No single writer has had more influence on the professional militaries of our age than Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz – nor has any writer been so often quoted while so rarely read.
The grandson of a Lutheran pastor and son of a minor functionary in the Prussian revenue service, Clausewitz enlisted in the Prussian army at the age of 12. Captured by Napoleon’s forces after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, he later left the Prussian army (largely in opposition to the enforced alliance with Napoleon) and served in the Russian army during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. His personal experiences from the battlefields – as an opponent of Napoleon – helped Clausewitz distill the Corsican’s genius into theory.
What is most significant about his magnum opus, On War, is that this volume of eight books was never finished – yet its influence runs deep in the intermediate service schools and war colleges of most developed nations’ militaries. Only Book I was considered truly complete by Clausewitz before his death in 1831 at the age of 51.
It was as a civilian student at a U.S. Naval War College seminar (in 1992) that I was introduced On War, and it remains one of my most-frequently referenced books. Rather than a tome expounding the virtues of genius or pontificating on the nature of politics and war, Clausewitz goes deeper – much deeper – to not only the theory but also the practice of war. Rather than giving us a formula for “how to fight”, Clausewitz instead gives us a framework by which to understand war.
He does this through a Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: First presenting one extreme perspective, then postulating its opposite, before synthesizing the two into a cohesive conclusion. This technique is lost on casual readers, who often read Clausewitz’s sections on “total war” and presume he favors brutal wars of attrition.
By describing the abstract or theoretical (“absolute war”), and comparing it to empirical observations (“war in practice”), Clausewitz provides us a framework to compare the respective outcomes and identify intervening variables: uncertainty, human nature, politics. And it is here that Clausewitz is the most applicable to our modern day: balancing the dialectics of the physical (the “means”) with the moral (the “will”); reason and logic with non-rational actions and motivation; planning and control with chance and friction.
So Book I of On War, entitled “On the Nature of War”, provides us with insights to a simple question: Was ist der Krieg? What is war? His no-nonsense definition (“War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale”) gives way to his dialectic of “the maximum use of force” – which is a rhetorical technique Clausewitz uses to underscore one of his main points in the opening chapter: “The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect.” By its conclusion, Clausewitz has given us “… the cardinal point of view from which war and the theory of war have to be examined.”
The consequences of this framework create a “paradoxical trinity”: the primordial violence and hatred of “blind natural force” (the rage of the people), the play of chance and probability within the creative spirit (the military genius), and an element of subordination as an instrument of policy subject to reason alone (the rational governance). The “genius” who can harness the emotions of his forces and direct them to the political ends must have a strong intellect and character (“…in the darkest hour, retain[ing] some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth.”) in order to balance these three vectors “like an object suspended between three magnets.” Art intersecting with science.
Clausewitz takes aim at the “obvious fallacy to imagine war … as resulting merely from a rational act …” – criticizing the comparative analyses of force structure as “… a kind of war by algebra,” and that “war does not consist of a single short blow”. Rather, he derives the political nature of war by observing that it is “never an isolated act”, with results that are “never final”, and with the rationality of cost-benefit analyses constantly required of political leadership when evaluating and re-evaluating motives.
Implicit in Clausewitz’s work is that war is not a tool for expressing “moral outrage”, but rather a tool for achieving strategic objectives. “[W]hen whole communities go to war – whole peoples, and especially civilized peoples – the reason always lies in some political situation. … War, therefore, is an act of policy.” By noting that war is simply a means to an end, Clausewitz reverses the vector and notes that “[p]olicy, then, will permeate all military operations, and … will have a continuous influence on them.” This rational calculus is what leads to his oft-quoted assertion that “War is merely the continuation of politics by other (i.e., violent) means.”
That said, Clausewitz asserts that the closer war approaches its abstract concept (“absolute war”), the more important will be the destruction of the enemy. He continues by dedicating several sections to critiquing the “non-violent” elements of military missions: to wit, “ … the less intense the motives, the less will the military element’s natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives. As a result, war will be driven farther from its natural course…” Therefore, “… war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy.”
Although some parts of On War may not be apt today (e.g., the later developments of the industrial revolution and their impact on mobility and intelligence), the preponderance of Clausewitz’s tome remain very applicable today. The framework by which we can consider war – vice a mechanistic understanding of its pieces – is of lasting value to the contemporary strategist.