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  • Clausewitz, “On War” Book VI: The Shadow of the East

    Posted by Zenpundit on March 21st, 2009 (All posts by )

    Book VI of On War is about von Clausewitz’s assertion of the pivotal role of defense in war. And so it is. To me however, the passages were echoes of Napoleon’s folly of invading Russia, vast and terrible, and the enduring lessons that von Clausewitz managed to distill from the frozen wasteland of the endless steppe. “The People’s War” rose in Spain against King Joseph Bonaparte and French occupation; led by juntas, the campesinos fought French soldiers with merciless savagery but it was waging war in Russia that had reduced Napoleon Bonaparte from a European Emperor, down again to a mere upstart Corsican general. A parvenu brigand on a continental scale.

    No wonder Carl von Clausewitz was in awe of defense.

    “If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, it follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to to pursue a positive object. When one has used defensive measures successfully, a more favorable balance of strength is usually created; thus the natural course in war is to begin defensively and end in attacking”

    One of the anomalies of the crusade of Napoleon’s Grande Armee into the Russia of Tsar Alexander is that the Russians began in a position of numerical inferiority, something that had not happened at any other time except during the Mongol Yoke. Even Hitler’s massive onslaught of 150 Wehrmacht divisions hurled into the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 did not enjoy the advantage in numbers held by Napoleon in 1812. Napoleon’s host had an almost mythic quality, reminiscent of the army of Great King Xerxes in The Persian Wars. Historian Alan Schom writes:

    “Napoleon’s mighty force was phenomenal in size and strength as it continued its advance. They were marching by the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands. It was incredible, it was fascinating, it was aew inspiring, but above all, it was terrifying. All Europe was trembling at the very thought of this massive Gallic-led horde, the likes of which had not been seen since the eighth century invasion of Europe by the Arabs and Berbers, and before that by Attila the Hun. Bavarians, Wurttemburgers, troops from Berg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Nassau-Aremberg, Isenburg, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Wurzberg, Saxony, Anhalt-Berburg, Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, Waldeck, Schaumburg-Lippe, Westphalia, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oldenburg, occupied Denmark, occupied Prussia, occupied Spain and Portugal, occupied Holland, occupied Switzerland, northern Italy, the occupied Papal States, Danzig and Illyria, tiny San Marino and the miniature principality of Liechtenstein….the marched hundreds of miles, some ultimately two thousand miles, because once more Napoleon Bonaparte had refused peace, because – obsessed beyond any rational thought – he demanded war and further conquest”[1]

    Tsar Alexander responded to the “Gallic horde” by trading space for time, evacuating Vitebsk and famously, Moscow, which was set to the torch. Alexander made use of the terrain, Russia’s vast and unforgiving span of earth to decimate the invaders whose lines of supply stretched vaporously thin.

    Carl von Clausewitz wrote in chapter 3 of Book VI of On War:

    “…But if for some reason, the attacker has to advance with divided forces – and problems of supply often leave him little choice – the defender obviously reaps the benefit of being able to attack a part of his opponent with his own full strength.
    In strategy, the nature of flank and rear attacks on a theater of operations changes to a significant degree….

    ….3. Because of the greater areas involved in strategy, the effectiveness of the interior and therefore shorter lines is accentuated and forms an imortant counterbalance against concentric attacks.”

    In Chapter 8 “Types of Resistance” , we see that Tsar Alexander’s retreat of scorched earth has provided a template for Clausewitz regarding the use of territorial space by armies on the defensive:

    “….and therefore, two kinds of reactions are possible on the defending side, depending whether the attacker is to perish by the sword or by his own exertions.

    ….Indeed, the latter can essentially take place only where the retreat penetrates deeply into the interior of the country. It is in fact the only reason that can justify such a retreat and the great sacrifices it entails.”

    The late, great, historian of old Russia, W. Bruce Lincoln, wrote of Napoleon’s predicament in smoldering Moscow:

    “Throughout the fall of 1812, Napoleon waited in vain for Alexander’s peace proposals to arrive in the Kremlin. When none came, he made overtures of his own, but Alexander sent no reply. As the days stretched into weeks, Napoleon came to see that he, not Alexander, faced a truly desperate situation, for Russia’s armies grew stronger by the day while his own dwindled from desertions and the ravages of disease. He faced the hopeless prospect of wintering in Russia without adequate food, shelter, or supplies, surrounded by a people so hostile that they burned their grain rather than sell it for French gold. As winter approached, and as the Russian partisans stepped up their attacks on his rear, Napoleon saw that his line of communications, which relied upon a perilously vulnerable corps of couriers who raced from Paris to Moscow in fourteen days, must soon collapse.” [2]

