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  • Clausewitz, Zen Master

    Posted by Joseph Fouche on January 19th, 2010 (All posts by )


    — GONG!!! —

    Per Lex’s request:

    The crude definition of a Zen koan is a non-rational assertion that, when meditated upon, can shock the non-rational mind into higher states of consciousness and insight. A famous example is:

    Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?

    — GONG!!! —

    Jon Sumida argues Clausewitz may have been providing his own heavy duty Zen:

    Clausewitz characterized tactics as amounting to little more than fighting technique, which did not pose a serious problem for the theorist because it could be represented accurately by…a prescriptive code…But when it came to strategic decision making, which involved questions of broad purpose as well as immediate method, the much greater complexity, contingency, and difficulty of the task meant that viable positive doctrine was unattainable. And in the absence of “an intelligent analysis of the conduct of war,” Clausewitz warned, decision making at the strategic level was likely to be taken over by method and routine, with potentially disastrous results. He thus defined the task of writing an original and significant contribution to the study of war in terms of the creation of valid strategic theory that was nonprescriptive…

    Clausewitz believed that the will of the commander to make decisions in the face of incomplete and misleading information, fear of failure, and the unpredictable major and minor difficulties that could arise in any military operation, was no less important than troop strength and movement. And the fact that action by one’s own forces could prompt a reaction by the enemy that might change the basic conditions of the engagement in highly favorable or unfavorable ways meant that uncertainty, and unanticipated opportunity or adversity, were inherent to the war environment. Clausewitz argued, therefore, that the problem with past theorizing about war was that it “did not yet include the use of force under conditions of danger, subject to constant interaction with an adversary, nor the efforts of spirit and courage to achieve a desired end.”

    In effect, the exclusion of the moral—that is, the nonphysical—dimension of war and the factoring out of enemy response made a complex phenomenon much simpler and eliminated the need to address the problem of contingency. This facilitated the development of theory that codified supreme war command through rules, principles, and even systems. Clausewitz conceded that the order produced by these was useful as a counter to a “maelstrom of opinion” whose chaotic effects were “intellectually repugnant.” But because this approach “failed to take adequate account of the endless complexities involved,” it set up an “irreconcilable conflict” between theory and practice. “It is only analytically,” Clausewitz argued,

    that these attempts at theory can be called advances in the realm of truth; synthetically, in the rules and regulations they offer, they are absolutely useless. They aim at fixed values; but in war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities. They direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical quantities, whereas all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects. They consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites…

    Clausewitz analyzed systematically the three fundamental factors whose unquantifiability made the construction of any code of directives an invalid approach to the problem of decision making by the high command. The first was the critical role of moral force—that is, emotion…The second critical factor was that war consisted of a series of actions and reactions by two or more adversaries, whose course was inherently unpredictable. And the third was the fact that the information upon which both sides based action was bound to be uncertain, and the degree of uncertainty was yet another value difficult to quantify…Clausewitz maintained that the function of proper war theory at the strategic level was to examine what others called “genius”—that is, whatever it was that constituted effective supreme command capability under the most difficult circumstances. The phenomenon of genius, he was convinced, by its very nature “rises above all rules.”…”Action…can never be based on anything firmer than instinct, a sensing of the truth.” Thus “the man responsible for evaluating the whole must bring to his task the quality of intuition that perceives the truth at every point.” But because “truth in itself is rarely sufficient to make men act,” the commander had to amplify the prompting of intuition with an emotional impulse.The combination of intuition and determination—that is, a synthesis of subrational intelligence and emotion—constituted the basis of effective supreme command that could be called the product of genius. The dynamics of such forces, it should be obvious, are not susceptible to systematic analysis. It was for this reason that Clausewitz declared in book two that what “genius does is the best rule, and that theory can do no better than show how and why this should be the case.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    But showing what genius did and why was easier said than done. By identifying the moral domain as the venue of genius, Clausewitz assumed the very great burden of having to discuss a kind of subject that was difficult to encompass through language. “Theory,” he recognized

