I heard the name Carl von Clausewitz many times during my education and career, but I only started to look into his writings a few years ago. The impetus for that was hearing “War is the continuation of policy by other means” and its variants a few too many times in a few too many contexts. I thought I had a use for it myself in something I was writing, but I wanted to find out what Clausewitz meant by it before I used it.
The poles of meaning attributed to that simple sentence seemed to be, on the one hand,
Politicians might do damn near anything. Make flamethrowers available in the US Congress, and they’ll probably use them.
And on the other,
War is a means to attaining a politically-defined result.
What I wanted to say was closer to the second. I found a compendium of quotes from his work in the Web, with some commentary attached was pleased to find that I was in line with Clausewitz’s meaning, at least as far as I could tell from that limited selection of quotes.
In his Note of 10 July 1827, included in the front matter of the edition of On War that we are using, Clausewitz tells us how important this precept is (as Lex noted earlier):
If this [“war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means”] is firmly kept in mind throughout it will greatly facilitate the study of the subject and the whole will be easier to analyze.
And indeed it is present throughout the book.
I think that we should learn this if there is nothing else we learn from “On War.” Its consideration seems to be absent from recent wars.
Additionally, I suggest that it implies a spectrum of activity, from normal interactions with friendly countries, through the wide span of negotiations, to war itself. I will return to this implication as we go through the book. From what I have read so far, Clausewitz implies this spectrum, but does not describe it explicitly.
And, as Clausewitz suggested, I intend to keep coming back to that basic idea.
10 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Introductory Matter: The Continuation of Policy”
“Clausewitz implies this spectrum, but does not describe it explicitly.”
I think he was very aware of these matters, and sometimes alludes to them — but he had plenty on his plate just dealing with the “war = armed conflict” portion of the spectrum.
So, when Clausewitz says war is the continuation of policy with an admixture of other means (I have seen it translated that way, but it is not so translated in this book) this implies a whole universe of policy before, during and after the war, which may cause or lead to the war, which impinges on the conduct of the war, and (interestingly) may in turn be shaped and changed by the play of events in the war.
How this “policy world” is connected to the military, before, during and after the conflict, is not directly addressed by Clausewitz, not because it is uninteresting or unimportant, but because there is only so much one person can do, and if that one person is an experienced veteran military officer who has read deeply in his professional area, the material he should focus on chooses itself.
“Its consideration seems to be absent from recent wars.”
The more you learn about how wars are started, one of the mysteries of history is how rare it is for political leadership to initiate wars which are well considered and well suited to the means available. The decision-making preceding the Southern secession, the Japanese attack on the USA in 1941, the Russian mobilization in 1914, Mussolini’s declaration of war in 1940, the USA’s commitment of a large land army to Vietnam in 1965 … .
Each of these leaves the reader shaking his head and thinking he would have done better. Yet, these were not stupid men, how did this happen? Clausewitz has some things to say about this, too, though, again, indirectly.
I would expect that it is not just a limitation of Clausewitz’ energies that kept him from directly commenting on politics and the policies derived from it but rather that while war may be a subsection of policy (“continued by other means”), war and the lessons of war do not necessarily translate directly back into the larger world of political policy.
Well, then, we must consider whether Clausewitz was wrong. Or if how wars are started and how they are continued are two different things. Or if Clausewitz was talking about successful wars.
I agree that Clausewitz is not to be faulted for not addressing the issue of diplomacy. But one of the things I hope to do in this roundtable is to acquire some useful, and possibly new, ways of looking at war and matters surrounding it.
“Well, then, we must consider whether Clausewitz was wrong.”
I don’t think so. CvC explicitly and strongly states that the most important thing for a ruler to do is to consider the type of war they want to fight.
Clausewitz wasn’t wrong about what ought to be done. His books shows that he thinks most military campaigns are conducted in ways that are subject to criticism, as well. When he says what ought to be done, in fact what the most important thing to do is, he does not say it is easy to do. To the contrary. Everything in war is simple, but even the simplest things are hard. At the politico-military level, where, as Clausewitz puts it “war shades into politics” is not simple but difficult — everything is complicated and difficult. Politicians sometimes lurch into war because they think that they are thereby gaining in simplicity, cutting through the political knot that they lack the capacity to untangle. Of course, this rarely works.
Saying what ought to be done, or what political and military leaders have tried to do, and observing what they have acutally usually done, and usually failed to do well, are two separate things.
My comment is partly driven by my thinking about how to read Clausewitz. He himself says that he is trying to develop general principles from his and others’ experience of war.
One way to read him is to say, yes, let us agree with him as to his observations and conclusions and then apply them to the real situations that have occurred since he wrote. In that case, the governmental officials who have not had clear objectives would be wrong.
The other is to say, well, what has happened since he wrote, and how do his conclusions stack up? If, indeed, there have been many wars in which governmental officials have not had policy goals in mind, then there is something wrong in Clausewitz’s observations or things have changed since he wrote.
I think that the most fruitful approach will combine both readings in an iterative way. And, in any case, what are the consequences if he or the governmental officials are wrong?
[As I noted on another thread, posing questions is my way of reading a book. I don’t necessarily expect answers to all of them, but I will note input as I read On War.
“…governmental officials have not had policy goals in mind…”
They have them. But the question is: Was thinking and planning any good? Was going to war a good or bad idea? How well or poorly did they consider what they were getting into.
Clausewitz made his famous admonition:
He said this, I presume, because it is usually not done well. Prussia before Jena failed to understand the kind of war it was embarking on, as did Bonaparte before invading Russia. These failures, once war began, could not be rectified and disaster followed. If the heirs of the great Frederick, and Bonaparte himself, can go so far wrong, then lesser mortals are also likely to.
Go ahead and ask all the questions you want. You might get answers, or confusion, or blather, or further questions… or silence. If you get unhelpful, rude, profane, or off-topic comments, go ahead and delete them.
Lex – Yes, planning and execution are definitely part of it. I’m waiting for later sections of the book before I go too deeply into that.
Policy rocks! Don’t leave home without it…
I suspect it might be worth 24 minutes of your time to watch the following presentation. He doesn’t have a flamethrower, but I’m guessing he knows how to use one.
Hmmm…not sure why my comment posted as Anonymous. Anyway, it was me.
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