Skip to main content

By Mr C. Parsons


The object in war is a better state of peace―even if only from your own point of view.

―B.H. Liddell Hart[1]


Legitimacy underpins western power. In the twenty-first century, political leaders need options to prevent and resolve armed conflicts, not just fight them.  This paper advances a contemporary concept for the purpose and utility of force. It asserts that conflicts occur when legitimacy is contested and are only resolved when an accepted order (or legitimacy) is re-established.[2] The paper goes on to examine legitimacy and offers three reasons for the application of force and provides a model to illustrate its utility. The article then strips the jargon and outlines four military roles and four ways to win. Finally, five principles are proposed that underpin military success in the twenty-first century.


Causes of Conflict

All conflict is a contest for legitimacy.[3] Phillip Bobbitt’s seminal work Shield of Achilles: War Peace and the Course of History argues that conflict is only resolved when legitimacy is re-established.[4] Recent examples of lost legitimacy include the 2003 Iraq war, which began as a conventional inter-state war because a coalition of nations believed Saddam Hussein was refusing to dismantle an illicit program for weapons of mass destruction. This mistrust threatened the international order to the point that his legitimacy was forfeit. Having removed Saddam Hussein in a lightening war, the US-led coalition missed the moment in time when stabilisation efforts had the greatest potential to catalyse the people’s confidence.[5] Consequently, the coalition lost legitimacy itself and Iraq slipped into irregular conflict.[6] Another example is the popular rejection of autocracy[7] that fuelled the Arab Spring’s turmoil. [8]

Bobbitt’s theory suggests that the Middle East conflict will continue until the question of who should govern and how is resolved. Yet even as this question is being ‘waged’ it has become conflated with deeper questions which are fuelling an Islamic civil war. In turn this seems to be drawing the world into a broader contest between virulent terrorist pathocracy[9] and individual empowerment under moderate democratic ideals. If these contests for legitimacy are not stabilised we risk triggering catastrophic collapse – a characteristic of complex adaptive systems. Whether this will be regional or global remains to be seen.

Rationale for the Use of Force

Needing to justify the expenditure of blood and treasure, statesmen and generals alike have long embraced Sir Edward Creasy’s idea of noble sacrifice for bold decision.[10] Today, scholars like Antulio Echrevarria[11] and practitioners like General Rupert Smith[12] are questioning how decisive military victories really can be. The constant bloodletting after Saddam Hussein’s decisive defeat underscores the point. If military force is not decisive – ‘what are our forces for’?[13]

A new model for the rationale of force is needed. Taking Bobbitt’s lead, military force deals with the symptoms of contested legitimacy – violence. To have utility, force needs to regain control, establish security and allow legitimacy to evolve through the other elements of national and societal power. Therefore, the political purpose of military intervention should be to maintain or re-establish legitimate (accepted) civil governance within a rules based international order.

Figure 1 is a theory for the rationale of military intervention and success. The horizontal axis shows the conflict spectrum (peace – war), the countervailing military responses, and the indicative operational phases that are applicable across the spectrum.[14] As conflict moves from peace to war the scale and cost of violence increases up the vertical axis. Military force is necessary when civil legitimacy is contested to the point that violence crosses the ‘conflict threshold,’ ceasing to be a law and order problem[15] and becoming armed conflict. Military interventions are successful when violence is reduced to a policing matter and civil order is re-established as legitimate.

For New Zealand’s military to succeed in the twenty-first century it must be compelling in combat, but combat is not an end in itself. Embarking with the ends in mind, military solutions need to include input from all instruments of society – public and private. Underscoring this, half the military phases in the model (phases zero, four and five) are multi-partner activities. They are either conducted under the auspices of another agency (phase zero)[16] or they need to be conducted in step with non-military efforts to succeed (phases four and five).

Utility of Force

There are three fundamental uses for force in the twenty-first century: to protect sovereignty, to protect people and to maintain a stable international system (including freedom of the global commons).[17] Used for these ends, military force has utility in both non-combatant and combatant roles.

Stripping away the jargon, military utility can be divided into four broad roles. Two roles are combatant: Conventional warfare[18] and comprehensive operations. The remaining two roles are non-combatant: civic operations[19] and humanitarian operations.

