Clausewitz and Strategic Studies
Clausewitz is renowned for his famous work On War (Vom Kriege), in which he records his observation in analytical form, shaped by military and political considerations. His writings come from 39 years of military experience and contains many ideas, although some unfinished, but nevertheless still relevant to today? s warfare. The big reason why his ideas are some relevant even in modern day is that he has grasped the principle of war; and although the character of war may change from such factors as era, location, culture and political objective of the war, they always follow the principle, and Clausewitz has recognised this in his writing.
This essay will introduce the most important Clausewitz theories, which includes the ideas the nature of war according to Clausewitz, the three determining factors towards successful strategy, fog and friction of war and centre of gravity. These ideas were raised in the Clausewitzian era; however, the ideas are still very much relevant in the 21 st century.
One of Clausewitz? s most important ideas is the nature of war; it involves fighting in a contest, it can be seen as a social activity and is used as an instrument of policy. He quoted that war is 2″a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means”1 . It opposes the popular thought that war is simply a consequence of failed politics, a final option to a break down of diplomacy between nation states.
According to Clausewitz, politics is always embedded in war; effective war can not stage without strong political backing. He explains that there is always a political objective, whether it be expanding the empire or territory, exerting an ideology or influence over another state or to gain economical advantage.
War is always the servant of policy… without a sound policy, success in war is improbable. War will on that account be in no way lowered in importance… if only the commander in chief and the leading statesmen are agreed that in all circumstances war serves the ends of politics best by a complete defeat of the enemy”. 2 War is only a means to achieve this, not an end, and is employed usually after diplomacy or non- violent alternatives have failed. However, according to Hugh Smith, despite what Clausewitz has stated, it “does not mean that war is always used as an instrument of policy in practice” 3
This theory is still relevant in today? s society, from WWII to the modern warfare in Iraq, each conflict is started by political objectives, and war is often used as a means to achieve the objective. The most prominent war in the 21 st century, the war on terror, is forged against terrorist organisations around the war, and due to the fact the coalition was not dealing with a nation state, diplomacy could not resolve the problem, military action was commenced.
Smith also explains the different natures of war which Clausewitz has outlined in his publication „On War?.
Clausewitz had insisted that to truly appreciate strategy; one must understand the nature of war. 1 Hugh Smith, „Clausewit z: Apostle of Modern War (Chapter 3)? in Hugh Smith (ed). , The Strategists, Australian Defence Studies Centre, Canberra, 2001, p 29. 2 Michael Ho ward, „The Continuing Relevance of Clausewit z? , in Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1976, p 64. 3 Hugh Smith, „Clausewit z: Apostle of Modern War (Chapter 3)? in Hugh Smith (ed).
, The Strategists, Australian Defence Studies Centre, Canberra, 2001, p 32. 3- “Generally speaking, a military objective that matches the political object in scale will, if the latter is reduced, be reduced in proportion; this will be all the more so as the political object increases its predominance. Thus it follows that without any inconsistency wars can have all degrees of importance and intensity, ranging from a war of extermination down to simple armed observation. “4 That quote from Clausewitz sums up why his ideas are still relevant today, because no matter on what scale wars are fought, it will always be for the same type of purpose, contain the same elements and concepts.
The concept of war, as explained by Clausewitz involves people, equipment and weather, and these entities are still relevant in today? s conflicts.
These factors account for the outcome of wars since the time of Clausewitz and quite possibly before then. These factors also explain how strategies fail, how plans do not get implemented properly or fail in the process and the impact of human error in determining the outcome of a contest. Clausewitz? s idea has lasted til this time because these factors still remain in modern day warfare. There is no way to escape the human flaws which could destroy the best possible laid plans.
It also explains why military plans do not last the first contact and how the military must work under the direction of the government in order to carry out mission which reflect a political objective. An example of this is the US failure in Vietnam, where these three factors determined the failure of the mission.
The planning for the mission was flawed, the commanders didn? t have an adequate plan to combat in this asymmetric war and thus the people in combat were prone to error, which also contributes to the three factor trinity of strategic success.
Finally, although the Americans were well equipped, the technology they employed were more suited for conventional warfare, thus in this instance it failed to accomplish the same job. 4 Co lin Gray, Clausewit z, History, and the Future Strategic World, Prepared fo r the Strategic and Co mbat Studies Institute Conference – „Past Futures? , Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, 3-4 July, 2003, p21. -4- Another one of Clausewitz? s ideas which has lasted til now, is his notion on successful strategy, depends on the link between people, government and military; and that defence is favoured over attack.
Using a bar stool analogy, these three legs of factors must be evenly balanced and collaborated in order to achieve a favourable outcome.
“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristic to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone. 5 In recent conflicts, it is noticeable that when these factors aren? t balanced, the initiator of the war fails in its efforts. Reusing the Vietnam example, the US failed to balance the trinity of factors and thus failing to achieve its political objective. Its downfall was influenced by the lack of support from the people back home, and also the lack of military power to overcome the asymmetric war fought by the North Vietnamese. There have been numerous attacks on the relevance of Clausewitz? s work, “Both soldiers and civilians have disliked some of them, often for contrary reasons.
