Clausewitz, On War, Book III: Factors to Be Considered in Making and Executing Strategy

Clausewitz set forth the nature of war, in Book I. What we saw there was that the nature of war can only be incompletely known, by a series of analogies. It is deepest nature cannot ever be realized in practice, but only tends toward “Absolute War”. In Book II Clausewitz discussed the theory of war, disclosing that there is no actual theory, but only a method of study, which is to be internalized by the commander. In Book III, “On Strategy in General” he tells that strategy is at bottom simple, yet exceedingly difficult in practice, and devotes most of his discussion to telling us the things that other writers have erroneously believed to be true about strategy. So, to recap our journey so far, we have been told that (1) there is an inner logic to war — that never happens in reality, (2) the theory of war is induction and intuition and examples, but not a theory in any ordinary sense, and (3) strategy is simple as an idea, hard in practice, and not what most people think it is.

The pattern here is pretty clear. You expect Clausewitz to tell you something, but when he does, he takes most of it back, and he tells you that a lot of what matters is inarticulable. Clausewitz works not only by induction, and example, but also by indirection and paradox. Most of all, he works by analogy, to suggest the shape of something that cannot be explained to lay persons who have not experienced the stress of high command, the hardships of campaigning, the hazards and confusion of battle. Yet he is not trying to be difficult or clever. He is trying to show that what most smart people try to make war out to be is wrong, and why it is wrong. He wants to articulate a better understanding, so a superior practice of war can be undertaken, in place of the erroneous ideas and actions he sees all around. He would rather be difficult, or merely suggest something that cannot be said, than to say something that is actually false.

On War is unfinished, as we are told. You really start to feel that in Book III. Book I was dense, but well thought out. Book II had many interesting ideas, and a fairly coherent organization. Book III is distinctly less finished than the first two. Perhaps as a lawyer, I am better suited to read such a document. I receive productions of documents in the course of litigation. I am obliged to pick through these various documents looking for the relevant and useful material amidst the detritus. On that basis, Book III is like a very late draft of an uncompleted memorandum, with some extraneous material, and some places where more would probably have been generated, had Clausewitz had the chance to keep working on it. Of course, unfortunately, Clausewitz is not available for deposition. To change the metaphor, Book I was almost all refined metal, Book II was high grade ore, and some refined metal, and Book III is good ore with some admixture of slag.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Strategy”. First, a definition: “Strategy is the use of engagements for the purpose of the war.” Simple enough. This is distinct from tactics, which is the employment of troops in the course of engagements. Clausewitz refers to a person, “the strategist”, who is the military commander. “The strategist must therefore define the aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose.” The “strategist” does not determine the purpose of the war. That is presumably the province of the political leadership. The strategist takes that purpose as a given, he then “drafts the plan of war”, to align the execution of the war, the selection and planning and achievement of the military aims, so that the political purposes of the war is achieved. Harking to earlier themes, Clausewitz tells us that the strategist must generate plans, but that plans are always to some degree off the mark, and that the strategist must “go on campaign himself” and “maintain control throughout”. Clausewitz also tells us that the military genius is the commander who “manages his campaign exactly to suit his objectives and his resources, doing neither too much nor too little.” Here we see both the notion of “genius” and the notion of balance between extremes.

Clausewitz tells us that it is a mistake to focus too much on the physical element in war, attempting to make geometric or mathematical models, where in fact the imponderable mental and moral elements are actually predominant.

He tells us also, echoing an earlier statement, that “everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean everything is easy.” Rather “great strength of character, as well as great lucidity and firmness of mind, is required in order to follow through steadily, to carry out the plan, and not to be thrown off by thousands of diversions.” He notes that it is easier to be paralyzed by indecision at the higher levels of command, where there is more time to think, and the stakes are higher, than in the heat and rapidity of a tactical engagement.

We saw something in Book II of the intellectual and moral formation of the commander. We see in Book III this model person in action, as “the strategist” who draws up the plan, then through all hazards, sees the plan through to victory.

