Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII, Chapter 5, “Serious Risk”

The condition for defeating an enemy presupposes great physical or moral superiority or else an extremely enterprising spirit, an inclination for serious risk.  When neither of these is present, the object of military activity can only be one of two kinds: seizing a small or larger piece of enemy territory, or holding one’s own until things take a better turn.  The latter is normally the aim of a defensive war. . .

The possibility that a military objective can be modified is one we have treated hitherto as deriving only from domestic arguments [Book VI Ch 8], and we have considered the nature of the political aim only to the extent that it has or does not have an active content.  From the point of view of war itself, no other ingredient of policy is relevant at all.  Still, as we argued in the second chapter of Book I (purpose and means in war), the nature of the political aim, the scale of the demands put forward by either side, and the total political situation of one’s own side, are all factors that in practice must decisively influence the conduct of war.

This post links this concept of “serious risk” with “surprise”, which is one of the keys to success in the tactical/operational attack, but then highlights the overall importance of the political purpose to which the military aim is subordinate.

Given the state of strategic thought among policy makers in the US of the 21st Century, this chapter calls for special attention.  Notice that Clausewitz writes “defeating an enemy presupposes great physical or moral superiority”. No mention of power here, rather given the nature of modern political communities (organized as nation states or not) requires mobilization of the attacker’s strength (physical and moral) to impose his will over the defender.  The attacker can’t simply expect to shell/bomb his way to victory (either be using Napoleon 12 pounders or B-52s), rather he must mobilize the resources of the state/community: the more expansive the political goals, the more intense the mobilization must be.  This is not so easily accomplished, which is why this quote is in the Chapter on Limited Aims.

Notice we have the two strategies implied here:  A strategy of destruction/annihilation (that is total overthrow of the enemy), and a strategy of attrition corresponding to both war waged to defeat an attacking  enemy and offensive war waged for limited political objectives.  The defeat of the enemy requires a strategy of destruction; or a very long attritional war, this usually including periods on the defensive, and requiring an even higher degree of mobilization.

A strategy of destruction requires superiority, or if the relationship is more evenly balanced, the chance for decisive effect exists should an enemy center of gravity be disrupted/overturned, but otherwise there is high probability of lurching into attrition . . .

There is a way out of this dilemma, since as Clausewitz writes, “or else an extremely enterprising spirit, an inclination for serious risk”. So how exactly would this spirit, this inclination for serious risk come into play?  It would come into play when the attacker is the weaker side, period.  For instance in September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, and France and Britain promptly declared war.  In all a strategic failure for Germany, since they were now surrounded by stronger forces on two sides.  But the Germans didn’t expect the Western Allies to come to the aid of Poland and massed the Wehrmacht against the Poles (which had a not inconsiderable military in 1939).  On the other hand the French could have attacked and cleared most of the western bank of the Rhine, even captured the Ruhr, since the Germans had striped their Western front for Case White against Poland.

It is also important to consider that the war was not popular among the German people at the time, there had been no mass demonstrations for war as had been common across Europe in 1914.  People had expected this crisis to pass without bloodshed, just as the other crises of the late 1930s had.  The actual declaration of war had taken the people by surprise, since up to that point people had wanted to believe  Hitler’s declarations that he was interested in keeping the peace.  (Refer to William L Shirer’s This Is Berlin , especially his radio broadcasts of September 3 & 4, 1939, pp 75-78).  In other words, the risk taken by the German High Command was even greater when considering what the shock would have been had the French attacked.

In spite of being numerically inferior, and with a “grim” population (Shirer’s term), the Germans were able to defeat Poland and France totally, invade a series of smaller countries, and expel Britain from the continent within a period of 10 months.

Now consider another, very different, historical example: A very powerful state decides to overthrow a much weaker state, a state which is hopelessly isolated and unable to even control its own airspace, in fact, for the first time in military history the air offensive launched is not even considered as the opening of hostilities, that is the months-long aerial pounding is not considered an act of war.  (So history buffs when has that ever happened before?)

The attacker has very extensive goals: essentially the total overthrow of the defender along with the establishment of a new (attacker-friendly) political identity, domination of the national economy and natural resources, establishment of permanent military bases in which to project power throughout the region, a “government” consisting of attacker-friendly emigres, even a new flag . . .  All this with no or little actual mobilization (just using what’s “on the shelf”) let alone any sense of risk since the whole radical enterprise will be easy, a “cake walk”, although for domestic propaganda purposes the defender is portrayed as a “dangerous threat” (in this one respect the two historical examples are similar).

The lesson from our two quite different examples?  Most obviously, even the best military of a given period of time can  not achieve radical political purposes for which the means are inadequate or unsuited.  The radical nature of the attacker’s goals will only call upon additional resistance from the defender who only needs to deny the attacker his goal in order to win.  As the war grinds on the attacker’s original goals will give way to others which reflect more the character of the attacker’s political system, that is objective politics replaces subjective policy.

3 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII, Chapter 5, “Serious Risk””

  1. You may add the current missle attacks on Israel by unidentified “terrorists” in Lebanon and Gaza. They are not acts of war because there is no government acknowledging resposibility for the attacks. Yet the war aims are identical to the aims you have described. Indeed, everyone knows the identity of the responsible government but everyone agrees it is a name that must not be spoken in public. Sort of like Harry Potter’s Lord Valdemort.

  2. The Korean War was not a war – officially it was a police action by the UN exercisimg its vast moral superiority. Thre Chinese had vast moral superiority derived from Marxist-Leninist Historical inevitability. Vast moral supriority collided. So did overwhelming physical strength. Political goals were temporarily adjusted and 60 years later the war still simmers. New weapons have been developed, new attempts to undermine the other side’s “moral superiority’ may shift the balance and end this long-lived but unhappy stalemate.

    Historians apply the label “war” to many events which were really very bloody disagreements. The question is: who gets to decided if a conflict is a “war” or merely “an exhuberent family disagreement”?

    A. The actual participants? or
    B. The Historians and those who report the event.

Comments are closed.