The Zweikampf Dynamic

by Marinus

This is the second article of a series called The Maneuverist Papers. Maneuverist No. 1 summarized the history of the post-Vietnam reform movement that produced maneuver warfare theory and eventually resulted in the publication of FMFM 1, Warfighting, in 1989. The current article begins to address the substance of maneuver warfare theory, starting at the beginning, with the definition and description of war.

If you were to ask which is the most important chapter in MCDP 1, Warfighting, most Marines would probably say Chapter 4, “The Conduct of War.” This makes sense; after all, it is Chapter 4 that actually explains maneuver warfare—introducing key concepts like mission tactics, commander’s intent, main effort, and surfaces and gaps. We submit, however, that Chapter 1, “The Nature of War,” is the most important because it captures the problem, commonly agreed upon by all Marines, to which maneuver warfare is the logical solution. And reaching a common and compelling understanding of the challenge facing the organization is critical to meeting that challenge.

Maneuver warfare theory starts with a clear-eyed look at the nature of war as it exists in reality and from there proceeds logically to develop a philosophy designed to deal specifically with that true nature. Arguably, the single greatest effect Warfighting has had is to establish a common understanding among Marines of the nature of and the challenges posed by war. We suggest that in an era of growing homogeneity among the services, this distinct understanding of the nature of war may be one of the key factors that today distinguishes the Marine Corps. While other services may talk about fog and friction, for Marines these qualities are articles of faith that inform our every decision.


Framing the Problem

At the risk of getting a bit philosophical, problems do not actually exist in the world. What exist in the world are situations or, in the words of systems thinking pioneer Russell Ackoff, “messes.”1 A mess only becomes a problem when someone, with a particular perspective and set of interests, looks at the mess and decides it is unacceptable. “The Problem” is a framework that we impose on the mess, and the way we choose to frame that problem matters significantly. In the words of Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon in The Sciences of the Artificial, his classic book on complexity and design, “solving a problem simply means representing it so as to make the solution transparent.”2  In other words, the way you formulate the problem points to the solution. If you can develop a clear and compelling understanding of the problem facing you, the solution becomes self-evident. Frame the problem in the same old way, and you will get some variation of the same old solution. If you want a new solution, find a new way to frame the problem. We believe this is the fundamental value of Warfighting—it framed the problem in a new (at the time) way that pointed to a new way of operating.

One of the early criticisms of FMFM 1 was that it was merely common sense. The argument was that the maneuver warfare concepts described in Warfighting were nothing more than any Marine with common sense would come up with on his or her own. But if maneuver warfare were merely common sense, military organizations the world over would have adopted it spontaneously—but they have not. We do agree, however, that there is a certain apparently simple reasonableness to Warfighting’s argument. We suggest that is mainly because the manual depicts the challenge—that is, frames the problem—in a way that is clear,  compelling, and rings true. Maneuver warfare per Warfighting only seems like common sense because it is the logical solution to the problem described in Chapter 1. What is that problem?


The Zweikampf Dynamic

            Warfighting starts with an essential definition of war:  a violent struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills each trying to impose itself upon the other by force.

Of note, FMFM 1 defines war in terms of a clash between nations. MCDP 1 expands that definition to the more general “political groups,” acknowledging that the belligerents may not be nation-states (as historically they often have not been). In fact, throughout history state-on-state conflict has been the exception and nonstate warfare the rule, whether the belligerents were intrastate factions, multinational coalitions, or surprastate organizations such as the United Nations or al Qaeda. Both FMFM 1 and MCDP 1 use the phrase “between or among” to acknowledge that there may be more than two belligerents to any conflict. This again has often been the case, although we note that multiple belligerents have tended to align into two opposing camps out of strategic expediency, even if only reluctantly, partially, and temporarily.

MCDP 1 adopted the Clausewitzian term Zweikampf (literally “two-struggle”), which was absent from the original FMFM 1.3 The dynamics of the Zweikampf may be the single most important idea in Warfighting. The concept of the deeply interactive struggle of two hostile, interlocked wills may seem obvious today, but during the post-Vietnam era it represented a dramatic shift in thinking. (Recall that Clausewitz was only emerging from obscurity at the time.) The prevailing mindset, on full view during the Vietnam War and strongly influenced by operations research methods, tended to see war as a fixed engineering problem rather than as a dynamic, interactive struggle between two opposing wills. Some operational concepts still take that fixed-problem approach today.

To make his point, Clausewitz likened war to a pair of wrestlers locked in a hold, each attempting to gain leverage over the other and together achieving contortions that neither could achieve alone.4 It is not the characteristics of the individual contestants that give war its essential nature but the interaction between them. In this sense, war is what complexity theory calls an emergence, a whole that is the product of the interaction of its parts but whose nature is not inherent in any of those parts. As historian Alan Beyerchen pointed out in his seminal article “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” Clausewitz provides an image that brings to mind a great deal of nonlinear interaction (more about which in a later paper) and the possibility of sudden reversals.5 In recognition of this truth, Marines are fond of acknowledging that “the enemy gets a vote.” This adage is good as far as it goes, but it does not capture the full extent of the Zweikampf dynamic because the interaction of the two competing wills can yield results that neither belligerent intended. Something altogether different and unexpected emerges.

