Clausewitz, On War, Book 1 – My introduction, and comments on Chapter 1

Knowing how to start one’s own contribution to this very worthwhile discussion is difficult. Beginning that discussion with Book 1 Chapter 1 of Clausewitz’s On War adds to a very difficult situation indeed. One could write a book about this first chapter and in fact people have.

Consider that I am a Clausewitzian strategic theorist, this being a simple label of identification, not intended to be any sort of indication of special expertise. I would rather let my words speak for themselves. To start I would point out that Clausewitz deals with different types of theory in On War. The specific branch of theory I refer to here is “strategic theory”, defined as that kind of social theory concerned with the exercise of power – including potentially the use of organized force – to achieve the goals of one political community in conflict with others.

In my view it is in Book 1, Chapter 1 where the general theory is most clearly explained, although elements of it are scattered throughout the work, especially in Books 6 and 8. So what is the general theory and how does it differ from the other two types of Clausewitzian strategic theory I’ve mentioned?

Getting back to basics for this post, let’s limit Clausewitzian strategic theory to three specific types, although I’m sure some of my fellow Clausewitzians could point out others. First we have his theory of the art of war for the epoch in which Clausewitz lived, that being an art of Napoleonic Warfare, the type of warfare that Clausewitz himself experienced. This type of theory is prevalent in certain books of On War, including Books 4, 5, and 7, as well as his entire treatment of logistics. A second type of theory is Clausewitz’s theory of politics, which I see as inseparable from his concept of cohesion which I will address in detail when we discuss Book 8. The third and final type of strategic theory I will mention here is Clausewitz’s general theory of war.

The general theory is meant to cover all wars in human history, that is in theoretical terms answering the chapter’s title question, “What is War?” It must be flexible enough to contain the entire range of dynamic social relationships that come under the heading of “war”. Thus, the general theory is meant to provide a unity of concepts which taken together create a whole, a whole which is greater than the sum of its many parts, that is a theoretical model of war as a dynamic interaction taking place in time, yet as a concept remaining “timeless”. This timeless element is what links the general theory to all the various arts of war covering political epochs, of which ours, that of the 21st Century would only be one. A high level of abstraction, laced with irresolvable tensions between elements, and complexity are thus unavoidable, as is taking the required time and effort to understand the general theory. It should also be mentioned that the purpose of this type of theory is descriptive and analytical, it is not meant to provide positive direction in each specific case. Thus, it is not deterministic theory. For Clausewitz’s view on the type(s) of theory with which we can approach war and their limitations see Book 2, Chapter 2 especially the section “Theory Should Be Study, Not Doctrine” and what follows. Due to the complexity of the social interaction known as war, not to mention the secrecy exercised by the various antagonists/participants embroiled in conflict it is difficult to identify “causalities” even after the war in question has ended, let alone before or during hostilities. A specific case mentioned above referring of course to strategic theory as an aide to formulating national policy/strategy or even coordinating military/political/economic operations.

Clausewitz sees each epoch having its own art of war (Book 8 Chapter 3B), while connected and operating within the flexible and dynamic “system” of concepts of the general theory. It is thus the general theory (along with the political theory as I will argue later) which accounts for the continued relevance of Clausewitz. His Napoleonic art of war theory in On War would have only limited applicability (particularly pertaining to tactics) given the changes since the early 19th Century. The general theory on the other hand is about the unchanging nature of war itself.

In Book 1, Chapter 1, Clausewitz starts with describing his method, that is considering the various elements and then combining them into a theoretical whole which provides for an acceptable balance of all the complexity and tensions of these elements while also allowing their dynamic nature to remain theoretically speaking. What follows in the first sections is the ideal type of “absolute war“ with its associated three interactions to extremes. Carrying this description to its theoretical limit he then proceeds with a second ideal type, that being “war in reality” which acts as among many other things, a moderating influence on the tendencies to extremes. Throughout this chapter Clausewitz provides a whole series of definitions as to what war is: War is an instrument of policy, war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale, war is like a game of cards, war is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will, war is the collision of two living forces, war has two distinct forms of action – attack and defense, war is never an isolated act, the result of war is never final, war exists in danger, and war has diverse (that is in terms of political purpose) natures. These are the preliminary definitions which have to be reconciled in the final “remarkable” trinity. There are no definitions which are limited to Clausewitz’s time, all concern war as a violent social interaction which can involve primitive tribes or advanced industrial states, could describe our own revolution against the British crown, or the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Greatest mistake in reading Book 1 Chapter 1?

Section 28: Specifically, misunderstanding of the “remarkable trinity” along with insisting on fixing “an arbitrary relationship between” the various elements/”codes of law”.

2nd Greatest mistake in reading Book 1 Chapter 1?

Section 3.

2 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1 – My introduction, and comments on Chapter 1”

  1. seydlitz89, thanks for this. I agree that the book is set of statements about war that strives for generality and hence timelessness, with an admixture of more specific material that is now outdated due to changes in technology, politics, etc. In a way, the book is the pronouncement of general principles, with the contemporary material that makes up much of the bulk of the book serving as a large “case study”. I would also say that it is interesting how many comments of more general interest Clausewitz makes mixed in throughout all of the books. This makes it hard to skip whole sections.

  2. Greatest mistake in this post?

    Not explaining what you mean by “greatest mistake”. Your mistake? Clausewitz’s? The most common misreading of the casual reader?

Comments are closed.