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September 13, 2017

Risk Friction

How Risk Tolerance Biases Create Friction in the Civil – Military Relationship

By LtCol Dave Mueller

Some of the friction points in the Civil-Military relationship center around how different actors view the risk associated with large force deployments. In the past 25 years, across several administrations from both parties, civilian leaders often accused the military of being overly cautious or inflating force requirements when asked how much force it would take to accomplish a specific task. The resulting frustrations led to accusations military commanders were inappropriately making policy objections by inflating estimates – that they were making operations appear costlier than they should in attempts to avoid doing them at all.

The disconnect between civilian policymakers and military professionals can often be attributed to their naturally differing views on what defines risk, and how much they are comfortable accepting. Civilians tend to view larger force deployments, with the subsequent expense of political capital and more American troops engaged in combat, as a greater risk than a small deployment. Military officers, however, see a larger force as insurance (with less subsequent risk) for the mission and a guard against unnecessary casualties. This makes one of the most important and frequent questions in the civil-military relationship; “How many troops will it take to get the job done?” an inevitably awkward one.

If military operations were completely predictable this difference in perspective would be a mere nuisance, but the different viewpoints are complicated by the fact military actions are historically very difficult to predict. Even in successful military campaigns, where the original goal is achieved, the path to that goal and the resources required rarely conform with pre-conflict predictions. Ironically, this unpredictability, combined with the desire to minimize deployed forces, can lead a policymaker to choose a smaller force which results in failure where a more robust force would have been successful. The logic behind committing overwhelming force in order to minimize casualties and guarantee success was most famously expressed by Gen Colin Powell. In his corollary to former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger’s policy doctrine about when military force should be used, Powell added that when used, such force should be overwhelming. By expressing the assumptions inherent in Powell’s corollary graphically, the logic behind it becomes more clear. Understanding the correlation between forces committed, casualties, and success or failure of the military mission will not eliminate friction between policymakers and military officers, but should aid in understanding each other’s perspective.

Differing Perspectives

How comfortable someone is in accepting risk is usually relative to their understanding of the permanence of success or failure. In almost all aspects of life, success is relatively permanent, while failure is viewed as temporary. In war, however, it is the opposite. There is nobility and growth in having tried and failed in sports, business, education, or politics; and those who fail in those endeavors often grow and go on to greater success. In military operations, however, death and defeat are permanent, and failure has no silver lining. Put another way, to the businessman, failing ten times and succeeding once makes you Thomas Edison or Bill Gates, but to the military officer, succeeding ten times and failing once makes you George Custer. Because the experiences of most policymakers place them in what can be called the “business mindset,” there is a natural friction between them and those who bring a “military mindset” to the discussion.

The strategic caution and risk aversion in the military mindset should not be confused as translating to the tactical level where bold action and informed risk taking generally define the most successful commanders. At the strategic level, however, military officers should usually be the last to favor military action. As Samuel Huntington put it, the military mind is “pessimistic” and “pacifist,” among other things. So, when the use of force does become necessary, the military mindset will desire to bring to bear as much force as possible to minimize the possibility of failure. This principle was most famously advocated by Gen Collin Powell and was codified in the 1992 U.S. Military Strategy, which Powell signed as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Under the section on “Strategic Principles,” the principle of “Decisive Force” was listed. In a paragraph most officers simply regard as common sense, the strategy stated:

Once a decision for military action has been made, half-measures and confused objectives extract a severe price in the form of a protracted conflict which can cause needless waste of human lives and material resources, a divided nation at home, and defeat. Therefore, one of the essential elements of our national military strategy is the ability to rapidly assemble the forces needed to win -- the concept of applying decisive force to overwhelm our adversaries and thereby terminate conflicts swiftly with a minimum loss of life.

