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The Logical Structure of Offense-Defense Theories,

and why better theories lead to worse histories

Gideon Y. Akavia
gideon.akavia@gmail.com
Draft, April 2000
Abstract
All efforts to define the offense-defense balance and to propose one grand offense-defense theory
face serious difficulty, because they mix different kinds of theories that should be discussed
separately.
When people expect war and prepare for it, they may make it more likely. The belief that attack is
easy and that an early attack will lead to decisive results may, for example, be an immediate cause
for the outbreak of war, but it should not be taken to be the deep underlying cause of war.
Moreover, the possibility of such offense-dominance is strongly dependent on circumstances, and is
not usually a general characteristic of the international system at a given time.
Success in a major war usually depends on the ability of the opponents to combine their many
offensive and defensive moves into a coherent whole, not on one successful offensive. Offensedefense theories have little, therefore, to teach us about major war.
Any discussion of long-term historical processes, like the growth and maintenance of empires, has
to embed military affairs in a much more general framework, including the possibility of efficient
utilization of economic resources and of manpower. The words offense and defense are neither
required nor appropriate for such a discussion.
Those whose main interest was nuclear deterrence and war prevention may have misread the
historical lessons of conventional war. We should be wary of strong theories, which aim to offer a
calculus of events, and which claim to identify law-like regularities. But weak theories of offense
and defense can and do achieve a more modest goal: to make us aware of the many different factors
involved, and to train our critical ability to evaluate the role and influence of these different factors
in any specific context.

Table of Contents
Introduction ................................................................................................................................3
Defining Offense and Defense ...................................................................................................6
Offensive and Defensive Aims ...............................................................................................7
Offensive and Defensive Actions ...........................................................................................8
A Pure Strategy Is Not Possible ..............................................................................................9
Defining and Estimating the Offense-Defense Balance ...........................................................10
Defining the Offense-Defense Balance by Cost ...................................................................11
Defining the Offense-Defense Balance by Goals and Outcomes .........................................12
First-Move Advantage and the Offense-Defense Balance ....................................................14
First-Moves and Later Stages ...............................................................................................15
Optimality of the Offense-Defense Balance .........................................................................16
Technology, Mobility, Firepower and Terrain......................................................................17
Sytem-Wide or Dyadic Balance? ..........................................................................................19
On the Limited Ability to Measure the Balance ...................................................................20
Summary, and a Military-Technical Definition of the Balance ............................................22
Theoretical Conclusions from Offense-Defense Theories .......................................................23
The Outbreak of War and Crisis-Instability ..........................................................................23
The Outbreak of War and War in Its Entirety.......................................................................26
Offense-Defense Theory and Macro-History .......................................................................28
The Role and Power of Theories ..............................................................................................33
The First World War and Nuclear Deterrence..........................................................................37
Conclusion ................................................................................................................................42
Notes.........................................................................................................................................44

The Logical Structure of Offense-Defense Theories:


Why a Better Theory Leads to a Worse History

Introduction
The role of offense in war, and in bringing war about, has been commented on by many.
Obviously, without offensive capabilities and offensive acts no war will take place. It is not
accidental that when the prophet Isaiah envisioned a future without war he spoke of beating swords
into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks, not about beating shields into pots. Arms control
efforts between the world wars likewise concentrated on offensive weapons.1
During the 1980s much systematic work was devoted to the role of offense, which work led to two
major arguments. The first is that offensive attitudes, offensive military doctrines, and offensive
weapon systems are sometimes adopted not because they contribute to national security, but
because they serve the organizational interests of the military services.2 The second argument is that
offensive attitudes, doctrines and weapons may actually lessen rather than improve national
security, and may actually be important causes of war, as has happened most famously when the
cult of the offensive led to the First World War. This second argument is a part of what has been
called the offense-defense theory, which has elucidated many causal pathways for the pernicious
influence of the offensive to cast its shadow on international politics, and has identified many
intervening variables.3
The offense-defense theory is an impressive combination of social science, of a deep rereading of
history, and of strong convictions that, in our nuclear age, it is especially important to protect the
world from the dangers caused by offensive doctrines and forces. But the offense-defense theory
also has its opponents. One common argument of the opponents is that the basic concept of the
offense-defense theory the offense-defense balance is not and cannot be well defined, and that,

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as a superstructure built on shaky foundations, the offense-defense theory is therefore less than
compelling.4
Several recent works have clarified the state-of-the-art of offense-defense theory. Van Evera offers
a better formulation of its hypothesis, explains how to test its predictions, and argues that it gains
support from many of its tests.5 Glaser and Kaufmann offer a clearer definition of the offensedefense balance, and argue that it can be measured.6 But these recent clarifications did not remain
unchallenged.7 I agree with many of the points raised by these recent challengers, but I feel we can
do more to clarify the issues, if we analyze systematically the logical structure of offense-defense
theories. My purpose here is to offer such an analysis, which will elucidate some weaknesses of the
theories, and their possible role and utility.
For example, I shall argue that the difficulties preventing an agreement on an appropriate definition
of the offense-defense balance are not incidental but substantial. We actually face not one but many
offense-defense theories, of three major types: those theories that discuss the outbreak of war and
crisis instability; those that discuss the course and result of great wars, viewed in their entirety; and
those that discuss long-term processes, like the establishment of empires, which transcend the
duration of any one war.
Different theories show different types of dependence on the offense-defense balance, and require
different definitions of the offense-defense balance. The role and power of theories of different
types also vary. They are not all systemic to the same degree. We can not offer one grand treatment
of all aspects of international conflict and of all the different levels at which it concurrently takes
place. This is already clear when we try to define offense and defense. When we adopt a specific
point of view and focus on a specific event, it is easy to distinguish between offense and defense.
Germany obviously attacked Poland on September 1, 1939 and France on May 10, 1940. But no
major war, or campaign, can be characterized by one side always attacking, the other strictly
defending. Those involved in extended military operations always employ a mixture of offense and
defense, at different places, times, and levels.

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Many theories concentrate on the offense-defense balance at the initial stage, i.e. on the chances
that an early attack will lead to significant, even decisive, results. But this balance, between the
initial offense and the initial defense, is not a variable that can characterize the entire international
system. It depends too strongly on circumstances, especially on the ability of the attacker to surprise
the defender, and put his newly configured strengths against the defenders known weaknesses.
Whether a successful first move can lead to major results also depends strongly on circumstances.
In the midst of war, each side will try to use any opportunity to improve his situation. If war is
expected, and especially if war is considered inevitable, each side will try to get ready and to
improve his situation. Unfortunately, the very steps we undertake to prepare for war and to improve
our situation if war does break out may make war more likely. This is the general and important
insight usually described as the security dilemma.8 But I shall argue that understanding the security
dilemma cannot lead to a general offense-defense theory, and that concentrating on the offensedefense balance may mislead us into over-stressing the military-technical, and ignoring the primacy
of the political. The possible dominance, whether real or perceived, of an initial offensive can
aggravate instability and make the security dilemma more acute, but should not be taken to be the
deep underlying cause of war.
War in its entirety involves many offensive and defensive moves, and can not, in general, be
characterized by an offense-defense balance. Even if an attacker can achieve dominance in the early
stages of a war, this does not necessarily imply that an early attack will turn out to be decisive. The
final outcome in war usually depends on the ability of the opponents to combine their many
offensive and defensive moves into a coherent whole, not on one successful offensive. Offensedefense theories have little, therefore, to teach us about major war.
Any discussion of long-term historical questions, like the growth and maintenance of empires, has
to embed military affairs in a much more general framework, including, among many other factors,
the possibility of efficient utilization of economic resources and of manpower. The words offense
and defense are neither required nor appropriate for such a discussion.

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We should be wary of strong theories, which aim to offer a calculus of events, and which claim to
identify law-like regularities. But weak theories can be very important in making us aware of the
many different factors involved, and in training our critical ability to evaluate the role and influence
of these different factors in any specific context.
This paper is structured thus: I shall first survey definitions of offense and defense, and discuss the
problem of defining and estimating the offense-defense balance. I shall then formulate the various
theoretical conclusions we may derive from the offense-defense theory, and propose a distinction
between different kinds of offense-defense theories. Afterwards, I shall analyze the possible role
and power of such theories, quoting Clausewitz extensively. Before concluding I shall offer a few
comments on the First World War, which often appears as an example in discussions of offensedefense theories, and caution against trying to embed conventional and nuclear conflict in the same
conceptual framework.

Defining Offense and Defense


The terms offense and defense are often taken to be intuitive and self-evident. One philosophical
dictionary, which devotes almost a full column to defense psychological, does not mention
attack or offense at all, and devotes only one line to defense military. This one line refers
the reader to deterrence, which entry takes up more than three columns.9 But the standard
language dictionaries do offer, of course, definitions of offense and defense, which can be quite
instructive.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following as the first sense of the verb attack: To fasten
or fall upon with force or arms; to join battle with, assail, assault.10 The words fasten and join may
remind us that the word attack is related to attach, and imply closing with the enemy. The noun
attack is defined thus: The act of falling upon with force or arms, of commencing battle. Le
Grand Robert gives even more prominence, in its definition of attaque and attaquer, to the

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initiative, i.e. to starting the battle and to delivering the first blow. Robert also mentions causing
damage as one characteristic of attacking.11
The verb defend reflects the original Latin in its obsolete sense of to ward off, avert, repel,
restrain, prevent prohibit. The more modern sense is to guard from attack to protect,
vindicate. Guard from an actual attack or from some future potential threat? Because the attacker
has the initiative, the defender must do both, which means that this definition already hints at the
security dilemma.
The words used in modern Hebrew for the nouns attack and defense do not appear in the bible,
having come into use in later times. But verb forms of the same roots do appear. Those using the
root for defense have the modern meaning, but those using the root for attack were translated into
English as prevail against!12 While attack seems to signify a well-defined act, prevail implies an
enduring result, which may be quite different.
My efforts to see hints of the security dilemma, or hints of the distinction between a successful
attack and a decisive victory, notwithstanding, the dictionary definitions of the abstract and general
attack and defense seem clear enough. But in practice, when we try to distinguish offense and
defense, we can do it in two different ways: by their aims, or by their inherent characteristics as
actions.
OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE AIMS
Defining a defensive aim would appear simple to property owners, who consider it obvious that
when protecting what they have they are on the defensive. But how was property acquired in the
first place? The dispossessed may claim they are on the defensive when fighting to regain what they
have lost, or to regain what should have been an inalienable right, which right was, unfortunately,
alienated. At any given moment, we may define defensive acts as those meant to protect the status
quo, while those meant to change it are to be considered offensive. But when considering long-term
historical processes we can not accept a definition based on an entirely static conception of the
status quo, which may be unjust and ambiguous.13 Are we on the defensive when protecting our

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right to grow? When claiming, in the name of some higher principle, the right to adjust borders and
political arrangements to changes in the balance of power or the ethnic balance?
OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE ACTIONS
The ability to define offense and defense may be important if we try to justify a war as being
defensive, i.e. if we want to argue that a certain war is just because it is defensive. But such an
analysis of justice and history may not be required when trying to develop an offense-defense
theory of international relations in general and of military affairs in particular. For such purposes,
we do not have to distinguish between offensive and defensive aims, and it is enough to distinguish
between offensive and defensive means and capabilities. This seems easy enough. It is, for
example, quite clear what is meant when we say that the platoon held, i.e. defended, the hill, or
when we say that the company attacked the hill and took it. Other classifications of actions and
techniques as offensive or defensive also appear non-problematic: Offensive actions are meant to
hurt the enemy, while defensive actions are meant to prevent him from hurting us. Movement is
necessary for attack, so tanks are offensive weapons, while permanent fortifications and stationary
anti-tank weapons are defensive. Waiting is a characteristic feature of defense, while attack must
involve some initiative.14
These classifications do not appear problematic when dealing with small-scale affairs, and lead to
one and the same distinction. We are undertaking a defensive action when we hold our own, protect
ourselves, stay in place and wait, and all these characteristics of defensive actions relate them
naturally to defensive aims. But the apparent simplicity of these classifications and distinctions no
longer pertain when the fight is joined, and when we look at a military struggle in its entirety. The
defender can not, unless he gives up entirely, remains passive and immobile everywhere and at all
times. He must undertake some initiatives of his own. He must try to cause some damage to the
enemy, not just protect his own. He must mount some counter-attacks, if he wants his defensive
effort to be efficient. That is, he must undertake some actions that would be considered offensive, if
viewed in isolation.

