Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: The “theory” of war is purely a means of professional formation.

Clausewitz attempted to discern, and show to us, the “nature of war”, in Book I. He discerned that there is a theoretical “ideal case” or “maximum” case, that he calls “absolute war”, a sort of gravitational core toward which war by its nature, will tend. He also showed that this ideal case is unrealizable in practice. So, the nature of War in the ideal case, in the simplicity of the ideal case, will never be encountered. Instead, all actual cases, will be complicated (both the verb and the adjective) in a variety of ways.

The knowledge gained by experience and history, which allowed Clausewitz to derive his statements regarding the nature of war (not a unitary statement, but a series of interlocking observations) must be rendered operational. Otherwise it would remain a mere exercise in “pedantry”, to use one of Clausewitz’s own strong terms of disdain. What is needed is a “theory” of war, founded on his prior analysis, in Book I, of the nature of war.

When Clausewitz was writing, few if any writers had attempted to analyze the nature of war in the way he did in Book I. He was working on ground he had cleared himself, by and large. But in Book II, where he sets out to formulate a theory of war, he is stepping into a crowded arena, with predecessors armed and prepared to contest his usurpation of their domain.

He first carves off the entire realm of “preparation for war”. It is not that this is not an important topic, or that it does not in some sense fall within “the art of war”. It is just not his topic.

Clausewitz’s discussion of the theory of war will be limited to “the conduct of war”, which he defines as “the planning and conduct of fighting.” Further, since fighting usually consists of multiple acts, not a single act (as in the idealized Absolute War), then the theory must address “engagements”. In turn, Clausewitz defines tactics as “the use of armed forces in the engagement” and strategy as “the use of engagements for the object of the war.”

Clausewitz tells us, implicitly, what he is trying to do by writing about a theory of war:

The primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become, as it were, confused and entangled. Not until terms and concepts have been defined can one hope to make any progress in examining the question clearly and simply and expect the reader to share one’s views.

So, Clausewitz is setting out to disentangle the existing confusion, and to provide clear and useful definitions. He also tells what the state of the field is when he is presenting his analysis:

Anyone for whom all this is meaningless either will admit no theoretical analysis at all, or his intelligence has never been insulted by the confused and confusing welter of ideas that one so often hears and reads on the subject of the conduct of war. These have no fixed point of view; they lead to no satisfactory conclusions; they appear sometimes banal, sometimes absurd, sometimes simply adrift in a sea of vague generalizations; and all because this subject has seldom been examined in a spirit of scientific investigation.

(Uncharitably perhaps, I wrote 5GW when I saw this passage.)

Cheryl’s post, and the comments thereto, provided some insight into what Clausewitz would have meant by “a spirit of scientific investigation”. He would not have meant experimental and quantitative science, which today we think of as science par excellence. As Cheryl noted, in Clausewitz’s day, the gathering and systematic organizing of knowledge was at the cutting edge of scientific activity. Prof. Joel Mokyr wrote of this era “[m]any of the investigations of the eighteenth century were in the style of the “three C’s”: counting, cataloguing, classifying. Knowledge could only be useful if it was organized.” This type of activity, the gathering of masses of careful observations into indexed and accessible form, laid the foundation for future developments in science, as well as having more immediate utility in industry and agriculture.

In any case, we should be careful not to impose a contemporary sense of “scientific investigation” on what Clausewitz was doing. There could never be a “physics of war”, in which the total reality of war will be boiled down to several elegant, rigorous, quantitative equations. Rather, Clausewitz’s “theory of war” would be more like an encyclopedia of carefully arranged descriptions of observed reality, grouped by inductively determined patterns, not based on some preexisting model.

In Chapter Two, Clausewitz tells us that the need for a theory of war only arose over time, as European society became more complicated, and its wars more complicated. “Gradually war progressed from medieval hand-to-hand fighting toward a more orderly and complex form.” This forced the “human mind” to “give some thought to this matter”. In turn, as military affairs became more sophisticated, there was a need for “principles and rules” to allow controversies to be brought to a resolution. A “maelstrom of opinion, lacking in basic principles and clear laws … was bound to be intellectually repugnant.” The first attempts to create “principles, rules or even systems” were unsuccessful because they failed to account for the “almost endless complexities involved.” War has no limits, but any model or system will necessarily be finite, thus creating an “irreconcilable conflict” between the simplified “system” and reality. Theorists were thus drawn to write about “physical factors” and preparation for war, which allowed them to “consider only factors that can be mathematically calculated”. In particular they were attracted to calculations pertaining to the number of troops committed, or to numbers related to the supply of the forces, or a geometric analysis of the army’s base.