The 1992 strategy simply codified a military bias that had long been known to exist. The fact military officers habitually ask for extra resources to accomplish missions was well known enough outside policy circles to inspire a popular 1969 song to cynically claim; when you ask generals “how much should we give? …they only answer more, more, more.” This bias was more articulately iterated by retired Marine LtGen Bernard Trainor who, while promoting his book on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, told NBC’s Tim Russert, “the military of course tends to be conservative, and if one is good … three is better.” Trainor was describing why a large philosophical disconnect existed between Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who wanted to minimize the amount of U.S. forces deployed to conduct the 2003 invasion and U.S. Generals whose plans originally called for 385,000 troops.

To civilian leadership, because of their need to balance larger political, budgetary, and messaging requirements with congress and the American people, the incentive to keep military force commitments limited to the minimum necessary is understandable. It is the responsibility of policymakers and officers to be good stewards of the nation’s resources, but it is the policymaker who must balance and prioritize military requests against all the other responsibilities of government. If force sizes can be made smaller and less resources committed while still accomplishing the mission, other priorities can be accomplished as well. Furthermore, there can be a tendency to attribute the desire for larger force structure and extra resources by military officers to the counterproductive incentives of bureaucratic politics; that is the incentive for any supervisor to desire a larger budget and more personnel as a measure of bureaucratic and personal success. It would be dishonest to claim the military is not a bureaucracy, but while negative incentives do exist, there are military realities which drive the desire for large forces as well. 

The scrutiny applied to troop-to-task decisions by President Obama regarding Afghanistan and Secretary Rumsfeld regarding the 2003 invasion of Iraq both represent a desire for a smaller American footprint and the subsequent expenditure of less political capital. Beyond political capital, however, challenging subordinates’ requests for more resources is simply good executive leadership. Nevertheless, while those charged with most efforts within government should be capable of explaining exactly why their resources are necessary, while a military commander may not.

Because war is unpredictable, military commanders expect to face problems they didn’t plan for and could never see coming – Secretary Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns. Extra forces and resources give commanders the ability to react, adapt, and learn on the fly. This is why the question of “How many troops do you need?” is such a precarious one. It is a logical and straightforward question, but it has no simple answer. Instead it should be met with multiple options representing different levels of risk to the mission and the potential for casualties. The feared situation for a military commander is to be faced with impending tactical disaster, while knowing the solution would be simple if only forces which were left in the U.S. by choice had been deployed.

Those added forces and resources don’t just minimize the possibility of failure, they also minimize the casualties the force will suffer during mission execution. Cost of a military operation is measured in many ways: In the monetary cost, the political cost civilian leaders pay to authorize the operation, or the cost to other potential operations because forces were diverted; but the cost most military officers are usually concerned with is the cost in lives – the casualties sustained in accomplishing the mission. Going back to Powell’s 1992 Strategy, it emphasized preventing the “needless waste of human lives and material resources.”

Graphing the Assumptions

The below graph is an attempt to combine the assumptions inherent in the military approach to force structure and casualties. By graphing the general relationship between casualties sustained to the forces committed in a given conflict, it essentially becomes the graphical representation of the wisdom behind the Powell corollary. It is a theory, just as Powell’s corollary is a theory, but it is based on logical assumptions most officers make instinctively. It theorizes that most conflicts have a similar relationship between force size and casualties. Obviously, the success or failure of the mission is effected by more than the size of the force; but training, technology, and overall capabilities are fixed by the time the decision to go to war is made. Advantages in any of those variables can shift the scale, but generally won’t change the shape of the curve. Because the intangibles which make war so unpredictable cannot be accounted for by a straightforward line graph, this graph removes them. Therefore, this graph could be considered “war in a vacuum.”

The graph of forces committed starts at 0 and theoretically could go to infinity, but breaks down into distinct regions from left to right. The first is a theoretical region of 100% casualties. It represents if in 2003 the U.S. had invaded Iraq with one platoon, the platoon would have been annihilated. The slope of the line breaks off 1:1 once you commit enough forces that some will be able to retreat in the losing effort. The war was still lost, but at least everyone wasn’t killed.

