Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: Clausewitz as social theorist

In Book 2 of On War Clausewitz attempts to clarify the reasons why formal theories of war are no help to a commander-in-chief. He criticizes contemporary theorists as being too mechanical, too reliant on material factors. Clausewitz reminds us that war takes place in a social space, with social conventions that are fluid and cannot be pinned down by static “rules of war”. However, he fails any attempt at social analysis. Rather, he spends his time trying to differentiate between “knowledge”, “intellect” and “judgement”. This muddles what is otherwise a brilliant observation: “War is an act of human intercourse” (pp. 149).

The theorists Clausewitz lambasts were preoccupied with the material factors of war which led to mathematical equations and other detached abstractions. One is reminded of the books found in the bargain bin at the mall: How to make friends or Get a girl in 5 minutes or less. These types of social guide are obviously a sham. Clausewitz similarly regards the Jominis of the military strategy world. “Get a date” books are no substitute for real experience, something that Clausewitz emphasizes ad nauseuam throughout On War. Social skills are a result of years of interaction, aka “combat” experience. Dating, like war, is a social act.

First, we must differentiate between social and material factors. Material, or “brute” facts, are those given by nature, and remain true regardless of ideational beliefs. One often used example is of a golfer being hit by lightning. Whether or not the golfer believes in electricity, he will be electrocuted. Brute facts are contrasted with social facts, which are dependent on human social beliefs. Money is the classic example of a social fact.

Material factors in war are those that deal with the physical aspects of fighting. Considering warfare between human groups in only these terms is short-sighted. Rules based on material factors could include:

  • always fight with your back to the sun
  • never fight uphill
  • take South America or Australia first and collect your cards before moving on to other continents

Social factors are conventions based on cultural norms decided through social interaction. These social rules are often the root of the sense of a “fair fight”. Some examples include:

  • do not target medical staff or members of the press
  • do not execute POWs
  • wait for the other guy’s turn before moving your next chess piece

Clausewitz cannot seem to differentiate these two groups. In fact, he lists the material factors of time of day, terrain and weather (pp. 142-3) alongside the social rule that “withdrawal from the battlefield is the sign of victory” (pp. 142).

Social factors can play a pivotal role in an engagement. During the Kamakura period the Japanese style of one on one combat with longswords was forever changed after facing a Mongol cavalry charge and a wall of Chinese spearmen. Furthermore, social factors abound in the first Book of On War where Clausewitz lists the general variables of war (see my equation for examples). Part of Clausewitz’s military “genius” could be “social intelligence”. This type of intelligence plays an important role in understanding personal relations, navigating and influencing politics, and affects interpretive skills such as those needed in intelligence analysis. As in the Mongolian example above, social rules periodically clash with changing times or new enemies. A military “socialite” would have the attuned social intelligence to not only detect these changes but to be able to react to them.

Clausewitz was correct to identify the social dimension as a weak point of the materialists. His only fault was being 250 years ahead of his time, before social constructivism had an established framework to deal with the problem.

3 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: Clausewitz as social theorist”

  1. Interesting angle. I think that the unfinished nature of Book II may something to do with this muddled mixture of factors. Also, though, you are also right that social science was simply not very advanced, and Clausewitz had to make it up as he went along. He not only had to build his model and explain it, he had to make his own tools to do it, as he went along.

    His belief in the absolute importance of military experience does come out again and again. He emphasizes that it makes sense to retain foreign officers, and send your own officers abroad, if necessary, to get combat experience into the army.

    I suppose that the idea here is that the good commander can navigate amongst the material AND human factors, and (if I am right about the essence of Book II) the focus is then on the highly talented commander who can tackle anything that comes his way, as you say part of the “genius” is an awareness of the “[s]ocial factors [that] can play a pivotal role in an engagement”.

    Another reason that he may not play up the distinction between material and social factors is the nature of his audience. While he was striving toward a very general theory of war, he also was interested in utility. Thus he was primarily addressing his peers, who were European officrs of his own era whose land armies would fight very similar armies using very similar weapons and tactics and training. The issue of cross-cultural conflict is implicit in his writing, here and there, but not a big focus. So, the “social factors” which come into play for his target audience were common and more or less uniform and once known become “given” in a way that is akin to weather and terrain.

    The story would be and would necessarily be very different where a European army fought a very different enemy (which may not even take the form of an army at all) which brings different presumptions and attitudes and concepts to the conflict. For example, Wellesley had to know something about the “social factors” pertaining to conflict with the Marathas, and he studied them and made sure he did, as I mentioned here.

    So, while Clausewitz did not develop the category of “social factors”, he did notice its existence, stated its importance, and left it for others to fill in that box with factual details — details which arose mostly in wars that the Prussians and Germans did not get involved in. The British and the French and the Americans were the ones who spent time fighting people from alien cultures, with a mixed record of success, but with more success where they learned something about the people they were fighting.

  2. “Clausewitz cannot seem to differentiate these two groups. In fact, he lists the material factors of time of day, terrain and weather (pp. 142-3) alongside the social rule that “withdrawal from the battlefield is the sign of victory”

    This may be where Clausewitz was still only “thinking out loud” on paper and refining his ideas. How much harder it is to do this kind of thing without feedback from peers – Clausewitz no doubt rued the death of his mentor von Scharnhorst for this very reason.

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