Clausewitz, On War, Introductory Material: Cordesman Asks the Question

After that first post, I had in mind to apply “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means” to what Israel is doing in Gaza. But Anthony Cordesman beat me to it. Looks like he’s studied Clausewitz.

This raises a question that every Israeli and its supporters now needs to ask. What is the strategic purpose behind the present fighting? After two weeks of combat Olmert, Livni, and Barak have still not said a word that indicates that Israel will gain strategic or grand strategic benefits, or tactical benefits much larger than the gains it made from selectively striking key Hamas facilities early in the war. In fact, their silence raises haunting questions about whether they will repeat the same massive failures made by Israel’s top political leadership during the Israeli-Hezbollah War in 2006. Has Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal or at least one it can credibly achieve? Will Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel’s actions seriously damage the US position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process?

Cordesman says that the answer is yes, although he acknowledges that Israel has made tactical gains against Hamas.

If war is the continuation of policy with other means, we have to ask which policy? At what level?

The answers that members of the Israeli government have been putting forth so far have to do with stopping the Hamas rocket attacks. That’s tactical, and Israel may well succeed in these goals. Cordesman asks the strategic questions. Israel’s tactical actions may be in conflict with the strategic goals.

So it looks like policy, as well as war, has both strategy and tactics. A government needs to know which kind of policy they’re following, if the other kind is important, and how their actions promote or undermine both.

15 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Introductory Material: Cordesman Asks the Question”

  1. Cheryl-

    I have a different take on this. What we see in Gaza is more just another “engagement” in the never ending war between Israel and her Arab opponents. I think of Section 3 of Chapter 1 and Clausewitz’s view of the importance of “social conditions” of the opposing political communities and their relationship to one another. Also how “the importance of the conflicting interests” and the duration of the conflict affect the levels of hostility and drive the interaction towards extremes.

    Both sides of course have a political purpose and the question as to whether any military aim pursued through violent means can achieve it is a very basic one. Still for Clausewitz the interaction is far from stable and subjective policy can devolve into objective politics, thus confusing the “rational element” which can allow the weaker opponent to pick up the fallen instrument of war and make it his own.

  2. A fully elaborated “Clausewitzian” assessment of Israel’s security position would be a worthwhile exercise.

    Beyond that idle thought, all I could add here would merely be my opinion and not related to Clausewitz, or not much, so I will desist.

  3. Perhaps there is a feedback relation here.

    If a war evolves in a direction which is no longer consistent with established policy, does it not create new policy, which must at some point be addressed at that higher level?

  4. The word politik in German can be interpreted as both meaning both politics and policy. Paret and Howard switched between the two terms depending upon how they interpreted politik in the context of the passage. War can therefore be considered as either the continuation of politics, the ugly process of sausage-making by which power is divided, or policy, emanating from “a just appreciation for affairs”. If Israel’s actions are seen as a continuation of politics with the addition of violent means, than any political objective, be it as narrow as bettering the chances of Kadima or Labor alliance in the upcoming elections or as broad as keeping rockets from raining randomly from the sky on ~500,000 of their constituents, would provide the politik for Clausewitz’s dictum.

  5. Well things have got going a bit. Yes, there would be various types of feedback given the complexity of the interaction. Non-linearity as well – as understood by Clausewitz – who used a random oscillating pendulum as his model for the “remarkable trinity” as described in Section 28.

    At the Clausewitz conference in 2005, Sir Michael mentioned that they preferred the word “policy” to “politics” as the translation for “Politik” since politics had such a negative connotation in English. Still in German the word has both meanings and Clausewitz’s historical study of the campaign of 1815 indicates his appreciation of politics becoming as it were the “irrational” rational subordinating element. Seen in light of another fiasco, one could argue that misguided policy is what got us in Iraq, and US politics is what keeps us there.

    In this first chapter of Book 1, I’m more into the pure theory of it, since imo this is the most important chapter in the whole book, but an analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict might fit in well with Book 8.

    That’s all for now, off to the races . . .

  6. Seydlitz –

    I think your comments may be a bit to the side of my point.

    However, your comments raise an interesting question: is war fractal?

    That is, do the same conditions apply to war overall, to engagements, battles and on down? Conversely, should there be something like coup d’oeil operating on levels above the individual?

    More specifically, should every engagement reflect the underlying political purpose? Or should those directing the war be able to maintain that purpose even through priorities that pull them in other directions?

  7. “More specifically, should every engagement reflect the underlying political purpose? Or should those directing the war be able to maintain that purpose even through priorities that pull them in other directions?”

    If that were so, we’d end up having a centrally-controlled military where politicians in Washington worry about things like the deployment of an individual platoon. True, politicians do have an impact on certain kinds of tactics (use of tear gas by US troops requires National Command Authority approval), and Rules of Engagement. But no politician should worry about specific engagements, unless such engagement has strategic or grand-strategic consequences (examples: engagements that begin or terminate wars, friendly fire incidents, engagements between our troops and an ally’s troops).