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A P URE S TRATEGY IS NOT P OSSIBLE


Once the fight is joined, and independently of their respective aims, neither side can adopt a pure
strategy. Neither a pure defense nor a pure offense is possible. War always involves a hierarchy of
aims and means. While the aim, at some level, might be purely offensive or purely defensive,
achieving the aim means employing both offensive and defensive means. War always involves a
mixture of different actions. At some levels, places and times offensive actions might be
undertaken, while at different levels, places and times defensive actions might be undertaken.
The mixture of offensive and defensive ends and means is ever present. The immediate local
function of permanent fortifications is obviously defensive, but fortifying some area may actually
make it possible to mount an offensive elsewhere. A perfect shield may protect the perfect base for
offensive operations. Chinese rhetorics may claim that supplying Taiwan with defenses against
ballistic missiles is an aggressive act against China15, while tanks, the offensive weapon par
excellence, may be essential for the defender when he needs to counter-attack.
When in combat, every soldier is actually busy, at any given time and place, with both attacking
and defending. We could talk about the technical balance between an armor plate and an armorpiercing round. The round either penetrates, in which case the offense dominates, or it does not. But
as soon as we start talking about combat between two tanks, things become more complicated.
Each of the tanks has both armor and armor-piercing ammunition. One of the tanks may have a
greater ability to penetrate and cause damage at long range, a lesser ability at short range. One tank
may have a better slow and deliberate sharpshooting capability, while the other may be better at
rapid fire, less accurate but sometimes more useful. So even in this simple example of tank-versustank, the relative effectiveness of offense and defense depends strongly on circumstances, which
each commander tries to mold, so as to be able use his strong points against the weak points of the
opponent.
When we consider not individual soldiers and tanks but military affairs at higher military-political
levels, we see that opponents are trying both to compete with each other and to cooperate with one

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another, both to fight a given war and to construct the political context in which it is fought.16
Offense and defense are not the only two alternatives: we may try to transcend the conflict.
Because the concepts offense and defense are problematic, if applied loosely and in a general way,
we should be careful to apply them only when the context is clear and when the level at which we
want to view affairs is specified. This constraint poses a severe limit on our ability to propose
general offense-defense theories.

Defining and Estimating the Offense-Defense Balance


The most famous statement about the offense-defense balance is Clausewitzs: "...the defensive
form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive". But a few lines afterwards Clausewitz
explains that: "If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, it follows that it
should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong
enough to pursue a positive object." These two quotations are part of Clausewitzs abstract analysis
of the role of offense and defense. Defense has to be stronger, in some sense, if people who have
gone to war are sometimes willing to adopt a defensive stance despite its negative object. But in
practice people often assign advantages to offense over defense when offense has become easier
than before; or when new forms of offense have appeared, to which no immediate counter exists.
Clausewitz puts it thus: "Defense appears to fall into disrepute whenever a particular style of it has
become obsolescent."17
These quotations from Clausewitz present us with a problem: Can we bridge the gap between the
abstract insight that defense must sometime have some advantages and the ability to compare and
evaluate specific concrete cases of offense and defense? Can we define the offense-defense balance
in a way that will allow us not only to describe events after the fact but to explain and predict them?
In order to have any explanatory or predictive power, we must define the offense-defense balance
by inputs, not results. We must define it in some general way, not ad hoc and post factum. And we

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must be careful to make two distinctions. The first distinction is between the offense-defense
balance as a contingent characteristic of fleeting opportunities and the offense-defense balance as
an essential characteristic of a given historical period. The second distinction is between the real
offense-defense balance and peoples perceptions of it.
Reality is always mediated by peoples perceptions of it. Peoples perceptions of the offensedefense balance are, in this sense, a better explanation of their decisions than the real offensedefense balance. For example, if people think conquest is easy than wars are more likely; if
preparations for breakthrough operations appear easier than an aggressive policy is more likely. But
such perceptions of the offense-defense balance are notoriously difficult to analyze and measure, as
are all political estimates which depend not only on enemys capabilities but on his intentions. Most
of those who want to measure the offense-defense balance concentrate therefore on its real value,
and especially on its military-technical determinants.
DEFINING THE OFFENSE -DEFENSE BALANCE BY COST
The probability of an attack succeeding depends, of course, not only on the offense-defense balance
but also on the relative size of the opponents. In general, one should distinguish between extensive
measures like size, mass, and power, and intensive measures like skill and offense-defense
balance.18 Glaser and Kaufmann suggest, therefore, that the probability of success should be
calculated by the product of the balance-of-power with the offense-defense balance. As for the
offense-defense balance itself, they suggest the following definition: "the ratio of the cost of the
forces the attacker requires to take territory to the cost of the forces the defender has deployed."19
This definition of Glaser and Kaufmann makes a lot of sense, especially if we use the offensedefense theory in order to argue about the budget. But it suffers from some major problems. The
first is that the ratio of peace time costs is too static a measure and is not comprehensive enough for
a discussion of a security policy. What we have to compare, when thinking about an extended
conflict and analyzing it, is not two numbers, or even four numbers, but two series of numbers, two
dynamic processes and their development over time.

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What the attacker is trying to do is to impose on the defender expenses that the defender can not
afford, at a certain place and time, and then to utilize the partial success thus achieved. If we want to
use the analogy with credit and commerce, an analogy which is at least as old as Clausewitz, the
defender will lose when he has a severe cash flow problem, even if he is not poor.20
For example, one could claim that the American Strategic Defense Initiative has made an important
contribution to breaking up the Soviet system. But does this show that defense was cheaper than
offense? Not necessarily, and it may not even be clear who was on the defensive in this case. It is
clear, though, that the Americans adopted an initiative they could afford, at least in the short run,
while the Russians could not. This initiative was successful, according to this argument, because it
capitalized on American strengths and succeeded in focusing them against Russian weaknesses.
Evaluating options for a security policy by their cost and effectiveness is common and natural. In
the competitions between sides, each should try to be cost-effective at the margin. But the defense
budget in its entirety may not be marginal, so should we compare the cost of offense and defense as
percent of the GNP? The GNP itself is an extensive measure, which should be a part of the
definition of power, but the willingness to devote a significant portion of the GNP to security is an
intensive measure. The willingness to invest in defense may be different from the willingness to
invest in offense, so should we include this willingness in the definition of the offense-defense
balance? This willingness to invest may be too soft a concept, which requires, once again, an
analysis of the political context.
The suggestion that we base a definition of the offense-defense balance on the ratio of costs suffers
from an additional problem: we should use more than one dimension when comparing offense and
defense. It is not enough to compare the expenditures of treasure. Blood, sweat, and tears should
also be taken into account. So should we, for example, include the willingness to sustain casualties
in the definition of the offense-defense balance? In modern democracies even the willingness to
inflict casualties cannot be taken for granted. The context has to be right.
DEFINING THE OFFENSE -DEFENSE BALANCE BY GOALS AND OUTCOMES

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Glaser and Kaufmann themselves point out another problem with their definition of offensedefense balance: it depends on the attackers territorial goals.21 We suspect that the same situation
will prevail with any other definition: the offense-defense balance will depend on the size of the
offense under consideration. So should we evaluate the offense-defense balance by the final
outcome, by the war in its entirety? If so, it would not make sense to measure only the peace-time
costs, and we would do better to consider the cost of the entire war. But how can we identify the
war in its entirety? The answer to this question is clear only in retrospect, if that, and can be argued
about endlessly.
Lynn-Jones suggests that we assess the offense-defense balance by asking whether existing
technology makes it relatively easy for a state to use an offensive strategy to conquer another state
of equal strength.22 In this simple case, both the extent of the war and its outcome are clear and
unequivocal, especially if one of the states involved lost its independence, and it is obviously true
that smaller players may sometimes lose their independent existence as a result of conquest. But it
is unusual for a conflict between states of comparable strength to reach such an outcome. For a
major player, even being conquered is usually a temporary phase, as we can see from the examples
of France in 1871 and Germany in 1945.
The tendency to think of war as a cataclysmic event with well-defined extent, goals, and results
may be misleading, as explained repeatedly by historians dealing with the long term.23 Guilmartin,
for example, concludes his paper The wars of the Ottoman Empire, 1453-1606, with the
following: the inherent bias of Western historiography toward major wars, big battles, and field
and naval operations interferes with our ability to understand war and its causes.24 Wars are often
just one aspect of extended conflicts, which are usually decided less by one major and dramatic
attack and more by the accumulated effect of long term political and economic processes.
I have already described many reasons why it is difficult to offer general definitions of offense,
defense, and the offense-defense balance. In a given context the meaning of the terms offense and
defense may be quite clear and intuitive, and it may be straightforward for practitioners to try and

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estimate the offense-defense balance. Theoreticians, of course, strive for general definitions, but
even they have to accept limitations, which can be problematic. Because Glaser and Kaufmann are
so careful and clear in their treatment of the offense-defense balance, it is easy to mine their work
for examples of such limitations and the resulting problematique.
F IRST-M OVE ADVANTAGE AND THE OFFENSE -DEFENSE BALANCE
Glaser and Kaufmann explain that "treating first-move advantages as part of the offense-defense
balance would create confusion", since the balance would then depend on who moves first - it may
be the strategic defender! - and on the level of alert on both sides. That makes the balance
dependent on many variables and on the development of the crisis, and therefore not a useful
measure. Glaser and Kaufmann suggest therefore that the balance be assessed by envisioning wars
"in which offensives are launched after the country that moves second has had the opportunity to
react to the other's first move, thereby offsetting the advantage of the first move."25
I agree that the advantages of a first strike or of a surprise attack are not the same as a general
offensive advantage, and that the dependence of the offense-defense balance on many variables and
on the development of the crisis makes analysis difficult. But I consider the suggestion to excise the
first-move advantage entirely unacceptable. The connection between the offensive and the initiative
is of the essence. The connection between fighting and initiative is of the essence.26
Armies are well aware of the importance of the initiative, and use every opportunity to impress it on
the soldiers. The importance of the initiative in any extended conflict can be explained by general,
abstract principles: Only if junior leaders and soldiers achieve some partial result can the more
senior commander mold the overall battle to their purpose. But some important human factors
should also be stated. Battles are fought in conditions of extreme physical hardship. The temptation
to rest, to sleep, to do nothing, is pervasive, and it is very important not to succumb to this
temptation. A few men who remain active while others cease can greatly influence tactical affairs27,
and even a small action or inaction can change the balance in war. The simple decision to return fire
may be an act of very important initiative, and not only because it draws the enemy's attention to

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you.28 On the other hand, when battle is imminent and people are highly excited, it may be very
difficult to keep them from acting before the time is right. Soldiers under attack at night, for
example, may use up most of their ammunition before the enemy gets within range.29 The great
achievement of the Greek commander at Marathon, explains Delbruck, was his ability to get his
men to change from the defensive to the offensive at the right moment, and not too soon.30
Griffith makes a similar point when talking about Wellingtons infantry: [I]t was the British ability
not to fire at the wrong moments, rather than their skill in musketry, which enabled them to get the
best from their weapons.31
To return to Glaser and Kaufmann and to their definition of the offense-defense balance: If we were
willing to assume away the first-move advantage, why not assume away the first three moves? The
first seventeen moves? When does the initial period end and the main part of the conflict start? The
dependence of results on the scenario, and on the interaction between the actions of one side and
the actions of the other, is of the essence of extended conflict. It makes no sense to remedy this
difficulty of measuring the offense-defense balance by changing the definition, since this difficulty
is inherent to the concepts offense and defense, and to any effort to analyze them in an abstract and
general way.
F IRST-M OVES AND LATER S TAGES
It is not possible, in general, to separate the initial stages of a conflict, where the results are
somewhat contingent, from its later stages, which demonstrate a more stable and permanent
'reality', and therefore a supposedly clearer offense-defense balance. I agree that had we wanted to
estimate the possible results of a war between a tank-heavy attack and an anti-tank defense, on
NATO central front, it would have been better to rely on the analogy of the later stages of the
Second World War. One should not try to derive an offense-defense balance from the earlier stages
of that war, even though their results were of great importance to the millions who lived and died
under Nazi rule. But it is equally unclear that we can derive an offense-defense balance from the
later stages.