    As with Spain, in Russia Napoleon Bonaparte met with the “rage of the people” in addition to the Tsarist armies and Cossack hosts. And as in the case of Spain’s campesinos, the Russian muzhik was fired by religious zeal against the unholy invader. On Russia’s long suffering peasantry, it’s “dark people” still enthralled in serfdom then, J. Christopher Herold wrote of the popular reaction to the French:

    “Alexander’s proclamation to his people, issued at the time of the French invasion, appealed to these deep seated feelings: Napoleon had come to destroy Russia; the entire nation must rise against ‘this Moloch’ and his ‘legions of slaves’. ‘Let us drive this plague of locusts out! Let us carry the Cross in our hearts and steel in our hands!’ The proclamation was read in all the churches, and the priests supplemented it with embellishments of their own. The comte de Segur, at this time an aide-de-camp to Napoleon, wrote: ‘They convinced these peasants we were a legion of devils commanded by the Antichrist, infernal spirits, horrible to look upon, and whose very touch defiled” [3]

    Russia was well suited to all of Clausewitz’s conditions for which a general uprising would be effective; that is to say, Clausewitz determined his conditions for a general uprising from the Russian partisan experience against the French (and perhaps also, upon reflection, that of the Spanish guerrilla as well but Clausewitz saw Russia with his own eyes).

    “The following are the only conditions under which a general uprising can be effective:

    1. The war must be fought in the interior of the country.
    2. It must not be decided by a single stroke.
    3. The theater of operations must be fairly large.
    4. The national character must be suited to that type of war.
    5. The country must be rough and inaccessible because of mountains, or forests, marshes, or the local method of cultivation.”

    Only five percent of the soldiery of the mighty Grand Armee that boldly marched into Imperial Russia with Napoleon made it out alive. Roughly the same percentage as of the Wehrmacht troops who had served under Field Marshal von Paulus at Stalingrad.

    Despite the claims of abstract universalism put forth on behalf of On War by Clausewitzians, the great insights of General von Clausewitz – and they truly are great – are firmly rooted in time and place. Mother Russia casts a shadow long and deep.

    [1] Schom, Alan. 1997. Napoleon Bonaparte. HarperCollins. NY.NY. 594.
    [2] Lincoln, W. Bruce. 1981. The Romanovs: Autocrats of all the Russias. The Dial Press. NY.NY. 400.
    [3] Herold, J. Christopher. 1963. The Age of Napoleon. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston, Mass. 348


    16 Responses to “Clausewitz, “On War” Book VI: The Shadow of the East”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      I’ve got Clausewitz’s memoir of the Russian Campaign sitting here. I will get to it soon.

      No doubt Russia is the “defender’s country”. Only the Mongols had any luck there. Fortunately, Mongols only come along once in a great while.

    2. zenpundit Says:

      You’re right Lex, the Mongols were a great exception. The Scythinans and Huns – there were no Russians per se then – were others. An army that could live in the saddle while living off of the steppes could turn the terrain against the more sedentary Slavs and make it serve the attacker. They could seemingly “appear out of nowhere”.

      I’m reading Grant Hammond’s Mind of War and I’m in the section now where he’s reviewing John Boyd’s perceptions of the Mongols, their use of mobility and terror and contrasting it with late Napoleonic mass and Clausewitz’s ideas of CoG

    3. seydlitz89 Says:


      Interesting historical background on the Russian campaign of 1812.

      “Despite the claims of abstract universalism put forth on behalf of On War by Clausewitzians, the great insights of General von Clausewitz – and they truly are great – are firmly rooted in time and place. Mother Russia casts a shadow long and deep.”

      I don’t really know what “abstract universalism” is, although it comes across to me as more the “4GW” approach, which I don’t think you will find any Clausewitzian arguing.

      If you are referring to the general theory, then yes it is based on actual military history, since Clausewitz’s theory was the result of long and dedicated historical study, along with him reflecting on his own experiences, that is he didn’t start with a theory and then look for historical fragments to back it up. Rather he studied and wrote in depth about specific military campaigns. (Please refer to Book II, Chapter 2, Section entitled, “Strategy Derives the Means and Ends to be Examined Exclusively from Experience”.)

