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  • Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: On Wrestling

    Posted by Younghusband on January 12th, 2009 (All posts by )

    On my first day at the Royal Military College of Canada the professor used our scheduled three hours by asking simply one question: What is war? Three years later I still have no ready definition that satisfactorily answers this deceptively short question. Carl von Clausewitz spent twelve years and wrote an entire (unfinished) book about the topic!

    Defining general terms of inquiry is essential for debate, and critical to the type of activity we of the Roundtable are trying to do: namely, analyze On War in a radically different context. A common understanding of the terms is essential to the enterprise.

    Clausewitz takes a complex, multi-layered approach that some scholars have argued as Hegelian dialectic. The first book lays the basis for his definition of the word, a definition that transforms throughout the entire book — constantly being challenged, extended and refined. This suits Clausewitz’s underlying argument since the terms of war itself change from situation to situation. Spectrums and probabilities reign in his explanation. Often though, he turns to analogy as a means of explanation.

    In defining war on the first page Clausewitz refuses a “pedantic, literary definition of war” and makes a analogy:

    … a picture of [war] as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will; his immediate aim is to throw his opponent in order to make him incapable of further resistance.

    It is a false analogy: wrestling is not war. Yet it is effective in that it draws on common experience. Most, if not all, young men reading On War would have some experience of wrestling. The analogy is instantly understandable, even if it does not encompass the entirety of war. The analogy is particularly effective in that it illustrates a key component of Clausewitz’s concept of war: force. Wrestling superbly captures the requirements of “effort” and “opposed force”. War is not simply a battle of wits, but a dirty, sweaty enterprise. Thus drawing upon a metaphor with chess1 for example, would not suffice.

    War is one of those phenomena that is difficult to define, but somehow we know it when we see it. Analogies are a great way to explain such complex issues, and make long tracts such as On War easier to digest. Clausewitz used analogy often because he knew his audience would be expansive. I think it shows Clausewitz’s ability as a teacher. Moreover, it shows that the book On War is set up to be studied2 not simply read.


    1. Although he later mentions cards (pp. 86) as a metaphor for war, his comment refers to calculating probabilities with incomplete information rather than to war as a whole.
    2. Preferably in a group.

    9 Responses to “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: On Wrestling”

    1. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

      Excellent, younghusband!

      “War is one of those phenomenon that is difficult to define, but somehow we know it when we see it. ”

      I generally think you’re correct until politicians get a hold of the term. Then they start saying stupid things like “War on Poverty,” “War on Drugs,” “Global War on Terror,” etc.

      Now a war is anything a politician wants but cant have without spending money. This is a shame, because there are Wars, Police Actions, Quarantines, and other things that involve the threat and use of armed force that don’t get enough thought from the politician.

    2. Lexington Green` Says:

      Younghusband, good to see you on CB, visiting from your usual home, not to mention back safely from Lhasa.

      War is such a vast and fundamental factor in human life, that it can only be understood by looking at it from various angles, and seeking analogies to simpler things in each case: A wrestling match, a duel, a game of cards. The aggregate of all these individual glimpses helps us to see to some degree the shape and size of the thing.

      Still, Clausewitz does provide a definition: “”War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will …” Each word is relevant.

      Act: human action implies intent, not random violence or instinctual violence. Force: violence or the threat of violence, with all the ensuing emotions provoked by directing violence at others, and their response to being attacked or threatened. Compel: Making someone do something, not, usually, just killing people, but changing their minds forcefully. It is the evil twin of persuasion, which is the method of motivation in ordinary politics, and amongst people who are equals in some measure. Compulsion is what the weak are able to do once they have established primacy over the strong. Our: There is an “us” which knows itself to be an “us”, to be united in some fashion, into a community or a polity or a state or some form of unity. Enemey: There is an “other”, which “we” know to be both an “other” and an “enemy”, i.e. hostile, or otherwise suited to be the targed and victim of our violence. Our Will: We as a unity, corporately, have a “will” or a collective purpose and goal, and the political means to think of and formulate those goals, to discern the means by which those goals can be achieved, determine that among those means is organized violence, and to direct “our” military power against the “enemy” who must be forced to comply with our goals.

      If the terms of this definition are not met, you don’t have a war, at least within the scope of Clausewitz’s analysis.

      Still, the word “war” is so powerful that people want to use it for all kinds of stuff.

      Perhaps the only word that has as many complex facets as “war” is “love”.

    3. Ralph Hitchens Says:

      Hope the discussion moves along and avoids navel-gazing. I think Clausewitz’s analogy works, particularly in that it is extensible. Take 4GW, for example, illustrated by the US vs. al-Qaeda. Two wrestlers, one infinitely larger and stronger than the other, but the smaller one has unrestricted access to the far reaches of the arena, license to run in & out of the crowd and pick the time and place of his infrequent attacks. The large wrestler pretty much has to stay within the circle, and has a multiplicity of distractions — perhaps he’s studying for a mid-term, texting his family, changing his garb periodically so that the sweat doesn’t show, etc. Both wrestlers need a lot of luck to “win” in any sense, and maybe it’s impossible for the smaller one to win at all except that he gets points for staying active for a long time. An imperfect analogy but workable. Now, moving on….

    4. wilderness of meres Says:

      As Brodie points in his Commentary, the dialectic is at work even within the first chapter of the first book.

    5. Lexington Green` Says:

      “Compulsion is what the weak are able to do once they have established primacy over the strong.”


      Compulsion is what the strong are able to do once they have established primacy over the weak.

      I suppose that the “mistake” is a very 4GW thing to say, though.

    6. Obloodyhell Says:

      > What is war?

      War is an extension of Peace by violent memes.


    7. Obloodyhell Says:

      > don’t get enough thought from the politician.

      Wouldn’t that require that politicians have the ability to think?

      Blather, yeah. Prattle, yeah. Chatter, Gibber, Prate, Gabble — all within the job description of “politician”….

      “Think”, though, I think that’s a quality which rarely gets included, either in elected people, or appointed bureaucrats.

    8. seydlitz89 Says:

      Nice comment on Clausewitz’s use of metaphor.

    9. Younghusband Says:

      @Lex: I think the definition of “us” is where one runs into trouble. Defining the size and types of groups involved in war is hard to pin down. Like you point out, “us” and “them” are amorphous enough terms to get the point across, however they are difficult to measure.

      @Ralph: And taking it further think of the changes in wrestling over the millennia: rules adjusted, clocks added, better equipment, better training. Though we still call it “wrestling” a lot has changed. That said, we shouldn’t get too caught up in metaphors. These are just devices that CvC uses to hit a moving target.

      @All: By the way, I tried to make an equation including all the factors CvC mentions in 1/1. Take a look.