In 1975, Colin Powell entered the National War College in Washington, DC. Once there, Powell, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War for the first time. He was bowled over. On War was, Powell recalled in My American Journey, “like a beam of light from the past, still illuminating present-day military quandaries.” What particularly impressed him was Clausewitz’s view that the military itself formed only “one leg in a triad” whose other two elements were the government and the people. All three elements had to be engaged for war to be sustainable. In the Vietnam War, America’s had not been.
Powell may have been right about the Vietnam War, but not about Clausewitz. Like many others before him, Powell misread the final section of On War’s opening chapter—that which describes war as “a strange trinity.” Its three elements are not the people, the army and the government, but hate, chance and reason. Clausewitz went on to associate each of these three elements more particularly with the passions of the people, with the commander and his army, and with the political direction of the government. But in doing so he moved from the “trinity” itself to its application. The people, the army and the government are elements of the state, not elements of war. The distinction is crucial to the relevance of On War today.
Powell is not the only American soldier to have misinterpreted Clausewitz’s trinity. In 1982, Army Colonel Harry Summers wrote one of the most influential analyses of the U.S. failure in Vietnam, On Strategy. He, too, had Clausewitz saying that war consisted of the people, the army and the government. After the end of the Cold War, with wars allegedly being waged to an increasing extent by non-state actors such as guerrillas, terrorists and warlords, who in turn funded their efforts through crime and drug-trafficking, neither Powell’s nor Summers’ definitions were of much help. As they became less helpful, so too, it seemed, did Clausewitz. Their take on the trinity tied On War indissolubly to the interstate wars of Clausewitz’s own lifetime. If the so-called Westphalian order waned, so too would the applicability of Clausewitz’s insights. This was the thesis which sustained Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War (1991). By erroneously identifying Clausewitz’s understanding of war with the people, the army and the government—the “Clausewitzian universe”, as he termed it—van Creveld could invent in order to reject what he called “trinitarian war.”
Like the others, van Creveld had not read the original text with sufficient care. He had also not thought sufficiently about Clausewitz’s use of language—in this case, German. Scholars during the Cold War, determined to use On War as a mirror for their own times, cherry-picked the text for readings and quotations which sustained their views rather than reflected Clausewitz’s. Van Creveld was responding to them, not to Clausewitz, but in the process ditched On War as well.
Where did Clausewitz’s trinity come from in the first place? Clausewitz, like some other military theorists—most obviously British Major General J.F.C. Fuller—had a penchant for thinking in threes (a point to which we shall return). But the significance of Clausewitz’s triad is that it is not a triad but a trinity: not just three related elements, but three parts of one whole. The Christian connotations are self-evident and could not be anything other than deliberate for an author whose family came from a long line of Lutheran pastors. Therefore, the first issue posed by the trinity in On War is not the identity of its three constituent elements but that of its mystical unit: What is the god in which the father, son and holy ghost are united?
Once the question is posed, the answer is self-evident: It is war itself, whose essential element, as Clausewitz makes clear in the opening paragraph of the section, is violence. Remember Clausewitz’s opening definition of war in the same chapter: “War is an act of force to compel our adversary to do our will.” Even if war can change its outer character like a chameleon (the analogy Clausewitz uses in the section on the trinity), its inner nature must, according to this simple description, be unchanging.
What war is not, or at least not by its inner nature, is a political instrument. Reason and its extrapolation, the political objects of government, make up a single subordinate element of the trinity, not the trinity itself. Clausewitz likened each of the three elements of the trinity to magnets, so that reason, hate and chance alternately attracted and rejected each other, so never forming a fixed relationship. “A theory, which insisted in leaving one of them out of account, or on fixing an arbitrary relationship between them”, wrote Clausewitz, “would immediately fall into such contradiction with reality that through this alone it would forthwith necessarily be regarded as destroyed.”
