Clausewitz and the Nature of War

In seeking out the fundamental nature of Clausewitz’s own mature theories, perhaps the best place to start is with some of the most common misconceptions of his argument. Such misconceptions are almost always the product of writers who either never read On War (or read only the opening paragraphs or perhaps a condensation) or who sought intentionally (for propaganda purposes) to distort its content. The book’s specific arguments are very clearly stated and rarely difficult to comprehend. The first of these misconceptions is the notion that Clausewitz considered war to be a “science. 1 Another (and related) misconception is that he considered war to be entirely a rational tool of state policy. The first idea is drastically wrong, the second only one side of a very important coin. To Clausewitz, war (as opposed to strategy or tactics) was neither an “art” nor a “science. ” Those two terms often mark the parameters of theoretical debate on the subject, however, and Clausewitz’s most ardent critics (Jomini, Liddell Hart, the early J. F. C. Fuller) tended to be those who treated war as a science.

As Clausewitz argued, the object of science is knowledge and certainty, while the object of art is creative ability. Of course, all art involves some science (the mathematical sources of harmony, for example) and good science always involves creativity. Clausewitz saw tactics as more scientific in character and strategy as something of an art, but the conscious, rational exercise of “military strategy,” a term much beloved of theorists and military historians, is a relatively rare occurrence in the real world.

It has become our general conviction,” he said, “that ideas in war are generally so simple, and lie so near the surface, that the merit of their invention can seldom substantiate the talent of the commander who adopts them. “*2 Most real events are driven by incomprehensible forces like chance, emotion, bureaucratic irrationalities, and intraorganizational politics, and a great many “strategic” decisions are made unconsciously, often long before the outbreak of hostilities. If pressed, Clausewitz would have placed war-making closer to the domain of the arts, but neither definition was really satisfactory.

Instead, war is a form of social intercourse. The Prussian writer occasionally likened it to commerce or litigation, but more usually to politics. *3 The distinction is crucial: in both art and science, the actor is working on inanimate matter (or, in art, the passive and yielding emotions of the audience), whereas in business, politics, and war the actor’s will is directed at an animate object that not only reacts but takes independent actions of its own. War is thus permeated by “intelligent forces. ” War is also “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” but it is never unilateral.

It is a wrestling match–a contest between independent wills, in which skill and creativity are no more important than personality, chance, emotion, and the various dynamics that characterize any human interaction. When Clausewitz wrote that war may have a grammar of its own, but not its own logic, he meant that the logic of war, like politics, is the logic of social intercourse, not that of art or science. This approach may seem to violate our usual concept of war, with its focus on clearly defined forms of “victory” and “defeat,” but it corresponds well to our actual experience.

For example, which of the following provides a better metaphor for the outcome of the war with Iraq? 1. Finishing a long, grueling, dangerous engineering project. 2. Completing a great painting or symphony. 3. “Winning” an argument with one’s spouse. Writing in German, Clausewitz used the word Politik, and his most famous phrase has been variously translated as “War is a continuation of ‘policy’–or of ‘politics’–by other means. ” For the purpose of argument, he assumed that state policy would be rational, that is, aimed at improving the situation of the society it represented.

He also believed along with most Westerners of his era that war was a legitimate means for a state’s advancement of its interests. This is often taken to mean that war is somehow a “rational” phenomenon, and Clausewitz is convicted of advocating the resort to war as a routine extension of unilateral state policy. In fact, the choice of translation for Politik–“policy” or “politics”–indicates differing emphases on the part of the translator, for the two concepts are quite different. “Policy” may be defined as rational action, undertaken by a group which already has power, in order to maintain and extend that power.

Politics, in contrast, is simply the process (comprising an inchoate mix of rational, irrational, and non-rational elements) by which power is distributed within a given society. *4 And war is an expression of–not a substitute for–politics. Thus, in calling war a “continuation” of politics, Clausewitz was advocating nothing. In accordance with his belief that theory must be descriptive rather than prescriptive, he was merely recognizing an existing reality. War is an expression of both policy and politics (see relevant cartoon), but “politics” is the interplay of conflicting forces, not the execution of one-sided policy initiatives. The actual word Clausewitz used in his famous formulation is Fortsetzung–literally a “setting forth. ” Translating this word as “continuation,” while technically correct, evidently implies to many that politics changes its essential nature when it metamorphoses into war. *6 This impression is contrary to Clausewitz’s argument. War remains politics in all its complexity, with the added element of violence. The irrational and non-rational forces that affect and often drive politics have the same impact on war.

