Book VII can be summarized as, “Offense is hard. Defense is strong. Culminating point of victory. Move along.” DEFENSE! DEFENSE! Clausewitz cheers. Offense. offense. Clausewitz grudgingly mutters. I lost count of the number of times Clausewitz says, in effect, “I could say something really insightful about offense here but I already said it about defense in Book VI. Go re-read Book VI. Now.” Take this bronx cheer for example:
It is thus defense itself that weakens attack. Far from this being idle sophistry, we consider it to be the greatest disadvantage of the attack that one is eventually left in a most awkward defensive position.
That’s right. The most damning thing about offense is that it’s poor defense. Turns the old adage about the best defense being a good offense on its head. If we follow John Sumida’s argument, this is the main thesis of On War: defense rules; offense is lame.
However, there are a few interesting nuggets here and there in the otherwise sparse landscape of Book VII. The one that stuck was Clausewitz’s discussion of waging offense for “the sake of trophies, or possibly simply of honor, and at times merely to satisfy a general’s ambition”:
Anyone who doubts this occurs do not know military history. Most of the offensive battles in the French campaigns during the age of Louis XIV were of this type. It is more important to note, however, that these considerations are not without weight, mere quirks of vanity: they have a very definite bearing on the peace and hence they lead fairly straight to the goal. Military honor and the renown of an army and its generals are factors that operate invisibly, but they constantly permeate all military activity.
This was one of the three motivations that Thucydides claimed condemns men to war: fear, honor, and interest. Honor is a signal. When it is violated, it signals that its holder might be vulnerable to further violations. In this sense, honor is a form of credit. If you have it, you can draw on it while waging war in pursuit of the goals of politics you wish to realize when peace comes, as Clausewitz points out. If you lose it, your leverage in war and peace will degrade rapidly.
Honor was everything in the Archaic Greek society Homer portrayed. While the poor bloody infantry was slogging it out off camera, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, Aeneas, Ajax, and other aristocrats were hogging the spotlight in single combat. Battles would turn on the outcome of the clash of champions. The winner had honor and his side gained in honor and, not to be underestimated, morale. The effect of Achilles’ rage after the death of Patroclus in raising the sagging morale of the Acheans and deflating the Trojans after it seemed they were on the verge of driving the Greeks into the sea rings true. Sudden swings in morale are the crucial events that decide the outcome of battle. Du Picq pointed out that most casualties in a rout occur when one side gives and retreats. The backsides of the retreating army are exposed to enemy action. Men turn and run, fling away their equipment, order disintegrates, and the mob lurking inside every army is set free. Much depends upon unit pride and cohesion, one of the primary justifications for the pursuit of honor. Standards like the eagles of Rome and the unit pennants of American units are honor incarnate. They are a visible manifestation of pride and cohesion. This made them a prize that a unit would die to defend and the enemy would kill to win as a trophy. There’s more than bluster behind the apocryphal phrase, “the Guard dies, it does not surrender.”
Sometimes seemingly senseless acts of violence must be committed in order to re-establish credibility and maintain honor. However, senselessness is in the eye of the beholder. When the fundamental language of fear and honor is the one language that transcends all cultural bounds, what doesn’t make sense to the higher mind may make great sense to the innermost reaches of the animal mind. Credit may be re-established and honor restored. However, it’s best not to lose it to begin with. There may not be a bailout or lender of last resort when the dogs of war run free.