Carl von Clausewitz, Book III, General Comments

Strategy is a very misunderstood concept. Over the last eight years the United States has implemented a number of various strategies which were more the nature of public relations campaigns, attempts to give the impression of government design on what have been commonly seen as disorganized chaos following mismanaged policy adventures. Too often it seems that „strategy“ is used interchangeably with „intentions“, in order to give the impression that by calling one’s stated intentions a „strategy“ it magically increases the likelihood of success.

Reading Clausewitz’s On War during what has been arguably a nadir of strategic thought’s influence on US policy formulation could be seen as depressing. At the same time our current situation is comprehensible in Clausewitzian terms. As Americans (addressing the American contributors to this roundtable) it may be particularly difficult for us to understand (let alone face) the dysfunctions of our own domestic political system (dysfunctional policy sharing the character of those who have implemented and supported it) along with the assumptions of our own strategic culture.

Clausewitz offers a different perspective and a theory-based methodology – in effect a conceptual yardstick – with which to look at our own situation and compare it to other situations at present or in the past. There are no guarantees that this will lead to better policy however, or to more practical and farsighted statesmen, even the best strategic theory could not save Prussia which no longer exists as a political entity.

So, a bit of an introduction as to the importance of strategic theory but also its obvious limitations. Another obvious limitation is lack of understanding. Book III offers a good point of departure for a quick review of what Clausewitz is up to here.

The first point I would like to make concerns Chapter 1 of Book III, where Clausewitz writes:

Strategic theory, therefore, deals with planning; or rather, it attempts to shed light on teh components of war and their interrelationships, stressing those few principles or rules that can be demonstrated.

The reader who recalls from the first chapter of Book I how many vitally important matters are involved in war will understand what unusual mental gits are needed to keep the whole picture steadily in mind.

The whole picture of course is the general theory. He precedes and follows this with a description of what an ideal strategy would entail. This is a reference to and practical use of his two ideal types described in Chapter 1 of Book 1, those being „absolute war“ and „war in reality“. As I’ve written before Uwe Hartmann has made a very strong case that Clausewitz used all three of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s dialectics[i]. I have described two of these, but not the third, that being the „oscillating“ dialectic. In this conceptual framework two ideal types form two „poles“, but are better viewed as opposite banks of a river (using metaphor here). „Theory“ operates between the two poles moving at times closer to one pole and then veering off (oscillating) towards the other. Neither ideal type is ever reached, since neither is actually seen as „real“ rather only as one of two extremes, that is a conceptual tool. The perfect strategy that Clausewitz describes would remain dead-center of the oscillating dialectic of the two poles, that is could be seen as a third ideal type, or in terms of a „balance“ of the oscillating dialectic of the two original ideal types. Notice how well this mirrors Clausewitz’s description of Friedrich the Great’s own strategy which follows in that same chapter. What causes even the best strategy to fail are the frictions and political confusion associated with „war in reality“ as well as the tendencies toward extremes associated with „absolute war“.

Clausewitz expects a very high level of ability for his military genius, that is the military commander making strategy, but seemingly demands far less from the strategic theorist who would be primarily involved in planning and producing critical studies of military history. The theorist is operating with a theory-based methodology[ii] and is thus open to reasoned critique and evaluation, that is we are able to judge whether his or her critical study measure up, are the plans produced/historical study coherent in terms of theory and available information and in line with the current or historical purposes?

The military genius on the other hand is operating in real time, effectively harnessing the moral and physical forces available and responding to/exploiting changes in political conditions inherent to the epoch in question. Thus while the theorists operates inside, the genius operates in effect outside , or what has not yet become, theory, or rather specifically the art of war of the epoch in question.

The reference to Chapter 1, Book I indicates some initial revising of this chapter, but this was not completed and at the end we have only some comments on engagements which seemingly fit better in Book IV.

My second point concerns Chapter 3 of Book III, that concerned with „Moral Factors“:

. . . These consitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole, and at an early stage they establish a close affinity with the will that moves and leads the whole mass of force, practically merging with it, since the will is itself a moral quantity. Unfortunately they will not yield to academic wisdom. They cannot be classified or counted. They have to be seen and felt.

. . . One might say that the physical seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapon, the finely honed blade.

We seem to be at a bit of a quandary here. How to deal with moral factors in theoretical terms, since Clausewitz tells us that they cannot be studied or analyzed, but must be felt. This is counter to what he has up to this point in fact achieved since the general theory deals only with non-material factors, the material factors being specific to every war, whereas the moral factors provide war with its conceptual unity as a social phenomenon. Thus we are at a chapter never revised to reflect Clausewitz’s mature theory, which could also mean that he had not yet worked out which moral factors were necessary to the phenomenon of war and which had existed before as part of the larger social reality and outside of war, and need theoretically not be included in the whole.