    becomes infinitely more difficult as soon as it touches the realm of moral values. Architects and painters know precisely what they are about as long as they deal with material phenomena. Mechanical and optical structures are not subject to dispute. But when they come to the aesthetics of their work, when they aim at a particular effect on the mind or on the senses, the rules dissolve into nothing but vague ideas.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    In place of direct explanation through words and ideas, Clausewitz resorted to an indirect approach of prescribing a system of learning, which he defined as something that was “meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield.” [— GONG!!! —] Clausewitz’s distinction between theory as a teacher and theory as a guide to self-education is important because it defined a facilitating role for theory in a larger process of learning in which other things external to theory were the main matter. Theory, in other words, did not contain its whole meaning within itself, but only through conjunction—and indeed only after being transmuted through combination—with something else (later shown to be history). It was this process of connection and transformation that insured that the gap between theory and practice that other theoreticians regarded as unavoidable, but which Clausewitz deplored, was never allowed to come into being.The goal of the kind of self-education proposed was the development of a sensibility about reality rather than knowledge of concepts.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    What Clausewitz called for was the achievement of “close acquaintance” and “thorough familiarity” with the nature of supreme command. An important part of this process was the acquisition of a highly subjective kind of knowledge: grasp of the higher affairs of state and associated policies; the ability to judge issues and leading personalities; understanding of the abilities of subordinates; and comprehension of the performance capabilities of the army to be commanded. “This type of knowledge,” Clausewitz observed, “cannot be forcibly produced by an apparatus of scientific formulas and mechanics; it can only be gained through a talent for judgment, and by the application of accurate judgment to the observation of man and matter.” “Natural talent” was schooled by actual war, but in the absence of such, Clausewitz believed that the talent of a senior commander could be enhanced artificially “through the medium of reflection, study and thought.” The formulation of rules and principles was allowable, but only after the creation of a sensibility that then generated such a systematic understanding “automatically” and “spontaneously.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    Clausewitz intended his discussion of the creation of supreme command capability by a particular individual as a device to clarify the nature of the problem of theory. He did not exclude persons who were not commanders-in-chief-in-waiting from his audience, but asked them to understand that any proper theory of war had to make the conscious and unconscious cogitation of the human executor of high command and human relations its focal points.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    Clausewitz believed that war was not just an activity performed by humans, but a purely human activity, which meant that it was essential to understand the nature of the agents of action as well as to deal with the actions themselves. Thus he observed that war existed not in the realms of science or art but rather as a “part of man’s social existence.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    This being the case, Clausewitz argued that the human dynamics of war could accurately be compared to those of commerce and especially politics, which was to say that certain aspects of ordinary life could serve as a starting point for understanding the nature of armed conflict.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    But Clausewitz believed that for those who lacked first-hand experience of war, the study of the past was the main stimulus to the development of understanding about the moral basis of human behavior in a real conflict as it was affected by a host of external as well as internal factors. Knowledge of history was to be achieved through “critical analysis,” which had three aspects. These were establishing a truthful basic narrative, explaining causation, and evaluating the soundness of actions, or as Clausewitz put it, historical research, critical analysis proper, and criticism proper. Historical research was essential to exclude falsehood, because error would skew all subsequent deliberations. But Clausewitz was acutely aware that crucial information about military operations often did not exist. In war, he wrote, “facts are seldom fully known and the underlying motive even less so” because they may have been “intentionally concealed by those in command, or, if they happen to be transitory and accidental, history may not have recorded them at all.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    Incomplete evidence was a fundamental obstacle, but by no means the only one to an accurate comprehension of past events and their meaning. “Effects in war,” Clausewitz maintained, “seldom result from a single cause; there are usually several concurrent causes.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    In addition to multiple causation, establishing the relationship between cause and effect was not easy for three reasons. In the first place, actions had unintended as well as intended effects. In the second place, Clausewitz recognized that circumstances could multiply the force of trivial initial happenings. In war, he observed, “as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations and modify their final outcome to some degree, however slight.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    And in the third place, the assessment of causation became increasingly difficult as the level of analysis was shifted from battle to campaign, and from campaign to war, because the number of influential factors and their possible interactions increased with each expansion of scale and complexity.

