Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 1: it all seems so simple

Who can forget Clausewitz’s dictum, “war is an act of policy”? The government decides to use war to achieve a policy objective. The military is ordered to fight the war. Its commanders know the part they must play and how that contributes to attaining the objective.

It sounds so simple. But as Clausewitz reminds us in Book 1, “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”. When it comes to war, many politicians overlook the obvious – the need to clearly establish what it is they want to achieve.

What makes for a good policy objective in relation to the use of war? I’m extrapolating a bit, but this is what I take from On War:

(1) The objective must be clear from the outset, as must the military’s role in achieving that objective.

The government must answer the following questions: “what is it that needs to be achieved?”, “how will the military help achieve this objective?”, and “are there alternatives to the use of force that will achieve the objective either as efficiently or more efficiently?”.

(2) The objective must be realistic, and in proportion to the military and other resources at the government’s disposal.

(3) It must not be open-ended. A realistic time limit should set, and regular review points set, so progress can be assessed and strategy adjusted.

(4) It should be clear that if the objective is achieved, real advantage will result.

In recent times, how many wars fought by western nations meet these basic criteria? Gaza, Afghanistan, Lebanon (2006), Iraq? It would be interesting, and perhaps instructive, to run the rule over these conflicts.

12 thoughts on “Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 1: it all seems so simple”

  1. Kotare-

    This will certainly be an interesting thread!

    My critique is that you’re essentially reading the Powell Doctrine into On War, as opposed to reading On War and deriving the Powell Doctrine.

    How do you support this?

    Apologies for the pointedness of this comment. I only mean to spur discussion!

    Semper Fidelis,

  2. I’ve never read what you call “the Powell doctrine”, although I understand what you’re getting at. And I’m not sure what you’re asking me to support. Surely it’s self-evident that it is in the best interests of a country for war to have some point to it, and to be contained within limits? If Clausewitz believes that war is an instrument of policy, then the instrument should be sharp, bright and well-handled.

  3. The Powell Doctrine, according to Wikipedia:

    The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:

    1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
    2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
    3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
    4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
    5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
    6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
    7. Is the action supported by the American people?
    8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

    How “Clausewitzian” is it?

    If you were able to check each box, you would have about the strongest possible case for war — and you would have satisfied Clausewitz’s criteria for embarking on a war.

    Are there less obvious or overwhelming cases where the political leadership should use armed force? Historically, there have been. The USA waged many “small wars” over the centuries, most of which aroused little ire or awareness in the American public, and addressed relatively small national interests. Are such wars possible today, where even one civilian death will be on TV in minutes, worldwide? If not, is that good or bad?

    Or, just to take the first question: “Is a vital national security interest threatened?” What if acting before such an interest is threatened, and hence before the public or allies can be fully mobilized, seems to the executive to be the only safe course? Is it necessarily wrong to use force, to “go to war” under those circumstances?

    The analysis cannot stop with a Powell Doctrine-style checklist. Too many lesser contingencies arise. Sometimes the use of force will at least have to be considered.

  4. A little historical context re: the Powell Doctrine

    The “Powell Doctrine” is simply a little more restrictive version of the Weinberger Doctrine of the early 1980’s when Weinberger was DefSec and Powell was a rising star in the Army and the national security apparatus.

    Weinberger’s reason for his doctrine was pragmatic. The U.S. military, especially the Army was still recovering from the Vietnam War and was in the midst of longterm, qualitative, rebuilding which would not be possible if a major intervention sucked up all available defense money in the form of supplemental appropriations. Weinberger, like Shultz as SecState, were always the voices of restraint at NSC and Crisis Pre-Planning meetings. Powell reiterated the same view reflexively in just about every case even after the U.S. military enjoyed overwhelming superiority over any and all possible opponents. Eventually, his argument was perceived as a broken record rather than a thoughtful objection on the merits.

  5. The Powell doctrine looks like an excuse for doing nothing, rather than a genuine effort to make sure that there is a point to waging war. To take but one of the points – “Is the action supported by the American people?” – how do you know when you have that support? The only real way you can test it is through a referendum – and in the national security context that would be crazy.

    By contrast, the list of points that I put up are fairly basic, can be addressed quickly (even during a crisis, or a situation which calls for quick action), and apply to wars or operations large or small. Just because things are swift breaking or moving doesn’t negate the need for clear thinking.