      In fact this importance of the Russian Campaign is part of Herberg-Rothe’s argument in his book “Clausewitz’s Puzzle”:

      “It is true that Napoleon’s victorious campaigns led Clausewitz to develop a theory of successful warfare. But it was only Napoleon’s defeats in Russia, and then at Leipzig and Waterloo that made it possible for Clausewitz to develop a political theory of war. Of course this does not mean that Clausewitz’s political theory of war is a theory of defeat. However, it does mean that the successes, limits, and defeats assocated with Napoleon’s way of waging war forced Clausewitz to reflect on questions that went beyond purely military matters and led him to a political theory of war.”

      Clausewitz’s Puzzle, p. 15

      My question in response to your closing statement is:

      Yes, agreed as to Clausewitz’s insights being rooted in time and place, how could it be otherwise? Are you arguing that time and place of development limit the applicability of a theory, or that theory of this type can be developed outside of military history?

    4. Cheryl Rofer Says:

      Thanks, Zen!

      Love that history!

    5. zenpundit Says:

      Gracias Cheryl! if only I had taken Russian instead of a sort of Afro-Brazilianized version of Portuguese in college as a foreign language I’d have been able to….switch fields in 1991 when Soviet Studies crashed and burned. ;)


      Please pardon my delay in responding, you have asked an excellent question. An explanation is in order.

      I have very few problems with Clausewitz himself. Reading On War a second time with more mature eyes was a pleasure, even in the less polished sections. An intellectual giant with subtle powers of discernment. Like Lex, I think I will have to read it again. On War is a book for the “Quantum Library” ( the classic books that can be re-read dozens of times and continue to yield new insights)

      My problem is more with the hastier or more careless yet absolutist of the Clausewitzians ( not you) who sometimes talk of “war” (abstract-theoretical) when the discussion is really about “warfare” (practical examples or forms)in order to get away from or dismiss irritating complexities that are variables that those on the scene need to consider, at least if they wish to prevail. They say they are against “theory” but are in fact, resorting to it themselves. My line was a jab in their direction rather than at Clausewitz though the lack of clarity on my part was not helpful.

      As to your second question:

      Clausewitz’s time and 18th-19th C. European cultural worldview, his experience of Napoleonic battle and study of military history available to him shaped his theory. I absolutely agree he did not begin with a theory in mind. As a result, I am of the opinion that Clausewitz’s body of thought in toto is most predictive for societies at war to the degree that they are congruent with his own – most of all those steeped in the tradition of Western civilization and organized as Westphalian states. There will be applicability of Clausewitzian theory to warfare in other periods and complex civilizations but as we move to those that are less complex, smaller, more personalized, more theistic, more atavistic and less “rational” in the sense of Western logic and politics, the predictive value of Clausewitzian theory begins to diminish because the calculus of the other side grows more divergent from our own.

      I am not arguing that Clausewitzian theory is useless in such circumstances but the model fits less well than it did with, say, the Franco-Prussian War and I think history demonstrates that proposition when Western nations have clashed with non-Western ones or “hybrid” cases like Russia, Turkey or Japan that underwent partial Westernization while remaining substantially “other”

    6. YT Says:

      Re : Grant Hammond’s Mind of War. Great work, that one. I oughta read it again.

    7. seydlitz89 Says:


      Thank you for the thoughtful response, you bring up many interesting questions.

      I’m make a few general comments which will touch on some of the points you’ve brought up.

      First, I would argue that strategic theory (Clausewitzian or otherwise) is very limited in terms of predictive value. War is such a complex affair, that it is only after the fact that the theory usually comes into play. Herberg-Rothe entitled his book “Clausewitz’s Puzzle” for this reason. This also brings to mind a quote from Svechin which should be engraved on a plaque above every strategic theorist’s desk:

      “We have placed particular emphasis on the impossibility of predicting the actual course of events in war because among the masses brilliance is always regarded as the ability to make accurate predictions. The more brilliant a leader, the more the masses consider him to be a prophet. These notions are quite common and are often held by ignorant critics. In essence, they require a military leader to guess the future and go beyond the bounds of human mental capabilities. Napoleon and everyone posturing as a genius have at times been inclined to support this error. However, real life does not encourage prophecy or clairvoyancy. In strategy prophecy may only be charlatanism, and even a genius is incapable of seeing how a war will unfold. But he must put together a perspective in which he will evaluate the phenomenona of war. A military leader needs a working hypothesis. Of course, not every military leader will take the trouble to have the opportunity to think about the nature of war. Strategic mediocrity perhaps prefers to proceed from stereotypes and recipes. Reality will be a cruel disappointment for such a poor excuse for a leader; the theory of strategic art cannot have him in mind.” Svechin, Strategy, pp 306-7.

