Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VI: The People, They Have Arms

People in Arms
People With Arms

Clausewitz served a dynasty renowned for enlightened manpower management (“Dogs! Do you want to live forever?”) and cutting edge political agitation (My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfied us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.”). However, this passage from On War may have given even the avant-garde Hohenzollerns pause:

The system of requisitioning, and the enormous growth of armies resulting from it and from universal conscription, the employment of militia – all of those run in the same direction when viewed from the standpoint of the older, narrower military system and that also leads to the calling out of the home guard and arming the people.

The innovations first mentioned were the natural, inevitable consequences of the breaking down of barriers. They added so immensely to the strength of the side that first employed them that the opponent was carried along and had to follow suite. That will also hold true of the people’s war. Any nation that uses it intelligently will, as a rule, gain some superiority over those who disdain its use…


By its very nature, such scattered resistance will not lend itself to major actions, closely compressed in time and space. It’s effect is like that of the process of evaporation: it depends upon how much surface is exposed. The greater the surface and the area of contact between it and the enemy forces, the thinner the later have to spread, the greater the effect of the general uprising. Like smoldering embers, it consumes the basic foundations of the enemy forces. Since it needs to time to be effective, a state of tension will develop while the two elements interact. This tension will either gradually relax, if the insurgency is suppressed in some places and slowly burns itself out in others, or else it will build up to a crisis: a general conflagration closes in on the enemy, driving him out of the country before he is faced with total destruction…To be realistic, one must therefore think of a general insurrection within the framework of a war conducted by the regular army, and coordinated in one all-encompassing plan.

Clausewitz’s temerity, remarkable for an era where Prussia danced to the tune of the Concert of Europe, was echoed by Thomas Jefferson, a minor Clausewitz contemporary who was the political leader of the reactionary agrarian Republicans in the peripheral United States of America:

Uncertain as we must ever be of the particular point in our circumference where an enemy may choose to invade us, the only force which can be ready at every point and competent to oppose them, is the body of neighboring citizens…On these, collected from the parts most convenient, in numbers proportioned to the invading foe, it is best to rely, not only to meet the first attack, but if it threatens to be permanent, to maintain the defence until regulars may be engaged to relieve them.

While the prevailing wind of legitimist Europe was in the direction of disarming the population, the United States, at least on paper, was dedicated to the proposition that every citizen should possess a military grade firearm and military training:

That each and every free able-bodied white male citizen of the respective States, resident therein, who is or shall be of age of eighteen years, and under the age of forty-five years (except as is herein after excepted) shall severally and respectively be enrolled in the militia, by the Captain or Commanding Officer of the company, within whose bounds such citizen shall reside, and that within twelve months after the passing of this Act. And it shall at all time hereafter be the duty of every such Captain or Commanding Officer of a company, to enroll every such citizen as aforesaid, and also those who shall, from time to time, arrive at the age of 18 years, or being at the age of 18 years, and under the age of 45 years (except as before excepted) shall come to reside within his bounds; and shall without delay notify such citizen of the said enrollment, by the proper non-commissioned Officer of the company, by whom such notice may be proved. That every citizen, so enrolled and notified, shall, within six months thereafter, provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder; and shall appear so armed, accoutred and provided, when called out to exercise or into service, except, that when called out on company days to exercise only, he may appear without a knapsack…after five years from the passing of this Act, all muskets from arming the militia as is herein required, shall be of bores sufficient for balls of the eighteenth part of a pound…


X. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the brigade inspector, to attend the regimental and battalion meeting of the militia composing their several brigades, during the time of their being under arms, to inspect their arms, ammunition and accoutrements; superintend their exercise and maneuvres…

Chapter 26 of Book VI is one of the most contemporary passages in On War. In anticipating a battlefield that was broader and deeper than the narrow front of the Buonapartist battlefield, Clausewitz anticipated a battlefield that could extend over miles and miles until it could extend from the English channel to the Swiss border or from Leningrad to the Caucasus. He anticipated a battle that could extend into all three dimensions and encompass every man, woman, and child of each combatant nation. He anticipated unrestricted warfare:

The expansion of the domain of warfare is a necessary consequence of the ever-expanding scope of human activity, and the two are intertwined. Mankind’s understanding of this phenomenon has always lagged behind the phenomenon itself…up to now most people involved in warfare considered all the non-military domains where they were as being accessories to serve military needs. The narrowness of their field of vision and their way of thinking restricted the development of the battlefield and changes in strategy and tactics to within one domain. From…the massive bombing of Dresden and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, inflicting countless civilian casualties in the pursuit of absolute military victory; to the strategic propositions of “massive retaliation” and “mutually assured destruction;” none of these [ideas about war] broke this mold.