    I will also suggest that the engagements is the lowest level of combat. It can consist of two opposing soldiers, with one fighting at the other. There are higher levels of combat, including battles, campaigns, theater-level operations, and the war itself. I would argue that the higher the level of battle, the more political/policy-oriented the fight becomes, and the less military it becomes.

    “Conversely, should there be something like coup d’oeil operating on levels above the individual?”

    It would be great if there was, because if that were married to a decentralized method of command and control, it would allow for your army to rapidly seize initiative in almost any circumstance. Unfortunately no army has that capability, except perhaps the very best Special Operations Forces. (I would like to say that my Marine Corps has it, but that would only be bluster!)

    Here’s a question: Should the politician have coup d’oeil? Is that coup d’oeil different from the military commander’s coup d’oeil?

  8. Nathaniel –

    Thanks for your excellent post on courage, which helped me with understanding coup d’oeil. Also thanks for your definition of engagement.

    I should probably explain to all that I will be posing many questions, because that is how I read books. I’m moving ahead of this week’s assignment (got a late start) and already see some partial responses from Clausewitz to the questions I’ve posed so far, which I will note as we reach those parts of On War. I’m not necessarily expecting my questions to be answered; they’re a study guide that I develop for myself and am sharing during this roundtable.

    I agree that thinking that every engagement should reflect the overarching policy that drives the war could result in a sort of ideological micromanagement, which was, of course, implemented in the Red Army. But there has to be some limit, as you note, with Rules of Engagement and, I would add, the Geneva Conventions. So it may be useful to consider how much and what kind of deviation from that overarching policy is acceptable, and how that can be limited.

    I think there’s another point here that almost keeps raising its head, but I’m saving it for later: the role of the people, which has changed enormously since Clausewitz’s time with the availability of communications. The Israelis, for example, are reported to have jammed cell-phone transmissions of photos from Gaza. But there’s much, much more to be said on that issue.

  9. “Should the politician have coup d’oeil? Is that coup d’oeil different from the military commander’s coup d’oeil?”

    The good ones have it in their own field. The best ones have it in the area where their field overlaps with warfare.

    A decent mayor, for example, a relatively low level politician, can “read the room” and know that his prepared remarks won’t work, and adapt on the fly. There is a whole set of insights learned mostly from experience that are roughly the professional equivalent of military coup d’oeil in the various fields.

    On the level of politico-military activity, a leader like Churchill, Clemenceau, Lincoln, Ho Chi Minh, Mao, whoever it may be, must be able to look down both slopes of the mountain, and see what his military forces are doing, what they are accomplishing, how much they are costing, how their efforts can be used politically, both domestically and internationally. The political leader then looks downt he opposite slope and has to discern how much his people can handle, how much they can sacrifice, how likely his own political enemies are likely to thwart him and his vision of the war, and he must look outward as well, to allies, to potential and potential allies abroad, and discern what the efforts of his military might signal to them about their interests in helping or hurting his country. So, the senior ranks of the civilian government involved in the war effort would benefit from have coup d’oeil for these extremely complicated matters.

    The problem is that very, very few individuals have been good at this superhuman balancing act. Even the best of them have made decisions they have subsequently been criticized for. The best of them seem to have been a mix of stamina, simplicity and clarity in thinking, duplicity in even evasiveness in dealing with numerous constituencies with incompatible demands, ruthlessness, a strong sense of what was possible on both the political and on the military side, and an intense and unnuanced commitment to their cause and to victory.

    The equivalent to coup d’oeil in this setting would be priceless. Few have it. Those who have it to some degree seem to have had a mix of innate talent, high level government and/or military experience where they could see the machinery working, prior to attaining senior authority themselves, and a deep, book-based knowledge of historical precedents.

    Most of the time the civilian leadership in wartime is not very good. In particular, the politico-military decision about when and how to initiate a war is very often made badly. Remarkably, I think it is made badly most of the time.

  10. I am wary of reading too much modern thinking back into CvC and the dangers in arriving at anachronistic conclusions.

    For example, in sect 28, which Seydlitz89 has complained about before, the “paradoxical trinity” is likened first to competing codes of law, which I take to mean conflicts between traditional German laws and the Napoleonic code, and then to “an object suspended between three magnets”, which I am not enough of a physicist to picture, but which example I doubt very much CvC conceived of as offering “a random oscillating pendulum as his model”.

