Military theory is the analysis of normative behavior and trends in military affairs and military history, beyond simply describing events in war.
Theories and conceptions of warfare have varied in different places throughout human history. The Chinese Sun Tzu is recognized by scholars to be one of the earliest military theorists. His now-iconic Art of War laid the foundations for operational planning, tactics, strategy and logistics.
Military theories, especially since the influence of Clausewitz in the nineteenth century, attempt to encapsulate the complex cultural, political and economic relationships between societies and the conflicts they create. These military theories can encompass tactics like divide and rule, starving out defenders, etc.
Understanding what military theory is
Knowing what military theory is, and what it is not, is vital. It helps identify what writings further our understanding of war and warfare, and guides professional military education and research for future doctrine and training. This work answers the questions of what military theory is, where it sits within the wider context of the study of conflict, and which theorists are key in defining its body of knowledge.
Many military professionals and academics outline the importance of military theory and the need to study it. Some, like Colin Gray, even highlight how understanding it allows the profession of arms to better adapt in war. Given these wise words, would it not seem important to know ‘what’ military theory is? Is it not significant to know who has shaped it? How do we, as professionals, tell if something is military theory, or just opinion and conjecture? Knowing what military theory is, and what it is not, is vital. It helps identify what writings further our understanding of war and warfare, and guides professional military education and research for future doctrine and training. This work answers the questions of what military theory is, where it sits within the wider context of the study of conflict, and which theorists are key in defining its body of knowledge.
Military theory is a field of study that seeks to understand the phenomena of war and its links to wider conflict; and provides a framework for the valid creation and dissemination of the knowledge of war and warfare. In other words, military theory is the epistemology of war. This definition highlights that research into military theory is grounded in the philosophy of scientific inquiry and, much like applied history, must use broad scientific methods – using hypothesis and empirical data based in history; not just a single incident, war or technological advancement – to develop its concepts. Understanding this also provides a guide to test whether a new or modern idea is effective ‘military theory’, or merely ‘military notion’. The definition also indicates that the focus of military theory is the development of first principles knowledge about war and warfare. It is this knowledge that allows planners, commanders and senior decision makers to adapt their know-how of war fighting to changing situations, environments and political objectives. It is also this knowledge that can be enhanced through wider study.
The analysis of what military theory is, also demonstrates where military theory fits within wider academic disciplines. Although other humanities disciplines like history can support military theory, its focus on applied theory gives it strong links to other applied social sciences like political science, international relations and economics. These other disciplines overlap with military theory, and provide an avenue to potentially advance military theory’s understanding of power, influence and war’s wider links to conflict. Such links assist in broadening the military theory body of knowledge – a body of knowledge that is not codified, but is instead shaped by foundational theorists.
Understanding what military theory is and who shapes it lays the foundation to allow the profession to debate where future advancements in military theory should focus to best support planners, commanders and senior decision makers.
- Clausewitz, Carl Von (1976). On War. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Revised 1984 ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05657-9.
- Sun Tzu (2003). The Art of War. New York City: Barnes & Noble Books. ISBN 978-1-59308-016-7.
- Australian Army Research Centre https://researchcentre.army.gov.au/