Clausewitz: Master of War
Published on: May 17, 2011
show comments
  • Punditarian

    What do you make of the fact that generations of American officers learned Napoleonic strategy & tactics from Jomini, rather than Clausewitz?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Both Grant and Sherman seem instinctively Clausewitzian; in Grant’s case maybe he just wasn’t paying attention at West Point — though he seems to have been fond of Mahan Sr. Nothing could be more Clausewitzian and less Jominian than Sherman’s decision to cut loose from Atlanta and march to the sea.

  • richard40

    Keeping a military machine running smoothly requires discipline and order. But winning battles requires flexibility and creativity. The challenge for any military is to maintain discipline and order in ordinary ranks, but without stifflying the flexibility and creativity that must be perserved in growing the next generation of great commanders.
    The only surefire solution for this is to have real wars every 10 yrs or so, to allow the best battle commanders to shine over the burocrats. If you can’t have regular wars, a decent solution is to make wargame exercises as realistic as possible, and make their rules flexible enough to allow creative solutions to win them.

  • Anthony

    “The art of war is of vital importance to the state. It is a matter of life and death….” (Sun Tzu).

    “Strategy is the employment of the battle to gain the end of the war….” (Clausewitz).

    My sense is that both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz wrote battlefield theory realizing its importance to orderly and secure societal/national arrangements. Essentially, both men provide a philosophy of successful leadership applicable to contemporary power realities. As WRM says “war is in some ways the most human of activities: it is about defining and achieving objectives in cooperation with some people, all-out opposition from others, in contest that draws on every talent and tests every virtue that we have.” On War and Art of War capture those sentiments while strategically focused on battlefield objectives that lend themselves to human leadership strategies yet germane to 21st century concerns.

    Objectively as well as historically understanding WRM’s admonition that “victory demands thorough and systematic preparation, but all systems of thought lead in the end to sterile formulae – and defeat” requires grand strategy aspirants to heed Clausewitz ‘s advise to utilize the “means and forms” which strategy uses for generalship (leadership) without lessening the unseen moral/psychological forces.

  • Eric Blair

    Sherman was just emulating Grant’s move in the Vicksburg campaign when Grant did the same essentially the same thing. Grant even notes in his memoirs that Sherman thought it a very bad idea at the time. Sherman, once the order was given, executed to the utmost. I think that was instructive and Both Grant and Sherman learned from their experiences and applied that going forward.

    One thing about Grant, he saw the big picture–in a way that Lee never appears to have, concerning the entire war. The comments in his memoirs about why he decided to attack Vickburg the way he did are a pretty good illustration.

    (Go read his memoirs, you will be glad you did)

  • Narr

    Well done, Professor Mead. I’ve been arguing (for years, but to brick walls, usually) that Clausewitz was one of the foremost thinkers of the 19th century, with continued relevance today and tomorrow. But in the history circles I frequent, they’re still stuck on Marx and Freud as the explicators of reality.

    I’ve come to consider much historical writing and teaching to be “Sunday School by other means,” to adapt a phrase . . .

  • B.H.L. Hart’s “Strategy” is superior. And way more coherent.


    Re: Civil War. Grant was a superior General. He split functions. Grant held them by the nose and he ORDERED Sherman to kick them in the pants. Just like Patton says to do.

    On top of that Grant was the only Union General who was able to keep Lee from taking advantage of his interior lines to shift forces.

    The Wilderness Campaign is very instructive in that regard. If you look at the stats Grant lost the battle. And yet he kept advancing and Lee retreated. Eventually winding up stuck in Richmond/Petersburg until the very end of the war.


    On your main thesis about the study of war?


  • Steve Gregg

    Clausewitz and Sun Tzu were not polar opposites but rather Clausewitz was the successor to Sun Tzu, describing a Western way of way that has partially eclipsed the Eastern way of war. Sun Tzu’s strategy is the culmination of lessons learned from a million years of humans raiding each other’s villages. It is largely guerrilla strategy.

