Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book IV (and VI): Contingency

Even the ultimate aim of comtemporary warfare, the political object, cannot always be seen as a single issue.  Even if it were, action is subject to such a multitude of conditions and considerations that the aim can no longer be achieved by a single tremendous act of war.  Rather it must be reached by a large number of more or less important actions, all combined into one whole.  Each of these separate actions has a specific purpose relating to the whole.

Chapter 3

Here we are looking at the political object and its supporting military aim as being close together.  The applicability of the military instrument is something of a sliding scale which increases the more the political purpose and the military aim are the same.  This tracks along very well with the ideal type of absolute war.  At the same time this sequence of actions/decisions is very much tied to the specifics of the political purpose and how the phenomenon of war acts upon/changes/develops it.   So we have a very basic concept of contingency here, that being a sequence of purpose-driven actions/decisions being made over time and being influenced in turn by a complex ever evolving environment.

The concept of contingency as connected to the general theory does not end there however, and by referring to affinitive Weberian concepts can be even expanded upon.

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Carl von Clausewitz: Book IV, Some Comments

The emphasis for Book IV is the tactical, that is for Clausewitz, “the engagement”.  What separates war from other types of social activity is fighting, that is in this context organized violence in the pursuit of a political purpose.  So while the emphasis is the tactical, the whole must always be considered since tactical victory is the means of strategy.

Clausewitz’s emphasis here is on the pure concept, the principle of destruction, which is the prime tactical mission.  One need only remember the stated mission of the Marine Corps as learned by this writer as a volunteer in the mid 1970s, that being, “to locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver or to repel their assault by fire and close combat”. The means of tactics is the destruction of the enemy.  The end is military victory.

So Clausewitz isn’t saying anything particularly new or insightful here.  Rather he is attempting to argue against those of his contemporaries who saw maneuver as an end in itself with the intention of establishing “base lines” or seizing “key ground” which it was thought would preclude the necessity of a bloody decision, make war a thoroughly civilized affair among a closed community of princes who respected each other and saw it as their common interest in maintaining the status quo resulting in wars of low tension and little movement to borrow the terms from Book III, Chapter 18.  However there was no guarantee that future wars would return to the form of the 18th Century.

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Carl von Clausewitz, Book III, General Comments

Strategy is a very misunderstood concept. Over the last eight years the United States has implemented a number of various strategies which were more the nature of public relations campaigns, attempts to give the impression of government design on what have been commonly seen as disorganized chaos following mismanaged policy adventures. Too often it seems that „strategy“ is used interchangeably with „intentions“, in order to give the impression that by calling one’s stated intentions a „strategy“ it magically increases the likelihood of success.

Reading Clausewitz’s On War during what has been arguably a nadir of strategic thought’s influence on US policy formulation could be seen as depressing. At the same time our current situation is comprehensible in Clausewitzian terms. As Americans (addressing the American contributors to this roundtable) it may be particularly difficult for us to understand (let alone face) the dysfunctions of our own domestic political system (dysfunctional policy sharing the character of those who have implemented and supported it) along with the assumptions of our own strategic culture.

Clausewitz offers a different perspective and a theory-based methodology – in effect a conceptual yardstick – with which to look at our own situation and compare it to other situations at present or in the past. There are no guarantees that this will lead to better policy however, or to more practical and farsighted statesmen, even the best strategic theory could not save Prussia which no longer exists as a political entity.

So, a bit of an introduction as to the importance of strategic theory but also its obvious limitations. Another obvious limitation is lack of understanding. Book III offers a good point of departure for a quick review of what Clausewitz is up to here.

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Clausewitz, On War, Book 2, Concluding Comments

Time constraints as usual are not allowing me to participate like I would wish to in this fascinating discussion.

Just a few comments, a bit disjointed perhaps, but here goes:

First, the “tactical nature” of victory.  Fighting is the means for tactics and military victory is the end, whereas military victory is the means for strategy whose end is the return to peace with the political purpose attained  (Book 2, ch 2).   Of course either side could forestall peace for whatever reason, seeing the continuation of (relatively low-level) hostilities as more advantageous than concluding peace.  This brings up potentially other problems as referred to in Section 3, Ch 1, Book 1.  In any case, a four-star general who says that he didn’t plan for “Phase IV” operations should be busted to private and expected to clean latrines for the duration.  You would only have to do this once, and the effect on strategic thought and its interaction with planning would be only beneficial.

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Clausewitz, On War, Book 2: Chapter 1 Comments

The probing of the theorist of the moral pretension of the national interest puts him in an awkard position by making him suspect of being indifferent to all truth and morality.  This is why there are so many ideologies and so few theories.

Hans Joachim Morgenthau, 1962

The first chapter of Book 2 has some interesting points which lead to a fuller understanding of Clausewitz’s intent and the various falacies that he sees associated with theory.  I will comment on four points, but this is not meant to indicate that there are not others present in this chapter. 

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