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At the military-technical level, in the later stages of the Second World War the allies were attacking
German defenses, while Germans made the most of a bad situation, defending their earlier
conquests. But was this skillful defense a success? Or did it serve only to lengthen a futile struggle,
with all it entailed? Does the allied victory demonstrate an offense dominance, or the willingness of
Britain and its empire, of the USA, and especially of the Soviet Union, to invest a large enough
effort in combatting Nazi Germany?
The point is, once again, that the lines delineating large events like the Second World War - or the
two World Wars and the inter-war years as a single unit - are clear only in retrospect, if that. It is
not possible to characterize such large events by one side attacking while the other is defending.
Large events and long term processes involve a large number of actions and reactions, offenses and
defenses. The problem of extracting benefits from partial results, of marshalling resources, and of
managing the various strands of strategy, can not be reduced to one analytic measure.
OPTIMALITY OF THE OFFENSE -DEFENSE BALANCE
The difficulty of treating the first-move advantage, when defining the offense-defense balance, is
part of a more general problem: how should we treat cases when one of the sides misjudges the
situation or is ill-prepared?
Glaser and Kaufmann argue that an "offense-defense theory must assume that states act optimally",
and make "the best possible decisions", so that the calculated offense-defense balance will be
independent of variables like skill, doctrine, and deployment 32. I consider this suggestion
unacceptable, because a large-scale international conflict is not a suitable subject for a simple
optimization. Such a conflict is a multi-leveled, multi-faceted, and multi-sided game. Different
players may not have the same willingness to take risks, may act under different internal-politics
constraints, and may be influenced different trade-offs between possible short-term benefits and
long-term benefits. Different players may evaluate differently various kinds of costs. Even after a
war is fought and won, the arguments about the merits of policy go on. The fact that one can not
know what is "optimal" is of the essence of war. Glaser and Kaufmann explain that if we cannot

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estimate whether an attacker will succeed, then we cannot measure the offense-defense balance,
and add in a footnote: The better our understanding of war, the narrower the bands of uncertainty
around our estimate of the balance.33 I do not share their optimism. Uncertainty is of the essence,
and cannot be significantly avoided even if we do improve our understanding. The uncertainty is
inherent in the hierarchical structure of aims and means, and in the somewhat paradoxical logic
which controls the interaction between actions and reactions.
TECHNOLOGY , M OBILITY, FIREPOWER AND TERRAIN
Should we adopt a narrow or a broad approach when defining the offense-defense balance? LynnJones adopts a narrow approach and concentrates on the influence of military technology on the
offense-defense balance, because this approach is common in the literature he argues with, and
because technology is, in principle, available to all states in a given international system and
therefore is a systemic variable. But even he explains the important influence of other factors on
the strategies states adopt.34 Glaser and Kaufmann argue for the broad approach, and explain that it
is required by their definition of the offense-defense balance.35 My sympathies are with those
arguing that a broad approach is required. The problem, though, is that the effects of many of the
factors depend strongly on the interactions between them, on the context, and on the level of
decision-making and time-horizon under consideration.
For example, it is common to explain that improved mobility favors the offense while improved
firepower favors the defense. At a certain abstract level, this is clear: if the attacker can not move,
he will not be able to reach the territory of defender, while firepower allows the defender to hinder
the movement of the attacker without going out to meet him. But in practice, when considering the
interplay between measures and countermeasures in different times, places, and levels, this is much
less clear. The ability to concentrate firepower, rather than its mere existence, may be important
when evaluating its influence on the offense-defense balance. Tukhachevskii, writing in 1928 about
the First World War, has therefore used the following characterization: Machine-guns and
ammunition are defensive resources, while artillery guns and tanks, whose firepower can be
concentrated, are offensive resources.36

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A new kind of mobility may allow the attacker to surprise the defender, but when both sides have
adjusted to an improved and mature mobility, it does not necessarily lead to an advantage for the
attacker. Under certain conditions, highly mobile weapon systems like tanks or attack helicopters
may be more important for the defender than for the attacker. 37 Two examples will suffice to
illustrate this. While tanks were developed during First World War as a tactical device to help make
breakthrough possible, of greater importance in Second World War was their operational mobility,
which was often skillfully used by the defender, when counterattacking. Railways gave the North a
strategic offensive advantage in the American Civil War, and gave Germany a strategic advantage
when attacking on two fronts in the opening stages of the First World War. But, during the
following years of trench warfare, railways gave an important operational advantage to the
defender. They made it easier to for the defender to move reserves to an attacked sector, in order to
re-stabilize it after the attacker has achieved some initial success, than it was for the attacker to
capitalize on his early success.
Another factor whose influence on the offense-defense balance seems clear at first glance, but
which turns out to be problematic, is terrain. Glaser and Kaufmann explain that "terrain that
provides cover... - such as forests, mountains, and cities - strengthens defense."38 But, as the
Germans demonstrated in May 1940, forests and mountains can serve the attacker very well.
Clausewitz explains that the difficulty of moving in the mountains can combine with the physical
strength of an individual post and allow a small defending force to significantly delay the attacker.
But if the mission is to seriously defend a whole mountain range against an attacker who has
concentrated his forces, then the defender will suffer from his inability to move his forces and
concentrate them for a counter-attack.39 This is the same argument for the importance of mobility to
the defender that we have made before. It is difficult to generalize about the offense-defense
balance, because the balance-in-the-small and the balance-in-the-large are not necessarily the same
Large geographical features appear to be a most permanent part of our environment. But even the
influence of such features on the offense-defense balance depends on circumstances, and on the

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kind of attack and defense under consideration. The seas once made the British islands very
vulnerable to many successive waves of early invaders. The Dutch Admiral De Ruyter, for
example, entered the Thames and attacked Gravesend, within 20 miles of London, on the June 14,
1667. 40 But when Britannia came to rule the seas they have become the most important safeguard
of the realm. Even Napoleon and Hitler could not invade England before achieving command of
the sea, which they never did.
That the apparently intuitive and simple influence of individual factors, like mobility, firepower,
and terrain, on the offense-defense balance is not valid in general, is part of a bigger issue. The large
number of factors that can influence the offense-defense balance make the international system a
very complex one, and therefore impossible to characterize in general. Especially worrisome is the
sometimes paradoxical interaction between action and reaction, and between the different
hierarchical levels involved in war. A tactical success can lead to an operational failure. An
operational success can lead to a strategic failure. A military success can lead to political-diplomatic
failure. What appears to be an immediate success may turn out to be a failure in the long run. Early
success is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for final success. Feigning failure is one of
the oldest ruses de guerre. An early failure, either real or feigned, can lead to a later and more
substantial success.41
S YTEM -W IDE OR DYADIC BALANCE ?
Many writers on offense-defense theory hope that they can identify one factor or several factors that
influence the international system as a whole.42 Glaser and Kaufmann adopt the opposite view and
explain that it is better to define an offense-defense balance "for specific dyads of states, not for the
entire international system". I agree. But if the offense-defense balance characterizes only a given
pair of states, rather than a larger part of the international system, at a certain time in history, than
the offense-defense theory is much less useful. I agree that "within each dyad of states there are
really two offense-defense balances:" depending on which side is attacking.43 But even these two
balances do not serve as a good enough basis for answering the policy question each side must
answer. For after considering the relative strengths and weaknesses of all involved, each side has to

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answer the following question: What is the better way to further my goals. Even if one could
characterize some possible strategies as either offensive or defensive, they may be difficult to
compare because they are not usually serving the same goals. It is common to assert that if attack is
cheaper, in some sense, than the opposing defense, then attacking is better than defending.44 But
this assertion is, to my mind, an error in logic. For it confuses the relative strength of offense and
the opposing defense with the relative merit of the offensive and defensive options, when judged by
a player who has to choose between them.
ON THE LIMITED ABILITY TO MEASURE THE BALANCE
When countering the claim that the offense-defense balance cannot be measured Glaser and
Kaufmann are arguing that assessments of large-scale conflicts can often be simplified, that
measuring the balance is no more difficult than performing net assessment, and that even rough
estimates of the balance can be useful. All these arguments have merit, but they all limit the role of
the offense-defense balance.
For example, I agree that measuring the offense-defense balance can be simplified if we can focus
"on one campaign or theater of operations whose outcome will be critical", as many people did
when debating NATO Central Front.45 People do tend to concentrate on a small number of standard
scenarios, which reduces organizational uncertainty and create a common base and a common
language for peace-time staff work - for planning, for doctrine, and for training.46
The offense-defense balance can offer a good characterization of a standard scenario, and help us
estimate how well we are prepared for this standard scenario. But the offense-defense balance in the
standard scenario cannot characterize a major war or an extended conflict because it does not take
enough into consideration the existence of an active opponent. The problem with ballpark estimates
is that it is not always clear which park we are playing in. If we are well prepared for a certain
standard scenario, then it is very likely that this scenario will not materialize, for the opponent will
then choose a different course of action.

