Clausewitz: His Life and Work

Here are some highlights from this 2014 book:

* The French Revolution… unleashed what Clausewitz would later call the “passions of the people.” Now the energy of the nation’s inhabitants—especially their willingness to support and sacrifice for the war effort—became a critical element of its ability to wage war, as well as the manner. “Looking at the situation in this conventional manner,” Clausewitz wrote about the French Revolution’s alteration of the nature and practice of European warfare, “people at first expected to have to deal only with a seriously weakened French army; but in 1793 a force appeared that beggared all imagination. Suddenly war again became the business of the people—a people of thirty millions [sic], all of whom considered themselves to be citizens.” This distinction is critical,
as the people of the other European states were subjects—not citizens—which gave them less of a vested interest in the affairs of their ruling state, and sometimes even its very survival. Clausewitz continued: “The people became a participant in war; instead of governments and armies as heretofore, the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance.” “War,” he wrote, “untrammeled by any conventional restraints, had broken loose in all its elemental fury. This was due to the peoples’ new share in these great affairs of state; and their participation, in turn, resulted partly from the impact that the Revolution had on the internal conditions of every state and partly from the danger that France posed to everyone.” The French Revolution intensified warfare by unleashing the passion of the people so long contained by governments that had sought only limited aims. The impact of the French Revolution upon Europe in this era and upon Clausewitz was profound, and proved the critical catalytic event for his theories on warfare.42

* armies also increased nearly exponentially in size, reaching a scale almost impossible to maintain under the old system.

* “Those who have never been through a serious defeat will naturally find it hard to form a vivid and thus altogether true picture of it: abstract concepts of this or that minor loss will never match the reality of a major defeat . . . . When one is losing, the first thing that strikes one’s imagination, and indeed one’s intellect, is the melting away of numbers. This is followed by a loss of ground, which almost always happens, and can even happen to the attacker if he is out of luck. Next comes the break-up of the original line of battle, the confusion of units, and the dangers inherent in the retreat, which, with rare
exceptions, are always present to some degree. Then comes the retreat itself, usually begun in darkness, or at any rate continued through the night. Once that begins, you have to leave stragglers and a mass of exhausted men behind; among them generally the bravest—those who have ventured out farthest or held out longest. The feeling of having been defeated, which on the field of
battle had struck only the senior officers, now runs through the ranks down to the very privates. It is aggravated by the horrible necessity of having to abandon to the enemy so many worthy comrades, whom one had come to appreciate especially in the heat of battle. Worse still is the growing loss of confidence in the high command, which is held more or less responsible by every subordinate for his own wasted efforts. What is worse, the sense of being beaten is not a mere nightmare that may pass: it has become a palpable fact that the enemy is stronger. It is a fact for which the reasons may have lain too deep to be predictable at the outset, but it emerges clearly and convincingly in the end. One may have been aware of it all along, but for the lack of more solid alternatives this awareness was countered by one’s trust in chance, good luck, Providence, and in one’s own audacity and courage. All this has now turned out to have been insufficient, and one is harshly and inexorably confronted by the terrible truth.”

* Whether or not Clausewitz shared the Christian believer’s faith in Jesus Christ is something for which he left little definitive evidence. A French biographer of Clausewitz doubted he had faith in a personal God…

* Marie was in every way Clausewitz’s intellectual equal, and, one could argue, a better writer.

* “Tactics organizes the army in combat such a way as to employ it appropriately for the purpose of obtaining a victory, while
strategy does the same thing in war in order to make the best use of the individual engagements.”

* “Since war is no longer decided by a single battle as in barbarous nations, the Art of War is divided into two parts distinguished from one another by purpose and means. The first is the art of fighting. (Tactics). The second part of the Art is to combine several individual battles into a whole (for the purpose of the campaign, the war). (Strategy). The distinction between offensive and defensive war applies to both elements, and extends even into politics. The defense can thus be tactical, strategic, political.”

* “War is the manifest use of violence against others in order to force them to conform to our will, in other words it is the use of the available means applied to the aim of the war. The theory of the art of war is the science of the use of available means for the aim of the war.”

* “The conduct of war resembles the workings of an intricate machine with tremendous friction, so that combinations which are easily planned on paper can be executed only with great effort.”

* He also told her about the Jews he encountered, commenting upon their “incomprehensible German,” and the fact that they married so young that they would be grandmothers in their thirties. What followed was a description that, in the light of more recent German history, is deeply troubling: “Filthy German Jews, who teem like vermin in filth and misery, are the country’s patricians. A thousand times I have thought, if only fire would destroy this entire crop, so this impenetrable filth would be transformed
by the cleaning flame neatly into ashes. That I have always found a salutary notion.”27

* For Napoleon, strategy boiled down to massing an overwhelming force against the Russian armies, defeating them—as quickly as possible—and then forcing a peace upon Alexander. He planned for a short war and believed he could break the Russians in a matter of weeks by fighting the necessary battles close to the frontier.

* He believed Kutusov had to choose between saving Moscow or the army and made the right choice, as a second battle would have
likely meant a total Russian defeat. Kutusov preserved the Russian army. Because he did, the war went on.

* All of his youth Clausewitz dreamed of distinguishing himself on the battlefield in a manner that would set him apart from other men—a dream that never came true. The most important military achievement of his life was his action at Tauroggen, an action fought with words, not with his sword. And it is because of his words that we remember him today.

