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Carl von Clausewitz’ seminal work On War remains as relevant today as it has been since the day it was written. Some may see its principles and concepts as no longer pertinent due to changes in time, technology, or terminology. While Clausewitz does not offer a magical solution to the challenges of war, or to the achievement of its political ends, his understanding of war and insights into its conduct remain applicable to the realities of warfighting in the modern world. On War remains particularly relevant because its concepts are ideal for use in addressing the current “strategic deficit” between policy makers and the military. This article explores the continuing relevance of the text.
For the purposes of this article, the author defines the modern use of the word “strategy” as a combination of the various elements of national power in such a way as to link policy to the waging of war. While the definition and understanding of strategy has shifted over time, an understanding of it is critical to understanding the current ‘strategic deficit’.1 There are several challenges, often the result of poor assumptions regarding U.S. power and adversary will, that tend to work together to inhibit the proper development of strategy within the United States. They include a clear assessment of U.S. national interest, a comprehensive understanding of what it truly means to commit military forces to war, and a willingness to carry out the civil-military debate about the appropriate balance between ends and means. It is in the existence of this current strategic deficit that one can find substantial value in reviewing Clausewitz’ concepts and then considering how they might prove to be beneficial in terms of developing and maintaining strategic dialogue.
Nature of war
According to Clausewitz , war is about compelling an enemy to do your will.2 The true aim of warfare is to “render the enemy powerless.”3 The only way to be certain that the enemy will be powerless is to destroy them, which therefore prioritizes the destruction of military force. As a result, Clausewitz draws the conclusion that “there is no logical limit to the application of that force.”4 This is important because it makes war real; it means that people will die in war. The side that shows up with the most advanced weapons or the best training does not simply intimidate its adversary into submission. The reality is that “war is a clash between major interests, which is resolved by bloodshed.”5
Clausewitz spends the entire opening book of On War talking about war’s nature because of the need for governments and leaders to know what they are getting into and to make informed decisions about committing blood and treasure to war. Does this mean that war is never worth it? Absolutely not. But it means that governments owe it to both their militaries and their citizens to have a clear view of what is truly in their national interest and what might need to be sacrificed in order to achieve it.6 Policy makers must recognize that in order to close the strategic deficit.
Role of chance / friction
According to Clausewitz, one of the qualities that makes up war’s nature is its inherent unpredictability. War cannot be easily controlled nor can it be solved through calculations or mathematical formulas.7 There are simply no guarantees in war regardless of the degree of preparation. The enemy gets a vote; their will to resist and ability to adapt are hard to define in advance of war itself.8 Furthermore, the reality of the “interplay of possibilities and probabilities, of good and bad luck” alludes to the role of chance. Simply put, not everything can be accounted for and sometimes even the best plans simply do not work.9 Clausewitz adds that war produces a sort of friction that can only be overcome by experience.10
Extending this logic, the U.S. military puts a significant amount of effort towards reducing unpredictability in war. The most obvious example is in trying to perfect information and situational awareness. Tactical data links show positions all over the battlefield while unmanned aircraft systems provide full motion video to operations centers and even to senior leaders far-removed from the theater of war. Additionally, precision guided munitions are employed to remove the possibility of collateral damage and to keep ground troops out of harm’s way. Even so, these systems do not always work as anticipated and chance and friction remain. Furthermore, there are potential side effects to overreliance on technology. What happens if an adversary like China is able to jam all of these high-tech systems? What if the U.S. military can no longer achieve “perfect” information?