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For example, the offense-defense balance in the Golan Heights can not fully characterize the
Syrian-Israeli conflict, because Syria is using every opportunity to threaten Israel by other means,
like ballistic missiles and chemical weapons, and to entangle Israel in other theaters, like Lebanon.
A major argument sometimes revolves around the following question: which ballpark should we
concentrate on? NATO concentrated for many years on Germany, while some analysts argued that
the possibility of a conflict with the Soviet Union in the Persian Gulf, or the strategic implications
of Soviet activities in Africa, were neglected. These points may seem like shadows of old
nightmares, but the theoretical question these points raise is still with us: How do we choose the
standard scenario? How do we choose the ballpark for which we prepare ourselves? To argue that
"many debates over particular net assessments are not about the validity of the analytic tools but
rather about scenarios" is not much of an encouragement, for the dependence on scenarios is, once
again, an inherent limitation.47
If we can concentrate on a given scenario, then we can perform net assessments, measure the
offense-defense balance, and use ballpark estimates. Military-technical figures of merit, like the
offense-defense balance, can help us estimate what will happen in the initial, military stages of a
war. But they cannot help us estimate the military-political developments that will follow, and the
later course of the war. I agree that lessening the chance that a Soviet blitzkrieg in the north German
plain would succeed was important for stability. But people have started wars with worse odds, if
they thought war is inevitable, or if they thought the alternatives to war are politically unacceptable.
The German decision to attack, in both world wars, was most probably not based on the assumption
that attack was easy, but rather on the assumption that it was better than the available alternatives.48
An estimate of the offense-defense balance, whether correct or biased, may have been less
important for Hitler than his political estimate that Britain and the USA will accept a fait accompli
on the continent, and will eventually condone or even support a German effort against the Soviet
Union. Because the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact left him free to act in the West, and because
he felt an early decision in the West was politically required, Hitler was enthusiastic when Manstein
proposed a plan showing that such an attack was feasible. There was no reason for Hitler to

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compare the costs of such an attack with the costs of the allied defense. The point was that the
proposed attack was likely enough to succeed and to fulfill what he considered to be politically
required.
S UMMARY , AND A M ILITARY -TECHNICAL DEFINITION OF THE BALANCE
I think it is clear by now that we do not have a definition and a theory which allow us to measure
the offense-defense balance in a general way. All we have are guidelines that may help us estimate
the balance between a specific offense and a specific defense, in a specific context. The efforts to
develop an offense-defense theory have identified a large number of factors that may influence the
offense-defense balance, but have not produced a theory that calculates the combined influence of
these factors, which depends strongly on circumstances.
Rather than stressing the influence of specific features, like mobility or firepower, if I had to define
the offense-defense balance I would stress a more abstract point. What determines the offensedefense balance in a specific context is the ability of the attacker to concentrate his effort at a
chosen point and against a chosen subset of the capabilities of the defender, while denying or
suppressing the ability of the defender to deploy and employ his own forces. It is especially
important for the attacker to deny the defender his ability to concentrate his forces for a counterattack. This definition is military-technical it assumes the military goals are given, and does not
consider the possible political results of a successful attack. This definition explicitly grants the
attacker the first-move advantage he is free to choose the method of attack so that the defender
will most probably find himself in a non-optimal situation.
The problem with this definition of the influence of various factors on the offense-defense balance
is that it is too difficult to operationalize. My abstract definition can help us see how people are
thinking about offense and defense, and help us explain results. But it does not enable us to predict
results, and therefore can not serve as a basis for general predictions about international relations in
the large.

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Theoretical Conclusions from Offense-Defense Theories


Before surveying the various conclusions that may be drawn from the large variety of offensedefense theories, we should distinguish among three categories of conclusions. We can use an
offense-defense theory in order to discuss the outbreak of war and crisis instability; in order to
discuss the result and influence of major wars, viewed in their entirety; or in order to discuss longterm processes, like the establishment of empires, that transcend the duration of any one war.
THE OUTBREAK OF WAR AND CRISIS -INSTABILITY
Does offense dominance lead to crisis-instability and cause the outbreak of war? Before answering
this question, one should remember the distinction between the deep reasons leading to war and the
immediate trigger which starts it. Thucydides, for example, explaines that the immediate act that
started the Peloponnesian War was the dissolution of the thirty years truce by the Athenians and the
Spartans. As to why they broke the treaty and started a war, he offers the following observation:
The real but unavowed cause I consider to have been the growth of the power of Athens, and the
alarm which it inspired in [Sparta]; this made war inevitable.49
Gilpin sees in this analysis by Thucydides the fundamental idea of the theory of hegemonic war. In
Greece before the Peloponnesian War, as in Europe before 1914, people anticipated the approach of
a great war and began to choose sides. They most probably did not expect as great a war as they
got, and they certainly did not want such a long and destructive war, but they expected a great war,
and by getting ready for war they helped create the circumstances that triggered it.50
This last point is not limited to hegemonic war. When war is expected, and especially when war is
considered a natural part of international relations and occurs often, everybody is looking for
opportunities to improve his situation. The initiative undertaken in order to make use of
opportunities is, almost by definition, an offensive initiative. Without such initiative, one can not
make use of the contingent opportunities thrown up by circumstances. Even a temporary shift
towards offense dominance may lead to war, once people assume that war is inevitable and that
they should use every possible opportunity in order to improve their situation. A temporary shift

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towards defense dominance, however, does not lead to durable peace, because the achievement of
such a peace requires a change in the international political culture, not just a foreclosing of one
offensive option or another.51
What creates the opportunities to act, opportunities which can be utilized by offensive initiatives?
People are not entirely passive, and are not limited to utilizing opportunities thrown up by
circumstances. They can try to mold the environment, which means, among other things, to create
opportunities and influence the offense-defense balance.52 Opportunities can be created by a
technological or organizational change, especially when such a change gives one of the sides an
advantage, however temporary. But what determines the drive to utilize opportunities?
One factor that feeds and fans the urge to utilize any opportunity in order to improve ones security
by offensive initiatives is the security dilemma. The deep reason for the dilemma is the inability to
distinguish defensive and offensive forces, but the dilemma can be aggravated by the offensedefense balance. If the forces one side prepares in order to defend himself can be very effective in
attacking the other then the security dilemma will be especially acute. Please note, though, that
what aggravates the dilemma is not a general offense-defense balance but a very specific one,
determined by the ease with which forces built for self defense by one side can be used to attack the
other. Even this specific offense-defense balance does not completely determine the dilemma,
because it also depends on the perception of intentions - is the neighbor an opponent or a friend? and on the general political culture. Canada does not appear to be worried by the might of the USA,
even though what are now Canada and the USA did fight each other in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries.
In periods when war was an expected and frequent occurrence, statesmen often justified their
decisions to go to war at a specific moment by changes in the offense-defense balance, and by
windows of vulnerability and opportunity. But we should be wary of accepting such arguments at
face value. They may be rationalizations of a decision made, or accepted, on other grounds.
Austria did not decide to go to war [after Tilsit] because it thought it would win; it thought it could

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win because it believed it had to go to war.53 The significance of windows and first-move
advantages depends on the political context. They are, therefore, less convincing as explanations
of war than of strategy and timing.54
Even if we do perceive a window of opportunity, the decision to jump into it depends on whether,
in our estimate, the expected benefits of victory justify the costs and risks involved - political costs
and risks as well as military. This estimate, to quote Schroeder again, depends heavily on ones
initial assumptions about the nature of the international system and the best way to conduct
international politics.55
Can a change in the offense-defense balance, either real or perceived, be so great that it may change
our assumption that war is inevitable, or change our assumption that war is an acceptable and
common tool, to be used by statesmen and politicians to further their goals? Nuclear weapons have
made total wars between major powers totally unacceptable. But they have not made the world
peaceful. Changes in the offense-defense balance may well change the common style and fashion
of using force, but they will not make force itself go out of fashion.
The defensive strength of medieval castles was one of the reasons large-scale conquests and efforts
to establish large centralized states were difficult, but this did not make the middle ages peaceful.
The wolf did not dwell with the lamb, the leopard did not lie down with the kid, and the lion, unlike
the ox, did not eat straw.56 Family feuds and efforts to subvert neighboring castles still prevailed.
But the style of violence common in the middle ages was obviously different from the more
modern style. When we have no large, centralized, nation-states we will have no wars of the
modern, national type
The breakup of the Soviet Union and its empire, and the death of Tito, did not change the offensedefense balance, but they did cause many ethnic wars and many campaigns of ethnic cleansing.
There was no change in the offense-defense balance, but there was a great change in the
international environment. There were many new opportunities, and many new and acute dangers,
so the urge to make use of opportunities was, and still is, very strong.

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To conclude this section: Offensive opportunities may appear to be the immediate cause of war.
But the decision to use such opportunities, and the real causes of war, depends on the general
political situation.
T HE OUTBREAK OF W AR AND W AR IN ITS ENTIRETY
Before asking what can the offense-defense theory teach us about wars in their entirety, we have to
answer two preliminary questions: What is the relation between the early stages of a war and its
eventual course and outcome? How can we characterize a war in its entirety?
The temptation to capitalize on an opportunity by an offensive initiative is greater when we hope
that this will make a significant contribution to our achievements in an imminent war. Such
significant contributions may be of different kinds. People talk, for example, about faits accomplis,
about cumulativity of resources, and about decisive results. But can we tie these characteristics of
war to the offense-defense theory?
It is common to assert that when offense has the advantage war will be quick and decisive and
therefore profitable.57 We could try to define the offense-defense balance so that it will include the
ability of the offense to lead to decisive results. But with such a definition the offense-defense
theory will have no more explanatory power than following saying: People are more likely to go to
war when they think they are more likely to achieve their aims.
It is more natural to assign the offense-defense balance to a certain initial, even if major, attack. But
then we would have to discuss and justify separately the assertion that success in such an early
attack will be decisive, or will lead to a significant fait accompli and to cumulativity of resources.
Van Evera explains that When conquest is easy aggressors can "move with less fear of reprisal
because they win their wars more decisively."58 I agree that the ability, or the apparent ability, to
achieve a decisive victory is a powerful stimulant.59 But the ability to achieve a decisive victory by
an offensive initiative does not follow from offense dominance, as usually defined, and should be
discussed separately. If people think an early attack will lead to decisive results they may well

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decide to attack, even if such an early attack is more difficult and more costly than the opposing
defense.
It is not true in general, as Van Evera claims, that "resources are more cumulative when conquest is
easy."60 Cumulativity of resources does not follow from the offense-defense balance. I would
actually invert Van Evera's cause and effect, in order to say this: if resources are cumulative and
faits accomplis produce beneficial and decisive results, then it may be advantageous to adopt an
expansionist policy even when offense is more difficult than defense.61
Glaser and Kaufmann explain that alliances will be tight when offense has the advantage, but
loose when defense has the advantage.62 But I would argue that the tightness of alliances is
influenced more by the perceived ability of an early attack to achieve important results than by a
general offense-defense balance. Alliances in 1914 may well have been tight, too tight, because
people thought that an early attack will lead to decisive results, and they all wanted to achieve
decisive results by military means. Achieving security by defensive means was considered
unacceptable not because defense was judged too expensive but because it could not lead to the
hoped for decisive results. The Western alliance in the inter-war years may have been loose, too
loose, because England thought France could well withstand a German attack. However, English
policy was not based on the estimate that defense is cheaper in general than attack, but on the
concrete judgment that, in the specific circumstances expected, France could stand successfully for
quite some time.
To summarize our discussion of the relation between the early stages of a war and its eventual
course and result: The important consideration for someone who decides to go out to war is not the
relative cost of offense and defense but the cost of offense relative to its utility. Important political
goals may sometimes be achieved even when the military offensive move is difficult, expensive,
and not entirely successful. The Egyptians in 1973 achieved such a result. If there is hope for an
important result, and especially if there hope for an important early result, that can lead on to greater
things, then people may be willing to invest resources, take risks, and utilize whatever temporary

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advantages they can in order to attack. Under these conditions, people may decide to attack even if
offense is more difficult and more expensive than the immediately opposing defense.
OFFENSE -DEFENSE THEORY AND M ACRO -HISTORY
Even a major decisive war is only a part of the long-term historical process. In the following
paragraphs I will discuss what the offense-defense theory has to teach us about such historical
process, about history-in-the-large.
Van Evera opens his list of the war causing effects of offense dominance with the following: "when
offense dominates ... Empires are easier to conquer". Andreski made the same point in 1954: "other
things being equal, the predominance of attack over defence promotes territorial concentration of
political power... [and] tends to diminish the number of independent governments within a given
area and to widen the areas under their control..." I agree that the ability to attack is important for
the establishment of empires, but, like Andreski, I would stress that the predominance of attack is
just one of many asymmetries and imbalances that determine the size of political units.63
The Mongols reached deep into Europe, on more than one occasion. They were considered such a
serious threat that the Pope and the King of France wrote to the supreme Mongol ruler and tried to
reach an understanding. It is obvious that the European societies of the time found it impossible to
defend against Mongol attacks. But the Mongols did not stay in Europe, and the empire created by
Genghis Khan did not stay united. It takes more than offensive success to maintain a large empire.64
The periodic breakup of China, and the efforts to re-unite it, involved many offensive and defensive
campaigns. Chinese history is replete with stories about stratagems and tricks of war. But the main
traditional Chinese advice to those who would rule an empire is to stress efficient administration
and conscientious, ethical, government.65
A typical historical argument that employs the 'offense-dominance leads to empire' logic is the
following: The appearance of fire power in the shape of artillery revolutionized warfare, ended a
period of defense dominance and made castles vulnerable. As a result, it weakened the independent