    Clausewitz knew that the difficulty of supreme command was in large part a matter of the dilemmas of choosing the right course at the right time. Sound evaluation of particular decisions, therefore, required the consideration of a range of alternative options and the reasons for their rejection as well as the rationale for the action actually taken. “A great many assumptions,” Clausewitz thus argued, “have to be made about things that did not actually happen but seemed possible, and that, therefore, cannot be left out of account.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    “Critical analysis is not just an evaluation of the means actually employed,” he added later, “but of all possible means—which first have to be formulated, that is, invented.” Once the various command possibilities were identified and described, criticism proper would assess their relative worthiness by “taking each of the means and assessing and comparing the particular merits of each in relation to the objective.”

    The mixture of surmise and fact, and the multitude of issues that had to be taken into account, exposed the approach recommended by Clausewitz to charges of either arbitrariness or incompleteness. He thus insisted that a strong claim to intellectual legitimacy be established by the rigor of the theory that governed the process of reasoning. “We must never stop at an arbitrary assumption that others may not accept,” Clausewitz wrote, “lest different propositions, equally valid perhaps, be advanced against them; leading to an unending argument, reaching no conclusions, and resulting in no lesson.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    He insisted, moreover, on similar grounds upon the need for what all would recognize as an appropriate critical method. “A working theory,” Clausewitz maintained, “is an essential basis for criticism. Without such a theory it is generally impossible for criticism to reach that point at which it becomes truly instructive—when its arguments are convincing and cannot be refuted.

    Systematic examination of a military problem as it presented itself to the leader of an army in all its complexity and difficulty did not mean adopting completely his perspective. While Clausewitz expected the critic to “reduce to factual knowledge” the “essential interconnections of genius [of the commander],” he also held that the external event—that is, the success or nonsuccess of the operational occurrences resulting from the commander’s decisions—was germane to the proper assessment of decision making, however unquantifiable this aspect of evaluation might be. Clausewitz noted that

    the critic, then, having analyzed everything within the range of human calculation and belief, will let the outcome speak for that part whose deep, mysterious operation is never visible. The critic must protect this unspoken result of the workings of higher laws against the stream of uninformed opinion on the one hand, and against the gross abuses to which it may be subjected on the other. Success enables us to understand much that the workings of human intelligence alone would not be able to discover. That means that it will be useful mainly in revealing intellectual and psychological forces and effects, because these are least subject to reliable evaluation, and also because they are so closely involved with the will that they may easily control it.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    Clausewitz’s approach to self-education thus had two distinct modes. On the one hand, there was the precise use of language to establish clearly the relationship of many things in proper proportion. This was, in his own words, supposed “to illuminate the connections which link things together and to determine which among the countless concatenations of events are the essential ones.” [— GONG!!! —] On the other hand, there was a more allusive approach that took account of the critically important role of the commander’s mindset—that is, the conscious and especially unconscious mentality that reacted to events. The second mode was no less important than the first, and had to be based on clear description of reality rather than elaborately stated theory. It is, Clausewitz insisted, “never necessary or even permissible to use scientific guidelines in order to judge a given problem in war, if the truth never appears in systematic form, if it is not acquired deductively but always directly through the natural perception of the mind, then that is the way it must also be in critical analysis.” [— GONG!!! —] Clausewitz insisted that “natural” and “direct” perception by the reader could be accomplished only with “simple terms and straightforward observation.” [— GONG!!! —] He regarded “jargon, technicalities, and metaphors” as “a lawless rabble of camp followers” at worst, and “nothing more than ornamental flourishes of the critical narrative” at best. His ideal was “plain speech,” which minimized the opportunities for misunderstanding on the part of the author or the reader.[— GONG!!! —]

