[ii]Thus the expression “so mad he couldn’t think straight.”

[iii]Value and self-interest: things that warrant investment or are deserved by action, investment or right.

[iv]Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein, 1959, G.P. Putnam and Sons

[v][v]A Theory of Human Motivation, by Abraham Maslow, Psychological Review 1943, Maslow framed needs as the origin of human motivation, abandoning animal behavior theories of Freud and B.F. Skinner.

[vi]Both the essentials (air, water, food, shelter), or luxuries such as jewelry are tangibles)

[vii]John Boyd, Strategic Game of Interaction and Isolation

[viii]Want might be restated as “value what they value”

[ix]Alexander Hamilton,  Federalist Papers,  Number 6

[x]E.g., He’s heavily involved in the construction project.

[xi]E.g., I project that we can increase profits by shipping in plastic instead of paper.

[xii]Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, Random House, 1957

[xiii]Machiavelli, The Prince

[xiv]Robert D. Kaplan Warrior Politics, Chapter 5.

[xv]Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

[xvi]John Boyd, Patterns of Conflict

[xvii]Strategy, B.H. Liddell Hart, Frederick A. Preager, Inc. Publisher

[xviii]See Robert D. Kaplan’s  Warrior Politics, Chapter 1.

[xix]SunTzu, The Art of War

[xx] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, Second revised edition, 1954, Preager, NYC

[xxi] The Prince was intended as a tribute to the ruling Medici family in an attempt to return to their good graces. Literally, a Machiavellian strategy to shape the perspective of the ruling family…

[xxii] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, Second revised edition, 1954, Preager, NYC

[xxiii] John Boyd, Strategic Game of Interaction and Isolation


Editor's note:  The following paper is an example of what John Boyd called a "snowmobile," a synthesis of ideas from across a variety of domains (interested readers can see see how Boyd develops the notion of "building snowmobiles" in his briefing, Strategic Game of ? and ?, available here on DNI, then scroll down.)

Snowmobiles result from analyses combined with trials at a synthesis.  Since it is virtually impossible that two people would end up with the same synthesis, they are also likely to disagree on specific points when comparing their results.  Boyd never had a problem with this: he was arguing over and modifying his grand synthesis of warfare, Patterns of Conflict, nearly up until the day he died.

It is in this spirit that DNI offers "Deconstructing Conflict."  As with every piece published on DNI, all opinions and conclusions are those of the author and may not represent those of Defense and the National Interest.


Deconstructing Conflict: 
Motivations, Objectives and Strategies

By Michael A. Breeden

July 31, 2004

The paper consciously draws from the works, words or philosophies of Ayn Rand, John Boyd, Abraham Maslow, B.H. Liddell Hart, Winston Churchill, Sun Tzu, von Clausewitz, Emmanuel Kant, Ulysses S. Grant and George S. Patton. Friedrich Nietzsche was no help at all.

Humans take conflict and its outcomeswinning and losing, very personally. In matters of survival, losing means dying. Winning control of resources means survival and having choices.[i] Winning and losing are so personal that often, the contested objective becomes fogged by the focus on the tactics used in the struggle.[ii]  Human conflict, as all behavior, directly correlates to learning, and learning is completely unique (personal) to each individual. Human conflict defies casual examination precisely because it is personal.  In order to examine it, we must strip away the contest, tactics and damage to reveal the mental elements that are common across the spectrum of conflict. For purpose of emphasis each definitive assertion about conflict is stated prior to the supporting narrative and then restated after it is explained.

1.  Conflict originates from intellectual activity.

The roots of conflict are as deep and complex as the human mind. The mind of a human can be viewed as a composite of conscious and unconscious learning superimposed on a complex of genetic predisposition. Billions of isolated and related stimuli, reflexes, events and responses reinforce perceptions of success or failure and ultimately translate into a vision of self and correspondingly, self-interest, based on a unique perception of value.[iii]

’Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human… This very personal relationship, ‘value’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, it’s use to him; and second, what he must do to get it, it’s cost to him.[iv]

Personal perception of value is further complicated when millions of individual identities are combined into ethnic, political, religious, and regional self-interest identities that are not homogeneous along any two of these categories. The actual level of complexity reaches toward the literal realm of infinity. Fortunately, it is not necessary to quantify or understand the billions of self-interested identities that provide the individual roots of conflict. One must only understand that self-interest can be described as the items in Maslow’s[v]hierarchy of needs; the tangibles[vi] that might be assigned value and the intangibles (safety, education, esteem, freedom) that sometimes might be referred to as “values.

