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  • Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

    Posted by Mathew Borton on January 25th, 2009 (All posts by )

    In book II, Clausewitz goes into great detail about the formation and application of theory. While he espouses little actual theory here, he does hammer home one extremely important idea.

    The most prominent point, in my mind, is that there is no one-size fits-all solution. Clausewitz discusses the use of “routine“ as necessary for ancillary functions and training, as it provides basic knowledge on a tactical level for troops in the field, and provide the junior officer with “brisk, precise, and reliable leadership, reducing natural friction and easing the working of the machine” (p. 153). However, it is clear that even at this tactical level, and with rank and file troops and junior officers, Clausewitz intends for routine to be used only as a framework for action, not as an immutable set of rules that must be followed. In fact, Clausewitz’ point for the entirety of chapter two appears to be that theory in war should used as a framework, never doctrine, and never considered an unassailable code of action. He again emphasizes that the commander should instead rely on his “genius”, referring to theory only as a tool to “educate the mind of the future commander, or more accurately, to guide him in his self education, not to accompany him to the battlefield…”(p. 141).

    Clausewitz goes on to explain that experience and history are an important part of theory of war, but provides strong cautions for careful interpretation of historical events due to unreported factors involved in the decision processes used by past commanders. This, combined with inappropriate application of previously successful strategies can lead to disastrous results.

    In my experience, this philosophy tends to be true not only in war but in any situation that involves conflict or decision-making. Often, relying on inflexible doctrine alone leads to brittle solutions that shatter when significantly tested. Organizations that drink from the well of “that’s the way we do it, and that’s the way it’s always been done,” often find themselves out of business. I need to stress that like war, there is a place for standards and routine, but they should serve only as guides for practice.


    One Response to “Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: No One-Size-Fits-All Solution”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      Mathew, I agree with all this. Clausewitz tells us Book II will be about theory, but then does not really delivery a theory. He instead delivers a method to derive lessons that the military commander can study, so that they become incorporated in his decision process. It is almost an anti-theory, for a practice — nmilitary command — which is anti-theoretical.

      “In fact, Clausewitz’ point for the entirety of chapter two appears to be that theory in war should used as a framework, never doctrine, and never considered an unassailable code of action.”

      I think that is right. John Boyd said “doctrine becomes dogma”, which is to be avoided.

      Nonetheless, a certain amount of doctrine is necessary so that large groups of people are can act in concert, and act under high stress, and not accidentally shoot each other all the time. So, there is a tradeoff. Clausewitz recognizes this when he talks about the need for routine in training, particularly for the more mechanical functions.

      Also agreed that the too much doctrine/dogma in any organization can be fatal. Of course, the “fatality” in military operations is literally death and destruction. So, the stakes there are higher.