Clausewitz, “On War,” Returning To That Business About the Continuation of Policy

Clausewitz says

war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.

He also says that this is the central point of On War. But what does he mean by it? Is it a precept? An observation? A recommendation for a successful war?

In Clausewitz’s time, the objective was usually control of territory, incorporating it into one’s own country or to be used as a bargaining chip. That object is not unknown today, but perceptions play a part that was inconceivable in Clausewitz’s time.

Clausewitz’s dictum seems self-evident. Why would a nation marshal its human and material resources to be damaged and destroyed if not for some good, or at least sensible purpose? Why would it expend its power if not for some definable purpose?

Is it a precept, a recommendation for how best to conduct a war? Could it be recast as

If you would win a war, be sure you have a clear and achievable purpose.

Clausewitz warns that war has its own momentum, which can change and subvert that political objective. So political leaders must work to keep the war directed toward their political objectives. This might recast the dictum as

If you would win a war, keep the political objective firmly in mind.

Or is it simply an observation?

Nations go to war for political objectives.

Clausewitz comes close to saying, in Book 8, that it is a precept, a necessity for success. If you do not have a clear objective, it is difficult to know when you have achieved it.

Case Studies
Let us look at some recent wars and their political objectives.

Iraq War, 2003 The first objective advanced publicly by the United States was to end Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, in particular because of his acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. When those weapons of mass destruction weren’t found, the objective of planting a democratic state in the Middle East was advanced. My suspicion is that we may not be able to know the objective(s) until the records of the deliberations leading to war are declassified.

Afghan War, 2001 The US objective was to eliminate the Taliban and its policies of sheltering al-Qaeda from Afghanistan.

Israel’s Attack on Gaza, 2008 Israel’s stated objective was to eliminate Hamas rocket positions and smuggling of armaments into Gaza.

Israel’s Attack on Lebanon, 2006 Israel’s stated objective was to eliminate Hezbollah positions in Lebanon.

Russia’s Attack on Georgia, 2008 Russia’s stated objective was to prevent Georgia from forcibly preventing the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia’s stated objective was to prevent that secession.

Wars in the Former Yugoslavia, 1991-2001 Objectives on the part of the local groups had to do with territorial control. NATO/EU objectives had to do with stopping the genocide that accompanied some of the initiatives for territorial control.

Russian Wars in Chechnya, 1994-1996 and 1999-? Russian objectives were to prevent Chechnya from seceding from Russia and, perhaps, to end Chechen terrorism within Russia.

Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1978-1989 The Soviet objective was to maintain a Soviet-style government in Afghanistan.

US War in Vietnam, 1959-1975 The US objective was to maintain a Western-backed government in South Vietnam, perhaps to extend that governance to North Vietnam.

Several themes run through this enumeration of war objectives. Other wars would exhibit similar characteristics.

There is considerable uncertainty as to whether the objectives stated by the attackers in fact represent the policy objective that is being pursued. There is not as much reason to doubt the stated objectives of the defenders. One reason for this is the recency of these wars; important documents may not be available. Another reason for this may be that perception on the part of other nations has become a larger part of the objective of military action. Clausewitz focused on gaining control of territory and says little about this aspect of war.

Control of territory as an objective is not absent from any of the wars listed here; probably it was strongest for the various groups in Yugoslavia as it broke up and for the North Vietnamese. Control of territory has shifted in some cases to control of governments in that territory; thus the Soviets did not want to make Afghanistan part of the Soviet Union, but they did want a sympathetic government with a Soviet-style structure. Similarly, the US in Vietnam, Russia in Chechnya, and both the Russians and Georgians in the 2008 war wanted to determine the government in power.

Israel’s actions against Lebanon and Gaza, which may have been campaigns rather than war in the Clausewitzian sense, were explicitly not for the control of territory, but rather to eliminate particular threats to Israeli security. However, the broad-based use of the military raised questions of whether the stated objectives were the actual objectives. The actions also explicitly included the objective of “sending a message” to Hezbollah and Hamas, in other words, changing their perception of Israel’s ability to control them. Presumably this message was intended for other players in the region, including nations that are unfriendly to Israel.

Comments from some of the participants in decision-making for the 2003 Iraq war have suggested that a perceptual message was also intended, that the United States could flatten any nation that crossed its military might. It is likely that the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Russians in Chechnya intended messages as well, but other objectives were most likely primary in those cases.

The Record of Success
Now let’s look at the record of success in achieving the stated objectives.

On the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Russia’s action in Georgia, I would argue it’s too soon to tell. It’s possible that war’s logic has pulled these actions away from their original political objectives.

Israel’s actions slowed down Hezbollah and Hamas in their rocket harassments. The organizations, however, are still intact and claim their own victories. The means by which Israel conducted these campaigns have raised questions in other countries about their legitimacy in a sort of collateral damage.

A detailed analysis of the claims of the various groups in the former Yugoslavia would probably show that some of them achieved at least parts of their objectives. The NATO/EU objective of stopping ethnic cleansing and genocide was met.

The Russian objective was met in Chechnya, which remains part of Russia. However, this shares with the Israeli campaigns the downsides of not knowing whether the separatists will return and a perception of overreaction.

The US did not gain its objectives in Vietnam. The North did.

The commonalities of the successful campaigns seem to be that they had reasonably well-defined political objectives and that they were defensive. Clausewitz claims that defense is more powerful than offense, which muddies the question of whether the clarity of the political objectives was decisive.

Overall, in this group, there seems to be a partial confirmation that wars with clear political objectives are more likely to succeed than those without, although I have to admit that the evidence is not fully convincing.

Our modern problem seems to be that wars are fought for many reasons, the least of which seems to be Clausewitz’s. This may change the rules, but it may also be that the very multiplicity of reasons violates Clausewitz’s dictum: the objectives are less clear. In any case, how does one measure, say, Hamas’s desire to attack Israel with rockets? If it can’t be measured, how does one then measure whether the objective has been achieved? International opinion, or the inclinations of particular states, is even harder to measure.

A question: does it ever make sense for a government to keep secret their objectives in a war? I’m not sure I can think of a scenario where it does without going through some improbable contortions. This is an important question for analysts, because we need to know, as for example in the Iraq war, whether the real objectives have been enunciated, and, if so, which they were.

And a final observation. The technologies that allow for instant information dissemination by practically everybody have made an enormous difference, particularly to objectives related to perceptions. Competing views and documentary evidence, including photos from the war scenes, are readily available in ways that Clausewitz probably couldn’t even have conceived of.

What Clausewitz gives us is a series of excellent questions and the basis for developing more in today’s context. This is his continuing value.

1 thought on “Clausewitz, “On War,” Returning To That Business About the Continuation of Policy”

  1. Cheryl, this is all good stuff.

    I think the question of whether war-as-a-continuation-of-politics is an observation or an admonition is meant to be a door left half open.

    Yes, it is how things ought to be. Yes, if you want to understand what was happening at the time, try to discern the political intent underlying the decision to go to war, whether sensible or wrongheaded. So, yes, both.

    I will reserve comment on other points for now — though I am looking forward to writing up my concluding post.

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