At this point a bit of a digression is necessary. Clausewitz wrote an essay entitled Agitation in the 1820s. In it he wrote in regards to the French Revolution:

When the enormous majority challenged the minority in France, the nobility had to give way. It was no longer strong enough to resist this force. The Old Regime collapsed – and collapsed forever, because once an organic whole has been broken it may be glued together again, but its original unity can never be restored. The masses, furthermore, broke the scepter that had ruled them so despotically, and set up a mixed government. This shattering of all social relationships, which were already under great strain, was much easier than the creation of a new regime, and it could be foreseen that after a violent upheaval there would be much groping around and that some decades would be needed to explore new ideas before a new form of government could put down firm roots.[iii]

So what is an „organic whole“? Notice that Clausewitz is referring to the majority of a political community united in overthrowing a state, that is a revolution or civil war (should the conflict last that long). In Chapter 3B of Book VIII Clausewitz also writes in answer to the question as to whether future wars will be as violent as those of the Napoleonic period:

. . . But the reader will agree with us when we say that once barriers – which in a sense consist only in man’s ignorance of what is possible – are torn down, they are not so easily set up again. At least when major interests are at stake, mutual hostility will express itself in the same manner as it has in our own day.

These two quotes provide a window to Clausewitz’s view of political communities and the moral and material (read institutional) cohesion which keeps them together, allows them to function as powerful unities in the pursuit of common goals. The „organic whole“ was the whole constellation of social relationships and beliefs that allowed the French monarchy to exist as a social system. When that organic whole was shattered, that is lost all legitimacy prior to and during the French Revolution, it collapsed as a social system and had to be replaced by something else, with even a restored monarch only a ghost of his former self. Societies, not being able to recreate these social relationships at will, require some time to reestablish themselves after such social upheavals, that is the rebuilding is done at the level of the individual. In the second quote, we have the moral feelings within the political community unleashed by war and potentially at the disposal of the political leadership to use in pursuit of the state/community’s conduct of the war.

So what is the connection between this and the Moral Factors introduced in chapter 3 of Book III?

It is precisely these feelings, this mix of hostile intentions and political unity which provides war with much of its unchanging moral aspect. Carrying this further by using Max Weber’s social action theory (that is the study of the meaning on which behavior is based), which would cover both types and other aspects (both rational and „irrational“) as well, and we have an excellent conceptual link and expansion of the general theory to include the moral factors. As an example of Weber’s fundamental links to Clausewitz, consider that for Weber too, the state has this „organic“ quality mentioned above:

A State for example ceases to exist sociologically with the disappearance of the likelihood that particular forms of meaningfully oriented social action might occur. This likelihood might be very great or infinitely small. Together with the meaning and degree of this likelihood existing or having existed the relevant social relationship likewise exists or did exist. There is no alternative and clearer meaning for the statement that a ‚state‘, for instance exists, or no longer exists.[iv]

The connection between Clausewitz and Weber is worth a long essay in it’s own right. Suffice to say that when I brought this up at the Clausewitz conference in 2005 the Americans thought it interesting and the Europeans thought it obvious. I would also add that Max Weber has been as misunderstood as Clausewitz or maybe even more so (if that possible). Liah Greenfeld in her“ Nationalism and Modern Economy: Communing with the Spirit of Max Weber“, describes how Weber has been misinterpreted and taught in the US through an historical materialist lens, robbing his thought of much of its originality and interpretative value.[v] She rejects the idealist/materalist distinctions and argues that Weber is a „mentalist“, that is puts the focus on ideas, motivations, and „the march of rationalization“, not on material or „ideal“ factors.

I would argue that Clausewitz too is a „mentalist“ . Here of course I am not saying Clausewitz was not a Prussian political idealist, or that German Idealism did not influence his concept of the military genius. Rather I refer to his approach and the general theory and if the term “mentalist” describes the common approach then so be it.

My third point concerns strategic culture. In Chapter 10 of Book III , Clausewitz is disapproving of Cunning, that is deception which „permits the intended victim to make his own mistakes“. This in spite of the fact that he finds surprise as being „at the root of all operations“ (Chapter 9). Surprise in turn requires secrecy and speed, for which deception would be a natural part.