Conventional warfare is characterised as inter-state conflict.[20] New Zealand has been a combatant in three such wars in its history (World War I, World War II and the Korean War).[21] While conventional warfare has been infrequent this paper does not go as far as General Smith’s assertion that ‘war no longer exists.’[22] There remains very real risks of conventional warfare, particularly in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region.[23]

Comprehensive operations fall short of conventional warfare. They range from peace time engagement, peace and stability operations to countering insurgency and transnational conflict and they may be thematic in nature. They are comprehensive by definition because success requires more than military power. Comprehensive operations have been the most common worldwide since WWII.[24] They have also been the preponderance of New Zealand’s military experience since the New Zealand Wars of the 1840s.

Humanitarian operations are expeditionary and provide assistance[25] and disaster relief globally but especially in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, which suffers up to 80 percent of the world’s natural disasters.[26] They may be pre-planned resilience building activities, but frequently they are very short notice responses to augment the capacity or capability of civil powers during crises.

Civic operations reinforce legitimacy. They help build New Zealand’s national identity and resilience by reinforcing civil authority with military capacity or capability when requested.[27] Examples include civil defence during natural disasters,[28] character based youth development programs, and support to national culture and heritage.

Related to the four broad military roles there are four ways to win. Conventional warfare is designed to destroy the enemy force.[29] Victory is achieved when the enemy, or the enemy commander, no longer has the will or the means to keep fighting.[30] Once brought to this point the enemy sues for peace or accedes to an offer of terms. This is the origin for Sir Edward Creasy’s oft repeated concept of decisive battle.[31] Yet as observed by Liddell Hart, winning the war is not enough to win the peace.[32] Peace requires the belligerents to come to terms and live within them. If they cannot do so the war will be fought again.[33]

As opposed to the destructive approach of conventional warfare, the underlying principle of comprehensive operations is constructive. Comprehensive operations seek to reinforce the status quo or build a new order. This is not to say that they do not involve destructive action – only that destruction is not their primary purpose. It follows that winning in comprehensive operations is achieved when a legitimate civil order can manage violence through the rule of law. Successful examples with New Zealand involvement include, among others; the Boer War (1899-1902), Malaya (1948-1960), Angola (1994-2002), Timor Leste (1999-2013) and the Solomon Islands (2000-2013).

Success in humanitarian and civic operations occurs when civil authorities can manage crises within their own capabilities. Examples where New Zealand has responded include the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, and the 2013 Philippines super typhoon Haiyan.

In all these examples military operations ultimately succeeded when an accepted form of civil governance was returned or reinforced. Even conventional warfare cannot ultimately succeed to its policy ends without a political solution that is accepted by the populace who have to live with it.

Principles of Force

To prevail as a force for good, a principled approach is required. Five principles are proposed, the first is organisational, the second and third relate to the generation of combat power and the two remaining principles relate to the difficult task of civil-military transition.

The first principle is agility. Agility maximises New Zealand’s ability to deploy and redeploy task organised joint, interagency, civil and multinational forces throughout the conflict spectrum. It is advanced by an organisational commitment to clear-eyed simplicity.

Second is excellence. To have the operational edge over their adversaries New Zealand forces must continually strive for excellence. They must be individually and collectively better than their opponents who will have superior local knowledge and who may well be more numerous. However, this is not enough. In World War I New Zealanders were first rate soldiers and died well.[34] From a population of one million, New Zealand fielded 42 percent of its military aged men and suffered a butcher’s bill of 58 percent killed or wounded.

Therefore, the second principle must be complemented by the third: New Zealanders must excel at generating leverage. This can be achieved with the creative use of surprise, technology, tempo, terrain and human understanding. For instance, a small force can gain relative superiority[35] by leveraging complex terrain. This was aptly demonstrated in Thermopylae’s mountain pass by Leonidas, in the Burmese jungle by Wingate’s Chindits, and in Petrograd’s city streets by Trotsky. Moreover, in contemporary wars among the people, the greatest leverage will go to the side that best understands how to catalyse the people’s confidence

The fourth principle is legitimacy. To win the confidence of the populace, the actions of New Zealand’s forces must be seen to be legitimate. An intervention force cannot hope to be succeeded by legitimate civil governance if it does not first model proportionality, consistency,[36] justice and respect.