Clausewitz’ trinity and the ongoing and variable balance between its elements presents another important aspect of the nature of war. While the trinity is overused and over-analyzed, an understanding of it facilitates discussion about the importance of civil-military debate. In war this trinity is expressed as an interplay of passion (primordial violence, hatred, and enmity), chance, and reason, which mainly concerns the people, the army, and the government. What is most important here is that all three must be involved and that there is a certain dynamism to the relationship. War does not simply change its “colors” and become like something new, but there is a give and take or a certain degree of tension that leads to discourse between the government and the military. This discourse is particularly important to ensuring the appropriateness of means to ends.11
Duration of war / Limited war
War is not limited by nature. In recent history, U.S. commitment of military forces has typically been accompanied by the assumption that the war will be of a short duration and that its escalation can be controlled or limited. War is not immediately ‘total’ and does not consist of a single, short blow.12 War is not won in the opening move. Instead, it is won by subsequent moves and countermoves. Germany struck powerful blows in the opening acts of World War I and World War II. Japan decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor at the onset of World War II. However, neither of these conflicts hinged on those opening battles. These wars were won by the ability of the allies to mass mobilize fighting personnel and equipment and move them to the battlefields where they ultimately defeated the adversary in the long run.13
Consider also the still ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which U.S. forces quickly achieved their initial military objectives but were unprepared for the ways in which the adversary adapted to U.S. conventional dominance. American struggles in both of these wars are indicative of a strategic deficit wherein much needed civil-military debate is simply not taking place. In Afghanistan, Lieutenant General (retired) H.R. McMaster pointed to a “persistent mismatch in… strategy between ends, ways, and means, but also inconsistencies across all three over time.”14 As the enemy has adapted, American forces have been unable to keep up.
It is dangerous to assume that war can be easily limited, controlled, or easily won. Clausewitz calls it a “fallacy” to think that there is “some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed.”15 Even allowing for changes in technology from the time in which Clausewitz wrote, there remains no war-winning weapon, the existence or use of which would prevent the aggressor from facing retaliation and immediately end a conflict. In fact, the use of powerful weapons against even seemingly defenseless populations over time has often served to harden the will of the adversary.16
Application of this theory to a potential war that could emerge from the current great power competition between the United States and both China and Russia suggests that the thought process of “bloodying the enemy’s nose” and getting them to back down is flawed. Huge populations, vast territory, and historical experience indicate that great power wars would not end in short order as the result of a decisive opening battle.17 In fact, it is quite possible that no outcome would ever be final given the existential threat that the adversaries would present to one another. Peace only comes when political objectives have either been achieved or when the “expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object.”18 Even if the United States were to seek a limited war against one of these opponents, there is no certainty that the adversary would view the war in the same way. Furthermore, a desire for peace because one state’s political objective has been achieved quite likely indicates a scenario wherein the adversary is, at least momentarily, at a disadvantage and thus less likely to agree to peace. This demonstrates the inherent challenge of moderation in war.
Character of war
While the nature of war remains consistent, the character of war changes. One of the most fundamental aspects of choosing to enter into war is determining what kind of war you are fighting. Clausewitz calls it “The first, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make”. He further stresses the importance of not trying to turn it into something else which it is not.19 Regardless of the evolution of war, technology or otherwise, the concept of fighting remains the same.20 As addressed previously, a lot of energy goes into trying to increase the predictability of war. However, none of that matters if one does not understand the enemy, the methods by which they are fighting and, perhaps most importantly, where they draw their power. Clausewitz talks about the enemy’s center of gravity, the hub of all power and movement, against which all energies should be directed. But if one does not understand the enemy or the conflict, this analysis is impossible.21 Such was the case in Iraq, where the U.S. military fought a very impressive conventional war yet had no plan for the stability operations afterward and was completely unprepared to deal with the sectarian violence that ultimately ensued.22 In her excellent work, The Unraveling, Emma Sky noted that she “did not believe there was an overall strategy which explained why we were not good at defining when the job would be done and the troops could go home.”23 The dialogue between civilian and military leaders is critical to the development of strategy and the lack of it is part of the foundation of the strategic deficit.
Relation of war to policy
War and policy do not exist in wholly different realms apart from one another. When a state of war is declared, it is clear that something has gone wrong in the realm of policy and prevented the accomplishment of the political objective. As a result, war becomes the primary means by which to achieve it. In saying that “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means,” Clausewitz is asserting that “war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different.”24 This statement is fundamental. Political intercourse consists of dealings or communication between individuals, groups, or countries. The word could just as well have been “dialogue”. In other words, communication or dialogue must continue between war and policy and, similarly, between the military and the government. As if Clausewitz had not made this point strongly enough, he adds further that “war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war…we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense.”25 Again, it simply would not make sense for war to stand alone, separate from policy.