On the side of rationality, it is true that Clausewitz argued that a party resorting to war should do so with a clear idea as to what it means to accomplish and how it intends to proceed toward that goal. The connection of war to rational political goals meant that wars could not be made to follow some fixed pattern; the conduct of wars would have to vary in accordance with their political purposes. His definition of “strategy”–that it was “the use of combats for the purpose of the war”–has been criticized for overemphasizing the need for bloody battle, but its key point is “the [political] purpose of the war.

If war was to be an extension of policy, that is, a tool of policy, then military leaders must be subordinate to political leaders and strategy must be subordinate to policy. As the Moltke-Bismarck clash demonstrated, this poses practical organizational problems. Like many of Clausewitz’s teachings, his solution was not a simple prescription but a dualism: The military instrument must be subordinated to the political leadership, but political leaders must understand its nature and limitations. Politicians must not attempt to use the instrument of war to achieve purposes for which it is unsuited.

There is thus a gray area between soldiers’ subordination to political leaders and their professional responsibility to educate those leaders in military realities. Exactly whose responsibility it is to sort out that ambiguity is a constitutional matter of some importance. Clausewitz did little to clarify it. In his original manuscript, Clausewitz said “If war is to be fully consonant with political objectives, and policy suited to the means available for war,… the only sound expedient is to make the commander-in-chief a member of the cabinet, so that the cabinet can share in the major aspects of his activities.

This was altered in the second German edition (1853) to say “so that he may take part in its councils and decisions on important occasions. “*7 Whether the change resulted from well intentioned editorial intervention (for the original edition is full of inconsistencies, obscurities, and obvious editorial errors) or more sinister motivations is unclear. This minor editorial subversion certainly was not the cause of later German strategic errors, as some have implied. *8 This constitutional question aside, it is clear that Clausewitz demanded the subordination of military to political onsiderations throughout a conflict.

As he said in 1831, “He who maintains, as is so often the case, that politics should not interfere with the conduct of a war has not grasped the ABCs of grand strategy. “*9 Policy considerations also can demand actions that may seem irrational, depending on one’s values. Clausewitz’s desire that Prussia turn on Napoleon before the 1812 campaign would have demanded virtual state suicide in the short run, but he felt that the state’s honor–and thus any hope for its future resurgence–required it.

Clausewitz saw both history and policy in the long run, and he pointed out that no strategic decision is ever final; it can always be reversed in another round of struggle. This side of Clausewitz is uncomfortable for modern Anglo-American readers because it reflects a romantic view of the state as something that transcends the collective interest of its citizens. It provides a philosophical basis for apocalyptic policies like Hitler’s and Japan’s in World War Two. Most modern readings of Clausewitz, including my own, tend to skate over such aspects of On War.

They are simply too alien to the spirit of our age to have much meaning. So much for the rational control of war. On the other hand, Clausewitz lived during the transition from the 18th-century intellectual period called the Enlightenment (which stressed a rational approach to human problems) to the age of Romanticism (which was ushered in by the disasters of the French Revolution and stressed the irrational, emotional aspects of man’s make-up–including nationalism). His world view reflected elements of each.

His vision of war thus falls also very much into the domain of the non-rational and even the irrational, “in which strictly logical reasoning often plays no part at all and is always apt to be a most unsuitable and awkward intellectual tool. “*10 Because the flow of military events is uniquely shaped by the specifics of every situation, from its politics and personalities to the terrain and even the weather, the course of war is never predictable. One of the most important requirements of strategy in Clausewitz’s view is that the leadership correctly “establish … e kind of war on which they are embarking. “*11 This is often understood to mean that leaders should rationally decide the kind of war that will be undertaken. In fact, the nature of any given war is beyond rational control: It is inherent in the situation and in the “spirit of the age. ” Good leaders, avoiding error and self-deception, can at best merely comprehend the real implications of a resort to violence and act accordingly. Further, a war often takes on a dynamic beyond the intentions of those who launched it.