While Maslow provided a superb generalization of the priority that humans attach to these different needs, each individual builds a hierarchy that reflects an intensely personal and individualized priority based on experience and culture.  When humans assign priority on needs, they invest assets according to that priority.

It is reasonable and natural that entities take action to satisfy needs. At the primal level, action is oriented around survival, and to act in the interest of survival is a reasonable expectation of a sovereign being. It is reasonable in that carnivores feed on beasts and that herbivores feed on plants. Social orders that promote collective survival are also reasonable. Efforts by families/tribes, businesses/unions, governments, and other collectives to procure, develop and secure resources equate to investment in a favored future environment. Competing for resources is not greedy, malicious or evil.

The perception of value and self-interest are the core drivers of conflict.  Whether based in fact or error is irrelevant. Culture, personal experience, genetics, and other factors result in standards for assigning value and justifying self-interest,[vii]but these standards themselves do not result in conflict.  These are the influences that determine which objectives are assigned value and will be pursued.

The selection of objectives is the first deliberate mental event that leads to conflict.  The mind envisions and selects objectives that fit within the parameters set by the culture and learning based factors.  An effort to create a future that lies within that set of parameters commences with the investment of resources attempting to establish or maintain that desired reality. The pursuit of an objective requires investment at some level. The investment can be made in time, labor, thought, treasure or virtually anything that might be ventured. This investment is an effort in the present that is expected to create a future that would not exist otherwise. People do what they do because they want what they want.[viii] Thus…conflict originates from intellectual activity.

2.  Conflict is a competitive pursuit of incompatible futures.

When a course of action intended to establish one set of conditions interferes with the success of a course of action intended to establish existence of another set, conflict commences.  Competition is inevitable in a world with limited resources put in play by 6 billion sets of standards, 6 billion sets of objectives, and 6 billion favored futures.  In such a system, the allocation of resources will always be in flux. Since competition is incessant and value/values are subject to appreciation/depreciation, shaping the future equates to 6 billion investors attempting to capture a share of a transient and fleeting global net value. If at any given instant, a great ledger sheet could show the disposition of every asset, resource, value and choice, that instant would be a victory for some and a defeat for others. Some would have moved toward their envisioned objective reality, while others would not have made progress or may have even lost ground. But the competition for resources does not necessarily equate to conflict. The difference between competition and conflict is sometimes very hard to define, but typically, the contest for resources is a competition unless ideology is a factor. Two contractors vying for the same building contract is a competition. Both want to see the establishment of the structure. But a when an environmental group attempts to stop the construction, conflict commences. The envisioned realities of the contractor and the environmentalists cannot co-exist.

Desire for conflict is not a precondition and both parties may reluctantly enter into the ideological contest. Conflict is not necessarily deliberate and may even be completely unintentional. However, whether the contestants enter the fray enthusiastically or reluctantly, deliberately or unintentionally, conflict is a struggle between motivated reactive entities that sustain a state of tension across a span of time until the struggle to control the future is conceded by the loser. Alexander Hamilton tells us to expect competition and conflict not because it’s unavoidable but because it is the pattern of history and because it results from the choices of independent actors.

To look for continued harmony between a number of independent unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighborhood would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.[ix]

The distant future consists of an infinite number of possible futures. An infinite number of possible futures narrows to a smaller number of likely futures then to an imminent future which becomes history when it transits the present. Since there is only one historical reality, there is also only one future reality. Similar to the final score of an athletic competition,  the nature of the future is in play and indeterminate right up to the second that the final game buzzer sounds. Each passing moment locks a fleeting reality and becomes the baseline for the subsequent moment. The score of the moment is a baseline until the next goal is tallied. The “future reality” is one of billions of “possibles” that becomes increasingly probable up to the point of becoming the “present”. In the present, reality prohibits the establishment of other objective realities and becomes the starting point for the formulation of all new  “possible futures”. The fact that the establishment of a single present reality, by definition, prohibits the establishment of other “possibles” demonstrates that …conflict is a competitive pursuit of incompatible futures.