    Clausewitz, on the other hand, is about managing pitched battles, a Western innovation upon the Eastern way of war, probably forced by the need to destroy the enemy’s wheat fields within the two week period they will burn.

    The wars in Afghanistan and Iran, regular soldiers against insurgents, can be seen as wars of Clausewitz against Sun Tzu, the Western way of war versus the Eastern way of war. We can’t bring the enemy into a pitched battle we can win and they can’t defeat us via raiding.

  • Richard Aubrey

    My father’s division commander, Terry Allen, seems to have been jumped over at least two hundred officers senior to him. His biography does not, as far as I can tell, explain what about this guy was that obvious while he languished in between wars as an occasionally troublesome field grade. His guys thought he walked on water. My father’s first platoon sergeant was wounded and home in time to name his son after the general and there is a “Terry Allen Towne” on the Ionia Viet Nam veterans memorial. If my father had been home in March of ’45, I might not be a junior. When I got to Benning, our intro to night fighting–pioneered by Allen–was a long lessons-learned from the 104th division’s experience in the ETO. So the question, at least one question, is how to keep such guys in the service, protect them from themselves during peacetime, and be ready to jump them to their best role when war starts.
    See “War, Ends and Means” by Seabury and Codevilla, written with Mead’s concerns in mind for the modern student who knows absolutely nothing about war except that it’s bad and usually Bush’s fault.

  • Allan Blackwell

    Some years ago I read the words of the Commandant of West Point who said that he did not teach strategy there, but engineering. One can only hope that someone went beyond mere logistics in the teaching of these future officers.

  • Multitude

    It’s not just Clausewitz that’s rejected; most U.S. academic institutions exclude the representation of Continental theory in their philosophy programs, retreating instead to an ivory tower where the political framework is accepted and the “theorist” left to play with logic puzzles.

    It’s somewhat alarming when one learns that France and Germany have vitally more vibrant programs, and even more puzzling when American business strategists have to travel overseas to work on this important area of theory (which underpins many areas of applied complexity theory, emergence, assemblage theory, business ethics and systemic risk).

    Instead, the American “analytical tradition” serves to teach students a model that is only useful for one who wishes to become a future teacher of analytical philosophy. While the rest of us might recognize this as an academic equivalent of a Ponzi scheme, the incestuousness of these programs is such that no outside criticism appears to have any capacity to change thought.

    Incidentally, the power analysis of theorist Michel Foucault that significantly extends that of Clausewitz, particularly in the lectures represented in the book “Society Must Be Defended”, are a vital addition to contemporary power studies.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    A humorous, but pertinent quote: “I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities. Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy, however, is fit for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!”
    – German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord in Truppenführung, 1933

  • David Bustamante

    This is a small nit to pick, but I would prefer the following:…foundation of liberal democracy and free enterprise capitalism…

    Otherwise, outstanding essay!

  • Jacknut

    Dammit, stop writing about this stuff, Professor. You’re eroding my competitive advantage. I use von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu all the time in my bureaucratic political skirmishes. It helps that I’m the only one who’s read them both, except for the West Point grad who’s a VP.

    He called me out after one of my “environmental marketplace scans” noting that all I had done was apply Sun Tzu’s 9 Grounds to the marketplace.

    I hope this post doesn’t go viral.

  • Safwan Bob

    Dr. Jim Hellis of the U.S. Army War College provides a very good overview of Carl von Clausewitz:

  • B Dubya

    There was an American commander who, being unschooled in the military sciences himself, learned the trade in the saddle. That he was gifted in intellect is now obvious, but who would have predicted that Nathan Bedford Forrest would make himself into the best cavalry commander of the Civil War? I include J.E.B. Stuart in his class of peers.

    Forrest may not have had the luxury of a Military Academy education, but he instinctively saw the elemental truths about how to tactically defeat an opponent.