The fourth goes with the fifth, the pursuit of peace. The force must operate with the ends in mind. In this there are two elements – the imperative and the outcome. Regarding the imperative, New Zealand forces must understand whether they are pursuing national interests that are important, vital or for survival and then commit to them accordingly.[37] Regarding outcomes, and regardless of the imperative, the force must at every turn set the conditions to reduce violence, extend the rule of law and rebuild normalcy.

In any operation, other than one specifically designed to destroy the enemy force it is not possible to kill your way to success. In comprehensive operations, beating the insurgency is more important than beating the insurgent. Winning is increasing the use of judicial process, not maximising the number of detainees. Said another way, treating the cause is more important than defeating the symptoms. To win therefore, New Zealand forces must be ready to go into harm’s way to build stability and reduce violence to law and order levels, in situations that span the conflict spectrum.


Conflicts occur when legitimacy is contested and are only resolved when an accepted order (or legitimacy) is re-established. Military success in the twenty-first century is when legitimate civil governance is returned or reinforced. It is argued that to do so, the military must work collectively with other elements of society to protect sovereignty, humanity and to assure the systemic stability of the international order. This may require the military to conduct combatant operations that ultimately reduce violence to levels manageable by the police. But equally important are non-combatant tasks that provide humanitarian and civic support.

Regardless of the purpose and means chosen, the political aim for the use of force should be to prevent or resolve armed conflict. Therefore, to prevail as a force for good, the military must be ready to go into harm’s way in situations that span the conflict spectrum and it must act in a principled manner. Five principles for success in the twenty-first century are proposed. New Zealand forces must be agile, continually strive for excellence, generate leverage, act with legitimacy and above all pursue peace. The first principle is organisational, the second and third relate to the generation of combat power and the last two principles relate to the difficult task of civil-military transition. If we do our work well, then as Bobbitt argues: stabilising the security environment may reduce the likelihood of catastrophic conventional wars.



[1] B.H. Liddell Hart, Strategy 2nd Revised Edition, (New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd, 1991), 338.

[2] Phillip Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knof, 2002), xvi.

[3] Phillip C. Bobbitt, Terror and Consent: the Wars for the Twenty-first Century (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2008), 12.

[4] Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, xvi.

[5] Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2007), 149-153.

[6] Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 29.

[7] Ibid., 523.

[8] Shadi Hamid, Temptations of Power Islamists & Liberal Democracy in a New Middle East, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 213-215.

[9] The term pathocracy was coined by Andrzej Łobaczewski. The etymology is from Greek pathos, ‘feeling, pain, and suffering;’ and kratos, ‘rule.’ It is a system of government created by a small pathological minority that takes control over a society of normal people. Andrew M. Lobaczewsk, “Political Ponerology: A Science on The Nature of Evil adjusted for Political Purposes,” (accessed February 01, 2015).

[10] Sir Edward Shepard Creasy, Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo 3rd Ed., (Macmillan & Co Ltd, London: 1901), 7.

[11] Antulio J. Echrevarria II, Reconsidering the American Way of War: US Military Practice from the Revolution to Afghanistan, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2014), 4.

[12] General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 20.

[13] Bobbitt, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, 7.

[14] U.S. Army, Theater Army, Corps, and Division Operations, Field Manual 3-94 (Washington, DC: H.Q. Department of the Army, April 2014), 2-5 – 2-8.

[15] Some States use para-military force instead of military forces, for instance Vanuatu does not have a military. Instead it fields a paramilitary force called the Vanuatu Mobile Force.

[16] Operations conducted during ‘phase zero’ are typically under diplomatic lead. Civic operations may be in support of police, customs and border security or the Health Department, etc.

[17] The U.S. Military articulate these realist and liberal ideals as six security interests where they would recommend the use of military power. (1) national survival, (2) security of the global economic system, (3) prevention of catastrophic attacks on the nation, (4) secure, confident and reliable allies and partners, (5) protection of American citizens abroad and (6) preservation and extension of universal values. Jim Garamone, “Winnefeld Gives Blunt Assessment of Budget Options,” March 17, 2015, (accessed March 17, 2015).

