Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 8: stating the bleedingly obvious

Clausewitz was not afraid to state the bleedingly obvious. In Book 8 of On War, he wrote that war’s most dangerous feature is “its tendency toward the extreme, and of the whole chain of unknown possibilities which would follow”.

“Well of course,” you might exclaim. “Everyone knows that!”

But do we really “know that”? Like a vicious dog that slips its lead and savages a young child, war results in chaos, carnage and unanticipated consequences which can be felt decades, even centuries, later. In large part, 20th century history was about war “untrammelled by any conventional restraints, broken loose in all its elemental fury”.

Yet for something that’s so obvious, it’s staggering that time and time again, political leaders and military commanders go blithely to war without even, as Clausewitz suggests, “first being clear” about ends, ways and means. With a handful of notable exceptions, politicians and generals continue to believe that wars can be won quick and dirty. Perhaps this is why they’re attracted to false but seductive theories – like blitzkrieg, strategic bombing, and the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) – which promise that, in the right hands, war can be a precise instrument of policy.

In Book 8, Clausewitz seems to argue for moderation in war-making. To be useful, war must be controlled – prevented from escalating into absolute war. The vicious dog, when fenced inside the backyard or held firm on a lead, has its uses – as a guard dog for instance. But if the dog escapes from the yard or slips its lead, all hell breaks loose and its rampage can be ended only with great difficulty and after immense cost.

According to Clausewitz, one way to ‘control’ war is to recognize that it has many varieties, and that it is valid to fight “minimal wars” where the objectives are limited, e.g., wars which “consist in merely threatening the enemy, with negotiations held in reserve”. Another way is to match ways and means to ends, to “act on the principle of using no greater force, and setting…no greater military aim, than would be sufficient for the achievement of [the] political purpose”.

Then there is the idea of subordinating military objectives to political aims – keeping the military on a tight leash. This is one of the big ideas in On War, but it is an imperfect way of achieving control, as it assumes that politicians will be more cautious and less bloodthirsty than their military chiefs. This has often proved not to be the case.

9 thoughts on “Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 8: stating the bleedingly obvious”

  1. Nice post. It’s all about thinking of war as a whole, and war as being part of larger whole (relations within and between political communities). War starts when the defender resists, so war can be seen as unavoidable (at least from the defender’s perspective), which of course is different from the attacker’s decision to risk war for the attainment of his “possessive” political purpose.

    The aggressor always hopes for the decisive stroke, but even when successful this can lead to ever more expansive war aims – that is longer war – war starts to guide policy which makes policy dysfunctional since ideally war is its instrument. The tragedy of war is tied to the larger tragedy of politics which in turn is tied to the tragedy of human relations/social existence.

  2. I’m not sure I can agree with this. The concept of “limited” war has the effect of blurring the line between war and peace. It also makes the political class, the military’s masters, more likely to engage in war (the consequences won’t be as bad! This war’s limited! –see: “A splendid little war!”)

    I think that the idea of a limited war, where the consequences won’t be as terrible as a total war, has lead to very bad decisions. The wars in Vietnam and the first Gulf War were partially caused by this. I think Clausewitz is brilliant, but I mistrust any thinker who isn’t terrified to let slip the dogs of war.

    May I ask, what was so false about the Blitzkrieg theory? It seemed completely effective in 1939-40. Was it that it emphasized a light and agile force over a force more suited to take-and-hold?

  3. Yes, blitzkrieg was “completely effective” in 1939-40? But did it win the war for the Nazis? No. Tactical success probably encouraged the Nazi leadership to go further and further – Yugoslavia, Greece, Crete, North Africa, Russia – rather than being content with the occupation of France and Poland.

  4. Good points. The tactics that so overwhelmed Poland and the Low Countries were a poor fit for Russia and the Balkans. I do believe that the National Socialists were intent on total war from the beginning. I seem to recall reading that the German High Command had been chafing at Hitler’s successes in bluffing Austria and Czechoslovakia. They were itching for a stand-up fight.

    The Russians gave it to them in spades.

  5. “…the German High Command had been chafing at Hitler’s successes in bluffing Austria and Czechoslovakia. They were itching for a stand-up fight.”


    Hitler wanted a fight. The Wehrmacht staggered into Austria, and if there had been any resistance, it could have been humiliating. The Czechs could have put up a very hard fight. There was a faction within the High Command that wanted to depose Hitler if he went to war of over Czechoslovakia. The German leadership did not believe the Army was yet ready to fight.

  6. Dude. No problem. Take a look at How War Came: The Immediate Origins of the Second World War by Donald Cameron Watt, and The Oster Conspiracy of 1938: The Unknown Story of the Military Plot to Kill Hitler and Avert World War II by Terry Parssinen. Also, for the best all-you-can-eat one volume overview, I like A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II by Gerhard L. Weinberg.

    I can’t remember where I saw the thing about how the German tanks were all broken down along the roadside when they went into Austria on the anschluss. They were not even close to ready for war at that point, and the generals were surprised at how poorly the stuff all worked, but no one else seemed to notice.

    If anyone recalls a good source for this I would appreciate a reminder.

  7. “Blitzkrieg” = Bewegungskrieg, which was simply a return to what the Germans had wished to do in 1914. That is rapid tactical success fulfilling a strategy of destruction leading to a short war: the attainment of the military aim/political purpose, the two being indistinguishable.

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