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  • Clausewitz, On War, Book I: The Enduring Value of Clausewitz’s Articulation of the Nature of War

    Posted by Chicago Boyz Archive on January 17th, 2009 (All posts by )

    (Herein are a few thoughts on Book I, at the 11th hour of this weeks discussion. I made many points in comments, but I have a few more left … .)

    On War is an ambitious book. In fact, it is over-ambitious, as Clausewitz himself seems to have recognized. But because his reach exceeded his grasp, in fact exceeded the graspable, he went very far. How well did he do? As many of our contributors have noted, there are criticisms one can level at his depiction of the nature of war. Yet it remains Clauzewitz’s statement of the nature of war that is our starting point, though we turn also to Sun Tzu, to Thucydides, and others. To change the metaphor, he cast his javelin to strike down Mars himself, and failed to do so, as he was bound to, as he knew he would fail. But he cast it so far and so hard that it is still flying almost two centuries later, and we can follow in its path.

    Another observation: The only other writer who is berated, almost two centuries after he wrote, for failing to comprehensively understand, discuss and predict absolutely everything, is Tocqueville. Democracy in America, like On War, so dominates its own field that we perversely end up taking for granted the amazing feat of writing a still-relevant book. We are a tough audience, and we are disappointed and even indignant that the author is not omniscient, and failed to fully explain everything that happened in the times since. This alone shows that each of them still remain dominant in their fields, and that any serious effort to cover the same ground must come to grips with their books.

    In this over-ambitious tome, On War, Book I, which we have been discussing together, is the most ambitious of all. The title is: On the Nature of War. Yet we find that Clausewitz does not really tell us what “the nature of war” is, because war is multifaceted, and has no singular nature. He has instead given us a variety of statements about what war is, each of which is meant to be suggestive and partial, and each one is suited to a particular perspective on war, rather than definitive. This is the best that it is possible to do, he tells us. Nothing that has happened or been written since causes me to disagree with that assessment.

    The discussion so far has directed some criticism at Clausewitz. But no one has criticized the chapters “On Danger in War”, “On Physical Effort in War”, “Intelligence in War” and “Friction in War”. The totality of these factors “can be grouped into a single concept of general friction”. (p. 122) (JosephFouche depicted this visually, very effectively, I thought.)

    These factors are all still in play, though the mechanical details may differ. The sort of short, sharp, episodic danger that Clausewitz describes, where an engagement lasted a single day, is different from the sort of wearing, grinding danger of life in a trench under intermittent artillery bombardment, or life on constant edge during months of fighting insurgents armed with IEDs. Yet, danger is danger, and its effect remains essentially similar over time. Intelligence, nowadays may be enhanced by technical means, but the problem of lack of reliability, of the language and cultural barrier between the fighting parties, and other elements, suggest that this factor is also a perennial. Physical effort remains a distinct and major element in warfare, despite all the technology available to the developed countries and their militaries. And finally, the singular concept of friction is as significant as ever, and is also apparently a perpetual factor in all human endeavors, but in particularly acute form during violent conflict, as Kotare noted.

    I will also say that Clausewitz’s discussion of “absolute war” as a limiting case, and a tendency of all wars to “get out of control” and drift away from purposive behavior and to become all-consuming, was accurate and timeless. One way to express this would be revise JosephFouche’s diagrams, which he shows as horizontal figures with, “simple armed observation” at one end and “war of extermination” at the other. Rather than being horizontal, the bar should be sloped downward to the right. Wars have a tendency to escalate. A party initiating a war will find itself constantly having to struggle not to let it go farther toward an extreme, unless it can be ended quickly. This reality is something Clausewitz set forth, as JosephFouche notes, with several examples, and it still seems to be in play today. The major difference today is that great power warfare is largely foreclosed by the fear of nuclear weapons. What this has meant is a deepening and elaboration of the left side of these tables, as states and other actors have tried to mine as much utility as possible out of the traditionally less overtly destructive, and hence less definitive, types of war.

    Zenpundit offers some thoughts about the possible limitations of Clausewitz, as a man of his time, whose thoughts are necessarily limited to some degree to his own context. I will just note one passage in Zen’s post:

    I am however troubled by the absolutist assertion that Clausewitz makes that war “…. is always an instrument of policy” [ emphasis in original]. This statement is wrong or at least is more true in some cultural and historical epochs than others – unless we are to define “policy” in some new way that permits it to possess a universal scope that covers most human activities in all cultures throughout history. Most likely, given his military experience, Clausewitz was thinking of war between Europeans or non-European civilizations of Asia Minor and not warfare carried out by, say, the Ibo or the Sioux.