3. Competition increases the cost of establishing the desired future.

In a paper titled, Governance and Conflict Resolution in Multi-ethnic Societies, Kumar Rupesingh refers to conflict as “collisions between projects”. “Projects” is a superb term for describing the effort of entities. In common usage it is a word for both the work or investment[x] and the mental “projection” that constitutes the vision or end state to be established[xi]. This fosters the understanding that intellectual activity or “projection” shapes the nature of individual efforts, but it is only when the projected paths or strategies collide, that conflict commences. Clearly, time, labor, or treasure are invested in all types of competition between “projects” and fiercer competition is marked by the sacrifice of blood, law and virtue. As stated before, conflict is a struggle between motivated reactive entities. As the level of motivation and resources escalates, the level of investment ramps up in order to defeat a maneuvering opponent similarly engaged.  It is a logical assumption that any given project is more difficult to accomplish if opposed by a thoughtfully resourced strategy.

Theodore Roosevelt effectively communicated both his objective and the price he was willing to pay when he said: “If I must choose between righteousness and peace, I choose righteousness”. While “righteousness” is certainly subjective,  he makes it clear that he is willing to sacrifice peace to establish and maintain his version of it. This statement conveys the threat to potential opponents that he is willing to increase the cost of opposing objectives  by the use of conflict. One of the most common and effective tactics is to communicate to the opponent that his objective is not worth the price he must pay. The relationship between threat and deterrence are action and reaction that directly reflect the cost of conflict. The struggle may be merely competition or diametrically opposed ideological conflict, but in all cases, competition (opposition) increases the cost of establishing the desired future.

4. A moral and ethical evaluation of self-interest and the incompatible interest prior to conflict provides a stable intellectual-philosophical base for operations. 

Behaviors are the reaction to the environment. Behavior may be conscious or subconscious, learned or instinctive, but it is the reaction of the living to the perceived environment. The environment is the summation of available opportunities and restrictions. However, the physical environment is not the only source of opportunities and restrictions. Thousands of years of conscious thought have resulted in social values and principles with an impressive record of success. While these values and principles are not exempt from attack, they have been durable enough that they form a tentative global ideal even when implementation is faulty.  Within such a framework of social reciprocity, John Boyd provides a secular definition for good and evil that is easily traced to what Christians refer to as the Golden Rule”.

In his “Strategic Game of Interaction and Isolation” seminar, he states: “Evil occurs when individuals or groups embrace codes of conduct or standards of behavior for their own personal well-being and social approval, yet violate those very same codes or standards to undermine the personal well-being and social approval of others."

Ultimately, if there is a set of opportunities (rights and choices) that should be construed as common to each human being, then defense of self (survival) equates to the right to act to procure, develop and protect resources.  Survival and rights as individuals cannot be easily separated. Exploitation of an opportunity can be construed as an act of survival or self-interest. Even altruistic acts are usually self-sacrificial protections of some transferred human interest. Understanding what is desired, what it will cost another entity, and comparing it against the best available standard of morality/ethics, provides a method for comparing the interest of each entity. This is paramount to comparing value.

Conflict in and of itself, is not moral or immoral. Just as a woodworker uses sharp metal on wood to create furniture, conflict is the tool that shapes the future. Conscious beings that have autonomy and a moral code can be moral or immoral, but tools do not choose their purposes.  The woodworker invests time and energy to leverage the natural properties of the wood into utile and esthetic value. Since value is a cost-benefit comparison and conflict is an aspect of cost, value is determined in the outcome. Finely crafted and finished furniture is a result of careful strategy and tactics (skill) applied to raw materials to create a finished item of utility and desirability. However, the same tools used to create such masterpieces of joinery can be turned to reduce the same masterpiece into a stack of kindling in a fraction of the time that it took to create it. In either case, the tools warrant no praise or shame. They are as they were made. They shaped the material as guided by the wielding hand.

It is appropriate at this juncture to address the idealists that believe that violence is the ultimate evil or that willingness to fight causes conflict. They demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of conflict. Most violence results from the competitive pursuit of opportunity and resources, ideology notwithstanding. Only a person that has never known real hunger or pain believes that nothing is worth competing for. To assert that no self-interest is worth violence and struggle must assume that “the self” is not worth protecting.[xii]

…it is not reasonable to suppose that one who is armed will obey willingly one who is unarmed; or that any unarmed man will remain safe among armed servants.[xiii]

Non-violence may occasionally prevail against a merciful opponent with a watching public or an interest in justice and the rule of law, but an opponent that looks upon such protocols with ambiguity or contempt will subjugate them to self-interest. In the path of the resultant brutality, non-violence becomes a figurative butterfly in the path of a speeding car.

