Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Clausewitz and Herman Kahn

Herman Kahn consciously followed Clausewitz’s lead in choosing the title On Thermonuclear War.

However, whereas Clausewitz was trying to develop a general theory of war from his and others’ experiences, Kahn was trying to develop a theory of a war of a kind that had never been fought.

In Chapter 8 of Book 1, Clausewitz telescopes war down to “a single short blow” to show that this is not possible. Nuclear war moves closer to this idealization. Kahn’s analysis is that even a nuclear war does not consist of a single short blow. There can be warnings and exchanges.

Kahn was analyzing the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was 30 minutes warning of a strike by one on the other. Kahn died before India and Pakistan achieved approximate nuclear parity in 1998. Their warning times come much closer to Clausewitz’s “single short blow.”

This is one way in which technology may have changed Clauzewitz’s analysis. But there is an element of Chapter 8 that remains relevant. Clausewitz is trying to dispel the too-easy assumption by those managing a war that they have a decisive strategy or weapon that will end the war as it begins. So the two Cold War rivals found ways to protect their missiles for a second strike. So the “shock and awe” of the March 2003 attack on Iraq became today’s slow progress on an agreement for the United States to withdraw. So Israel’s attack on Lebanon did not eliminate Hezbollah, as its attack on Gaza is unlikely to eliminate Hamas. The idea of a decisive air strike to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities dances in some heads. The idea of a single short blow is still with us.

Kahn’s book remains hypothetical in a way that Clausewitz’s is not. Casualties can be calculated, probabilities of destruction of the second strike force, but those calculations depended, and still depend, on assumptions that have little empirical backing. When we bring in all those factors that we will be discussing over the next weeks, we will see many ways to make those assumptions.

And technology has advanced from Kahn’s time in the making of calculations. A 2007 paper in Science magazine predicts that several tens of nuclear weapons exchanged between India and Pakistan could result in a devastating nuclear winter for the world. Again, it appears that a single short blow is not possible, that in this case the natural world responds.

11 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Clausewitz and Herman Kahn”

  1. “as its attack on Gaza is unlikely to eliminate Hamas.”

    Sometime the bolt from the blue works: Osirak.

    Where there is a sufficient mismatch of conventional power, and other pieces of the puzzle are in place, such as having a legitimate government ready to walk in, it can work: Operation Just Cause (Panama).

    Where the mismatch is sufficient, and the smaller power would rather give in than continue to take the punishment, it can work: The British Navy bombardment of Algiers in 1816, which caused the Algerians to stop committing acts of piracy.

    In fact, the whole category of “punitive expeditions” shows that this kind of thing can often work.

    Where powers are relatively equal, you have to get into the Clausewitzian “wrestling match”.

    Nuclear weapons change the equation.

    Where both sides have MAD, you have something like the prospect of Clausewitz’s “absolute war”. But, of course, war is policy with an admixture of other means. Mutual total destruction is not a policy it is the antithesis of policy. So, parties facing MAD must use other means, with lesser admixtures of force, to gain advantages over their foes.

    This is what happened during the Cold War. It is what is happening in the Middle East, where Israel has unilateral assured nuclear destruction against its enemies. It is what is happening on the Subcontinent, where India and Pakistan cannot use their conventional forces in any significant way, and are reduced to pecking at each other. If Mumbai had occurred prior to Pakistan having nuclear weapons, it would have provoked a massive response.

    Clausewitz’s framework still holds.

    Herman Kahn did not address Clausewitz in his book, despite the title. Henry Kissinger did address Clausewitz, in his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Prof. Bassford discusses these two writers and their handling of Clausewitz here

  2. Lex, I disagree that the Israeli raid on Osirak (I assume that is what you mean by the shorthand) “worked.” The reactor was destroyed, yes. But not the Iraqi program to get a nuclear weapon, as the inspectors found out after the 1991 Gulf War. I don’t think it’s an example of Clausewitz’s “single short blow” of Section 8, Chapter 1.

    I agree that Clausewitz’s framework still holds in the case of nuclear weapons. I believe that’s what I said in my post, although Pakistan and India come as close as any to the limiting case of the “single short blow.”

  3. The Osirak attack worked. It prevented Saddam from getting a nuke, which he was months away from doing. As it worked out, he never did. So, he continued his program and kept trying. If you set the bar high enough, everything is a failure. 22 years during which Saddam does not have a nuke is some kind of win.

    You: “Clausewitz is trying to dispel the too-easy assumption by those managing a war that they have a decisive strategy or weapon that will end the war as it begins.” Israel correctly believed it could wage a “single blow” war against Iraq that would stop it from becoming a nuclear power. They did it. They were not aiming to conquer Iraq and run up the Star of David over the rubble of Baghdad. They did not need to. They achieved their war aim in a single blow.

    If you pick your aims and means, and figure out what kind of war you are getting into, and don’t mistake it for another, you may be able to win a total victory, on your own terms, rapidly.

    It is not always illusory to think that a successful coup de main is possible. That was my point. Sometimes it is. Sometimes wars don’t bog down into fruitless slugging. Sometimes they go as planned, pretty much, and end soon.

    Of course, getting into something approximating an equally matched “absolute war” would be suicidal, and hence pointless, even if all the mitigating factors Clausewitz talks about did not come into play, perhaps because of the existence of two large nuclear arsenals facing each other. In that case, as Clausewitz’s theory also suggests, both sides will avoid taking that step.