  6. One of the problems, though, is that the means to the end are often far from clear at the outset. Is there any doubt that FDR had no idea about nuclear weapons and their impact on the world when he encouraged Japan to declare war on the USA? Is encouraging an enemy one expects to have a battle with, sooner or later, to act precipitously rather than to wait and bide one’s time, morally reprehensible?

    Efforts to reduce the notion of war to a simple checklist are doomed to failure. Nothing so complex, with so many chaotic inputs, yields to simplistic definition or justification.

  7. All-

    I stand by my citation of the Powell Doctrine in this case. The Powell Doctrine has admittedly a longer checklist than Kotare listed, but all of Kotare’s points exist within the Powell Doctrine. There is a strong resemblance.

    My complaint with such checklists, no matter who writes them, is that they are inherently anti-Clauswitzian. I agree that the military must have an objective. But,

    “(2) The objective must be realistic, and in proportion to the military and other resources at the government’s disposal.”

    There will be times when an unrealistic policy must be implemented. Honestly, judging what is realistic and not realistic before something is attempted in the area of war is very, very difficult. War is, of course, a very chancy business. Also, often very courageous acts (like deciding to support a strategy of population security at the risk of increased casualties) can also appear unrealistic.

    “(3) It must not be open-ended. A realistic time limit should set, and regular review points set, so progress can be assessed and strategy adjusted.”

    Why must it not be open-ended. There are times when the open-ended conflict is of utmost importance, especially when a very expansive policy (like destroying the Axis in WWII) is in place. I would rather argue that the expansiveness of the policy should correlate with the degree of open-endedness (if that’s even a word!).

    Furthermore, I think that when you say that a realistic time limit should be set, with rather bureaucratic “review points,” so “progress can be assessed and strategy adjusted” takes a rather mechanistic and deterministic view of war. Uncertainty pervades, as does the fluidity of the conflict.

    “(4) It should be clear that if the objective is achieved, real advantage will result.”

    Again, the intertia and uncertainty of war runs against this entire line of thought.

    Bottom line, Clauswitz says that the very nature of war runs against such checklists.

    War aims change in the midst of the conflict. The enemy fights harder than we thought he would. A simple skirmish turns into a multi-year battle that nobody ever wanted, yet quitting the field would result in greater loss than possibly continuing the fight. Policy reviews are politicized. The press acts idiotically.

    The checklist brought up by Kotare essentially asks that politicians and generals predict the future, and abide by whatever checklists we create today. This might be fine policy when trying to determine farm subsidies for the coming years, but this is utterly wrong when dealing with warcraft. Continual assessment is crucial, but even the uncertainty of war prevents our assessments from being anything other than guesses.

  8. Nat – I think that you and I are reading Clausewitz a little differently. In my view Clausewitz calls for political leaders to exhibit clear thinking about ends, ways and means, before and during a war. Yes, circumstances may change during the course of the war, yes objectives and strategy may shift, yes we need to be flexible and adpatable – all this is obvious – but the requirement for clear thinking still prevails.

    I characterize my set of points not as a checklist, but as some basic and logical points which political leaders should think about before going to war. Call it an aide memoir to guide clear thinking and accountability. If we don’t insist on this fairly minimal standard, the risk is that politicians enter into war, and committ lives and resources, without any clear idea about what they are doing.

    Ohblodyhell – re. “Efforts to reduce the notion of war to a simple checklist are doomed to failure”. I think you should read my short post again, and carefully, because you seem to have missed the point of the post entirely. This is a post about the expectations we can legitimately place on those that make decisions to go to war. It is not a comment on war itself.

  9. Kotare-

    I support clear thinking as a matter of principle and as a matter of good governance.

    I think that we differ on what we think political leaders are capable of envisioning. I think you credit them with much more capability in this regard than I do.

    I do support the idea of a clear mission statement which specifies the political objective to be met by way of military force. However, I oppose shackling of military force to mechanistic timelines, and exit strategies. Doing so puts unreasonable requirements that essentially all political questions with regard to the use of military force be resolved before the fighting even begins. With a living, thinking, active enemy, that is absurd and unrealistic.