[18] The U.S. Department of Defense call this traditional warfare. Traditional warfare could also imply tribal warfare. The term conventional warfare is chosen instead because it is more descriptive of warfare based on modern theory, doctrine, laws and norms that govern the behaviour of states and combatants. .S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, Joint Publication-1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, March 2013), x, (accessed October 14, 2014).

[19] The term takes its name from ‘civics’ – the study of rights and duties of citizens and of how government works. Duncan Black, Robert Groves, Helen Hucker, Cormac McKeown, eds., Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus, 4th ed., (Glasgow, UK: HarperCollins, 2011), 146.

[20] Conventional forces and by extension conventional warfare are considered by the U.S. to be non-nuclear. New Zealand has no use for this distinction because it does not have nuclear means. However, with growing potential for nuclear proliferation, New Zealand could be required to fight in a nuclear environment, for that reason operations in a nuclear setting are considered under the concept of conventional warfare.

[21] New Zealand contributed transport aircraft and medical teams to the 1991 Gulf War, but it did not directly contribute to combat. Therefore the 1991 Gulf War is excluded. “Medals by Campaign 3 September 1945 to 2013” linked from The New Zealand Defence Force Home Page at “General Medals Information,” (accessed October 11, 2014).

[22] Smith, 3.

[23] Wayne Mapp, The New Zealand Paradox, Adjusting to the Changing Balance of Power in the Asia Pacific over the next 20 Years, (New York, NY: Centre for Strategic and International Studies, May 2014), 28, (accessed August 29, 2014).

[24] Colin Clarke and Christopher Paul, From Stalemate to Settlement: Lessons for Afghanistan from Historical Insurgencies that have been resolved through negotiation, (Washington, DC: RAND Corporation, 2014), 1.

[25] For instance, by international agreement New Zealand’s search, rescue and recovery responsibility covers 30 million square kilometres, the largest in the world.

[26] Claudette Roulo, “PACOM Area of Responsibility Defined by Superlatives,” linked from, The American Forces Press Service, (Washington, DC: January 16, 2014), (accessed December 13, 2014).

[27] New Zealand Ministry of Defence, Briefing for the Incoming Minister of Defence: Background Document, (Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Government, October 2014), 21, (accessed March 04, 2015).

[28] The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management provides risk management and resilience for New Zealand in the event of disasters. The military are frequently called to assist when events are beyond the capability or capacity of civil agencies. “About the Ministry,” linked from The Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management, at (accessed October 11, 2014).

[29] Carl von Clausewitz, Anatol Rapoport, ed., On War, (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1982), 316.

[30] U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States, Joint Publication-1 (U.S. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, March 2013), I-5, ((accessed October 14, 2014).

[31] John Keegan, The Face of Battle, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1978), 60.

[32] Liddell Hart, 338.

[33] Germany rejected the terms imposed after World War I and initiated World War II. World War II destroyed Fascism’s legitimacy and Germany in the process. While Germany was defeated by military force the peace was won by civil means such as the Marshall Plan which provided the opportunity for a historic peace in Europe. Bobbitt, 24.

[34] Many more died within five years of the War’s conclusion. New Zealand History, “First World War – Overview,” linked from New Zealand History at (accessed October 14, 2014).

[35] William H. McRaven provides a useful description of how to achieve “relative superiority.” William H. McRaven, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice, (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1995), 4-8.

[36] ‘[A prince] is rendered despicable by being thought changeable, frivolous, effeminate, timid and irresolute; which a prince must guard against as a rock of danger…’ Niccoló Machiavelli, The Prince and Discourses, (New York, NY: Random House, 1950), 67.

[37] National interests are viewed in different ways. One useful distinction is to view them as for survival, vital, important or peripheral. J. Boone Bartholomees, Jr, ed., Guide to National Security Issues Volume II: National Security Policy and Strategy, 3rd ed., (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, June 2008), 4-11, (accessed January 29, 2015).