The Power of Will in International Conflict: How to Think Critically in Complex Environments

  • Published

The Power of Will in International Conflict: How to Think Critically in Complex Environments by Wayne Michael Hall. Praeger Security International, 2018, 423 pp.

Napoleon once said that “the moral is to the material as three is to one.” War is the realm of both moral and material considerations, but moral factors are often an afterthought in the thoughts of strategic leaders and planners. The Power of Will in International Conflict corrects this lapse in judgment. Author Wayne Michael Hall is a retired US Army brigadier general with a long career in military intelligence. In his preface, he admits to having spent 48 years wrestling with this concept. The book bridges international relations, military strategy and operations, and other related ideas with historical references to buttress his arguments.

The author’s goal in writing this book is to illuminate how to think about will in the context of human conflict and competition. As he researched and thought about this topic at length, he realized that few thinkers grappled with the many vital manifestations associated with this idea. Hall also believes that many senior leaders and military professionals lack an appreciation for the role of will in understanding the strategic environment and the development of strategies, plans, and operations. He notes that there is a lack of critical thinking tools to adequately address this topic, especially with the need to transcend analysis with synthesis and holistic perspectives.

There are many facets or dimensions of will that Hall believes to be the basis for all conflict. It involves a struggle for dominance between adversaries, motivational reasons, and volition. These dimensions are scalable from the individual level to states in conflict and competition at the international level. Hall thinks it is axiomatic that humans at all levels wish to dominate others. Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Heraclitus introduced the idea of “unity of opposites,” with Clausewitz also referencing the polarity of adversaries in his book On War. As Hall explains, adversaries are united in their enmity while maintaining a structural duality, eventually resolved when one of the adversaries submits to the will of the other. Motive is linked to desire as a “life force” that is only satisfied upon attainment of goals or objectives. Volition or choice is another critical factor. Volition is the cognitive element based on reason but often at the mercy of irrational desire—what the author calls the “wolf of volition.” Closely linked to motive and volition are resolve, fortitude, and perseverance. Hall surveys the many meanings attached to the term will but eventually defines it in the book’s conclusion as

the appearance of one’s desire, volition, life force—empowered by potency of resolve and willingness to sacrifice, that when yoked with strength of motive and appropriate capabilities, provides action sufficient to accomplish or satisfy an aim, goal, objective, strategy and thereby imposing one’s desires over and gaining the acquiescence of a resisting entity or understanding the phenomenon sufficiently to resist such attempts from another human entity.

The author presents his main ideas in a preface, introduction, and a chapter on theoretical foundations. There are 14 elements of will that Hall thinks are necessary components to comprehending the concept in its fullness, with the body of the book dedicated to explaining them. These interconnected elements include the following: life force, purpose, strength of motive, capabilities, determination, perseverance, sacrifice, passion, advantages, disadvantages, imposition, action, assessment, and adaptation. Hall also adds 18 considerations of will and several axioms, maxims, and other author-derived principles. The author provides numerous historical references, figures, and tables as models for conceptual understanding. He is careful to introduce his main thoughts at the beginning of each chapter and summarize his findings at the end.

Hall also introduces several supporting concepts that enable thinking about will. Complexity and complex adaptive systems, holism, war-gaming the adversary’s war game, “deep thinking,” horizontal and vertical thinking, centers of gravity, and the “marvelous trinity” are just some of the ideas presented. He uses the somewhat tired literary trope of a journey from ignorance to enlightenment in the allegory of Plato’s Cave. This journey includes fictional acolytes, the Über-Thinker, and the Thought Pilgrim that Hall uses to dialogue about the ideas found in the book. In a later chapter, Hall also sees himself as a modern Virgil, guiding the acolytes along another path out of darkness found in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

I hesitate to recommend this book to national security professionals unconditionally. After reading a few chapters, it became painfully evident that the author needed the firm guiding hand of a strong editor. His prose is somewhat verbose and borders on flowery. Although the overall structure of the book is seemingly well organized, within the chapters it is more stream of thought than carefully structured arguments. There are poems personally written by Hall meant to animate the text but distract instead. The author is careful to reference authoritative sources for some definitions but substitutes his understanding in other cases. There are several typos and the odd use of the word kluge in multiple instances when it is more appropriate to use other terms, such as combine, merge, or integrate. The author also appears to be an appreciative follower of Ayn Rand with his debatable assertion that altruism is nonexistent, without offering any evidence. There are far too many digressions into topics of interest to the author that have a limited connection to the main themes of the book.

Despite being flawed, the central concept of will presented in this book cannot be ignored. The subject requires a comprehensive investigation across multiple disciplines. Philosophers and theologians have much to say on this topic. Because psychology is inherent to this concept, additional study in this area would be fruitful. Nonetheless, I credit the author for heralding the importance of will in our understanding of human conflict. It now requires others to take this study further.

LTC Kurt P. VanderSteen, US Army, Retired
US Army Command and General Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."