Clausewitz, On War, Book VII: Counting Coup

Book VII can be summarized as, “Offense is hard. Defense is strong. Culminating point of victory. Move along.” DEFENSE! DEFENSE! Clausewitz cheers. Offense. offense. Clausewitz grudgingly mutters. I lost count of the number of times Clausewitz says, in effect, “I could say something really insightful about offense here but I already said it about defense in Book VI. Go re-read Book VI. Now.” Take this bronx cheer for example:

It is thus defense itself that weakens attack. Far from this being idle sophistry, we consider it to be the greatest disadvantage of the attack that one is eventually left in a most awkward defensive position.

That’s right. The most damning thing about offense is that it’s poor defense. Turns the old adage about the best defense being a good offense on its head. If we follow John Sumida’s argument, this is the main thesis of On War: defense rules; offense is lame.

However, there are a few interesting nuggets here and there in the otherwise sparse landscape of Book VII. The one that stuck was Clausewitz’s discussion of waging offense for “the sake of trophies, or possibly simply of honor, and at times merely to satisfy a general’s ambition”:

Anyone who doubts this occurs do not know military history. Most of the offensive battles in the French campaigns during the age of Louis XIV were of this type. It is more important to note, however, that these considerations are not without weight, mere quirks of vanity: they have a very definite bearing on the peace and hence they lead fairly straight to the goal. Military honor and the renown of an army and its generals are factors that operate invisibly, but they constantly permeate all military activity.

This was one of the three motivations that Thucydides claimed condemns men to war: fear, honor, and interest. Honor is a signal. When it is violated, it signals that its holder might be vulnerable to further violations. In this sense, honor is a form of credit. If you have it, you can draw on it while waging war in pursuit of the goals of politics you wish to realize when peace comes, as Clausewitz points out. If you lose it, your leverage in war and peace will degrade rapidly.

Honor was everything in the Archaic Greek society Homer portrayed. While the poor bloody infantry was slogging it out off camera, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus, Aeneas, Ajax, and other aristocrats were hogging the spotlight in single combat. Battles would turn on the outcome of the clash of champions. The winner had honor and his side gained in honor and, not to be underestimated, morale. The effect of Achilles’ rage after the death of Patroclus in raising the sagging morale of the Acheans and deflating the Trojans after it seemed they were on the verge of driving the Greeks into the sea rings true. Sudden swings in morale are the crucial events that decide the outcome of battle. Du Picq pointed out that most casualties in a rout occur when one side gives and retreats. The backsides of the retreating army are exposed to enemy action. Men turn and run, fling away their equipment, order disintegrates, and the mob lurking inside every army is set free. Much depends upon unit pride and cohesion, one of the primary justifications for the pursuit of honor. Standards like the eagles of Rome and the unit pennants of American units are honor incarnate. They are a visible manifestation of pride and cohesion. This made them a prize that a unit would die to defend and the enemy would kill to win as a trophy. There’s more than bluster behind the apocryphal phrase, “the Guard dies, it does not surrender.”

Sometimes seemingly senseless acts of violence must be committed in order to re-establish credibility and maintain honor. However, senselessness is in the eye of the beholder. When the fundamental language of fear and honor is the one language that transcends all cultural bounds, what doesn’t make sense to the higher mind may make great sense to the innermost reaches of the animal mind. Credit may be re-established and honor restored. However, it’s best not to lose it to begin with. There may not be a bailout or lender of last resort when the dogs of war run free.

7 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book VII: Counting Coup”

  1. Wow. This is awfully good.

    I had read that passage as being dismissive of war as “mere gesture”. But of course you are right, the life of nations is the law of the jungle, of the playground, of the prison yard: You have to hold your own, and be seen to be holding your own, and respond to pokes and jabs — tests, challenges — as the incipient death threats they are. If the first jab is not responded to, a dozen more will follow, then they will all be doing it, and will soon be face down on the cement, with someone foot on the back of your neck. True in the jungle, true on the sidewalk outside the junior high school, true in prison, true in the life of nations. Failing to strike back very hard when tested is to allow yourself to be pushed close to the edge of a steep, high and jagged cliff.

    Jacksonian America understands this.

    That is why Jacksonians like me made the foolish error of trusting President Bush about Iraq. Deep down, the whole WMD thing was always a pretense, and the crap about making Iraq a democracy appealed to maybe a few dozen journalists in DC. That was not it at all. Afghanistan was over too fast, too few of our enemies died, and Osama was alive. We still looked like chumps after 9/11. We had gotten up and wiped the blood off our face after the sucker punch, but the human garbage that threw the punch had gotten away with it.

