Dear Tecumseh Court

Tecumseh Court PictureThe Anger of Achilles, by Jacques-Louis David


The author of WAR 101 answers your questions. This week: Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus. Moral Conflict and War Crimes.

Dear Tecumseh Court,

I would welcome your point-by-point annotated remarks on this article, which argues that Ukraine is winning.


Mr. Herbert M. Ashbaugh

Dear Tecumseh Court,

Is Ukraine winning?


Miss Ruth B. Gillelan

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Tecumseh Court replies:

Dear Mr. Ashbaugh and Miss Gillelan,

Rather than annotate the article, I’ll answer the second question. We don’t know if Ukraine is winning, and right now, I’m sorry to say, the answer is irrelevant.

Ukraine won the (First?) Battle of Kyiv, which was Russia’s main effort. Russia failed to accomplish their tactical, operational, or strategic objectives in an invasion they’d prepared for more than a year. The article you cite does a good job of explaining why. This outcome matters because few military analysts expected Ukraine to continue to exist. So, yes. Well done Ukrainians. Well done NATO. You won Round 1.

But right now, the outcome of the Battle of Kyiv doesn’t matter. The Confederates, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, Italians, Japanese, and more won plenty of battles. We know how those wars turned out.

Many of our readers are accustomed to negotiating settlements to end disputes. It’s natural for them to ask, “What does Russia need to end this war?” The suppressed premise in many media reports is an imagined answer to that question: Putin can’t end the war until he achieves something. If he takes the Donbas, maybe the war will end.

Stop thinking like that.

The war hasn’t ended. Kyiv is no longer under siege and operations are now focused on the East, but that doesn’t mean Ukraine will survive. This is an extremely dangerous phase. The Russians have been fighting Ukraine in the Donbas for eight years, so there’s a growing risk, as Syrian exile Adnan Hadad warned in the magazine, that “soon people will get used to horrible news from Ukraine. It just becomes normal news.”

Wars have a tragic way of lasting far longer than people ever imagined they would when they began. Russia deployed troops to Syria in September 2015; Russian forces remain in garrison there today. Between 1980 and 1988, Iraq and Iran invaded each other, defended against these invasions, reorganized their forces, then repeated the cycle. Eight years.

We can delight all day in reports of Russia’s poor troop morale, disastrous logistics, incompetence in combined arms, and the Russian public’s growing unease. But there’s little reason to believe the war will end anytime soon.

That said, let’s look at the Donbas, where Round 2 is headed:

Ukraine and Russia map

You’ve read that the flat terrain is well suited for tanks and mechanized warfare. That’s true, but tanks can only go as far as their supply lines stretch. Advances will be slow. Wherever Russians hold terrain, Ukrainians will counterattack and seek to deny them the ability to consolidate their positions.

If the Russians break through Ukrainian defenses and consolidate their grip on the Donbas, they might next lay siege to Dnipro (which would be as difficult, or harder, then taking Kyiv). On the other hand, if Ukrainian counterattacks are successful, the Russians might find themselves in a defensive crouch in Donetsk, Luhansk, or another large city in the Donbas while the Ukrainians reverse earlier losses. We could see something like the Iran-Iraq war, with both sides trapped in an attack-defend-counterattack-regroup cycle. The Battle of Donbas might take months, or years, to resolve.

May 9 is Victory Day, marking the Russian defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 at the end of World War II. The Institute for the Study of War believes Russian generals are aggressively focused on the Donbas because Putin wants successes to celebrate in Moscow on Victory Day. But there’s no evidence that Putin intends to end the war on May 9, nor is there evidence his goals are anything less than those he declared when the war started.

I say this to express a strategic point; of course the two causes are not morally equal: Putin does not believe Ukraine should exist any more than Lincoln believed the Confederacy should exist. Russia’s strategic goal remains the elimination of the Ukrainian state. The Russian way of war may have many flaws, but will they cause Putin to stop fighting? He’s repeatedly said he won’t stop until he achieves his military goals. Russia has the resources to continue the war for years, and that may be exactly what happens.

