On Will and War

Willpower obstacle course_edited

Wayne Michael Hall, The Power of Will in International Conflict: How to Think Critically in Complex Environments (Praeger Security International, 2018).


“Will” may be the most underexamined term of art in security studies. A traditional construct holds that both “opportunity” and “willingness” are necessary for action in international engagements. While this seems maddeningly obvious, most defense analysts focus on the opportunity — capacity and capabilities — when the willingness is far more crucial. Even when assessed, it is often reduced to the “will to fight” — such a bland military vernacular as to be almost meaningless. While “will” is included by Carl von Clausewitz in the very definition of war — “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” — and as a key component in the enemy’s power of resistance — “the total means at his disposal and the strength of the will” — the term remains undefined. It is implicit that “will” involves physical and moral ability to both act and resist, but that is as far as Clausewitz takes us. Indeed, even Raymond Aron concedes: “the will to resist cannot be measured.”

That didn’t stop military strategists from asserting the importance of “will.” The maneuver warfare movement of the 1990s was centered on disruption of the enemy’s will to fight. David A Grossman wrote an entire essay on “Defeating the Enemy’s Will: The Psychological Foundations of Maneuver Warfare,” in which he argued that “the essence of maneuver warfare [is] that you defeat the enemy’s will to fight rather than his ability to fight,” without ever explicitly defining will.

However, the treatment in the maneuver warfare literature dwarfs that of counterinsurgency. The much-vaunted Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency refers to “will” only twice, in passing, in the historical treatment of “Protracted Popular War,” and not in the doctrine itself.

Last year, the Army funded a RAND project led by retired Marine officer Ben Connable on the will to fight. This project focuses almost exclusively on the battlefield and on the will of individuals and units to continue their missions and on the role of “will” in tactical and operational cohesion. External factors are largely examined through the effect that they have on these units and individuals.

A focus on individuals or on battlefield cohesion or enemy psychology misses the most crucial role of “will” in conflict, that of how it manifests in the political space into which military leaders may (or at least should) play only a supporting role. Nor is military “will” the only type that factors into regime decisions. The survival of the Assad regime in Syria in spite of resistance and external interventions cannot be explained by extrapolating up from individual soldier motivation. The resistance of the Iranian regime to the U.S. “maximum pressure” campaign has almost nothing to do with the esprit de corps (or lack thereof) in the Iranian army. Coerced “willingness” of North Korean troops does not explain the policy of brinksmanship in support of nuclear talks, as all decision-making resides in one individual. Both U.S. pressures and regime postures in response are “acts of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” but we have few meaningful models of how to think about enemy willpower — or “won’t power,” as the case may be — or friendly willpower in relation to it, as regards these cases.

Into this gap enters Wayne Michael Hall’s book, The Power of Will in International Conflict: How to Think Critically in Complex Environments. Hall, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, with a military intelligence background and a School of Advanced Military Studies diploma (and long-time personal mentor), lays out in detail the interaction between the will of adversaries in a complex and adaptive environment. This tome is not a beach read, and even Hall concedes that “this book is arduous to say the least.”

For example, one need only consider Hall’s definition of will:

The appearance of one’s desire, volition, life force—empowered by potency of resolve and willingness to sacrifice, that when yoked with strength of motive and appropriate capabilities, provides action sufficient to accomplish or satisfy an aim, goal, objective, strategy and thereby imposing one’s desires over and gaining the acquiescence of a resisting entity or understanding the phenomenon sufficiently to resist such attempts from another human entity.

Small wonder earlier writers have struggled to formulate a satisfying definition.

It is apparent, then, that unlike those studied in tactics, those who have successfully been able to triumph in a battle of wills, have done so intuitively, by some natural inclination or genius. But if will can be explained, then it can be taught — or at least recognized and accepted as part of the recipe of warfare. The lesson for those who aspire to be strategists is obvious: Understanding the role of will (and willpower and willingness) will give a huge competitive advantage in any confrontation.

Of course, were it easy, the U.S. military would have legions training in it. The complex patterns Hall outlines to understand the clash of wills is extensive and often onerous, necessarily so. For example, Hall rejects understanding friendly and enemy constraints in binary terms. Instead,

we must consider an alternative thought model as follows: 1) how he [the enemy] views our [friendly] constraints; 2) how he views his own constraints; 3) how we view our constraints; 4) how he believes friendly views their own constraints; 5) how we think he views his own constraints; 6) how we think he thinks about how we think he thinks about his constraints; and 7) how he thinks we think about how he thinks we think about friendly constraints.

