Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: Chapter 1 Comments

The probing of the theorist of the moral pretension of the national interest puts him in an awkard position by making him suspect of being indifferent to all truth and morality.  This is why there are so many ideologies and so few theories.

Hans Joachim Morgenthau, 1962

The first chapter of Book 2 has some interesting points which lead to a fuller understanding of Clausewitz’s intent and the various falacies that he sees associated with theory.  I will comment on four points, but this is not meant to indicate that there are not others present in this chapter. 

First, Clausewitz shows the distinction between weapons and equipment and fighting, the latter however is the essential element to the phenomenon of war, which is what designates war from other types of social activity.  There is also this, “Fighting has determined the nature of the weapons employed, these in turn influence the combat; thus an interaction exists between the two.”

Edward Luttwak developed this interaction very well in his book Strategy, The Logic of War and Peace in his technological level of war which interacts with his tactical, operational or strategic levels producing the corresponding effect.  Yet another example of how the general theory can be built upon and further developed.

Second, Clausewitz describes the utility of his general theory (once again the points he makes here concern war as a phenomenon, not any specific epoch), that being “valid for the great majority of cases and not completely unsuitable for any” that in turn dealing with the means which is fighting, not a specific technology.  As is commonly understood in social theory today, all theories of this type encounter anomalies.  The question is which theory does a better job of describing the phenomenon of war?  That of Clausewitz or any of his competitors?  And that theory is not expected to describe the military culture of any one political community, which for Clausewitz is outside of war itself, belonging to the social conditions that predate and (as “objective politics”) influence war.  The theory rather is expected to describe the interaction between the two or more warring political communities.  Finally, the distinctions between strategic and tactical theory are also introduced, with the tactical being more time-bound (based on the examples provided) than the strategic.

Third, fighting consists of a sequence of engagements, each complete in itself.  Here we see his famous distinction between “tactics” and “strategy”.  Hew Strachan has mentioned in his biography of Clausewitz (Clausewitz’s On War, pp 109-110), that Clausewitz saw the “operational” as existing between “tactical” and “strategic” but avoided this third concept “as an obstacle to conceptual clarity”.  Later I will comment on Clausewitz being in effect the creator of the concept of operational art.  This distinction/dialectic between tactics and strategy is covered more thoroughly later in this book.

Fourth, and the final point I will bring up, is the summary consisting of the final three paragraphs of this chapter which are worth careful comtemplation.  Does the comment as to the “rankest pedant” concern expecting predictive qualities from strategic theory, which must necessarily be retrospective?  What exactly is the “fixed point of view” mentioned in the last paragraph?  I’ll leave the answer to the first question to the reader, as to the second, the answer in my mind is obvious.  The “fixed point of view” is the political purpose, the rational element of the remarkable trinity.  This the perspective from which the seemingly chaotic phenomenon of war can theoretically make sense.

2 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: Chapter 1 Comments”

  1. Variations in weapons may or may not require the addition of another “layer”. Clausewitz’s referring to adversaries being stronger or weaker may also include quantity and quality of weapons. The weaker has to use means suited to his weakness, such as protracting the war, making attacks that have a directly political effect, and others that Clausewitz refers to. As we have seen, a party possessing more and better weapons may also fall into various errors, such at thinking the weapons allow him to shortchange other factors, such as maintaining popular support, or possessing a coherent and workable strategy. But, in any case, the basic framework can remain in place even with rapidly changing technology, or gread disparities in technology.

    You are right that the standard for assessing a theory in the “human sciences” as opposed to those dealing with inanimate nature, must be different. A postulate in physics must always and everywhere be true. All carbon atoms, all electrons, for the purposes of scientific measurement and scientific theory, are identical. The type of theory Clausewitz offers just has to (1) capture some large number of cases, and (2) be better than the next best theory. So far, he has been the gold standard in the West, anyway.

    I think you are correct that Clausewitz has anticipated the operational level of war, where he says that campaigns are where engagements are tied together in a series to obtain a strategic result.

    I am not sure what the “fixed point of view” is that he refers to in the last paragraph of Book II, Chap. 1. This is one of those places where I wonder if the translation is nots good.

  2. Lexington Green-

    Definitely the gold standard with the next best theory yet to be written . . . which explains a lot. Not of course that we cannot expand upon Clausewitz’s general theory by combining compatible concepts from Max Weber and/or Hans Morgenthau to approach a general theory of politics.

    As to the “fixed point of view”, this comes up again in Book 8, Chapter 6B . . . has to do once again with seeing the general theory as a whole.

    As I mentioned in an initial communication when we were planning this roundtable the pagination is different in the Princeton and Knopf (Everyman’s Library) editions of the Paret/Howard translation. Using the latter, my including page numbers would only confuse.

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