The conduct of war always rests–in unpredictable proportions–on the variable energies, interests, abilities, and character of the peoples, the armies, and the governments involved. Political leaders may easily misjudge or lose control of passions on their own side. Further, their opponents have similar such uncertainties as well as wills and creativity of their own. In 1976, Russell Weigley–one of the most creative, interesting, and influential of modern American military historians–attacked Clausewitz for missing this very point.

Weigley had clearly developed his own recognition that war tends to escape rational control, but denied Clausewitz any understanding of that fact, so central to the Prussian’s argument. Quoting Gerhard Ritter, he wrote that “what Clausewitz failed to see or at least to acknowledge is that war, once set off, may very well develop a logic of its own because the war events themselves may react on and alter the guiding will [note the singular case]; that it may roll on like an avalanche, burying all the nitial aims, all the aspirations of statesmen. In fact, the Prussian writer had noted very clearly that “the original political objects can greatly alter during the course of the war and may finally change entirely since they are influenced by events and their probable consequences. “*12 Like so many of Clausewitz’s critics, Weigley–via Ritter–was engaged in reinventing the wheel. It is clear that Clausewitz’s war is, despite all that intellect and reason can do to modify it, a game of chance outside the bounds of rational control.

Would Prussia in 1792 have dared to invade France with 70,000 men if she had had an inkling that the repercussions in case of failure would be strong enough to overthrow the old European balance of power? Would she, in 1806, have risked war with France with 100,000 men, if she had suspected that the first shot would set off a mine that was to blow her to the skies? “*13 Thus Clausewitz was hardly one to urge that the resort to war be taken lightly or routinely, nor to claim that its result would necessarily further the unilateral policy goals of the party who launched it.

Another source of unpredictability was what Clausewitz called “friction,” stemming from war’s uncertainty, chance, suffering, confusion, exhaustion, and fear. Friction stems from the effects of time, space, and human nature; it is the fundamental and unavoidable force that makes war in reality differ from the abstract model of “absolute war. ” Events take time to unfold, with all that that implies. Purely military or political courses of action are deflected by countless delays and distractions.

Strategic intelligence and battlefield information are often misleading or flatly wrong, and even the wisest order is subject to loss, delay, misinterpretation, poor execution, or willful disobedience. Every individual human being is a friction-producing cog in the machine of war, producing a delicate machine of endless complexity and unreliability. “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult…. Action in war is like movement in a resistant element.

Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results. “*14 It is perhaps no accident that slang terms like SNAFU and FUBAR originated in a military context. Much of what Clausewitz called “military genius” revolved around willpower. An iron will and a powerful sense of purpose are indispensable in overcoming the forces of friction. To some extent, of course, the causes of this difficulty are inherent in any large organization.

Clausewitz saw it as unique to war because European armies were the first truly large, modern organizations. Much of what Clausewitz called friction was, however, peculiar to war. This is particularly true of something that may seem obvious but escapes many theorists and armchair war planners: War is dangerous, and danger (either physical or moral) has an impact on the behavior of the participants. Under the influence of physical danger, “the light of reason is refracted in a manner quite different from that which is normal in academic speculation…. e ordinary man can never achieve a state of perfect unconcern in which his mind can work with normal flexibility. “*15 Physical courage, however, is much more common than moral courage: It is lack of the latter that explains the frequent failure of men who have been successful–even dashing and heroic–as junior officers, but who become indecisive under the weight of real responsibility. Jomini, whose practical military experience approximated Clausewitz’s, understood perfectly well the practical importance of such factors.

To him, however, they were unpredictable and therefore extrinsic to theory, while to Clausewitz they were so much a part of the fabric of war that theory must consider them as intrinsic. Clausewitz’s insistence on the unpredictability of war raises some important issues. His writings are sometimes cited in support of various attempts at mathematically modeling war,*16 but, while much of Clausewitz’s logic sounds vaguely mathematical and many of his individual propositions could no doubt be expressed in numbers,

Clausewitz pointedly refrained from doing so. In essence, his explanation for this restraint is very similar to that of modern Complexity theory and nonlinear analysis as it is applied in such varied fields as physics, biology, and economics. *17 In demonstrating why long-range weather prediction is bound to fail, for instance, nonlinear theorists cite the so-called “Butterfly Effect”: “a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.

Tiny differences in input may quickly become overwhelming differences in output. (A more dignified term for this effect is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions. “)*18 Complexity theorists have demonstrated how even a few variables imperfectly known can reduce a complex system to a chaotic state. In war, there is an inherently unknowable number of largely unquantifiable variables, all of which may interact with one another in an unpredictable way. The very parameters of any equation of war are indeterminable.