Arbitrary and Fixed
One theory has formed an arbitrary and fixed relationship between war and policy, and we are living with the unfortunate consequences. When Powell went to the National War College, strategic thought had a vested interest in elevating and exaggerating Clausewitz’s interest in the relationship between war and policy. And that was why Clausewitz’s axiom, stated in the heading to another section in the opening chapter of On War, that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means”, became the thesis statement that presumably summed up Clausewitz’s very essence. This enabled the searching inhabitants of the second half of the 20th century to place Clausewitz on the side of the angels. Even the great French thinker Raymond Aron, in his 1976 book on Clausewitz, called it simply the “formula.”
The Cold War gave Aron little choice. The possession of nuclear weapons, and their incorporation into a system of international relations that pivoted on deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction, meant that war had to be avoided, not waged. War had to be subordinated to policy if mankind was to survive. Clausewitz could therefore be associated with notions of limited war, with the need to moderate and even avoid war. According to this interpretation, those who linked Clausewitz to Prussian militarism, to the brutality of battle and to wars of annihilation, had misjudged him. That was not “Clausewitzian”; this was.
Aron’s work notwithstanding, the “liberal” Clausewitz we think we know today was the work of two of the most distinguished scholars of modern war, Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Their fluent and readable translation of On War, which appeared in 1976, became a bestseller in a way the original German never has. Most students, particularly in the English-speaking world, cite Howard and Paret when they refer to On War, not Clausewitz himself. In so many ways both Clausewitz and we have benefited: The text has a grace that early 19th-century German, with its predilection for passive constructions, does not have. Its English version also possesses a greater coherence than is immediately evident in the German. Indeed, Howard and Paret gave the world not so much a translation of Clausewitz as an interpretation of him.
Howard and Paret gave consistency to On War through their choice of English words and, occasionally, by their glosses on the text itself. As a result they do not always translate the same German word with the same English word, instead preferring the English most consonant with its immediate context, or with their interpretation of the text. A significant exception is the German noun Politik, which they tend to translate as “policy” rather than use the equally acceptable alternative of “politics.” This is not just a matter of semantics, and it helps to explain how “Clausewitzian” today expresses a supposed whole that is no more than a lesser part. After all, “policy” conveys an impression of direction and clear intent; politics, like war, is an adversarial business, whose implementation, also like war, is messy and confused.
On War seeks to understand war through a dialectical process of balancing propositions and counter-propositions, norms and realities. It is a method that became more firmly rooted in Clausewitz’s mind the more his grasp of military history deepened. As a young man in the 1790s, Clausewitz had focused his self-education on philosophy, an exposure to the ideas of the Enlightenment that left him constantly searching for an overarching theory of war. His mentor, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, was anxious that he should counter his search for the ideal with a dose of the real. After 1806, when the Prussian state was smashed by Napoleon at Jena, Clausewitz’s views on war were shaped predominantly by his own experience as an ambitious and patriotic officer, engaged in a life or death struggle for national survival. A prisoner of war in 1807, his hatred of the French became deep-seated, and after his release he was swept up in the movement to reform the Prussian state, particularly its army. When in 1812 the king agreed to provide a Prussian military contingent for the French invasion of Russia, Clausewitz resigned to join the Russian army. He took part not only in the Russian campaign of 1812 but also in those that followed, culminating in the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
The Napoleonic Wars were the most protracted and violent conflict in Europe since the Thirty Years War, and at the time Clausewitz not unreasonably assumed that they would be the pattern for the future: Not surprising, then, that the description of their nature takes up the bulk of On War. But after his own active military career was over, he was able to put that experience in context. Between 1815 and his death from cholera in 1831 at the age of 51, he devoted himself not only to writing the great work of theory for which he is best known, but also to military history. Indeed, in that time he wrote more history than theory. In 1827, not least as a result of his need to take account of other wars, especially those of Frederick the Great, he realized that policy (or politics) could provide the unifying element for constructing a single way of looking at war, even if over time war, like a chameleon, changed its character.
