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Concepts and Doctrine Long Read

COVID-19 and Clausewitz (Masters of War Part 2)

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a four part series which uses military theorists to draw lessons learned from and provide insight on the COVID-19 pandemic. This article covers Carl von Clausewitz. 

Carl von Clausewitz’s most relevant theoretical insights to the COVID-19 threat concern how the organization of a war effort impacts the effectiveness of that response. When writing On War, Clausewitz almost certainly did not intend his ideas might apply to fighting an infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19 — though he ironically died of a cholera pandemic. However, the insights are still applicable if explained in accordance with modern events.

Politics and the Triangle

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A worrying throwback to maths class or critical military theory?

One of his most cited ideas is that “war is the continuation of policy by other means.”1 It cannot be detached from political objectives. Therefore, political leadership, intentions, and biases define when and how a state’s military forces go to war and the type of war they intend to fight. If the policymakers fail to craft strategy and understand the sort of war they intend the military to fight, then they could fail in the overall war.2 To Clausewitz, the integrity and strength in a state’s political system is a pivotal factor in the successful execution of a war effort.

However, a state’s conduct in war relies on more than just politics. There are two ways for conceptualizing these factors, and they are known as known as Clausewitz’s primary and secondary ‘Trinities’ or ‘Triangles.’3  The primary Triangle consists of three aspects: passion, chance, and reason. Passion refers to the emotional parts of war. Chance refers to war’s confusion and randomness, popularly known as “fog of war.” Reason refers to the rationality and intention behind war. The nature and success of the war effort depends on exchanges of passion and motivation — between conflicting states and within the confines of state —chance occurrences, and the level of reason and strategy applied to fighting war.

Clausewitz then superimposes the secondary Triangle onto the primary Triangle by linking each aspect of the primary Triangle to three types of wartime actors: the people, the military, and the government.4 He argued that passion comes from the people, who legitimize the war effort through popular support. The military, or combat force is the actor most directly exposed to the chance. Clausewitz argued that reason best fits the role of the government, not because every government decision is ‘reasonable,’ but because war is an instrument of the government. Whether a government makes a bad decision does not exclude that rational choice played a role.

Each actor is a point of the Triangle. How they interact can shape the effectiveness of a war effort. Clausewitz argues that in an ideal situation, these actors/aspects would have equal power and significance in shaping the war effort. But in reality, the ideal is not a guarantee. When one actor has more influence than the other, it could risk degradation of the effort. For instance, if the military has more influence than the government, then the war effort could become delinked from political objectives.

Depending on the Government for Reason

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The seat of reason in strategy – can it be depended upon?

Like warfare, the viability of the COVID-19 response depends on the stability of actors in the Triangle at strategic, operational, and tactical levels. The strategic, operational, and tactical levels of the COVID-19 war effort themselves are fragmented due to the preponderance of actors in the system, and the varying levels at which they act, meaning that any further fragmentation of the effort risks an inconsistent response and continued spread of the virus.

In responding to COVID-19, the government (reason) vertex operates independently at strategic, operational, and tactical levels. In most countries, there are national government leaders and organizations (strategic level) that instituted directives or policies about COVID-19 (i.e., social distancing and hand-washing), which the state/provincial (operational level) and local (tactical level) governments also instituted rules and regulations. For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported across 23 countries that sub-national governments, like provincial governments, are on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19, and they execute national guidance and directives to manage the operational and tactical responses.5 OECD also reported some areas of many countries require more intensive responses than others due to disproportionately high infection rates.

However, the level of autonomy each subordinate level has depends on the country and the government providing the guidance.

A lack of consistent guidance from governments at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels dramatically increases a country’s vulnerability to COVID-19.6 For example, the U.S. strategic government deferred to the states/provinces to determine how to respond, leading to inconsistent application of strategic-level guidance.7 This inconsistent application was made worse by similarly inconsistent messaging from within the strategic level itself, with some officials leaders advocating one form of response, and others calling for another.8 Unfortunately, it appears that inconsistent application of policy in the United States has resulted in some areas increasing in COVID-19 cases. 9  Conversely, countries that implemented more unified national responses, like New Zealand, are less likely to report an increasing number of new cases.10

Clausewitz would endorse a unified, nationally directed response to COVID-19, because it more effectively concentrates force and promotes shared understanding of the objectives of the war.11 COVID-19 does not discriminate by territorial boundaries. Therefore, the stronger the national strategy and the clearer the expectations are communicated to all subordinate actors, regardless of provincial territory, the more concentrated the effort. Dissonant government measures between strategic, operational, and tactical levels disrupted that concentration, and confused the type of war that those governments intended to fight, and leaving the state more susceptible to chance and randomness.12

The Military Encounters Chance and Randomness

Napoleon Invades Russia | National Geographic Society
The second most depressing graph around these days.

