Principles of War in Culture War

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Principles that govern every form of conflict are constant in all possible scenarioes. The need for mobility, surprise, etc. will never fade away. But weapons and tactics are not constant — rocks, bows, guns, triremes, torpedoes, etc. vary from era to era, and war to war. Electronic countermeasures played no role whatever in the battle of Lepanto.

Those who are merely competent in the use of a particular weapon are followers. They may be very competent indeed, but that is not the issue. They are also essential to success of any campaign, but if they are promoted to the level where principled strategic thinking is necessary, they will also be essential to the failure of that campaign.

Those who comprehend the principles involved are effective leaders. I would go so far as to say that this is one of the fundamental characteristics of effective leadership. Who is competent to see the dividing line between leaders and would-be leaders? Both kinds of people think they are leaders, but only one truly knows.

In an egalitarian culture, however, true leadership is despised and precedence is given to technicians, bureaucrats, and various kinds of intellectual ground pounders. This means things can get fearfully skewed — we have generals who do not see the principles involved, and sergeants who do. The distinction between principles and “methods” is an objective one. However, to the one who is not gifted to see, the whole thing will appear to be a Zen exercise.

When the distinctions are observed, the result is military “wisdom.” But principles do not fight by themselves. Principles are always incarnate in a particular method. There is therefore always something there to distract and confuse somebody who isn’t thinking.

Here is a brief list of the principles of war. They were developed on the field of battle, but they apply to any situation where conflict or competition is occurring. Reformers are concerned to win what have come to be called the “culture wars,” and unless we recover an understanding of these principles, and learn to apply them to the conflicts we are in, then such a win is impossible.

I will briefly list the principles, and then give some commentary on each one, looking to show how they apply to the cultural struggle we are in.

1. Objective
2. Offensive
3. Concentration
4. Mobility
5. Security
6. Surprise
7. Cooperation
8. Communication
9. Economy of Force
10. Pursuit

The first principle answers the question — what are we trying to achieve? Now of course, there are objectives and subordinate objectives. For many Reformed types, the phrase “do all to the glory of God” has assumed mantra-like status. After all, does not the Shorter Catechism tell us what the chief end of man is? Yes, it does, and it does so correctly. That is the ultimate objective, and it should be there.

But it is not enough to acknowledge this in a perfunctory way that affirms the ultimate objective while failing to work toward that ultimate objective by means of intelligently ascertained subordinate objectives.

The subordinate objectives should better be identified as nested within a hierarchy of ascending objectives. Now every principle must be clothed in a particular method. In the same way, the objective cannot be pursued simply by acknowledging the rightness of the objective. The objective must be pursued by particular actions, which must be layered within an ascending hierarchy of objectives.

Thus, whenever something is done, the objective should relate to the ultimate reason it was done, while the thing accomplished (with which we are all pleased) could not justify itself as an ultimate objective. The clothing of the action does not reveal the objective. One man may be an activist and another a car mechanic, and share the same objective. Or two men may both be activists and not share the same objective. These distinctions cannot be maintained apart from a biblical worldview, and that worldview absolutely requires that the glory of God be the final telos of all actions, whether the actions were performed by God or man.

Takeaway point: The objective needs to be clear, and rightly nested within other, larger objectives. When the bugle blows indistinctly, no one gets ready for battle.

The second principle of war is that of offensive. These principles of war are principles of effective fighting, showing us how to engage in conflict. They are not the same as moral principles. They tell you how to fight effectively; they do not tell you whether you should be fighting. The Germans invaded Belgium, and that was taking the offensive, but that did not make it good. If your cause is good, it is also good to be observing these principles. If not, then not.

Remember the classic Reformed stance on civil resistance, which certainly limits how this principle may be employed. Evil authorities are first to have the word preached to them, and every lawful means of appeal and resistance should be applied. Secondly, it is permissible to flee persecution, what Calvin once called getting the heck out of Dodge. And third, it is permissible to take up arms against a tyrant defensively. This last shows a principled neglect of this principle of war. This is what David did when Saul fell into his hands in the cave. He failed to take the offensive, and because of it God blessed him. In failing to take one kind of offensive, he took the offensive on another level entirely.

However, if ethical considerations do not prevent one from taking the offensive, all thought and energy should be employed either in taking the offensive, or planning on how to move from defense to offense. Survival is not the goal, stalemate is not the goal, absence of collision is not the goal. Except for baseball, which is an odd one, you can’t score points unless you have the ball.

