Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VII, Chapters 5 and 22, The Culminating Point of the Attack/Victory and the Uses of Strategic Theory

There are strategic attacks which have led directly to peace, but these are the minority.  Most of them only lead up the point where their remaining strength is just enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace.  Beyond that point the scale turns and the reaction follows with a force that is usually much stronger than that of the original attack.  Since the object of the attack is possession of the enemy’s territory, it follows that the advance will continue until the attacker’s superiority is exhausted; it is this that drives the offensive on towards its goal and can easily drive it further.  If we remember how many factors contribute to an equation of forces, we will understand how difficult it is in some cases to determine which side has the upper hand.  Often it is entirely a matter of the imagination.

Chapter 5

It is not possible in every war for the victor to overthrow his enemy completely.  Often even victory has a culminating point.  this has been ampy demonstrated bz experience.  Because the matter is particularly important in military theory and forms the keystone for most plans of campaign, and because its surface is distorted by apparent  contradictions, like the dazzling effect of brilliant colors, we shall examine it more closely and seek out its inner logic.

Victory normally results from the superiority of one side; from a greater aggregate of physical and psychological strength.  This superiority is certainly augmented by the victory, otherwise it would not be so coveted or command so high a price.  That is an automatic consequence of victory itself.  Its effects exert a similar influence, but only up to a point.  That point may be reached quickly – at times so quickly that the total consequences of a victorious battle may not be limited to an increase in psychological superiority alone.

Chapter 22

This concept of the “culminating point” was later developed by Aleksandre Svechin in his Strategy which is imo the best development of the theory behind operational art we have.  As to the actual use of the concept it has much to do with whether the military aim is following a strategy of destruction or one of attrition.  The example of the Korean War (1950-53) offers an interesting subject of analysis in this regard.

The initial North Korean attack was very much a strategy of destruction, with their aim being the complete overthrow of the South Korean government in a quick campaign, overrunning the entire southern half of the peninsula before the US had time to react.  The North Koreans had the US/ROK (Republic of Korea) forces isolated on a narrow perimeter around the city of Pusan, when General MacArthur landed the 1st Marine Division at Inchon under very tricky tidal conditions, it was quickly followed by the US 7th Infantry Division and the rest is history.  The North Korean front collapsed and the US/ROK/UN forces advanced past the former boundary after recapturing Seoul and pushing the remnants of the North Korean army north towards the Yalu.  Here we have a replay of the same strategy of destruction, with MacArthur now going for the knock out blow and the occupation of all of Korea, just as Kim Il Sung had done before him.  As with the North Koreans, the cumlinating point of the advance was past and with the advent of active Chinese participation in the war both the 8th Army on the left and X Corps on the right (MacArthur’s forces had to operate separately due to terrain) had to retreat under great pressure.

Now it was the turn of the Chinese to overshoot the cumlinating point and they did south of Seoul after an advance that lasted two months.  In the meantime, a new commander, Matthew Ridgway took over from Walton Walker who had been killed in a traffic accident.  Ridgway, took over command of all ground operations in Korea.  Ridgway has always been one of my heroes btw, perhaps the most underrated commander in US history.

Ridgway understood perhaps better than MacArthur and certainly better than many of the politicians in Washington the nature of the war that they were involved in.  He understood that Korea was a limited war and would require a strategy of attrition to win.  This is what he in fact implimented with limited operations (for instand “Operation Ripper” – notice also the lack of euphemistic and self-deluding propaganda in choosing the names of operations) which built on sequential success and methodically drove the Communists north that is until an armistice was signed in July 1953.  Ridgway had turned over command in May 1952 and there were no significant advances after that date.

Ridgway was able to see his war as whole, was not mired in tactics or overawed by technical capability, rather he saw tactics as providing the basis for operational maneuver which in turn would provide the military aim supporting the limited political purpose, essentially the maintainance of the previous division of Korea with the North Koreans back on their side of the border far the worse for wear.

2 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VII, Chapters 5 and 22, The Culminating Point of the Attack/Victory and the Uses of Strategic Theory”

  1. Three examples of overshooting the culminating point in one medium-sized war.

    Obviously enough, it is tough to get it right.

    Noteworthy that the American war aims when Macarthur went in at Inchon were ill-defined, beyond rescuing the Pusan enclave, and pushing the NKs back. Once Macarthur had the NKs on the run he got “victory fever”. It would have taken real courage to tell to stop, say, at the narrow point on the peninsula, and restore the status quo. If he had done that, and the Chinese had flung themselves against a UN defensive line backed by UN artillery and airpower, they would not have won their stunning initial victory. But, of course, no one expected the Chinese to suddenly not be the pathetic military performers they had apparently been for a century. Who would have been able to foresee that the PLA was going to be such a competent foe? Not Macarthur, and not, apparently, anyone.

    As Clausewitz tells us, it is best to always be very strong. Then the culminating point is reached when the enemy is crushed, not before.

    If Stalin had invested 100 more T-34/85s, maybe the NKs would have finished off the Pusan Perimeter, and the war would have been over. Who knows? They “culminated” too soon, with what they had.

  2. Lexington Green-

    Agree as to Korean War. As Clausewitz writes in the first quote, the basic question is “what is the military aim”? If it is the complete overthrow of the enemy, then this “presuppose[s] great physical or moral superiority or else an extremely enterprizing spirit, an inclination for serious risks.” Bk VIII/Ch 5.

    The military aim supports the political purpose, whereas tactics sets the means for operations which in turn are guided by the military aim: war – as opposed to warfare – seen as a whole.

    MacArthur didn’t believe the Chinese would attack unless we crossed the Yalu, but didn’t seem to consider whether they would have accepted a US-allied Korea directly on their border, along with the momentum of Communist “revolution” in Asia stopped in its tracks, that is he didn’t thoroughly consider what the political results would be of a successful strategy of destruction.

    Also the Chinese/NK acceptance of peace talks was used as a stalling tactic to gain time after the bloodletting they had received as the hands of Ridgway’s offensives. Had the US walked at the first sign of insincerity, labelling the Chinese moves as “cynical opportunism unworthy of a true Leninist” (admittedly an oxymoron) and continued the strategy of attrition, the result may have been a shortened war with a boundary further north.

    Btw, when I was a young officer candidate at Marine Corps OCS at Quantico they had a Soviet T-34/85 parked in a field across from our barracks, slowly rusting in place. It was a war trophy captured by the 1st MarDiv in 1950. What was impressive was the combination of crudeness (for instance the finish was so rough you could have cut your hand on the hull attempting to climb on), and design – mixing mobility, armament and slope of armour into a very effective system.

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