Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 4: the center of gravity

In Book 4 Clausewitz puts battle at the heart of war…

“since the essence of war is fighting, and since the battle is the fight of the main force, the battle must always be considered as the true centre of gravity of the war.” [4.9]

There’s little doubt that “the battle” – the clash of armies at a particular site over a limited time period – was the center of gravity during the Napoleonic Wars. But this idea doesn’t hold for modern conflicts. Battle, where it occurs, may be the most dramatic event, but it is not the center of gravity.

What does “center of gravity” mean? I take it to mean the situation where the outcome of the campaign or war is ultimately decided. In the First and Second World Wars, the center of gravity was the use of resources. The nations that won were those that most effectively mobilized, coordinated and utilized their human and material resources.

In insurgencies, the center of gravity is the people and politics. The insurgent tries to gain the allegiance of the people, and establish alternative governments in “liberated areas”. The counter-insurgent seeks to isolate the insurgent from the population, and to boost the legitimacy of the authorities. In a counterinsurgency, military action is a subordinate aspect of overall operations, and – as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland – the military may be used for purposes other than attacking the enemy, e.g., securing the population, developing infrastructure.

In modern conventional war there is arguably no “battle”. Combat is characterized by a flow of fighting, the tempo of which rises and falls in different places and at different times. Military action is directed less against the enemy’s “main force” (his frontline combat formations), more against his headquarters, communications, supply lines and intelligence systems. The aim is to destroy the enemy’s ability to think, decide and act. Here the center of gravity is the network of decision-makers, machines and infrastructure that animates a military force.

Even if battle is no longer the be-all and end-all, Clausewitz’s center of gravity concept is a useful one. It’s something that politicians and commanders should ponder as they prepare for war: “in this conflict, what is the center of gravity – the situation where the outcome will be ultimately decided?”.

3 thoughts on “Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 4: the center of gravity”

  1. Kotare, this is a good short summary of the shift away from the single, big battle as the center of gravity since Clausewitz’s time and place. Now, the decision-maker faces different challenges, and more elusive ones: Figuring out who the enemy, what the enemy is, how to attack the enemy, what the enemy’s center of gravity is, how to speak to the enemy so that war can be terminated, how to tell our own people what is going on so they will pay for the war and tolerate young men coming home dead or maimed, etc.

    It is certainly true that fighting the French, Russians and Austrians was hard. War is hard. But it was not nearly so complicated.

    Is this, in part, because we are haggling over small change instead of gambling for high stakes?

    Is it really true that this is the “graduate level of war”? Overlord and Bagration seem to me to be graduate level. This stuff is more like some kind of street corner crap game with arcane local rules, where the gamblers (soldiers) are now stuck playing, since the big casinos of major war are closed, probably forever.

  2. I’m reading Shelby Foote’s trilogy of the American Civil War. After years of back and forth over the battlefield, where the Southern soldery proved quite capable against better equipped and more numerous Federal armies, Sherman came to realize that the political will of the Southern civilian was the center of gravity. Just how much would they sacrifice for the power of owning slaves?

    Lincoln had begun to search for a general who understood the “grim arthmetic” of the war following the big loss at Fredericksberg. Even if the Federals continued to lose at such ratios, over many battles they would still prevail.

    Bush lead the first battles of this war but we’re still searching for our enemy’s center of gravity. Is it the economics of petroleum? Cheap oil prices will smother their ability to bring war to us. Modernization will eventually reach into their culture but we’re weakening internally too.

  3. The center of gravity in the war on terror is the Western conceit that all chasms can be bridged by dialog and the building of shared understanding without any element of coercion. However, the truth lies elsewhere. Israel’s shift to the right where the choices are right with minor pain to the Palestinians, right with major pain to the Palestinians, and right with expulsion of the Palestinians may be a leading indicator. War in some respects is the forcible puncturing of pretense by directed events and Israel seems to have come to the realization that there are two shades of Palestinian opinion: those that want to kill the Jews now vs. those who want to kill the Jews later. The pretense that there will be peace in this generation without bloodshed, whether its the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the war on terror, is one truth Clausewitz reveals more clearly than Liddell Hart or Sun Tzu.

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