In the interests of keeping you from closing this review, I will not reproduce Hall’s 13 steps for identifying adversary thinking. Suffice to say that the text will demand active engagement and a supply of post-its and highlighters. But the novel, comprehensive, will-based approach is more than worth the effort.

Hall admirably widens the scope beyond the troops, the military commanders, and political leaders to the “will” of the population as a constraint. As the level of direct impact varies with each political system and popular “will” is subject to decline over time, politicians and strategists must understand the need for perseverance, or account for the likely absence of such in their own system.



U.S. veterans of the war in Iraq (to give one tangible example) will understand this intuitively. The 2006–08 Battle of Baghdad presented a web of interlocking, interconnected, interacting, and opposing wills. The military leader, Gen. David Petraeus, brought a focused will to the fight. But behind him was the equally firm will of President George W. Bush and the National Security Council that had largely formulated his plan and made the Iraq War their top policy priority. The experienced ambassador and his staff were willing their own aligned but distinct vision for Baghdad, along with a “civilian surge.” Military leaders, especially those in the Army, had declining will to support the fight much longer, having concluded that the objective was not worth breaking the force. The mostly fresh troops in Baghdad and their mid-level officers were informed, in many cases, by the counterinsurgency “revolution” and the military-intellectual renaissance it had fomented and demonstrated a will to put these theories into practice. The will of the population at home was tenuous, to say the least, and suffering from a (understandable) lack of perseverance. And the will of the president’s partisan opponents in Congress was intent on exploiting the setbacks of 2006 into permanent domestic political gains. But this only outlines the various forces at play on the American side. Outlining Iraqis’, Islamists’, allies’, and neighboring powers’ incentives and views would take many more paragraphs. Hall’s rubric serves to force full cataloging of the actors’ motivations.

While challenging, there is a certain accessibility to the work. While Hall’s treatment of “will” and associated concepts such as “life force” and “purpose” are new, other concepts — objectives, constraints, decisive points, centers of gravity — are long-established in military thought and will make the strategist and tactician feel at home. Hall’s service here is not so much in the presentation of concepts — though he does break major ground but in the way each of the concepts is linked to, and nested with, each of the others. This is really a book that looks at the entire system of conflict as a fundamental clash of “wills.” Yes, the physical nature of the environment and resources quickly come into play, but the fundamental force is moral. But by starting with “will,” the manner in which one looks at conflict becomes much, much closer to the motivating drive that wins or loses wars.

This work is timely as well. Military theory has been struggling in recent years trying to make sense of new phenomena in politics, culture, and technology. Terms like “hybrid war,” “compound war,” “fourth-generation warfare,” and — the newest addition — “gray zone war” have competed for explanatory power or just “buzz,” and generally not successfully.

Hall’s work explains these concepts by transcending them, in simple but powerful terms that apply no matter the “opportunity” each has to bring to bear. Combatants will attempt to break the “will” of the other. These combatants may or may not be restrained in the same manner. They will compete in various domains, will seek to learn the weaknesses of the other, and will attempt to compete in arenas where they have the advantage and their opponent is weak. This holds true whether one is discussing two nation states with traditional forces, nation states with unconventional forces, highly organized non-state actors, or loosely organized insurgents or terrorists. It holds true whether the conflict between the forces is symmetric or asymmetric, at macro or micro-level, or is inter- or intra-state. Hall neatly posits that five factors — the “will” of the adversary; the kind of conflict undertaken; the aims, goals, objectives, resources, constraints and strategies in play; the situational and operational context; and past behavior — will quickly give understanding of the likely outline of the coming conflict and how it will test our own “will.” By tying together and connecting all the facets of warfare, all focused around the fundamental clash of “will,” Hall makes himself the leading contender for a “unified field theory” for warfare.

This work is complex, though Hall tries to make its application as simple as possible. Wresting with this work will be hard. And yet, all those who concern themselves with preparing for, preventing, fighting, or cleaning up after our nation’s wars must do so. Any professional who deals with competition could also benefit from this book. This theory could easily be shelved under “business strategy” or “litigation manuals.” But national security and military professionals must not just read this book — they must study it.



Douglas A. Ollivant, a Contributing Editor to War on the Rocks, is an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at New America. A graduate of the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies, he served as a division-level chief of plans and G5 for almost three years.

Image: DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade, U.S. Army.