Clausewitz, “On War”, Book VIII: War Plans are Simplicity Itself!

Book VIII deals with war plans. It was one of the parts of On War that was in a nearly finished state when Clausewitz died. After transiting the vast lumber rooms of Book VI and Book VII, which have many good things amidst the clutter, the relatively finished nature of Book VIII is a relief and a pleasure.

In the introduction, in Chapter 1, Clausewitz tells us that the vast array of factors that must be considered in preparing a plan for war seem, in the hands of great generals, to be “extremely simple” and their decision-making appears to be “uncomplicated” and “off-hand”. This is an illusion. The men of talent in command of armies are really considering these factors, but not in a “dreary” and pedantic way, but by the interior assimilation of experience and learning that leads to swift and decisive coup d’oeil.

What can be the role of theory, then? It cannot provide formulas, but principles. It cannot show a solution, but mark a direction and help to avoid mistakes. Theory can “give the mind insight into the great mass of phenomena and of their relationships, then leave it free to rise into the higher realms of action. There the mind can use its innate talents to capacity … .” All of the theory that and principles that can be derived from Clausewitz’s book are only so many tools to help the innately talented military mind more quickly “seize on what is right and true”. But the book-learning cannot make a military genius, it can only help the naturally occurring genius to refine and sharpen his capability to analyze and act.

This ties in to a thread that runs throughout the book: The purpose of the book is to help provide professional formation for commanders, especially officers who may one day exercise supreme command. That is its target audience.

In Chapter 2, Clausewitz reprises the distinction between absolute war, and real war. The many factors that are in play in the real world push against any war escalating to the level of absolute war — though as Clausewitz says, he and his colleagues had seen with their own eyes how close war could come to the absolute, in the struggle against Bonaparte.

Clausewitz here states one of his most-quoted epigrams: “No one starts a war — or rather no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how intends to conduct it”. He goes on to say, in a sentence that is not so often quoted, “The former is its political purpose, the latter its operational objective”. He goes on to say further that the war’s political aim should “make its influence felt throughout down to the smallest operational detail”.

A question which arises is this: Why, in history, does it seem that so many times the politico-military leadership embarking on a war has not been “in its senses” and has embarked on wars which lacked even the basic coherence that Clausewitz articulates as a minimal requirement? Why do the military effort and any coherent aims become detached, breaking a unity that should permeate the entire war? Why do leaders so often act in a way that is not sensible?

Clausewitz provoked a similar question earlier.

Now he, in part, resolves it.

Clausewitz describes the factors that prevent war from becoming absolute:

We must … be prepared to develop our concept of war as it ought to be fought, not on the basis of its pure definition, but by leaving room for every sort of extraneous matter. We must allow for natural inertia, for all the friction of its parts, for all the inconsistency, imprecision, and timidity of man; and finally, we must face the fact that war and its forms result from ideas, emotions, and conditions prevailing at the time … .

It this is the case, if we must admit that the origin and the form taken by a war are not the result of any ultimate resolution of the vast array of circumstances involved, but only of those features that happen to be dominant, it follows that war is dependent on the interplay of possibilities and probabilities, of good and bad luck, conditions in which strictly logical reasoning plays no part at all and is always apt to be most unsuitable and awkward intellectual tool. It follows too that war can be a matter of degree.

So, as is so often the case with Clausewitz, he has set up a contrast between an ideal type, and the messy reality. Ideally, there is a coherent political leadership, that sets an achievable and rational goal. Then, ideally, there is a commander of genius, possessing authority to act, and the experience, and insight and decisiveness to take in the whole picture, who arrive at a plan of campaign that drives toward an operational objective that will achieve the political purpose.

Clausewitz’s two main exemplars, Napoleon and Frederick, being rulers as well as commanders, combined both political and military command in one person. This certainly simplifies matters. These men approached the ideal.

(As an aside, the US Constitution makes the President the Commander in Chief, allowing a high degree of politico-military unity, if the President assumes and forcefully carries out the full responsibility of this role.)

But, history raises up a few mighty captains in the league of Frederick and Napoleon. It also rarely places in political command an astute and insightful ruler such as Tsar Alexander, who took up the political goal of destroying Napoleon’s power and control of Europe, and allowed a successful strategy that his commanders had only stumbled upon to play itself out.

More often, the political and military leadership is distracted and thrown off the narrow path to victory by the incoming tide of “extraneous matter” and they are led instead into making plans and decisions based on the “ideas, emotions, and conditions prevailing at the time” rather than a reasoned analysis, or even a well-formed intuition, about the proper and achievable political and military aims of a proposed war.

As Clausewitz famously wrote, in his discussion of friction, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” There he was discussing friction in the actual execution of war, down to the smallest tactical detail of maneuvering a squadron of cavalry or a battery of guns, while under fire.

In Book VIII we see that there is a type of friction in play at the highest level as well. The wise statesman, the tough-minded and decisive commander, who will be clear in their minds what they intend to achieve by the war and how they intend to conduct it — it appears that they represent yet another ideal type, which is never fully reached, and only rarely approximated in practice.

So, the preparation of war plans is simplicity itself.

Yet, as with all such simplicity depicted by Clausewitz, it is an ideal that must always remain unattainable — but like Polaris, the pole-star which is also forever beyond our grasp, it points the political and military leaders in the direction they should be heading.

[There is much more to be said about Book VIII, but I will leave it at that.]

4 thoughts on “Clausewitz, “On War”, Book VIII: War Plans are Simplicity Itself!”

  1. One of the most difficult things for the civilian leader in a war is probably establishing the right amount of control over his military commanders..not micromanaging them and doing their jobs, but not uncritically believing everything they say, either. He must understand enough about their performance, and have enough of a military context to put it in, to decide when it is time to make personnel changes…as Lincoln did more than once.

    This is analogous to the corporate CEO or General Manager who must deal with subordinates in areas that may not be part of his own core expertise. When to believe the CEO when he says that 200 person-years for the new inventory control system is reasonable, for example? When to believe the VP of Design when he says that a totally new look for all the cars is called for?

    See trusting experts–and which experts to trust.

  2. Clausewitz tells us that the vast array of factors that must be considered in preparing a plan for war seem, in the hands of great generals, to be “extremely simple” and their decision-making appears to be “uncomplicated” and “off-hand”. This is an illusion.

    Actually, I think most experienced professionals work this way. I suspect you can look at a legal issue and very quickly hone in on what the key points are and what can be ignored or dealt with later. There was a book, Blink, written recently on that very phenomenon.

    …the political and military leadership is distracted…by the incoming tide of “extraneous matter” and they are led instead into making plans and decisions based on the “ideas, emotions, and conditions prevailing at the time” rather than a reasoned analysis, or even a well-formed intuition…

    Another way of saying that is that sometimes, when you’re knee deep in alligators, it’s hard to remember your original intention was to drain the swamp. It’s easy, and common, to become overwhelmed by events.

  3. Michael, good point. However, the commander who can act in this way has had to work his way up to it, starting on a base of natural aptitude. Michael Jordan had natural aptitude, and then built onto it many, many hours of practice and play. He got to the point where he made instant decisions and executed them instantly. Great commanders are similar. Clausewitz is saying that they do not go down a check list when making a decision. However, that ability to act swiftly is a combination of natural aptitude, experience and study. His book has the humble aim of making the study component more effective and focused.

    Also true about alligators and swamps. That is why the statesmen and commanders who can see through the fog and press on through the friction and never lose sight of the goal are rare and priceless.

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