Considered generally, is the Church today in an offensive or defensive stance? Leave aside the compromised sectors of the church are, which are actively doing damage in what they do. Just think of the uncompromised sections of the Church — even there our stance is most emphatically defensive. We think we have won, for example, if we successfully prevent them from establishing homosexual marriage in our state. But that, while good, is not victory at all. You haven’t won the war simply because your city makes it another day without collapsing because of the siege.

Takeaway point: We should look for a way to stop responding to initiatives of the adversary, and start behaving in such a way that they have to figure out how to respond to us.

The third principle is concentration. Of coruse, concentration may be employed on the tactical level, but let us consider concentration on the strategic level, and not on the tactical level. Paul concentrated on the key city of Ephesus for several years in his teaching in the hall of Tyrannus, and all of Asia heard the word of the Lord. The Reformer John Calvin concentrated his efforts in the (relatively) unimportant city of Geneva, and the fact that the city was “taken” permitted hosts of refugees from other places to concentrate there, and from there to influence the continent of Europe. Preachers, books, general mayhem and trouble were all exported.

But there are two ways to concentrate. One is seen in Wheaton and Colorado Springs. This is where Christian organizations and outfits act like birds of feather. It is essentially (of course with some exceptions) a ghetto mentality. This is where you go when you want to be able to meet lots of evangelicals. But these cities are not a hissing and a byword in the unbelieving nation around, which they would be if they were practicing the other kind of concentration.

Whenever believers successfully gather, we want to take special care that we do not lapse into a ghetto mentality. The point is to make the concentration here as potent as it was in Ephesus or Geneva. And that means exporting the antithesis.

Takeaway point: Concentration is not to be pursued for the sake of a respite; it is a concentration of force, applied in ways the adversary wants you to stop. So don’t stop.

The fourth principle of war is mobility. Our tendency is to look at a principle like mobility, and immediately translate. But with this principle, a confusion between principle and method is likely to happen. For example, in the war of worldviews, in the clash of ideas, someone is likely to immediately think of the Internet as an example of mobility. And it can be. But it can also be a device which displays one’s stodginess to the whole world at the speed of light. Mobility, as far as we are concerned, is a state of mind.
Of course, in a physical war mobility has a strong physical component. Either your enemy got there first or you did. Either he was able to strike first, or you were able to. But even here, the ability to move is the result of a certain frame of mind. This frame of mind was evident in the time of preparation, and it is evident at the moment of decision.
Mobility is not demonstrated by itself. A man may be highly energetic, and have a lot of stamina, but use it all by running around in tight little circles. This principle is employed in concert with others. A panicked army in a rout is mobile. A mad dash assaulting the wrong part of the line may be mobile. Mobility is exercised when the right amount of force gets to the right place quickly. A bullet fired in the wrong direction goes just as fast.
I have said that mobility is a state of mind. Let me define this via negativa. Mobility is restricted by:
Laziness: a lazy man is full of excuses, so he is likely to point to factors outside himself which may fall in some of these other categories. But nothing will be accomplished in any realm unless we learn to work like Protestants used to.
Cowardice: fear of what might happen at the end of the march often leads some folks to delay or cancel the march. Like the lieutenent in Ambrose Bierce’s small story, we are concerned that any further display of valor on the part of our troops might bring us into contact with the enemy.
Uncertainty: a man might be fully willing to do the right thing if only he had epistemic certainty concerning what it was. But he cannot have this. We have to walk by faith.
Confusion: a man may have great confidence, but mobilize all his resources to do the wrong thing at the wrong place. Or the right thing at the wrong place. Or the wrong thing at the right place.
Complacency: a man might not do something because he believes that it is not necessary to do.
Takeaway point: Mobility remembers that an army is supposed to fight, and it is supposed to fight as quickly as effectively possible.
Then we come to security. Security cannot be a stand alone principle. Guarding oneself against the possibility of defeat is important, but prudent security is not the same thing as “risk-free” warfare. A war in which there is no possibility of things going wrong is not really a war.

We are to live up to what we have already attained, and we are not to let it go. But, to mix the metaphor, this is not to be a talent buried in the ground. This secured ground is to be used as the basis for our attack on the enemy. Thus, security must always be married to “offensive,” and be thought of as a means to that end.

We are to comport ourselves in such as way that the enemy is either unaware that we are doing anything, or is unaware of what we are doing. Security can be good because we are (still) marshaling our forces, and the enemy does not know there is an enemy in the field. Or, security can be good because we are not chatterboxes. If a pastor is invited into an unbelieving forum should he (as a general rule) want to go? Sure. But if he goes, he should talk like a football coach in a pregame interview. He should say things like “we want to concentrate on moving the ball.” He should give absolutely nothing away that he does not want the enemy to know and act upon.

