Clausewitz, On War, Book I: What Is War?

What is war? For those who choose to live by rule sets of law, war is an act, an instrument of policy.

My oldest son is a career NCO in the US Army, currently beginning his third assignment in Iraq. I discuss Clausewitz because war is a serious means to a serious end, and I want to better understand my civic responsibilities.

Pg 86. Such is war, such is the commander who directs it, and such the theory that governs it. War is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts. It is a serious means to a serious end, and all its colorful resemblance to a game of chance, all the vicissitudes of passion, courage, imagination, and enthusiasm it includes are merely its characteristics.

How serious the means? The means is a trinity: passionate belief, a force inherent in people; the service and sacrifice of the commander and his soldiers; and a reasoned subordination to rule of law by the body politic.

Pg 89. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government.

How serious the end? “…render the enemy powerless: and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare.” (pg 75)

2 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book I: What Is War?”

  1. I am curious, as a non-military reader of CvC, how his definition of compelling our enemy to do our will fits with wars of annihilation. Surely Clausewitz was aware of conflicts where complete destruction of the enemy was the aim (see ancient examples, e.g. Israelites vs. Amalekites), but did he address this topic in “On War”? Or are you folks seeing the meaning of compelling our enemy to do our will to simply die en masse, if we so choose?

  2. Bill,

    This is my first reading and discussion of CvC. I do so in hopes that you and I may better exercise one of our critical functions in a democratic society: make intelligent voting decisions.

    After reading the first book, my fresh understanding of “What is war? is this, War is an act of force, an instrument of policy.

    Was Clausewitz aware of conflicts where complete destruction of the enemy was the aim? I do not know.

    As to the meaning of “simply die en masse, if we so choose” being an instance of “compelling our enemy to do our will,” I would ask, What did annihilation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima of compel the Japanese to do? Then, with strategic consequences in mind, I would ask, Have we since seen annihilation of that scale elsewhere?

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