Clausewitz, On War, Book II: Inducing a General Theory of War

In 1916, Albert Einstein published the General Theory of Relativity. As its name implies, the “general” theory was a broader – ostensibly more strategic – application of his Special Theory of Relativity from 1905. After starting with the descriptive, Einstein then broadened his perspective to induce a general theory that could be used to describe the nature of all universal forces.

Carl von Clausewitz followed this same path nearly a century earlier, first formulating his “Special Theory of War” in Book I – a descriptive text that defined “what” war is – before inducing a “General Theory” of how war applies across time and space. Last week blogfriend Zenpundit showed how Clausewitz truly preceded his day in a number of fields (economics, biology, political theory). Critt Jarvis’s “Fractal” post led us to conclude that Carl von was ahead of his time in complexity science, and now we can see that he was also considering the implications of spacetime nearly 80 years before Minkowski.

While Book I is a compelling read with logic progression and a powerful conclusion, Book II is more disjointed – with several sections that appear to be early thoughts that had not been fully articulated (e.g., his two sentence declaration on weather – apparently a semantic construct to reinforce his later development of the “fog” metaphor).

In Book II we also see Clausewitz the historian – not only in the historical examples described in Chapter Six, but in his harsh critique of the fundamental ideas of the other most-cited theorist of war, Sun Tzu. By asserting both the essentially violent nature of war as well as the primacy of the tactical over the strategic, Clausewitz dismisses Sun Tzu’s “acme of skill” (i.e, to win without fighting) as a “mistake” with “immense implications”.

By expanding upon the nature of war described in Book I, Clausewitz expounds a theory of war that is violent, dangerous, and fundamentally uncertain – but within the context of moral values. Or does he mean morale? His examples from Chapter Two (e.g., ambushes and flanking attacks) seem to indicate the latter: the emotional or mental condition of forces in the face of hardship and opposition, as opposed to distinctions of universal right and wrong.

8 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book II: Inducing a General Theory of War”

  1. Was Sun Tzu’s “acme of skill”, winning without violence, an actual and realizable goal or was it more like Clausewitz’s Absolute War, an ideal which was not realizable in practice. I thought it was more like the latter.

  2. Lex,

    I have always interpreted Sun Tzu’s adage as the former: something achievable, albeit for the wise leader who follows his advice. But we can see hints of Clausewitz’s disdain for this approach, since the adversary will preserve the means to wage violence later — and very likely would (in Carl von’s mind) once the previous victor’s back were turned….

  3. Lex, When you do read Sun Tzu, I recommend the Samuel Griffiths translation. It’s a quick read — more Zen than dialectic.

  4. LG : I’d suggest you list down the things that Sun Tzu failed to mention… but that’s probably more applicable for a future post or Roundtable. Well, it’s ONLY 13 chapters. How’d you submit posts here? Am a lil’ lost.

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