    A few thoughts in response. First, Clausewitz did distinguish between war, which has some directing purpose, and mere “untrammeled manifestation of violence”. So, acts of plain savagery are not war. Second, he may not have been particularly interested in the violent conflicts of such “savage” people as the Ibo or the Sioux. It was the Anglosphere which brought modern military power to bear on these sorts of people, destroyed them, or over-awed them, or co-opted them, and usually took their land from them. The Prussians were stuck marching up and down their drill fields, and only rarely getting to shoot at anybody, and then only in big, ugly slugfests against other European armies much like their own. In any case, Clausewitz noted the existence of “wars between savages” which were “more cruel and destructive” than those between civilized nations. He just did not focus on them. He probably figured that any time a civilized power made a serious effort to conquer any such people, it would be able to do so. (When the Germans finally did get into the colonialism game, they tended to play very rough indeed.)

    But, even though wars between European states employing regular armies in his own day was his focus, the model is nonetheless general beyond that, and has utility when more broadly applied. We need not water down the meaning of “policy” so completely as Zen suggests to apply it to other cultures. As Tim Stevens noted, “replacing the terms people, military and government with less state-centric labels such as supporters, fighters and leaders” would allow a broader and still valid application of one of Clausewitz’s trinities. To use one of Zen’s examples, among the Aztecs, there was a leadership group, there was a population that supported and sustained the warriors, and there was a class of warriors. The leadership group had certain goals, such as capturing some number of captives for human sacrifice, and displayed means/ends rationality in pursuit of that goal, and this goal presumably had something to do with them retaining their authority in the community. So, there is a rough fit, even there.

    However, one must nonetheless concede the core of Zen’s argument. Some groups, historically and today, simply do not seem to be “doing” warfare in any Clausewitzian sense, yet they are engaging in violence in some sort of organized or seemingly purposeful fashion.

    However, Clausewitz still helps to understand this behavior, in a negative sense. Far from being a critique of Clausewitz, it is to Clausewitz’s credit that he has provided us with a definition of “war properly speaking” – my term, not his. By providing us with a broad but not unlimited statement of what warfare is, especially with the rational element included, Clausewitz has allowed us to sense when we are going up against some activity which, however violent, falls into some category of not-war, or not quite war, or war with a heavy admixture of other stuff. This is a valuable thing to know, because it is a signal that the proper response to the conduct at issue may not be … war. Or, that the proper response may be only a very particular instruments of war. Or we may see that we are on the margins of war, requiring a limited use of force, and a greater element of politics, and that the people and weapons for high intensity warfare may not be appropriate. Or it may be that the violence, however severe, is really criminal and not political, and some form of police work is the answer. Or it may be that clandestine activity, even possibly violent action such as assassination, yet short of war, is the solution to the problem. Clausewitz’s definition of war is a yardstick to hold up, which helps us to see if the events which confront us are best put in the “war box” or some other box. Similarly, when observing historical or contemporary cases, we can assess whether people are engaging in “war properly speaking” or some form of ritual violence, or duel-like dispute resolution, or violent rites de passage for young men to steal cattle or women, or any number of other things.

    This gives me an excuse to quote once again that most quoted of all Clausewitzian passages:

    The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and Commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking: neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

    (p. 88) Determining if what you are doing is even “war” at all would be part of this act of judgment. It also seems to me that this passage really is an agenda that should literally be followed by a leadership, in a “comprehensive” manner, before embarking on a war. One factor to consider should be: “is this a war at all?”

    (Here is an opinion I toss out for you to mull. The United States managed to effectively make this judgment only three times among its major conflicts: The American Revolution, World War II and the Cold War. In each case, the leadership thought through what type of war it was engaging in, chose achievable aims, chose means that it had available or could obtain, and stayed with that basic model, through much travail, all the way to the end, and achieved the chosen war aims.)

    To end this discussion of Book I, I will mention a few items which struck me.

