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  • Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Closing Comments and Section 28

    Posted by seydlitz89 on January 18th, 2009 (All posts by )

    At this point in what has been a fascinating round table, I think it useful to consider the comment that Sir Michael Howard made during the Clausewitz Conference of 2005, that being that “Clausewitz is a Rorschach Test”, meaning that readers tend to see in him what ever they are looking for. Translations indicate this as well, with the various English translations of On War reflecting what were the dominate strategic emphasis or concern at the time of translation.

    There is nothing especially surprising about this, more the nature of human inquiry. How On War is approached will depend very much on the specific epoch, concerns and culture of the reader. Still there are three points which must be considered in reading On War imo since they do relate to the nature of the work.

    First, a knowledge of Napoleonic warfare, and Prussian history and culture is very useful, including the concept of Bildung, for which there is no direct English translation. Consider it self-education and development. For instance On War is expected to contribute to the Bildung of a military commander, allow him a theory in which to develop his sense of judgment in which to make tactical, or rather strategic command decisions.

    Second, a basic understanding of this type of theory is necessary. Chapter 1, section 1 begins with a hermeneutic circle, that is describes the approach to the theoretical system to be described, which is what “the whole” refers to. The subject of war is too complex to be approached directly, but rather must be in terms of theory. The last section, 28, in turn is titled “The Consequences for Theory”, to make it obvious what Clausewitz is talking about. Notions that Chapter 1 is a collection of vague generalizations about war which constitute no whole, but can be picked apart or discarded at whim does violence to Clausewitz’s whole approach.

    Third, Clausewitz’s is very much a political theory of war. People many times find it uncomfortable to delve into what exactly their own country’s political purpose in a given war is. It is much easier to believe self-serving propaganda than it is to look the cold, hard vestige of political interests (usually intertwined with powerful economic interests) in the face. Rather it is much easier to retreat into vague anthropology, and/or attempt to convince oneself that the enemy in question has no political purpose at all, but rather resists due to their violent “culture”. How lucky for those interested in using military force to “build nations”.

    With those three points in mind I would like to start a post on Section 28, the last section of Chapter 1. This provides, hopefully, a clear interpretation of what Christopher Bassford describes as the Capstone of Clausewitz’s general theory. This is formulated for not only those participating in the round table (to whom much of this may appear repetitive), but also with later readers in mind. Let’s start with Section 28. The Consequences for Theory

    War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity –composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

    The first of these aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

    These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory which ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them, would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

    Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.

    What lines might best be followed to achieve this difficult task will be explored in the book on the theory of war [Book 2]. At any rate, the preliminary concepts of war which we have formulated casts a first ray of light on the basic structure of theory, and enables us to make an initial differentiation and identification of its major components.

    Now, to introduce my own interpretation of Clausewitz’s text, let us take another look at the first paragraph from that last section of Book 1, Chapter 1 of On War:

    War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity –composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

    First it is important to say what this is not. It is not one paragraph from one section of one chapter that can be taken out of context. As Christopher Bassford has stated, the paradoxical trinity is the capstone of Clausewitz’s general theory of war. The general theory of war, as opposed to Clausewitz’s art of Napoleonic warfare, is meant to act as a theoretical system of interlocking dynamic concepts which can be used to describe (not prescribe) all wars, which are the basic elements that the social activity of organized human violence between or within political communities we call war all have in common.

    So we are dealing with the general theory here and specifically with the capstone of the general theory where all the paradoxical elements that can “make up” war are allowed to be present within a model flexible enough to retain their dynamic characteristics.

    Returning now to the first paragraph we see that the remarkable trinity is meant to rectify all the varying and conflicting elements which can make up the phenomenon of war. Also this would include both (or all) sides in any conflict. These three moral elements that are common to all wars and to all sides in wars, are common to wars with the aim of the total defeat of the enemy (all civil wars, revolutions, insurrections, “existential wars”) as well as limited wars, such as Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, the interventions in Bosnia and Kosova. It is also important to mention that two of the three elements are in effect “irrational”, that is not subject to reason. The political purpose uses war as its instrument, that is policy defined as military/political power, but war is at the same time separate from politics, although by nature influenced by politics and social conditions that bring war about. This commonality of all sides in all wars follows as well for the instrumental nature of war, that is each side has a political purpose, being for the aggressor the positive purpose of imposing his will, but for the defender (at least initially) a negative one of resisting the aggressor’s goals.

    So the capstone deals with the “objective” totality of war regardless of time, place, or party.

    Much has been written of the duality of Clausewitz’s concept of policy/politics, policy being the subjective use of the instrument of war, whereas politics is seen as the objective factors that influence and give war its specific character. In this latter sense politics could be viewed as “party politics” or even political culture.[2] The distinction between policy and politics is captured well by Max Weber’s social action ideal types of Instrumental and Value Rationality. Instrumental Rationality deals with a means to an end, policy uses war as an instrument in the achievement of rational goals, the political purpose being achieved through a military aim through military means. Value Rationality on the other hand shifts the emphasis from the ends to the process. The value is seen in the actions themselves not in the actual goal attained. In this aspect it would include the simple exercise of political power for reasons of prestige within or among political communities. This adds a considerable reach to the overall concept of politics which is defined simply as “the striving to share power or to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.” (The Vocation of Politics)

    That is the distinction between subjective policy instrument and objective political reality is modeled very well by the remarkable trinity.