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barons, strengthened princes and kings, and led to centralized states. While such statements are
familiar and reasonable sounding, as a historical description they are clearly oversimplified.
On some occasions, the appearance of a new technology does seem a qualitative revolutionary step.
"The number of siege guns which the Ottomans were able to bring to the walls of Constantinople in
1453" was, says Guilmartin, "of secondary importance. Their mere presence there, combined with
the absence of counterdevelopments in fortress design, was decisive." But counterdevelopments
were, of course, actively sought after the fall of Constantinople.66
The resulting competition between measures and countermeasures was no longer strictly
qualitative, and had important quantitative and economic aspects. The changes and improvements
in the tactics and technology of defense and offense had raised the costs of both fortifications and
siege operations. They had, therefore, weakened the ability of some units to defend themselves, but
had made other units more secure.
The achievement of Vauban, who was the preeminent expert of the seventeenth century on
planning of both fortifications and siege operations, can illustrate the resulting state of the art. An
attacker following Vauban's siege methods was sure to succeed against an isolated fortified place, if
he could persist, but Vauban's overall system of fortified places made France of Louis XIV
secure.67 Put bluntly, every method of attack can be successful for those who can afford it, and any
method of defense can be successful for those who can afford it. The question is this: why were the
individual barons unable to afford a defense, while France was?
The answer to this question depends strongly on the growth of French population and economy,
and on French administrative efficiency, which may have led to a greater French ambition and
which made a larger French army possible.68 The answer to such a question must depend, in
general, not only on military technology but on the ability of states to sustain the efforts required for
certain kinds of offense and defense. As Adam Smith explains: "In antient times the opulent and
civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern

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times the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and
civilized."69
Describing the appearance of centralized states as a direct result of the appearance of fire arms may
be a historical simplification, but I am more worried about the logic of such descriptions. Let us
consider the following hypothetical conflict between two dukes, each of whom has already
conquered the castles of ten barons. Assume one of them attacks. Since the attacker has the
advantage, he succeeds in conquering one castle. The victor now has eleven castles under his
control, the loser nine. (Wars have often been fought for such marginal advantages, rather than for
absolute victory and total destruction of the opponent.) The loser is now motivated to make a
special effort. During the next campaigning season, he attacks. Since the attacker has the advantage,
he succeeds in conquering one castle. Once again each duke now has ten castles under his control.
Centralization has not advanced...
The point is that after the attacker succeeds, he has to defend his gains. His ability to do so depends
on how well he can extract resources, and then combine and employ them in a militarily effective
way. Is there an economy of scale that allows the duke with eleven castles to consolidate his realm
and keep enlarging it? The existence of such an economy of scale may have more to do with
administrative than with military technique. Conquest is usually bad for those conquered, and it can
be good for the conquerors, at least for a while. But it can lead them to overreach themselves and to
their eventual demise. There may sometimes actually be a diseconomy of scale, a diseconomy that
will lead to decay and fragmentation rather than consolidation of political units. Empires have to
deal with many kinds of threats, both external and internal. What Ephal says about the ancient
near-eastern empires expresses a more general truth: the border of an empire was sometimes
determined not by the existence of another great power in its neighborhood but by the limits of its
ability to maintain control of its rebellious subjects.70
The goal of early European empires was not control of territory. Territorial expansion frequently
was an undesirable and unplanned by product of European attempts to control east-west trade.

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Efforts to achieve control of territory sometimes led to bankruptcy and failure.71 Even when the
goal is territorial control, the ability to attack successfully is only a necessary first step toward
empire, not a sufficient condition for the growth of empire. The ability to sustain an empire depends
on many economic and military factors, on the ability to wage successfully, over a long time, many
offensive and defensive campaigns. Changes in the offense-defense balance may imply some
changes in the economy of scale and may therefore influence the size of political units, but the
offense-defense balance does not determine the size of empires on its own.
What is more, the concepts offense and defense are not a good basis for a discussion of large-scale
historical processes, and may even be inappropriate when discussing history in the large. I shall
illustrate this with two examples.
The Middle Ages are not normally considered the cradle of democracy. But, as Downing explains,
important elements of feudal constitutional order provided the most important and least arduous
path to liberal democracy. So what led, in some countries, to the destruction of constitutional
government and the rise of military-centered autocracies?72
One answer is that the shift from small, decentralized knight service to large standing armies was
expensive. Only those who could do it would be able to survive a serious military threat. Downing
qualifies this answer, and explains: The key to the rise of military-bureaucratic absolutism is not
modernization and warfare as themselves, but the mobilization of domestic resources to find them.
Because Brandenburg-Prussia and France had to mobilize a large fraction of their domestic
resources, they were led to military absolutism. As an island, England was less threatened and
therefore less subject to this process. Poland did not modernize its military, despite the threat, and
suffered accordingly. Sweden financed its powerful modern army by plunder, and the Dutch
republic financed its military by its commercial wealth, so both could retain their
constitutionalism.73
Because Downing uses such a broad canvas he is probably vulnerable to attack by specialists.74 For
our purpose, though, it does not matter if he is entirely correct, but that he hardly mentions the

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distinction between offense and defense. Downing simply notes that large modern armies required
large amount of resources. That such large armies have been used for both offense and defense, that
wars between autocratic states with such large armies have involved many uses of both offense and
defense, is taken for granted.
Our second example of history-in-thelarge is Schroeders book The Transformation of European
Politics, 1763-1848. Schroeder is writing about a period with many wars, but he hardly uses the
words offense and defense. Schroeder does not, of course, mention the offense-defense theory,
which would have been inappropriate for his level of description and analysis. He does mention the
geo-strategic advantages that gave Britain and Russia greater security from attack, but in many
other places he explains that the issue of offense and defense has to be transcended when analyzing
large questions. For example, the total results of a war usually depend less on its so-called
defensive or aggressive character than on the means used to win it, the amount and nature of
force employed. [O]ther questions about the war are more important than Who started it?
questions such as Who had a defensible concept of peace?75
The struggle was intractable because both powers entered the war without a concept of peace an
idea of a Europe in which their opposed security drives might both be realized. What needed to
be learned was less how to defeat France than how to construct a peaceful Europe and a stable
international system on a new basis. Only when this was learned could the Congress of Vienna
achieve peace in Europe.76
I am in no position to evaluate Schroeders huge amount of evidence77, so how can I rely on him?
How can I be sure I have not mined his oeuvre too selectively? This is a part of a larger question:
The facts necessary for the creation of theory must be obtained from a study of history, so what is
the role of historical examples in theory building? Clausewitz has distinguished four possible roles
of historical examples. In order to explain an idea or to show its application historical truth is not
essential; an imaginary case could do as well. In order to prove the possibility of an idea one needs
one undisputed fact. But if one wants to demonstrate a general truth and to deduce a doctrine, one

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needs a full and systematic treatment of the examples, and a large number of them.78 The examples
of Downing and Schroeder probably allows us to do more than explain an idea, but what about
deducing a doctrine and a theory?
Let us summarize our discussion of the possible theoretical conclusions from offense-defense
theory: The outbreak of war, the opening stage of war, is largely influenced, and can be
characterized by the efforts of all involved to utilize opportunities. The importance people assign to
making use of such opportunities depends on a preexisting perception of the conflict as serious and
of war as imminent. The possible dominance of an initial offensive can aggravate instability and
can make the security dilemma more acute, but should not be taken to be the deep underlying cause
of war.
War in its entirety, especially major war in its entirety, involves many offensive and defensive
moves and can not, in general, be characterized by an offense-defense balance. The offense-defense
theory has little, therefore, to teach us about major war.
Any discussion of long-term historical questions, like the growth and maintenance of empires, has
to embed military affairs in a much more general framework, including, among many other factors,
the possibility of efficient utilization of economic resources and of manpower. The words offense
and defense are neither required nor appropriate for such a discussion.

The Role and Power of Theories


Many of the debates and disagreements surrounding offense-defense theories are not about how
the world works, but rather over how best to build theories.79 We shall not try to offer a
methodology for building theories, but will instead discuss, in this section, what may be a simpler
and more basic question: what are the possible role and power of offense-defense theories?

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One should distinguish between weak theories, whose ambition is only to identify important
factors influencing events, and strong theories, which aim to offer a calculus of events. Weak
theories, because less ambitious, do not appear problematic. One can easily agree with Lynn-Jones
that including the offense-defense balance as a variable enhances the explanatory power of realist
theories of international politics.80 Including the offense-defense balance as a variable would most
probably enhance the explanatory power of all theories of international politics. While resources in
particular and power in general may be enough to determine the potential to achieve results,
offense-defense variables and military skill will have to be taken into consideration when trying to
determine the practical possibility of achieving this or that result.81
Strong theories, which strive to identify not only relevant factors but causal mechanisms, are
problematic. They suffer from what Jared Diamond calls the Anna Karenina Principle. We tend
to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, though, success
actually requires avoiding many separate possible causes of failures.82 But no single factor can
explain the outbreak of war or its outcome. When thinking about war and peace we must take into
consideration a large number of factors, which interact in complex and sometimes paradoxical
ways and make it impossible to offer a general calculus of war.
If we cannot hope for a causal explanation combining many factors, what can a general theory
teach us? It can make us aware of the existence of these many possible factors. But the ability to
weigh the many different factors and possible causes and reach a conclusion is never general. It is
possible, if at all, only in specific circumstances, only when taking into account the specific context.
Concepts can guide our thinking in a specific context, even without a rigorous definition. But we
have to rethink our concepts and their applicability every time; we have to argue about them anew,
for each case. Ball has made a similar point when urging political scientists to consider power
descriptions and explanations case by case, rather than trying to describe all political power
relations in terms of a casual model83

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My attitude toward offense-defense theories can be easily illustrated by a set of quotes from
Clausewitz. [W]ar consists of a continuous interaction of opposites. The very nature of
interaction is bound to make [war] unpredictable. So how can one make a theory possible?
Clausewitz offers two possible routes. First, by limiting oneself to tactics, which will present far
fewer difficulties to the theorist than will strategy. The second is to argue that a theory need not
be positive doctrine, a sort of manual for action... Theory is meant to educate the mind of the future
commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the
battlefield. This kind of education is important because perception by the mind is already a
judgment, and one needs the ability to make an educated judgment.84
The trained mind should be able to undertake the task of critical analysis, should understand that
effects in war seldom result from a single cause; there are usually several concurrent causes.
However, a critic should never use the results of theory as laws and standards, but only as the
soldier does as aids to judgment. War, in its highest forms, is not an infinite mass of minor
events War consists rather of single, great, decisive actions, each of which needs to be handled
individually. War is not like a field of wheat which, without regard to the individual stalk, may be
mown more or less efficiently depending on the quality of the scythe; it is like a stand of mature
trees in which the axe has to be used judiciously, according to the characteristics and developments
of each trunk.85
Let us now return to my argument. Finel is attacking Van Evera for not presenting a conceptual
explanation for how he measures the offense-defense balance. Instead, he presents a laundry list of
things to look for.86 While we may not like the connotations of the word laundry, I think a list of
factors, arguments, and partial models is all we can hope for. As every junior officer knows,
decision-makers should be grateful for a good check-list. If the offense-defense theory gives us a
good list it may server an important mnemonic and heuristic function: it can help us remember the
important factors and guide us when evaluating them. But the art of evaluating all the different
factors on the check-list, in order to make a concrete decision in a given context, is not amenable to
theoretical analysis.87