The editors have appended some notes that Clausewitz was never able to incorporate into Book II, Chapter 1. I will mention only one. He notes that the occupation of Paris in 1814 led to “political cleavages” coming to the surface, causing Napoleon’s power to collapse. But, Clausewitz asks, “suppose the allied strength had been similarly reduced by some external cause: their superiority would have vanished, and with it the whole effect and significance of their occupation of Paris.” I immediately saw an analogy to the US occupation of Baghdad, and the failure of the US to properly exploit that capture, and the failure of the US to possess the means to occupy the capital and the country. These failures caused the “whole effect and significance” of the US occupation of Baghdad to, likewise, vanish. Clausewitz goes on to say:

We are constantly brought back to the question: what, at any given stage of the war or campaign, will be the likely outcome of all the major and minor engagements that the two sides can offer one another? In the planning of a campaign or war, this alone will decide the measures that have to be taken from the outset.

Applying this to the conquest of Iraq, we see that the “likely outcome” of the war was not well considered, and that the planning of the campaign was therefore flawed from the outset. In particular, where the Allied occupation of Paris in 1814 destroyed the political solidarity of the French, making their further resistance impossible, the US occupation of Baghdad, with its failure to provide the expected security, or to impose political order, followed by the mass firing and denial of pensions to the Iraqi Army’s personnel, had the effect of creating and galvanizing political solidarity and opposition.

To continue this critique, we can apply Clausewitz’s statement that “the strategist must … define the aim for the entire operational side of the war [so that it] will be in accordance with its purpose.” In the case of the Iraq war, the leadership was determined to have a war, but the reason for the war and the means to be employed were never fully considered. The political purposes were muddled and confused on the part of the civilian leadership, in part due to multiple arguments being made to “sell” the war, which was predetermined by the leadership, to various constituencies. This means that there never could be a proper definition for the aim of the “operational side of the war”, since there was an array of “purposes”, some realistic, others not, and the way these various aims would be achieved, or their priority, was never determined.

To select just one inexcusable failure, Sec. Rumsfeld was determined to use a relatively small force to execute the war, believing correctly that the goal of destroying the Iraqi army could be achieved in this fashion, and that using a relatively smaller force was otherwise advantageous. However, this approach was totally at odds with the further, ill-considered war aim of “transforming” Iraq into a democratic ally. This aim was delusional and should never have been a policy of the American government. Nonetheless, assuming a best case scenario, such a transformation would inevitably require a large number of troops to occupy the country for a long time, great expense, deep involvement by civilian departments of government, support from allies, and many other elements that were never seriously considered, let alone put into operation. Assuming that this aim was ever serious, the entire “operational side of the war” should have been planned with it in mind. He who wills the end must will the means. Where there is a gap between them, it takes moral courage to say so aloud in the councils of leadership.

While it does not mitigate this failure, the pages of history show that all too often, as here, wishful thinking filled that gap between wished-for ends and existing means. The Germans before Barbarossa, the Japanese before Pearl Harbor, the Americans advancing toward the Yalu, the Americans sending a large army to Vietnam in 1965 … . In each case ends were not well thought out, or were extemporized on the fly, and the means selected were not compatible with any realistic end worth having. The urge of civilian leaders to “do something”, and the demands they place on their uniformed services to “do” that “something” often leads down a rat hole with no exit.

The planning and execution of the Iraq War by the US civilian and military leadership was a grave failure, as is now well known, as a matter of historical fact. The seamless balancing of means and ends in war planning and operations is the essence of strategic genius, as Clausewitz tells us. By this standard, the US leadership fell very far short of genius, even of competence. Clausewitz’s analysis of proper strategy gives us some insight into the nature of the US failure, and highlights questions that should have been asked, and factors that should have been taken into account, before the resort to arms.

The remainder of Book III is a series of short chapters, each of which covers a topic which must be considered and understood by “the strategist” in drawing up his war plan, then executing it. Clausewitz refers to various types of factors which make up the “Elements of Strategy”, in Chapter 2, including the “moral” and “physical” elements. By moral Clausewitz refers to intellectual qualities of the commander and the “morale” of the army. By “physical” he means numbers, and physical factors. As Younghusband noted, Clausewitz seems to mix these factors up in the rest of Chapter 2. Having now finished Book III, I think this is likely due to the unfinished nature of Book III.