      Strategic theory is by its very nature retrospective, that is based on military historical analysis. If we are lucky enough to have a thoughtful art of war for our epoch then so much the better, but even this art of war would be retrospective. For instance imo Rupert Smith comes closest today with his “The Utility of Force”, which in turn is based on his experiences in Bosnia. Does this book provide a strategy “cookbook” for what Smith refers to as “war amongst the people”? No, but he does outline how we got here and what has worked in the past in similar situations and why. Also why “industrial warfare” approaches have not. So the book is useful to a strategist, but within the limits that Clausewitz pointed out . . . while at the same time fitting within the larger general theory.

      Which brings up my second point. In this roundtable discussion I have repeatedly used the general theory to point out strategic blunders in the most recent US war. That is I am not using Smith, which by my own account comes closest to a current art of war – this concerning the fundamental distinction between “war” and “warfare” which you pointed out, why not?

      That answer lies in the fact that our strategic behaviour has been so incompetent, so programmed for failure, that we never had much of a chance at the operational and tactical levels (actual warfare) imo. We had lost the war at the strategic level long before we had at the operational, and we are still carrying on at the tactical, although the geo-strategic effect of putting Iran in the driver’s seat of Iraq’s future is already a done deal. That is why we have achieved a semblance of balance (in Clausewitzian general theory terms) at this point in time, since at the strategic level the issue has already been decided (seen of course in terms of the general theory). How long we decide to hang on in Iraq is irrelevant.

      That is we’ve lost the thread, we can not even connect tactics to operations to military aim to strategic effect achieving political purpose . . . This was not always so, as the history of US actions during the Cold War in Europe demonstrate (I know this since I had a frontrow seat in what was essentially “my war” as opposed to Vietnam or Iraq which were/are not). Sometime during the early 1990s we lost the plot imo, which is connected to the mistaken notion/polemic that war had somehow been “transformed” which fits in with the historical determinism/useful scam of “Wesphalian states” . . . what a price to pay for theoretical confusion.

    8. Narr Says:

      Von Paulus? Who he?

    9. zenpundit Says:

      Narr – apparently he is the more aristocratic stand-in for Field Marshal Paulus. Mea culpa. ;)


      Ah, I will definitely have to add Svechin to my reading list!

      I agree with you that strategic theory has a retrospective bias; but to have utility, strategic theory must do more than explain our blunders after the fact, at its best it should lower the probability our making them in the first place. Perhaps “predictive” is not exactly the right word to use here, too strong, because I would have to agree with you that the complexity and randomness involved in warfare would make gaming out detailed results of future battle an unlikely proposition.

      The “predictive” aspect of strategic theory is narrow, limited and fuzzy but not irrelevant or nonexistent. Col.Frans Osinga, who participated in our last roundtable, summed it up well in his Science, Strategy and War p. 11:

      “If strategic theory offers better ways of explaining victories and losses, it already has much utility for evaluation and policymaking; it can provide some measure of plausible, conditional prediction that a certain mode of behavior will result in a higher probability of success, it is extremely useful. Theory assists in deciding whether and how to employ a particular strategy by offering an abstract conceptual model of each strategy, and general knowledge of the conditions that favor the success of the strategy and conversely, the conditions that make success unlikely”

      What a mind schooled in strategic thinking can do a priori is attempt to assess interests, costs with some degree of empirical realism and thereby calculate risk more effectively. Some examples, Eisenhower discounted the views of his advisers, Richard Nixon, Containment and Massive Retaliation doctrines and anticommunist ideology and determined that Laos was neither salvageable, militarily defensible, or worth a local war, much less a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Instead of applying military force in Laos,Ike cut the best diplomatic deal available – pro-Communist “neutrality”. Another, classic, example would be that of Nicias wisely counseling the Athenians against their expedition to Syracuse(though some, like Donald Kagan, argue that Nicias was a self-fulfilling prophet).

      At the very least, strategic theory or a habit of mind attentuated to strategy, can rule out poor risks that are entirely elective and evaluate limited options when a situation for decison is being forced by an outside power. Some thought needs to go into matters before the dice are rolled, voluntarily or not.

      I agree with you too that America’s elite have gone off the rails in terms of strategy in both peace and war and in the time frame you suggest. It is my opinion that the problem is in part generational, in part cultural-educational and lastly due to the removal of the external pressure provided by the fall of a great, unyielding and dangerous enemy; without the Soviet Union the freedom for our leaders to be irresponsible, self-aggrandizing or intellectually lazy has greatly increased with the corresponding decline of public accountability.

