Let me conclude by saying that, based on this judgement and the one pronounced against the Latins, when one has to judge powerful cities and cities that are accustomed to living in liberty, it is necessary either to destroy them or to give them benefits; otherwise every judgment is made in vain. Above all one must avoid a middle course of action.

— Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy


When Clausewitz included “primordial violence” in his “paradoxical trinity,” he was motivated to do so by the passions he witnessed during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars—passions that inspired the French people to arms and led them on a doomed adventure to Moscow. However, this is not how passion is always operationally exploited. Beyond the cases that inspired Clausewitz, there are other actions that, instead of channeling passion toward grand objectives, do so by meting out violence in carefully measured doses. A prime example is the punitive expedition, a discussion of which was recently triggered by an article by retired Col. Kevin Benson. The punitive expedition is an interesting paradox. It is fueled by “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity,” but limited in its objectives. It seeks to inflict pain on an enemy, but not to completely destroy or eradicate the foe, only to change behavior or deter further disagreeable acts. Proponents of the punitive expedition suggest that it can be easily controlled; its duration is determined by the aggressor and its limited objectives ensure a swift campaign initiated and concluded on command. In this regard, the punitive expedition appears a viable option for policymakers forced to act, or react, to a national-security threat. However, this perspective neglects several characteristics of the punitive expedition that severely limit its applicability and raise doubt about its effectiveness as a tool for achieving long-term policy objectives. Inherently a measure too limited to achieve lasting effect, the punitive expedition is not likely to change the security landscape in a permanent or meaningful manner, its inability to deliver tangible political objectives makes it both costly and difficult to recruit partners, and limits to its applicability leave it unsuitable for addressing the majority of security challenges faced by the United States.

The punitive expedition is often cast as a scalable and relatively cheap means of retaliating against a foe while simultaneously deterring future misbehavior. As Dr. Benson noted in his article, “A punitive expedition results in a measured, relatively swift, focused response. . . . There is no regime change, no re-ordering of the existing power structure in a region. A punitive expedition demonstrates the will and ability of the US government to act with violence. . . . The purpose of the punitive expedition is to act with violence and return to home station.” Despite the allure of punitive expeditions as a policy option, it does not feature prominently in American military history. Its most notable use occurred in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson dispatched Gen. John J. Pershing and ten thousand soldiers to Mexico to destroy Pancho Villa’s rebel army as a reprisal for killing fifteen Americans in Columbus, New Mexico. Failing to achieve their objective, Pershing’s forces returned home nearly a year later on the eve of a much larger war with Germany. More recently, although President Donald Trump’s retaliatory strikes against Syria were undoubtedly meant to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons and change its behavior, airstrikes do not meet the criteria of an expedition. This scant record is a function of the shortcomings inherent in punitive expeditions.

The greatest problem with the punitive expedition is the inescapable fact that, by its very nature, it is a half measure. Seeking not to reorder the power structure or bring about lasting change, the punitive expedition is a demonstration of violence meant only to change behavior. Victory is measured by the absence of further disagreeable acts by the enemy; there is no unconditional surrender, no seizure of territory, and no ultimate defeat—just the hope that the violence doled out was enough to deter for “long enough.” Political theorists and military strategists have long cautioned against half measures. In his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli points to the Florentine Republic’s treatment of the rebellious city of Arezzo as an example of such ill-fated actions. Instead of acting decisively, the Florentines “employed that middle course of action which is extremely damaging in passing judgement on men; they banished some of the citizens of Arezzo, and they condemned others to death; they took away their honours and ancient ranks from everyone in the city; and they left the city intact.” Because they failed to act as the Romans, who “always avoided a middle course of action,” the Florentines were forced to return to Arezzo to quell future rebellions.

Contemporary statesmen have also cautioned against half measures. Struggling to codify strategic lessons in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger outlined six tests for determining when and how the United States should use force abroad. Known thereafter as the Weinberger Doctrine, the second test proclaimed, “If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all.” Clausewitz echoes this sentiment when he writes that “the best strategy is always to be very strong. . . . The first rule, therefore, should be: put the largest possible army into the field.” Swift, measured, and focused, the punitive expedition is hardly a full measure and, as these strategists have pointed out, half measures yield, at best, a temporary respite from combat (the Florentines) and, at worst, an ever escalating quagmire (Vietnam). Such actions in ungoverned or loosely governed spaces are sure to further destabilize these areas, necessitating additional military intervention later down the road. Aside from the challenges associated with its transitory outcomes, it can hardly be conceived that such an excursion would draw on the full extent of American military might, for, if it did, the return on investment would be woefully disappointing.

