Clausewitz, “On War” Book VIII: Clausewitz Returns to Military Genius, and My Closing Thoughts

Clausewitz discussed my favorite topic, Military Genius, in Book I, and I wrote an amplification of that subject. In the intervening books, Books II-VII, Clausewitz scarcely touches on the subject, but briefly returns to it in Book VIII.

He devotes a long paragraph to the topic in Chapter 1 of Book VIII. I will intensively analyze that paragraph here.

On the one hand, military operations appear extremely simple. The greatest generals discuss them in the plainest and most forthright language; and to hear them tell how they control and manage that enormous, complex apparatus one would think the only thing that mattered was the speaker, and that the whole monstrosity called war came down, in fact, to a contest between individuals, a sort of duel. A few uncomplicated thoughts seem to account for their decisions–either that, or the explanation lies in various emotional states; and one is left with the impression that great commanders manage matters in an easy, confident and, one would almost think, off-hand sort of way. At the same time we can see how many factors are involved have to be weighed against each other; the vast, almost infinite distance there can be between a cause and its effect, and the countless ways in which these elements can be combined. (p. 577)

Rather, Clausewitz should have stated that successful military operations appear extremely simple. This is a function of the general intentionally keeping his thoughts, his will, his orders, and his commands, simple. Kotare already discussed this crucial topic, so I won’t belabor the point.

Clausewitz then tackles the utility of military theories.

The function of theory is to put all this in systematic order, clearly and comprehensively, and to trace each action to an adequate, compelling cause. When we contemplate all this, we are overcome by the fear that we shall be irresistibly dragged down to a state of dreary pedantry, and grub around in the underworld of ponderous concepts where no great commander, with his effortless coup d’oeil, was ever seen. If that were the best that theoretical studies could produce it would be better never to have attempted them in the first place. Men of genuine talent would despise them and they would quickly be forgotten. (p. 577-578)

The battlefields of history are littered with dead theories as much as battered bodies and lost dreams. The Close Order died during the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War. French élan and the Cult of the Offensive died in the trenches of World War I. The New Look died on the Korean Peninsula. Massive Retaliation died during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Weinberger and Powell Doctrines are entombed at Ground Zero. Transformation, Shock and Awe, Rapid Decisive Operations, Network Centric Warfare, and the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) lay dead in Iraq. And so the deaths of doctrines continue even today.

Yet some theories that ought to be forgotten continue to persist. Airpower doctrine and the cult of strategic bombing persevere in spite of a rather appalling history. In World War II the negative results of American strategic bombing efforts were documented in the massive Strategic Bombing Survey. Strategic bombing in Vietnam failed to stop traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and only increased the resolve of the North Vietnamese (much as the German bombing of the United Kingdom only increased British resolve). In Operation Desert Storm, Strategic Bombing proved indecisive, requiring a ground invasion after weeks of continual bombardment. In Kosovo, a strategic bombing campaign that was to take two days required 78 days and much extra diplomacy, which rendered the verdict that strategic bombing is an indecisive method. In the 2006 Hizbollah War, Israel attempted a bombing blitz using the American war against Kosovo as a model, and again resulted in a negative outcome.

Why is this? I can only turn to one of the most fervent anti-Clauswitzians for the answer.

The only thing harder that getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.
-Sir Basil Henry Lidell Hart

Today, General James Mattis is attempting to discredit Effects Based Operations (EBO). He might be successful in this undertaking, but I doubt it. It seems to me that, as with Airpower doctrine, EBO will persist in some guise or other because many powerful people are more comfortable with mental constructs as an end to themselves than they are with how those mental constructs affect the interactions between us, the enemy, and the moral, mental, and physical environments that war inhabits. (More can be read about the EBO issue here, courtesy of the always-excellent Small Wars Journal.)

When all is said and done, it really is the commander’s coup d’oeil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.

Clausewitz returned to the concept of coup d’oeil. For the coup d’oeil is a personal attribute of a military leader, not a wondrous concept to create a miraculous victory. Clausewitz recognized that people fight and win wars, not mental constructs, and that is why he described the plainspoken, coup d’oeil-endowed commander as real conqueror, not a “ponderous concept.”

So, what is to be done about our ponderous concepts?

The solution is to return to the fundamentals of the art of war:

• Place emphasis on making great officers and soldiers
• Return to military history as the primary source of military doctrine.
• When making use of other sources of doctrine, use those sources to evolve current doctrine, not completely replace it. (No more Revolutions in Military Affairs!)
• Return to simple uncomplicated military thoughts. Eliminate jargon.
• Place emphasis on making our military adaptable.
• Ideas and technology must be considered to be secondary and tertiary in importance, behind people.

I will now retire with some final words on Clausewitz and the Roundtable.

I was personally excited to intensively study Clausewitz. As I have stated previously, Marine Corps doctrine draws from several sources. It is probably equal proportions of Clausewitz, Boyd, and the peculiar historical experiences of amphibious warfare and fighting so-called “small wars” in all corners of the globe. Reading Clausewitz with the rest of the Roundtable represented an opportunity to return to some of the original texts which animate the military doctrine that Marines fight by. This is an undertaking that I am glad I participated in.