But On War presents us with two different ways of examining the relationship between war and policy. The first is that of Book I, where policy permeates war and moderates it. This is the view favored by Howard and Paret, and indeed Peter Paret in his masterly biography, Clausewitz and the State (1976), reproduces the first chapter of Book I as an appendix, as though this were Clausewitz’s final and definitive statement on the subject. The intellectual justification for this is a note in which Clausewitz states that, in the event of his death, only Chapter I, Book I should be regarded as complete. Howard and Paret date this note to 1830, the year that Clausewitz was recalled to active service, effectively marking the end of his intellectual life. But other scholars have dated the note to 1827, and if they are right (as I believe they are), then Clausewitz revised much more of his text than Chapter I, Book I in the three years of writing that remained to him.
We then have to look more closely at Book VIII, the last book in On War, which presents a somewhat different view of policy’s influence on war. Here Clausewitz provides an historical overview of war, culminating in the French Revolution and Napoleon. His conclusion is that social and political change has removed the constraints on 18th-century warfare: Politics has made war more destructive, not less so. In the earlier era of Frederick the Great, policy stood outside war, acting as an alien element and rendering it a “half-thing.” In the era of Napoleon, policy was in harmony with war’s nature, enabling it to reach its “absolute” form. Following the logic of Book I, Howard and Paret argue that “absolute war” is an ideal construct, a fiction designed to point up the contrast between war in theory and what happens in reality. But in Book VIII, Clausewitz wrote: “We might doubt whether our notion of its absolute nature had any reality, if we had not seen real warfare make its appearance in this absolute completeness in our own times.”
Book VIII matters because it highlights the reciprocal nature of the relationship between war and policy more vividly than Book I. War is not simply the continuation of policy or politics by other means. Of course in theory war should be used, as it frequently is used, as an instrument of policy, but in reality that is a statement about its causation more than its conduct, about intent more than practice. Once war has broken out, two sides clash, and their policies conflict. That reciprocity generates its own dynamic, feeding on hatred and chance as well as reason. War has its own nature, and can have consequences very different from the policies meant to be guiding it.
More than that, war itself shapes policy. Clausewitz stresses the need for an offensive campaign to be speedy in its execution if it is to deliver on its objectives. He therefore sees time as the great asset enjoyed by the defender: By refusing battle and by trading space for time, a defender can dissipate the initial advantages enjoyed by the attacker. The policies each side will follow will therefore be adapted in the light of the military situation. Indeed, it was in Book VI, the fullest if in some respects the least polished section of On War, that Clausewitz first confronted the role of policy in war. The defender, who counterattacks against an invader who has passed “the culminating point of victory”, will face a political choice arising out of the evolving military situation: Will he turn his tactical success from the defense of his own territory into a full-blown invasion of the attacker’s? The general point here begins with the recognition that only rarely does war fulfill the ideal objectives of the side that initiates it. Policy in wartime therefore has to reflect the nature of war itself, and to be embedded in it. The real Clausewitz understood that war affects policy as much as policy affects war.
War and Policy
The over-emphasis on Book I of On War is still to be found in the United States today. The notion of war’s subordination to policy is congruent with democratic norms of civil-military relations. It implies, as did both the Weinberger Doctrine of 1984 (in whose formulation Powell is presumed to have played a leading role) and the Powell Doctrine of 1992, that all that success requires is the establishment of clear aims and the provision of overwhelming force to achieve those aims. As a requirement of policy, that is fair enough. As a statement about the nature of war, it is demonstrably false.
Such a view, moreover, carries an assumption that ultimately is profoundly un-Clausewitzian: that the army should be left, unfettered by politicians, to deliver the policy objectives that those politicians have set for it. Thus the unreflective reiteration of a Clausewitzian norm has not only distorted our understanding of war’s true nature, it has also erected a barrier to the re-engagement of politicians and soldiers with each other at just the moment when policy and war need to be brought most assiduously into step.