Only when Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear he would not defend Communist regimes in Eastern Europe with force was it possible for the unarmed prophet Václav Havel to succeed.[xiv]

Respecting the morally neutral nature of conflict is critical to effective moral-ethical examination. Especially, when conflict is an all or none struggle, it must be viewed as a tool that serves the entity. The price for failing to recognize this would result in triumph for the despots and villains that fail to conduct moral-ethical evaluation  or refuse to exercise moral-ethical restraint. Franklin Roosevelt,  Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all understood this and played the high stakes game with no objective but winning.

Relating behaviors to embraced values provides a basis for comparison that can be quantified and communicated. Quantification provides the reference for communicating and advocating. This communication is critical throughout the pre-conflict, strategy, conflict and post-conflict stages. Furthermore, making strategic intellectual errors and then allowing an opponent to exploit them increases the probability of defeat. Thorough evaluations and comparisons of the environment, objectives, opponent, resources, and impact of the effort are the burden of executive agency. To shrug this responsibility is not only foolhardy; using any common reference, it is immoral.

… he who does not lay his foundations beforehand may by great abilities  do so afterwards although with great trouble to the architect and to the building[xv]

Thus…a moral and ethical evaluation of self-interest and the incompatible interest prior to conflict provides a stable intellectual-philosophical base for operations.

5.  Obtaining an immoral or unethical objective is failure.

Ideas generate power. Readily understood ideas attract followers. Much like “open-source” software development, the open exchange of ideas provides exponential possibilities for developing and improving concepts. Behaviors that are reinforced by success generate passion for the underlying ideas that suggest those behaviors. Success is perceived as validation and will be followed with investment and enthusiastic action, eventually resulting in an accumulation of power.

The stable intellectual-philosophical base is an intangible center of power.[xvi] Quantification and comparison of value is readily understood. There is no guarantee that right will prevail. Might, as a product of resources and compelling ideas, usually does. Much power can be generated by flawed principles behind virtuous intent supported by enthusiastic effort. Since conflict can result in permanent damage or destruction on many levels, one must be aware that using might in pursuit of unjustified (morally, philosophically, ethically unsupportable) self-interest, leaves one in danger of damaging something superior in favor of something inferior. Nazi Germany, the October Revolution, and the socialist welfare state are examples of terrible failure following initial success of misguided ideals from virtuous intent.

Obviously, there is a moral or ethical component to such comparisons and divergent cultures will produce completely incompatible perceptions of moral and ethical self-interest and develop strategies to promote separate incompatible realities. But such moral/ethical imprecision is not an excuse for the outcome of conflict unless every effort was made in the pre-conflict stage to assure that the outcome is morally/ethically supportable in retrospect. When the outcome of conflict is not morally/ethically viable, the lack of a stable intellectual base decreases predictability. Note that the conflict that reverses an initial success is likely to be exponentially more expensive than the conflict that establishes that success. Thus pursuing faulty objectives delays establishment of superior objectives at an exponentially higher cost. Not only does a careful evaluation provide the platform for executing strategy, it minimizes the probability of expending massive resources on an effort to create conditions that will be under constant attack in an environment with a moral/ethical component to it. Superior ideas are destined to propagate within a population that is sophisticated enough to receive them; inferior ideas are destined to fail within the same construct. Thus, the temporary success of an inferior effort often becomes an exponential inverse projection of the moral/ethical condition it supplants. The spectrum of this inverse projection can range from “loss of credibility” on a personal scale to the outcome of WWII on a global scale.  Since the propagation and adoption of inferior principles ultimately increases the cost to emplace a doomed system … obtaining an immoral or unethical objective is failure.

6. The purpose of strategy is to eliminate the motivation to execute a strategy in pursuit of an incompatible objective.

Conflict involving humans starts with mental activity and always can be traced back to a conscious or unconscious decision to pursue a particular objective. A state of tension is maintained as long as there is mental activity that results in competitive motivations. Conflict is averted or ended only when one competitor or the other abandons a strategy that leads to conflict. As John Boyd said, “Machines don’t fight wars, terrain doesn’t fight wars, weather doesn’t fight wars. Humans fight wars. You have to get into the minds of humans. That’s where wars are won.” The distance between the present reality and the desired reality or vision provides the requirement for a strategy. Strategy is the imagined path toward the objective.  Unlike plotting a trip on a map though, strategy makes allowances for dynamic variances in conditions. Strategy is timing the trip to avoid rush hour conditions and road construction delays while still meeting a prescribed set of conditions for arrival.