      Re: “Westphalian states” as a “scam”

      Here I have to disagree. Words mean things and as terms they have a historical context. America is not a Greek polis and Sparta was not a nation-state. An early medieval German peasant (or a prince for that matter) would have no more an understanding of state than they would of a corporation, a newspaper or an airplane. A state, like a corporation is an organization that emerged and evolved with modernity and can function properly only where it is understood by the people and supported by at least a moderately complex political culture. When a Pushtun tribesman told a Western reporter that Karzai was the new “king” in Kabul after the election the man was speaking about politics in the terms that his tribal culture conceived of government – a distant ruler of whom not much was expected and even less was wanted. Democracy or a state has no part in that world.

      This understanding of the world frames calculation of cost and risk and therefore strategy. Cultures that have radically different understandings of key aspects of human behavior or values will, on average, not produce rulers who think and act exactly as we do. Sometimes there will be figures who transcend their culture and have the power to transform it to some lasting degree, but they are very rare.

      One example: Peter the Great. If any man ever attempted to graft what we would call a modern state onto a semi-orientalized, patrimonial, barbarian monarchy it was Tsar Peter. He found hereditary boyars and left behind a vastly expanded state service nobility (dvorainye) in a table of ranks. He changed feudal hosts into armies with regular drill and chains of command, he imposed courts of law, bureaucracies and founded state industries and a navy. Peter did not succeed in revolutionizing all Russia but he forever altered Russia’s elite and how they and the sovereign thought and governed. Whatever his mistakes or failures, there was no going back. Much the same can be said of similar anomalies like the Meiji Restoration or of Ataturk’s reforms.

      While there is much continuity between people eveywhere in thought and action the differences matter at least as much.

    10. Lexington Green Says:

      Not exactly sure what Seydlitz99 means when he says “… the historical determinism/useful scam of “Wesphalian states” . . .”

      To the extent that this expression means that all “states” can be treated as “black boxes” that then serve their own interests as units in an international system — that is the version of things depicted in Waltz’s Man, The State and War. which I was taught, along with a mob of other indistinguishable undergraduates, as a simplifying model of international relations by the then-systemic-determinist John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. It was understood that “systemic factors” were not the sole determinant of state action, particular embarking on war, but were the predominant factor. I did not really believe that then, an I believe it less so now. I saw Prof. Mearsheimer say to the class circa the Spring of 1984 “I am a systemic determinist”. I saw him about ten years ago give a lecture and say that state action was “primarily determined by systemic factors”, which was a major move. I think that the correct answer — as lawyers usually do — is “it depends”.

      It depends on a bunch of things. For one thing, the wiring inside the boxes varies massively. The old maps we would have in elementary school where every “country” was bright, distinct, primary-colored blokc, created the egregiously false impression that an entity like France — the nation state which most closely resembles the ideal — was anything like, say, Ghana or Bolivia or Syria or the Philippines. Some states have a lot more “stateness” than others. They can act in an unitary and coherent fashion, they can subsume domestic politics to some degree for these purposes. Most so-called states cannot do this. Most of the states that ever really acted like Westphalian states were signatories two the two treaties. As it happens, most of the entities that were subjects of the treaty of Westphalia were not “Westphalian” in the metaphorical sense.

      Clausewitz lived and fought and wrote in a world of, mostly, states which were roughly “Westphalian” in nature. Of course, there were still the many German principalites, and their were the Turks, who had their own way of doing things, and those “tartar” elements remaining within the constitutions of the Russian and Austrain empires.

      So, even in Clausewitz’s time and place, assigning a precise locus for each of the elements of the wonderful trinity might have taken some thought. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, who were “the people”? Who was “the army” and its commanders? Who, even, was the statat? There were many “peoples” of disparate levels of development, differing religions, differing attitudes toward foreigners. The army was the janissaries, but also the sipahis and also other units, all of them raised according to different rules, with differing obligations and financed by different methods, with differing degress of loyalty or willingness to serve against certain enemies. The state? Where is that to be found? The Sultan? His vizier? The influential phanariots and other insiders around the throne? Local rulers who have more or less autonomy, more or less formally?