Consider that the U.S. invasion of Iraq bore the hallmarks of Prussia’s 1870 war with France at least in one sense. The chief of the Prussian general staff, Helmuth von Moltke, demanded that he be left alone to deliver the victory and that the politicians should fall silent until then. He could not see the relationship between the conduct of the war short of his own definition of victory and the policy-driven settlement objectives of the peace. In 2003, the operational virtuosity of the American Army was not linked to policy by strategy. Their separation was not just the fault of Donald Rumsfeld; it was also a baleful consequence of the Powell Doctrine. Now in 2007, General David Petraeus confronts the reverse. Asked to deliver a “surge”, he has been given the military means (although probably not sufficient means) to deliver greater security, but not the coherent policy objectives needed to focus military action toward a settlement.
Clausewitz recognized the practical difficulties that the harmonization of policy and war present. Much was made by Howard and Paret of their restoring to the text of On War the first edition’s wording concerning the construction of cabinet government:
If war is to be fully consonant with political objectives, and policy suited to the means available for war, then unless statesman and soldier are combined in one person, the only sound expedient is to make the commander-in-chief a member of the cabinet, so that the cabinet can share in the major aspects of his activities.
Later editions of On War had suggested that the commander-in-chief should be a member of the cabinet at all times, in peace as well as in war. What Howard and Paret were therefore apparently doing was rescuing Clausewitz from the imputation that he favored generals who interfered in the domestic politics of their states. But according to some, the original phrasing suggested that Clausewitz’s model general was a political neuter. He was not, and Clausewitz’s own career gave the lie to that: In 1812 he resigned from the Prussian army to join that of Russia rather than be a slave to his king’s policy of Prussian subordination to France. Clausewitz was emphatic that a great commander required “a keen insight into state policy in its higher relations.” On War says that the commander-in-chief should be in the cabinet so that the cabinet can share in decisions concerning strategy. In other words, the thrust here is not the need to subordinate the military to political control, but to ensure that policy does not ask of strategy that which the military cannot deliver.
Because Clausewitz sees war as a whole of which policy is but one part, it follows that the object in government is the harmonization of those parts:
When people speak, as they often do, of the harmful influence of policy on the conduct of war, they really mean something very different from what they intend. It is not this influence, but the policy itself, which should be found fault with. If the policy is right, that is, if it achieves its end, it can only affect the war favorably—in the sense of that policy. Where this influence deviates from the end, the cause is to be sought only in a mistaken policy.
Policy therefore needs to be rooted in a recognition of war’s true nature. Most of On War is about the latter, not about the relationship between war and policy. The central dialectic of On War is not in fact that between war and policy, the discussion of which only develops from Book VI and is largely confined to Books I (by way of general introduction) and VIII. The bulk of the work, in Books II to VII, is focused on the relationship between strategy and tactics. Most modern readers skip these chapters, convinced that they are no more than a description of Napoleonic Wars, and (understandably) bored by advice on the conduct of river crossings and the defensive values of mountain ranges. But these chapters are the bedrock from which Clausewitz’s ideas about war’s true nature, about its inherent “friction”, about the role of chance and about the function of military genius are all derived. Above all, they are concerned with the reciprocal effects of strategy and tactics.
Clausewitz never adequately defined Politik. He defined strategy and tactics early in his intellectual career, and those definitions are still present in On War. He saw strategy as the use of military engagement for the purposes of the war and tactics as the use of armed forces in the engagement. Tactics he thought a matter of routine, and his views on them were unremarkable. Strategy was what seemed to him to be new in war: It was where the art of the commander lay, and it was the central and unifying theme of the book. When, in 1827, Clausewitz realized the explanatory power of the role of policy, he could construct a “trinitarian” view of war made up not of people, army and government, but of tactics, strategy and policy—a construction that could be further developed in another triad, that of means, aims and objectives.
