New Principles of War: Enduring Truths with Timeless Examples

  • Published

New Principles of War: Enduring Truths with Timeless Examples by Marvin Pokrant. Potomac Books, 2021, 347 pp. 

The author, Marvin Pokrant, is a multibook author, including Desert Shield at Sea: What the Navy Really Did (May 1999) and Desert Storm: What the Navy Really Did (July 1999). He is a retired Center for Naval Analyses military operations analyst with extensive experience of military operations after serving on the staffs of the commander, US Naval Forces, Central Command for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Pokrant attempts to use his experience and understanding of the timeless “principles of war” to bring forth essential new principles in waging war. With the preface, prologue, 17 chapters, an epilogue, notes, extensive bibliography, and index, the author challenges each of the nine principles of war.

The author joins revered personages from Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, Antoine-Henri Jomini, Niccolò Machiavelli, and others in testing and examining existing principles. It is the crucible of war, according to Pokrant, which test, support, or reject these principles. Timeless examples from the Punic Wars to the war in Afghanistan exist, and the author uses many, often the same combatants in several chapters, to analyze each principle. The Battle of Gettysburg is cited in the prologue and in the epilogue as a prime example to assess the original principles.

Pokrant begins his examination and testing by comparing and contrasting the principles of war from many nations around the world. In the first three chapters, he scrutinizes many English-speaking countries as well as the Soviet Union, China, France, Germany, India, and Israel. With each scan, Pokrant finds similar principles albeit with slightly different nuances and even some completely left out by others. The author specifies that there are nine principles of war—an objective, mass, offensive, unity of command, simplicity, the economy of force, maneuver, security, and surprise. After his review, he begins with these time-tested principles of war, now measuring them against more relevant criteria.

The set of criteria set forth by the author, that is, to be a candidate principle—(1) it must be fundamental and enduring, (2) gives practical guidance, (3) must be broadly applicable to various types and levels of successful warfare, and (4) makes a difference (emphasis by Pokrant) in the outcome of history. Furthermore, to be designated a principle, the candidate principle must contribute to a victory or rarely a defeat. But when violated, the principle contributes to a defeat or rarely a victory.

To convince the reader, Pokrant uses seven chapters to discuss and explore each principle to support adopt, eliminate, or formulate a new principle. There were nine original principles of war, but four are renamed and four eliminated. Surprise is the lone remaining original principle. There are now nine new principles of war and eight near principles, including two original principles.

The renamed principles—objective, offensive, mass, and unity of command—are now respectively prioritized objectives, sustained initiative, relative advantage, and unity of effort. The new principles are deception, know yourself, know your enemy, and the environment. The eliminated Principles are economy of force, maneuver, security, and simplicity. Each new principle, having passed the criteria and battle analysis from wars in the past and present, now seem clear and convincing.

The near principles are numerous and important yet do not meet the criteria to be full principles. They assist in accomplishing the main principles of war but cannot stand alone.

This analysis is viewed during the three-day battle at Gettysburg; both the Union and Confederate viewpoints reveal that the new principles of war clarify the original principles. The Union fought from a defensive position whereas the Confederates fought from an offensive position. The Union defensive position had mass (relative advantage), the unity of command (unity of effort), and an advantage in the environment. The Confederate offensive position, however, had no relative advantage, lacked unity of effort, and had a poor environment. The Confederate offense lost the battle because of disadvantages. Further, did the outcome change history? In this momentous battle, it did. Lee could no longer mount major offensive incursions, lost any initiative, had little relative advantage, and surrendered two years later.

Pokrant believes the clear and concise new and near principles are worthy of further study by nations around the world. Should they be adopted entirely or adapted by each, the result may be useful to diplomacy. Diplomatic policy with military input may identify shortcomings in any one principle and should serve as a guide to better preparation or prevention of war. In all cases, it is the application of these principles that is variable and not the principles themselves.

The only remaining question is “What does declaring war do for the nation?” If war is declared, planning must lead to prioritizing objectives, sustaining the initiative, maintaining relative advantage, uniting the effort, and surprising the enemy. Commanders are then given latitude in the application of these principles to reach the prioritized objectives.

I believe that knowing yourself, your enemy, and the environment are the key elements of these principles. Good commanders will have a strong knowledge of themselves, listen to subordinates, and give clear, unambiguous orders. Knowledge of the enemy is essential. The study of cultural, economic, political backgrounds, and geographical environments is indispensable in conducting warfare.

Commanders of all military branches should read Pokrant’s New Principles of War. Examine your command and see if your unit mission can be carried out when called upon.

Maj James A. Boyless, USAF, Retired, PhD

"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."