    One of Clausewitz’s most famous pronouncements is Section 24 of Chapter 1 of Book I, entitled “War is merely the Continuation of Policy by Other Means”. The first sentence says: “It is clear, consequently, that war is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means”. So far, so familiar. The next sentence, however, jumped out at me: “War in general, and the commander in any specific instance, is entitled to require that the trend and design of policy shall not be inconsistent with these means.” This sentence may be clumsily translated. How can “war in general” be “entitled to require” something of the “trend and design of policy”? But leaving that oddity aside, the import point here is that the commander is “entitled to require” that the policy he is supposed to execute shall be consistent with the means. As a lawyer, I see that someone is entitled to something, I see a right being articulated. The necessary flipside of any right is a duty on someone else’s part to satisfy or comply with that right. And no right/duty has any meaning without a means of enforcement. Does this statement mean that the political leadership has a duty not to ask the military leader to execute a policy that is not consistent with the means available? Who decides that? How is this entitlement to be enforced? He notes that the means available may “modify” but not change the political goal. This suggests a process of back-and-forth between the political policy makers and the military leaders who execute the policy. If the military commanders are ordered to do something which is “inconsistent” with the means available, and they cannot negotiate a workable program, what then? Resignation? Coup d’etat? Salute, say “yes, sir” and do your best? I am not sure what Clausewitz would say. I suppose this is more an admonition and rule of prudence than anything else. Still, what the commanders should say if they are truly faced with an impossible demand raises the question of moral courage that Nate mentioned. Clausewitz called this “the courage to take responsibility”, and rather mysteriously said he was not going to discuss it.

    I was struck by the discussion in chapter two of the different levels of warfare, and the extent to which guerilla war or insurgency or even “4GW” fall within the scope of his discussion: “a review of the actual cases shows a whole category of wars in which the very ideas of defeating the enemy is unreal: those in which the enemy is substantially the stronger power”. The stronger power may make peace due to “the improbability of victory” or “its unacceptable cost”. “Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political objective, the objective must be renounced and peace follow”. “It is possible to increase the likelihood of success without defeating the enemies forces. I refer to operations that have direct political repercussions, that are designed in the first place to disrupt the opposing alliance, to paralyze it, that gains us new allies, favorably affect the political scene, etc.” “Wearing down the enemy in a conflict means using the duration of the war to bring about a gradual exhaustion of his physical and moral resistance”. “If a negative aim – that is, the use of every means available for pure resistance – gives an advantage in war, the advantage need only be enough to balance any superiority the opponent may possess: in the end his political object will not seem worth the effort it costs.”

    I got a bit of a chill, as I imagined a young Vo Nguyen Giap underlining these passages.

    Who is the Giap of tomorrow? Is he reading Clausewitz today?

     

    3 Responses to “Clausewitz, On War, Book I: The Enduring Value of Clausewitz’s Articulation of the Nature of War”

    1. josephfouche Says:

      The major difference today is that great power warfare is largely foreclosed by the fear of nuclear weapons. What this has meant is a deepening and elaboration of the left side of these tables, as states and other actors have tried to mine as much utility as possible out of the traditionally less overtly destructive, and hence less definitive, types of war.

      Martin van Crevald has argued that nuclear weapons destroyed the instrumentality of war, a contention I disagree with. Competition between Great Power just found other outlets. I was struck as I re-read Book I Chapter I a few years ago with the idea of the de-escalation of war. De-escalation is one of the great, largely unremarked trends of the past 64 years. If you cannot win victory by escalating up the spectrum of war towards an absolute war of extermination, you must ratchet down the spectrum until you find a point at which war broadly defined becomes instrumental again. If you can’t bite your way to victory then you gnaw slowly, decade after decade. The US eventually won the Cold War but it still bears deep, largely unrecognized scars from the gnawing of the Soviet beast.

    2. zenpundit Says:

      Hey Lex,

      Superb way to bring book I to “closure” ( even though it will never be “closed” here – or anywhere else – top notch essay).

      “In any case, Clausewitz noted the existence of “wars between savages” which were “more cruel and destructive” than those between civilized nations. He just did not focus on them. He probably figured that any time a civilized power made a serious effort to conquer any such people, it would be able to do so. (When the Germans finally did get into the colonialism game, they tended to play very rough indeed.)”

      While the latter is true, or was true until the West began to impose political self-restraint in the use of superior force, I’m not certain the former played out the way Clausewitz anticipated. The 20th century saw highly civilized states fuse scientific modernity with the worst kind of antediluvian barbarism and make unspeakable cruelty a defning characteristic of their regimes. Getting rid of some of them unleashed the terrible, theoretical, logic of war that Clausewitz believed would always be constrained in practice and the world saw cities vanish in nuclear fire.

      Clausewitz was in many aspects remarkably right but as you pointed out, he aimed for a target beyond anyone’s grasp.

    3. Oliver Says:

      “War in general, and the commander in any specific instance, is entitled to require that the trend and design of policy shall not be inconsistent with these means.” This sentence may be clumsily translated.

      It is indeed clumsily translated. The straightforward translation would be “can demand in every case”.

      It would be anachronistic to read the democratic attitude of subordination of the military under the civilian leaderhip into Clausewitz. He clearly states that the military commanders should have influence on foreign policy. Just a secondary influence, but it clearly goes beyond refusing impossible missions.