In theory each of these levels is distinct, and the philosopher in Clausewitz was keen to maintain the difference. He did not, for example, use the words “operations” or “operational” to describe or even elide the interface between tactics and strategy. They were introduced into the text by Howard and Paret, and are one of the ways by which they gave Clausewitz relevance for late 20th-century military thought. Thus they also sidestepped the fact that strategy today is no longer as tightly (or narrowly) defined as it was by Clausewitz, and can be too easily conflated with policy.
Clausewitz the realist did of course appreciate that tactics, strategy and policy interact with each other in practice. But the theorist needed to use language, and the concepts that underpin language, with precision, and he achieved precision through self-questioning. This is why On War has had such durability as a text. Clausewitz’s own self-criticism, his belief that the dialectical method enhanced understanding, means that many of the best answers to Clausewitz’s critics are to be found in On War itself, and nowhere is this more true than in Clausewitz’s realization that war was not simply instrumental, but existential, as well.
After 1806, Clausewitz and his seniors, particularly August von Gneisenau, humiliated by Prussia’s subservience to France, planned a war of national liberation similar to those being fought against Napoleon elsewhere in Europe, especially in Spain. Their methods would be those of guerrilla warfare and even terrorism. In his lectures on “small war” delivered at the war academy in 1810 and 1811, he acknowledged that “a war of the people” would be bloodier than any other, but that, he said, would be the fault of those who had forced such a war on them. In February 1812, he penned a series of three political declarations with potentially revolutionary implications, addressing the king not as the sovereign but as the representative of the nation—a nation, moreover, which he described as German, not Prussian. The first manifesto (for such it was) concluded with a creed:
I believe and confess that a people can value nothing more highly than the dignity and liberty of its existence; that it must defend these to the last drop of its blood; . . . that a people courageously struggling for liberty is invincible; that even the destruction of liberty after a bloody and honorable struggle assures the people’s rebirth.
Policy in other words, could demand a fight to the end, even to near extinction. It was not inherently a moderating influence on war. This was the Clausewitz cited by Adolph Hitler, if not by the deterrence theorists of the Cold War. It finds more muted reflection in On War itself, composed in the tranquility of his study and not amid the visceral emotions of war. However, Book VI addresses the possibility that the new phenomenon of people’s war within civilized Europe might become more common as the 19th century progressed. The fact that he described Vom Kriege as a book on “major war” therefore raises the intriguing question as to whether he planned a second book on “small war”, and whether he had a sense of what full-fledged nationalism would do to the traditional relationship between war and politics.
In any event, he was clear about the nature of such a war. Chapter XXVI of Book VI describes the actions of a politically aware, passionate people, fighting for national independence and not ready to accept the outcome of battle: “There will always be time enough to die; like a drowning man who will clutch instinctively at a straw, it is the natural law of the moral world that a nation that finds itself on the brink of the abyss will try to save itself by any means.” People’s war, he noted, was “a consequence of the way in which in our day the elemental violence of war has burst its old artificial barriers.” As in his passage on the “trinity”, he recognized the tensions between reason and passion and acknowledged that there was no inherent presumption in war’s nature that the former would prevail over the latter. Indeed, his own experience told him that it should not. The refusal of men like Clausewitz to accept the clear political aims of the enemy or to accept the logic of overwhelming military force had resulted in a far swifter end to Bonapartist tyranny than he could have ever hoped in February 1812.
The Clausewitz so readily condemned by commentators of today, such as Martin van Creveld, John Keegan and Mary Kaldor, is the Clausewitz who was fashionable in the 1970s. The fact that the rationality of the “formula” of war’s relationship to policy looks less clear in 2007 does not invalidate it as an interpretative tool. The problem has arisen from its artificial exclusivity, from its being taken so very much out of context. There is much more to On War than one hackneyed catchphrase, and the tragedy for the armed forces of the United States and their allies today is that greater attention to rather more of the text would have provided the intellectual underpinnings for greater self-awareness and strategic sensitivity than has been evident over the last half decade. We need not to ditch On War but to read more of it, and to read it with greater care.