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    Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 8: stating the bleedingly obvious

    Posted by Kotare on 19th March 2009 (All posts by )

    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”.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 9 Comments »

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

    Posted by Kotare on 3rd March 2009 (All posts by )

    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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    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 1 Comment »

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

    Posted by Kotare on 24th February 2009 (All posts by )

    “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? Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 1 Comment »

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

    Posted by Kotare on 18th February 2009 (All posts by )

    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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    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 3 Comments »

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

    Posted by Kotare on 2nd February 2009 (All posts by )

    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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    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | Comments Off on Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 4: keep it simple stupid

    Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 3: the Prussian as prophet

    Posted by Kotare on 26th January 2009 (All posts by )

    In chapter 17 of Book 3 we see Clausewitz as prophet, and a remarkably accurate one at that. Writing about the Napoleonic wars, Clausewitz identified three trends that would characterize combat in the Second World War: Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 3 Comments »

    Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 2: the fog of war

    Posted by Kotare on 22nd January 2009 (All posts by )

    Many people talk about “the fog of war”, even if they don’t know who coined the phrase. It was Clausewitz, and he used it to describe the pervasive difficulties of uncertainty, distorted perception and unreliable information that plague the commander in battle:

    “all action takes place…in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.” [2.2]

    In Clausewitz’s era – the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – the commander’s sense of the battle was shaped by what he and his aides could see and hear, and on reports coming to him from subordinates. Good generals stuck close to the action, but much was hidden by ground, trees, mist, rain, noise, and the billowing clouds of white smoke that issued from thousands of muskets and guns firing. Information was slow in coming, contradictory, fragmented and inaccurate. Perceptions were distorted by worry, fear, excitement, fatigue and mental strain. “Whatever is hidden from full view in this feeble light,” Clausewitz wrote, “has to be guessed at by talent or simply left to chance”.

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    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 3 Comments »

    Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 1: Jason Bourne and ‘friction’

    Posted by Kotare on 16th January 2009 (All posts by )

    Last night I watched “The Bourne Ultimatum”, the film about renegade assassin Jason Bourne. In the climax, CIA operative Pamela Landy is faxing a bunch of documents that expose a conspiracy within the agency. She’s racing against the clock – a renegade CIA chief is about to break down the door. Just as the bad guy bursts in, pistol in hand, the last document is sent safely on its way.

    If you’ve ever had to fax stuff in a hurry, you’ll know that in real life it never works this way. The machine is turned off, or in power-saver mode. It takes its own sweet time to warm up. It’s out of paper. You punch in the wrong number, or forget to dial an outside line. Then an error message appears. Finally the paper feed jams…

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    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 7 Comments »

    Clausewitz “On War”, Book 1: such a dangerous business

    Posted by Kotare on 13th January 2009 (All posts by )

    Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak recently said that “war is not a picnic”. He should know. Barak was a distinguished commander in the Israeli army, fighting in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

    Unlike Barak, most Western politicians and their officials have not served in the armed forces, let alone fought in a war. Israel, with its history of conflict and conscription, is arguably the sole exception. Yet politicians are the people who decide whether a country goes to war and for what reasons. If they haven’t seen war at first hand, then at least they should be under no illusions about what it involves.

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    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 8 Comments »

    Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 1: it all seems so simple

    Posted by Kotare on 12th January 2009 (All posts by )

    Who can forget Clausewitz’s dictum, “war is an act of policy”? The government decides to use war to achieve a policy objective. The military is ordered to fight the war. Its commanders know the part they must play and how that contributes to attaining the objective.

    It sounds so simple. But as Clausewitz reminds us in Book 1, “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”. When it comes to war, many politicians overlook the obvious – the need to clearly establish what it is they want to achieve.

    What makes for a good policy objective in relation to the use of war? I’m extrapolating a bit, but this is what I take from On War:

    (1) The objective must be clear from the outset, as must the military’s role in achieving that objective.

    The government must answer the following questions: “what is it that needs to be achieved?”, “how will the military help achieve this objective?”, and “are there alternatives to the use of force that will achieve the objective either as efficiently or more efficiently?”.

    (2) The objective must be realistic, and in proportion to the military and other resources at the government’s disposal.

    (3) It must not be open-ended. A realistic time limit should set, and regular review points set, so progress can be assessed and strategy adjusted.

    (4) It should be clear that if the objective is achieved, real advantage will result.

    In recent times, how many wars fought by western nations meet these basic criteria? Gaza, Afghanistan, Lebanon (2006), Iraq? It would be interesting, and perhaps instructive, to run the rule over these conflicts.

    Posted in Clausewitz Roundtable | 12 Comments »