Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VI: Chapter 3

Given that there is a lot of material in Book VI worthy of comment, I’ll start with this chapter since it allows us to provide something of a recap of what we have read in On War so far.  On page 90 of his book, Clausewitz – Philosopher of War, Raymond Aron hesitatingly reduces a portion of the general theory to three conceptual pairs: moral/physical, means/end, and attack/defense.  The first refers to the essence of war itself – the clashing wills – which leads to the second pair.  The decision to go to war starts with the defense since the aggressor is more than happy to get what he wants by simply taking it (see Bk VI/Ch 5) .  Attack without resistance is not war, but something else as Clausewitz indicated in Bk I/Ch 1.  Means/ends can be further linked with two additional pairs: military aim/political purpose and strategy/tactics.  Taken together these conceptual pairs constitute the “intelligent” aspects of the general theory, that is leaving out chance, friction (in all its forms) and “objective” Politik.  So with the intelligent aspects, the aspects not responding to intelligence and the various operating principles we come once again to the whole of the general theory, with each concept only understandable in terms of the whole (that is in terms of the general theory).

In reading Chapter 3, which is quite short, we see that Clausewitz mentions all three of the initial conceptual pairs that Aron mentions and expands our understanding of the whole in some significant ways.

As we have said before, in strategy there is no such thing as victory.  Part of strategic success lies in timely preparation for a tactical victory; the greater the strategic success, the greater the likelihood of a victorious engagement.  The rest of strategic success lies in the exploitation of a victory won.

Thus the goal of strategy is optimally deploying the fighting forces achieving tactical victory and then exploiting that victory to its full sphere of influence.  This leading possibily to the achievement of the military aim of the war in question.  This idea of expanding success beyond the actual tactical victory is the basis of operational art.

In strategy, therefore, there would be no justification at all of putting forward the enveloping attack as a means of victory, were it not for its effect on lines of communication.

Later in this same paragraph Clausewitz mentions the disadvantage of the attacker whose lines of communication are at the end of the advance, whereas the defender is retreating back along his own lines of communication, so what is the significance of the sentence above?

I think this question is best answered initially by the great student of Clausewitz, Alexander Svechin who wrote:

Strategy is the study of communications . . . the useful work of military forces is to a great extent determined by the condition of their communications.  Operational art should place the troops in the best possible tactical position. Strategic art must place our operations in the best possible communications conditions vis-a-vis the enemy’s.  These advantages are even more important than tactical advantages.  If lines of communication are functioning poorly, then an operation will suffocate.

Strategy, pp 257, 260.

“Communications” include not just command and control, but of course supply.  For Clausewitz, as for Svechin, the goal of military action is the destruction of not only the enemy’s forces, but further, his communications, for the disruption of communications allows for a more more extensive expansion of the tactical victory’s sphere of effectiveness by destroying the enemy’s cohesion and allowing for operational pursuit, this in turn tied to the Clausewitzian concept of center of gravity, as we’ll see when we get to Ch 27.

Thus, if all elements of defense that occur during an offensive are weakened by the fact that they are part of the offensive, then we must regard this as another general liability pertaining to it.

This is not simply hairsplitting.  Far from it: this is the greatest disadvantage of all offensive action.  Hence when a strategic attack is being planned one should from the start give very close attention to this point – namely, the defensive that will follow.

This is how all offensives end which do not achieve the military aim supporting the political purpose: the goal of strategy being the return to peace with the political purpose of the war achieved.  Strategies of annihilation/destruction when unsuccessful become strategies of attrition be default, unless of course the defender is able to go over to a strategy of annihilation – unleash the flashing sword of vengence and destroy the attacker’s will to carry on the fight.  In any case the attacker must go over to the defense without enjoying most of the advantages of the stronger form.

Failed strategies of destruction are common in history, whereas successful ones are much rarer.  The general conditions from which war arises influence of course all of this as we will see in Ch 8.

7 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VI: Chapter 3”

  1. “Failed strategies of destruction are common in history,whereas successful ones are much rarer.”

    Successful ones?

    Napoleon in 1805 and 1806.
    The Allies in 1814 and 1815.
    The Union in 1864-65.
    The Allies in 1942-45.

    I can’t think of any others.

  2. Lexington Green-

    I would agree with the first two Napoleonic ones. But the others were actually strategies of attrition which switched over to strategies of destruction once the opportunity presented itself.

    As to actual “pure” strategies of destruction we could add: Poland in 1939, Norway and Denmark in 1940, France and the Low Countries in 1940, perhaps Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941(?), and surely the Soviet offensive against Japan in 1945; World War II being a whole series of wars. A strategy of destruction would require one very concentrated operation, or a series of very closely coordinated operations, leading to the overthrow of the enemy, no detours.

    Any since 1945? Maybe the Falklands War?

  3. Not sure I agree about the Allies in 1942-45. I think they fully intended to totally destroy the Third Reich and Imperial Japan. The attrition phase was just the early stage where they were building up their strength and battering the enemy. It takes a while to build a bulldozer.

    Or are you saying a strategy of destruction has to be quick?

    Falklands — Seems to me to be the epitome of a Clausewitzian limited war. Seizing a “province”, then having it seized back, with the main armies of the belligerents, to say nothing of their capital cities or governments, never seriously threatened.

  4. We’re just defining concepts I suppose. So how to define “strategy of annihilation” or “destruction”?

    Two points: We could identify the time period as being that of strategic mobilization: the time it took to mobilize whatever national assets (not just military) to win the war, to overthrow the enemy’s center of gravity and secure the military aim. The operation would peak with the attainment of strategic mobilization (however long that would take).

    The other is there should be no detours, or to the contrary as in the case of WWII in Europe – Italy, anti-submarine warfare, the bombing campaign, Finland, the Balkans, all the various operations eating away from different sides at the interior based in Central Europe.

    The Clausewitzian concept of Center of Gravity is fundamental here.

  5. “contemptible terminological pedantry”

    I suppose for “men of action” all theory is “pedantry”. On the other hand for the ancient Greeks “theory” originated with the idea of bearing witness, of making something witnessed understandable for those who did not witness. It was considered a civic duty that a member of a polis did for his community. At least that is the origin of the term “theory”, which is once again by nature retrospective.

    In the case of defining terms, in effect establishing the characteristics of ideal types, dialogue is important since we should agree on the characteristics and thus they are the result of a dialectic. Clausewitz would recognize this all very well imo since he used the same approach.

    Ideal types are not expected to exist in reality, but are only conceptual tools which lead to a fuller understanding of the subject . . . the more exact the definitions, the “sharper” the tool. In effect they spark more questions, such as could any coalition war be said to be following a strategy of destruction given the specific (and even contradictory) policy goals of the various members?

    Either one sees the usefulness of such activity, or one does not, with many of the latter all to ready to follow “the men of action” down that well-worn road to nemesis.

    As to my book suggestion, let me think about it. . .

  6. I agree on the importance of theory.

    I wouldn’t be doing this whole Clausewitz thing if I did not.

    That, I think is self-evident.

    I merely say that slicing the onion too thin can get you into diminishing marginal returns.

    In this particular instance, the question of whether a particular actual war was or was not closer to a particular ideal type probably did not merit further pondering, at least by me.

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