Well conceived and executed strategy is elegant and efficient. It capitalizes on natural and artificial elements to shape the mental activity of the opponent to remove the mental state that set the competing objective. Since this effort is primarily the transmission of ideas, strategy is a process of ideas and actions that send a valuation-cost message meant to bend the opponent values, change objectives, evaporate motivation and render resistance pointless.

Belisarius attempted to restrain his Byzantine troops from pursuing and routing a retreating Persian force explaining that: “true victory lay in compelling one’s opponent to abandon his purpose, with the least possible loss to one’s self.”[xvii] In this simple statement he demonstrates an understanding of both the purpose and the cost of conflict.

It is not what one thinks, but how one thinks that determines the outcome of conflict.[xviii] That is to say, it is not the values and filters that influence us to select objectives that determine our course of action. While the link of moral-ethical imperatives to strategy and tactics must be respected, it is our application of experience in strategy and tactics that influences our actions and that determines the outcome. Instinctive reaction is rarely as effective as deliberative or prescient interdiction. If conflict is a collision between strategies/projects, then resolution lies in the future and not in the present. Successful tactics inhibit the opponent “possible futures” that prohibit the establishment of the objective reality.  If one consistently applies successful tactics, some form of the objective reality is eventually established. A consistently defeated opponent will usually lose motivation or run short of resources.

Belisarius understood and demonstrated, perhaps better than any other military strategist, that the purpose of strategy is not to fight but to win. Victory is probable when the opponent loses the motivation to resist even if the ability to resist remains. It is important to note that it is not the winner but the loser that decides when conflict is over. Thus…The purpose of strategy is to eliminate the opposing motivation to execute a strategy in pursuit of an incompatible objective.

7. Perfect strategy achieves moral and ethical objectives without conflict.

Conflict is unavoidable, but is worth minimizing.  The pre-conflict elimination of motivation and resistance is not only possible, but after considering the cost, virtuous in light of its economy. In political, intellectual, emotional or economic struggles, the uncontested success of superior ideas, principles, behaviors and products is less traumatic and wasteful than the eventual emergence of a deserving victor in the wake of a political intellectual, emotional or economic bloodbath.   

It is rational to seek an objective at the lowest possible cost. Conflict increases the cost of pursuing value or interest and delays or prohibits the accomplishment of objectives.  Rational beings tend to seek ways to bypass resistance and avoid unnecessary investment. Further, since conflict is investment, the cost of conflict potentially could occult the value of the objective, which eliminates motivation and changes the priority or value assigned to a particular objective.

The execution of strategy does not necessitate conflict. The very point of strategy can be to avoid conflict and thus avoid unnecessary cost. Wanton destruction or damage of virtue or value is irrational, wasteful and thus, immoral because it denies a competing objective without supporting a superior objective. Failing to obtain an objective without conflict is a product of faulty strategy. The best way to prevent conflict is to think strategically[xix]. The creation of a moral-ethical end state without incurring extra cost through conflict constitutes the creation of value at the absolute minimum cost. Thus…Perfect strategy achieves moral and ethical objectives without conflict.

8. To prevent conflict, change the adversarial perception before your opponent realizes there is an incompatible objective.

Cultures, politics and relationships are constantly evolving. Identification of trends, forethought and ultimately foresight provide the potential to avert conflict even when objectives are initially polarized. Attempts to manipulate the future demand an understanding of the past and the present. Understanding the past, richly detailed by historians, is easy when compared to understanding the present. The most important events of history may be obscure when viewed in the present and massive when viewed in the context of history. Small events and large contribute to shifts in culture. Since culture is naturally evolving, a timely strategy to change culture, the perception of value, and cost, or at least the perception of cost, is the first opportunity to avert conflict or shape the conditions for success. This is why Sun Tzu placed so much influence on understanding the opponent. Understanding the perception and intent of your opponent will suggest the best way shape his mental state which is the first stage to destroying motivation. The evaporation of motivation discourages investment.  Well placed efforts to eliminate competitive motivations can preclude conflict. Thus…To prevent conflict, change the adversarial perception before your opponent realizes there is an incompatible objective.