Although chance and randomness occurs across the different components of the Triangle, Clausewitz aligned the military to the chance aspect of the Triangle. This is likely because the fighting force is more directly exposed to the ambiguity of war fighting.

However, the chance aspect of the Triangle — the fighting force — does not just apply to the military in the case of COVID-19. Workers in virtually all labor sectors — public and private — around the world have been conscripted into the fight against COVID-19. Some, like hospital administrators or company CEOs, have taken up operational and tactical commander roles. Others are much junior and on the front lines of the fight, like doctors and nurses, even if they are not infectious disease experts.

At first glance, the fragmented nature of the COVID-19 response might seem like a clear contradiction to Clausewitz’s main requirement to concentrate forces. Certainly, fighting COVID-19 is different from what might be expected in military organizations. Although there is some differentiation among different military branches and how they are structured, there is usually a clear chain of command, which is not directly reflected in the profusion of actors fighting COVID-19.

However, applying the military lens to fighting COVID-19 involves identifying the elements of military organization most similar to the organizational structure of the COVID-19 war effort. The military has various career fields and specialties all working within the same unit, battalion, division, or platoon. Each sector of society involved in managing and addressing the effects of COVID-19 can be interpreted as another career field or specialty within the overall fighting force vertex of the Triangle as it applies to the COVID-19 response.

Despite the fragmentation, Clausewitz would judge whether the fighting force is effective based on whether they were concentrating on dismantling COVID-19’s centers of gravity (COGs). According to Clausewitz, an enemy’s COG is “the hub of all power and movement…on which everything depends…the point at which all our energies should be directed.”14 The chances of victory increase if forces are devoted, concentrated, against the COGs.

For COVID-19 in particular, the COG refers to the person-to-person contact which allows it to spread.15 To a lesser extent, COVID-19 could also transmit by touching contaminated surfaces and then touching one’s own mouth, nose, or potentially eyes. 16 Therefore, Clausewitz would likely identify COVID-19’s COG — the COG for most infectious diseases — as opportunity for human contact.

Clausewitz would likely judge that many of the responses implemented by the fighting force at strategic, operational, and tactical levels are targeting the human contact COG. Implementing and enforcing social distancing and stay-at-home orders, limiting business operations, and expanding delivery options for essential goods and services all limit the need for human contact. Requiring the use of masks mitigates the potential for exhaling and inhaling infected droplets or particles when human contact becomes necessary. Implementing a disinfecting regimen at offices, in homes, and other common areas limits the number of contaminated surfaces. Concentrating on these measures reduces the strain on the health sector to treat the virus and provide more availability to research vaccine development.

However, the success of these measures, too, relies on the uniformity of the response. If some businesses, organizations, or homes are not adhering to these measures, then the forces are not being concentrated and the virus is likely to continue spreading, as is the case in countries like the United States. And, if too much autonomy in the midst of crisis is afforded to the operational and tactical levels, then uniformity is less likely as lower-level operatives address what is within their immediate levels of responsibility without regard for the bigger picture. Concentration is impossible if lower-level forces are not adhering to those regulations.

Further, the ability to implement these measures and devote resources to the human contact COG requires a supporting effort to avoid economic disaster. Healthcare systems were not prepared for the influx of cases. Businesses, especially small businesses, cannot afford the decline in operations and foot-traffic they need to sustain their livelihoods. Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the government (reason) vertex of the Triangle to legislate or implement financial stimulus packages, as has been the case, to ensure people can survive. Of course, this assumes the support and aid packages are enough, and that political considerations do not interfere with the distribution of those essential resources, as has been reported in certain situations.

The People are Citizens and Soldiers

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Perhaps not the best COVID warfighting doctrine.

Targeting the human contact COG, however, also requires the viability of the people and passion vertex of the Triangle. Unless people are following those guidelines, then the virus continues to have targets. According to the newly released Google Global Community Mobility Report, the world is mostly adhering to social distancing guidelines, with reductions in community gathering activities like retail, grocery shopping, and transit as high as 100 percent in some countries. 17

However, again, the people often take their cues from government and the guidance from senior officials. Therefore, if governments at lower levels relax those restrictions, then the people will perceive that it is safe for them to start to resume pre-pandemic behaviors, even if this is not the case. If people do not wear masks, they are putting themselves, and others, in direct danger of virus transmission. To compare the tactical approach in handling the pandemic, a recent video compared U.S. and Canadian-owned tourist vessels at Niagara Falls. While Canadian vessels are operating at 1 percent of their carrying capacity, U.S. vessels are operating at 50 percent capacity.18 Although this is a specific, low-level example, it reflects two vastly different systemic approaches to fighting COVID-19 and perceiving the threat COVID-19 poses.

