This article was written for my participation in a roundtable discussion with The Institute for Conflict Studies and Analysis of Russia (IKAR) held on 6 December 2023. That discussion is available on YouTube here. The paper doesn't really address what I spoke about during the roundtable, but it is related to those comments. It is also an expression of ideas that have been on my mind for several years as I teach military officers. Most Western military doctrine is based on what Hans Delbrück would characterize as annihilation or relatively rapid success through winning in battle. I do not believe that such a doctrine is the operant strategy for conflict in the world in 2024. Moreover, I think that the conditions of the world in 2024 are set for exhaustion to be dominant. Even if that weren't true, I am musing here that if you boil strategy down, all wars are won through exhaustion.
Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century Prussian general and military theorist, says that “war is …” more than one hundred times. He doesn’t do this because he didn’t know what war was, he did it because he wanted to express that war wasn’t just one thing. There wasn’t and isn’t one metaphor to understand war. In fact, in one English language translation, he states that “war is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.” In this, I believe, that he means that any given war may be significantly different (maybe even radically so) than any other war. It is probable that wars within themselves change more than does a chameleon in that there is change that is greater than simply changing color; a war may change its essence within itself. For example, the war in Ukraine has moved from a war of dislocation – breaking the enemy’s will with rapidity – to a war of exhaustion – breaking the enemy’s will over time. If so, how is it possible to understand a given war let alone a variety of wars or to derive lessons applicable from one war to the next? The answer is to understand narrative war.
Antulio Echevarria, a present historian and strategic scholar, writes about and defines ten different military strategies. He may be wrong about there being ten. Hans Delbrück, a late nineteenth and early twentieth century German historian, argued that victory comes through one of two primary strategies: annihilation or exhaustion. Delbrück, used the term ermattungsstrategie (literally fatigue strategy) which is often translated as attrition, though I believe exhaustion to be a more relevant expression.
The distinction between attrition and exhaustion is critical in that attrition implies reduction of physical force through losses whereas exhaustion implies, for the purposes of this argument, a reduction in will from physical, moral, economic, or ideological losses. Delbrück’s ideas are inserted here as his dialectic is crucial to understanding the evolution throughout modern war from a focus on annihilation to much greater emphasis on exhaustion. Clausewitz, in one of his descriptions of war says, “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” Later he says that the object of war is “to impose our will on the enemy.” Will is that thing which allows one to continue when that person or side in a war is physically weak. It is the internal drive, conviction, and certainty that ultimate success can happen.
It is possible that Delbrück, like Echevarria, was also wrong. There may only be one strategy: exhaustion. The defeat of any opponent may always be expressed as an admission of exhaustion. Exhaustion, despite the sound of the word and the image it conjures of a person at the end of a marathon or some very long race, can happen quickly as well as slowly. Observe how quickly an outmatched opponent concedes a competition as a simple example. Once a person accepts that he or she cannot win then that person is on the road of exhaustion.
If Clausewitz is correct and war is about imposing will or compelling the will of the enemy, then one of the most crucial things to understand is the will of the enemy. It is impossible to impose, compel, or break a thing which one doesn’t understand. Related to this understanding is the importance of knowing the source of the opponent’s will.
Will is derived from virtue. In this sense, the word virtue is used in connection with Niccolo Machiavelli’s use of the Latin term virtu which was a combination of skill and drive – that which compelled a person to act in the face of challenge and adversity. It is also used in line with the twenty-first century sense of the term as a form of righteous expression. In both cases, virtue taps into something deep in a society or a person and provides the force that generates will. Thus, to break the will of an opponent one needs to understand the underlying virtue generating that will.
Virtue is typically expressed through the stories that make up the societal narrative. Each society has one or more narratives. Those narratives are the way in which society interprets the experiences of the world, and they are expressed in the world through stories.
For example, Russia has a narrative that includes national suffering. This narrative was built on large and powerful stories like the invasion of Napoleon in 1812 and the Soviet Union’s success on the Eastern Front during World War II. In World War II, the Soviet Union lost as many as twenty-seven million people. The people in Leningrad (now St Petersburg again) were under siege for nearly two and a half years. Many starved to death, and those who lived shared stories of surviving off roots and shoe leather. Vladimir Putin was born to a family who lived through that siege.
