Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century

Here are some highlights from this 2007 book:

* Carl von Clausewitz’s On War is the prism through which we have come to look at war. Certainly within Europe, and to an increasing extent outside as well, military commentators have used his text as a departure point at least for their questions, if not their answers. A reporter covering the war in Afghanistan after the attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 found
a copy of the Everyman edition of On War in an al-Qaeda safe house. His discovery was doubly significant for what follows. First, it suggests that those Western pundits who are quick to condemn Clausewitz as passé, relevant only to an era when European armies fought each other in ‘symmetrical’ conflicts, an epoch which apparently ended with the conclusion of the ColdWar in 1990, may have missed the mark. Second, the section of the book marked by its terrorist reader discussed courage. It did not concern the use of war as a political instrument. There is more to Clausewitz than one oft-repeated nostrum.

* Clausewitz likened war to a chameleon, allowing for changes in its appearance, but suggesting that its underlying nature
remained unchanged.

* When Carl von Clausewitz died in 1831, he was a disappointed and frustrated man. He aspired to fame, but thought he had not achieved it. In his own lifetime that was true. He may not have been the failure that in his darker moments he imagined himself to be, but he had only a walk-on part in history, not a principal role. A professional soldier, he had never been the conquering hero, and, despite becoming a major-general, he had not attained the rank which he felt he deserved.

* Despite the fondness of early nineteenth-century German for passive constructions, long sentences, and ambiguous adjectives, On War flashes with memorable and pithy phrases, simple and graphic, often illuminated with telling metaphors and similes.
Moreover, many of these aphorisms gain in strength precisely because they state the obvious. Clausewitz tells us what we already know to be true but in ways that make the familiar fresh: as so often, brilliance lies in the eye of the beholder, as much as in the mind of the creator.

* On War’s vitality and longevity derive in large part from its refusal to embrace fixed conclusions.

* On War is a sustained dialogue between theory and practice. Clausewitz’s early self-education, the inspiration of his adolescence, had been in philosophy; he had read the works of the Enlightenment, and, for all his damning comments about certain military theorists, he was determined to write a theory of his own. Both his own experience as a soldier and military history, to which he had been introduced by Scharnhorst, were the reality checks on this inclination to abstraction. Moltke on the other hand taught his staff officers by means of war games and staff rides, not theory.

* On War appealed to officers before 1914 precisely because it explicitly said that theory should not accompany the general to the battlefield, that its role was educational, not prescriptive, to give insights, not to hedge the commander round with fixed

* The coping stone to this Anglophone embrace of On War was the new translation in 1976 of the text—and the first of the first edition—by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Michael Howard has described the project as ‘the most rewarding work, intellectually as well as financially, that I have ever undertaken’.47 The intellectual challenge, to which Howard and Paret rose magnificently, was to present the text in prose that was accessible and in a form that gave it an underlying unity. Indeed, it could fairly be said that On War now has greater coherence and readability in English than it does in its native German. Shorn of its nineteenth-century style, rid of its fondness for the impersonal passive tense, and free of its lengthier sentences, it has gained immensely in clarity. It has also gained in readers (hence Howard’s reference to the financial rewards).

The timing of the Howard and Paret translation, however fortuitous, was impeccable. Battered by the experiences of Vietnam, the US Army was casting around for a fresh intellectual direction, rethinking its doctrines and using them as a means to rebuild its identity. Clausewitz’s OnWar, which had never enjoyed much of an American readership before 1976, helped provide it. Book I, chapter 1 gave the soldiers a vocabulary with which to engage politicians in debate and provided the means to shape policy’s use of war. Colonel Harry Summers’s On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1981) was the most provocative salvo in this process, describing the war as a ‘tactical victory’ but a ‘strategic defeat’. Americans, Summers argued, understood the
need to subordinate war to policy (that was an automatic by-product of democracy); what they—or rather their politicians—did not understand was war itself, the means to the political end. Summers’s rebuke found its way into policy through the agency of Colin Powell, who read Clausewitz while at the US National War College. Powell was the military adviser to the Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who in 1984 enunciated the so-called ‘Weinberger doctrine’, setting out the terms on which the United States would henceforth use military force. In 1992, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell articulated his own doctrine, replete—as the Weinberger doctrine had been—with Clausewitzian phraseology.48 Powell’s view was that the United States should only use force when its political objects were clear and could command public support; the force used should be overwhelming and instantaneous, not incremental and insufficient and in applying it America would have a clear exit strategy. The trouble for US policymakers between 1990 and 2003, from the end of the ColdWar to the invasion of Iraq, was that many of the world’s problems were not well adapted to Powell’s conceptual framework. Few if any of the conflicts which occurred in the Balkans, the Middle East, or Africa justified the application of overwhelming military force, and even fewer were likely to deliver clear outcomes. The Powell doctrine, however much it appealed within the army, seemed to be a constraint on American flexibility and responsiveness, a tool inappropriate to what international relations theorists described as a post-Westphalian world. They argued that an era of national sovereignty, inaugurated in Europe in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, had dissolved after the end of the Cold War, in a welter of non-state actors, guerrillas, terrorists, and criminals, who thrived in failed and rogue states, and tended to use war for objects that were not the pursuit of policy by other means. Powell was not the only one who was passé; so too was Clausewitz.