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A good list will leads us, both as decision-makers and as researchers, to ask the important
questions. It will force us, if it is a good list, to ask all the important questions. We should be
grateful to political science for giving us good, new questions. But the answers, and the insight,
come from better histories, not from statistical packages. Political theory, like literature, is useful
for a skeptical conduct of life, not for predicting its future course.88
When dealing with war and peace we do not, of course, have a laboratory environment, which will
provide us with an orderly, controlled simplification of that world, teased out as far as possible
into its single components. Scientists dealing with cosmology, geology, and evolution also do not
usually have the luxury of a controlled laboratory simplification of the world. But at least they have
a rich and orderly enough set of processes, observable in the present. This may allow them to
construct models of the historical development, especially if they can assume that the same
mechanism observable at present have been in force in the past. As scientists of war and peace even
this path, taken by the geologists, for example, is hardly open to us. We can not, therefore, hope for
more than what McMullin says about the natural sciences: The fertility that is the mark of a good
model is not just a matter of predicting new data; it is a much more extended resource for
suggesting (not predicting) new lines of developments new lines of inquiry.89
It is natural for a modern speaker of English to contrast theory and history, to contrast theorem and
story. I have argued that offense-defense theories will not lead to theorems, but to better-focused
and more fruitful historical investigations. I will therefore conclude this section with a linguistic
aside, pointing out that the words history and theory were not, originally, a contrasting pair.
The words theorem and theory were originally derived from the Greek verb theorein to look
from which theater was also derived. Theorema was originally a seeing, a sight, an object of study,
hence a speculation, hence a theorem. This sequence seeing, study, speculation could just as
well describe an historian.90 On the other hand, in Herodotus the word historein usually means to
question. The title of his famous book Historiai does not, therefore, refer only to answers, but to
research and to questions.91 So the critical approach, which Knox ascribes to Oedipus, Herodotus,

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and Thucydides, and which Clausewitz recommends to military analysts and commanders alike,
must involve both theory and history.

The First World War and Nuclear Deterrence


The First World War is often used as an example in discussions of the offense-defense theory, for
two reasons. The first is that, according to the standard analysis, the belief in offense-dominance
was common in the years leading to 1914. However mistaken, this belief influenced most people
and caused that tragic example of crisis instability - an assassination in Serbia leading to a world
war. This mistaken belief has supposedly also let to a mismanagement of the war effort, and to
unnecessary carnage. The second reason for the frequent use of the First World War as an example
was its relevance to the strategic debates of the 1980s, when a deliberate nuclear war no longer
seemed possible but people were worried about crisis instability leading to inadvertent nuclear war.
Betts criticize Van Everas offense-defense theory for overmilking nuclear deterrence and
1914.92 I agree, but would like to stress one point and add another: I shall first argue that there is a
logical problem in applying the same theory to both nuclear strategy and conventional war. I shall
then explain that those mostly interested in nuclear strategy have sometimes misread the lessons of
the First World War.
The theory of nuclear deterrence is a theory of war prevention. It offers little help to those
responsible for the conduct of war.93 It is, therefore, problematic to apply to nuclear deterrence the
concepts offense and defense, informed by the long historical experience of fighting conventional
war. This is already clear when trying to define the offense-defense balance. Glaser and Kaufmann
suggest we measure the offense-defense balance in a nuclear conflict by the ratio of the cost of
forces required to undermine the defenders assured destruction capability to the cost of the
defenders forces.94 The fact that they have to use both undermine and assured in their
definition based on the cost of forces shows how slippery and difficult it is to measure deterrence.

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Van Evera uses offense-defense balance to denote the relative ease of aggression and defense
against aggression. But, as Fuller explained in 1933, aggression is a political and not a military
question the offensive does not necessarily mean the aggressive.95
There is a crucial difference between the analysis of the role of offense and defense, given that war
is an accepted part, even an expected part, of international relations, and the possible role of
deterrence and nuclear strategy in preventing war. There is a difference between the role of defense
in war and its role in deterring war. Nuclear weapons may well have made war between the
superpowers, when both have many nuclear weapons leading to a balance of terror, unacceptable
and irrelevant as a policy option.96 But I consider it misleading to apply lessons learnt in the nuclear
confrontation between the superpowers to analysis of the First World War, and vice versa. I have,
therefore, limited myself to discussing offense-defense theory in the historical context of
conventional war.
In the following paragraphs, dedicated to the First World War, I shall mainly argue two points.
First, at the military-technical levels, proponents of the offense-defense theory show a tendency to
misread the lessons of the First World War and to over-generalize them. Second, at the militarypolitical levels, the cult of the decisive victory was a more important characteristic of 1914 than
the cult of the offensive.
Let us start with the military-technical levels. When we think about the First World War, we all
have the image of exposed infantry assaulting machine guns, and being mowed down for their
trouble. We all ask why the generals did not realize that exposed infantry cannot mount a frontal
assault against machine guns. One could try to answer this question, for example, by pointing out
that the Japanese in Manchuria demonstrated that infantry could assault successfully, though not
cheaply. But this is not my point here.
The point is that the image of exposed infantry assaulting machine guns characterizes certain
traumatic events, like the attack on the Somme that started on the first of July 1916. This image
does not characterize the First World War in its entirety. The allies learnt, over time, to amass

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artillery, and with its support to successfully assault a section of the trenches without suffering a
large number of casualties. What the allies could not do was utilize such local successes, because
the defender had better lateral mobility, and therefore could direct reserves as required to restabilize
his line, while the attacker had great difficulty moving across the lines.
It is tempting to summarize the image of infantry vs machine guns by saying defense was superior,
but such statements about the offense-defense balance characterize only a small part of a total war.
Such an over-simplified summary may be easy to remember (good mnemonics!), but it may also
warp our understanding of reality, for example by supporting the tendency for Whiggish
interpretations of history.
Let us now move to the military-political levels. The First World War took place when war, even a
great war, was accepted as a tool in the hands of the politicians. The reader may object that what
was accepted was the nineteenth-century-type war, not total war. But the First World War was
neither the first nor the last total war based on industrialized killing. The American Civil War was
the first, the Second World War was, hopefully, the last.97 In the years leading to 1914, Social
Darwinism was prevalent and people accepted not only war on the margin of international relations
but war for national survival. The intellectuals expected war and saw many benefits in it. Even the
workers, expected by some to concentrate on their class interests, rushed to the flag. The war was
supported even when it became long and bloody. As Hiley explains, in Britain between 1914 and
1918 the horrors of modern fighting could still fit within the conventional imagery of war, and
could still be seen as a progressive and dynamic force. It was only in the late 1920s, when the
problem of preventing another major war became acute, that the First World War acquired its bad
press. The books of the late 1920s and the early 1930s, which still constitute for most people the
reality of the First World War to this day, probably belong less to the years which they recall
than to the years when they were written.98
Considering the large number of major crisises in the early years of the twentieth century, it may be
misleading to search for one fundamental cause of the First World War. According to Schroeder, a

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better question may be not Why World War I? But Why not? World War I was a normal
development in international relations; events have been building towards it for a long time. There
is no need to explain it as a deviation from the norm.99 Peace is not the natural condition, to occur
by itself unless something interferes. Peace should not be taken for granted. It is a public good
whose maintenance requires an effort. It may not be easy or even possible to have the required
effort evenly and justly distributed. So unless enough willingness to maintain this public good is
found, peace will not be maintained.100
When people who talk about the balance actually look for ways to gain an advantage, even when
they know it causes damage to the overall international system, peace is not maintained and war
becomes more likely. To make peace a serious option, people sometimes need to invent and agree
on new political arrangements. This is not easy, and may take a long time. As Schroeder explains,
during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars it took more than twenty years to set up the
Congress of Europe. In twentieth century Europe it took more than thirty years, from 1914 to 1945,
to achieve not peace but a cold war. When discussing the possibility of successful major military
innovation, Rosen argues that it may require a new theory of war. We may use a paraphrase to
summarize Schroeders point: what may be required in order to end a major conflict is a new theory
of peace.101
To return to 1914: I am not sure it was common to assume that attack was actually easier than
defense, or that there really was a cult of the offensive. But even if there was a cult, more
important, in my view, were the political-military assumptions prevalent at the time. The most
important assumptions were that the major war everyone expects will be short, that the results
achieved in the initial stage will be important, and that it will be possible to achieve a decisive
victory. These were the warped lessons learnt by many military men in Europe from some wars especially the Prussian victory over Austria in 1866 and over France in 1870 - while other
important precedents, like the American Civil War, or the difficulty the British had when fighting
the Boers, were ignored. Even the Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria was interpreted to mean that
a decisive victory is possible. The officers thinking about war knew that firepower improved and

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that attack had become more difficult. But they also knew that attack was sometimes necessary, and
believed it could be possible, if you prepare yourself, and are willing to make the necessary
sacrifices, like the Japanese in Manchuria. The military had to prepare itself for the attack if it were
to deliver what its political masters required a decisive victory. It we want to characterize 1914 by
a cult, the more important one is the cult of the decisive victory rather than the cult of the
offensive.102
Even someone like Ivan Bloch, who saw that a quick and decisive victory would not be possible in
an industrial war, drew the wrong conclusion from this insight. He thought major war would no
longer be possible because he underestimated the economic ability and the social willingness to
invest the effort required in order to wage a world war for several years.103
After the early stages of the First World War, it became clear that it was not easy to mount a
successful attack. After the attack on the Somme, in 1916, it became clear that even a large number
of men and a large amount of industrial resources could not guarantee success.104 So why did the
war not end in 1916? The answer is actually very simple. In 1916, the aggressor, Germany, was in
control of a large and important piece of French and Belgian territory. To reach a situation in which
an end to the war could be negotiated the allies had at least to get this territory back, and to do this
they needed a victory. In addition, while the fighting and the killing went on, the war aims of both
sides grew more ambitious.105
The cult of the offensive is simply at the wrong level to characterize the First World War. Even if
it were true, it would only characterize the military-technical level of affairs. The failure that led to
the First World War was a failure at the political-military level. It was a failure to develop the
required international political arrangements that will keep the peace. Part of it was the assumption
that a decisive military victory is obtainable, and will solve security problems. That is, part of the
political failure was the cult of the decisive victory. The military officers should have explained
to their political masters that achieving a decisive victory will be expensive and risky at best. But

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the responsibility for the cult of the decisive victory and for the lack of political arrangements is,
by definition, political.106

