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  • Clausewitz, On War, Book I: Defense

    Posted by Joseph Fouche on January 14th, 2009 (All posts by )

    Pity the poor attacker.

    If the world was fair, he’d just attack and get what he wanted.


    Unfortunately, the world isn’t fair. What the attacker desires belongs to someone else. They don’t want to give it up. So the attacker must use his power to render his enemy powerless and compel him to do his will.

    Calculus of War
    Calculus of War

    In a slightly fairer world, the attacker could simply graph his power “so that in the end one would never really need to use the physical impact of the fighting forces—comparative figures of their strength would be enough.” This would be, Clausewitz observes, “a kind of war by algebra”. Unfortunately, the world remains profoundly unfair to the attacker. Every war has more than one side (“total nonresistence would be no war at all”):

    Face off
    Face off

    Even worse, runaway theory threatens to turn this inconvenient two-way street into an insurmountable obstacle. Driven by:

    1. The absence of a logical limit to force other paper tigers like international law and “civilization”.
    2. Fear that the enemy will do unto the attacker before the attacker does unto the enemy.
    3. The need to match increased force with increased force.

    War will go to extremes. Both sides will exert their maximum effort, ending in mutual absolute stalemate:

    To the max
    To the max

    However, this escalation is a fantasy:

    1. War never occurs in a petri dish, isolated from the outside environment. It’s always being prodded by outside forces and expelling its own discharges into the atmosphere.
    2. War is never a single blow. Power can never be perfectly concentrated in time or space.
    3. What the attacker wants to take or the defender wants to defend may not necessitate such a maximum expenditure of power.

    However, the attacker is still mired in a dilemma: he’s fighting uphill. He has to expend power to overcome the strength of the enemy’s will.


    He has to spend power to overcome the “the total means” at the enemy’s disposal.


    He has to overcome the hostile feelings his attack creates rouses in the enemy.

    Hurt Feelings
    Hurt Feelings

    Passion is only one fatal pole of attraction in war. Chance is also part of the fearsome threesome (passion, chance, reason) that the attacker must deal with.


    Then comes friction, danger, physical exertion, and imperfect intelligence, combined into “general friction”: “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult”:


    The final plague on the attacker’s efforts is his own shifting political objectives. This shifting can serve to interrupt his best laid plans at militarily inopportune times, reminding the attacker that he is merely a political instrument.

    Political Considerations
    Political Considerations

    It’s no coincidence that in one of the last notes Clausewitz wrote before his death, out of the “whole range of propositions that can be demonstrated without difficulty”, the first proposition he listed was “defense is the stronger form of fighting with the negative purpose, attack the weaker with the positive purpose”. The superiority of defense over offense is also the primary brake Clausewitz puts on absolute war to bring war back into reality and making it a matter of calculating probabilities. Jon Sumida even argues that demonstrating the superiority of defense over offense is the main strategic theme of On War.

    Pity the attacker. His aim is simplicity itself but:

    Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war. Imagine a traveler who late in the day decides to cover two more stages before nightfall. Only four or five hours more, on a paved highway with relays of horses: it should be an easy trip. But at the next station he finds no fresh horses, or only poor ones; the country grows hilly, the road bad, night falls, and finally after many difficulties he is only too glad to reach a resting place with any kind of primitive accommodation. It is much the same in war. Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really forsee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal. Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.

    It’s enough to put a damper on an attacker’s creative aggression. What an artist the world is losing.


    2 Responses to “Clausewitz, On War, Book I: Defense”

    1. Lexington Green` Says:

      Nicely done.

    2. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

      This is an excellent graphical depiction. It is worthy of publication, in my view.

      Semper Fidelis,