As with all scholarly experiences, there are various salient points that I will remember from my reading of Clausewitz:

Tension. With Clausewitz, all ideas are held in tension with other ideas. There are no pure principles that can be meaningfully examined on their own merits. Such principles must be always examined together with all connected concepts. An excellent example is the Clausewitzian concept of the Defense. To Clausewitz, there is no such thing as a pure defense, for even in defense there is resistance to the enemy. Thus the defense is intermingled with the offense. Other concepts held in tension are Absolute & Real War, Moral & Physical factors, Military & Political considerations, Strategic & Tactical, and the trinity of the Government, the Army, and the People.

Clausewitzian Concepts. Various concepts that Clausewitz created have enriched the modern military vocabulary: Friction, Culminating Point, Center of Gravity, etc. Some of these concepts are so pervasive in Marine Corps doctrine that I often found it difficult to separate the Marine doctrines I’ve internalized and the Clausewitzian concepts I was studying.

Military Genius. To me, the most interesting topic discussed by Clausewitz was that of what attributes we should seek in our military leaders. For me this is of crucial importance, as the military is my profession. Clausewitz supplied us with one of the most complete portraits of the ideal military genius ever written. Should we compare the leaders that our military institutions produce to the Clausewitzian ideal, we assuredly would be found desperately wanting. I can only work diligently to remedy any such institutional deficits.

Clausewitz has left me with a much-deepened understanding of the nature of war as a human endeavor. I can pay him no greater compliment.

Semper Fidelis, General von Clausewitz. You are well-remembered.

4 thoughts on “Clausewitz, “On War” Book VIII: Clausewitz Returns to Military Genius, and My Closing Thoughts”

  1. “I am not a Marxist”
    – Karl Marx

    A muscular closer, Nate!. Nice work! Please take the following as quibbling rather than as a profound disagreement:

    I have to say along with dead theories are those not quite fairly declared deceased and the differences not only between theory and practice but also theorist and followers. Having read Art Cebrowski, for example, I’m quite certain that his network-centric warfare was meant for major state vs. state warfare and he did not say ” try this with a tribally-based insurgency”. There are ideal battlefield conditions for every serious theory and there are conditions that are inimical to their use. That said, NCW has indeed caught hell because of Iraq and fairly or unfairly is irrelevant in political terms. I expect that new applications will revive it in the future.

    “Massive retaliation” was dead before the Cuban Missile Crisis (see Laos crisis)but the policy’s legacy of tremendous U.S. advantage in throw weight, warhheads, delivery systems ( the sovs had only 5-6 functional ICBMS in the USSR and some IRBMs in Cuba) determined the “soft landing”. In a nuclear war over Cuba, the U.S. would have suffered a catastrophic but survivable loss of 20 million people. Soviet losses are estimated to have been a potential 120 million, had war occurred, which would have spelled the end of the USSR and probably ommunism as well ( if I recall, Cuba and Red China were also on the SAC target list).

  2. And Martin Luther was a good Catholic!

    Thanks, Zen. And fair criticisms from you, as always.

    I agree that NCW was a concept that dealt with inter-state warfare. Unfortunately, as Rumsfeld stated, you go to war with the army you have. A corollary is that you go to war with the doctrines you have, too. Should those doctrines be too brittle to actually apply in the environment, they deserve, at least, heavy modification, if not outright abandonment.

    I might be too willing to express glee at the postmortems of doctrines that came and went on the battlefields of Iraq in the past few years. That would probably be fair. And you are correct that NCW, which is closely related to EBO, might continue to persist. But if it does persist, it must do so on it the merits of success on the battlefield, not on the ability of a particular clique to push a dogmatic agenda (like has been the case with Airpower doctrine). Should NCW manage to create battlefield success, I promise that I will take up the NCW banner and defend it on its merits. But that day has not yet come.

    Fair criticism on the Massive Retaliation, as well. I cited the Cuban Missile Crisis as the wartime event that signaled the death of Massive Retaliation as a doctrine, although the Kennedy administration correctly sought alternatives to Massive Retaliation before the Missile Crisis actually occurred. Thus came Flexible Response.

    Again, thanks for the criticisms, Zen. It’s always a pleasure to debate these things.

  3. I like your six bullet points very much. They suggest a program of action in response to Clausewitz’s book.

    “… the most interesting topic discussed by Clausewitz was that of what attributes we should seek in our military leaders”

    Yes. Even more, the book points toward the various means of identifying, forming, cultivating those leaders — and provides the sketch of a program of personal study which aspiring commanders can implement themselves.

  4. Nate, Excellent closing.

    One minor quibble: “Coup d’oeil” is more of an individual capability that a concept. Literally “mastery of sight”, it connotes the vision a commander possesses in order to shape the battlespace to his liking.

    As for EBO, I am firmly in the Van Riper camp: “EBO” is a misnomer that implies an element of stasis (i.e., disregarding the latency of the effects generating) and the presumptiousness to be able to grasp causality across multiple iterations of millions of entities. This problem quickly scales well beyond 1E86 (the number of subatomic particles in the known universe).

    It has been a pleasure reading your contributions to the Roundtable. Intermediate Service School is going to be a breeze for you!

    Semper Fidelis,


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