Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

DEF Australia Letters from Hamel Part 1: The Duel, the Enemy and Psychological Mastery 

July 8th, 2016 by Tom McDermott

Photo: Exercise Hamel, courtesy Australian Army

Photo: Exercise Hamel, courtesy Australian Army

I’ve just watched a Rehearsal of Coordination (ROC) Drill on Ex HAMEL, and I’m struck by a thought.  I had the same thought when teaching tactics and planning at the British Staff College.  The thought is as follows:

As western militaries we plan well.  We are good at applying our process, at manoeuvring forces, at building blocks.  But in applying this process we are in danger of losing touch with our enemy.  We are forgetting that the heart of war is a contest of wills.  We are forgetting to think about actually winning.  In doing so, we will lose.

Let me explain.  To come to the heart of this thought, we don’t have to go much further than Chapter One of On War.  In his first core definition of war’s nature, Clausewitz talks about war as a duel.  He seeks to be explicit from the outset; ‘war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale‘.  He goes on immediately to make one of his first, and most important, conclusions – ‘war is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will‘.

For me, this linkage between force and will is one of the most critical parts of the enduring nature of war.  Every action we take in the military, deep down, involves an application of force (or the threat of force) to get someone to do our will.  This may not take much; the mere posturing of a warship or the presence of armed soldiers might do the trick.  At the most extreme, however, it might involve the application of overwhelming and lethal violence through combined arms operations.  Such is the spectrum of war.

The role of any military planner, commander or tactician is to play this game of force and will.  The art of planning is to work out exactly how much force is required, and how (and where) it needs to be applied; the tactical ‘sweet spot’ that allows us to exploit our adversary’s weaknesses, protect our own strengths and minimise the risk to our own interests.  The desired output is always a psychological one, even if the intent is to ‘destroy’ (killing being the most psychological effect we can have).  Critically, though, we always have to remember that there is another living, breathing, thinking and cunning human being on the other side. His aim is the same as ours; the application of force to bend us to his will.  In the end, whoever finds the ‘sweet spot’ first, wins. Herein lies the duel.

My ‘HAMEL’ and ‘DS at Staff College’ conclusion is that we need to listen (as ever) to Clausewitz, and refocus our ‘way of war’ on force and will.  It is only by considering conflict as a duel, all the time, that we will be able to leverage war’s enduring nature to our advantage.  The adversary must be our main focus. We must understand him intimately; not just his capability and the ranges of his weapons, but his wants, his needs and (critically) his fears.  Only by truly getting under his skin can we defeat him.  To do this, I think we need to consider the following (in order of priority):

  • Psychology as a Core Pillar of Professional Mastery.  In its final pages, the Ryan Review proposes a model of professional mastery based on a series of pillars (p. 90).  The idea is that mastery of each pillar would bring you closer to mastery of the Profession of Arms.  One of the more innovative is the pillar focussed on ‘Psychological and Cognitive Mastery’.  To me, this is the missing pillar in most Western militaries.  Psychology, defined as the ‘study of behaviour and the mind’, sits at the heart of war.  Our art is all about this; understanding and predicting motivation, behaviour and reaction to force.  We need to study, and then teach, psychology as a core weapon in the Australian Profession of Arms.
  • Refocus our Planning on the Enemy.  This mastery of psychology must then be applied in planning, and focussed on the enemy.  We have (and need) linear planning processes like the MAP; they provide consistency and interoperability.  But currently we are in danger of focussing on the ‘process’ and not the ‘duel’.  We need to refocus on the adversary, going into far more detail on his character, motivations and drivers.  Thucydides did most of the work for us when he said that people are only driven by ‘fear, honour and interest’.  We need to use this to win.  Note – to do this, we need a superb intelligence function, as much focussed on analysis as collection.  We also need to give our enemies in training a ‘face’; a character to be analysed, and a ‘motivation’ to leverage.
  • Value Tactical Cunning.  Eisenhower rightly said that ‘plans are nothing, planning is everything’.  This is true because, in execution, the enemy has a vote.  The testing of one plan against another is the essence of the duel, and this is where tactics come to the fore.  The combatant who is more tactically cunning in the application of force, and who leverages the nature of war best, wins.  We need to train and foster tactical cunning in our soldiers and officers, highlighting (and reporting on) this as a core skill.  We must get them to understand the nature of the duel, and the importance of harnessing fear, fog, friction and stress against the enemy.  Training must always be about winning, never about the tactical motions.  Equally the products of our plans must support this; mission command, control measures, synch matrices and CONPLANs all need more emphasis.
  • Understand the Utility of Doctrine.  Finally, we need to teach soldiers about doctrine. Not what is in it, but what it is for.  Doctrine, deep down, is of value as it records the echoes of victory and defeat.  Take the ‘Principles of Defence’.  A long time ago, a team of soldiers (probably in red coats) stood in a long line and got massacred.  The next day, during a painful AAR, they realised they probably should have stood in two or more lines.  Thus the principle of ‘depth’ was born.  Doctrine provides the critical shortcuts to tactical cunning; the echoes of what has worked in the past, and what hasn’t.  But it is never designed to be ‘lawlike’; it must not be followed slavishly, and must never suppress imagination.  If we can get soldiers to understand this, they might use doctrine more.


The character of war is ever changing.  The rapid proliferation of technology is adding complexity to a battlefield that is increasingly without geographic boundaries.  But as long as war is a human activity, the duel will remain at the heart of its nature.  Our applications of land power may sometimes require us to replace ‘enemy’ with ‘actor’, but the reality is that we (as the military) exist to apply force or the threat of force on behalf of government to get others to do our will.  Winning the duel is our raison d’etre.

The exam question is this.  How do we maintain this at the heart of our ‘way of war’?  How do we leverage both our culture and our developing capability to win the ‘duel’?  And, critically, how do we do this against an adversary that won’t play by the rules?  You may have the answers, and DEF Australia is hoping that you’ll speak up.

About the author

Tom McDermott is the Director of Activities for DEF Australia. An Australian Army officer who also served for 15 years in the British Army, he is a passionate advocate of the Profession of Arms. He believes that rapid innovation and adaptation is the key to the future success of Western militaries. Tom is studying a PhD in strategy at ANU, and is a Fellow of both UNSW’s Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, and KCL’s Centre for Military Ethics. He can be followed on Twitter via @helmandproject.

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1 Comment on "DEF Australia Letters from Hamel Part 1: The Duel, the Enemy and Psychological Mastery "

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Chris Bulow
Great read. Having worked in the brigade HQ on HAMEL 16 in the execution arm this is particularly interesting to read in retrospect (also having observed the planning process before having to execute it). From my perspective the enemy certainly did have a strong vote in the execution. The result was the imposition of decision points upon us that often forced us to commit to a plan of our choosing executed at an unfavourable time or switch to a different plan but execute at the desired time. These dilemmas were usually the result of some event that adversely impacted our… Read more »