Ukraine wins by continuing to exist. So yes, Ukraine is winning, but that’s irrelevant. Ukrainians don’t have the option of losing.

Dear Tecumseh Court:

Why are the Russians committing such terrible war crimes? What causes soldiers to do things like this?

Mr. Charles Trout

Tecumseh Court replies:

Dear Mr. Trout,

American—and NATO—warfighting doctrine relies on the overwhelming and precise use of force. For NATO militaries and soldiers, the Geneva Conventions are essential in letter and spirit. Russian warfighting doctrine relies on brutality, indiscriminate force, and collective punishment. Its officer corps learns about the Geneva Conventions, but only so that they better understand how their enemies are taught to fight.

Civilian casualties are part of the Russian way of war because Russia views any civilian population that resists Russian will as a legitimate target. This article about the Russian tradition of counterinsurgency describes the astonishingly brutal suppression of uprisings, peasant mutinies, and nationalist insurgencies in Russia during and after the Russian Civil War, in the Soviet Union’s western borderlands after the Second World War, and in the North Caucasus following the disintegration of the Soviet Union:

Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia has confronted two dozen insurgent movements and large-scale insurrections. Its responses to these challenges present a counterinsurgency model diametrically opposed to the “hearts and minds” approach espoused by the British school and the most recent US Army Field Manual on Counterinsurgency. Despite serious setbacks in Afghanistan and the first Chechen War, Russia has one of the most successful track records of any modern counterinsurgent.

Written in 2010, the article accurately forecast Russia’s strategy in Syria. Anyone familiar with the Russian way of war in Chechnya, Georgia, or Syria knows the Russians aren’t doing anything out of character in Ukraine. This is how Russia has waged war for more than a century. Why do they do it? Because it works.

What causes soldiers to do things like this? Orders. Fear. The dehumanization of their “Nazi” enemy. Specialists commit many of these atrocities: German intelligence has, reportedly, intercepted radio traffic indicating that Wagner Group mercenaries played the leading role war crimes in Bucha. They perpetrated similar atrocities in Syria. Russia hires the Wagner Group, mostly but not entirely composed of Russian mercenaries, to carry out its dirtiest work worldwide. As horrifying as it is to consider, they do it for the money.

A related question—and a question we might soon ask of Ukrainians—is this: “What causes soldiers who have been properly trained in the Geneva Conventions, and ordered to obey them, nonetheless to commit war crimes?”

Do you recall the grief and rage that overwhelmed Achilles when he learned Hector had killed Patroclus in The Iliad? In Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, the American psychologist Jonathan Shay appealed to this story (and those of other Homeric figures) to explain how, absent leadership and moral grounding, combat trauma disfigures character. It’s among the best books on this topic.

He spoke, and the black cloud of sorrow closed on Achilleus.
In both hands he caught up the grimy dust, and poured it
over his head and face, and fouled his handsome countenance,
and the black ashes were scattered over his immortal tunic.
And he himself, mightily in his might, in the dust lay
at length, and took and tore at his hair with his hands, and defiled it. …

Dear Tecumseh Court,

It’s said that the morale of an army is to its equipment as three is to one. But how can we describe and measure morale?


Mr. Albert Adelsberger

Dear Tecumseh Court,

What does the US get out of Sweden or Finland joining NATO? Won’t they just be an additional obligation, risk, and burden on American taxpayers?


Mr. Theodore I. Ballinger

Tecumseh Court replies:

Dear Mr. Adelsberger and Mr. Ballinger,

I’ve written about the influence of John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict on US military doctrine during the 1980s. Synthesizing Sun Tzu and Clausewitz is no easy task, but Boyd pulls it off. He does so, in part, by distilling the essence of moral conflict in war. He proposes metrics for its calibration. This takes some time to think through, but it will be useful in understanding Ukraine.