This from a staff officer who observed and probably commanded Russian cavalry during the pursuit of Napoleon from Russia in 1812. Deception? He’d seen plenty of it. But that wasn’t really what soldiers did, let alone Prussian officers. No, while it had distinct advantages, deception was not something to be cultivated, encouraged, or drilled into young officers: more the actions of brigands. That element of Maskirovka, circa 1812, Clausewitz knew well, but didn’t like. I think it useful to see this as an influence of Clausewitz’s own strategic culture, that is in this case the values he associated with serving as an officer in wartime.

Strategic cultures of course change over time. Japan’s for instance is quite different than it was 80 years ago. And some cultures aren’t very good at deception in general, while others come by it naturally.

The fourth and final point involves the last three chapters of this book which hold a wealth of theoretical implications.

Briefly in Chapter 16 we have the distinction between a positive and negative aim. The attacker has the positive political aim, attempting to impose his will over his enemy through organized violence, but the defender need only oppose this action, he requires no aim besides denying the attacker his goal. This seems an obvious point except when one recalls our own all too recent history and all the frothy commentary from the supporters of the Iraq fiasco that the Iraqi resistance had no „program“ and thus were doomed to failure. When the threat is an existential one concerning a political community’s very identity, no positive aim is necessary to trigger and sustain resistance, the negative one more than suffices.

In Chapter 17 we have the comment:

All these cases have shown what an enormous contribution the heart and temper of a nation can make to the sum total of its politics, war potential, and fighting strength. Now that governments have become conscious of these resources, we cannot expect them to remain unused in the future, whether the war is fought in self-defense or in order to satisfy intense ambition.

The cases of France, Spain and Russia are listed prior to this passage. France is clear: the revolution provided the mass of Frenchmen with a national mission to change Europe. The Spanish in turn rose as a people (Guerrilla warfare) against the occupation and impositions of the French. The Russians proved the limits of military action, in effect requiring a much more varied approach (Lenin in a sealed train rather than the Wehrmacht advancing from Archangle to Astrakhan). All three are equal for Clausewitz, in some cases in effect cancelling each other out. The warning seems too to have been mostly forgotten, but of continued relevance.

Finally in the last chapter we have the states of balance, tension and movement. Once could use this chapter to explain Hans Delbrück’s later development of the strategies of destruction and attrition to students of strategic theory. This concept was later fully developed by the Clausewitzian theorist Alexander Svechin in the 1920s.

[i] See Hartmann, Uwe, Carl von Clausewitz: Erkenntnis, Bildung, Generalstabsausbildung, Olzog, München, 1998, Figure 14, page 129.

[ii] In my opinion the best study of Clausewitz’s methodology is Antulio J. Echevarria’s Clausewitz and Comtempory War, Oxford, 2007. The best study on the general theory is Andreas Herber-Rothe’s Clausewitz’sPuzzle: The Political Theory of War, Oxford, 2007 (orginally printed in German in 2001).

[iii] See Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, Princeton, page 345.

[iv] Max Weber, „Basic Sociological Concepts“, The Essential Weber, Routledge, 2004, p 331.

[v] Greenfeld, Liah, „Nationalism and Modern Economy“, Max Weber Studies, Volume 5.2, pp 317-343

4 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz, Book III, General Comments”

  1. Seydlitz, some responses.

    There are no guarantees that this will lead to better policy however, or to more practical and farsighted statesmen, even the best strategic theory could not save Prussia which no longer exists as a political entity.

    To make sure I understand you: You mean to say that Prussia would have been destroyed even if it had employed the best strategic theory? I am not sure I agree. Creating a united Germany dominated by Prussia was a reasonable thing to do. Then of course, the quality of strategic thinking collapsed, with the Kaiser and his entourage in charge. I tend to think that an even reasonable strategic theory, even reasonably applied, could have led to a German-dominated Europe with no world war. Heck, even as late as Spring 1918, a little admixture of other means – diplomacy and politics – to Ludendorff’s tactically competent and strategically aimless offensives (“Purpose? To rip a hole in their line!”) could have vastly changed the outcome. Hans Delbruck wrote in the Winter of 1918, before the offensives, that the only way out for Germany was a diplomatic and political offensive along with the military offensive – to demand a deal at Germany’s moment of maximum strength. Who knows? But by then, there was no one left with any common sense in charge of affairs.

    What causes even the best strategy to fail are the frictions and political confusion associated with “war in reality” as well as the tendencies toward extremes associated with “absolute war”.

    There is a third one, isn’t there, the other bank of the river: The tendency of limited wars to wind down into minor operations, to demonstrations to stasis, to putter out. He describes this in Chapter 16. “War in reality” seems to oscillate between this pole, and the pole of absolute war. The war of “small change” can actually happen in practice and has. But it is always precarious, because if one of the two opponents “gets serious”, then you are back into a serious, and likely escalating, level of conflict.