The human element of fighting COVID-19 is critical, and, arguably, the most complex. Human behavior and security is often described as an amplifier or indicator of societal tension or unrest, and the COVID-19 response is no different.19 Ensuring the people are supported during this difficult time, and that they have the required health information, increases the likelihood for trust and support in the response and preserves the recovery potential after the virus ends.

However, the COVID-19 response has revealed a number of gaps in the efforts to preserve human security — the people part of the Triangle — during this time. For example, government and other responses have resulted in difficulty physically and financially accessing food and other essential goods and services, particularly in the early days of lockdowns and quarantines worldwide.20 In the United States, many report still not receiving promised stimulus aid packages.21 Second, the forced quarantines have exposed some individuals to increased risk of mental health deterioration and domestic violence by being forced to remain inside with abusive partners.22 Third, recruitment-focused organizations, like multi-level marketing companies operating as pyramid schemes, are exploiting vulnerable populations’ financial insecurity to turn personal profit.23

Even more precarious is that marginalized populations worldwide — particularly in the United States — are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19 because their communities struggle with systemic access to basic services even absent a pandemic.24 Like many, Clausewitz almost certainly was prejudiced towards people who did not look or act like him or the people in his social or professional orbit. However, assuming he would have been capable of character evolution as many countries and people have over the centuries, he would probably argue that as long as these disproportionate risks exist among the people, the COVID-19 war effort risks losing the faith of the people and, therefore, the fuel of the response.

A Concentrated and Adaptive Strategy

The main takeaway from Clausewitz is that an effective war effort relies on a strong national governmental strategy that considers the consequences on the people and is capable of readapting its military or affiliated resources to address changing circumstances. Fundamentally, fighting war requires the effective navigation of constant interactions between the political system, society, and the forces designated to fight on their behalf. In the case of COVID-19, the people are both citizens and soldiers in the fight, in addition to the personnel assigned to directly confront the virus.

Overall, Clausewitz would almost certainly endorse a national COVID-19 strategy and war effort in which the government executes its powers to compel the entire state into a uniform response and ensure that all resources are concentrated in pursuit of fighting the same kind of war as everyone else. He would value the situation in which the fighting force is devoted towards removing the risk of human contact — COVID-19’s center of gravity — while ensuring that the consequences of limiting human contact do not disrupt the other vital aspects of the state needed to support the people. Clausewitz would value the response that preserves human security, for if the people cannot access services due to a disparate and dissonant government response, then the fuel and passion, and motivation, for fighting COVID-19 will wither.


[1] Clausewitz,87.

[2] Clausewitz, 88.

[3] Clausewitz, 89.

[4] Clausewitz, 89.

[5] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, The Territorial Impact of of COVID-19: Managing The Crisis Across Levels of Government, Paris, FR: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2020, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=128_128287-5agkkojaaa&title=The-territorial-impact-of-covid-19-managing-the-crisis-across-levels-of-government, Accessed July 29, 2020.

[6] The Lancet, “Reviving the US CDC,” The Lancet 395, no. 10236, P1521 (May 2020), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31140-5/fulltext, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[7] Sarah H. Gordon,Nicole Huberfeld, and David K. Jones,What Federalism Means for the US Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019,” Jama Network, May 8, 2020, https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2766033, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[8] Dan Goldberg, “How the White House Can Build Public Trust and End the Coronavirus Crisis,” Politico, July 7, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/07/white-house-coronavirus-public-trust-348384, Accessed July 29, 2020.

[9] Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker, “Where U.S. Coronavirus Cases are on the Rise,” Reuters, July 6, 2020, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/dgkvlgkrkpb/index.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[10] Jim Siwa, “New Zealanders’ Attitudes Changed After Pandemic Lockdown,” American Psychological Association, June 4, 2020, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/06/new-zealand-pandemic-lockdown, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[11] Clausewitz, 194-198.

[12] Clausewitz, 88.

[13] Clausewitz, 703.

[14] “How COVID-19 Spreads,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified on June 16, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[15] “How COVID-19 Spreads.”

[16] “Community Mobility Report,” Google, last modified July 25, 2020, https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/, Accessed July 29, 2020.

[17] Tracey Lindeman, “Niagara Falls Tour Boats Highlight U.S. and Canada’s Stark COVID-19 Divide,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/24/niagara-falls-tour-boats-us-canada-coronavirus, Accessed July 30, 2020.