Clausewitz could not know it, but the substitution of a bogus appearance of “science” by using numbers and mathematical symbols has been a perpetual temptation down to our own day. It is bad enough when it is done badly in the social sciences. But it is lethal when it is done in a war setting. When I read this passage I thought immediately of Robert McNamara’s “whiz kids”, with their “systems analysis”, imposing numbers on factors that are not meaningfully quantifiable, such as the willpower and willingness to suffer and die of Vo Nguyen Giap and his men.

Clausewitz states that mere analysis of physical quantities will never yield accurate analysis, for two reasons. First, because “all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects.” Second, because these analyses “consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites”. As the saying goes, the enemy gets a vote. Clausewitz further specifies that these systems err seriously by excluding genius, which “rises above all rules.” “[W]hat genius does is the best rule.” He elaborates further that “moral values” are visible only to “the inner eye” and vary from person to person – seemingly rendering such questions totally impenetrable. Yet, he adverts back to experience. “Danger is the common element in which everything moves in war.” This allows a more objective assessment, and allows some coherence to be imposed on the group of observed facts relating to “moral effects” in warfare, e.g. that “everyone knows the moral effects of an ambush or an attack in flank or rear.” So, again, Clausewitz incorporates within his theory these universally recognized and recurring patterns.

Clausewitz then restates the three factors that must be examined in attempting to formulate a theory of war. First, the predominance of “moral forces and effects”, mainly danger and its counterweight, courage. Second, what he calls “positive reaction”, again, meaning that all actions are interactive with the enemy, not taken in isolation. Third, the uncertainty of all information. In light of all this, he concludes, “it is simply not possible to construct a model for the art of war that can serve as a scaffolding on which the commander can rely for support at any time.”

Clausewitz, however, and of course, does not throw up his hands at this point. He offers two ways out of the box. First, he says that at the lower level of war, some things, especially those pertaining to purely physical matters like the handling of weapons can be reduced to a system. The implication is that where something can be done and learned on a rote basis, like loading and firing a six-pounder muzzle-loading cannon, it should be. He discusses this in greater detail in Chapter 4, where he describes the utility of “routine and method”. Routine is “more frequent and indispensable the lower the level of action”. Routine contains “one positive advantage. Constant practice leads to brisk, precise and reliable leadership, reducing natural friction and easing the working of the machine.” In other words, what can be taught by drill, should be.

Clausewitz goes on to tells us that at the higher levels of war, this is not possible and that “theory should be study, not doctrine”. This reminds me of John Boyd’s comment that all doctrines turn into dogmas. In Chapter Four he tells us“[A]ny method by which strategic plans are turned out ready-made, as if from a machine, must be totally rejected.” Where some routine method takes hold at the higher levels of command, this habitual behavior stifles responsiveness to the actual situation, and invites disaster at the hands of an enemy who is ready for any sort of stereotyped or repetitive behavior. Clausewitz saw with his own eyes what happened when the Prussians tried to replicate Frederick’s style of maneuver against Napoleon. The Grande Armee demolished them. This lesson was not an abstraction for Clausewitz.

Clausewitz sums up what he means by “theory” in a dense passage:

Whenever an activity deals primarily with the same things again and again – with the same ends and the same means, even though there may be minor variations and in infinite diversity of combinations – these things are susceptible of rational study. It is precisely that inquiry which is the most essential part of any theory, and which may quite appropriately claim that title. It is an analytic investigation leading to a close acquaintance with the subject; applied to experience – in our case to military history – it leads to thorough familiarity with it. The closer it comes to that goal, the more it proceeds from the objective form of a science to the subjective form of a skill, the more effective it will prove in areas where the nature of the case admits no arbiter but talent.

Theory, then, is about organizing the material, not reducing it to universal formulae.

Theory exists so that one need not start afresh each time sorting out the material and plowing through it, but will find it ready to hand and in good order. It is meant to educate the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield … .

To the extent that “principles and rules” arise from this study, they “are intended to provide a thinking man with a frame of reference for the movements he has been trained to carry out, rather than to serve as a guide which at the moment of action lays down precisely the path he must take.”

Clausewitz lays out the subject matter of study, “means and ends” and “factors that always accompany the application of the means”, e.g. terrain. Clausewitz concludes Chapter Two by observing once again the ultimate simplicity of war, which is a minor theme woven into his major theme of the complexity of war! However, this can be reconciled by the fact that the means and ends are simple, and that the commander of genius sees through all the fog and smoke and mayhem, all the confusion and noise, to the “simple” end he seeks: victory.

Clausewitz offers the interesting aside that some great commanders have come to high command from other fields entirely, and that scholarly officers are never great commanders. So, long service is neither necessary nor sufficient for success at the higher levels of military command, and too much bookish study is an actual impediment. Energy, confidence, fitness, clear thinking, courage and a disciplined awareness of military history for its lessons, not for its own sake. These sorts of thins are more important than theoretical knowledge. This is reminiscent of Tocqueville’s comment that “the first condition of successful leadership in war is youth.” Napoleon and Wellington were both 46 at Waterloo, the grand finale of both of their military careers.

Clausewitz wraps up Chapter Two by saying that “knowledge must become capability”. The point is that any “theory” will only have value to the extent it is internalized by the military officer who is using it to help him to study war. The “theory of war” is the accumulated observations that show patterns that the officer internalizes to help him function better when he is exercising actual command. Nate addressed this thoroughly in his post.

Clausewitz, having established that the subject matter of theory is military history and experience, then turns on his attention to these subjects, and explains how it should be used, studied, understood, in Chapter Five, entitled Critical Analysis. Critical Analysis is the process of taking a given body of historical facts and “tracing of effects back to their causes.” This is followed by “investigation and evaluation of the means employed. This last is criticism proper, involving praise and censure”.

As to the first of these, military history, Clausewitz sets forth how difficult it is to disentangle causes and effects in the historical record, which is made much harder by the particular conditions of war. The chapter is lengthy, with many examples, but I think it can be boiled down. Clausewitz is saying that in reading military history, or about contemporary military affairs, that it is necessary to read critically, in the current American sense of the word. Read with a questioning attitude about the facts recounted, about the purported intentions of the people involved, test what you are reading as you go against your own knowledge and experience and ask if it makes any sense.

Clausewitz, writing about the second element, evaluation, offers this:

If the critic wishes to distribute praise or blame, he must certainly try to put himself exactly in the position of the commander; in other words, he must assemble everything the commander knew and all the motives that affected his decision, and ignore all that he could not or did not know, especially the outcome.

This is true not just in the military realm, but in assessing the performance of any historical figure. The way I have put it, and I literally imagine myself in the scene, is to “put yourself behind his desk”, or in the case of a general, on his horse, or in his jeep, or in his Fieseler Storch, in the field, knowing only what he knew. This imaginative exercise helps me to understand something of what the past must have been like. It would help, I think, the aspiring military commander to think through what the fog of war will really be like on the day he faces it.

Clausewitz closes Chapter Five with a “critique of the critics” (my term). He notes that sometimes the detailed facts of a historical case may not be available, and hence recourse must be had to the “relevant principles established by theory”, what we lawyers call “gap fillers”. However this must not lead to the use of “arcane and obscure language”. The person studying the case must express himself “in plain speech, with a sequence of clear, lucid concepts”.

Clausewitz notes three problems with writers on the subject of war. First, some try to create “formal bodies of laws”, which he has rebutted elsewhere. Second, he notes a “far more serious menace”, which is “the retinue of jargon, technicalities, and metaphors that attend these systems. They swarm everywhere – a lawless rabble of camp followers.” He goes on:

Thus it has come about that our theoretical and critical literature, instead of giving plain, straightforward arguments in which the author at least always knows what he is saying and the reader what he is reading, is crammed with jargon, ending at obscure crossroads where the author loses his readers. Sometimes these books are even worse: they are just hollow shells. The author himself no longer knows just what he is thinking and soothes himself with obscure ideas which would not satisfy him if express in plain speech.

(Again, I find the notation 5GW! itching to be written in the margin.)

Chapter Six pertains to the use of historical examples, which I will not comment on.