Clausewitz notes that it is not possible to understand these factors in isolation, and that a “dreary analytical labyrinth would result” if one tried to analyze their interconnections on an “abstract basis” apart from the “facts of life”. Again, Younghusband gave us a picture of what such an abstract “labyrinth” would look like, by formulating an equation showing the relationship amongst the similar “variables of war” mentioned by Clausewitz in Book I. Even if the factors could all be teased out, there is no meaningful way to reduce them to any kind of consistent interaction, let alone quantify them. They can only be listed, the strategist can be aware of them. The strategist must then make his assessments, in his planning and execution, on a holistic and partly intuitive basis.

Chapter 3, entitled “Moral Factors” states specifically that these factors “will not yield to academic wisdom. They cannot be classified or counted. They have to be seen or felt.” The moral dimension pervades all three parts of his trinity: “The spirit and other moral qualities of an army, a general or a government, the temper of the population of the theatre of war, the moral effects of victory and defeat — all these vary greatly.” He notes that most writers on strategy make an error by failing to grasp the critical nature of the moral element compared to the physical.

Recall that in Book II we saw that the military officer who hopes to ascend to high command should study military history, by the method Clausewitz described as “critical analysis”. He makes a further refinement of this proposed program in Chapter 3, where he says “History provides the strongest proof of the moral factors and their often incredible effect; this is the most solid nourishment that the mind of a general mad draw from the study of the past.” So, Clausewitz is saying that the general, or the lieutenant who plans to be a general one day, should focus his study of military history less on the material factors of the past, but on the less tangible factors that characterize the armies and commanders of the past. A reading list on this sub-area is an interesting thought experiment. Certainly it would include Slim’s Defeat into Victory. I would enjoy hearing the suggestions of others.

But, as he so often does, after saying something concrete about intangible things, Clausewitz, as if irritated at himself and his reader for trying to compass the God of War within human bounds, offers this admonition:

Parenthetically, it should be noted that the seeds of wisdom that are to bear fruit in the intellect are sown less by critical studies and learned monographs, than by insights, broad impressions, and flashes of intuition.

This is somewhat dispiriting. It is almost as if he says, “study war, in fact, study the moral element in war, this is the food for your mind”, only to take it back and say “but even if you do, it won’t do you much good!

To admonish the reader to rely on “insights, broad impressions, and flashes of intuition” could almost be the unusable admonition “be brilliant, be a genius!”, almost, even, “use the Force!” But, I think that would be a misreading. He is merely saying, mucking around in books is no guarantee of anything, and doing lots of reading is of no use unless the lessons are deeply internalized, as he told us in Book II. Then, these flashing insights may come.

Those of us who have spent an inordinate amount of time reading history do get these flashes, we see large patterns, we see connections. The same thing happens with scientists, who have an intuition that precedes any experiment, which is in fact the initiating cause of the experiment, the source of the hypothesis to be tested. These insights are not based on nothing, and they do not come unbidden or at random. They are, in fact, the mind making connections among many things, including deep reading and its lessons, tested against the harder won lessons of experience. The muse sings only when she will, but she only sings to those who woo her. The broader the reading and experience, provided there is some inborn aptitude to build on, the more frequent and the more useful these insights will be.

In Chapter 4 Clausewitz tells us that the “Principal Moral Elements” are “the skill of the commander, the experience and courage of the troops, and their patriotic spirit.” He notes that in his own day, the moral factors are particularly important, since the discipline and training (and equipment, though he does not expressly say so) of the major European powers were uniform. He notes that this was not always so, and that “a long period of peace may change this again”. Of course, this is precisely what happened. A very long period of peace among the major European powers did in fact lead to great changes in the training, discipline and especially the equipment of their armies. Clausewitz noted in Book II, Chapter 2, that the development of warfare and its increased sophistication and complexity led to an increased need for theory. He did not speculate (at least in the portions I have read so far) what further developments might occur, but his own words show he was open that prospect.

Clausewitz further notes:

The troops’ national feeling (enthusiasm, fanatical zeal, faith and general temper) is most apparent in mountain warfare, where every man, down to the individual soldier, is on his own. For this reason alone mountainous areas constitute the terrain best suited for action by an armed populace.

