Trevor Dupuy’s Definition of Military Combat

Ernst Zimmer: “Das Lauenburgische Jäger-Bataillon Nr. 9 bei Gravelotte” [Wikipedia]
The first element in Trevor Dupuy’s theory of combat is his definition of military combat:

I define military combat as a violent, planned form of physical interaction (fighting) between two hostile opponents, where at least one party is an organized force, recognized by governmental or de facto authority, and one or both opposing parties hold one or more of the follow-on objectives: to seize control of territory or people; to prevent the opponent from seizing or controlling territory or people; to protect one’s own territory or people; to dominate, destroy, or incapacitate the opponent.

The impact of weapons creates an environment of lethality, danger, and fear in which achievement of the objectives by one party may require the opponent to choose among: continued resistance and resultant destruction; retreat and loss of territory, facilities, and people; surrender. Military combat begins in any interaction, or at any level of combat from duel to full-scale war, when weapons are first employed with hostile intent by one or both opponents.  Military combat ends for any interaction or level of combat when both sides have stopped fighting.

There are two key points in this definition that I wish to emphasize. Though there may be much in common between military combat and a brawl in a barroom, there are important differences. The opponents in military combat are to some degree organized, and both represent a government or quasi-governmental authority. There is one other essential difference: the all-pervasive influence of fear in a lethal environment. People have been killed in barroom brawls, but this is exceptional. In military combat there is the constant danger of death from lethal weapons employed by opponents with deadly intent. Fear is without question the most important characteristic of combat. [Dupuy, Understanding War, 63-64]

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Shawn Woodford
Shawn Woodford

Shawn Robert Woodford, Ph.D., is a military historian with nearly two decades of research, writing, and analytical experience on operations, strategy, and national security policy. His work has focused on special operations, unconventional and paramilitary warfare, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, naval history, quantitative historical analysis, nineteenth and twentieth century military history, and the history of nuclear weapon development. He has a strong research interest in the relationship between politics and strategy in warfare and the epistemology of wargaming and combat modeling.

All views expressed here are his and do not reflect those of any other private or public organization or entity.

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  1. Fear also might be the most important element in barroom fights (and back-alley brawls or musicals about gang wars : – ) Fear also might be the most important element in pre-war/mid-war/post-war deterrence and compellence!!

    • Good point. But there are different types of fear. Presumably most people engaging in bar fights are not motivated by fear for their lives. Fear–mortal and otherwise–definitely plays a part in deterrence and compellence at the strategic and policy levels. There was a story about Nikita Khrushchev that either McGeorge Bundy or Richard Rhodes told: Khrushchev was given a briefing by the Soviet military about the potential consequences of nuclear war and he could not sleep for several nights after that. It was only after convincing himself that the prospect was so terrible that the Americans would never resort to it that he was able to relax enough to sleep again. Deterrence as the level of personal dread.

      • During elementary school in the broader Anacostia area of Washington, DC, we took advantage of the latent fear within members of other gangs to deter them from fighting us (or me) when contending for playground turf or tree forts or library access. Of course, I didn’t think of it in those terms at that tender age (not having read Arms & Influence until studying deterrence theory in the School of International Studies at American University : – )

  2. I had perfected “the look” that communicated, “if you fight with me, you will die.” It usually worked! It especially worked with bullies later encountered in the suburbs!

    • Warfare may be constantly changing, but basic human nature remains remarkably consistent. Which raises an interesting question: how will warfare change as it becomes increasingly conducted by artificial constructs that do not feel fear?

      • You could still simulate fear, but as government installations and command centers will be the primary targets, the fear of a factions sanctuary and hub being overrun will remain.

          • Trevor Dupuy was quite explicit in his belief that the effects of fear in a lethal environment could not be adequately examined except by looking at real-world combat experience:

            “We cannot replicate fear in laboratory experiments. We cannot introduce fear into field tests. We cannot create an environment of fear in training or in field exercises.

            So, to study human reaction in a battlefield environment we have no choice but to go to the battlefield, not the laboratory, not the proving ground, not the training reservation. But, because of the nature of the very characteristics of combat which we want to study, we can’t study them during the battle. We can only do so retrospectively.

            We have no choice but to rely on military history. This is why military history has been called the laboratory of the soldier.”


          • Except that Dupuy was no representative of the digital era. If the battlefield will be dominated by artificial constructs, the leadership will still be (at least to a greater degree) human, while VR will provide a new level of simulation, gradually approximating reality, which was not possible in the past. If human soldiers carrying their weapons into battle will be a thing of the past, the screen will be their new domain. The loss of a machine may be meaningless, but losing them all will result in capture or execution of their masters, so the exposure stands against the fear of being killed in action.

          • This is a good point. The machines themselves will feel no fear, although I would suppose an autonomous weapon might still have some element of self-preservation built into its operating algorithm, depending on its tactical function. The fear of those guiding or directing them will exist, but it won’t be the same existential fear of a combatant exposed on a lethal battlefield. It will all undoubtedly influence the character of future combat. With a diminished human element, maybe it will become more Lanchestrian.

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