The peak of casualties is the critical point on the graph – it is where the war turns from a losing to a winning effort. The bloodiest of battles and wars are the ones which are decided by the smallest of margins – be it the Peloponnesian War, Verdun, or Stalingrad. Those close decisions, where one side is finally overwhelmed, but both at some point thought (usually rightly) they were on the verge of winning, are the costliest. The casualties then decline even while the forces committed increases. The more one side understands they will lose, the less they will be willing to fight. Surrender becomes more likely, both at the unit and national level. Even if the enemy doesn’t surrender (some ideological fanatics must be fought to the death), the reduced duration of the conflict, because more force than just that necessary to win was used, will still reduce casualties. The cost in dollars, political capital, and capacity generation may be higher, but the cost in lives becomes significantly lower. Note, this is not just lower casualties as a percentage of the force committed, but less actual casualties in real numbers due to the larger force.

The graph begins moving up again when non-combat casualties begin to outweigh the combat casualties. For example, if the U.S. had invaded Iraq with one million troops in 2003 it’s possible more soldiers would have been lost to vehicle rollovers and negligent discharges than to enemy fire.

Revisiting the understanding of risk and cost previously associated with the business vs military mindset leads to very different targets for force structure.  For a businessman, the costs associated with a large force, and the desire to commit as little force as possible while still accomplishing the mission, results in an attempt to win by a narrow margin – the target point for forces committed is just right of the peak in the graph.  By trying to limit the monetary and political cost of a larger deployment, a policymaker may inadvertently drive the cost in casualties up.  The military officer, however, desires a point as far right of the peak as possible – trying to commit forces as close to the point where casualties are lowest.  More importantly, when we move from the generic graph of “war in a vacuum,” to a graph which better accounts for war’s unpredictability, finding the point just past the peak becomes nearly impossible.  Any attempt to predict how much force is “just enough” becomes clouded by a big empty box in the middle of the curve.

War isn’t predictable enough to draw distinct lines beforehand, and sometimes a force which theoretically should have lost, such as the English at Agincourt, prevails. In a possible exception to the theory, the French were actually hindered by the large force they committed at Agincourt; where terrain, poor decisions, and the legendary leadership of Henry V proved decisive. Leadership, battlefield decision-making, and luck are among factors which make war so unpredictable and result in such exceptions. The British at the Somme, or the Union at Fredericksburg are other examples where commanders believed their forces were large enough, but poor leadership combined with tactical mistakes led to disastrous outcomes. The unpredictability of war, most expertly explained by Clausewitz, is represented by the box in Graph 2, which indicates the region where that unpredictability could change the outcome of the conflict. Therefore, even in these three potential exceptions, there still could have been forces large enough to overcome such terrible decisions by the field commanders. The English would have eventually fatigued of hacking the French knights, and the Confederates and Germans would have eventually run out of ammunition.

The Chinese at the Chosin Reservoir are proof even in the age of machine guns and artillery that you can commit enough forces to overcome staggering losses and eventually overwhelm your enemy. Thus, even the best commanders can have too few forces to win (e.g. Lee in the Wilderness campaign), and sometimes the worst of commanders can have so large a force they can’t lose, even if they take enormous casualties (e.g. the Chinese at Chosin). Of course, “worst commanders” is a relative term, as the Chinese knew the disadvantages they were facing and committed a force large enough to drive back (though not destroy) the First Marine Division, and chose to accept the enormous casualties that required.

The unpredictable nature of war creates large deviations over the entire graph, not just the area depicted by the box. The box, however, represents the portion where such unpredictability places the outcome of the conflict in doubt. This highlights an even greater danger than increased casualties when policymakers attempt to hold the forces committed to the bare minimum to win a conflict – they inadvertently bring the result into question. By trying to find the “just large enough” force, they subject the result to the unpredictable nature of war.

