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”:

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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:

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Clausewitz, On War, Book IV: The Efficiency of Killing


Nathan Bedford Forrest, an unlettered but practiced dealer in the market for human flesh, came to the study of war as an intelligent layman. He started as a private and rose to lieutenant general. Everything he learned about the art of war he learned on the job. This lack of formal military training freed him from some of the worst Jominian excesses of the Old Army’s officer corps (future president James Garfield, another general without professional military training, once observed “I declare that if this union goes down in blood and ruin, let it’s obituary read, “Died of West Point.”). Forrest summed up his hard-won knowledge in two memorable action hero catchphrases:

  • The secret of victory was “get there first with the most men”


  • “War is about fighting and fighting is about killing”

Killing is the essence of war as Book IV Clausewitz saw it. This made Book IV Clausewitz more popular with his immediate successors than Book I Clausewitz, who spouted (old school) liberal nonsense like “war is the continuation of policy by other means” which sounded suspiciously like chaining the unrivaled genius of Ludendorff and his many chins to the petty whims of Kaiser Bill, Bethmann-Hollweg, and all those commie Social Democrats in the Reichstag. But, with Book IV Clausewitz, here was a writer any red blooded Prussian with an iron backbone could respect. Seek out the decisive battle. Collide head to head with the enemy. Kill more of his men than he kills of yours. Drive him before you in relentless pursuit until victory falls into your righteous iron fist. Here was a prophet of war that any warrior would appreciate. You’ve never read Book IV until you’ve read it in the original Klingon.

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Clausewitz, On War, Book V: Freedom is Worth the Mass

Freedom lurks throughout On War. Not freedom for the poor, bloody infantry; in a Clausewitzian universe freedom is at its apogee when the freedom of the infantry is at its nadir. The freedom Clausewitz seeks to unleash is the freedom of the commander to work his will on the enemy. The commander’s freedom is essential to Clausewitz’s conception of war since war is an “act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”; our freedom ends where the enemy’s freedom begins. War is, therefore, fundamentally an effort to steal the enemy’s freedom and bestow it upon ourselves. We seek to take our political object, an object arrived at through the free exercise of creative will, and raise it above the oppression of enemy opposition and the dreary demands of friction. This is Clausewitz’s truth and his truth, he asserts, shall set you free.

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Clausewitz, On War, Book III: Painting by Numbers

One theme of Book III is the contrast between strategy, a world of uncertainty, and tactics, a world of mechanistic certainty. This contrast is most striking in the contrast between the moral and the material. Military theorists like von Bulow and Jomini, the immediate predecessors of Clausewitz, attempted to take the deterministic approach that met with some success in tactics and use it to reduce strategy to a “war by algebra”, amputating that inconvenient and unquantifiable moral dimension:

It is even more ridiculous when we consider that these very critics usually exclude all moral qualities from strategic theory, and only examine material factors. They reduce everything to a few mathematical formulas of equilibrium and superiority, of time and space, limited by a few angles and lines. If that were really all, it would hardly provide a scientific problems for a schoolboy.
But we should admit that scientific formulas and problems are not under discussion. The relations between material factors are all very simple; what is more difficult to grasp are the intellectual factors involved. Even so, it is only in the highest realms of strategy that intellectual complications and extreme diversity of factors and relationships occur. At that level there is little or no difference between strategy, policy, and statesmanship, and there, as we have already said, their influence is greater in question of quantity and scale than in forms of execution. While execution is dominant, as it is in the individual events of a war whether great or small, than intellectual factors are reduced to a minimum.

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