    We felt that after 9/11 it was essential that someone, somewhere, should suffer bloody destruction at our hands, to show we were no one’s bitch, even if it was not exactly the right guy, but someone else who deserved to get a hit, someone we could turn to, with our bloody lip, and say, “you think it’s funny, asshole, OK, then you get it”.

    The point would be do some major harm, to tell the world to be afraid of us.

    The instinct was right, the execution was a disaster.

  2. The people of the Debatable Lands knew, as game theory suggests, that tit for tat was an effective strategy. Their worldly wealth could be rounded up and driven away if it wasn’t protected. The least sign of weakness invited border reiving. Any slight demanded punishment. Society followed the cycle of raid and counter-raid. A people made by stateless war. Such is the people that Sharp Knife, as the Indians called Old Hickory, sprang from.

    If Washington was the father of the United States of America in spirit, Jackson was the father of flesh and blood America. He knew that honor was an important part of making sure you weren’t picked on. He took a vicious sword cut to the head rather than polish a foreigner’s boots. America took a lot of abuse in its infancy from the powers in Europe and Jackson wouldn’t stand for it. Vicious fights against the Creeks where the Red Sticks suffered disproportionate casualties, driving the British back into the sea in the battle for the City Under the Sea, stealing Florida from the decadent Spanish, Jackson did the dirty work that made America. The nation he left behind was a consolidated nation that no European power could conquer and whose biggest threat was internal divisions caused by the peculiar institution.

    I hoped that Afghanistan would serve a deterrent effect by demonstrating that the United States could defeat irregular threats. The victory came too easily. Iraq devolved into a muted demonstration of some latent capacity to overcome irregular threats. Years of vacillation and incompetence on the part of our political and military leaders have dampened whatever victory we won. The enemies of the US don’t seem to be deterred.

    We play a child’s game in a world of grown-ups. Sharp Knife never made that mistake.

  3. It’s my opinion as someone involved in military operations/combat training and hand to hand fighting that I pretty much believe a heads up blitzkrieg wins the fight 9/10 times. Moving forward is half of the battle in my experience…

  4. I totally agree on the centrality of honor in military operations. Even more can be stated.

    Honor is something of a bank account–it can be drawn on, as well deposited through conduct. Honor is a a means, and an end. Many men view honor as zero-sum…my gain in honor is your loss. This is often true, but not always. There are plenty of military defeats in history that conferred great honor on the combatants. Remember the Alamo! Or the Frozen Chosen of the Korean War. Or the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Or the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo.

    Honor is not only personal…it can be held by a family, gang, military unit, clan,tribe, ethnic group, nation, or state. We as Westerners may not be conscious of the honor of our state, family, etc…but those who are honor-conscious are aware of the honor of Western families, military units, western nations, etc. We ignore national, familial, military, and personal honor at our own peril, especially in the diplomacy that accompanies military operations.

    Marine Capt. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach, of the Amriki Tribe

  5. Let me register a dissent.

    Honor is an extremely complex concept. Robert Pirsig, for example, took quite a different view of what motivated the Greeks to heroic deeds. He called it quality and wrote quite a long book about it.

    A knight’s honor in the middle ages had to do with his prowess in battle, including mercy to his enemies, and how well he could please the ladies.

    George Washington said, in effect, that American honor consisted in proper treatment of prisoners of war. That breach of honor in recent years has caused the US to decline in the world’s eyes.

    The variety of honor being discussed here seems more akin to the honor of the tribe, the sort of honor that causes honor killings of women who have been raped and therefore have damaged the tribe’s honor.

    It could also be called deterrence and was indeed part of the stated reason for attacking Iraq. But deterrence is being questioned these days. It was reasonably well-defined relative to the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, but it’s much slipperier for conventional arms in a multilateral environment.

    Israel has been particularly big on this sort of deterrence lately. Only trouble is that it’s not clear it’s working.

  6. From a strategic theory perspective, honor is “tactical” isn’t it? Who actually defends “their” honor? The politicians in Washington, or London, or Paris, or Beijing, or Berlin? Hardly.

    What about Thucydides’s other two causes of war . . . interest and fear? Fear being of course that associated among losing interests . . .

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