When Napoleon said, “the moral is to the physical as three is to one,” he was not proposing a ratio of troops to equipment. War, as Clausewitz tells us, is “a violent clash between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills.” Understanding war itself depends upon understanding what Boyd calls the Essence of Moral Conflict. These slides, from the famous presentation

observations related to moral conflict chart
Moral Conflict chart

What Boyd developed was a psychological order of battle. He placed gaining moral and psychological leverage over an opponent on par with the physical ability to defeat him. For a strategy to be successful, he taught, it must account for the moral and mental aspects of competition. Consider Boyd’s moral typology when you consider not only the Russian and Ukrainian armies, but your personal opinion about the war:

  • Moral strength: The mental capacity to overcome menace, uncertainty, and mistrust.
  • Moral victory: Triumph of courage, confidence, and esprit (de corps) over fear, anxiety, and alienation when confronted by menace, uncertainty, and mistrust.
  • Moral defeat: Triumph of fear, anxiety, and alienation over courage, confidence, and esprit when confronted by menace, uncertainty, and mistrust.
  • Moral values: Human values that permit one to carry on in the face of menace, uncertainty, and mistrust.
  • Moral authority: Person or body that can give one the courage, confidence, and esprit to overcome menace, uncertainty, and mistrust.

The Essence of Moral Conflict, according to Boyd, is that each side aims to “destroy moral bonds [among the adversary] that permit an organic whole to exist.” This is extremely important. The definitions above shape the way we perceive an adversary’s approach to Moral Conflict in the context of their stated war aims.

Ukraine’s objective in Moral Conflict is to create menace, uncertainty, and mistrust among the Russian soldiers invading its sovereign land in order to destroy the moral bonds that permit those invaders to exist. If the Russian army withdrew from Ukraine but continued to exist, Ukraine would still achieve its aim. The organic whole they seek to destroy is the second largest army in the world, but all the same, it’s just an army.

Russia’s objective in Moral Conflict, however, is to bring menace, uncertainty, and mistrust to bear on all the men, women, and children who call themselves Ukrainian to destroy the moral bonds that permit the Ukrainian state to exist. Putin has said repeatedly that the elimination of Ukraine as a nation-state is the Russian army’s strategic goal. He has projected his aims even further: He seeks to destroy the moral bonds that permit NATO to exist, too.

I’ve emphasized the terms above in italics to indicate what every single citizen in Ukraine, Russia, and NATO needs to do if their side is to prevail morally. (NATO, through its provision of arms and logistics, is party to this conflict.)

When you read the definitions of moral strength, victory, and authority, you presumably think immediately of Zelensky. That’s because his actions represent the strong moral bonds that permit the organic whole of Ukraine to exist.

Why is this relevant to the question about NATO? Because the difference between Swedish and Finnish defense expenditures and those of the United States is irrelevant. It’s the strength of the organic whole’s moral bonds that wins wars. That’s the currency we must count. (Speaking of currency: Would the global reserve currency be the US dollar if the Allies hadn’t won World War II?)

The value of strengthening NATO’s moral bonds by adding additional members is incalculable. We need every player in our organic whole that we can possibly get.

If it pisses off the Russians, that’s a clear sign we’re on the right track.

Tecumseh Court is the author of WAR 101—our blockbuster three-part introduction to “Warfighting,” the how-to manual for the US Marines. The three essays explored the war in Ukraine from a US combat veteran’s perspective. They’re the most widely read articles we’ve published at the Cosmopolitan Globalist magazine.

In response to our readers’ obvious desire to learn more about the fundamentals of war, we’ve inaugurated a regular Q&A with Tecumseh Court, in which Tecumseh Court answers readers’ questions about war, in general, and war in Ukraine, in particular.

If you haven’t yet read them, here are the essays:

Part I of III: Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities

Part II of III: The Main Effort, Intent, and Tactical Leadership

Part III of III: Pros talk logistics.

If you’d like to send a question to Tecumseh Court, please do so via the editors. Unless you request otherwise, we’ll assign to you a pseudonym chosen from the 1922 London telephone directory and edit your letters in our House Style.

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