We call them “principles” for a reason.

As leaders, we memorized them early in our careers. I still remember being tested on MOOSE-MUSS as a third-year cadet at the University of Idaho, working through a simple mnemonic to remind myself of the sequencing of arguably the most important artistic elements of warfare. I’m not sure how this works today, now that we’ve doctored the formula and added Restraint, Perseverance, and Legitimacy… MOROSE SLUMPER just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But that’s a discussion for another day.

We call them principles because they have survived the test of time. Again and again, they’ve been validated in the crucible of war: documented, discussed, and debated. Through it all, they’ve endured. They’re fundamentals, like gripping the laces on a football when you throw a pass or using only your fingertips to dribble a basketball. And, as with most fundamentals, we ignore them at our own peril.

Our contemporary principles of war — you can call them ‘principles of joint operations’ if you insist on being doctrinally correct — trace their roots to Sun Tzu, who (let’s assume for a moment is an individual) captured them succinctly in a Captain Obvious sort of way. Over time, those original principles have found new life in the writings of Machiavelli, Napoleon, Jomini, and others. Clausewitz honed them to a cutting edge, shaping them into the form that we see most often today. No two lists of principles are exactly the same, but the differences tend to be slight.

Despite the fact we’ve codified the principles of war, we rarely encounter them outside an academic environment. When was the last time you saw the plans staff grind to a halt to run down a checklist of the principles of war? Maybe we assume that since we’ve committed them to memory in years past, they don’t serve much purpose when we’re gathered around day-old pizza and microwaved coffee in the SCIF. But then we’d be wrong. Like I said, we call them “principles” for a reason.

As a planner and a strategist, I routinely drew on the principles of war, at least on a subconscious level. But never once did I see anyone stop to give any plan or strategy a “logic check” against the principles. Not to say that it doesn’t happen, but I never saw it with my own eyes. And nowhere in our planning processes (whether applying Design, the Military Decision-Making Process, or the Joint Operations Planning Process) do we have a step for doing so. Maybe it’s an oversight. Maybe it’s assumed.

There is great value in revisiting the principles of war from time-to-time, especially when they provide so much insight in the wake of ongoing operations. The principles aren’t a panacea. They’re a directed lens that offers a brief, striking glimpse into and through the fog of war, foretelling the likelihood that a plan might survive first contact. Or not.

  • Objective (Direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and achievable goal). Understanding what we want to achieve is kind of important, ensuring that it supports a broader policy or goal is even more important.
  • Offensive (Seize, retain, and exploit the initiative). The best way to succeed is to keep your opponent on the defensive, reacting to your actions. Here, the words of Napoleon ring loud and true: “Audacity, audacity, always audacity.” Take the fight to the enemy.
  • Mass (Concentrate the effects of combat power at the most advantageous place and time to produce decisive results). Mass has always been an essential element of warfare. Today, what constitutes “mass” can vary across domains, and produce vastly different effects. Understanding those differences and how to mass those effects in time and space is the bread and butter of Multi-Domain Operations.
  • Economy of Force (Expend minimum essential combat power on secondary efforts in order to allocate the maximum possible combat power on primary efforts). Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Combat power is a limited resource, use it wisely.
  • Maneuver (Place the enemy in a position of disadvantage through the flexible application of combat power). If you’re not moving, you’re stationary. If your stationary, you make a great target. As long as you’re actively maneuvering, you force your opponent to react to you, and the more pieces you keep in motion, the more difficult it is for the enemy to regain any form of initiative. Move, move often, and move with a purpose.
  • Unity of Command (Ensure unity of effort under one responsible commander for every objective). One of the wisest statements I ever heard was a simple statement of fact: “At the end of the day, command and control is the hardest thing we do.” Maintaining a clear chain of command is where success begins. Nothing gets in the way of success quite like a breakdown of command or confusion over the focus of an operation.
  • Security (Prevent the enemy from acquiring unexpected advantage). More often than not, an opponent gains “surprise” through a breakdown in security – they discover and exploit a gap we should have seen but didn’t. Maybe it’s through a circuit board in an F-35, a vulnerability in our networks, or just your garden-variety treason, but it inevitably leads to a surprise we didn’t need.
  • Surprise (Strike at a time or place or in a manner for which the enemy is unprepared). Predictability kills. You wargame potential enemy courses of action; assume your opponent does the same. Be unpredictable.
  • Simplicity (Increase the probability that plans and operations will be executed as intended by preparing clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders). One of my go-to buzz phrases is “Simplicity is a principle of war for a reason.” We tend to overcomplicate everything we do, and the higher you go, the more people are trying to win approval through their supposed brilliance. Keep your plans simple, flexible, and executable and success is a lot easier to achieve.

In 2006, an update to Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, added three new “other principles” and combined them with the traditional principles of war as the “Principles of Joint Operations.” These new principles emerged as a result of experience in a post-Cold War world, at a time when a 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of social media added a new dimension to our thinking.

  • Restraint (Limit collateral damage and prevent the unnecessary use of force). There’s a fine line between decisive force and overkill, and you can always count on the fact that “hindsight is 20/20.” The best way to ensure that lawyers don’t follow you everywhere you go is to know, understand, and properly apply the rules of engagement. And always remember that “precision” means different things to different people.
  • Perseverance (Ensure the commitment necessary to attain the national strategic end state). There are two key components to perseverance. First, you have to define an achievable goal. Second, remember that you’re in it to win it. If you don’t do the former, the latter is a lot harder.
  • Legitimacy (Maintain legal and moral authority in the conduct of operations). Legitimacy is fleeting. When we first maneuvered through Iraq’s “Triangle of Death” in 2003, people came out to cheer our arrival. Three weeks later, without much in the way of food, water, or electricity, that jubilance was gone. If people – even our own citizens – don’t see your presence as legitimate, your odds of success are much, much lower.

It’s true – we call them principles of war for a reason. We study them, debate them, memorize them, and forget them. We really shouldn’t. When we go back later and re-examine our experiences through the lens of those principles, we realize too late that we’ve ignored them at our own peril. If we truly want to see through the fog of war, we need to start with the principles.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.