Small Wars Journal

The Nature of War Theory

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U.S. Army War College Strategy Research Project


The Nature of War Theory

By Lieutenant Colonel Paul B. Olsen, U.S. Army

Dr. Thomas J. Williams, Project Adviser

Download the Full Research Project: The Nature of War Theory

Today's advances in evolutionary biology are unifying competing theories of natural selection and serve as a timely call for a similar unification of competing theories of war. This paper explores the relationship between war and natural selection by first examining war's biological origins, and then placing them within a multidisciplinary framework called the Nature of War Theory.

This theory, as its name implies, reconciles natural selection and war to reveal a shared overarching and paradoxical duality, displaying that war is characterized by the simultaneous violent interplay of evolutionary individual-level and group-level adaptations, manifested by individualist and altruistic wars, respectively, and highlighted by trends and insights recognizable to both students of war and evolutionary biology.

Download the Full Research Project: The Nature of War Theory

LTC(P) Paul Olsen is currently a student at the U.S. Army War College, Advanced Strategic Arts Program. He holds Masters Degrees from Websters and George Mason University. His former assignments include speechwriter to the Commander, Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth and command of the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power).

About the Author(s)

Paul B. Olsen is a Colonel in the U.S. Army.  He holds master’s degrees in Civil and Infrastructure Engineering from George Mason University, Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College, and Business Management from Webster University and is a registered engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  His research focus is on the development of a multi-disciplinary and unifying theory of war.  His paper, The Nature of War Theory received the Army War College 2011 Commandant’s Award for Distinguished Research.


Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 02/07/2015 - 10:27am

Interesting little hive mind of the internet, seeing this article after my last comment. Where you seek unification, I think I just seek? Maybe it will be something, maybe it will be nothing. One not better than the other, just different.

I will be presenting my Nature of War Theory at Dickinson College, Clarke Forum for Contemporary Affairs on 17 November, 2011 at 7 pm. Information is at the enclosed link. Thank you all for your comments.

Colonel Paul Olsen


Mon, 11/28/2011 - 8:47am

In reply to by Bob's World

Thanks for your comment, Bob. I've been working your concern since you posted last May. I very much appreciate the feedback. I've done what you've asked and taken a step back and explored the relationship between the forces of natural selection -- individualistic and altruistic. I now posit that Irregular Warfare (IW) is very much different than Regular Warfare, but they are still very much types of war needing different doctrines. Please click on my name in the author line to bring up an blog article I recently penned that displays the four quadrants of war. I hope that helps me convey my point to you and answer your concern. Let's keep up the discussion! Paul

Bob's World

Sun, 05/15/2011 - 9:45am

A lot of good stuff in that paper; but not to throw a monkey wrench in the gears, a small question:

What if insurgency is not war at all??

Galula, of course, as a man born and raised a colonial Frenchman in North Africa; who then in turn dedicated his life to the conduct and study of French campaigns to cling to their colonial holdings did not think or write of insurgency from the perspective of the counterinsurgent, but rather from the perspective of an intervening party with the goal of sustaining some flawed national government in power over the objections of the very populace to be governed. This is not COIN, it is intervention, and that may well be waged as war, as it is a foreign land and people one is attacking for the interests of ones home and populace elsewhere. But for true COIN, waged between a government and its own populace? That is much more a civil emergency than it is warfare, regardless of how violent it may become.

Just as conflict within a family is vastly different in nature than conflict between families in its very nature; regardless of how similar the activities may appear on the surface.

So, I would just offer a suggestion: run a new variable through the solid thinking and research behind this paper. Step outside military doctrine and history and ask: What if insurgency is not war at all; and the problem is not that we apply the wrong theory of warfare, but rather that we apply a warfare theory to a different type of conflict all together.



Backwards Observer

Sun, 05/15/2011 - 2:17am

CLC Joe, thanks for taking the time to reply:

If I've read it correctly, I also agree with your original point that WAR and MAN (and all the rest of it) cannot be explained purely in terms of scientific theory alone. As the bard wrote, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth...".

If viewed as metaphor, however, I do think theories and/or methodologies such as described in LTC Olsen's paper have the potential to breach cognitive impasses or at least expose new vistas of understanding for traversing thorny synaptic terrain.