Another problem with the punitive expedition lies in its irrational calculus and hidden cost. While on the surface the punitive expedition may appear far cheaper than America’s forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this neglects the fact that it does not deliver a tangible return on investment. As noted above, there is no “re-ordering of the existing power structure” and no seizure of territory. There is also, likely, no lasting peace. The punitive expedition accumulates neither power nor resources for the United States; however, it still costs both blood and treasure. It is the strategic equivalent of a carnival ride; it may be fun while it lasts, but it costs to ride and, in the end, you go home empty-handed. From the start this defies Clausewitz’s rational calculus for war, which states, “Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of the object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of the effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.” Yielding no tangible political objectives aside from a demonstration of violence, the punitive expedition is hard to justify in terms of the sacrifices it will undoubtedly require.

The costs of a punitive expedition are likely to be compounded by the lack of partners willing to sign on to the campaign and share the burden. With its lack of a tangible return on investment, recruiting partners who do not necessarily share in the original passion that spawned the expedition will be a hard sell. Without “re-ordering the existing power structure,” weaker third parties may be wary that their involvement will draw reprisals from a belligerent that remains in power. Not only will this drive up the cost of the campaign, but it will complicate things like access, basing, and overflight—all critical requirements for the United States to project power abroad.

While it may be difficult to recruit partners to a punitive expedition, identifying a suitable foe for which the campaign is an effective measure will likely prove even more elusive. Punitive expeditions are not feasible against peer threats capable of effectively resisting or escalating the conflict, for, in these situations, the punitive expedition is no longer measured nor swift. Nor are they likely to work against an existential threat, as the punitive expedition cannot deliver satisfactory political objectives when the adversary can hold the nation’s survival at risk. This leaves weaker, rogue states on the potential receiving end of a punitive expedition; however, there are significant issues here as well. Given that rogue states are often dominated by authoritarian parties or individuals, a sharp divide exists between the regime and the populace, and this divide heavily influences how we conceptualize the enemy. In these instances, the populace is largely viewed as the victim and the enemy is narrowly identified as the regime’s leadership and its security apparatus. Under such conditions, punishing the regime without compounding the suffering of the already victimized populace can prove exceptionally difficult, and, when large segments of society and its requisite infrastructure are ethically off limits, there is little room left to punish. Strategists must also carefully assess whether a punitive expedition will galvanize an already divided society, strengthening the regime’s popularity by bringing the people and the party together under shared hardship and a common enemy. The punitive expedition could only be effective in that rare circumstance when the rogue regime is supported by a large segment of its populace, thereby offering ample opportunity for the application of violence—a rare condition given the sociopolitical divide inherent in authoritarian states.

This paradox is best demonstrated through a comparison of the Allied conception of Nazi Germany during World War II and the United States’ approach to Ba’athist Iraq in 2003. Although neither of these campaigns were punitive expeditions, examining how the enemy was framed during each reveals the critical distinctions necessary in determining the suitability and acceptability of a theoretical punitive expedition. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris made no distinction between German and Nazi when he constructed a strategic bombing campaign that directly targeted the civilian populace. Known as “de-housing,” it offered an almost unending stream of targets and, had it been a punitive expedition, the options for inflicting punishment would have been enormous. While this is certainly an extreme end of the spectrum, it demonstrates that, in circumstances where the conceptual distance between the regime, the military, and the people is least, the greatest opportunity for punishment exists. By contrast, narrowly defining the enemy as a regime, its military, or even specific units, greatly restricts opportunities for punishment. As indicated by its name, Operation Iraqi Freedom was aimed at liberating the Iraqi people by toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime. Here, the distinction between the regime and the population was severe; the regime alone was the enemy and the Iraqi people were its victims. As such, the regime was worthy of punishment, but the people were not. Framing the enemy in this way leaves little room for the application of force lest we lose legitimacy and risk dissonance between words and deeds by expanding the purview for violence beyond the regime. Punishment directed against such a small segment of society, especially one with the resources to evade or recover quickly, is not likely to inflict sufficient pain to achieve worthwhile or lasting results. Instead, as is evidenced by the fraught use of punitive sanctions, rogue regimes are likely to find ways to avoid punishment and transfer its effects to the wider populace. Here again the punitive expedition is haunted by its inherent nature as a half measure, and its limited applicability only diminishes its relevance for policymakers.

In light of its numerous shortcomings, the punitive expedition is best understood as a boutique option for the use of force; it may have a place on the menu of options presented to policymakers but is only appropriate or effective under very unique circumstances. While it may deliver a brief reprieve from hostilities, or satisfy a desire for revenge, policymakers that opt for a punitive expedition are cautioned that, like the Florentines, they will likely find themselves returning to fix problems they believed had already been solved.


Maj. Christopher Parker is a US Army Strategist currently serving as a doctrine author at the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a Master of Arts degree in History from Georgia Southern University and has served combat tours in Iraq. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Note: The author would like to thank Dr. Christopher Carey for his review and Col. (ret) Scott Kendrick for a nudge in the right direction.


Image credit: Staff Sgt. Amber Martin, US Army