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”.

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Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 6: “A dark and menacing cloud”

Clausewitz considered that “people’s war”, or popular resistance to an invader, is one of several factors that makes defence the stronger form of war. As the enemy advances deeper into another country, his forces become dispersed, his formations become depleted, and his supply lines become stretched. The more spread out the enemy is, the more vulnerable he becomes to guerrilla attacks by “militias and bands of armed civilians”.

During the Napoleonic wars, people’s war was regarded as a new phenomenon; its potency had been demonstrated in Spain and Russia where guerrilla resistance played a significant part in wearing down the French invaders. But chapter 26, which analyzes people’s war, shows that Clausewitz was struggling to come to terms with its potential. It’s clear that he viewed guerrilla activity as auxiliary to the action of the army, perhaps analogous to the light troops who in battle skirmished to the front and on the flanks of heavy infantry formations…

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Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 5: sound advice for small armies

“God is on the side of the biggest battalions”, or so the maxim goes. It was an article of faith for Clausewitz, who wrote that

“The best strategy is always to be very strong; first in general, and then at the decisive point….there is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one’s forces concentrated.”

This quote brings together three ideas that are key to understanding Clausewitz’s view of how battles are won: concentrating superior numbers at decisive points.

So, did Clausewitz believe that only big armies have a hope in hell on the battlefield?

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Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 4: the center of gravity

In Book 4 Clausewitz puts battle at the heart of war…

“since the essence of war is fighting, and since the battle is the fight of the main force, the battle must always be considered as the true centre of gravity of the war.” [4.9]

There’s little doubt that “the battle” – the clash of armies at a particular site over a limited time period – was the center of gravity during the Napoleonic Wars. But this idea doesn’t hold for modern conflicts. Battle, where it occurs, may be the most dramatic event, but it is not the center of gravity.

What does “center of gravity” mean? I take it to mean the situation where the outcome of the campaign or war is ultimately decided. In the First and Second World Wars, the center of gravity was the use of resources. The nations that won were those that most effectively mobilized, coordinated and utilized their human and material resources.

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Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 4: keep it simple stupid

I’ve got no idea who coined the phrase “keep it simple stupid” (KISS). If anyone can enlighten me, go right ahead. Reading book 4 of On War, which deals with battle, it’s clear that in this respect, as in others, Clausewitz was well ahead of his time. In chapter 3, Clausewitz emphasizes the need for simplicity in planning and execution:

“rather than try to outbid the enemy with complicated schemes, one should, on the contrary, try to outdo him in simplicity”.

Clausewitz’s reasoning is clear. In war, planning and executing a complex attack takes time (and, incidentally, increases the opportunities for friction). You run the risk that the enemy will act quicker than you, using a simpler attack to seize the advantage and wreck your grand designs…

“an active, courageous, and resolute adversary will not leave us time for long-range intricate schemes….this is proof enough of the superiority of the simple and direct over the complex.”

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