CLC Joe (not verified)

Sat, 05/14/2011 - 3:52pm

Backwards Observer,

Excellent Point. Civil Disobedience, as demonstrated by Ghandi or Martin Luther King, are excellent examples of leaders and groups that chose not to fight as a means to influence political change. An extremely successful strategy to bypass the military / police and establish a dialogue directly to the target population (the people). Likewise, Terrorists and Jihadists, choose to bypass the military / police and attempt dialogue (coerce through force and threat of force) with the people directly. You could argue that this is monologue because because the terrorists arent modifying their strategy based off of the reaction of their target populations and their governments; or you could argue that the Jihadists are attacking some populations and governments as a means of targeted dialogue to influence the actions of other populations and governments. All still well defined within Clausewitz's definition of WAR.
Interesting and astute point, I hadn't thought about that.

Backwards Observer

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 8:20pm

CLC Joe wrote:

<em><blockquote>The friction that we are experiencing currently is caused by our inability to adapt our method of WAR (dialogue) to target and influence new groups of men.</em></blockquote>

Perhaps part of the problem arises because some groups of men, including the new ones, feel strongly that monologue is more productive than dialogue. To some extent, they are probably correct.

LTC Olsen's paper is a breath of fresh air in its approach. I have long been convinced that the 'sociobiological' (i.e. behavioral ecology) approach is the only logical method to understanding human behavior. I would challenge LTC Olsen to consider the following in refining his theoretical framework.

The "individualistic" and "altruistic" behaviors that he identifies in the paper are explained by way of analogy with other species. While this is a fundamentally necessary first step in vetting the validity of a behavioral theory (if one accepts biological evolution, of course), it is not the final or most critical step. These behaviors must be understood in the context of specifically human biological evolution in the human ancestral environment. For instance, significant academic work posits that altruism isn't as simple as a ratio calculation of self-sacrifice for the greater good. The discussion of biological mechanisms of altruism cannot stop at analogy. Gene-centric theories discount the value of the individual (the phenotype) and extend the 'influence' of the genes beyond their physical expressions into the social-system. At the end of the day, the social-system exists for the benefit of the individuals, or more precisely, the genes that are contained within the individuals. Self-sacrifice needs to be reconciled with the genetics, something done especially well by theories that have evolved since the publication of Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene".

The analogies help validate the hypothesis, but human uniqueness must be accounted for. This equation needs to be tested against [human] ecological frameworks. Especially frameworks that are beyond the industrial age (an artificial environment humanity has not had time to permanently adapt to) and preferably beyond the advent of settled human societies and the ability to produce food beyond consumption needs. That, after all, is the environment Homo sapiens has been adapting in for 195,000 of its 200,000 yrs of existence.

Finally, the intersection between irregular warfare and altruistic warfare isn't at all clear. Is the Soviet Union's resistance of the 3rd Reich a case of the Communist regime's desire to survive, whereby it hijacked the 'altruistic mechanisms' to induce the population to resist? Or was it an altruistic resistance (per LTC Olsen's theory) simply fought on a conventional scale? The "historical stress-test" isn't clear in the article.

I'd like to reiterate my appreciation of LTC Olsen's approach of the question through an evolutionary biology framework.


Backwards Observer (not verified)

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 3:36pm

CLC Joe wrote:

<em> I disagree that WAR or MAN himself has changed at all. WAR is still a dialogue between groups to achieve policy change on favored terms, and MAN is still Man.</em>

You seem to be saying that MAN has an immutable and eternal nature, is this correct? If so, how would you describe this nature?

CLC Joe (not verified)

Fri, 05/13/2011 - 2:15pm

The biggest issue I have with LTC Olsen's paper is the belief that WAR has evolved by the natural selection of individuals or groups. While I agree the tools and technologies leveraged to conduct war have dramatically evolved throughout its history, I disagree that WAR or MAN himself has changed at all. WAR is still a dialogue between groups to achieve policy change on favored terms, and MAN is still Man. The friction that we are experiencing currently is caused by our inability to adapt our method of WAR (dialogue) to target and influence new groups of men. This friction has nothing to do with biological variances in evolution, and everything to do with our ability to rapidly modify methods of WAR to target new groups of self-organizing hyper-empowered individuals. (Non-State Actors, Criminals, Terrorists, etc.)

Backwards Observer

Thu, 05/12/2011 - 8:09am

From my admittedly limited understanding of the subject(s), a fascinating and compelling perspective by LTC Olsen, concisely and clearly written. Good article. Uh...he's a witch, burn him!

Also, "People are not wearing enough hats":