Clausewitz “On War”, Book VII: Some Thoughts on its Application to the Iraq War

Book VII features Clausewitz’s famous analysis of the “culminating point of the attack”.

I have little to add to the many analyses of this point, or to Clausewitz’s own words.

I did note that in places his discussion reminded me of our current American misadventure in Iraq.

At the end of Chapter 22, the last chapter in Book VII, Clausewitz discusses the factors that an attacking commander must consider when determining the culminating point of the attack, beyond which “the attacker may take on more than he can manage … A defender must be able to recognize this error if the enemy commits it, and exploit to the full.”

Clausewitz observes that there is “a whole array of factors a general must gauge before making this decision” including whether the enemy’s resolve will shatter at the first shock, or be steeled by it, and whether “the other powers will be frightened or indignant” by the attackers actions.

Earlier, Clausewitz had observed that, in the face of an attack, and even an initial defeat, the enemy may be aroused to an increased resistance:

Sometimes, stunned and panic-stricken, the enemy may lay down his arms, at other times he may be seized by a fit of enthusiasm: there is a general rush to arms, and resistance is much stronger after the first defeat than it was before. The information from which one must guess at the probable reaction include the character of the people and the government, the nature of the country, and its political affiliations.

In the American case, the initial defeat of the Iraqi regular army turned out to be only the opening phase of a much more challenging struggle, against an opponent which our forces were not built, trained or equipped to defeat. The initial assessment of the attacking power, the USA and its allies, failed to adequately consider — or possibly, to consider at all — the factors that Clausewitz mentions here.

Clausewitz also noted that a successful war can change political alignments, in ways that may not be favorable for the attacker, even if the attack is successful.

The only general comment one can make is that after the defeat of a major power with lesser allies, these will quickly desert their leader. In this respect, the victor will then gain strength with every blow. If, on the other hand, the defeated state is smaller, protectors will appear much sooner if its very existence is threatened. Others who may have helped to endanger it will detach themselves if they believe that the success is becoming too great.

In the case of Iraq, all of the bad things that this passage described have happened to the USA. First, the threat of an invasion, premised on the destruction of the Iraqi state, alarmed many countries, many of whom would have preferred to see the US and its allies fail, even if they lacked the means to actually go to the aid of Iraq. Destroying a state is a major disruption of the international system, and when the most powerful country in the system undertakes to do this, without any widespread outcry for it to do so, the instinct of the other players will be to oppose the move, as in fact happened in many cases. However, after its initial “victory” over Saddam’s regime, and the real war got going, the USA suffered an attenuated but unambiguous, multi-year defeat at the hands of the insurgency as its nebulous war aims faded to impossibility and it lost lives and prestige for no appreciable gain. The USA failed to head Clausewitz’s admonition that any victory then must turn into a defensive posture, and no adequate thought was given to securing the initial victory, with the results we have all seen. Having attacked a weaker power, only to then suffer a festering and expensive insurgency, was correctly perceived around the world as a defeat of the USA. Having conducted itself as at once lawless and a lead-footed giant, the major power’s lesser allies deserted it, as predicted by Clausewitz.

If defeat is an orphan, incompetence is an orphan cast into the streets to fend for himself.

Clausewitz notes correctly that the standards are higher for the major powers. “Military honor and the renown of an army and its generals are factors that operate invisibly, but they constantly permeate all military activity”. To be a major power requires restraint and picking battles wisely, to preserve the prestige and status of your position. To embark on a war of choice and fail at it is to squander the “honor and renown” that comes with a powerful position, and to diminish the fear that should dominate potential enemies, neutrals and even current friends.

I believe very literally that an awareness of the basic principles in Clausewitz’s book would have well-served Mr. Bush and his people. The assessment of the issues that confronted the USA after 9/11 was done poorly, and the response more poorly still due in part to poor thinking, which the developing historical record is increasing showing.

I fear, with good reason, that the current American political leadership is at least as remote from Clausewitzian thinking as Mr. Bush’s entourage turned out to be. Hopefully, the military leadership, currently stinging from the difficult struggles they are trying to manage and extract us from, will provide far better quality leadership and advice to Mr. Obama and his entourage, including standing up to him and telling him when he is wrong. Whether Mr. Obama and his entourage will listen to such advice is another question.

The very existence of the Obama administration is only one of the many bad consequences of the unsuccessful war in Iraq.