Takeaway point: Keep your game plan to yourself, but not in a furtive, guilty way. An intelligent adversary should know that there are things you are up to that he knows nothing about.

The sixth principle is surprise. There are many ways to surprise an enemy, but in our current culture wars, I would urge us to strive to surprise the adversary in the following ways:

1. Treating their Revolution as the Establishment;
2. Cultivating a sunny Calvinism;
3. Nurturing all their virtues;
4. Stealing all their thunder;
5. And assuming the stance of an optimistic outsider.

They should constantly be having to put out yet another fire that you started in some unexpected place. And each time should make them think, “what next?,” before they guess wrong.

Takeaway point: Effective surprise is frequently the result of an effective use of some of the other principles combined (e.g. security and mobility). You should want to make all their surprises unpleasant.

The seventh principle is cooperation. This is a principle that receives a different emphasis here than in the book Principles of War. In that book, the emphasis (quite good) was on what might be called evangelical ecumenicism. As with so many other situations, our behavior is directed by what kind of analogies we use. For example, in that book, it is obvious that competition between the Army and Navy is unspeakable folly in the face of a common foe. But suppose it is not a matter of two branches of the armed forces, but one of an army and a separated band of mutineers? Now what should we do? Or suppose that a supported regiment is commanded by a blockhead? Should a wise general depend on him or try to work around him?

Many theological/doctrinal issues work into this. Should we cooperate with evangelical Arminians? Should we cooperate with strict regulativists? Should we cooperate with charismatics? The answer to the question should be settled by whether or not Christ is cooperating with them. Always remember the crucial distinction between fellowship and leadership. We may cooperate with someone in worship, for example, without having to maintain that he is the next John Knox.

Takeaway point: Strategic differences are not moral differences, but they are still important to the issue of leadership and cooperation. You can believe that someone ought not be a general without breaking fellowship with him, or making it personal.

The next principle is communication. When the principle of communication is being considered it is very important for us to remember the headship of Jesus Christ over His body, the Church. The right hand does not communicate with the left hand, but rather with the head. When this happens, the right and left hand cooperate. When it does not, the body functions (to that extent) in a spastic fashion.

God speaks to us in Scripture. We must have a high view of the authority of the Word, and we must have a hermeneutic that does justice to this view. With regard to the former, the classical Protestant view of sola Scriptura is that the Bible is the only infallible and ultimate rule for faith and practice. With regard to the latter, we must eschew all forms of modernity (arrogant epistemology) and postmodernity (arrogant skepticism).

We communicate with God in:

1. Corporate worship: Public worship is far more important that private or family worship. The latter are crucial, but one of the main blessings of them are found in the impact they have on public worship.

2. Private prayer: We are also instructed to pray without ceasing, be devoted to prayer, etc.

3. Communication horizontally: When close communication with God is occurring, it is safe to maintain close ties with like-minded believers elsewhere.

Takeaway point: Security and communication must be balanced. Communication must be restricted enough that the adversary has no access to it, and open enough that everyone who needs to know does know.

Then we come to economy of force. Armies fight and mobs fight. But a mob has no notion of precision. Mobs try to kill an ant with a baseball bat.

The key here is that we must be motivated by obedience, not by personal vendettas or malice. Someone who hates may fight enthusiastically, but necessarily without wisdom. We do not strike because it is “fun” or simply because it would make the adversary mad.

In our culture wars, the unbelieving world is enormous. We must not assume we must attack all along the front with everything we have. This would neglect concentration, as well as deplete our resources, violating economy of force. In other words, pick your battles carefully and then use the force it takes at that point of battle. The point is not to fight, the point is to fight and win that particular field. What will it take to do that?

In addition, fighting everywhere, all the time, is likely to distort God’s redemptive intention for the world. As we look at the unbelieving world, we should see it as that which the war is over, and not simply who we are fighting with. This is a war of libertation. We are fighting with slave-masters over their slaves.

Takeaway point: Economy of force means that we steer away from a “shock and awe” approach. The point is to be effective, and not to show off. The American military is not the first massively strong military to think that such strength can be substituted for principled thinking.

And last, pursuit. Christians are peace-loving people, and this sometimes gets them into trouble. Too often we drag a problem out, and make the whole thing last ten times longer than it has to be. But when the principle of pursuit is employed, it is clear that victory is the objective.

As Agag thought: “Surely the time of bitterness is past.” But it wasn’t. We are not to fight to the point of predominance, we are to fight to the point of complete victory.

Pursuit is the principle neglected by the currently strong. Many wars have been prolonged because the victorious army did not press its advantage in the immediate aftermath of a critical battle.

Takeaway point: The complete victory is not as close as it appears.

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10 years ago

Pretty Heavy!