Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Principled Warfare: Samurai Combat Done Right (And Wrong)

Greetings once again, Samurai Archives fans! It’s me, ltdomer98, or Nate, as those of you who listen to our podcast know me. Of course, a blogpost from me means there’s military history to discuss, so get ready for a 5 (yes FIVE) part series of posts.

Yes, I know it’s been a long time since I blogged on military concepts—most of you probably don’t remember this post from 2010 about the Levels of War concept. That’s okay. I promise this will fill that desperate ache for US military doctrine applied to Sengoku Japanese warfare.

Jomini, looking very happy
Over the next few days, we’re going to discuss another US military concept: the Principles of Joint Operations, as found in US Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, published 11 August 2011. Some of you students of military history may be familiar with the Principles of War, 9 principles used by militaries to describe and focus action. Originally conceived by Antoine Henri Jomini, a veteran of Napoleon’s army, in the 1800’s, the Principles of War were: Objective, Offensive, Mass, Maneuver, Economy of Force, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity. As a lieutenant way back at the dawn of time (or the late 1990’s), I was taught them by means of the acronym “MOOSEMUSS”, since no one in the Army can possibly learn anything without a catchy acronym. 

The world is a different place now than it was back then, and the Army (and US military as a whole) is a different Army. We’ve learned lots of things from Iraq and Afghanistan, through failure as much or more than success. With that in mind, the doctrine writers have been busy the last few years. Many of the Army publications I used just last year as the doctrinal basis for my analysis of Nagashino are now out of date; the information and concepts are not necessarily out of use, but much has been updated and streamlined, and eventually I will have to go back through and determine what changes I need to make in my papers. But, that’s for a different time. 

The point of all this is that, in addition the 9 Principles of War listed above, the US military has added three more principles to make a list of “Principles of Joint Operations.” These new principles—Restraint, Perseverance, and Legitimacy—reflect the lessons of the Counterinsurgency (COIN) concepts now being used by Coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

So, if they’re new, they don’t apply to 16th century Japan, right? Well, I’m going to show you that they do. These concepts, while newly codified into Joint doctrine, aren’t new at all, and in fact played just a prominent a part in warfare in the Sengoku period as any of the original Principles of War.
I will discuss three principles per post, defining them and using examples from (mostly) Sengoku warfare to illustrate the concepts. The final post, I’ll use them collectively to analyze commander actions at a battle in Japanese history. Those of you who know me can guess which one I might use. 

With that, let’s start with the first Principle. 


(1) The purpose of specifying the objective is to direct every military operation toward a clearly defined, decisive, and achievable goal.

(2) The purpose of military operations is to achieve the military objectives that support attainment of the overall political goals of the conflict. This frequently involves the destruction of the enemy armed forces’ capabilities and their will to fight. The objective of joint operations not involving this destruction might be more difficult to define; nonetheless, it too must be clear from the beginning. Objectives must directly, quickly, and economically contribute to the purpose of the operation. Each operation must contribute to strategic objectives. [Commanders] should avoid actions that do not contribute directly to achieving the objective(s).

(3) Additionally, changes to the military objectives may occur because political and military leaders gain a better understanding of the situation, or they may occur because the situation itself changes. The [Commander] should anticipate these shifts in political goals necessitating changes in the military objectives. The changes may be very subtle, but if not made, achievement of the military objectives may no longer support the political goals, legitimacy may be undermined, and force security may be compromised.[1]

Let’s start with the first point (because where else would we start?). Every military option should have a clearly defined and achievable goal, or objective. For some of you, this may seem like the most obvious thing ever. Why go in to battle, or start a war, unless you know why you are doing it? However, this isn’t as obvious as you might think. Many historical examples show that sometimes military commanders really aren’t sure what they were trying to do, or weren’t exactly sure how they were going to do it. This is at the root of all the contemporary debates about “exit strategy” in Iraq and Afghanistan. A commander has to identify what it is he is trying to accomplish, both to identify the means to do so and to know when he is done.

Some failures come from lack of a coherent objective at all. The difference between the vague goal of “conquer more territory” and the specific, yet similar goal of “conquer enemies and attain supremacy over all of Japan” is the difference between a local warlord who probably didn’t last long and an Oda Nobunaga, who had the vision to map out a path to that strategic objective. 

Other failures come from setting objectives that are unrealistic: Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasion of the Asian mainland failed in part because it was way too ambitious to believe he could invade China and conquer the entire landmass; Hideyoshi had no concept of the scale of operation that objective would require. 

Astute readers may recognize concepts from the Levels of War at work in the second point. “Each operation must contribute to strategic objectives.” Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and energy. More on that when we get to other concepts. 

The third point means that circumstances can change that either accomplish your objective, or render it irrelevant, in which case you need to readjust and pursue a new objective. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s objective as the advance guard for Imagawa Yoshimoto’s army in 1560 was to secure the forward fortifications at Marune and Washizu in order to secure Yoshimoto’s passage with the main force; the objective was rendered obsolete when Oda Nobunaga destroyed Yoshimoto’s headquarters and killed him, so Ieyasu retreated to preserve himself and his force. His objective changed from support to Yoshimoto’s army to self-preservation and independence as he split from the weakened Imagawa. 