    He fought personally, with ferocity and with real anger. He was not a cold blooded general staff type, as he demonstrated many times, perhaps most spectacularly as he covered the withdrawal from Shiloh. He was dangerous all by himself, and led men who were very much like himself in ferocity.

    ‘War means killing,” he said, ” and the way to kill is to get there first with the most men.”
    In a single neat sentence, Forrest boiled down the problem of field maneuvers, the use interior lines of communication and concentration of force into their most simple terms, terms that he understood better than his West Point educated opponents.

  • Luke Lea

    I hope you will explore the potential of using tariffs, embargoes, and travel restrictions to enforce international standards of behavior. Imagine if foreign elites who failed to uphold certain standards were unable to travel in the West, use a credit card, access the international banking system, or access Western markets in general. Of course this would require lot more than an Anglo-American alliance. All the industrial democracies would have to get together. At least explore the idea as a utopian possibility.

  • Juan Ulloa

    Jomini was not a lazy, incompetent bureaucrat. Like Clausewitz he was an experienced Soldier who devoted his life to analyzing warfare. The main difference was that Jomini looked at the battlefield as a math problem, while Clausewitze looked at it as a struggle between two determined foes; he uses the analogy of two wrestlers. As such he focused on the human aspects of that struggle. Jomini was not the champion of well-running bureaucracies, he was a proponent of immuteable principles of battle and war. Both have their place. At the tactical and operational levels, Jomini’s principles of war – mass, offensive, maneuver, etc. – approach are highly applicable. On the other hand, understanding Clausewitz’ human dimension of the struggle – fog, friction, genius, etc. – are universaly applicable at all levels. So, while Grant and Sherman were successful and Forrest was a great commander; it wasn’t because they instinctively understood Clausewitzian theories and conveniently forgot to pay attention to Jominian principles; it was because they were able to combine both into a coherent, workable solution. Likely a function of the right temperament as suggested by General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord in Truppenführung, 1933 above!

    • Walter Russell Mead

      My comments intended no disrespect to Jomini.

  • Marty

    Someone asked about the consequences of the US military learning from Jomini rather more than from Clausewitz.

    Pickett’s Charge
    Cold Harbor

  • M McFee

    Thank you Mr. Mead. I enjoyed your article immensely.

  • David W Nicholas

    I’ve always thought that the Jominian influence in Civil War strategy showed through in McClellan and Burnside, Rosecrans and Buell, Halleck and Meade and Hooker and Pope (not to mention the Confederates, Lee, both Johnstons, et al) concentrating on *battles* rather than the war. Lee beat the Army of the Potomac like a drum for 2 and a half years, and still managed to lose the war. Think about that for a minute. They fought that many battles, winning them, but costing themselves that many casualties…for what?

    The other commenters (and Mr. Mead) are right in pegging Grant as an instinctive Clauswitzian. There apparently is some dispute as to whether Halleck read Clausewitz in German (which he read and wrote more or less fluently, supposedly) but I’ve never seen any evidence in any of the operations he conducted during the war. The famous exchange between him and Lincoln in 1864, where Halleck tried to explain that odds of 3:2 were insufficient to attack, and Lincoln outmaneuvered him, shows that Lincoln understood the issue much better than Halleck did, and he didn’t even have the bad grades at West Point that Grant had.

    And I can remember, years ago, reading somewhere that one of Forrest’s pithy maxims “sums up Clausewitz in a single sentence”. I’ve always felt that this sort of thing is like the talent of singing or acting, or leadership: you can teach some people who have these talents how to maximize them, but if they lack the talent completely, you’re wasting your time…and occasionally there will be someone who needs no teaching, because they instinctively grasp everything involved in an instant.

  • Tennwriter

    M. Simon,
    I’ve heard the arguement that Grant grasped one essential fact.

    I’ve got more men, more mass, than Lee. If I keep charging, eventually, he’s going down.

    It was not clever tactics, but brutality based on a clear understanding of one very important fact.

