Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1: the Paradoxical Trinity

One of the most fascinating parts of Book 1 is the notion of the “trinity”, a much misunderstood concept, and one that deserves a few words in examination. It occurred to me that one of the most prominent scholars to have misrepresented this most elegant formulation of Clausewitz is Martin van Creveld, and I will look at the trinity in response to van Creveld’s thesis.

In 1991, Martin van Creveld’s On Future War [aka The Transformation of War] was published, eliciting critical responses on a variety of levels. One of van Creveld’s most contentious claims in a treatise clearly intended to trump the “self opinionated” Prussian was that Clausewitz’s ideas of ‘trinitarian’ warfare were outmoded in the modern era. Subsequent analyses have shown that van Creveld’s reading of Clausewitz was itself faulty and secondly that contemporary conflict in most cases still conforms to Clausewitz’s model. There is still no overwhelming consensus on the latter point, mainly as theorising about the present is innately difficult, but most commentators agree that ‘trinitarian’ warfare persists, despite protestations to the contrary by van Creveld and others.

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