Conclusion
Rather than talk about one unified offense-defense theory, we should distinguish among three
families of offense-defense theories, dealing, respectively, with the outbreak of war; with wars in
their entirety, and with long-term historical processes.
In specific circumstances, it is often natural to identify specific offensive advantages which create
offensive opportunities. In the midst of war, or if war is imminent, expected and unavoidable, the
urge to initiate action in order to take advantage of such opportunities is very strong, and is crucial
for effective war-making. A prevalence of offensive opportunities, often described as offensedominance, may aggravate the security dilemma, and may lead to war. But, even in such cases,
offense-dominance is only the immediate cause of war. The deeper underlying cause is the
assumption that the nature of international politics makes it imperative to use every opportunity to
improve ones situation, makes it imperative to use offensive advantages and use them quickly,
since they are often fleeting.
Assigning an offense-defense balance not to specific circumstances in a given context but to the
international system in general, or to a war in its entirety, is impossible. We can often distinguish
aggressive powers from status quo powers, but, once involved in war, all sides involved employ a
combination of offensive and defensive means, and a large variety of them. Even very dramatic
offensive success or defensive failure, during the early stages of a war, do not determine its final
outcome. Success in a major war depends on the ability to combine a large variety of offensive and
defensive means, which may be military, political, or economic, not on any single offensive or on
any single measure of the offense-defense balance. Offense-defense theories have taught us

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important lessons about the contribution of the perception of the offense-defense balance to the
outbreak of war, but offense-defense theories can teach us little about major wars in their entirety.
Offensive success is of course required for the establishment of empire, which relies on conquest.
Empires have often been involved in wars, of many offensive and defensive varieties. But the
longevity of an empire depends much more on its economic and administrative efficiency, on its
ability to sustain an appropriate security policy, than on the balance between a specific form of
offense and a specific form of defense. While historians of empires do, of course, talk of war, they
take it for granted that these wars involve many offensive and defensive actions, and they rarely
mention a so-called offense-defense balance.
If we consider all three families of offense-defense theories, we can conclude thus: At the level
where the offense-defense balance is important, i.e. when dealing with offensive opportunities and
with the perception of their role and effectiveness, we actually do not have a theory. For the
existence and significance of the offense-defense balance depends too much on circumstances, on
our evaluation of opportunities, and on political assumptions and presuppositions, for a general
offense-defense theory to arise.
At the level where we can hope for more systematic knowledge - war in its entirety and longer-term
processes we do have theories, but not offense-defense theories. At these levels, events depend
more on economic and administrative factors and efficiency than on the offense-defense balance,
which is anyhow impossible to define in a general and systemic way.
The logical foundations of offense-defense theories are shaky, but these theories are important,
nevertheless. These theories are important, interesting, and useful not because they offer us a calculus
of war they obviously do not but because they force us to consider a large number of relevant
factors and train our critical ability to evaluate them when we have to make a judgment in a concrete
and specific situation.

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Notes

Isaiah 2:4, Marion William Boggs, "Attempts to Define and Limit 'Aggressive' Armament
in Diplomacy and Strategy," University of Missouri Studies 16, no. 1 (1941).

Barry R. Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany between
the World Wars (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Stephen Van Evera, "Causes of
War" (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, 1984).

Jack Snyder, "Civil-Military Relations and the Cult of the Offensive, 1914 and 1984,"
International Security 9, no. 1 (Summer 1984); Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the
Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1984); Jack Snyder, "Perceptions of the Security Dilemma in 1914," in Psychology
and Deterrence, ed. Robert Jervis, Richard Ned Lebow, and Janice Gross Stein (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); Stephen Van Evera, "The Cult of the Offensive
and the Origins of the First World War," International Security 9, no. 1 (Summer 1984);
Stephen Van Evera, "Why Cooperation Failed in 1914," World Politics 38, no. 1 (October
1985).

An early critique was offered by Jack S. Levy, "The Offensive/Defensive Balance of


Military Technology: A Theoretical and Historical Analysis," International Studies
Quarterly 28 (1984). For a more recent survey of critics and for responses to them see Sean
M. Lynn-Jones, "Offense-Defense Theory and Its Critics," Security Studies 4, no. 4
(Summer 1995).

Stephen Van Evera, "Offense, Defense and the Causes of War," International Security 22,
no. 4 (Spring 1998); Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War: Power and the Roots of
International Conflict (Cornell University Press, 1999).

Charles L. Glaser and Chaim Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance and Can
We Measure It?" International Security 22, no. 4 (Spring 1998).

44

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James W. Davis, Bernard I. Finel, Stacie E. Goddard, Stephen Van Evera, Charles L.
Glaser, and Chaim Kaufmann, "Correspondance: Taking Offense at Offense-Defense
Theory," International Security 23, no. 3 (Winter 1998/99).

The standard reference for the security dilemma is Robert Jervis, Perception and
Misperception in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 1976). (See also Robert
Jervis, "Cooperation under the Security Dilemma," World Politics 30, no. 2 (January
1978).) Jervis quotes many people who have identified the dilemma, starting with Rouseau.
Herz was apparently the first to use this phrase to denote the struggle for survival and the
vicious circle that leads to competitions for ever more power. Butterfield does not use the
phrase, but is more eloquent in explaining the dilemma. He talks about "the absolute
predicament and the irreducible dilemma", about that "tragic element in human conflict".
For the actions of "moderately virtuous men ... moved by national self-interest ...", may lead
to the "greatest war in history, ... without the intervention of any great criminal who might
be out to do deliberate harm to the world." (John Herz, Political Realism and Political
Idealism (University of Chicago Press, 1959), p. 4; Herbert Butterfield, "The Tragic
Element in Modern International Conflict," in History and Human Relations (London:
Collins, 1951), pp. 19-20.) The logic of the dilemma was already explained 2400 years ago
by Xenophon. (Xenophon, The Persian Expedition, trans. Rex Warner. With an
introduction and notes by George Cawkwell. (Penguin, 1972), pp. 123-124.)

Sylvain Auroux, ed., Les Notions Philosophiques: Dictionnaire, Encyclopedie


Philosophique Universelle (Presses Universitaires de France, 1990).

10

J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, The Oxford English Dictionary, Second ed. (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1989).

11

Paul Robert, Le Grand Robert De La Langue Francaise, ed. Alain Rey, Second ed. (Paris:
Le Robert, 1985); Alain Rey, Dictionnaire Historique De La Langue Francaise, New ed.
(Paris: Dictionnaires Le Robert, 1994).

45

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12

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The three occurrences of the verb attack (tkf) in the Hebrew bible are in books of
notoriously difficult language: Thou prevailest for ever against him, and he passeth (Job
14:20), Trouble and anguish shall make him afraid; they shall prevail against him, as a
king ready to the battle (Job 15:24), and And if one prevail against him, two shall
withstand him: and a threefold cord is not quickly broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12). The Greek
bible has translated these occurrences of attack by three different verbs, the Latin bible by
two different verbs, one of which leads directly to prevail. Translating the verb tkf by
prevail against is consistent with the meaning of other occurrences of this root: neither
may he contend with him that is mightier than he (Ecclesiastes 6:10); wrote with all
authority (Esther 9:29); And all the acts of his power and of his might ( Esther 10:2);
with the strength of his whole kingdom (Daniel 11:17), so the modern Hebrew assigning
of the sense attack to the root tkf may be the exception. Many other verbs are used in the
bible in a variety of senses related to attack like deploy, assault, go up, come upon, fall
upon - but there does not appear to be a pair of words making the general and abstract
distinction between offense and defense This is probably not accidental. In the ancient Near
East fighting usually involved either pitched battles in the open field, which were intense
and short, and in which both parties use offensive tactics and manoeuvre, or siege
operations, which involve a specialized set of techniques, implements, and terminology.
(Israel Eph'al, "On Warfare and Military Control in the Ancient near Eastern Empires: A
Research Outline," in History, Historiography and Interpretation: Studies in Biblical and
Cuneiform Literatures, ed. H. Tadmor and M. Weinfeld (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1983), pp. 9193.)

13

On the ambiguity of the status quo see Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear
Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Cornell University Press, 1989), p.
32. On the bias inherent in a reliance on the status quo and on the morality of the haves
see Richard K. Betts, "Must War Find a Way?" International Security 24, no. 2 (Fall 1999),
pp. 169-170, quoting E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, Second ed. (New York:

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Macmillan, 1946), pp. 53-55, 79-84; Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Edited and translated
by Michael Howard & Peter Paret. (Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 377.
14

Carl von Clausewitz, On War. p. 357.

15

Thomas J. Christensen, "China, the US-Japan Alliance, and the Security Dilemma in East
Asia," International Security 23, no. 4 (Spring 1999), pp. 64-66.

16

See, for example, E. A. Kolodziej, "The Cold War as Co-Operation," in The Cold War as
Co-Operation, ed. R. Kanet and E. A. Kolodziej (Baltimore: 1991).

17

Clausewitz, On War, pp. 358, 361.

18

Stacie E. Goddard, "Taking Offense at Offense-Defense Theory," International Security 23,


no. 3 (Winter 1998/99), pp. 190-191.

19

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, p. 50.

20

Clausewitz, On War, p. 149.

21

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 53, 73.

22

Lynn-Jones, "Offense-Defense Theory and Its Critics, p. 671.

23

Immanuel Wallerstein, "The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System:
Concepts for Comparative Analysis," Comparative Studies in Society & History 16 (Sep
1974), p. 388, quoting Fernand Braudel, "History and the Social Sciences," in Economy and
Society in Early Modern Europe: Essays from Annales, ed. Peter Burke (London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972), pp. 38-39. Braudel, whose original title includes the phrase
La longue duree, stresses the importance of different time horizons adopted by historians
and social scientists.

24

John Francis Guilmartin, "Ideology and Conflict: The Wars of the Ottoman Empire, 14531606," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (Spring 1988).

25

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 71-72.

26

See, for example, Clausewitz, On War, pp. 357-359, 363 note 2.

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27

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This is repeatedly emphasized, for example, in Rommel's memoirs of the First World War,
when he was a junior infantry officer. (Erwin Rommel, Attacks (Vienna, Virginia: Athena
Press, 1979).)

28

S. L. A. Marshall gives the most famous discussion of this point. "In an average experienced
infantry company in an average stern day's action, the number [of soldiers] engaging [the
enemy] with any and all weapons was approximately 15 per cent of the total strength. In the
most aggressive infantry companies, under the most intense local pressure, the figure rarely
rose above 25 per cent of the total strength from the opening to the close of the action." (S.
L. A. Marshall, Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War. First
published in 1947. (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978), p. 56.) Marshall's statistical
results were severely criticized, but his qualitative insight is still valid and important.
(Russell W. Glenn, "Men against Fire in Vietnam," (Fort Leavenworth: US Army CGSC,
1987); Fredric Smoler, "The Secret of the Soldiers Who Didn't Shoot," American Heritage,
(March 1989); Roger J. Spiller, "S. L. A. Marshall and the Ratio of Fire," RUSI Journal
133, no. 4 (Winter 1988).)

29

S. L. A. Marshall, Infantry Operations and Weapons Usage in Korea. This is the text of the
ORO 1952 report, published with a preface by Edward C. Ezell. (London: Greenhill, 1988),
pp. 9-11.

30

Hans Delbruck, Numbers in History: How the Greek Defeated the Persians, the Romans
Conquered the World, the Teuton Overthrew the Roman Empire, and William the Norman
Took Possession of England (University of London Press, 1913), pp. 27-28.

31

Paddy Griffith, Forward into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to the near Future,
Revised ed. (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1991), p. 29.

32

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 55-57.

33

Ibid., p. 72 and note 87.

34

Lynn-Jones, "Offense-Defense Theory and Its Critics, p. 668.

35

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 60-61.

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36

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Richard E. Simpkin, Deep Battle: The Brainchild of Marshal Tukhachevskii (London:


Brassey's, 1987), pp. 110,161. The stress on artillery concentration as a requirement for
successful attack has become a general norm for the Soviet military. See Christopher
Bellamy, Red God of War: Soviet Artillery and Rocket Forces (London: Brassey's, 1986).
For another early Soviet analysis of the importance of artillery in offensive operations see
Vladimir K. Triandafillov, The Nature of Operations of Modern Armies (Frank Cass, 1994),
pp. 73-84.