  • Luke Lea

    How about trade, finance, and travel restrictions as war by other means? We have barely scratched the surface of the possibilities for coercion that exist now but never did before. Take Saudi Arabia for example. An announcement of intentions well ahead of time, to be applied gradually, could force reform in that country. Of course this would have to be combined with the threat of military seizure of their oil fields if they start to clamp down. Meanwhile Saudi financial resources could be shut down in a day. I am not saying do this. I am saying think about the possibilities. The idea of large-scale war in this nuclear age — even conventional war on a large-scale — is barely thinkable anymore. Clausewitz may be dated?

    Quite obviously I am no expert.

  • Anthony

    Confederate commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, serious violator of laws applicable in armed conflict (Battle of Fort Pillow, April 1864) as well as murderer of prisioners of war, indicative of Sun Tzu’s tactics and energy characterization as well as Clausewitz’s imponderables. He epitomizes the need to know your enemeny as you know yourself.

  • Antony

    War certainly entails killing as well as massive destruction and its certainly no place for the weak hearted/timid soul but ferocity and hatred are not traits meriting valor salutations as men contest to kill each other. On War and Art of War both speak to kiling the enemy and rousing anger but no general wantonly kills captured soldiers and anticipates a great victory. So, Nathan Bedford Forrest’s war end was inherently constrained despite ferocity and real anger.

  • Tennwriter,

    That is the mistake most make when analyzing Grant. Hart in “Strategy” (an otherwise outstanding book) makes the same mistake.

    Grant beat the Confederates by maneuver. Except it was not Grant (except in the narrow sense) doing the maneuvering. It was Sherman by order of Grant.

    Grant had a function. Pin Lee. Something no other Union General was able to accomplish.

    And in fact Grant did not in the direct sense “beat” Lee. Sherman caused Lee’s troops to melt away to protect their homes from his depredations. It is all in Hart’s book. You just have to read it a bit differently than Hart did.

    Anyway, it is why I call Grant one of the most under rated Generals of all time.

    Grant’s Memoirs (free download):

    Or in clickable form (if that works here):

    Grant’s Memoirs

    • Walter Russell Mead

      Everyone should read Grant’s Memoirs: one of the greatest books every produced by an American.

  • Whit

    Lee was constrained as much by J Davis’ insistence on the defense of Richmond as he was by himself. Grant never tried to pin Lee down. He simply kept trying to maneuver in a clockwise basis so as to strike at Richmond around Lee’s right flank. Grant knew Lee HAD to follow, and not out of his own strategic thinking. It was Lee in 62 who changed the whole dynamic of the eastern theatre by first reducing the AoP and then breaking away from Richmond by dividing his army to envelope Pope way to the north of Richmond

  • Jacksonianism is an improvement on Clausewitz. If they’re worth fighting, they’re worth killing, and if they aren’t worth killing then they aren’t worth fighting to begin with.

  • While I don’t want to take anything from Grant, let’s remember that he didn’t tangle with Lee until after Gettysburg. Grant was tenacious. He realized that he had to keep in contact with Lee at all times and he was willing to take high casualties to do it. We can only imagine that if Lee had had the resources (fresh troops and arms) available to him that Grant had, how the outcome might have been different.

    @Eric: “One thing about Grant, he saw the big picture–in a way that Lee never appears to have, concerning the entire war.”

    I totally disagree. Lee realized that the tyrant Lincoln would not give up as long as North could maintain the initiative. Lee’s two invasions of the North were attempts to take away that initiative. The first one was aborted after one of the “frictions” of war … Lee’s battle plans were discovered.

    The second one … well … Gettysburg was a combination of things … all that went wrong for the Confederacy and has been the source of endless debate.

  • David Billington

    I would be interested to know more about what you plan to teach on Anglo-American development in the fall. Could you could share your reading list?

    Regarding Clausewitz, it must be remembered that his insights are essentially independent of technical context, which must be taken separately into account.