Most natural phenomena are nonlinear. Dividing them along linear/nonlinear lines is similar to dividing the animal world into elephants and “non-elephant animals. ” Like the nonlinear theorists, Clausewitz insisted on keeping in view the whole phenomenon under discussion rather than attempting to draw conclusions from those few unrepresentative sub-components which might lend themselves to linear mathematical analyses. He focused on real-world experience, on concrete phenomena, rather than on simplified and inherently unrealistic models.

Just as some plants bear fruit only if they don’t shoot up too high, so in the practical arts the leaves and flowers of theory must be pruned and the plant kept close to its proper soil–experience. “*19 Clausewitz’s historicist belief that war can change its nature depending on the “spirit of the age” echoes the “phase transitions” of the nonlinear scientists. Their observations of “symmetry at different scales” parallels Clausewitz’s similar “ends and means” analyses of tactics, strategy, and politics, the same phenomena expressed at different scales in terms of time and space.

The Prussian theorist would agree that mathematics had a place in war, as did other kinds of arts and sciences, but using math as a basis for theory or prediction was a laughable absurdity. The significance of butterfly-like individual inputs and unique variables is particularly clear in Clausewitz’s discussion of friction, of the significance of individual actions by any of the individual participants–of whatever rank–in military and political events, and of the impact of factors like terrain, always unique. Military] events are proof that success is not due simply to general causes. Particular factors can often be decisive–details known only to those who were on the spot. There can also be moral factors which never come to light; while issues can be decided by chances and incidents so minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes. “*20 Note that Clausewitz’s emphasis on the triumph of specific over general factors is most true of contests between near-equals, which he generally assumed to be the case in European conflicts.

In struggles between opponents markedly unequal in either moral or material terms, as in, for example, the recent UN war against Iraq, general factors tend to be (but are not necessarily) more decisive. This emphasis on the particular and the specific permeates Clausewitz’s mature theories. Frustrated readers seeking in his writings an answer to some particular problem sometimes bemoan this facet of his argument as an evasive “Well, that depends… ,” but that is just the point.

The greatest familiarity with the most correct theory does not permit the decision-maker to skip the details. For good measure, Clausewitz heightens the frustration by noting that the details are very often missing or wrong. A quotation from Clausewitz that may provide the greatest insight into his overall approach is his famous–but often misconstrued–discussion of what he called the “remarkable trinity” of war: “War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.

As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone. The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government.

The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone. These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets. ” Let us analyze this quotation in detail: In arguing that war is more than a chameleon (an animal that merely changes color to match its surroundings, but otherwise remains identical), Clausewitz is saying that war is a phenomenon that, depending on conditions, can actually take on radically different forms. The basic sources of changes in those conditions lie in the elements of his “trinity. ”

The Clausewitzian trinity is often misrepresented as comprising “the people, the army, and the government. ” Look more closely and you will realize that it is really made up of three categories of forces: irrational forces (violent emotion, i. e. , “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity”); non-rational forces (i. e. , forces not the product of human thought or intent, such as “the play of chance and probability”); and rationality (war’s subordination to reason, “as an instrument of policy”). Clausewitz then connects each of those forces “mainly” to one of three sets of human actors: the people, the army, and the government.

We should stress the word “mainly,” because it is clear that each of the three categories that constitutes the actual trinity affects all of these human actors to some varying degree. 1. The people are paired up with irrational forces–the emotions of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity (or, by implication, the lack thereof). 2. The army and its commander are paired up with the non-rational forces of chance and probability–they deal with those factors under the creative guidance of the commander (and creativity depends on something more than mere rationality, including, hopefully, the divine spark of talent or genius). The government is paired with the rational force of calculation–policy is, ideally, driven by reason. This corresponds to the famous argument that “war is an instrument of policy. ” Thus, when Clausewitz speaks of war as a “total phenomenon,” he is not talking about war in the abstract (“absolute war”), nor about war “in theory. ” He is talking about real war, war as we actually experience it, and he is describing just why it is that war is so dynamic, so unpredictable, so kaleidoscopic in its appearance.