      So, the idea that things were simple in Clausewitz’s time, but now they are complicated, so his supposedly primitive model does not work … . That can be rejected out of hand. He knew perfectly well that there was a lot of diversity in the world, despite the comparative simplicity of the political order in his own day. He discussed the history of warfare in Europe, and even noted that some wars and battles because a general had the favor of some courtesan, or for some equally trivial cause. The observation that “war is a continuation of policy with an admixture of other means” raises further questions: Who is the political actor? Or what group is engaging in an act of policy? What is that policy? What are they trying to do by mixing violence into their methods? We may fail to understand these things and botch the response.

      What Clausewitz teaches us is that the political and military leadership have to be aware of these factors and take them into consideration when making decisions. Failing to do so raises the likelihood of failure. How the Hell can anybody get their heads around all this stuff? Good question. Before going to war, it makes sense to figure out what you need to know. Long before going to war, it makes sense to study places you may have to fight, so that when you need to know stuff in a hurry, you can find it out.

      This is not done very often, or very well, by most countries or most communities. The USA has done poorly, in some important ways, lately. But over the long span, not so bad.

      (As an aside, the greatest achievement of any politico-military community in history is probably what the British managed in the twentieth century, falling from primacy to the second tier, due to exogenous factors, yet preserving their national independence and most of their domestic institusions intact, and to shed their empire with relatively few lives lost. The See Paul Kennedy’s essay “Why the British Empire Lasted So Long”.)

      Why were there not .pdf files of Pashtun phrasebooks ready to be printed and sent to our troops going to Afghanistan? Al Qaeda knew that we would invade Afghanistan after 9/11 and had Ahmad Shah Massoud in anticipation of that. Clinton had fired cruise missiles into Afghanistan. The prospect of a war there was very much on the table. Yet very little seems to have been done to prepare for it. This shows that the USA is not quite so “Westphalian” is it may appear. The “United States Government” is an entity that responds to internal factional politics and does not always generate a coherent overall strategy. Similarly the “United States military” is a vast group of people divided and factionalized, whose leadership is influenced by all kinds of factors. The provision of minimal thought and almost costless but essential preparation for a higly likely conflict (those Pashtun phrasebooks) cannot get the necessary attention in light of internal political and financial conflicts.

      The “United States intelligence community” is even more of a trackless jungle unto itself, even more detached from its ostensible purposes, from what I can tell.

      Again, a leader who had trained his mind on Clausewitz’s thinking would understand that he needed to impose some order and coherence in these realms as well, to accomplish anything, and acted accordingly.

      Mearsheimer also used to say that the aggregate of “population plus the size and nature of the industrail base” is the best predictor of success in a great power conflict. This is only part of what should be considered, because other types of war beside great power conflict happen, and that is increasingly the case. Clausewitz gives a framework for thinking about whatever politico-military problem may arise, for asking the kinds of question that will make rational decision-making possible.

      For example if, before invading Afghanistan, our leaders had tried to get a picture of the trinity of forces in Afghanistan — or more likely multiple interwoven trinities, they would have begun a process that only now appears to be underway. This question should have been asked and answered: “who are the people of Afghanistan? What motivates them? What role will they play in any war, in any occupation, in any transfer of power when the allies leave?” The Pashtuns and their current condition and historical peculiarities would have come up as a likely important factor.”

      Clausewitz’s book is a course in strategic thinking, not a recipe book. It does not predict the future. It allows the student who has read it and studied the relevant historical and contemporary facts, to make the best possible assessment of what political goals to set, what means can be employed to achieve them, and what won’t work and should not be undertaken. Also, the book reminds us again and again, that if force is going to be employed, the whole picture can change, and that the stakes change and that risks multiply. No one in his right mind embarks on that course without hard thought about ends and means.

      None of the major lessons Clausewitz taught in his book is predicated on the existence or non-existence of “Westphalian” states. The type of thinking he laid out is applicable to all types of conflict, particularly conflict involving organized violence. In fact, he even laid out a meta-message, where he explained that he derived the patterns he observed (e.g. the inherent strength of the defense) from reading and observation, with the implication that all such patterns should be continually validated against history and practice, with the prospect that new patterns would emerge under different conditions. An example of this might be some of the “best practices” in counter-insurgency which are patterns derived from observation and experience, but which cannot be applied in cookie-cutter fashion.

      One great service Tam Barnett provides, even if you disagree with him, is demanding that the USA actually have a strategy. Clinton and Bush 43 did not. They were reactive, though, to be fair, they both got a few things right. The jury is out on Obama, though I have zero hope for him. And it is too late for him to read Clausewitz. He is too busy now.