  • Lincoln was elected, made by the will of the people expressed at the ballot box. He was not a tyrant in any sense of the word.

    Lee the slave owner, Lee who abandoned his post to work on his father in law’s will, Lee who resigned rather than accept a command by his country’s government, Lee who accepted positions of advancement when offered them by traitors, was, alas, a well trained officer. Lee was ill at Gettysburg, but refused to turn over command to Longstreet, his senior subordinate. Those two personal weaknesses, one of the body one of the spirit, led to his failure at Gettysburg.

  • A major reason for the failure of the rebels was the bad nature of their cause. 40 regiments of southern men fought for the US against the rebels. That accounts for the shortage of men experienced by Lee after Gettysburg

  • @DonM … Oh please … Lincoln was a tyrant in every sense of the word. Lincoln acted like a dictator for the duration of his administration and showed nothing but contempt for the Constitution.

    Lincoln was a hypocrite (ok, he was a politician so I guess that is the same thing) … In a July 4, 1848 speech Lincoln said, “Any people whatsoever have the right to abolish the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right.” Guess he changed his mind …

    Where to begin?

    Lincoln was devoted to Hamiltonian mercantilism – high protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, a central bank, and political patronage. One could even say that he was a puppet of “big rail” … the corporate bad boys of the day.

    In 1862, when copperhead democrats began criticizing Lincoln’s violation of the Constitution, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus throughout the nation and had many copperhead democrats arrested under military authority because he felt that the State courts in the northwest would not convict war protesters such as the Copperheads. He proclaimed that all persons who discouraged enlistments or engaged in “disloyal” practices would come under Martial Law.

    James G. Randall documented Lincoln’s assault on the Constitution in “Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln”. He shut down over 300 opposition newspapers; he imprisoned editors and owners; he DEPORTED of the leader of the congressional opposition, Democratic Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio; voters were intimidated by federal soldiers; hundreds of New York City draft protesters were gunned down by federal troops; West Virginia was unconstitutionally carved out of Virginia; duly elected members of the Maryland legislature were imprisoned, as were the mayor of Baltimore and Congressman Henry May.

    The biggest cost of the Lincoln’s war was the death of federalism and states’ rights. The New York Journal of Commerce wrote on Jan. 12, 1861, that a coerced Union changes the nature of government from “a voluntary one, in which the people are sovereigns, to a despotism where one part of the people are slaves.”

    The “bad nature” of their cause? I assume you mean slavery which means you don’t understand squat about Lincoln’s War. Only a small percentage of the Southern troops owned slaves and they sure weren’t fighting so that the plantation owners could own them.

    On the other side, most Northerners didn’t really care about slavery and certainly weren’t willing to die to end it so in 1861, Lincoln didn’t call for troops to end slavery! There were draft … yes draft … riots in the North AFTER the Emancipation Proclamation which angered many immigrants.

    Lincoln may have freed the blacks but he enslaved the rest of us.

  • Kay

    Uncle Carl is not dated. His observations on war, the nature of conflict, the Remarkable Trinity, are equally applicable to non-state as well as traditional state actors. While he was writing about war from the early 19th perspective, he also was trying to write the definitive theory of war. Restricting him to the battlefields of Western Europe is unfair. He also reflected on the “new” phenomenon of People’s War. While not the Paret translation, is a good place to start.

  • Luke Lea

    @Eric: “One thing about Grant, he saw the big picture–in a way that Lee never appears to have, concerning the entire war.”

    Lincoln saw the big picture. He was the master strategist of the Civil War.

  • Luke Lea

    Roubini says it for me!