Clausewitz’s Book Two opens up various avenues of thought for today.

Clausewitz’s does not say how the kind of historical writing, critical analysis, and personal study he advocates is going to take place. At least in On War, he makes no institutional recommendations. We know that the Prussian-German General Staff caused military history to be researched and written, and trained officers to be critical thinkers based on their reading and their experience on maneuvers and in the war. The Germans had notable success in the tactical and operational level of war, but higher strategy was an area where Germany repeatedly failed. I have read that the Germans tried to institutionalize “genius”. If that is so, they failed, as was inevitable. Genius may, possibly, be recognized and cultivated, but it cannot be manufactured.

How well does the American military train its people, using Clausewitz’s chapter as a yardstick? As an outsider and non-e3xpert, I cannot say. There is a great deal of military history available in books and other publications. There are reading lists propounded. I don’t know how well or carefully anyone reads the books on these lists, or what they get out of them. After almost two hundred years, could an American officer meet his mandatory professional obligations and obtain and/or give himself the mental training Clausewitz describes? I don’t know. I fear not.

Further, is the American military in any way organized or inclined to identify, cultivate and promote military genius? I don’t know. Is Gen. Petraeus a military genius, in Clausewitz’s sense? Again, I don’t know. In his case it may be too early to tell. It seems that historically the answer has been “no”. Genius has been identified, if ever, on an ad hoc basis, either during wartime, or in Marshall’s case from his list of seemingly talented officers, from which he selected his senior commanders in World War II.

Incidentally, Clausewitz seems to say nothing about the art and science of identifying talent, cultivating it, training subordinates and selecting subordinate commanders. He himself was so selected and protected by Scharnhorst. Napoleon selected a band of extraordinary subordinates. These are massively important skills and practices. Why does he omit these critical elements of command?

As we learn more and more about the tragic lack of foresight, and the painful process of formulating a strategy after the fact for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for Clausewitzian critical analysis is grimly apparent. It did not happen before either war was initiated, at least not with regard to the occupation phase, in either case. The historical record on the quality of preparation prior to war initiation is generally not good, either in the USA or in any country. What can be done to insure that the type of failure we are now learning about prior to Iraq and Afghanistan does not occur again?

One thing that struck me is Clausewitz’s saying that the essence of critical analysis is to dig down and trace effects back to causes. This means answering the difficult question: “Why?” Who, What, Where, When and How are all hard enough to answer. But figuring out “why” is hardest of all. It takes deep historical understanding to get to the “why” questions with any confidence.

If it is the case that knowledge of war must be learned inductively from experience and historical examples, I could see two projects that the military should be engaging in now.

First, an effort to preserve the lessons learned from the current two wars in some organized and systematic fashion. The questioning should be both formal questionnaires as well as a more free form interview process. For all I know, this is already being done. But I recall Mark Bowden’s introduction to Black Hawk Down, where he expected that the Army would have a set of binders with interviews of the personnel involved in the incident as well as other material. In fact there was nothing whatsoever. The event was an embarrassment and no one wanted to preserve it. Of course, the lessons of a defeat are axiomatically more valuable than those of a victory. If nothing else, they are harder won. Also, they may be the only fruit to be gathered from an otherwise barren field. So, I hope something like this is being done.

Second, there is aan enormous corpus of books and articles on counterinsurgency, and on low intensity conflict, and on terrorism, and on training indigenous forces, and on successful and unsuccessful occupations of conquered countries, and various other topics. It is far too much for any one person to read and digest. It seems to me that a systematic survey of this literature could be done to formulate a database, maybe a wiki, of comparative examples from all the many relevant episodes. This would provide the empirical inductive base to make generalizations, of the type Clausewitz set forth, that could then be used in training and planning. The idea here would be do derive as large and robust a set as possible of patterns and rules of thumb, such as Clausewitz referred to for the military operations he knew. In his day, it may have been “do not charge cavalry over muddy ground”, whereas today it may be some discernible good or bad practice when occupying a foreign country or resisting an insurgency. A team of experts could do a meta-analysis of the existing literature, including interviews with participants from all sides if possible, with the process kept always open-ended and frequently, periodically revisited and updated and revised as needed.