The concluding imile in this excerpt from On War is a nearly exact analogy: Clausewitz is saying that theory must be, as war is, “like an object suspended among three magnets. ” He is referring to the observed scientific fact that such a pendulum, once set swinging between three centers of attraction, behaves in a nonlinear manner–it never establishes a repeating pattern. As it enters a phase of its arc in which it is more strongly affected by one force than the others, it gains a momentum which carries it on into zones where the other forces can begin to exert their powers more strongly.

The actual path of the suspended object is never determined by one force alone but by the interaction between them, which is forever and unavoidably shifting. The trinity also provides us with clues as to what Clausewitz meant by Politik, for the only element of the “paradoxical trinity” which makes it unique to war is that the emotions discussed are those that might incline people to violence, whereas politics in general will involve the full range of human feelings. The policy aspects are those argely connected with rationality, whereas politics encompasses the whole trinity.

The trinity metaphor, as given here, therefore serves to sum up much of Clausewitz’s approach to war. In itself, however, it leaves out the fact, strongly emphasized elsewhere in On War, that war is always an interaction between opposing forces. That is, this trinity exists on both sides, thus further complicating the picture. An approach to theory which denies or minimizes the role of any of these forces or the interaction between them is, therefore, by definition wrong.

The soldier who expects the events of war to unfold in any other way is doomed to be surprised, disappointed, and frustrated as events are forever spinning off on unpredictable trajectories. So what, then, was Clausewitz’s strategic prescription? Various writers have argued that Clausewitz was the advocate of a particular style of war, held by some to be that of “total” or “absolute” war (terms that represent quite different concepts), and by others to be that of “limited” war. In fact, the mature Clausewitz advocated neither.

Rather, he called for state policy to choose a form of war, consistent with its goals and the situation, from somewhere along the limited-to-unlimited continuum of “real war. ” Although the younger Clausewitz of the “Instruction for the Crown Prince” tended towards a firm prescription of decisive battle, the mature Clausewitz of On War did not. To seek decisive battle did not, after all, make sense for a party who could expect to lose. Readers easily detect that Clausewitz had some emotional attachment to war in its more powerful form as a result of his own experience with it, but intellectually he was quite clear on the validity of either.

The philosopher’s students are shown how to analyze a military problem, but left quite on their own as to what to do about the ones they actually face. Other writers have claimed that Clausewitz was an advocate of concentric attacks, in contrast to Jomini’s advocacy of “interior lines. ” In fact, Clausewitz spent more time discussing concentric operations in part simply because Jomini had already done so good a job explaining the opposite approach. The choice of either would depend, as always, on the specific situation.

Clausewitz did provide some guidance in choosing military objectives. Perhaps most important was the idea of focusing one’s military efforts against the enemy’s “center of gravity” (“Schwerpunkt”), which has become an important concept in American doctrine. Clausewitz’s use of this term is problematic, however. He often used it in very general terms to mean something like “the main thing” or “the key point at issue. ” He used it in tactical discussions to denote the main line of attack. When applied to operations or strategy, however, the term assumed a more narrow definition.

The center of gravity was the most important source of the enemy’s strength. Operationally, it usually appears as the key enemy field force. Strategically, it is most commonly the enemy’s military forces as a whole or in part, but it can be his capital or something less concrete, like the common interest of an alliance or even public opinion. The term comes from Mechanics, and Clausewitz was clearly trying to use a scientific metaphor to force the reader to focus on key considerations rather than frittering away his energy on peripheral concerns.

Unfortunately, Clausewitz’s statement that “A center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely” is scientificly incorrect, and the metaphor–while useful and interesting–suffers accordingly. In any case, as usual with Clausewitz, the correct identification of any center of gravity would have to be consistent with the character of the situation and appropriate to the political purposes of military operations. To seek for an all-purpose strategic prescription in Clausewitz’s discussion of the center of gravity will therefore lead to the usual frustration. The rigid prescription simply is not there.

Destruction of the enemy army is not the fixed goal of “Clausewitzian strategy. ” A superficial reading of On War may, however, leave the reader somewhat confused on this point. Clausewitz’s definition of strategy emphasizes battle, and he states quite clearly, time after time, that “there is only one means in war: combat. ” The subtlety that one must be aware of here is that by “combat” Clausewitz means not only the actual bloody clash of armed men on the field of battle but also potential or merely possible clashes. *21 Since there doesn’t seem to be enough space for the rest of my essay you can mail me to get the full annotated thesis.


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