Debating Doctrine – Reciprocity as an Enduring Feature of War

Debating doctrine

Two years ago, Army began an intellectual pivot designed to review the lessons of the past 15 years, better understand the future operating environment, and ensure Australian soldiers could prevail in ‘the first fight of the next war’.

Elements of this intellectual pivot included the new version of Army’s capstone doctrine, LWD-1: The Fundamentals of Land Power.  Doctrine provides a foundation for this intellectual pivot, as reinforced by Al Palazzo’s view that ‘lessons of the past reinforce the vital role of doctrine in the articulation of modern military power.’

But is our current doctrine, including LWD 1, clear and relevant, and what topics should we be debating in order to improve our doctrine to be the ‘articulation of modern military power’?  I would like to use this blog post to start the debate on one topic I believe would enhance LWD-1 – reciprocity.

Debating the Enduring Features of War

Before I criticise, I should stress that the majority of LWD-1 is excellent and it would have been useful to have considered it before I attended Australian Command and Staff College. Particularly useful is the description of war’s enduring nature and its changing character.

However, I think the description of the enduring nature of war is incomplete – there is a vital component of war missing. I would argue that reciprocity is missing from the enduring nature of war. The definition of reciprocity is a relation of mutual dependence or action or influence.

In Hew Strachan’s influential book, The Direction Of War: Contemporary Strategy In Historical Perspective, he argues that war is not the unilateral application of policy. Instead, war is a series of reciprocal exchanges between diverging policies – our policy and our adversary’s policy. The engagement in war ensures that the reason the government embarked in war, to achieve certain political objectives, will change with time because of these exchanges. There is, therefore, a constant need to revise policy. The exchanges between the adjustments to our policy and their policy will create an independent dynamic, which is both incremental and unpredictable. In Strachan’s words:

Once war has broken out, two sides clash, and their policies conflict: that reciprocity generates its own dynamic, feeding on hatred, on chance and on the play of military probabilities. War has its own nature, and can have consequences very different from the policies that are meant to be guiding it.

LWD-1 comes close, but does not set out the crucial logic that committing forces to war will require constant adjustment of the political objectives that the application of force is trying to achieve. On page 14 of LWD-1 our doctrine stresses that:

Conflict, as a political process, tends to escape rational control because it generates unpredictable and chaotic behaviour. Warfare and its challenges magnify the interaction between chance, emotion and the pursuit of rational objectives

However, this section does not highlight the impact on policy, only on the loss of rational control. Later on page 15, LWD-1 states that:

all conflict is based on the pursuit of political aims, which may use degrees of armed force to attain objectives…Violence, cannot change people’s minds nor gain their support for a political proposition…Success in conflict, therefore, requires that the victor’s and the people’s political aims are aligned.

Once again, this section suggests that revisions to political aims will be required, but the doctrine does not spell it out.

How important is this oversight in our doctrine? Do we need to clearly articulate in Army’s doctrine that the commitment of the Army to conflict will require periodic changes to policy? Our involvement in the long wars in the Middle East for 16 years would suggest that it is vital. Perhaps the lack of war’s reciprocal nature in our doctrine is partially responsible for commentators criticising the Australian Government for its lack of participation in the formulation of strategy. As James Brown highlighted in his recent Quarterly Essay Firing Line:

…for many of the wars Australia has fought in the past decade, the strategic direction given by our political leaders to our defence chiefs has been remarkably episodic. One former chief of army, Peter Leahy, describes it as “set-and-forget” strategy: commit to the war, then leave Washington or the Australian military to fill in the blanks where the strategy should be.

Brown advocates for an ongoing role for parliament in scrutinising and evaluating the conduct of a war. Australia’s conduct in ‘a war’ is beyond the scope of LWD-1, which appropriately deals with war in general. When Lieutenant General Morrison released LWD-1 in 2014 he was clear that ‘it must be examined and debated beyond the Department of Defence’. Reciprocity created by the clash of wills during war and the impact on policy is an important part of war. I recommend the inclusion of the reciprocity as part of the enduring nature of war into the next edition of LWD-1.

About the author

Mark Mankowski is an Australian Officer posted to Headquarters Forces Command and a passionate advocate of Professional Military Education. His interests are continuously learning about the nature and character of war, developing battlefield intuition through simulation, and establishing the key factors responsible for effective Air-Land Integration. He is studying a Masters Advanced in Military History with the Australian National University.

3 thoughts on “Debating Doctrine – Reciprocity as an Enduring Feature of War

  1. I think Mark has hit on a key point here that stretches from the tactical to the strategic level. Our doctrine is perhaps understandably a linear process, but it spends far too little time discussing war as a ‘duel’. This was unequivocally Clausewitz’s view … his very definition of war is as a ‘clash of wills’, supported by the image of two wrestlers. The Army exists to apply, or to threaten to apply, force to bend others to our will.

    So, what to do. I believe we need to bring three things out of the darkness and into the light.

    First, we need to re-establish a form of ‘adversarial psychology’ as a core pillar of the profession of arms. We need to bring the ‘enemy’ back to the fore, both doctrinally and in practise.

    Second, we need to take strategy back to a more pure conception; one that creates better links between national policy and tactics through the use of force. This should help discourage the issue James Brown highlights. This involves a re-thinking of the ‘operational level of war’ … something I believe has become too prominent and thus dangerous.

    Finally we need to better understand the nature of war as an uncontrollable entity. The most quoted passage of Clausewitz is that ‘war is an extension of politics by other means’. The most quoted SHOULD be the para about ‘the first duty of the statesman is to identify the type of war upon which he is embarking, and not to seek to twist it to something not of its nature’.

    Really good article, and something we should be discussing deeply when we look at the future of the Australian Army.

  2. Tom – much discussion of the need to innovate across our Army – but less acknowledgement that enemies drive innovation and performance. I think that our leadership doctrine also misses the point – above all else we want soldiers and officers who are fighters.

  3. Tom,
    I absolutely agree that we need to move from an Army which sees excellence in planning as a core training outcome, to one that equally recognises that our leaders need to practice pitting their plan against a demanding adversary in execution.

    I also agree with James – if innovation is the introduction of new methods and ideas, there is no better teacher than a demanding adversary.

    The trick as Michael Howard stated is to ensure that the first lessons are not too harsh.

    Thank you both

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