[UPDATE] As I thought about the preceding paragraph, I think that a wiki-type crowdsourced approach to this project, but casting the net pretty widely, is the only realistic way to do it. The “team of experts” could generate data, and questions, but the analysis and summarizing and extraction of key lessons could be done on a crowd-sourced basis, possibly in parallel with the “panel of experts”. The Crowd could be military personnel who actually have participated in recent conflicts, and others with relevant experience and knowledge. Looking at discrepencies between the expert-generated “theoretically relevant knowledge” and the same end-product derived from the crowd-sourcing would interesting in itself.

I think Clausewitz would expect us to dig down on the best written sources, in a critical way, to try to dredge up and bring to light the patterns that could become a guide to future action. In this way, his vision of war-theory-as-formation-for-command could be realized under current conditions.

7 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: The “theory” of war is purely a means of professional formation.”

  1. Another great post Lex. You handled science, moral forces and history well. I may junk my original idea for a Book II post and use you as a foil.

    5GW, once a kind of logical follow up to an avant-garde school of military thought, is now vastly expanded to an incoherent F***king mess. Not to brag but I’m one of the earliest people to write about it, definitely in the first five and I have no idea what 5GW is supposed to be or mean anymore other than as a handy “magic cloud” for whatever is not conventional state vs. state warfare. Which tells us nothing.

  2. “Thus it has come about that our theoretical and critical literature, instead of giving plain, straightforward arguments in which the author at least always knows what he is saying and the reader what he is reading, is crammed with jargon, ending at obscure crossroads where the author loses his readers. Sometimes these books are even worse: they are just hollow shells. The author himself no longer knows just what he is thinking and soothes himself with obscure ideas which would not satisfy him if express in plain speech. ”

    I too thought of releasing a grand broadside against the concept of 5GW at this point, but decided against it. We’re discussing CvC here, not overly-dialectical concepts laced with enormous amounts of intellectual certainty and hubris.

    One of the virtues of the military mind is that it is, ideally, very practical. This is why most military practitioners will buy into various 4GW concepts, but refuse to buy into the whole theory of 4GW. There is nothing of value to practitioners in the realm of 5GW–whatever that is. Until that concept gets some coherence, loses the pretension, and becomes even marginally practical, most actual military men will never buy into it. It is contrary to our nature to buy into half-baked, pretentious, & impractical concepts.

    Clausewitz would never have bought into such a concept. Nor do I.

  3. Since I am being so hard on the dreamers of 5GW, I am going to have to suggest some alternative vocabulary. That’s only fair, and I will do so.

    There are new and real problems coming into view amidst the swirling fog. If anything, the 5GW conversation got some thinking started. But, the 5, the G and W all seem to fit poorly. So we will re-label the bins, and re-examine the contents, and see if that helps.

  4. It’s curious how many general and specialist works on war there are and how systematically they are ignored. There are seven military classics of China besides the Sun Tzu, some of which contain valuable information. The Indian strategist Kautilya wrote a work of staggering comprehensiveness about war two thousand years ago. He even invented what 5GW is supposed to be without all of the useless accumulation of intellectual bric-a-brac. Even CvC is relegated to an afterthought in some circles. As you say, it would be nice if all these works were laid out in a comprehensive library for the easy use of the interested reader. I thought about extracting such a collection from my own library but the time involved is enormous.

  5. There are three English translations of Kautilya’s Arthashastra:

    The 1915 translation by Rudrapatna Shamasastry:

    This one is available online but it is not based on the best sources and the language is bad high Victorian.

    The 1972 translation by R.P. Kangle

    The Kangle translation is the most complete and based on the best sources but there are few copies available from U.S. booksellers and ordering it from the original Indian publisher is a somewhat laborious process. I own it but I haven’t gotten around to reading it.

    The 1987 translation by L. N. Rangarajan

    There are more copies of the Rangarajan translation available from U.S. booksellers. It has good explanatory notes and illustrations. While this translation may be the most accessible, it’s incomplete: it only excerpts from the Arthashastra. This one I’ve read.

    The Kangle translation is the best translation. However, the Rangarajan is a better introductory text. A good introductory volume to read alongside the Arthashastra is The First Great Political Realist: Kautilya and His Arthashastra by Roger Boesche:

    I expand upon the Arthashastra at greater length here:

    focusing upon how Kautilya provided a better taxonomy of war 2000+ years ago that any *GW framework has in the last 20:

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