    Quite obviously, I think an understanding needs to be met between the Political Leader and the Military Force Commander to resolve how the political ends are to be met by military means. But the business of predicting how a war is going to be waged from the moment of hostilities to the exit strategy is just unrealistic. This is especially so when you are victim of a surprise attack (which is not uncommon. It has occurred at least nine times since 1939 between conventional armies!) Knowing the exit strategy before hostilities begin is unreasonable. Even knowing that a “real advantage will result” at the conclusion of hostilities also defies the idea of uncertainty.

    Instead of falling on rather rigid bullet-points, I think it better for there to be an intimate connection between the military commander, the troops, and the political leader. Their fortunes are bound as one when the fighting happens, and they ought to act like their futures depend on one another. In times past it fairly common for this connection to be consecrated through previous military service by the political leader, or by the leader’s offspring serving in the military. (Such traditions existed in both 19th centuries autocracies and 20th century democracies). Today such traditions are extinct, unfortunately.

    I am very much in support of clear political thought. At the same time I think there should be recognition that war can elude bullet-points rather easily, and presumptions of exit strategies and timelines that will survive first contact with the enemy should be thought of as just that: presumptions.

    Semper Fidelis,

  10. I think that you’re confusing the way I’ve structured the writing of the post (ie, using bullet points to make things easy to read) with the way politicians should approach national security decision-making. I don’t expect that politicians should sit down with my “checklist”, or that of Powell, and tick each off. The points that I pose are simply things that politicians should think about in the course of decision-making.

    Similarly, I also think you’re mixing the so-called Powell Doctrine with my own points. I conveyed cleary in an earlier comment what I thought of the Powell Doctrine – that it is excuse for doing nothing. Like you, I think that the idea of working out an exit strategy before you commit to a conflict is absurd.

    Where I really do take issue with you, Nate, is your response to my observation about real advantage. What is the point of going to war, if you consider from the outset that there will be no advantage to you as a result?

  11. “Where I really do take issue with you, Nate, is your response to my observation about real advantage. What is the point of going to war, if you consider from the outset that there will be no advantage to you as a result?”

    It all comes down to what your idea of “real” is. When I think of real, I think of “material.” But, war continues to occur even when there is no real possibility for the weaker side to continue, because fighting is seen as the honorable thing to do. Rationally, weaker countries should immediately sue for peace, but they often continue in spite of the lack of possibility of any material gain. This confounds calculations of “real advantage.”

    Furthermore, calculations of “real advantage” prior to hostilities are likely to only instill a false sense of what the future holds.

    Also, were war to be a matter of calculating “real advantage,” then it is doubtful that wars would ever happen, unless each side was perfectly matched. The reason is that if calculations of “real advantage” took place, the presumed loser in the war would refuse to fight, and instead immediately sue for peace, as war is a terribly expensive business. Yet the Polish Dragoons still deployed against the German Blitzkrieg with reason to hope for victory.

    Ideas of war that do not include matters of personal, political, and national honor are not workable.

    Semper Fidelis,

  12. “Ideas of war that do not include matters of personal, political, and national honor are not workable.”

    Agreed absolutely. Moreover, those defeated after putting up a hard fight may in fact get a better deal and more respect. Churchill said that Britain would fight to the end in 1940. He also said, a country which goes down fighting may rise again, but a country that supinely surrenders will never rise again. There may be something to that.

    There also what might be termed “agency issues”. Say I am a senior Japanese official in the Summer of 1945. “Japan” is defeated. Yet, if I advocate that “Japan” keep fighting, that may be rational for me. If “Japan” loses, I may get hanged for war crimes. But if “Japan” fights on, there may be a negotiated peace, or the Russians might intervene and call it off, or the American’s may get exhausted and a new president will get elected and call it off, without me and my colleagues losing power. So, the interests of the different factions within a country, and the bureaucratic and political struggles between and among those factions, will impact these assessments of “real advantage”.

    Also, as Clausewitz told us, the actual “real advantage” is not fully knowable. There are imponderables in play. Chance, courage, weather, foreigners who may intervene … . And countries holding very bad cards have, historically, had leaders who were willing to cling to any hope, or mythological basis for their imaginary capacity to prevail or survive. Japan, facing America’s ten to one overall warmaking potential decided that Men of the Yamato Race, Knights of Bushido, had a spiritual power far exceeding mere tonnages of ships and numbers of men and cannon — so they attacked Pearl Harbor. Thus the assessment of “real advantage”, even to the extent it is possible, is clouded by fear, hope, wishful thinking and plain confusion.

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