  4. Lex, sorry, I’m going to have to disagree. I’ll be glad to look at any evidence you have to the contrary, but the Wikipedia article on Osirak says that the reactor was not even loaded with fuel when the Israelis hit it, so your claim that Saddam Hussein was “months away” from having a nuclear weapon just doesn’t stand up.

    It seems to me that Clausewitz’s purpose in Chapter 8 is to warn against the too-easy assumption of a coup de main, which, as we have seen recently, is too often an illusion.

  5. Well, that was from memory.

    In any case, the attack put Saddam out to “decades away”, which as it turned out became “never”. So, it was a win. Plus, everyone in the region publicly condemned the Israelis and privately were relieved. It was the right thing to do.

    Agreed that a false assumption that a quick win will work is bad. But a lot of times, its correct. As Thucydides told us, the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.

    If you look at the number of small wars, and some not so small, that the British and American engaged in during the period between, say, 1815 and 1914, virtually all of them went pretty well.

    Usually, if you have a genuinely large disparity of power, and reasonable war aims, you are maybe going to get away with it.

    When you are more or less equal, or have grandiose or incoherent war aims, the historical record shows people believing in gimmicks and lying to themselves.

    Clausewitz was writing mostly from a Continental perspective, where large powers were going to be involved in big, pretty evenly matched fights.

    The maritime powers had the capacity to rampage about the world looking for easier pickings.

  6. “The reactor was destroyed, yes. But not the Iraqi program to get a nuclear weapon, as the inspectors found out after the 1991 Gulf War”

    Getting a nuclear weapon was an end for Saddam. The Osirak reactor was the means to that end and Israel destroying it set back Iraq’s nuclear bomb program by a period of years which prevented Iraq from having enough nuclear fuel to build prototype atomic bombs circa 1991.

    Whether these bombs would have been duds or worked is a separate question of design and not of nuclear material which the reactor unquestionably could have produced until the Iraqis eventually got the tech right on their own or with foreign help from A.Q. Khan’s network.

  7. One of the most difficult elements of reading Clausewitz is to not confuse the level of analysis.

    I agree with Cheryl here – Osirak was simply a tactical action that, while it had strategic ramifications, did not eliminate the opponent in one swift coup de main. Iraq was not completely destroyed, and therefore lived to persist as a threat. Similarly, the regime change of Spring 2003 did not completely destroy Iraq — and therefore led to the current situation. Perhaps if one were to kill every man, raze every building, enslave the women and children and salt the earth (q.v., Rome in Carthage), you could eliminate the opponent….

  8. Lex,

    I think we’re not disagreeing on the big things.

    Is a “single short blow” possible? Certainly.

    Is it often the case? Hardly.

    This was a very limited objective. I’m wondering whether it constitutes a war or an engagement.

    I’m developing some more questions on Book 1 that I hope to be able to post by the weekend.

  9. “This was a very limited objective. I’m wondering whether it constitutes a war or an engagement.”

    I think was a war because it had a strategic impact.

    Israel’s position vis-a-vis its neighbors/enemies is one of nuclear monopoly and unilateral assured destruction. This allows its conventional military power to operate with impunity. It also led to the cessation of conventional attacks on Israel, after the 1973 encore performance, which was meant to open negotiations, anyway. The nuclear monopoly has pushed attacks down to the sub-state level, which as annoying as they may be, and as lethal to their small number of victims, are not existential. If Iraq had obtained the bomb, all this would have changed.

    So, I see the Osirak attack as a war — over before the defender even realized it was under attack.

    “Is it often the case? Hardly.”

    Hardly where the parties are roughly evenly matched, where one side has a much greater commitment to the struggle than the other, and/or where the war aim are ill-conceived.

    Clausewitz mentions the category of lesser wars for lesser stakes, but spends little time on them. He was a Prussian. Prussia had no ocean-going navy. It fought wars against large powers across land frontiers. When it lost a wary, the enemy encamped in its capital. The stakes were always high, and even small change, like Silesia or Alsace, led to huge conflicts.

    But it is often the case that a very short campaign, approximating a “single blot” can decide a war quickly, where there is a great disparity of power — often shown by a technological mismatch — and the war aims are simple, clear and attainable with the means commited.

    This latter category is generally only available to maritime powers that can seek out weak opponents in the remoter corners of the world to attack. See e.g. One hundred eighty landings of United States Marines, 1800-1934. Were these all “wars”? No. But some were.

    But a recent example is the British intervention in Sierra Leone. It went smoothly. Britain achieved its war aims quickly. A little further back, Britain famously went to war over the Falkland Islands and won a rapid and decisive victory with a single short, sharp campaign.

    These types of mismatches are less available than they once were, certainly.

  10. BTW, I can only think of three cases where a major power struck down another major power of roughly equal strength and technology, in a single blow, in one swift campaign. France v. Austria, Ulm and Austerlitz 1805, France v. Prussia, Jena-Auerstadt 1806, and Germany v. France, 1940.

    Clausewitz was in the army and very aware of the first one. He suffered defeat at the hands of Napoleon in person in the second one.

    Was the Jena campaign as close an approximation of “absolute war” as was possible in Clausewitz’s day?

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