He was probably thinking of Spain when he wrote this, or possibly Switzerland. Nonetheless, these two sentences are like a beam of light from the past illuminating two centuries of British, Russian and now American / NATO efforts to conquer and pacify Afghanistan. The character of the mountain people whom Clausewitz describes here in a generic way closely matches the Pashtun people who constitute the heart of the current resistance to the USA and its allies in Afghanistan, and astride the border into Pakistan. The “armed populace” there is probably, literally, impossible to defeat. That population must be co-opted and a political solution imposed, via a counterinsurgency strategy. The American leadership is apparently formulating such a plan now. What has been tried so far has not worked.

Chapter 5 is entitled “Military Virtues of the Army”. Clausewitz notes: “War is a special activity, different and separate from any other pursued by man”, and that “the business of war will always remain individual and distinct”.

The lesson Clausewitz derives from this is that the “spirit and essence” of the profession of arms must be permeate its members, who will perceive themselves as “a kind of guild” and who will have professional pride. He offers almost a hymn or poem to this spirit, which merits retyping and rereading:

An army that maintains its cohesion under the most murderous fire; that cannot be shaken by imaginary fears and resists well-founded ones with all its might; that, proud of its victories, will not lose the strength to obey orders and its respect and trust for its officers even in defeat; whose physical power, like the muscles of an athlete, has been steeled by training in privation and effort; a force that regards such efforts as a means to victory rather than a curse on its cause; that is mindful of all these duties and qualities by virtue of the single powerful idea of the honor of its army — such an army is imbued with the true military spirit.

Then, as ever, having set forth an ideal, Clausewitz takes it back. He tells that it is nonetheless possible for an army to be successful without these virtues. However, what is important is that the degree to which it has them is a factor the strategist must weigh. For example, a people in arms bring certain distinct virtues to bear as “natural warlike qualities”.

Clausewitz then notes something that is great significance in our age of regular forces fighting irregular insurgents and guerrillas:

A regular army fighting another regular army can get along without military virtues more easily than when it is opposed by a people in arms; for in the latter case, the forces have to be split up, and the separate unites will more frequently have to fend for themselves. Where the troops can remain concentrated, however, the talents of the commander are given greater scope, and can make up for a lack of spirit among the troops. Generally speaking, the need for military virtues becomes greater the more the theater of operations and other factors tend to complicate the war and disperse the forces.

This is somewhat paradoxical. The need for the military virtues is most acute not when fighting what we would now call high intensity, symmetrical conflicts. Rather, these virtues are most needed precisely when fighting a dispersed struggle against a people in arms, due to the dispersal of the forces, and the inability of the commander to supervise his far flung subordinates, and due to the necessity that these dispersed, small units take a great deal of responsibility. The idea of the “strategic corporal” fits in here.

This is not happy news for a would-be superpower which expects to have to engage in counter-insurgency campaigns. First, these are labor intensive. They require a lot of troops scattered over a large area. Second, there is no shortcut in terms of training or morale. The troops must be of high quality, more so than ever, when engaged in this type of conflict. Third, the idea that these tasks can be handed off to proxies may well not work, unless those proxies can be trained up to a high level of skill and esprit, since it would be worse than useless to commit low quality troops to such a struggle. Note that the foregoing is all true, based on Clausewitz’s old book, and based on contemporary observation. Further, a factor he did not foresee, is that the regular troops will be under scrutiny, by the news media, and the political opponents at home of the administration that is prosecuting the war, as well as foreigners. The actions of these dispersed troops could have a directly political impact implicating the overall prosecution of the war, either on the actions of the political leadership or the public perception of the war and its ongoing support back home. A lack of professionalism is inevitably going to lead to errors or the actual or perceived inappropriate use of force, potentially undermining the entire war effort. The disgraceful Abu Ghraib episode may be seen as consistent with a failure to heed Clausewitz’s admonition about the need for a strong professional spirit in a war against a “people in arms”. That failure, of course, had strategic consequences for the entire war effort — due to directly political impact, rather than narrowly military factors.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Boldness”. Clausewitz makes some very strong statements about the critical importance of boldness.