    The object to be perceived through “natural perception of the mind” in order to achieve “close acquaintance” and “thorough familiarity,” as opposed to an understanding of theory, was past events. “Historical examples clarify everything,” Clausewitz wrote, “and also provide the best kind of proof in the empirical sciences.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    That being said, he then warned that “historical examples are, however, seldom used to such good effect”; indeed, Clausewitz complained, “the use of them by theorists normally not only leaves the reader dissatisfied but even irritates his intelligence.” Historical example was an appropriate instrument when dealing with the explanation of an idea or the application of an idea, or in support of the possible—as opposed to certain—validity of a statement. But the kind of simple narratives or anecdotes that were the usual form of historical evidence were almost always incapable of providing a complete proof of a major theoretical conclusion. “The sheer range to be covered,” Clausewitz wrote, “would often rule this out; and, apart from that, it might be difficult to point to actual experience on every detail.”

    The complex authenticity required to demonstrate the validity of a general truth could be achieved only through the examination of a single case about which a great deal was known and whose nature could be further explicated through the application of the critical analytical techniques that compensated for what could not be established unequivocally from the historical record. Clausewitz was open to the use of several cases when knowledge of a single one was inadequate, but warned that “this is clearly a dangerous expedient, and is frequently misused.” He saw little value and even pernicious effect in examining an event about which information was sparse, such as a battle or campaign in the distant past. “An event that is lightly touched upon, instead of being carefully detailed,” Clausewitz wrote, “is like an object seen at a great distance: it is impossible to distinguish any detail, and it looks the same from every angle.”

    [— GONG!!! —]

    From the standpoint of methodological tactics, Clausewitz’s ideal was to use a properly conceived theory to redress certain unavoidable gaps in the historical record in a way that amplified with minimal distortion the practical instructional value of an extensive body of detailed information about a past event. From the standpoint of pedagogical strategy, the Clausewitzian ideal was to teach supreme command in war using only a body of work produced by correct methodological tactics. Such an approach, he wrote in the words of the Code Napole6n, would amount to the presentation of nothing less than “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Clausewitz believed the first was not only achievable, but in fact obligatory though extremely challenging. He was less sanguine about the immediate attainability of the second. It would take time to create the literature required, and without it his pedagogical ideal would remain no more than its name—a distant beacon rather than a practical source of illumination.

    Clausewitz suspended labor on On War in 1827 and turned his attention to writing the kind of analytical historical studies called for in book two. These concerned the Italian campaigns of 1796 and 1799, and the campaign of 1815. In 1830, Clausewitz was recalled to active service in the field when Prussia mobilized in response to the French Revolution of that year. In 1831, shortly after resuming light administrative duties that would have allowed him to carry on his literary endeavors, Clausewitz died from the effects of cholera. When published posthumously, his historical writings of 1827-30 came to fifteen hundred printed pages, which took up four out of the ten volumes of his collected works. They have yet to be translated into English…

    In book two of On War, Clausewitz presented a different approach. His own extensive experience as an officer in the wars of the French Revolution and Empire made him an eyewitness to the difficulty and complexity of supreme command, and no less importantly, made him aware of the inherent incompleteness of the historical record with respect to its operation in the past. He thus formulated a body of significant considerations and dynamics for which no hard evidence could exist, and insisted that these factors had to be imagined and related to known historical facts in order to comprehend the moral aspect of supreme command. In other words, a critical component of the larger theoretical edifice presented in On War defined the terms of synthesis of that for which there was no record, and thus neither summarized nor distilled history, but complemented it…

