On Conflict


What is the nature and purpose of conflict, and how may it be dealt with?  These are questions that have been considered by many through the centuries.  And rightly so, as conflict–in which I include war as well as any other clash of wills–is at the core of existence.  Whether we speak of Nature or the metaphysical realm, the clash of two opposites is at the heart of the eternal dialectic.  To understand this, and to cope with its implications, is one of our primary duties.

The goal of conflict is for one side to make the other side change its mind:  that is, for one side to impose its will on another.  As two or more opponents clash, what Clausewitz called “friction” is produced.  He defined friction as the force which makes “even the seemingly easy, difficult.”  And this statement captures one of the essential principles of conflict.  In the heat of conflict (whether it be a trial in a courtroom, a contest of wills between people, or warfare), even the simplest things become very difficult.  Conflict feels like trying to run in a dream.  Action becomes slow, plodding, and uncertain.

I have particularly noticed this in two settings.  One setting was in the operation of military forces in the pursuit of some goal.  Military operations never evolve as planned.  Communications will go down.  Radios or signals intelligence will be flawed.  Logistics will be impeded.  Unexpected disasters will happen.

Another setting in which I’ve noticed the operation of friction is in the trial of a legal case in a courtroom.  Small problems become magnified into big problems.  Witnesses will not perform as expected.  Juries or judges will do or say unanticipated things.  Evidence you want to introduce will be denied, or will have a different effect than that desired.

This is the distorting lens of conflict in action.  Conflict magnifies things, making the insignificant, significant. We can try to control some of these elements, but complete control is not possible.  The better way is to learn to use “friction” to our advantage.  We must embrace fluidity, friction, disorder, violence, and uncertainty, knowing that they are inescapable.

The human dimension is found in the operation of moral forces.  Conflict is a human activity, and so we must take account of the behavior of humans.  Wills will fail; exhaustion will set in; passion will cloud judgment; boldness will accelerate the tempo of operations; and frustration will slow down operations.  We must know ourselves, as well as the opposing will.  The purpose of collecting intelligence in conflict is to better manage the moral dimension of conflict.

In conflict, our primary purpose is to know what we wish to accomplish.  Strategy is this knowledge.  You would be surprised how often this matter is overlooked.  Not knowing what one is wanting to do is the beginning of failure.  If you do not know what you are doing, friction will decide for you.

There are two main styles of conflict:  attrition and maneuver.  In attrition conflict, we wish to wear down our opponent by the expenditure of some resource (money, materiel, or lives).  In maneuver conflict, we wish to win by a judicious use of our power, achieving ends in the most efficient way.  Both methods have their uses.  The decision to employ one style over another will depend on the circumstances.

In general, maneuver is useful for parties at a disadvantage in strength.  The Boers in the Boer War, Hannibal in Italy during the Second Punic War, Nathaniel Greene in the American Revolutionary War, Lettow-Vorbeck’s campaign in East Africa in the First World War, the irregular warfare practiced by Michael Collins and the IRA in Ireland in the early 1920s, the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War, the German Army in Italy in 1943-1944, are all examples of employment of maneuver.  Many other historical examples can be found of attrition, such as the US military in the Second World War.

The failure to adapt strategy to means and ends is the beginning of failure.  Trying to do something beyond one’s means is the beginning of failure.  Since conflict is difficult and expensive, we must match means to ends.  Winning by maneuver should be the preferred option, as it involves less time and expense than attrition.

There are many examples in history of leaders trying to do things beyond their means, of allowing their ambition to exceed their ability, or of not matching their strategy with their resources.  This is the beginning of failure.

As stated earlier, conflict magnifies everything.  Small problems become big problems.  The best way to manage the job of leadership and command and control in conflict is not to micro-manage everything.  Over-management slows down the tempo of operations.  We must let subordinates, comrades, or employees use their own initiative to solve problems on their own.

All preparation for conflict must take these things into account.  We must train in an environment of uncertainty, fluidity, and hardship.  Adolf Von Schell’s classic treatise Battle Leadership was written after long experience on Germany’s eastern front in the First World War.  He recommended that training be done at night, in the worst conditions, so that men would get used to the disorder and chaos of real-world operations.  We must imitate this advice.

We can try to “manage” friction.  We can try to “shape the battlefield.”  But these efforts always come up a little bit short.  In the prologue to Sun-Tzu’s treatise Art of War, the author describes how he imposes discipline on a group of concubines that he intends to train as a military unit.  The method used is fear.  This is an example of trying to control friction. It can work, in some small ways.  But not in every way, and not comprehensively.

Micro-management impedes this effort.  When someone has to verify everything before doing anything, the pace of operations slows.  Leaders should tell subordinates what they want done, but necessarily how to do things.  Goals should be specified, not means.  The man on the ground should then employ his own training and initiative to get the job done correctly.  The problem with this, of course, is the fact that in real conflict, people often don’t take the initiative.

The use of “mission orders” also presupposes a high level of training and initiative for subordinates.  In practice, this is not often the case.  It isn’t easy to find people with good training or sufficient initiative.  But this is why training, initiative, and vigorous leadership is so important.  They speed up operations, increasing tempo and fluidity.  By swarming a clumsy opponent with a high tempo of operations, we can induce a general collapse of his will.  This is the essence of maneuver.  The opponent is “outcycled” in that his rate of decision-making is overwhelmed by the rate of decision-making of his adversary.

Successful management of conflict comes from an appreciation of these principles.  We must accept the reality of the “magnifying” effect of conflict.  We must accept uncertainty, friction, and the moral problems of conflict.  They can never be eliminated.  It almost seems that there is a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle for conflict:  as we try to control one factor, other factors will remain unknown.  We must place our faith in the principle of maneuver conflict:  the use of decentralized “mission orders” that specify ends, and not pedantic micromanagement.

We must focus on training and preparation, in order to minimize the effects of uncertainty and friction.  And we must be responsive to changing facts and conditions immediately.  In this way, a speedy tempo of operations can be produced.  This firestorm of activity can permit us to impose our will, and cause the opposing force to “change its mind.”

For this is the goal of conflict:  to get the other side to change its mind.