Clausewitz “On War” Book VII: Principles of Attack

To me, book seven feels the most unfinished of all of Clausewitz’ writings. It is true that in discussing other ideas in other books, Clausewitz has already given us several points that might be contained in seven. Even so, more than the rest of the series, this book has the feel of an outline or draft to built on later.

Even though this may be the case, Clausewitz gives us the fundamentals of strategic attack. Essentially, Clausewitz tells us, seize and hold the initiative, assault through the enemy using fire and maneuver, and don’t over-extend. Also, choose objectives appropriately, and be mindful of the terrain. Of course, Clausewitz goes into some detail on each of these points, and where the overall theme is similar to ideas in early works, Clausewitz explains to us the nuances regarding application in the attack. Again, while some of the fine details have changed do to the progress of time and advances in technology, the overall ideas are still sound.

Clausewitz tells us first that the attacker must have the initiative. While this point seems self-evident, it does bear mentioning. Clausewitz wants us to realize that with out maintaining the drive, or controlling the where, when, and how of the battle, the attack will flounder and fail.

Next, Clausewitz tells us the key to success is to destroy the enemy using enveloping, or (preferably) flanking movements (p. 529, 530). I borrowed the statement in the introduction above from the Marine Corps (Locate, close with, and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver…) and while the statement in that case reflects tactics and not necessarily strategy, Clausewitz tells us that ultimately it translates well. He says the attacker must be able to out maneuver the defender in order to apply force at the most effective point.

Clausewitz makes his point about overextension somewhat more subtly, in Chapter twenty-two, He tells us, (though this point was touched on in earlier books,) that as the attacking army moves forward, it tends to both lose men and move further away from its base (p. 568-569). In this chapter, though, he goes further, warning the attacker away from pushing too far forward, and ending up in a situation where the army cannot be supported and consequently find it’s self not only losing momentum but fighting in a poorly formed defensive action.

Finally, Clausewitz discusses the choice of objective. While there are several finer points here, the idea is to attack objectives that further the over-all goal of the campaign. Anything else is of course a waste of strength, and counters the over-all initiative of the army. Related to this, Clausewitz also gives us advice on terrain, telling us to use it to our advantage, and avoid attacks in terrain that would impede the attacker’s maneuverability more than the defender.

So what are the implications of all this for us in the modern day? From a military standpoint, it’s fairly obvious. The concepts are still sound. I would argue though that these same concepts could be applied to any strategic situation where the actor is actively pursuing some end state. Whether it is a sport team trying to win a game, a business attempting to increase sales, or a grad student working toward his master’s, on some level, Clausewitz’ concepts of strategic attack can be applied. Perhaps we can rephrase the introduction for the civilian world as: be proactive, improvise and adapt to the situation at hand, using the best means possible to complete the task, and don’t take on too much at once. Choose the most efficient means to reach the goal, and try not to waste resources.

Perhaps MBAs should read Clausewitz.