    11. seydlitz89 Says:


      Thanks for the throughtful response. I think we agree on most points. Osinga talks the talk, but does he walk the walk? will have to wait for another time. Here, I would only point out that strategic theory for me deals with probablities (in the Clausewitzian sense) and these would constantly change as the war/interaction went on. As I mentioned the general theory offers us the basics of strategic thought and applying it to recent US policy only shows us how far we have strayed. Incompetent policy like Iraq 2003 should have never happened, never even been on the drawing board – which indicates we’re not really dealing with the application of strategic theory imo, but why strategic thought has in fact collapsed. This brings up the question as to how this could have happened. Which is my next point.

      In my last comment above I wrote:

      “Sometime during the early 1990s we lost the plot imo, which is connected to the mistaken notion/polemic that war had somehow been “transformed” which fits in with the historical determinism/useful scam of “Wesphalian states” . . . ”

      Was I being that cryptic? Sorry, didn’t mean to be. I thought it rather obvious, but then I guess I would. I was referring to Martin van Creveld’s “The Transformation of War” (TTW) which came out in 1991 and has been critically discussed on this roundtable. In it the author of “The Eternal Clausewitz” did a pretty fair job of obscurring/trashing Clausewitz for a generation of students of strategic theory.

      Is that too harsh a judgement? Consider how many military officers, or other students, never even bothered to seriously read On War after they had skimmed through TTW. Unknowable of course but the results are there for all to see. I would also add that the trashing continues, much to the disadvantage of our national policy debate . . . I cringe everytime I read/hear “Trinitarian warfare” . . .

      “Westphalian state” was of course one of van Creveld’s core concepts since upon it rested his whole notion of the state (existing since that magical year of 1648) owing its existance to this monopoly of war making potential, that is the state was solely defined by this one aspect. In van Creveld’s deterministic view the state was doomed to extinction since it had lost this ability after 1945 . . . I would also add that for van Creveld the state was an “artificial entity” corresponding to neither the people ruled nor the rulers. As to how rulers were to rule without an apparatus was never really addressed, but then TTW had no footnotes, seemed to assume that its readers were well versed in Clausewitz. For those Clausewitzians who read it (like myself), however TTW fell flat as pizz on a rock. One of the great paradoxes of course is how TTW could have formed the bedrock of 4GW since they are in fact incompatable, but that too will have to wait.

      The “Westphalian state” notion is tied also to van Creveld’s strawman concept of “Trinitarian Warfare” which he attempts to tie to Clausewitz, but only by grossly misrepresenting the actual Clausewitzian trininty of Section 28, Bk 1, Ch 1. I would add that my post on the Clausewitzian concept of cohesion should hopefully question any doubt as to Clausewitz’s emphasis on “political community” rather than “state” at least in van Creveld’s narrow definition.

      So, I very much agree that words mean things and concepts have a historical context. Do they ever! It is also important that we know and acknowledge the trail of confusion and/or intentional misrepresentation (hence “scam”) that got us to our current situation, at least in terms of strategic thought.

      Consider too who in fact has profitted from our actual political purposes being hidden behind a TTW cloak, the National Security Strategy of 2002 for instance was aimed at “failed states” which is very much in line with this whole mindset.

      Gross ignorance/or willful distortion of On War should no longer be acceptable in a strategic theory discussion, as it has been for far too long . . .

      I would think that uncritical reliance on TTW concepts incompatable with any potential Clausewitzian revival.

    12. josephfouche Says:

      My first actual reading of On War was a violent shock. The first time I ever even heard of Clausewitz was in John Keegan’s A History of Warfare. At the time I had a great deal of respect for Sir John (and I still consider Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, and The Price of Admiralty to be among the best works of military history ever written) and I took his argument as gospel truth. Keegan’s version of Clausewitz was a faint echo of Darth Crevald’s: a Eurocentric idiot savant who defined war as the continuation of cocktail parties populated by dead white guys with the addition of other, possibly distasteful means. Keegan, like Darth Crevald, believed history was merely an extension of biological and cultural impulses locked deep in the lizard brain of the human soul. And so it rested until I read On War.

      After realizing the full scope of Clausewitzian thought, I was angry at Keegan. The anger still hasn’t fully dissipated. His Clausewitz was the ultimate strawman, a caricature that was so appallingly bad that I don’t know if Keegan even bothered to read On War before libeling Clausewitz as an out of touch Euro twit. Later when I got to the root of the problem, with Darth Crevald and his idiotic non-trinitarian war, I’ve been really ticked off. I have a hard time taking any 4/x/5GW advocate seriously when their interpretation of Clausewitz is fundamentally flawed.

