Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: 21th Century Global Challenges to 19th Century European’s Definitions

(Note: I am a blog virgin, so excuse any errors in my blog manners or style.)

I assume that Clausewitz wanted generals (i.e., leaders of armies) and statesmen (i.e., leader of states with armies) to read “On War” so that they would have constructs and vocabulary with which to think and talk about undertaking a “war” in a systematic way. In Chapters 1 and 2 of Book 1, Clausewitz does much of this work by defining “What is War?” and describing its “Ends and Means”. Although Clausewitz’s definitions are clearly thought out and well stated, it seems to me that the 21th century’s global “war” experience presents some significant challenges to Clausewitz’s 19th century European definition.

For Clausewitz “states” raise and direct their “armies” to make “war” for the political purposes of their “states”, or in other words, an “army” in action is at “war” (trying to destroy the “will” of the enemy’s “army”) to achieve its “state’s” political goal and when not in action the “army” should be preparing for “war”. Nonetheless, today Clausewitz would see familiar things doing unfamiliar activities and unfamiliar things doing familiar activities in the name of political objectives:

1.“Army” as peacekeeper in national policy;
2.“Army” as nation-builder in national policy;
3.“Army” as humanitarian aid provider in national policy;
4.National “policy” via war generated by a political party/faction to serve its interest not necessarily the country’s (e.g., Argentina and the Falklands War);
5.Non-“states” with “armies” which militarily challege “States” (e.g., Hamas, Al Qaeda, Drug Gangs, Somali pirates).

These are not insignificant differences with Clausewitz’s definition, given the amount of focus on these items are given by our “states” today.

Item #2 is of interest because counter to Clausewitz’s implicit view that a “state” survives even when its will is broken and “disarming the enemy is rarely attained”, in fact in both Iraq and Afganistan the “state” was essentially completely destroyed and in Iraq the “army” was completely disarmed and disbanded leading to the unintended result of massive insecurity which transformed into a bloody insurgency that hurt the victor’s interests. The need to insure that the “army” doesn’t break the “state” completely when breaking the “will” of the enemy’s “army” is part of the war calculation Clausewitz doesn’t address, but is clearly important looking at today’s “wars” especially in the case of regime change and failed “states”.

Item #4 is important because it points out because “state” leaders may be making decisions based on interest of their faction or party and not in the in interest of the “state”. Specifically, a political faction might lead a “state” to “war” in order to secure its position or re-election at considerable risk to the “state’s” interests using a “policy” for the “war” which is untrue or a half-truth. Maybe during the time of monarchy this was not a problem Clausewitz faced or heard about, so it is not mentioned.

Regarding item #5, first, would Clausewitz consider the “War on Terror” a real war? Clausewitz defines “war” as dual of armies (with their allies) where each army is trying to subject the other to its will to achieve a “state” policy or political objective. Is Al Qaeda really trying to defeat the US military and our allies military in a war? Is Al Qaeda an army to be defeated on the battlefield? Is Al Qaeda a “state”?

Clausewitz writes about “states” rationally calculating the probability of achieving their political ends thru “war”. Unfortunately, the rational community of nations is faced with the potential of non-”state” actors doing military acts which have little possibility of achieving their goals, yet requiring a military response. Consider Hamas, they are engaging in kidnapping IDF soldiers and launching rockets which in Clausewitzian terms are not going to “break the will” of the IDF and achieve Hamas’ stated “policy” of destroying the Israel and recapturing Palestinian land lost in 1948. At the same time, it seems the IDF cannot break the will of Hamas by military means. Nonetheless, this becomes a “war” between the IDF and Hamas with no possibility of a negotiated peace since neither side accepts the others legitimancy to exist.

If Clausewitz was alive today, in his “On War 2.0” how he would address “what is war?” and the “ends and means of war” given these examples of post Cold War military conflicts facing the major “states” and “armies” of the world?

4 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: 21th Century Global Challenges to 19th Century European’s Definitions”

  1. ART — Most excellent.

    Your blog etiquette is impeccable.

    I like what you have done here.

    It foreshadow some of the things I plan to say.

    Clausewitz develops a set of very general principles, then shows why this pure phenomenon never occurs in reality. He then talks about certain recurring patterns, which is somewhat less general in nature. Then, he applies these lessons with examples. The interest of making his book useful, he used the most up-to-date examples. His up-to date-examples are, of course, now antiques. Further, they were rooted in the particular place and time of modern European states.

    So, the big question becomes, how much utility do Clausewitz’s ideas and analysis, I will not say “theory”, have for understanding and acting in the much different world of today?

    I would give two answers. First, “some” value, even “a lot”. Second, I would say “more than anybody else I have read or heard of”.

    Onwards … .

  2. It was easy to see how Book 1 relates to WWI. It was less easy to see how it helps to understand Somalia, Afghanistan, Gaza, etc. Wasn’t one of Clausewitz’ points that he was talking about how war relates to policy? Didn’t he note that he was talking about war involving “civilized” states? Seems like a lot of today’s “wars” frequently involve death cult groups that prefer anarchic states so as to expand their power and cult. I don’t know that I see that they have policies as we or Clausewitz define them.

    I’m not sure that Clausewitz has a lot to tell us about these folks. Help me see the light.

Comments are closed.