Skip to main content

Principles of War

Principles of War. Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Forces, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity are the principles of war most often found in military manuals. They have been a part of strategic thinking since China's war philosopher, Sun Tzu (500 B.C.), admonished commanders to surprise the enemy by making a noise in the west and striking in the east.

A modern list was developed around 1800, when Napoleon Bonaparte began fighting his way across Europe. Under the influence of the Enlightenment and its credo that life was governed by rational laws, some scholars tried to translate military strategy into a precise science. Prussia's Heinrich von Bülow (1757–1808), for instance, declared that triangle‐based geometrics governed all military maneuvers and therefore all strategic decisions.

Yearning to repeat Sir Isaac Newton's discoveries, Antoine Henri Jomini (1779–1869) suggested that all operational decisions could be rationally determined. After joining the French Army and fighting in several major campaigns, including Napoleon's war against Russia (1812), Jomini ascertained that battle successes were often based on a few pre‐engagement principles.

In The Art of War (1838), Jomini outlined several Principles of War, of which three were essential. First, keeping in mind the military objective, one should carefully select a theater of war that provides all the offensive advantages. Second, before engaging the enemy, rivers, mountains, and other topographical features must be used to gain added leverage. Third, the enemy must be maneuvered into a vulnerable position; one should then launch a massive and concentrated attack upon this critical point.

Jomini, who lived to be ninety years old, witnessed the rapid rise of railroads, telegraph, and other technologies. Yet, claiming that his precepts were perennial truths, he shunned these advances. He argued that his principles had brought victories to Hannibal, Caesar, and Napoleon; therefore, no matter how warfare changed, they would always prevail. Like other Enlightenment philosophers, Jomini tried to reduce war—a very complex human phenomenon—to a rational science.

In the first part of the nineteenth century, the American military thinker Dennis Hart Mahan introduced Jominian logic to the United States after spending four years in France analyzing Napoleonic warfare. Mahan joined the U.S. Military Academy in 1830, and for the next forty years taught engineering and operational strategy to a host of future Civil War generals. Robert E. Lee, Henry W. Halleck, George B. McClellan, and other commanders became very familiar with Jominian concepts.

Both as a student and as one of West Point's commandants, General Lee was aware of Jomini's principles, and when the opportunity arose, he applied them. For example, during the Battle of Chancellorsville—outnumbered nearly two to one—Lee reconfigured his forces to block the Union army's left and center flanks. Then, finding the enemy's critical point, he sent Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson around the Union's right and successfully defeated them. Chancellorsville was reminiscent of the way Jomini described Napoleon's use of these same maneuvers in the Marengo campaign in Italy of 1800.

During the later half of the nineteenth century, Jomini's theories became popular at the U.S. Naval War College. Dennis Mahan's son, Alfred T. Mahan, joined the college in 1885 and a year later became its president. From this pulpit, he lectured and wrote about a blue‐water strategy that included frequent references to Jomini's principles. Never divide the fleet, Mahan admonished. Seek out your opponent and strike him down in an overwhelming display of massive and concentrated seapower.

Among naval officers, Mahan's seapower themes remained popular well into the twentieth century. During World War II, operational plans called for the U.S. Navy to concentrate its fleet in the mid‐Pacific and defeat the Japanese Imperial Navy in decisive Mahanian‐style sea battle. For the most part, not until the demise of the Soviet Navy in the late 1980s did the U.S. Navy begin looking beyond Jomini and Mahan for other strategic concepts.

On occasion, strict adherence to the Mahanian principles proved to be unproductive. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf (1944), Adm. William F. Halsey elected to sail his main fleet from the San Bernadino Straits and throw it, in mass, upon the Japanese carriers, which proved to be decoys. In an effort never to divide the fleet, Halsey vacated San Bernadino, allowing a second Japanese force to sail through the straits, defeated surprisingly by a small if aggressive U.S. force.

During the early twentieth century, the Principles of War slowly became an essential part of the military's lexicon. British Gen. J. F. C. Fuller, in an attempt to establish a science of war, was one of the first to codify Jomini's postulates into short, easy to understand concepts. Writing in various military journals, Fuller helped popularize their use.

Urged on by the rise of corporate scientific management, American officers also searched for new ways to make warfare subject to a rational analysis. Thus, in the 1920s, for the first time, the War Department included these principles in its training manuals. Because they were practical, logical, teachable, and above all easy to test, the principles quickly became preferred classroom topics. Today, these lessons remain an important part of the military's educational process.

Despite their popularity, some claimed the principles were not adequate in explaining war. Prussia's Karl von Clausewitz affirmed that any attempt to rationalize war into postulates was flirting with fantasy. War, he said in his unfinished work On War (1830), was too involved with immeasurable moral and other factors to be reduced to a science. Two centuries later, America's Bernard Brodie observed that the principles provided an inappropriate insight into war's ambiguities. Too often, they were simply bantered around as high‐sounding slogans.

Finally, a few scholars claimed that violation of the principles has prompted more successful operations than when they were rigidly observed. Had Halsey not insisted on concentrating his fleet leaving San Bernadino Strait undefended, for example, he might have prevented a vicious Japanese attack against American escort carriers off Samar Island. Despite criticisms, the Principles of War remain popular because they provide strategic planners with some basic considerations.
[See also Strategy; War: Nature of War.]


A. T. Mahan , The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, 1890.
Brevet Colonel J. F. C. Fuller , The Application of Recent Developments in the Mechanics and other Scientific Knowledge to Prepartaion and Training for Future War on Land, The Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, LXV (May 1920), pp. 239–74.
Bernard Brodie , Strategy in the Missile Age, 1959.
Russell F. Weigley , The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy, 1977.
Carl von Clausewitz , On War, trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 1976.
John I. Alger , The Quest for Victory: The History of the Principles of War, 1982.
U.S. Armed Forces , Joint Warfare of the U.S. Armed Forces, 1991.
Antoine Henri de Jomini , The Art of War, 1992.

Donald D. Chipman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Principles of War." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . 2 Feb. 2019 <>.

"Principles of War." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . (February 2, 2019).

"Principles of War." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved February 02, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.