In a commander a bold act may prove to be a blunder. Nevertheless, it is a laudable error, not to be regarded on the same footing as others. Happy the army where ill-timed boldness occurs frequently; it is a luxuriant weed, but indicates the richness of the soil. Even foolhardiness — that is, boldness without any object — is not to be despised: basically it stems from daring, which in this case has erupted with a passion unrestrained by thought. Only when boldness rebels against obedience, when it defiantly ignores an expressed command, must it be treated as a dangerous offense; then it must be prevented, not for its innate qualities, but because an order has been disobeyed, and in war obedience is of cardinal importance.
Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage in war than audacity. The truth of this observation will be self-evident to our readers
Boldness governed by superior intellect is the mark of a hero.
[A] distinguished commander without boldness is unthinkable. No man who is not bold can play such a role, and therefore we consider this quality the first prerequisite of the great military leader.

He notes two significant countervailing factors. First, commanders become less bold as they reach higher rank, due to the higher risks and due to age. Second, the character of advanced societies prevents the development of a spirit of boldness, a point made by Montesquieu, Adam Smith and Tocqueville. Modern societies based on trade and money-making are generally affluent, and hence soft, and less warlike, which is usually good. Except, sometimes you need them to be warlike.

The modern military is hampered by a third factor. The very legalistic and highly bureaucratic supervision down to the lowest levels likely compels caution and second-guessing, and rewards and promotes officers who stay out of trouble. This means that the entire military is structured to push in the exact opposite direction, toward timidity. A large, expensively trained, expensively equipped military, which has had the spirit of boldness leached out of it, is potentially much weaker than it may appear to be, particularly against bold opponents, however weak they may otherwise appear to be.

Recent events support this thesis. The change in strategy and the increase in troop strength which is referred to as the “Surge” in Iraq was a display of a certain degree of boldness. But it took the fear of unmitigated disaster and defeat to scare the political and military leadership so badly that they were willing to tolerate any degree of strategic boldness.

I will pass over the very brief Chapter 7, on “Perseverance”.

In Chapter 8, “Superiority in Numbers” Clausewitz makes the point, made earlier, that the European powers of his day had similar armies:

European armies are comparable in equipment, organization, and training. Such differences as may exist are to be found in the spirit of the troops and the ability of the commander. If we look at recent European history, we shall not find another Marathon.

Hence superiority in numbers is “the most important factor in the outcome of an engagement, so long as it is great enough to counterbalance all other contributing circumstances.” This leads to a simple rule: “It thus follows that as many troops as possible should be brought to the engagement at the decisive point.” “We believe then that in our circumstances and all similar ones, a main factor is the possession of strength at the really vital point.” Therefore, “[t]he first rule” is “put the largest possible army into the field.” Of course, having made this strong statement, as we now know he will inevitably do, he hedges it. “But it would be a serious misunderstanding of our argument, to consider numerical superiority as indispensable to victory; we merely wished to stress the relative importance.” Nonetheless, the material factor of maximum possible numerical superiority is critical and is often decisive. In the words of Stalin or Lenin, I have seen it attributed to both, quantity has a quality all its own.

The reference to Marathon, and “our circumstances”, shows that Clausewitz was aware of the possibility of what we would call an asymmetrical encounter, where two militaries of distinct capacities, perhaps the product of disparate cultures, would clash, with one side winning overwhelmingly, even though outnumbered. Of course, there were numerous “Marathons” outside of Europe before and during Clausewitz’s time, down to the early twentieth century. The British conquest of India was marked by repeated victories of British led armies, composed of British and Sepoy (native Indian) troops, over much larger armies. The destruction of the Mahdi at Omdurman was a late and spectacular example of this type of mismatch. By the mid-Twentieth century, the asymmetric exchange had stopped being one sided, and had shifted against the European power, with an increasing parity of weaponry, coupled with superior numbers of indigenous fighters, often possessing able commanders and strong spirit, fighting on their native ground.

All of this history is consistent with Clausewitz’s model and categories, as I see it.

Chapter 9 is entitled “Surprise”. Clausewitz devotes this chapter to saying that all commanders attempt to gain surprise. However, he downplays its strategic significance as a practical matter. Surprise, as he saw it, occurs primarily on the level of tactics, since the larger and more time-consuming activities, such as movements of armies, cannot be concealed or done rapidly:

Basically surprise is a tactical device, simply because in tactics time and space are limited in scale. Therefore in strategy surprise becomes more feasible the closer it occurs to the tactical realm, and more difficult, the more it approaches the higher levels of policy.