9. The achievement of moral and ethical objectives by low-level conflict is preferable to high-level conflict. 

However desirable, pre-conflict resolution is uncommon. Typically, ideas, principles, products and politics are imperfect and thus subject to evolutionary and revolutionary improvement(s). The competition of/in the arena motivates improvement that floats the eventual survivor to the top of the competitive heap.

Commitment to an objective, the formulation of strategy and the employment of tactics are the ignition sequence for conflict. Conflict initiates at the point that one strategy is blocked by the execution of an opposing strategy. This occurs at many levels, from internal struggles between personal priorities to international geopolitical competition. Conflict does not by nature require any level of hostility or brutality; conflict between two people may be settled using immediate capitulation and kind words or may be settled by assault/self-defense “to-the-death”. Conflict between nations may be resolved by negotiation followed by treaty, or bloody conflict until one side surrenders. Obviously, as in the case for pre-conflict resolution, the achievement of a desired reality at the lowest price increases value.  Escalation implies additional cost and requires constant comparison and active-reactive strategy to minimize cost. Thus…The achievement of moral and ethical objectives by low-level conflict is preferable to high-level conflict.

10. Failing to obtain a moral ethical objective in high-level conflict is a double failure.

Since there is an implicit failure in obtaining an immoral or unethical objective, there is also an implicit failure in allowing an immoral or unethical reality to block or supplant a moral or ethical objective state. Using overt conflict to obtain moral and ethical objectives is necessary to prevent the achievement of immoral or unethical objectives that could otherwise be established in the vacuum of complacency/détente. “Let none falter, who thinks he is right” - Abraham Lincoln.  Further, failure to execute pre-conflict resolution through the creative manipulation of the information sphere to create understanding and resolve the perception of the two entities into a common reality is a failure. This means that as far as the value in question justifies, conflict must be escalated until resolution is made through the elimination of motivation in one of the entities. Surrendering to an inferior reality is both a failure of strategy and a failure of tactics. Thus…Failing to obtain a moral ethical objective in high-level conflict is a double failure.

11. The philosophical-intellectual base of operations is undermined by violation of the motivating objective moral-ethical imperative during conflict. 

As stated before, conflict is driven by ideas and values and occurs at the intersection of strategies that are products of conscious and subconscious thought. The philosophical-intellectual concepts that are the compelling filter for setting objectives must be consistently applied across motivation, strategy and into the tactical execution. If the philosophical-intellectual base is at risk of being exposed as faulty-inferior, the potential value of the objective is at risk of being undermined and motivation will evaporate.

         For whoever habitually suppresses truth in the interests of tact will produce a deformity from his womb of thought.[xx]

The connection between strategy and tactics must be clearly understood and applied in execution. Hypocrisy is the decoupling of execution from the philosophical intellectual base. Hypocrisy is an internal conflict between a professed philosophical-intellectual motivation and a strategy or tactic. While Machiavelli proposes that there are times when the end justifies the means, he does so in the context of proposing that his audience seeks to establish benevolent monarchy[xxi]. His work is replete with principles meant to garner popular respect and affection if possible. Richard III of England is thought to have been generally popular during his reign, but the ruling classes in England had expectations of honor within the court, and Richard’s lack of scruples placed him at odds with the guiding moral-ethical imperative of the times. Ultimately, his unprincipled and bloody ascendancy to the throne provided his enemies with the reasons and support to generate the forces of his deposal, and history all but forgets the benign details of his reign. When there is disconnection of imperative from the means, it amounts to a conflict with ones own purposes. All too often, there will be a party willing to take sides against you in a conflict with yourself. The opponent will cite the moral-ethical gap as symptomatic of a faulty-inferior moral-ethical value set.  The philosophical-intellectual base is destabilized with respect to the opposing base. Thus…The philosophical-intellectual base of operations is undermined by violation of the motivating objective moral-ethical imperative during conflict.

12. When conflict is warranted and engagement becomes probable, the probability of success is exponentially increased by full preparation for the contact.  

