Clausewitz, On War, Book V: Freedom is Worth the Mass

Freedom lurks throughout On War. Not freedom for the poor, bloody infantry; in a Clausewitzian universe freedom is at its apogee when the freedom of the infantry is at its nadir. The freedom Clausewitz seeks to unleash is the freedom of the commander to work his will on the enemy. The commander’s freedom is essential to Clausewitz’s conception of war since war is an “act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”; our freedom ends where the enemy’s freedom begins. War is, therefore, fundamentally an effort to steal the enemy’s freedom and bestow it upon ourselves. We seek to take our political object, an object arrived at through the free exercise of creative will, and raise it above the oppression of enemy opposition and the dreary demands of friction. This is Clausewitz’s truth and his truth, he asserts, shall set you free.

Chapter Five was where this thread in the Clausewitzian weave became visible to me. The yearning of the supreme commander (or the repressed and frustrated supreme commander beating within Clausewitz’s chest) to breath free keeps breaking through:

  • A theater of war consists of an area “with a certain degree of independence”. This is the ideal: “When properly arranged, there will only be one supreme commander in a single theater. And a general in control of his own theater of operations will never lack a suitable degree of independence”.
  • “Modern” armies are so much alike (within contemporary Europe) that the only factor that is a game changer is “the talents of the the commander-in-chief” and superiority in numbers. The more freedom the latter gives the former, through the creation of what Benjamin Graham called a “margin of safety”, a buffer against the hard knocks of fate, the greater the chance of decisive results. Conversely, “[t]he more restricted the strength, the more restricted its goals must be”. Superior mass yields freedom. Inferior mass yields enslaves the commander to the slavery of friction and enemy initiative.
  • The “superiority and versatility of infantry” of infantry gives more freedom in the engagement than artillery and cavalry. It can attack and defend, fire and wage hand to hand combat. However, the greater freedom is found in a combination of all three. Calvary has interesting advantages as a game changer: “Where cavalry is plentiful, wide plains will be sought out and sweeping movements preferred. With the enemy at a distance, we can enjoy greater peace and comfort, without his being able to do the same. Since we are the masters of space, we can be daring in the use of bold maneuvers. Diversions and invasions, insofar as the constitute valid expedients in war, are easily executed.”
  • As the eighteenth century yielded to the nineteenth, the order of battle an army deployed in “ceased to be a monolith and became a many-jointed entity which was pliant and flexible”. As “the increased size of armies and their deployment over wider areas, and the more their individual parts could integrate effectively, the more the scope for strategy expanded”. The more the scope for strategy expanded, the greater the freedom the commander had. Clausewitz emphasized that preserving this freedom was a paramount consideration in designing an order of battle:

    There is no denying that the supreme command of an army…is markedly simpler if orders only need to be given to three or four other men; yet a general has to pay dearly for that convenience…a general’s personal power and effectiveness diminishes in proportion to the increase in the sphere of action of his closest subordinates. A general can make his authority over 100,ooo men felt more strongly if he commands by means of eight divisions than by means of three divisions.

    Clausewitz summarizes this point further:

    a. The whole will be unwieldy if it has too few subdivisions.
    b. If the subdivisions are too large, the commander’s personal authority will be diminished.
    c. Every additional link in the chain of command reduced the effect of an order in two ways: by the process of being transferred, and by the additional time needed to pass it on.

    The solution?:

    [T]he number of subdivisions with equal status should be as large as possible, and the chain of command as short as possible.

  • An advance guard 0r outposts of sufficient strength and dispersion yields freedom in time and space by detecting and holding the enemy for a sufficiently long period of time to give the commander freedom to deploy his forces in the most advantageous position:

    [A]n advanced corps derives its operational value more from its presence than from its efforts; from the engagements it might offer than from those it actually fights. It is never intended to stop the enemy’s movements, but rather, like the weight of a pendulum, to moderate and regulate them as to make them calculable.

    It serves as a tool to diminish enemy freedom and increase our own.

  • Discarding tents has reduced the logistical tail of armies and created more mobility for armies of the Revolutionary and Buonapartist eras. “The bounds of military operations have been extended so far that a return to the old narrow limitations can only occur briefly, sporadically, and under special conditions. The true nature of war will break through again and again with overwhelming force, and must, therefore, be the basis of any permanent military arrangements.”
  • The “present organic division of the army” ensures that “marches almost organize themselves” or, at minimum, “they do not call for complicated planning”. The structure of the army gives the commander freedom to concentrate on planning the battle instead of arranging the march.
  • Belgium is freedom. It is filled with roads, a dense agriculturally inclined population, plenty of provisions, plenty of rivers for transport, a well regulated local government to suborn. In short, Belgium is a paradise for war and the commander will find freedom aplenty there. It’s much better than Poland or Russia with their thin gruel of population, provisions, and local collaborators. “It follows that war, with its numerous tentacles, prefers to suck nourishment from main roads, populous towns, fertile valleys traversed by broad rivers, and busy coastal areas.
  • The practice of requisitioning gives more freedom to the commanders and armies of Clausewitz’s day than earlier eighteenth century predecessors. I’m reminded of the inflexibility of early British armies during the early American Revolution and how drastic a step it was for Lord Cornwallis to jettison his baggage train as he rampaged through the Carolinas in 1780. The Revolutionary and Imperial French armies and later their Legitimist enemies did such things as a matter of course. This gives the object of the war the opportunity to triumph over the dictates of supply:

    This of course raises the question of whether war governs the supply system or is governed by it. We would answer that at first the supply system will govern war insofar as the other governing factors will permit; but where these start to offer too much resistance, the conduct of war will react on the supply system and so dominate it.

  • Lines of communication, because of the shortening of the logistics tail, are less fragile than they were in the days of Frederick II. This observation of Clausewitz’s only became more true in the American Civil War when Grant shed his line of communication to capture Vicksburg and Sherman launched his even more spectacular March to the Sea.
  • In the end, the commander has supreme freedom because of the command he exerts on his troops:

    There are no definite limits to the demands a general can make on his troops. A strong-willed commander will ask more than one ruled by delicate emotions; and an army’s performance will also depend on the degree to which its willpower and endurance have been steeled by familiarity with war, military spirit, trust in and devotion to the general, and enthusiasm for the cause. Yet one must take it as a fundamental rule that hardship and privation cause. Yet one can take it as a fundamental rule that hardship and privation, no matter how extreme, must always be treated as a temporary condition, which has to lead to a state of plenty–even at times luxury. What is more moving than the thought of thousands of soldiers, poorly clad, their shoulders bent under thirty or forty pounds of equipment, plodding along for days on end in every kind of weather and on every kind of road continuously endangering their health and their lives, without even a crust of bread to nourish them? When one knows how often this happens in war, one must marvel at the way in which the power of an idea can, by its lasting effect, summon up and support incredible exertions in human beings.

Such is freedom.

1 thought on “Clausewitz, On War, Book V: Freedom is Worth the Mass”

  1. This is good. There is a comment in Book IV, where Clausewitz says that part of a commander’s strength is even his callousness, his italics.

    Good point about Belgium. It has always been a magnet for armies. The Rhineland, also, and Northern Italy. Food, fodder, water, loot, all in terrain that is well-known with no surprises, and a population that has a lot to lose and would rather cooperate than fight to the death.

    Finally, the questions “freedom for… whom? For what?”

    The answer is political. The political leadership are morally bound to launch wars that will likely lead to a superior peace. That the freedom they enjoy, a “rung above” the commander. With that freedom comes responsibility. Too often it the political leadership fails in that exercise.

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