37

John J. Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp.
25-26; Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 62-63. Biddle
uses an analytic model to demonstrate that while it is possible to distinguish marginally
offensive from marginally defensive weapons for any given set of circumstances, the
variation in real results brought about by the substitution of defensive for offensive
weapons is typically small. (As long as both sides adjust their doctrine and deployment to
the weapons in use.) Moreover, the distinction between defensive and offensive weapons
is itself sensitive to changes in circumstances. (Stephen D. Biddle, "The Determinants of
Offensiveness and Defensiveness in Conventional Land Warfare" (Ph.D. Dissertation,
Harvard University, 1992), p. 195.)

38

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, p. 65.

39

Clausewitz, On War, pp. 417-422.

40

Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783 (New York:
Hill & Wang, 1957), p. 116. The light of the fires caused by the raiders could be seen from
London.

41

Robert Jervis, Systems Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life (Princeton University
Press, 1997); Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987).

42

Lynn-Jones, "Offense-Defense Theory and Its Critics, p. 668.

43

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 57-58.

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44

Lynn-Jones, "Offense-Defense Theory and Its Critics, p. 666.

45

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, p. 74.

46

Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, pp. 44-46.

47

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 76-77.

48

For a recent argument that the famous Schlieffen Plan, as reconstructed by Ritter, was
neither a German operational plan nor the basis for German operational planning, but a
study meant to support the argument that the German army was too small, see Terence
Zuber, "The Schleiffen Plan Reconsidered," War in History 6, no. 3 (1999).

49

Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Livingstone (Oxford
University Press, 1960), Book I Paragraph 23.

50

Robert Gilpin, "The Theory of Hegemonic War," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18,
no. 4 (Spring 1988), pp. 598, 611-612.

51

Lynn-Jones, "Offense-Defense Theory and Its Critics, p. 670.

52

Ibid., pp. 689-690.

53

Paul W. Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 (Oxford:


Clarendon, 1994), p. 355.

54

Betts, "Must War Find a Way? p. 172.

55

Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, p. 752.

56

My apologies to Isaiah, Chapter 11.

57

This quotation is from Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, p.
48. See also Van Evera, "Offense, Defense and the Causes of War, pp. 7-8.

58

Van Evera, "Offense, Defense and the Causes of War, p. 7.

59

The cult of the decisive victory is a better characterization of Europe before 1914 than the
cult of the offensive. (Gideon Y. Akavia, "Decisive Victory and Correct Doctrine: Cults in
French Military Thought before 1914 - a Rereading of Ardant Du Picq, Ferdinand Foch,
and Loyzeau De Grandmaison," (Stanford University: Center for International Security and
Arms Control, November 1993).) The possibility of a decisive move may actually be used

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to characterize the military sphere, while an economic game can rarely be changed
decisively in a single move. (Robert Axelrod and Robert O. Keohane, "Achieving
Cooperation under Uncertainty: Strategies and Institutions," World Politics 38, no. 1
(October 1985), p. 232.)
60

Van Evera, "Offense, Defense and the Causes of War, p. 8.

61

Modern industrial nations can be profitably exploited in the short run, according to Peter
Liberman, Does Conquest Pay? The Exploitation of Occupied Industrial Societies
(Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 146. The resources extracted from their early
conquests were important for the ability of Nazi Germany to wage a world war. But it is less
clear whether empire pays in the long run.

62

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, p. 49.

63

Van Evera, "Offense, Defense and the Causes of War, p. 5; George H. Quester, Offense
and Defense in the International System (John Wiley, 1977); Jervis, "Cooperation under the
Security Dilemma; Stanislav Andreski, Military Organization and Society, Second
Enlarged ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 76.

64

Eric Voegelin, "The Mongol Orders of Submission to European Powers, 1245-1255,"


Byzantion 15 (1941).

65

Luo Guanzhong, Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, trans. Moss Roberts (University of
California Press, 1991).

66

John Francis Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and


Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge University Press,
1974), p. 263.

67

An individual siege may look quite orderly, almost formal, even when both sides take
advantages of the accidents of terrain, and may preserve the unity of time, place, and action
in the manner of the great tragedies of Racine. But securing the realm does not have such a
formal unity, and Vaubans overall system for protecting France was but one part of the
French effort necessary for security. (Michel Parent, as quoted by Ken Alder, Decisive

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Victory and Correct Doctrine: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815 (Princeton
University Press, 1997), pp. 31-34.)
68

Richard Bean, "War and the Birth of the Nation State," Journal of Economic History 33, no.
1 (March 1973); John A. Lynn, "The Trace Italienne and the Growth of Armies: The French
Case," Journal of Military History 55 (July 1991).

69

Adam Smith, "Of the Expence of Defence," in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the
Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981), p. 708.

70

Eph'al, "On Warfare and Military Control in the Ancient near Eastern Empires: A Research
Outline, p. 99.

71

William R. Thompson, "The Military Superiority Thesis and the Ascendancy of Western
Eurasia in the World System," Journal of World History 10, no. 1 (Spring 1999), p. 152.

72

Brian M. Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy
and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe (Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. xi,7. For a
more concise form of his argument see Brian M. Downing, "Medieval Origins of
Constitutional Government in the West," Theory & Society 18 (1989).

73

Downing, The Military Revolution and Political Change, pp. 14, 16-17.

74

David B. Ralston, "A Review of the Military Revolution and Political Change," Journal of
Modern History 67, no. 1 (1995).

75

Schroeder, The Transformation of European Politics, pp. 37, 244, 273.

76

Ibid., pp. 117, 287, 580-581. For a more concise presentations, see Paul W. Schroeder, "The
Nineteenth Century System: Balance of Power or Political Equilibrium?" Review of
International Studies 15, no. 2 (1989); Paul W. Schroeder, "'System' and Systemic Thinking
in International History," International History Review 15, no. 1 (Feb 1993).

77

For a set of reviews, and Schroeders response, see T. C. W. Blanning, Charles Ingrao, Jack
S. Levy, Paul W. Schroeder, and H. M. Scott, International History Review 16, no. 4 (Nov
1994).

78

Clausewitz, On War, pp. 171-172.

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79

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Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, are making this point when
discussing the narrow versus wide approach to defining the offense-defense balance.
See p. 61 note 53.

80

Lynn-Jones, "Offense-Defense Theory and Its Critics, p. 664.

81

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, pp. 48-49.

82

The reference is to the opening sentence of Tolstoys Anna Karenina: Happy families are
all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs,
and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (Norton, 1997), pp. 157-175.)

83

Terence Ball, "Power, Causation and Explanation," Polity 8 (1975), p. 42.

84

Clausewitz, On War, pp. 136, 139, 140-141, 148, 168.

85

Ibid., pp. 153, 156-158.

86

Bernard I. Finel, "Taking Offense at Offense-Defense Theory," International Security 23,


no. 3 (Winter 1998/99), p. 187.

87

For the debate between the classical approach and the scientific approach to international
theory and political science see Hedley Bull, "International Theory: The Case for a Classical
Approach," World Politics 18, no. 3 (1966); J. David Singer, "The Incompleat Theorist:
Insight without Evidence," in Contending Approaches to International Politics, ed. Klaus
Knorr and James N. Rosenbaum (Princeton University Press, 1969).

88

Carl Woodring, as quoted Andrew Delbanco, "The Decline and Fall of Literature," New
York Review of Books, 4 Nov 1999, p. 35.

89

Ernan McMullin, "Two Ideals of Explanation in Natural Science," Midwest Studies in


Philosophy 9 (1984), pp. 215-216. The interpretation of the uniformitarian assumption,
according to which the same mechanism observable at present have been in force in the
past, and its usage, are not without problems. See Stephen Jay Gould, Time's Arrow, Time's
Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Penguin, 1988).

90

Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (New York:
Greenwich House, 1983), p. 710.

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91

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Bernard M. W. Knox, Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles' Tragic Hero and His Time (Yale
University Press, 1998), pp. 120-121.

92

Betts, "Must War Find a Way? p. 179.

93

Which may explain why those responsible for procurement, force structure, and war plans
have not accepted the view of MAD as pacifying or defense dominant. (Ibid., p. 181.) For
another view of the logical difficulties with deterrence, see Richard Ned Lebow and Janice
Gross Stein, "Beyond Deterrence," Journal of Social Issues 43, no. 4 (1987), pp. 6-10.

94

Glaser and Kaufmann, "What Is the Offense-Defense Balance, p. 53.

95

Van Evera, Causes of War, p. 118 note 2; J. F. C. Fuller, "Aggression and Aggressive
Weapons: The Absurdity of Qualitative Disarmament," Army Ordnance 14, no. 79 (Jul-Aug
1933), pp. 7, 9. See also Betts, "Must War Find a Way? p. 183.

96

It is lucky that when only one side had nuclear power, it was the good side, who was, in
any case, not interested in conquering another continent by land armies. In more practical
terms, when the US enjoyed a nuclear monopoly is did not have a large number of nuclear
weapons, and it did not have the ground forces which would have been required for a
victory over the Soviet Union even if nuclear weapons were used. Even if such a victory
would have been technically possible, it would have been politically meaningless. For, as
Eisenhower said, what would we do with Russia, if we should win in a global war?
(Quoted in Robert Jervis, "The Impossibility of Military Victory," in The Meaning of the
Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Cornell University Press,
1989), pp. 4-5.)

97

For the debate on the Civil War as a total war see, for example, James M. McPherson,
"From Limited to Total War: 1861-1865," in Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the
American Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1996); James M. McPherson, "Lincoln and
the Strategy of Unconditional Surrender," in Lincoln, the War President, ed. Gabor S.
Boritt, The Gettysburg Lectures (Oxford University Press, 1992).

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98

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Nicholas Hiley, "Reality Reordered," review of The War Poets: The lives and writings of
the 1914-18 war poets by Robert Giddings, Fiction of the First World War: A study by
George Parfitt, and Art and Survival in First World War Britain by Stuart Sillars, Times
Literary Supplement, 16-22 September 1988. I have been directed to Hiley by Brian Bond,
The Pursuit of Victory: From Napoleon to Saddam Hussein (Oxford University Press,
1996), p. 126 note 50.

99

Paul W. Schroeder, "World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak,"


Journal of Modern History 44 (Sep 1972), p. 322.

100

Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace (New York:
Doubleday, 1995).

101

Stephen Peter Rosen, Winning the Next War: Innovation and the Modern Military (Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 20.

102

L. L. Farrar, The Short-War Illusion: German Policy, Strategy and Domestic Affairs
August-December 1914 (Santa Barbara and Oxford: ABC-Clio, 1973); Michael Howard,
"Men against Fire: The Doctrine of the Offensive in 1914," in Makers of Modern Strategy:
From Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, ed. Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1986); Akavia, "Decisive Victory and Correct Doctrine."

103

Jean de Bloch, The Future of War in Its Technical, Economic and Political Relations
(Boston: Ginn, 1899).

104

Later both sided learnt how to make a tactical attack into a succees: The allies by giving
infantry support by a large amount of artillery, and later by tanks; the German by
infiltration. But what both could not do easily was turn tactical success into an operational
one, and then into final victory.

105

During an extended conflict the perception of future threats may change, and the feeling the
present war must be used to improve the ability to contend with future threats may lead to
enlarged war aims. See Eric J. Labs, "Beyond Victory: Offensive Realism and the
Expansion of War Aims," Security Studies 6, no. 4 (Summer 1997).

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106

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Because they were required to produce a decisive victory, some of the French officers were
led, at least when writing military doctrine, to extreme pronouncements. For a detailed
treatment of the cult of the correct doctrine see Akavia, "Decisive Victory and Correct
Doctrine."

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