George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat, and historian who served as the deputy chief of mission in U.S. Embassy Moscow in 1947, wrote a long telegram to explain Soviet thinking that was later edited and published in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym X with the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In that article Kennan gave one of the best expressions of the Soviet narrative space. In part, he concludes that the leader of the Soviet Union bordered on paranoia because Russia, and later the Soviet Union, was always surrounded by enemies, but the Russian and Soviet people persevered through enduring suffering.
The Russian narrative has built in a conception of the ability and need to endure suffering for the sake of the state. Russians are narratively prepared for a war of attrition. They believe they will win such wars because they have won such wars. The Russians defeated the will and the force of the French armies of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1812 through drawing that army into the heartland of Russia, wearing the army down physically, and exhausting the leaders emotionally. The Soviet Union defeated the armies of the Third Reich of Adolph Hitler by drawing them into the Soviet heartland, wearing the force down physically, and exhausting the leaders emotionally. By 1945 dozens of Soviet armies were breaking through German units and attacking toward Berlin.
Russians endure and Russians persevere because they must. It is a core element of their societal narrative. This means that exhausting Russia is difficult as it runs against the prevailing narrative space. It is, in effect, like trying to climb a narrative cliff rather than running downhill.
The West lacks a similar societal narrative. American military doctrine calls for quick and decisive operations. The NATO alliance is designed to deter aggression, not to stand up to a military hegemon with control of continental energy supplies and global food security. At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this was what the West got wrong. It misread its own narrative space as it signaled support for a war that it wasn’t willing to actually fight: only support. All the media personalities, pundits, and early proclaimers of Putin’s folly and Russian defeat failed to understand the power of power. Military commitment means something. The willingness to inflict violence month after month and year after year means something. It isn’t enough to tell stories, one must enact them in the world for those stories to have efficacy.
Narrative isn’t just about words and stories. It is about understanding the narrative space terrain on which one operates. Who are we and who is our opponent? What is our narrative regarding war? How much are we willing to suffer for what we say we want? If narrative space terrain is understood, it can inform us how we will behave and how our opponents will behave. It can tell us how and how easy it will be to exhaust the enemy.
A proper understanding of narrative space terrain is crucial for any conflict that will involve suffering whether that suffering is economic, emotional, or physical. This is why a proper understanding of one’s own society matters. For example, if you believe that your country is corrupt and systemically flawed, then why would you be willing to suffer for it? On the other hand, if you believe that your country is the bastion of freedom, the arsenal of democracy, the shining city on a hill, then you will probably be more willing to make those sacrifices.
In every war, the belligerents express their reason for fighting, for continuing the fight despite suffering, and their path toward victory in the fight through stories. It may be a nationalist story that expresses the dominance of one nationality over others. It may express the inherent weakness of the opponent because the opponent lacks a similar sense of characterization, objective, or connection to the setting.
Though this may seem trivial, such stories express the virtue of the belligerent and can inform others of the strength and weaknesses of the will that needs to be broken for exhaustion to occur.
What is perceived as virtue is important and has power for people. Perceived virtue is the power that motivates people to endure hardship. This has always been true. In the days of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire virtue was directly linked to manliness and masculinity. During the Cold War virtue was linked to freedom, individual rights, and liberty. Virtue is what empowers the world to act. One must understand how the definition and expression of virtue changes by country, by culture, and over time to understand what is motivating, or will motivate, populations now and in the future.
As is stated in The Lord of the Rings trilogy where there was one ring to rule all of the rings of power, there may just be one strategy to overcome all of the other strategies whether that be the two posited by Delbrück or the ten posited by Echavarria. That one strategy is exhaustion, and it comes by degrading and defeating the enemy’s will which, in turn, is derived from the societal narrative’s expression and understanding of virtue.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976, 88-89.
 Antulio J. Echevarria II, Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
 Annihilation is the effort to achieve victory through a decisive attack, battle, or campaign that forces the enemy to accept terms. Exhaustion achieves victory through the dissipation of the opponent’s will. These brief definitions are a synthesis from Clausewitz, Delbruck, Craig, Bowdish, and others.
 Ibid, 75.
 George Kennan, “The Long Telegram,” Telegram, February 22, 1946. From Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/the-long-telegram/ (accessed August 28, 2023).
X, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs [1 July 1947]. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/1947-07-01/sources-soviet-conduct.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,