It is interesting that this was not the case for much of the Twentieth Century. Major surprises were achieved above the tactical level. The Tet Offensive was a surprise, as was Case Yellow, as was Pearl Harbor, as was Bagration, as was Overlord, as was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, the Chinese intervention across the Yalu, and Israeli initiation of hostilities in the 1967 war. At the highest level of policy, beyond the scope of war, Nixon’s trip to China was a surprise which changed the “correlation of forces” in the Cold War. Modern weapons, their speed and range, appear to have created a “golden age” of military surprise in the Twentieth Century. This may be one of the reason it was so bloody, because the prospect of a quick decisive victory seemed to be within reach on many occasions. With great power warfare apparently fading due to nuclear weapons, the lower end of the spectrum is becoming increasingly active. Terrorist attacks have to be surprises or they have no chance to work at all. The 9/11 attack was of course a surprise, as was the Madrid train bombing, and the recent attack on Mumbai. Each of these had major effects, and made an “end run” around the military power of the target states, and directly impacted the political and economic life of the target societies.

I suspect that the relative lack of utility of surprise in Clausewitz’s day was more the result of temporary and local conditions, and less a principle of warfare generally.

Chapter 10 is entitled “Cunning”. Clausewitz downplays cunning, by which he means ruses and tricks and deception. Again, the modern era seems to contradict this. The means of deception available in his day were to march an actual army somewhere it was not really going to attack, to fool the enemy. But this meant the useless employment of an actual army.

The modern age has shown many examples of effective deception. The Fortitude deception scheme made a significant contribution to the success of Overlord. Before the launching of Bagration, the Soviets employed a large and sophisticated campaign of maskirovka to deceive the Germans. In both cases fake radio traffic was employed, creating the impression of whole armies which were mere phantoms of the ether.

Much of what Hamas and Hezbollah and similar organizations do is deception, aimed directly at the political will of their enemies and supporters. By using human shields to cause civilian deaths among “their own” people, or to exaggerate or falsify civilian casualties, to obtain pictures of dead civilians for propaganda use, is a form of deception which is often effective.

Clausewitz concludes by noting, to put it in my words, that cunning is a weapon of the weak. Since of much of modern conflict is between putatively weak non-state entities fighting state-operated armies, then it is inevitable that cunning and tricks and deception and concealment will play a large role in the efforts of such groups to achieve their aims.

Further, the prospect of “cyber warfare” — to the limited extent I understand it — opens up new avenues for cunning and deception.

I will pass over Chapters 12-14. Chapter 15 is a further rebuttal of the vogue among writers in
Clausewitz’s day for reducing strategy to geometry. It is interesting that Clausewitz gives credit where it is due, observing that geometry is a predominant consideration in siege warfare. However, he concludes: “Strategy, they thought, expressed the higher functions of the intellect: they thought that war would be ennobled by its study, and according to a modern substitution of concepts, be made more scientific.” The italics are in the original. The desire to make the study of human interactions more scientific is still with us. Quantification has its place, perhaps even a predominant place these days, in the social sciences. But the interplay of two groups of thinking and acting human beings cannot be reduced to a mathematical model that is both nontrivial and true.

Chapter 16 is entitled “The Suspension of Action in War”. In it Clausewitz provides another way in which war can drift away from its tendency toward Absolute War as defined in Book I, Chapter 1. He notes that war requires activity, at minimum, someone must initiate an attack, so inactivity in war seems to be a contradiction in terms. Yet war has an observed tendency to lapse into inaction. He cites three reasons: Fear and indecision on the part of the commanders, imperfect information causing both parties to wait rather than act, third the greater strength of the defensive which may cause both parties at the same time to be too weak to attack. These factors can push warfare toward an indecisive set of actions, a war of “feints and parries”, where “gambling for high stakes seems to have turned into haggling for small change.” As a result activity in war can become spasmodic rather than continuous. Further, war fought “in the absence of great forces and passions” takes on this character. Any government which gets used to this nickel and dime style of warfare, is taking a risk: “Woe to the government, which, relying on half-hearted politics and a shackled military policy, meets a foe who, like the untamed elements, knows no law other than its own power!”