    I like very much your contrast between the theorist, whose work in planning and writing critical studies of military history, versus the commander “is operating in real time, effectively harnessing the moral and physical forces available”. Of course, this commander may or may not be a genius. Ideally, he is. If he is not, he is going to have a hard time, because being less than a genius means you are likely to fail at the most demanding of endeavors: High command in wartime. As a result, you note, the theorist and historian is subject to criticism on objective standards, where the military commander, particularly the commander of genius, was operating at a level and under such stresses that he cannot be criticized in the same way.

    I am not sure what you mean by saying that Clausewitz is a “mentalist” like Weber, and hence “puts the focus on ideas, motivations, and ‘the march of rationalization’, not on material or ‘ideal’ factors.” But he expressly enumerates many material factors. Ideas an motivation fall within his “moral factors”, I think. And while he says they cannot be enumerated only felt, he does enumerate them. I think he means you cannot quantify them. He does think you can make a list and talk about them, but you only really understand the moral factors that influence an army and its commander if you live them or see them in action. I don’t know what you mean by “ideal factors”. If you mean idealistic ones like patriotism, he does discuss those. As to the “march of rationalization”, he repudiates the idea that the march of “progress” will lead to a “war of algebra”. He does note the increasing organization and sophistication of armies and anticipates that the process will continue. So, the march of rationalization would be a rationalization of means, but potentially in the service of passions and sentiments – following Napoleon’s eagles all the way to Moscow, for example.

    I agree based on my exposure to Weber, that Clausewitz on several occasions reminded me of Weber – particularly in the use of “ideal types” to clarify more complex real world phenomena.

    I am in partial agreement regarding Clausewitz on surprise and deception. I agree that under the conditions of his day, as he himself explains, neither is likely to be strategically significant. But, the conditions of his day were temporary, and limited in space as well as time. I don’t think he would have disagreed with that.

    I suppose he would have found the Cossacks distasteful, but I do not think that any such emotional response drove his analysis. I do know, as he surely knew, that a disciplined army, one that was not in the midst of a catastrophic retreat would, make short work of ill-disciplined, irregular cavalry like the Cossacks. I don’t think it was a matter of sentiment. Rather, he saw, and I think correctly, that the organized and disciplined approach that the major powers all shared, was the stronger and more decisive form of war.

    I agree with you that the examples of a mobilized populace, as exemplified by France, Spain and Russia are still relevant. I would go further, and say that the negative example, of a nation whose “heart and temper” do not support a part means a serious diminishment in the overall “war potential, and fighting strength”, and that imperialistic, or expeditionary enterprises, where an existential issues is not (clearly) at stake, is hard to sustain in the long run or at great cost. The British conquered their empire with a small number of long-service volunteers. America conquered the Indians with a similar small, professional force. America’s overseas ventures and small wars were fought with an all volunteer Marine Corps, or with special purpose volunteers, as in Cuba and the Philippines. The lesson is, if you are going to undertake a major war, then the political leadership needs to be able to stimulate and sustain public support for the war. If, on the other hand, the war is going to be small, then the political leadership needs to have restrained aims, within the capacity of the existing professional force, and only minimally engage public sentiment in the enterprise. To try to split the difference, as Mr. Bush did, would require a miracle not to end as a failure.

    Finally, I found the discussion of and tension in the last chapter to be hard to follow. I would be interested in how this relates to Delbrück and Svechin.

  2. In this conceptual framework two ideal types form two „poles“, but are better viewed as opposite banks of a river (using metaphor here). „Theory“ operates between the two poles moving at times closer to one pole and then veering off (oscillating) towards the other. Neither ideal type is ever reached, since neither is actually seen as „real“ rather only as one of two extremes, that is a conceptual tool. The perfect strategy that Clausewitz describes would remain dead-center of the oscillating dialectic of the two poles, that is could be seen as a third ideal type, or in terms of a „balance“ of the oscillating dialectic of the two original ideal types.

    I have been thinking something similar, but I would make a distinction between that dead center and “balance.” I think that Clausewitz is dealing more with balance than splitting the difference. Thus his balance lies closer to boldness than timidity, for only one example.

  3. Cheryl, yes, good.

    The balance will not be dead center unless the weights on either pole are equal. And to Clausewitz, the weights are not equal.

    A further example: The balance lies closer to “absolute war” than to stasis and inaction.

  4. So I take it that you admit the existence and utility of the general theory?

    Agree as to what essentially strategic theory is supposed to be? More than opinion? Planning? . . . Considering and maybe answering those questions would clear up a number of ambiguities.

    Rainy and cold in northern Portugal, but cozy at home. Hope everyone the best.

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