    The high degree of subjectivity and surmise introduced by Clausewitz’s theoretical complement to the historical record was counterbalanced by two injunctions. The first was that the execution of the theoretical instructions be intellectually rigorous, and second, that the historical cases investigated be ones about which a very great deal was known in order to reduce to a minimum the play of surmise about matters of objective and subjective fact. For Clausewitz, the end product of the creation of that which was called for by theory and integration of it with what was known from history was, if not truth, something much closer to the truth than history alone. This constructed truth, moreover, was a thing that had to be felt as much as thought—it was addressed to the subconscious as well as conscious mind.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    The goal of intensive engagement through study and reflection with a combination of fact and surmise, in other words, was not erudition, but the experience of replicating certain aspects of actual experience. Possession of the resulting sensibility was intended by Clausewitz to be, among other things, the prerequisite to the consideration of strategic concepts.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    Clausewitz’s method of combining history and theory was capable of accomplishing what maneuvers, wargaming, and consideration of hypothetical cases could not. The latter activities could provide verisimilitude with regard to specific military circumstances, and maneuvers and wargaming in addition had the advantage of incorporating the dynamics of a reacting opponent. On the other hand, the circumstantial realism of maneuvers, wargaming, and the consideration of hypothetical cases was not attached to responsibility for outcomes that mattered, and thus did not incorporate the factor of critically debilitating fear generated by genuine moral dilemma. An actual event in the past provided a better point of departure for the imagination of these factors because empathy with real persons offered a more direct path to the realm of emotions than the invention or pretense of fictional sentiments.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    History deployed in conjunction with sound theory insured that the student of supreme command was not merely a detached witness to a mental reenactment of the past, but virtually a participant in its moral as well as physical performance. The objective of such authentic involvement was to induce understanding that command at the strategic level was not so much asserted or exercised as expressed.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    For Clausewitz, engagement with a single properly presented historical case was preferable to the study of multiple conventional accounts of past campaigns. By the same token, Clausewitz probably believed that his pedagogical objectives could be achieved through the study of only a few events—he did not require, in other words, a comprehensive survey of recent major military happenings; a selection would do. And because ordinary life also involved contention with complexity, uncertainty, and risk of negative consequences in the event of decision-making error that was sufficient to prompt performance-degrading apprehension, Clausewitz observed that it too could serve similarly as a source of insight into the nature of command in war. Of course, the critical difference between decision making in war and ordinary life lay in the far greater magnitude of responsibility in the case of the former, which meant that military crisis was bound to generate commensurately higher levels of fear. War, Clausewitz thus might have said, was like ordinary life, only much more so.

    [— GONG!!! —]

    Originally posted at the Committee of Public Safety.


    3 Responses to “Clausewitz, Zen Master”

    1. david foster Says:

      Field Marshal Lord Wavell, commenting on the British practice of testing military equipment by dropping it off a tower and burying it in mud for a few days, draws an analogy with the commander’s psychology:

      “Now the mind of the general in war is buried, not merely for 48 hours but for days and weeks, in the mud and sand of unreliable information and uncertain factors, and may at any time receive, from an unsuspected move of the enemy, an unforseen accident, or a treaherous turn in the weather, a bump equivalent to a drop of at least a hundred feet on to something hard. Delicate mechanism is of little use in war; and this applies to the mind of the commander as well as his body; to the spirit of an army as well as to the weapons and instruments with which it is equipped.”

    2. Gloria Says:

      Clausewitz’ ideas you articulate here that (1) you must attend to the “commander’s mindset—that is, the conscious and especially unconscious mentality that reacted to events” and that (2) the commander needs to relive the experiences he reads about in his study of history have been explored by the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer in his book Truth and Method.

      Gadamer does not deal with war, but education in western civilization, and developed the notion of “tacit knowledge,” which is knowledge that cannot, in principle, be articulated in words. It is a kind of knowledge that today’s schools and universities completely ignore.

      Tacit knowledge has long been of interest to Buddhists. They predicate it as the basis of morality and intelligent action.

      This was a great read! [gong].

    3. Joseph Fouche Says:

      The Germans invented a long word to describe it: Fingerspitzengefühl i.e. “finger tip feeling”.