(1) The purpose of an offensive action is to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative.

(2) Offensive action is the most effective and decisive way to achieve a clearly defined objective. Offensive operations are the means by which a military force seizes and holds the initiative while maintaining freedom of action and achieving decisive results. The importance of offensive action is fundamentally true across all levels of war.

(3) Commanders adopt the defensive only as a temporary expedient and must seek every opportunity to seize or regain the initiative. An offensive spirit must be inherent in the conduct of all defensive operations.

There are two ways to succinctly explain this Principle. The first is through sports: you can have the best defense in the world, but you still have to score at least one more point than your opponent to win. The second is Newton’s first law of motion: objects in motion stay in motion, and objects at rest  stay at rest, unless an outside force acts upon it. I have just simultaneously appealed to both the jock crowd and the science nerds—we’re all about bringing everyone together in the name of Japanese history. 

In warfare, the side initiating action is said to be on the offensive, and generally is the side forcing the other side to react to it. You can deter an enemy through defensive action, but you cannot defeat them without taking the fight to them. As point 3 states, defense is temporary: commanders go on the defensive to take advantage of terrain or other circumstances to defeat the opponent’s attack or to buy time and build combat power until they can take the offensive themselves. Defeating your opponent’s attack, only to let them retreat and rebuild by not taking the offensive yourself, accomplishes only temporary goals. 

Nobunaga’s campaigns are a good example of Offensive operations. Nobunaga was truly the first samurai commander to divide his operations into theaters, with Hideyoshi commanding his forces in western Japan, Shibata Katsuie commanding Oda forces in the north, Sakuma Nobumori leading forces against the Ishiyama Honganji in central Japan, and Tokugawa Ieyasu (as a subordinate ally) in charge in the Tokai region to the east. Nobunaga never ceased being on the offensive—he would move between theaters with his main army to exploit offensive opportunities created by his subordinate commanders. When an objective (see, these all tie together) in one area was reached he would shift focus to the next offensive opportunity—for instance, when the surrender of the Ishiyama Honganji was finalized, he shifted focus to the final destruction of the Takeda in Shinano and Kai.


(1) The purpose of mass is to concentrate the effects of combat power at the most advantageous place and time to produce decisive results.

(2) In order to achieve mass, appropriate joint force capabilities are integrated and synchronized where they will have a decisive effect in a short period of time. Mass often must be sustained to have the desired effect. Massing effects of combat power, rather than concentrating forces, can enable even numerically inferior forces to produce decisive results and minimize human losses and waste of resources.

Mass isn’t very hard to understand: as Napoleon supposedly said, “God is on the side of the big battalions.” But it’s not as simple as having more troops—allegedly, Voltaire’s retort was “God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best.” Voltaire highlights an important point: it’s not the numbers, but the massed effects that matter.

Imagawa Yoshimoto meets his end at Okehazama
The best example I can use is Okehazama again. We all (well, most of us) know the story: Oda Nobunaga, with a force of a few thousand, defeated the much larger Imagawa army under Yoshimoto with somewhere between 25,000-30,000 troops by sneaking in under the cover a rain storm to attack Yoshimoto’s lightly defended headquarters. As Nobunaga rode from Kiyosu to the battlefield, he gathered up smaller parties of warriors along the way, and other small contingents met him closer to where the Imagawa were encamped. Nobunaga didn’t match up with the Imagawa army soldier for soldier—in a field battle of force vs. force, he surely would have been annihilated by sheer weight of numbers. The mass of the Imagawa would have overwhelmed Nobunaga, and Japanese history would be very different today.

However, the Imagawa were dispersed over much of the countryside, as my example above with Ieyasu’s vanguard already noted. The headquarters at Dengakuhazama was in full non-tactical mode because they assumed the rest of their army was sweeping aside Oda resistance ahead of them. They were napping, eating, and having a sip of sake or two (or three). Meanwhile Arriving at the battlefield by various covered and concealed routes, Nobunaga’s force massed at the decisive tactical point to overwhelm the enemy:  hitting the Imagawa from several sides and overwhelming them, taking the commander Yoshimoto’s head in the process and defeating the invasion of Oda territory at the outset.

So, there you have it: Objective, Offensive, and Mass. Next time we’ll cover three more Principles of Joint Operations: Maneuver, Economy of Force, and Unity of Command. Stay tuned!

Lastly, some housekeeping: I am writing this, actually, for an assignment in my Command and General Staff College—Intermediate Level Education school. As such, I must throw out the following disclaimer:

The above comments represent the views of the author only, and should not be interpreted to represent the views or official position of the United States Army or the Department of Defense. 

MAJ Nate Ledbetter
Intermediate Level Education Class 12-002
Staff Group D
Fort Gordon, Georgia

[1] Department of Defense. Joint Publication 3-0, “Joint Operations” Washington, D.C.: 11 August 2011. Pg. A-1through A-2 is the source for all quoted JP 3-0 definitions of Principles.

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