War and policy require a certain degree of synchronization, a harmony to their dialogue. If the government, in setting the policy which the military is to achieve by way of war, misunderstands the military capability, then the policy cannot be achieved. Clausewitz seems to make an assumption here, saying that “policy knows the instrument it means to use” and that as a result, it will not make demands on the military which it cannot fulfill.26 Sir Hew Strachan turns this around stating that “Policy is ill conceived if it asks the armed forces to do things which are not consistent with their capabilities or with the true nature of war.”27 This is the point where personalities really come into play in terms of the president and other foreign policy decision-makers. There are countless examples of this happening in recent memory, particularly in the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Broadly, this is a topic of civil-military relations, which must incorporate a dialogue addressing the appropriateness of means to ends and holding the long overdue conversation about national interest and the use of war to achieve political ends.28
On War provides both context and a means to drive the reader to think critically about war. The current definition of strategy is a far cry from how Clausewitz saw it nearly 200 years ago. However, his insights about the balance between the people, military, and government inform the strategic dialogue that should be a central part of civil-military relations today.
Clausewitz’ discussion of the nature of war expresses the seriousness of conflict and the reality that it cannot be easily controlled or limited. Civilian officials must take great care in committing military forces to hostilities because inevitably people will die. That is not to say that such a sacrifice is not worth it, but an assessment of national interest is critical in determining that blood and treasure are only committed to worthwhile objectives. As a part of providing their best advice, military leaders owe a clear picture of what a war against the adversary might look like as well as the appropriateness of the military means at their disposal to achieve the desired political ends. A simple “we will find a way” or “we will make it happen sir/ma’am” is just not good enough. The intercourse between war and policy and the dialogue between military and civilian officials is largely missing today and is fundamental to eliminating the current strategic deficit. Clausewitz’ concepts remain valuable because they can provide a basis to support just such a dialogue.
- In On War, Clausewitz states that strategy teaches “the use of engagements for the object of the war” (128) and later defines it as “the use of an engagement for the purpose of the war” (177). While this strategic deficit is by no means limited to the United States, the author will focus primarily on examples that are specific to the United States. See Clausewitz, Carl von, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret, On War, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984).
- Ibid., 75
- ibid 77
- ibid 159
- I think it would be worth exploring further the role of the people in this discussion of national interest, though I do not have the room to do so in this paper. Is it as simple as selecting leaders through the vote, or is it a role of receiving the leader’s communication and providing “feedback” in the form of public opinion, etc.? This was part of Sir Hew Strachan’s “democratic deficit” discussion referenced in note 1.
- Ibid., 135-136. In fact, Clausewitz says that it’s not just about numerical superiority, there is more to war than numbers. He says that in war, “everything is uncertain.”
- Ibid., 585. Sir Hew Strachan stated that “War is a clash of two competing wills”, so the directions it “takes are unpredictable because nature is defined by the competition between two opposing elements.” See Hew Strachan, The Direction of War, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 23.
- Clausewitz, On War, 85-86.
- Ibid., 119
- Ibid., 158
- Ibid., 179
- Of course, there are additional nuances in terms of what led to ultimate victory, but there simply is not sufficient space to address them in this article.
- H.R. McMaster, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, (New York: Harper Collins, 2020), 175.
- Ibid., 75.
- Consider the ineffectiveness of strategic bombing when focused on civilian populations during World War II. Even the use of the atomic bomb in Japan did not bring an immediate end to the war in the Pacific on its own.
- Ibid., 627. Clausewitz addresses Russia’s experience in the Napoleonic Wars, saying that there was no way Napoleon could defeat them in 1812, even by occupying Moscow and defeating both Russian armies. The Russian experience during the back-and-forth war on the eastern front against Germany during World War II provides an additional example.
- Ibid., 92
- Ibid., 88
- Ibid., 127
- Ibid., 595-596
- Obviously, this is an oversimplification of the challenges the U.S. faced in the Iraq War, but there simply is not room to go into great detail here. Suffice it to say that the USG made poor assumptions regarding number of troops required and failed to understand the way in which it needed to fight. This was part of why the surge was effective for a time, because of the change in methods along with the Awakening and commitment of additional forces.
- Emma Sky, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, (New York: PublicAffairs, 2015), 256.
- Ibid., 605
- Strachan, Direction of War, 77. In this context, he clearly appreciates the importance of dialogue to successful civil-military relations.
- Clausewitz, On War, 589. It’s interesting, Clausewitz talks about the point where “War thus became solely the concern of the government to the extent that governments parted company with their peoples and behaved as if they were themselves the state.” I cannot help but think this addresses the overdue conversation on national interest and transparency of action and perhaps expresses exactly where we are now.