* One of the striking facets of the magnum opus of Carl von Clausewitz is his use of the terms and images which were at the forefront of research in science and technology in his day. Clausewitz may not have knownmuch Latin or Greek—phrases from those languages are conspicuously absent from the pages of On War—but the dialects of science are richly represented in his work. We rather expect a military mind to know the basics of Newtonian mechanics. But we do not often think of how new were the concepts of economics formulated by Adam Smith, or how the notion of friction was beginning to find its way towards the laws of thermodynamics, or how magnetism and electricity were starting to converge. Clausewitz knowledgeably availed himself of the vocabulary of all these. He also wrote of probabilities in ways we find unremarkable, but which were mathematically literate and striking for his time. These novel ideas reflected the changed realities of the world around Clausewitz, and were as much a part of his Weltanschauung as the new nationalism that had transformed the military landscape and the Romanticism that was challenging Enlightenment principles.

* Sun Tzu’s method was to present conclusions. Clausewitz’s is to achieve understanding through debate, through point and counterpoint… The dialogue is continuous, and to that extent replicates Clausewitz’s most important insight about the nature of war itself, that it is a reciprocal activity, where the interaction of the belligerents creates its own dynamic.

* the early Clausewitz was a practical soldier, the later Clausewitz was more of a scholar.

* Clausewitz moves back and forth between the real and the ideal, but he does not make it clear when he is doing so and in which vein he is writing.

* War’s subordination to policy is an ideal, not a reality.War can create its own dynamic, as it did in the Napoleonic Wars. The
realist in Clausewitz says that theremust be a continuous interchange between the politician and the general and that the latter is not always subordinate to the former as the policy has in practice to conform to what is militarily practicable. Secondly, absolute war, which for Paret and Aron is an ideal, as it was for Clausewitz by the time he came to write book I, chapter 1, is treated as realizable in book VIII; indeed, Clausewitz suggests that he had experienced absolute war.

* War consists of tactics, strategy, and policy, and uses means to achieve its military aim in order to deliver a political objective. But what is evident in these threes is that each exists alongside the others, and sometimes in tension with it. Theory suggests a hierarchy; reality suggests otherwise. Economy of force, for example, cuts across the escalatory pressure to achieve
the military aim of victory, while the use of excessive force may undermine the political objective—which for Clausewitz (let us be clear on this point) was peace.

* Circumstances vary so enormously in war, and are so indefinable, that a vast array of factors has to be appreciated—mostly in light of probabilities alone.

* Clausewitz viewed war as a non-linear phenomenon.22 He paid serious and sustained attention to complexity and unpredictability (arising from interaction, friction, and chance—and the latter from statistical randomness, amplification of a microcause, and analytical myopia). He was attentive to the diversity and indistinct boundary of all relationships.

* Systems of organized complexity involve factors that are interdependent. Over time they change in ways that affect how and even which variables interact. The exact behaviour of these systems is nearly impossible to predict, because they adapt to changing conditions. Effectively, in a very real sense they make themselves up as they proceed. This is why Clausewitz was utterly right when he described war as a true chameleon, and each war as having laws peculiar unto itself.25 This is why ‘continued striving after laws analogous to those appropriate to the realm of inanimate matter was bound to lead to one mistake after another’.26 He correctly saw war as an act of human intercourse most closely akin to commerce or politics, ‘the womb in which war develops— where its outlines already exist in their hidden rudimentary form, like the characteristics of living creatures in their embryos’.

* For Clausewitz, war’s outstanding characteristic as a tool of policy lay not simply in its destructiveness, but in the violent, irrational emotions that the use of force could inspire. Such feelings threatened to alter, if not to overwhelm,
two critical sets of interactions: that of ends and means, whose reconciliation was the hallmark of strategic excellence; and that of adversaries in the heat of battle. Because every act of force invited a more forceful rejoinder, the violence of war necessarily pressed against the guiding influence of putatively rational, cold-blooded political objectives, sometimes lending them a shape and size quite different from what they had possessed when recourse to violence was first decided upon. Clausewitz’s recognition of the centrality of this escalatory dynamic to all aspects of warfare is one of his most original contributions to military theory, and his sensitivity to it runs like a leitmotiv throughout his work.

* Thus, in his brilliant analysis of the campaign of 1812, Clausewitz rejected what had already become the common-place explanation for France’s defeat: that Napoleon was doomed from the moment he set out to overwhelm the Russians in a single campaign. Clausewitz was not willing to settle for this. In particular, he did not settle for the unspoken assumption that caution is synonymous with safety. The safer path—by which Clausewitz meant the path most likely to achieve the political purpose of the war—was in fact the one Napoleon chose: to reach Moscow in a single leap, and hold the city hostage until the conclusion of peace. Clausewitz does not see anything implausible in this idea. Napoleon did not fail because he made some kind of logical error in the reconciliation of ends and means. In Clausewitz’s judgement the end was feasible enough, and the means adequate, if barely so. No, he failed for two reasons. First, he did not anticipate the Russian reaction to his arrival outside Moscow: that they would burn the place down and defy Napoleon to do his worst…

Nevertheless, there was a second reason for Napoleon’s failure, and one that could be laid squarely at his feet: he wasted his own army during his advance into Russia, and thus omitted ‘one . . . essential consideration: to remain strong even in Moscow’.21 This is the one thing Napoleon could have done differently that might have given him a chance to control the implacable Russian reaction that Napoleon himself inspired by virtue of his initial, deeply humiliating successes. And this omission Clausewitz unhesitatingly assigns not to any sort of miscalculation, but to ‘the arrogant recklessness that was characteristic of him’. Which in turn leads to a typically Clausewitzian inversion, whereby Napoleon’s fatal arrogance is revealed to be but one aspect of his genius. His failure was part and parcel of his success, and flowed from the same source. ‘Everything he was’, Clausewitz concludes, ‘he owed to his daring and resolute character; and his most triumphant campaigns would have suffered the same censure as this one, had they not succeeded.’

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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