The soldier trained to revere offensive spirit does not feel comfortable with the argument that the defensive is obviously the stronger form of war, and he is especially does not like being told that the military aim must always be subordinated to the political objectives laid won by the civilian leaders. Among civilians there may be some who feel that there is more than a shade too much ruthlessness in Clausewitz, though this attitude is likely to characterize non-readers who have formed their opinions by hearsay rather than those who have actually read the book. “6 5
Co lin Gray, Clausewit z, History, and the Future Strategic World, Prepared fo r the Strategic and Co mba t Studies Institute Conference – „Past Futures? , Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, 3-4 July, 2003, p9. 6 Bernard Brodie, „The Continuing Relevance of Clausewitz? , in Carl von Clausewit z, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1976, pp. 48 -5However, these attacks actually show just how relevant his ideas are. The soldier in a war is really a representation of the means a political objective is being achieved.
Where diplomacy has failed, the military force is then commanded by „civilian leaders? ; normally the heads of state to continue on with the policy. And it is also true about the ruthlessness in Clausewitz, for he is a man who started his combat experience at the age of thirteen, and he knows how an error in kindness is often the worst of all in a war. “Clausewitz’ theory is, to a large extent, bent upon proving that the weak at least a fair chance to resist a more powerful foe. He can do so, because defence is the strong form of warfare” The points which he stresses in favour of defence refer to tactics as well as to strategy and politics.
The attacked, he holds, enjoys political sympathies and the moral advantages which are derived from defending his own country.
” 7 This idea is reflected in the asymmetric warfare being waged all around the world today. From the depths of Africa to the heat of the Middle East and South America, stronger conventional forces are battling a losing game against guerrillas and terrorists. These belligerents are often well organised but however lack the numbers and equipment, but are defending their strongholds and in the process weakening the attackers? resolve.
The idea of defence over attack was conceived over two centuries ago, yet it still remains relevant today. The ideas of fog and friction of war and centre of gravity during a conflict were another of Clausewitz? s. He explained that in every war, there will be fog and friction of war, which hampers both sides in battle.
The other point is that both sides will have their own centre of gravity; and a precision and effective strike on the centre of gravity will greatly affect the enemy. 7 Hans Rothfels, „Clausewit z? , in The Makers of Modern Strategy edited by Edward Mead Earle, Gordon A.
Craig ; Felix Gilbert, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ , 1943, p112. -6The fog of war is one of the biggest detriments to the personnel in direct combat, or even just in a support role. Despite the technological advances to today, fog of war is still very much relevant in modern day warfare, and Clausewitz correctly pointed out the lack of information will cripple any army in the world.
In today? s information age, where the information perhaps is too much for people to handle, has created a different, but yet similar fog of war for the combatants.
Where it used to be the lack of information and lack of situational awareness, the immense amount of information flow today means there is too much information around, and in a combat zone, it is almost impossible to react only to the important information. Sold iers, sailors and airmen are swamped by the copious amounts of information, without the skill nor time to process it, thus leaving them again in a fog of war. Although the character has changed, Clausewitz is right in his war principles, which shows how his ideas are still relevant today.
The friction of war during Clausewitz? s time in combat was experienced through human errors, plans going wrong and getting the simplest of tasks wrong during battles.
Much like how Murphy? s Law was developed, Clausewitz recognised the fact that the disruptive and violent nature of warfare is impacting on soldiers? performance. The real war on the ground is different to how hours and hours worth of planning will pan out. No one can predict the outcomes of any contact, and even when the odds seem to be stacked favourably on one side. A notable example of this is the US failure in
Somalia. Despite having a much larger and better equipped military force, the most apparent friction of war for the US occurred when their forty five minute plan to extract Somalian warlords turned into a day of massacre and loss of life and morale for the US troops.
The friction of war, where things could go wrong did go wrong, combined with the break down in communications; (attributing to fog of wa r) -7denied the US any chance of salvaging the mission. This event took place in the late 90s; a good two hundred years after Clausewitz first stated his ideas.
Centre of gravity is possibly the most used term in modern day warfare, yet it was first coined in the early 19th century. Clausewitz had defined it as the primary source of strength for a military force, and disruption to this centre of gravity will be detrimental to the attacked side. Today, the centre of gravity is still a much spoken term, and a key to defeating an enemy quickly and effectively. A good example of this is the First Gulf War, where the US successfully destroyed the Iraqi main telecommunication centre, which gave them the upper hand in the war.
Without communications, fog of war will gradually set in, and this is very much a favoured tactic in any combat situation. Therefore, the ideas of Clausewitz remained relevant til the 21 st century. Perhaps the best indication of the continuing relevance of Clausewitz is the fact that “it is significant that defeated armies – for example, Britain after the Boer War, Germany after World War I, the US after Vietnam – turned to Clausewitz who himself endured humiliating defeat in 1806 and helped restore Prussia to glory by 1815 “8 .
Clausewitz had both endured defeat and tasted victory, and his writings in „On War? are a reflection of the principles of warfare, not just character, because they will change from era to era. The key ideas which have stayed in the mainstream of military strategy til today are the nature of war, the paradoxical trinity to strategic success, the defence over attack ideology and the key components of combat fog of war, friction of war and the centre of gravity.