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.