    Returning to Clausewitz now, and keeping all this in mind, the transition in the second paragraph is quite marked, which is why it warrants a new and separate paragraph:

    The first of these aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

    These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory which ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them, would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

    This technique of Clausewitz’s of abruptly breaking off and switching to a quite different concept occurs repeatedly in this chapter. Clausewitz reaches a logical limit in his trinity and then needs to restate it in a quite different way, look at it from a very different perspective. Here he introduces material elements to aide in our understanding of how the whole conceptual system – not just the capstone of irrational passion, chance and subordination to “reason” – can work in real wars.

    This brings up three points which are of importance, but are separate from the “remarkable” trinity itself: First, these material elements of people, government and commander/military, could be changed to tribe, chief and warrior chief/warriors, or citizens/subjects, empire and pro-consul/legion without affecting the actual Clausewitzian trinity, that is the remarkable trinity of the various moral elements which all wars have in common. What is important here is that we have a distinction between the mass of the political community and its leadership, and a separation between the military and the political leadership (this is very important to Mao as well). In a civil war for instance we could even see one single trinity linking both sides – as Lenin following Clausewitz saw it – with the people being caught between the government and the revolutionaries.[3] Second, we also go from the objective to the subjective in this paragraph. The remarkable trinity is something that all wars have in common, but the material elements are specific to each side in any conflict, that is there would be a separate material trinity for each participant in every conflict, since while passion, chance and subordination to a political purpose can unite all parties in a conflict, the peoples, governments and militaries are what in fact separate them. Also the subjective material elements influence/interact with the objective moral elements and affect them in different ways, making each war, each side in each war, unique. If it were not already obvious as to which trinity Clausewitz was referring to when he speaks here of “tendencies”, this quality should make it clear. Lastly, as has been brought up repeatedly in the past, Clausewitz mentions “affinities” between the remarkable trinity and the material elements, not a fixed or rigid relationship, let alone hierarchy. That is all three tendencies of the trinity react with all three subjective material elements. Or put a different way, all three material elements in whatever their subjective situation must deal within the objective reality of the remarkable trinity.

    The next point that Clausewitz reminds us of is that of different types of operating principles (“different codes of law”) which will act much like magnetic fields to hold the various concepts and ideas together as elements of the general theory as a dynamic whole. It is the ability to tolerate tensions which provides the elasticity and durability of the overall general theory. For instance the concept of cohesion is a general concept but how it interacts with the subordination to political purpose will be different from how it interacts with chance or passion. This concept will be discussed at length in my dealing with Book 8.

    Finally, in this paragraph we have the warning: A theory which ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them, would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

    How many attempts at theory does this refer to?  What of the whole “Trinitarian Warfare” strawman supposedly being Clausewitz’s whole approach?  What of 4GW?  So many attempts at theory crash on teh rocks of “arbitrary relationship” . . .

    Returning now to the final two paragraphs of section 28 we have,

    Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.

    What lines might best be followed to achieve this difficult task will be explored in the book on the theory of war [Book 2]. At any rate, the preliminary concepts of war which we have formulated casts a first ray of light on the basic structure of theory, and enables us to make an initial differentiation and identification of its major components.

    The physical model described by Clausewitz is a random oscillating pendulum which is also the classic model of a non-linear system. Another important point here is that Clausewitz is saying that theory maintain a balance between these three tendencies, which is clearly not possible in reality since in reality movement would be continuous, unpredictable and unrepeatable for the duration of the interaction (both in the specific war or all wars). This model clearly illustrates Clausewitz’s concept of theory which is not meant to be a reflection of reality, but a tool or yardstick in which to compare to observed reality, the interaction between (unreal) theory and (reality-based) practice being continuous.

    Here I should point out that I have done a good bit of simplifying myself, since I have picked out the definitions from their contexts which include a rich and flexible series of interlocking concepts and ideas that include the ideal types of “absolute war” along with “war in reality”; the initial trinity of means, aim and purpose; the three interactions to the extreme along with the three modifications in practice; the concept of laws of probability, of polarity, the dynamic law of war, and of the “true logical antithesis”. To these we can add others that come later in the book, including the concept of friction, strategy and tactics, center of gravity, culmination points, and cohesion, this last concept for me being perhaps the key concept, at least in regards to political communities. But even at this point I have not exhausted the entire range of interlocking ideas which are brought together in this one section. It is complex and dynamic, which is why it is misunderstood, and also why some try to simplify it, which brings up the question as to whether this complexity is necessary. The subject matter, once again, is a general theory that would cover all wars in human history, which is flexible enough to contain the entire range of dynamic relationships that come under the heading of “war”. Thus, the general theory is meant to provide a unity of concepts which taken together create a whole, a whole which is greater than the sum of its many parts, that is a theoretical model of war as a dynamic interaction taking place in time, yet as a concept remaining “timeless”. Complexity is thus unavoidable, as is taking the time and effort to understand the general theory. It should also be mentioned that the purpose of this type of theory is descriptive and analytical, it is not meant to provide positive direction in each specific case. Nor need it be perfect, being an unreal and limited yardstick with which to compare observed reality.