    “For the first time since the end of World War II, no country or strong alliance of countries has the political will and economic leverage to place its goals on the global stage. This vacuum may encourage, as in previous historical periods, the ambitious and the aggressive to seek their own advantage. In such a world, the absence of a high-level agreement on creating a new collective security system—one focused on economics rather than the 20th-century dynamic of military power—is not merely irresponsible but dangerous. “

  • Luke Lea

    Here is the link to that Roubini piece by the way:

  • David Billington

    The following article may be useful as a perspective on the uses of Clausewitz:

  • Pardon how obliquely I’m entering this debate, but I’m an IR grad student preparing for comps. The standard IR canon I’m using to prepare starts with E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau, realists taking the field against the idealists. Perhaps because I had several seminars in 18th and 19th Century philosphers, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and the American Pragmatists, I still study this fertile period. I have to ask, therefore, what’s idealistic about Clausewitz? Or, John Quincy Adams? Is there an alternative way to view the pre-Morgenthau/Carr IR and diplomatic literature that’s a little more sophisticated than idealism vs. realism?

  • michael k power

    hello america
    There is always disequilibrium within systems. At some moment equilibrium fractures and the result, in our human domain is war; disequilibrium breaks out, but of course this is equilibrium too. We call it war. Then, manifesting a distinct equllibrium, forces collide until a new equilibrium, peace, breaks out. Modern war is often violent at the fringes, the battlefield, but at the center war is caused by disequilibrium. New technologies, say hardened steel, manifested in rifled steel cannon, and capital ships…here I suggest reading “The Arms of Krupp”, by William Manchester…for insight into nineteenth century war. The German military preferred old technology, bronze cannon, to hardened steel, and in failing to purchase hardened steel cannon from Krupp, Krupp, facing bankruptcy, sold rifled steel breech loading cannon to the world. And the consequence for war was that Krupp sold hardened steel guns to anyone who would purchase them. As to the American Civil War, Krupp sold railroad wheels to the North. Eventually Germany, with Krupp armaments, consolidated.
    Strategy is an empty notion — if and when ones technology is superseded, or if one fails to understand the disruptive nature of technology and your opponents succeed in understanding it–then of course ones tactics will fail too. Education is expensive; starve education, and as adults they will starve; because their opponents will bring a new equilibrium to bear, a new construct!
    The Germans lost the Battle of Britain conflict during World War ll even though their arms and fighting men were superior, because the allies had radar. The British had a technological advantage and therefore a strategic advantage in offense and defense. The British then had a management advantage too. They used scarce resources more efficiently and more effectively. The Chinese have a man advantage now; just 10% of their population is 120,000,000. If 10% of a population is intelligent and educated and focused then the man advantage to the Chinese is three to one over the United States. The new technologies in the future, whatever they are, will prove advantageous. Add in the man advantage…! The American Civil War was won by the North because of man advantage, concentrated manufacturing output and technological superiority. The railroads required steel rails. They were made in the North by Andrew Carnegie. The North provided better clothing. Clothing was made in the factories in New York. Armies need to eat. Food was distributed by railroad. During war, men trained for it, think differently than men trained for peace… If people want peace prepare for war. But the role and importance of technology in war must be understood at the center of a nations affairs; there must be education and the funds to pay for developing the necessary insight. Effective strategic development will follow.

  • Jeff77450

    Re. “There are desk generals and battle generals, and the unequal struggle between them is a recurring problem — and not just in military organizations. Desk generals excel in the arts of bureaucratic warfare, stick close to the conventional wisdom in all ways, and were brilliantly described in two unforgettable Gilbert and Sullivan songs: Modern Major General and The First Lord’s Song. In times of peace these timeserving mediocrities rise inexorably to the top; wars usually begin with a painful shakeout while the beribboned and bemedaled lunkheads demonstrate their hopeless incapacity at the true military art. Then and only then do the unclubbable and unconventional officers whose only virtue is their ability to somehow win battles gradually edge to the fore and the Grants and the Shermans elbow past the Popes and the McClellans.”

    I’m reminded of the saying “In peacetime, soldiers hate warriors.”

  • Un articulo muy interesente y documentado.
    Ah, by the way, I speak English perfectly but I choose not to do it as a defiant act to Anglo-american cultural colonialism.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2018 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.