    Similarly, with “act of policy”, I read CvC as purposely proposing a new way of thinking about war, in contrast to the traditional view of ‘duel of nations’, ‘national honor’, and ‘glory of victory’. He hints at this on p 87. In Ch 3, p 111, he writes: “To bring a war, or one of its campaigns, to a successful close requires a thorough grasp of national policy.” I take this to be saying to the old guard that winning the war is fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough — it is also necessary to think of what comes after, when policy-by-the-usual-means resumes. And while he writes that “Appropriate talent is needed at all levels….”, I doubt that he expected junior officers to even be aware of the political considerations which may be weighing heavily on the commander.

    Finally, regarding “coup d’oeil”, I translated it in my rusty French as “stroke of the eye” or “at a glance”. I take the emphasis here to be on the quickness of apprehending the critical factors in a complex situation and giving the correct orders.

    I am not arguing that CvC’s concepts must be strictly applied to the modern situation, but that mutatis mutandis works best when the original ideas are understood in their original context. As one example of an appropriate change, it is obvious that a modern junior officer or NCO has more options and responsibilities than he would in Napoleon’s time and this will require him to be aware of the interactions between policy and combat, but it is still primarily the commander’s responsibility to set the frame for his subordinates.

  11. ” but which example I doubt very much CvC conceived of as offering “a random oscillating pendulum as his model”.”

    Wrong, actually he did. Clausewitz was interested in contemporary science, and saw a demonstration of an oscilalling pendulum. See this article to see what the oscillating pendulum set-up looks like.

    “coup d’oeil” = (I believe)the ability to see clearly amidst the fog of war, grasp the situation, especially fleeting opportunities, and act accordingly, quickly and surely.

  12. Lexington Green:

    Thanks for the link. It makes a lot more sense now. My immediate mental image was something along the lines of the floating gyroscope held up (suspended) by a hidden magnet and I didn’t picture much oscillation there. I stand corrected.

    On ‘coup d’oeil’: I was attempting to emphasize the quickness in ‘coup’ = single blow or stroke or jab.

  13. “and Clausewitz’s historical study of the campaign of 1815 indicates his appreciation of politics becoming as it were the “irrational” rational subordinating element”

    Napoleonic policy was irrational or rather it became so when Napoleon injected dynastic ambitions to ultimately become a Supra-European Emperor and all kinds of parvenu psuedo-aristocratic mummery into his domestic policy. Napoleon was never really the same commander after 1812 and he could not quite drop his counterproductive and distracting mythic, romantic, ambitions even after his escape from Elba, when he most needed to be the dynamic General Bonaparte and not L’Empereur Napoleon I.

    Alan Schom does a good job detailing the military history along with things political and biographical in regard to the great Corsican.

  14. A little free time. Very nice discussion. Why do I refer to what is happening in Gaza as an “engagement”? We are discussing Clausewitz and I am particularly interested in the general theory as introduced and best handled in Chapter 1, Book 1. His concept of engagement reflects what for Clausewitz is the “essence” of war, that is fighting. This is what makes it different from other social activity, that being namely instrumentally-organized violence.

    As Clausewitz writes, “So in the field of strategy we can reduce all military activity to the unitary concept of the single engagement, and concern ourselves exclusively with its purposes.” (Book 4, Ch 3)

    As to “reading too much into On War”? I’m reading no more than what was apparently Clausewitz’s own intention, since the title of the first chapter of Book 1 is “What is war?”. Clausewitz’s handling indicates that he wished to establish a general theory of war, something that all wars have in common. The question then for me is following an adequate understanding of the general theory, can I describe (not prescribe) action/interaction in current wars? If so than the general theory is valid and very useful in decision makeing or forming judgementts for both military and political leaders.

    Strategic theorists in general believe that strategic concepts and approaches to the highest levels of strategic planning are in effect “timeless” which is why not only Clausewitz, but Thucydides and Sun Tzu are still read. In all something to do with the human, or if you rather, “tragic” element which doesn’t seem to change.

    I think an in-depth handling of Section 28 of Chapter 1 is in order right about now, so that will be my next post.

    Happy trails.

  15. Lexington Green-

    Knew I was forgetting something. . . Nice comments, especially in relation to the pendulum.

    No, I would not argue that Napoleonic policy was not irrational, as in placing various relatives on various thrones. Rather I wished to point out a different distinction. First, consider the connection between political object (or purpose) and military aim through the military means (refer to Section 2). The campaigns of 1805 and 1806 are wonderful examples of the military aim being the same as the political object and thus good historical examples of how Clausewitzian theory’s “first trinity” can shed light on actual history. The Waterloo campaign on the other hand was forced on Napoleon due to his weak political base at home in 1815 and his need for a military victory to restore his prestige, thus objective “politics” instead of subjective “policy” influencing the military aim and means to negative effect.

    I would also point out that this first trinity is placed at the beginning of Clausewitz’s discussion of the “absolute war” ideal type and not at the beginning of the “real war” ideal type . . .

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