That is the Zweikampf dynamic. It is the various patterns and sequences—give-and-take, initiative-and-response, action-reaction-counteraction—that result from the direct, intense interaction between the two hostile wills. These patterns are highly nonlinear, which here refers not to positions on a battlefield but to the dynamics of cause and effect in a system. A nonlinear system has two basic properties.6 First, a system is nonlinear if causes and their effects are disproportionate. Second, a system is nonlinear if the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. Minor efforts, made at the right time and place, can have outsized effects—think of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which 300 Spartans (with allies, it must be said) famously held off an advancing Persian army of over 100,000 men. Conversely, massive expenditures in men and materiel can produce little—think of almost any offensive on the First World War Western Front.

Nonlinearity is a primary quality of the Zweikampf dynamic, and from that nonlinearity directly flow other attributes such as friction, uncertainty, disorder, and fluidity. As examples, each belligerent’s attempts to disrupt the enemy’s plans and actions generate friction, while each belligerent’s efforts to appear inscrutable and to actively mislead the enemy produce uncertainty.

At its roots, a big part of the maneuver warfare mindset consists of finding/creating and ruthlessly exploiting favorable nonlinearities—critical vulnerabilities, decisive points in time or space, capability mismatches, or other advantages that, if exploited, offer a disproportionately large payoff for the effort invested. In contrast, some other doctrinal approaches through history have amounted to attempts to “linearize” war in an effort to make its results predictable.

One lesson for today: This discussion should serve as a reminder of war’s fundamental unpredictability, a trait we tend to forget in the pursuit of battlefield certainty through the latest technological advancement. Information technology can help reduce a lot of unknowns, but we suggest it cannot eliminate the uncertainty that is at the very heart of the Zweikampf.


Attributes of War

After establishing the essence of war, Warfighting goes on to present a set of attributes that are direct products of the Zweikampf dynamic and that together describe the environment within which the warfighter must operate. FMFM 1 lists friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, and violence and danger. To that list, MCDP 1 adds complexity.

            Warfighting then continues with a discussion of another set of attributes that, if not outputs of the dynamic itself, influence the unfolding of the dynamic within that environment: War is a social interaction reflecting human nature in all its complexities and vagaries. War has physical, mental, and moral/psychological dimensions—in fact, it presents the most physically, mentally, and morally demanding challenge known to humankind. War includes some aspects that are timeless and others that are changeable. Within the context of competing wills, warfare involves the application of both art (i.e., intuition and creativity) and science (analysis and calculation).


The Timeless and the Changing

            Warfighting attempts to describe war in timeless terms. While it recognizes that some aspects of war are changeable, it does not address those aspects. It urges Marines to be alert to those changes, but it leaves it up to them to identify what those changes are. While most of the time only war’s outward forms will change, occasionally more profound changes to war’s deeper character can occur as the result of dramatic political, societal, or technological developments. Examples of such developments include national conscription, the invention of gunpowder, the introduction of aviation, and the invention of nuclear weapons. Emerging developments that some expect to change the character of war in the near future include robotic systems, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the militarization of space. In contrast, tactics and techniques evolve constantly due to mutual adaptation between enemies—in yet another manifestation of the Zweikampf dynamic.

Changes to the character of a conflict tend to have greater repercussions than mere changes to its form, but the former is usually much harder to appreciate than the latter. In either case, as Warfighting says, it is important to stay abreast of the process of change, for the belligerent who first exploits a development in the art and science of war can gain a significant advantage, while the belligerent ignorant of the changing character or forms of war may end up unequal to its challenges.


In Conclusion

Synthesizing the above discussion, the problem is: How to prevail in a clash between independent, hostile, and irreconcilable wills each trying to impose itself upon the other through force in the dynamic of the Zweikampf? The dynamic unfolds in an environment dominated by friction, uncertainty, fluidity, disorder, complexity, and violence and danger—even as it creates that environment. It is informed by the various traits of human nature. It requires acting in the physical, mental, and moral dimensions. It demands the ability to understand and balance factors both timeless and changing. And it involves the interplay of art and science.

            This is the challenge that Warfighting sets for itself.  It proposes that the answer to this challenge is maneuver warfare—as described in Warfighting, a “philosophy for action” that better equips Marines to survive and prevail in the Zweikampf and in the conditions it presents—as we will discuss in subsequent papers.



  1. Russell L. Ackoff, Redesigning the Future: A Systems Approach to Societal Problems (New York, NY: Wiley and Sons, 1974).
  2. Herbert A. Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd edition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).
  3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984). Pronounced “tsvai-kampf.” “Zweikampf.”
  4. On War.
  5. Alan D. Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War.” International Security, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, Winter 1992).
  6. Ibid.