.
  64. Foch, The Principles of War, 286.
  65. Clausewitz, On War, 101.
  66. Clausewitz, On War, 586.
  67. Clausewitz, On War, 102, 578.
  68. [Frederick the Great,] Military Instruction from the Late King of Prussia to His Generals, to Which is Added, by the Same Author, Particular Instruction to the Officers of His Army, and Especially Those of the Cavalry, trans. LtCol Foster, 5th ed. (Sherborne, England: J. Cruttwell, 1818), 100.
  69. Clausewitz, On War, 514.
  70. Clausewitz, On War, 178–79.
  71. Clausewitz, On War, 192.
  72. Clausewitz, On War, 190–92.
  73. Clausewitz, On War, 180.
  74. Clausewitz, On War, 102–3.
  75. Clausewitz, On War, 249–52.
  76. Field Service Regulations, Part I: Operations, 13.
  77. Field Service Regulations, Part I: Operations, 126.
  78. Kleemeier, “Moral Forces in War,” 120.
  79. Paul K. Van Riper, “Foreword,” in Ian T. Brown, A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U. S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2018), xi.
  80. Frans P. B. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (London: Routledge, 2007), 3.
  81. Grant T. Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2001), 17.
  82. These and other related briefings are available online at “Boyd and Military Strategy,” Project on Government Oversight: Defense and the National Interest, accessed 5 April 2012. Excerpts from the “Patterns of Conflict” transcript are available in Brown, A New Conception of War, 199–262.
  83. William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985), 4–8.
  84. Brown, A New Conception of War, xxxviii–xxxix; and John R. Boyd, “Discourse on Winning and Losing” (lecture, Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA, 25 April and 2–3 May 1989).
  85. James G. Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993), 10.
  86. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 29–36.
  87. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 35–42.
  88. John R. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” Defense and the National Interest, accessed 5 February 2012, 13–22; and Boyd, “Discourse on Winning and Losing,” 20–25.
  89. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” 132.
  90. Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (Boston, MA: Little Brown, 2002), 332.
  91. Coram, Boyd, 445.
  92. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” 40–41.
  93. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” 40–41.
  94. Brown, A New Conception of War, 212, 216.
  95. Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 29–31.
  96. Bassford, Clausewitz in English, 129–31.
  97. Bassford, Clausewitz in English, 138–41.
  98. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” 117–25; Boyd, “Discourse on Winning and Losing,” 132–39; and Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 169–72.
  99. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict,” 136; and Osinga, Science, Strategy and War, 177–79.
  100. Samuels, “Friction, Chaos and Order(s),” 47–54.
  101. Samuels, “Friction, Chaos and Order(s),” 44–46.
  102. The following discussion is based on the analysis set out in Samuels, “Friction, Chaos and Order(s),” 55–58.
  103. Clausewitz, On War, 252.
  104. Samuels, “Friction, Chaos and Order(s),” 58–59.
  105. Foch, The Principles of War, 286.
  106. Fuller, The Foundation of the Science of War, 144.
  107. See also the related discussion presented by John F. Antal, “Thoughts about Maneuver Warfare,” in Maneuver Warfare, 57–75.
  108. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 23; and Clausewitz, On War, 259.
  109. Clausewitz, On War, 184–85.