When Are Wars Decisive?

  • Michael Howard


Wars are waged, or ought to be waged, to achieve certain political objectives and to settle specific disputes. In his essay, the author therefore, deals with the question as to what factors make it possible to impose one’s own objectives and when wars are decisive. He proceeds from the current definition of war which includes all armed conflicts between political entities, regardless of whether or not they really exist, or whether they declare themselves to be sovereign states. Consequently, Clausewitz distinguished between “limited” wars which aimed at achieving a clearly specified objective, and between “absolute” (total) wars where the aim was an absolute defeat of the adversary. The author adds that a “limited” war can turn in to an “absolute” war and that one side can regard it as a “limited” war while the other side can see it as “absolute”.
What is extremely significant when distinguishing between wars is to establish their causes, defined already by Thucydides – interest, fear and honour. The author substantiates this fact by many examples in history.
Military technologies are decisive for the achievement of any objective, while economic or psychological pressure are merely supplementary methods. Military methods can be divided into two categories: 1) Vernichtungsstrategie – “strategy of destruction” which means the liquidation of the enemy’s defence capacity by destroying his armed forces on the battle field; 2) Ermattungsstrategie – “strategy of wearing out” which means to wear out the adversary with the aim of breaking his will to put up resistance. In this, the first category will always represent an unattainable ideal which the author demonstrates on examples from history.
The author further discusses the conditions essential to make sure that military force is decisive. In practice. this means that the defeated nation accepts the fact of defeat since there is no possibility of overturning the verdict in the foreseeable future, and that the adversary comes to terms with the defeat in such a way that sooner or later he will be treated as a partner in organizing a new international system.
Here the author arrives at the conclusion that present wars between states have a tendency of being a “decisive” factor; mainly in the sense of retaining the status quo. But any war which does not aim at achieving a settlement, taking into account the fears, interests and honour of defeated nations, will most likely solve nothing for some time to come.


Author Biography

Michael Howard



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