Clausewitz’s thesis that mutual fear and indecision will lead to inaction was in part borne out during the Cold War. The nuclear stalemate caused a tense, heavily armed stasis between the main protagonists on the main front in Europe. But it led to lots of smaller thrusts and parries in remote locales, where the nuclear tripwire was not a concern.

Clausewitz’s warned that a government and its military should beware of preparing for small scale and low intensity warfare as a permanent norm. This would present an opportunity to future opponents to raise the stakes and attack with higher intensity and ruthlessness. This seems to have some echo in the current debate about the US Army and its incorporation of counterinsurgency capabilities. How much should the Army allow itself to be shaped by this effort? Can it retain its skill and expertise and staffing and equipment for high intensity conventional conflict, while benefiting from the hard lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan? Can the COIN expertise be institutionalized without sacrificing the other capabilities? Does the money and the manpower and the political will exist to be good at all types of warfare up and down the spectrum? Clausewitz seems to say, if you must pick one, by ready to fight higher up the spectrum, where the hazards are greater and a loss would have far worse consequences.

But that may be pushing Clausewitz’s discussion too far.

The brief Chapter 17, “The Character of Contemporary Warfare” notes that the Napoleonic wars showed that modern states can and will wage warfare “to the full extent of their national strength”.

He specifically notes that:

The stubborn resistance of the Spaniards, marred as it was by weakness and inadequacy in particulars, showed what can be accomplished by arming a people and by insurrection. The Russian campaign of 1812 demonstrated that … the prospect of eventual success does not always decrease in proportion to lost battles, captured capitals, and occupied provinces, which is something that diplomats used to regard as dogma, and made them always ready to conclude a peace however bad.

Both of these observations pointed the way toward the counter-insurgency struggles of the modern era, and both should have served as warnings of what would happen in Iraq if we faced an armed people, even after the Iraqi army suffered lost battles, a captured capital and occupied provinces. None of that would necessarily mean the fighting was over.

Chapter 18, entitled “Tension and Rest, The Dynamic Law in War”, is a sort of addendum to Chapter 16. Clausewitz notes that while armies are not in conflict they be in either a state of equilibrium or a state of tension. If the latter, then major results may be obtained by a party which successfully attacks. I am not sure what he is getting at here, and the problem may be the translation.

Some concluding thoughts … .

Overall, Book III is unpolished, yet contains much of interest and value. The material and moral factors, as well as other factors, may be somewhat different today. Nonetheless, the commander would do well to make himself aware of them in some systematic way. The specific admonition to read military history looking for the moral and mental factors in play more than the physical is interesting.

The notion that the moral factors are primary is an established truth. Napoleon famously said as much: “The moral is to the physical as three to one.” John Boyd asserted that war is waged at three levels, the physical, the mental and the moral. The physical level is the weakest and the moral level is the strongest, with the mental in between. This suggests that leaders should be looking to the character of their troops, and their morale, and pride and esprit, and taking these elements very seriously. To the extent possible, the enemy should be assessed on this basis as well.

The primacy of boldness is strongly stated. The likely destruction of this virtue under current conditions in the US and allied militaries is a cause for concern.

Book III could probably be rewritten for contemporary use, so that the main lessons for a strategist planning and executing a campaign could be stated more plainly, with more contemporary examples.

On to Book IV.

2 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book III: Factors to Be Considered in Making and Executing Strategy”

  1. So, Clausewitz is saying that the general, or the lieutenant who plans to be a general one day, should focus his study of military history less on the material factors of the past, but on the less tangible factors that characterize the armies and commanders of the past. A reading list on this sub-area is an interesting thought experiment. Certainly it would include Slim’s Defeat into Victory. I would enjoy hearing the suggestions of others.

    Two examples that might fit in this are the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Grant’s Memoirs, called by Mark Twain the greatest work of Nineteenth century American letters, is fundamentally an reflection on the education of an officer as Grant rises from cadet to lieutenant, reverts to a civilian, then rises through varying stages from clerk in his father’s store to victorious generalissimo of one of the largest armies ever fielded up to that time. Sherman’s memoirs follows a similar path though his lacks that narrower focus of Grant’s memoirs. Sherman’s includes interesting details such as how, as a young officer, he frequently passed over the terrain in Georgia and the Carolinas that he later waged war over in 1864-1865.

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