It should be noted that the problem of attempting to find the right troop-to-task ratio is a problem of affluence, in that it is a problem only great powers fighting limited wars experience. No state facing an existential threat worries about how large a force they will send. They send everything they can. Belgium didn’t get overrun in two world wars because a policymaker accused a general of being too pessimistic, but rather they simply didn’t have the capacity to avoid being overrun. No graph or better civil-military relationship can save a nation that simply doesn’t have a chance. However, the limited conflicts of choice so often embraced by great powers bring this issue to the forefront. Be it the British in the War of 1812, the U.S. in Korea, or the Soviets in Afghanistan – all those powers had the capacity to deploy enough force to win those conflicts outright, but chose to emphasize other priorities. Only in limited conflicts where policymakers and military officers need to decide how X forces will be deployed to accomplish Y does this problem occur. It is also critical to note, determining the importance of Y is the sole responsibility of policymakers, and the force size desired by the military is but one element of cost policymakers need to balance in making their decision.


The best thinkers and leaders in the military, business, and politics do not conform to a set stereotypical mindset for every risk decision. Instead, they take alternative approaches in different situations depending on the circumstances. It is important, however, to recognize personal predispositions to ensure we view a situation through the most appropriate lens, and appreciate why different backgrounds bring varying biases to decision-making. These distinctions are usually less cynical and devious than the parties in civil-military disagreements generally ascribe to their counterparts.

In fact, the predisposition to overwhelming force by military commanders should be expected and viewed with greater favorability by policymakers than is generally the case. In one definition, it is said a “military genius is a commander who knows what he can do, and does it; while he also knows what he can’t do, and doesn’t even try.” As such, it would take a genius to accurately predict, and always prevail with, the exact amount of force necessary to accomplish a mission. Since no one wants to go to war under anyone who considers himself a genius, we should expect commanders to always inflate force estimates for insurance. And, because declaring someone a military genius is usually reserved only for aged or dead generals whose final battle is behind them, political leaders should be more willing to supply the extra resources if the mission is important enough to go to war. The severity and permanence of defeat in war is too high a price to justify the risk of choosing to be under resourced. But that is a policy decision.

LtCol Mueller was the 2016-17 Commandant of the Marine Corps Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.  The opinions expressed here are his own.

  1. Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor.  Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2006) pp. 1-117 and Bob Woodward.  Obama’s Wars (New York, NY:  Simon and Schuster, 2010)
  2. Janine Davidson.  “Civil-Military Friction and Presidential Decision Making:  Explaining the Broken Dialogue” Presidential Studies Quarterly (Vol 43 no. 1 March, 2013)
  3. Colin Powell.  “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead” Foreign Affairs (Winter 1992/93).  Available at:
  4. Samuel P. Huntington.  TheSoldier and the State: The Theory of Politics and Civil-Military Relations  (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 1957) p.79
  5. National Military Strategy of the United States (Joint Chiefs of Staff; January 1992) p. 10
  6. John Fogerty. Fortunate Son (Credence Clearwater Revival, 1969)  viewed at:
  7. Bernard Trainor. Meet the Press, 12 March 2006.  Quote is at 38:00 min.  Transcript viewed at:
  8. LtGen Trainor also referred to Secretary Rumsfeld as a business man in contrasting the Secretary’s attitudes with that of military leadership.  It was this interview which first started the author thinking seriously about this subject.
  9. Davidson, as well as Gordon and Trainor
  10. John Keegan.  The Face of Battle (New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Books, 1993, 1976) pp 99-102.
  11. Shelby Foote.  The Civil War:  A Narrative, Fredericksburg to Meridian (New York, NY:  Random House, 2011, 1963) pp. 34-41 and Keegan, pp. 254-269 (for the Somme)
  12. Carl Von Clausewitz.  On War.  Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, 1984)
  13. Thomas E. Ricks.  The Generals (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2012) pp. 142-175
  14. Also called the Overland Campaign, it begins with the Battle of the Wilderness and ends with the siege of Petersburg and ultimately the capture of Richmond and the surrender at Appomattox.  Documented in: Shelby Foote.  The Civil War:  A Narrative, Red River to Appomattox  (New York, NY:  Random House, 2011, 1963)
  15. Ricks, 142-175. [1] Definition was often referred to by Professor Alan Hinge while lecturing at Australian Command and Staff College in 2009.  If it has another source, the author was not able to find it.


  • LtCol Dave Mueller

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