It is now time to correct this mistaken trend. The great fusion of technologies is impelling the domains of politics, economics, the military, culture, diplomacy, and religion to overlap each other. The connection points are ready, and the trend towards the merging of the various domains is very clear…All of these things are rendering more and more obsolete the idea of confining warfare to the military domain and of using the number of casualties as a means of [measuring] the intensity of a war. Warfare is now escaping from the boundaries of bloody massacre, and exhibiting a trend towards low casualties, or even none at all, and yet high intensity. This is information warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, and other entirely new forms of war, new areas opened up in the domain of warfare. In this sense, there is now no domain which warfare cannot use, and there is almost no domain which does not have warfare’s offensive pattern.

– Col. Qiao Liang, PLA, and Col. Wang Xiangsui, PLA, Unrestricted Warfare

In a world where traditional Great Power war is discouraged, Clausewitz’s extrapolation of the idea of the People in Arms from contemporaneous conflicts in Spain, Russia, the Tyrol, and Prussia is more important that it was at the time On War was written. In positioning the People in Arms as a vital part of communal defense, Clausewitz reinforces the major theme of Book VI: that defense is simply the stronger form of war. The argument that unrestricted warfare possesses an inevitable ascendancy over past “generations” of warfare is one an engineer in the army of Charles VIII could have made about artillery or that Douhet made about the bomber: that offense has forever transcended defense. However, while the pendulum swings towards the offense, it inevitably swings back towards the defense all the more strongly. The trace italliene, made out of piled dirt, put a stop to the ambitions of Charles. The bomber did not always get through. Neither will the unrestricted warrior.

A People in Arms doesn’t win by density or ubiquity. It wins by being an “army in being”. The unrestricted warrior must pause to consider what complications a People in Arms introduces into his sinister plans. To him, the People in Arms:

[S]hould be nebulous and elusive; its resistance should never materialize as a concrete body, otherwise the enemy can direct sufficient force at its core [and] crush it…

With the People in Arms looming just over the horizon, with the possibility that it’s leading elements could descend at any moment, uncertainty is introduced into the equation. While the entrepreneur of war accepts some risk as an inevitable part of his endeavor, he prefers to eliminate as much risk as possible. It’s not the People in Arm’s job to stop the terrorist in a miniature battle of decision:

They are not supposed to pulverize the core but to nibble at the shell and around the edges. They are meant to operate in areas just outside the theater of war – where the invader will not appear in strength – in order to deny him those areas altogether. Thunder clouds of this type should build up all around the invader the further he advances…The flames will spread like a brush fire, until they reach the area in which the enemy is based, threatening his lines of communication and his very existence.

However, this force shouldn’t be overestimated:

One need not hold an exaggerated faith in the power of a general uprising, nor consider it an inexhaustible, unconquerable force, which an army cannot hope to stop any more than man can command the wind or the rain – in short, one need not base one’s judgment on patriotic broadsides in order to admit that peasants in arms will not let themselves be swept along like a platoon of soldiers.

The “peasants” should serve the role that Jefferson proposed: “not only to meet the first attack, but if it threatens to be permanent, to maintain the defence until regulars may be engaged to relieve them”.

This is where insurgents should build up larger units, better organized, with parties of regulars that will make them look like a proper army and enable them to tackle larger operations.

Arms aren’t sufficient to be the security of a free state. The People in Arms must also be well-regulated in training and discipline, not to mention civic vigor.

3 thoughts on “Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VI: The People, They Have Arms”

  1. The wisdom of the Founders, once again, seems anything but outdated, but almost seems futuristic.

    Of course, creating civic vigor is hard to do.

    Bill Ayers has, after all, won. He and people like him have turned the teaching colleges into Leftist factories, which produce Leftist teachers, who then turn the public schools from sea to shining sea into factories to manufacture Leftists. Disdain for the United States, its history, its wars, its capitalism, its Constitution, its achievement, and an exclusive focus on its crimes and failures, is a feature of this program. The need for some kind of actual belief in something has led to the farcical and nauseating Obama cult. Let’s see how that sub-moronic faith survives ongoing contact with reality. I suspect it will survive, with a process of blaming everything else in universe for the failures of the One, or a refusal to admit those failures exist.

    Civic vigor is not much of an option. We have raised two generations of anti-citizens at this point.

    But it is absolutely right, as a blackboard proposition, that the answer to our current security threats is not further centralization of everything, but the exact opposite: massive dispersal and horizontal networking of all responders to potential terrorism, including shooters, but also disaster responders such as fire and medical and bomb disposal, etc.

    I think it will take more disasters before this lesson has any hope of sinking in, and probably not even then.

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