Clausewitz, On War, Book VII: The Attack, the Whole Attack, and Nothing but the Attack

In Book VII, Clausewitz returns to his dialectical logic in framing the nature of “The Attack” by contrasting it with the previous book, “Defense”. He begins Book VII by discriminating between defense (whose strengths “…may not be insurmountable, [but] the cost of surmounting them may be disproportionate.”) and offense.

Clausewitz observes that “…the attack is not a homogenous whole; it is perpetually combined with defense.” But he also goes on to note that offensive battle “…retains its character under all circumstances, and can assert it all the more since the defender is not in his proper element.” Emphasizing the metric of time, he continues by showing that the main feature of an offensive battle is “…taking the initiative” (as opposed to defensive battles, in which one awaits the blow to parry) with the singular aim of “…expedit[ing] the decision.”

Much of Book VII remains in outline form – in particular Chapters Four [The Diminishing Force of the Attack] and Six [Destruction of the Enemy’s Forces], which are comprised of lists of topic areas with little additional prose. However, Chapters Five and Twenty-Two (the latter an essay that was in one of Clausewitz’s folders upon his death and inserted by the editors) describe a key concept that continues to be relevant today: the idea of a “culminating point”.

Clausewitz took special care to note the complex, adaptive nature of war: “It is rare … for a general to set out with a firm objective in mind; rather, he will make it dependent on the course of events.” (emphasis added) This makes the notion of a culminating point especially apt for the commander – both in 19th century Prussia as well as in our modern age: the point beyond which “the scale turns” and one’s remaining strength quickly wanes.

The culminating point, to Clausewitz, “… forms the keystone for most plans of campaigns.” While the final book, Book VIII, will focus on War Plans, this essay (which was not included in the original manuscript) focuses on the continuation of an attack beyond a “maintainable” victory: “… [W]hy does the winner persist in pursuing his victorious course, in advancing his offensive? … Would he not do better to stop before he begins to lose the upper hand?”

Clausewitz’s answer, which must have seemed counterintuitive in his day, is that “… superior strength is not the end but only the means.” While history before Bonaparte had shown a resultant equilibrium between warring states, only at the turn of the 19th century and since “… have there been campaigns between civilized states where superiority has consistently led to the enemy’s collapse.”

Here, Clausewitz shows remarkable prescience in the strategic consequences of overshooting an intended target: “… [T]he action continues, and in the sweep of motion one crosses the threshold of equilibrium, the line of culmination, without knowing it. It is possible that the attacker, reinforced by the psychological forces peculiar to the attack, will in spite of his exhaustion find it less difficult to go on than to stop – like a horse pulling a load uphill.”

With the cacophony of “[t]housands of wrong turns running in all directions tempt[ing] his perception,” it is indeed a great leader “… who can achieve great results with limited means…”. This is our challenge today as well: in a world replete with complex contingencies, how does a great power like America project its force into the world without overextending its lines and passing its culminating points?

1 thought on “Clausewitz, On War, Book VII: The Attack, the Whole Attack, and Nothing but the Attack”

  1. Shane, I agree that the discussion of the culminating point is the best thing in Book VII.

    Knowing when you had better put on the brakes and realize you have as much as you can keep, and that grabbing more means losing it all. There is a brilliant passage in Robert Citino’s book The Death of the Wehrmacht: The Campaigns of 1942, where the Germans have already way overshot the mark, in Stalingrad. A brilliant commander would see this, and act accordingly. But they were not blessed with such a commander at that point. So they did the one thing they know how to do: They kept on attacking. And the Russians did the rope-a-dope, and let them exhaust themselves.

    The general who knows his means are limited and that the culminating point has been reached will have to face the howls of outraged armchair commanders in his own age and down the ages thereafter, saying he should have gone that one step farther.

    It takes moral courage to face the reality of the culminating point, even if you possess the genius to see it, and to act accordingly.

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