In conflict, every effort should be made to plan each contact with the opponent. While preparation for contact can be thought of as preparing a trap, a trap is not necessarily malicious. As a wayward raccoon might be trapped and relocated for it’s own health after conflicting with the objective values of a community, strategy that pulls the opponent in close and then takes advantage of maneuver and surprise provides a higher probability of success than a protracted frontal assault.

The essence of the trap is the unanticipated action that is so swift that it cannot be outmaneuvered and so decisive that it cannot be repelled. The action of the trap relies on anticipating or channeling the maneuver of the opponent into an environment composed of elements and restrictions that are not discernable to his casual inspection. When the elements of the trap are unleashed, the recognition of their existence constitutes a state of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the realization that a relevant perception has been disproved; a new reality is emerging and thus current strategy may be completely inappropriate.

Surprise is perhaps the best acknowledged principle of conflict. Surprise is psychological and has direct impact on the opponent. Most principles of war are centered around the environment, logistics, and utilization of resources. Surprise typically uses what the opponent doesn’t know as a psychological weapon. The opponent’s realization that his strategy may be inappropriate is often more significant than the actual advantage of maneuver gained by surprise. As the opponent desparately tries to comprehend rapid changes, he must depart from the original plan and develop and execute strategy on the fly. Doubt and uncertainty tug at every course of action; generate fear of failure and foster indecisiveness. Because surprise leverages what is unexpected in the mind of the opponent, it maneuvers against weakness. Because surprise reaches directly into the mind of the opponent, it has great potential to induce capitulation.

Within less than five years, [The Constable] du Guesclin had reduced the vast English possessions in France to a slender strip of territory…without fighting a battle. Indeed he never pressed the attack on… a force if it had gained time to take up defensive dispositions.  …du Guesclin’s principle was: ‘No attack without surprise.’[xxii]

Surprise is so effective as a weapon that a wise agent must be vigilant to avoid being surprised and maintain preparations to deal with surprise. In classic strategy and finance, these preparations are referred to as reserves. Avoiding surprise and using surprise to one’s advantage are the essence of preparing for contact. Every effort to avoid traps and surprises will result in a savings of investment across the span of conflict.

Pulling the opponent in close, when examined in the construct of “fair play” introduces a common conundrum. Within popular Western culture, the practice of spying and deceitful political maneuvering are considered dishonest. Yet in classical Greek and Oriental studies, are considered to be central to avoiding conflict. Espionage provides the best possible understanding of the present reality, which is the basis of all possible future realities. It may also disclose the opposing strategy, which can then be frustrated with minimal effort to maximum effect. Deceitful, covert or clandestine maneuver simply keeps the opponent from doing the same.[xxiii]

The global view of a resource-constrained world with 6 billion competing agents makes the waste from conflict immoral except when unavoidable. Conflict by virtue of its waste, diverts resources away from the collective standard of living.  Conflict prohibits stability, which is key to the encouragement of economic investment and growth. Thus so long as outcome meets the moral-ethical imperative, averting conflict between irreconcilable doctrines and ideologies is of demonstrable virtue. That which may be dishonorable or distasteful to us in our private or personal relationships may be fully warranted in matters of state where ideology serves survival.

Like averting conflict, ending conflict quickly is principled around the containment of investment. Prepare for each conflict in the context of how the opponent will be constrained or inspired by his own moral-ethical imperative. Success can be accelerated if the opponent is forced to resolve internal conflict before focusing resources to engage in the primary effort.  This is easily explained as an effort to make the opponent violate Principle 11.  Examine the opposing philosophical-intellectual base and moral-ethical imperative to identify faults and credibility gaps and that can be used to separate the opponent from his objective and shatter motivation. In low-level conflict, traps are merely well constructed argument, illustration and negotiation. Thus…When conflict is warranted and engagement becomes probable, the probability of success is exponentially increased by full preparation for the contact.   

  • Know the environment and the players

  • Think early and think often to differentiate truth-virtue from false-evil.

  • Deploy truth-virtue as weapons to undermine false-evil ideas

  • Act early and often to innovate products-methods and consolidate gains.

  • Never surrender.

Michael Breeden is an active duty Air Force Chief Master Sergeant at the Pentagon. (HQ/AF special operations division). His primary work is development of the Air Force ground warriors known as Battlefield Airmen. This is his first contribution to Defense and the National Interest.  E-mail comments to Chief Breeden at .


[i]John Boyd, Strategic Game of Interaction and Isolation Slide 14