      War is the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means. What does that mean? War is made up of the core trinity of primordial hatred, violence, and enmity; chance and probability; and its subordination to the rational ends of politics. In the interaction of the three will the nature of a particular war at a particular time and place become clear. As an instrument of policy, war can only be as rational as the political process that produced it. If politics were perfect, the war and the strategic script it follows would be perfect. If politics is imperfect, war and strategy will be imperfect. If, as is more likely, politics is a mixed bag, strategy and the war it guides will be a mixed bag. The United States, its sclerotic elites, and confused electorate have created a flawed politics. It is therefore inevitable that its strategy and wars, both a continuation of that flawed political process, will also be flawed, perhaps to the point where victory is irretrievable. And this is all before primordial emotion and chance are factored back into the equation.

      This is the basic Clausewitzian truth that the 4GW crowd obscure. Even in the Road Warrior future imagined by Darth Crevald and his 4GW Sith Lords, politics will continue to determine the nature of war. This holds true even if we proceed from the True Trinity of emotion, chance, and political reason to the Illustrative Trinity of Government, Army, and People. Any entity, whether it is a Westphalian state, an Afghan tribe, or the toughs of Redwood Road will have someone in charge, someone who fights, and someone who feeds the previous two. I’ve seen Crevaldites say that this smears the distinctions between states and any other given human community to the point of categorical meaninglessness but this is from a crowd who interpret every car bomb and YouTube video as a sign of the impending doom of the nation-state. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

      This isn’t to say that the debate over the fate of the state is kabuki theater. It isn’t. It may be the most important debate of our time. If much of twentieth century’s fate was shaped by then obscure advocates of armored warfare like Patton and Eisenhower in the US, de Gaulle in France, Churchill, Fuller, and Liddell Hart in Britain, and Guderian in Germany, whose to say these otherwise obscure debates over the future of the state in these dark corners of the blogosphere won’t have a similar impact? If Barnett lies at one extreme of the fate of the state and van Crevald, Lind, and Robb lies at the other, the debate is the same: whence goeth the state? Clausewitz, who participates in this debate only at a distance of 200 years, is still one of the most important participants. Understanding what he meant clearly and relating that meaning clearly is one of the most vital intellectual endeavors of our time.

    13. YT Says:

      Josephfouche : Man, am I lucky. First time I read anythin’ on Clausewitz, ’twas written by a Professor of the Naval War College (the late Michael Handel) doin’ comparative studies between different theorists. Least he wasn’t biased against any one of ’em writers on strategic lore. Interestin’ that he laid much emphasis on Clausewitz in his writin’ (bein’ part of Naval War College & all), you’d thought he quote Mahan or Corbett.

      But I guess he was writin’ on a comparartive study of war thru the ages, so I guess he hit the mark. The only error IMHO he made was that Sun Tzu can be independently read chapter by chapter instead of readin’ thru the entire book (“serpentine” sequence, all linked).

      Was kinda sad when I found out he had left this world, my first guide to the great Prussian.

      I’d recommend his work for dudes who can’t comprehend Clausewitz on their own.

    14. josephfouche Says:

      YT: I bought Handel’s Masters of War and then didn’t get around to reading it for four years. Once I did, the experience was truly rewarding. He’s one of the great synthesizers of war, managing to throw Clausewitz, Sun-tzu, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett, Thucydides, and even Mao into a giant blender and get something tasty out of that unlikely blend. It’s sad that he passed away a few years back.

      I recommend his online article on how to read Clausewitz “Who is Afraid of Clausewitz”:

      He recommends this order for reading On War:

      1. Book 2 Chapter 2
      2. Book 2, Chapters 5 and 6
      3. Book 1, Chapter 1 (and re-read it again)
      4. The rest of the book

    15. YT Says:

      “He’s one of the great synthesizers of war, managing to throw Clausewitz, Sun-tzu, Jomini, Mahan, Corbett, Thucydides, and even Mao into a giant blender and get something tasty out of that unlikely blend.”

      Josephfouche : Dude, you’ve got great writin’. Appreciate ’em articles you’ve posted for this Roundtable. I’m writin’ some stuff myself on various topics, but it all seems like dark humor. I just perused (re – read should be the word) Prof. Handel’s article just hours ‘fore you posted above comment. Bet he’s sorely missed by many, bit of a regret I’ve never met him personally. I doubt many writers on military works are just as balanced as he was.

      Oh yeah, you got an e – mail address?

    16. josephfouche Says:


      josephwfouche (SHIFT key 2) gmail (period) com