* In 1804 Clausewitz had written in Strategie that “if Bonaparte should ever reach Poland, he would be easier to defeat than in Italy, and in Russia I would consider his defeat to be a foregone conclusion.”

* “Bonaparte is as tough as a Jew and just as shameless.”

* First, consider each side’s political aim; then evaluate the strength of the enemy and compare the character and abilities of its government and people against one’s own; and finally, examine the political inclinations of other states and the effect of the struggle upon them.

* “War can be of two kinds, in the sense that either the objective is to overthrow the enemy to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent, thus forcing him to sign whatever peace we please; or merely to occupy some of his frontier-districts so that we can annex them or use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations.”

* “All action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight, which like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.”

* Along with “chance” and “intelligence,” another factor that makes absolute war an impossibility is “friction,” which has come up earlier. Friction is “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.” In other words, friction is essentially any difficulty that can arise. Clausewitz insists that it cannot “be reduced to a few points,” and that it “brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance.” The weather provides an example: fog can prevent an enemy from being seen, the effects of which then ripple over the combatants. Fear is also a form of friction. When someone is trying to kill you, it can affect the efficient performance of the task at hand.54

What can overcome all of the problems of friction? To Clausewitz there is only one thing: “combat experience.” “If one has never experienced war,” he writes, “one cannot understand in what the difficulties constantly mentioned really consist, nor why a commander should need any brilliance and exceptional ability. Everything looks simple.” And indeed, he cautions, “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”55 Also important in his enumeration of external forces is interaction with the enemy. To Clausewitz, war was an interactive process, and fighting something alive, organic. This is one of the contentions distinguishing his thought from many other military theorists. He points out that the enemy will not be static; they will react. This reaction will then cause a counteraction.

Rather than being an “exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter,” the will in war is directed at “an animate object that reacts.” The results of this can also sometimes push the combatants to extremes.56 How does one deal with these forces? Clausewitz emphasizes good staff work, experience, and, as we shall see, genius.

* “War is thus more than a mere chameleon, because it changes its nature to some extent in each concrete case. It is also, however, when it is regarded as a whole and in relation to the tendencies that dominate within it, a fascinating trinity—composed of: (1) primordial violence, hatred, enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; (2) the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and (3) its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.”

* “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”

* “It is easier to hold ground than take it. It follows that defense is easier than attack, assuming both sides have equal
means. Just what is it that makes preservation and protection so much easier? It is the fact that time which is allowed to pass unused, accumulates to the credit of the defender. He reaps where he did not sow.”

* “One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all our energies should be directed.”

* The key, therefore, is determining what an enemy’s center of gravity is. It is often the army, but this is not true in every case. For small dependent states, it is generally their ally’s army. In alliances, the center of gravity is found in “the community of interests,” and in popular revolts it will be found in public opinion and the temperament of the leadership. In states subject to “domestic strife,” Clausewitz notes, “the center of gravity is generally the capital.” When this center is determined, Clausewitz writes, it is “the point on which your efforts must converge.” As always, however, Clausewitz offers an exception: “The principle of aiming everything at the enemy’s center of gravity admits of only one exception, that is, when
secondary operations look exceptionally rewarding. But we repeat that only decisive superiority can justify diverting strength without risking too much in the principal theater.” The difficulty, of course, lies in identifying these various centers and their relative importance. Clausewitz brands this “a major act of strategic judgment.”

* Generally, however, in On War, Clausewitz defines tactics (Taktik) and strategy (Strategie) in relation to each other: “tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war.” “Tactics,” he said, “are chiefly based on fire power.” Clausewitz believes that strategy is harder than tactics because you have more time to act and thus more time to doubt. Also, in tactics you can see what is going on, in strategy you have to guess. “The best strategy,” Clausewitz argues,” is always to be very strong; first in general, and then at the decisive point. Apart from the effort needed to create military strength, which does not always emanate from the general, there is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated. No force, for example, should ever be detached from the main body unless the need is definite and urgent.” He also writes that “strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war . . . shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide on the individual engagements.”

* After one has defined the enemy’s center of gravity, Clausewitz tells us how to proceed: “The first principle is that the ultimate substance of enemy strength must be traced back to the fewest possible sources, and ideally to one alone.” From here, “the attack on these sources must be compressed into the fewest possible actions—again, ideally, into one. Finally, all minor actions must be subordinated as much as possible. In short the first principle is: act with the utmost concentration.” After
concentration, Clausewitz suggests the second most important principle is speed.

* Not only must the largest possible force be employed, but all available forces should be utilized simultaneously.

* In the nineteenth century Clausewitz was generally viewed as a historian, not a theorist, partially because seven of the ten volumes of his collected works contain historical treatises. On War occupies only the first three volumes. Today, this view is

* Philosophy professor W. B. Gallie writes: “If, as has been said, the idea of a literate general defeats the Anglo-Saxon imagination, what can we hope to make of the Prussian officer who was to become the world’s first—and, as it may turn out, also its last—philosopher of war?”

* “The probability of direct confrontation increases with the aggressiveness of the enemy. So, rather than try to outbid
the enemy with complicated schemes, one should, on the contrary, try to outdo him in simplicity.”

* No one remembers Frederick William III, the king he served for most of his life. Only historians and specialists remember his mentors and friends Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The fame Clausewitz hoped to win for himself—with sword in hand—he won with his pen.

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 (
This entry was posted in War. Bookmark the permalink.