[18] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community (Washington, DC, 2019), https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR—SSCI.pdf, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[19] Sameer M. Siddiqi, Jonathan Cantor, Tamara Dubowitz, Andrea Richardson, Patricia Ann Stapleton, Yael Katz, “Food Access: Challenges and Solutions Brought on by COVID-19,” The RAND Blog, March 31, 2020, https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/03/food-access-challenges-and-solutions-brought-on-by.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[20] Lorie Konish, “35 Million Stimulus Checks are Still Outstanding. What You Need to Know if You’re Waiting for Your Money,” CNBC, June 8, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/08/35-million-stimulus-checks-havent-been-sent-out-who-is-waiting-for-money.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[21] U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, Intimate Partner Violence and Child Abuse Considerations During COVID-19 (Washington, DC, 2020), https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/social-distancing-domestic-violence.pdf, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[22] Lisette Voytko, “FTC Warns 16 Multi-Level Marketing Companies,” Forbes, June 9, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisettevoytko/2020/06/09/ftc-warns-16-multi-level-marketing-companies-about-coronavirus-fraud/#7e95cad87b9d, Accessed July 8, 2020.

[23] “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control, last modified on June 25, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.

 

Jordan Beauregard

Jordan Beauregard is a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer and senior environmental security analyst at the Center for Development and Strategy. He holds a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the U.S. National Intelligence University and studies Strategy, Operations, and Military History at the U.S. Naval War College. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence University, Naval War College, or the U.S. Government.

Footnotes

  1. Clausewitz, 87
  2. Clausewitz, 88
  3. Clausewitz, 89
  4. Clausewitz, 89
  5. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, The Territorial Impact of of COVID-19: Managing The Crisis Across Levels of Government, Paris, FR: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2020, https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/view/?ref=128_128287-5agkkojaaa&title=The-territorial-impact-of-covid-19-managing-the-crisis-across-levels-of-government, Accessed July 29, 2020.
  6. The Lancet, “Reviving the US CDC,” The Lancet 395, no. 10236, P1521 (May 2020), https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)31140-5/fulltext, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  7. Sarah H. Gordon,Nicole Huberfeld, and David K. Jones,What Federalism Means for the US Response to Coronavirus Disease 2019,” Jama Network, May 8, 2020, https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2766033, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  8. Dan Goldberg, “How the White House Can Build Public Trust and End the Coronavirus Crisis,” Politico, July 7, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/07/07/white-house-coronavirus-public-trust-348384, Accessed July 29, 2020.
  9. Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker, “Where U.S. Coronavirus Cases are on the Rise,” Reuters, July 6, 2020, https://graphics.reuters.com/HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/USA-TRENDS/dgkvlgkrkpb/index.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  10. Jim Siwa, “New Zealanders’ Attitudes Changed After Pandemic Lockdown,” American Psychological Association, June 4, 2020, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/06/new-zealand-pandemic-lockdown, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  11. Clausewitz, 194-198.
  12. Clausewitz, 88.
  13. 13 Clausewitz, 703.
  14. “How COVID-19 Spreads,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last modified on June 16, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  15. “How COVID-19 Spreads.”
  16. “Community Mobility Report,” Google, last modified July 25, 2020, https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/, Accessed July 29, 2020.
  17. Tracey Lindeman, “Niagara Falls Tour Boats Highlight U.S. and Canada’s Stark COVID-19 Divide,” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/24/niagara-falls-tour-boats-us-canada-coronavirus, Accessed July 30, 2020.
  18. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community (Washington, DC, 2019), https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR—SSCI.pdf, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  19. Sameer M. Siddiqi, Jonathan Cantor, Tamara Dubowitz, Andrea Richardson, Patricia Ann Stapleton, Yael Katz, “Food Access: Challenges and Solutions Brought on by COVID-19,” The RAND Blog, March 31, 2020, https://www.rand.org/blog/2020/03/food-access-challenges-and-solutions-brought-on-by.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  20. Lorie Konish, “35 Million Stimulus Checks are Still Outstanding. What You Need to Know if You’re Waiting for Your Money,” CNBC, June 8, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/08/35-million-stimulus-checks-havent-been-sent-out-who-is-waiting-for-money.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  21. U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, Intimate Partner Violence and Child Abuse Considerations During COVID-19 (Washington, DC, 2020), https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/social-distancing-domestic-violence.pdf, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  22. Lisette Voytko, “FTC Warns 16 Multi-Level Marketing Companies,” Forbes, June 9, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lisettevoytko/2020/06/09/ftc-warns-16-multi-level-marketing-companies-about-coronavirus-fraud/#7e95cad87b9d, Accessed July 8, 2020.
  23. “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Centers for Disease Control, last modified on June 25, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html, Accessed July 8, 2020.

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