Clausewitz, On War, Book I: Clausewitz and the Marine Corps

This is my first time reading On War, and I have to say that I am so far impressed with the relative ease with which Clausewitz can be applied to modern situations. Book I serves us well not only as an overview of the entire work, but also provides the reader with good baselines, defining fundamental concepts with simple language and examples that I presume would make it possible for the completely uninitiated to understand.
What I find most fascinating though is the high level of Clausewitzian thought found in Marine Corps culture, and I would guess (hope) to some extent in the cultures of other US services as well. I am not certain whether this is by conscious intent, or rather a coincidental development stemming from the Corps’ history and role, but several examples were immediately obvious to me as I read.

Perhaps the most striking of these is chapter three, dealing with military genius. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach already discussed this chapter in depth. However, I feel that a direct connection can be drawn between Clausewitz’ traits of military genius, and the Marine Corps leadership traits: Justice, Judgment, Dependability, Initiative, Decisiveness, Tact, Integrity, Enthusiasm, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty, and Endurance. These ideas are taught to enlisted men almost from the time they step on the yellow footprints with the mnemonic device JJDIDTIEBUCKLE, and are meant to serve as the guidelines for behavior as Marines advance in their careers as professional warriors, and presumably take on more responsibility and greater scope of leadership. Though Clausewitz doesn’t use these exact terms and in some cases the ideas need to be rearranged a bit, the parallel is there.

The concept of Friction is also fully a part of Marine life. While I don’t think that Clausewitz would agree that the term “Fog of War” as we know it today would fully cover his meaning it goes a long way to get us to a point of understanding. Clausewitz points out “if one has not experienced war, one cannot understand in what the difficulties constantly mentioned really consist… “ (p.119). I firmly believe that the only way to know what friction in war is like is to experience it, though the Marine Corps goes a long way to prepare Marines for it as much as possible. From day one, Marine recruits must deal with stress in intense, hostile situations where the adversarial factors (usually controlled by the Drill Instructors,) constantly change. Speed and intensity of action are encouraged and only by taking to heart the mantra “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome” does the recruit survive.

In Chapter Two, Clausewitz outlines the purpose and means of war. Were he to see the traditions and war-fighting doctrine of the Marine Corps, I think Clausewitz would be impressed. Clausewitz states “…it follows that the destruction of the enemy’s forces is always the means by which the purpose of the engagement is achieved”(p. 95). Similarly, the primary mission of the Marine Corps is to “locate close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or repel the enemies’ assault by fire and close combat.” Additionally. Clausewitz remarks that, “The whole of military activity must therefore relate directly or indirectly to the engagement. The end for which the soldier is recruited, clothed, armed and trained…is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time” (p. 95). This corresponds fairly well with the concept that “every Marine is a basic rifleman.” This means that a Marine’s first duty is to be proficient in combat, his or her other roles secondary to that of the infantry. These two ideas suggest that the Marine Corps fits closely with what Clausewitz had in mind for a fighting force while writing Chapter two.

There are other subtler points that I have omitted because the connections are too vague or would take in-depth discussion beyond the scope of this venue. I have discussed the Marine Corps to the exclusion of other services only because I know very little about the other US services. Additionally it may be that there is a foreign military body that embodies Clausewitz’ ideals even more so than the Marine Corps, but if so, I am not aware of them.

4 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book I: Clausewitz and the Marine Corps”

  1. Mathew Borton: “Additionally it may be that there is a foreign military body that embodies Clausewitz’ ideals even more so than the Marine Corps, but if so, I am not aware of them.”

    Well the Israelis are very traditional adherents to Clausewitz. CvC is actually specifically taught in the Political Sciences classes in TA-U. Van Creveld’s criticism of CvC has to be seen in that light. I would also assume that the German Army has some interest in this area.

  2. Clausewitz is a prominent part of the training for US Army officers as well. I can’t answer for the USN and USAF, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they also give a look at Clausewitz where his principles apply.

    Something you should be aware of is that many officers of all branches of the US armed forces serve what are called “joint tours”, so an Army officer might serve on the staff of a US Air Force command, or a Navy officer might go to the Army’s Command and General Staff Course, for example. Not to mention the possibilities for officers to serve on the staffs of, or attend schools of, allied forces.

    (Non-Commissioned officers, aka Sergeants and Petty Officers of various ranks, also have some of these opportunities, but generally much fewer)

    I find it hard to believe that the Chicagoboyz ranks of commentators don’t seem to include any military members, but I do enjoy reading the military topics you all have introduced here.

  3. I, of course, agree generally with this post. I wouldn’t categorize Marine Doctrine as entirely Clausewitzian, but Marine Doctrine is thoroughly laced with Clausewitzian. I would rather say that Marine Doctrine is:

    1/3rd Clausewitz
    1/3rd Boyd
    1/3rd Unique Marine Institutional Memory (Small Wars Manual, Amphibious Operations, Unique views of Close Air Support and use of Aviation in general, etc.)

    American military doctrine in general has not always been Clausewitzian. There have been several periods where other thinkers predominated: Jomini, Winfield Scott, Patton/Fuller/Liddell-Hart. American military thought has not always been Clausewitzian, and I think it’s arguable that the real heyday of American military thought of a Clausewitzian variety has only occurred since Vietnam ended. Since that time, MCDP 1: Warfight was released, as well as numerous books that reevaluated the direction of American military strategy (On Strategy, by Summers, comes to mind).

  4. One of the foremost,and greatly overlooked, Americans and Illinoian responsibile for the developement and formulation of military doctrine was U.S. Grant who outlined the “Weinburg/Powell” doctrine a full century and quarter before they lent their names to it. In Grants words, “Don’t fight long, don’t fight alone, and make it memorable” (bloodly).

    Danny L. McDaniel
    Lafayette, Indiana

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