    The general theory is about the unchanging nature of war itself. While that general theory might be seen as inadequate or unclear, it is clearly existent.

    To close I would like to make one additional point. Among these posts there has been repeated mention of Martin van Creveld and his work after 1991, specifically his The Transformation of War or TTW. I have read no mention of the fact that van Creveld was a Clausewitzian up to TTW or that he was one of the most prominent presenters at the Clausewitz conference in 1985, presenting a paper entitled, The Eternal Clausewitz.

    No one has asked as to why the turn around? How could TTW be a misunderstanding of Clausewitz when it is clear that van Creveld in fact knew Clausewitz very well? How is it that a work such as TTW which is clearly and basically flawed has had so much influence?

    Consider it the nature of our times, strategic theory gets in the way of political purpose which finds it easier to operate in the shadows while thoughtful people attempt to convince themselves that what is happening can not in fact be happening.


    [1] On War, Bk 1, Ch 1, Section 28.

    [2] Many Clausewitzian scholars have dealt effectively with this subject. For an outstanding recent treatment see Herberg-Rothe, Clausewitz’s Puzzle, pp 139-164.

    [3] It should be noted here that Lenin’s revolutionary trinity – heavily influenced by his reading of Clausewitz – consisted of a mix of moral tendencies and physical elements – the political heart – the essence and content of the war, the popular element and the foreign side. See Raymond Aron, Clausewitz, Philospher of War, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1985, pp 267-277.

     

    3 Responses to “Clausewitz, On War, Book 1: Closing Comments and Section 28”

    1. josephfouche Says:

      Great post. I’ll have to look into Weber more than I’ve done in the past.

      MvC seems to have been influenced by Azar Gat’s treatment of Clausewitz in A History of Military Thought, a book which many Clausewitz scholars also have a bone to pick with.

    2. zenpundit Says:

      Excellent post. An exemplary demonstration of learning regarding On War.

      “…Among these posts there has been repeated mention of Martin van Creveld and his work after 1991, specifically his The Transformation of War or TTW. I have read no mention of the fact that van Creveld was a Clausewitzian up to TTW or that he was one of the most prominent presenters at the Clausewitz conference in 1985, presenting a paper entitled, The Eternal Clausewitz.

      No one has asked as to why the turn around? How could TTW be a misunderstanding of Clausewitz when it is clear that van Creveld in fact knew Clausewitz very well? How is it that a work such as TTW which is clearly and basically flawed has had so much influence?”

      A great question and a fair one since Martin van Creveld has expounded at length on “non-trinitarian warfare”. However, only van Creveld can answer this question to your satisfaction.

      My guess is that embracing historical methodology as a whole tends to implicitly include a rejection of the premise of an overarching single theory of anything, which is the point of conflict between historians and political scientists who begin with theoretical schemas. To most historians, exceptions, which historical research readily generates no shortage of regardless of the theory in question, falsifies the theory. Martin van Creveld may have decided that from his research that Clausewitz no longer fit the facts to the degree that van Creveld himself had once believed. This however is only a guess on my part as I do not know van Creveld personally and have read only some of his works.

      Notwithstanding my above comments, historians sometimes do become enchanted with theory. Marxism had it’s heyday in the late 1950’s through the 1980’s as did Deconstructionism, Postmodernism and various other intellectual constructions in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The result is when they present their ideologically-driven papers beyond anything larger than the circle of simililarly inclined true-believer scholars, other historians swarm like pirannhas to nibble them to death. Often rightly so.

      I would also add that I doubt most historians do not “get” the purpose of strategic theory (though van Creveld certainly does) as a form of flexible guidance rather than as a rigid, psuedoscientific, universalist, straitjacket with supposedly predictive qualities, such as Marxism. For myself do not feel compelled to “prove” that Clausewitz has found the key to all forms of war (I don’t think he did) anymore than I do the assertion by van Creveld that the state is everywhere in decline (it isn’t). What matters is if the theoretical frameworks created by Clausewitz or van Creveld have a durable explanatory power regarding war that makes them useful. I think that we can answer in the affirmative for On War and we will have to wait and see if if van Creveld, whose argument neatly matches the geopolitical zeitgeist, will stand the test of time.

    3. seydlitz89 Says:

      Thanks for the kind words gentlemen. The post could have done with a last edit, but hopefully gets my message across.

      As to van Creveld and his turnaround, he may have indeed come to believe that Clausewitz was no longer relevant. But then why respond the way he did, that is misrepresenting Clausewitz – I would say intentionally since we know he had a fine grasp of the subject from his earlier work?

      No answers of course to any of these questions and I doubt if we ever get a clear answer from Professor Martin van Creveld.