Consult Your Interests First and Your Principles Always Thucydides cautioned

Consult your interests first and your principles

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policies and strategies and make new ones when needed. Consult Your Interests First and Your Principles Always. Thucydides cautioned that states typically go to war for reasons of fear, honor, or interest. That doesn’t mean they always should. Interventions for moral or prestige reasons will always have a certain appeal; there will always be ample opportunities for that. When vital interests and national values coincide (as with the first Gulf War), the prospects of strong domestic support and ultimate success are immeasurably enhanced. When they don’t, expect trouble. Unless You Have to, Don’t. Colin Powell kept the following quote from Thucydides on his desk: “of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most.” Military adventurism can be exhilarating when viewed from a distance. 15 The sheer exercise of power for its own sake has an undeniable appeal, not often admitted by insiders. But all too often, war takes on a life of its own, and what seemed easy at the outset can become painful and difficult. Democracies, in particular, can tend towards “no win/no lose” approaches to conflict that seek to achieve grand strategic objectives with limited means, uncertain popular support, and a very low tolerance for casualties. This is not to say that only wars for survival should be fought (the Rwandan genocide comes to mind as a catastrophe that could and should have been prevented through the use of force). As a general rule, wars of choice should be avoided, and when fought, they should be fought to win quickly with crushing force. Political Problems are Rarely Solved with Force. Throughout history we see attempts to use military power to solve political prob- lems. Overwhelmingly, this approach fails unless the adversary is crushed absolutely and his society remade. Force can help eliminate or reduce violence and set conditions to support a political settlement, a valuable and important contribution, but it cannot solve ethnic, tribal, ideological, or inherently political conflicts in and of itself. This is 15 As aide-de-camp to the Secretary of the Army in 2001-02, the author personally witnessed this phenomenon in the Pentagon. After 9/11, there was much talk among political appointees about “putting heads on sticks.” The uniformed military were considerably more sober.
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64 Parameters 42(4)/43(1) Winter-Spring2013 perhaps its most important limitation. Military power often appears to be useful because it is available and, superficially, both multipurpose and multicapable; however, it is best used to solve military problems. Expect Bad Things to Happen in War. Clausewitz made much of the tendency of war and violence to run to extremes. 16 The famous British Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher echoed Clausewitz when he said “the essence of war is violence . . . moderation in war is imbecility.” That goes too far, but restraint is often the first casualty in war. For soldiers, but also for statesmen, war is a struggle for survival. And the struggle for survival is inherently impatient with limits.
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  • Spring '19
  • Wind, Armed forces, Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Military strategy

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