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Published Airpower Journal - Summer 1989
SINCE the close of World War II, the study of Clausewitz in the United States-particularly in Army circles-has seen a marked resurgence. The latest version of Field Manual 100-5, Operations, is practically oozing Clausewitzian terminology: the concepts of friction, culminating points, and centers of gravity all see the light of day in a form readily attributable to the Prussian philosopher.1 Unlike other military theorists, however, Clausewitz set down no hard and fast maxims or principles but invited the reader to explore with him the phenomenon known as war.2
The study of Clausewitz, therefore, is not easy. According to Peter Paret, an acknowledged expert on the subject, anyone who "opens On War with the expectation of easily separating the valuable kernels of pure gold from the chaff of antiquarian detail will be frustrated."3 Even distinguished soldiers have had difficulty not only with what Clausewitz had to say but also with the manner in which he said it. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery is reputed to have stated, "I did make attempts to read the writings of Clausewitz and Jomini . . . but I couldn't understand him (Clausewitz) myself."4 Bernard Brodie, a prolific writer and theorist on strategic matters, was also attuned to this problem: "The price of admission to the Clausewitzian alternative of intensive rumination [as opposed to merely perusing established formulas] . . . is a commitment to be responsive."5
Peter Paret once wrote that attempts to provide what he called the "essential Clausewitz" in the form of excerpts or to represent his theories in outline form have been less than successful and that it was not necessary to "attempt the impossible once again."6 In accordance with this advice, my purpose here is a modest one. I hope to provide a means by which someone who has received no exposure or only a limited exposure to the works of this philosopher call begin a study of On War without being confused by his method or overwhelmed by the voluminous literature available. Toward this end, it is necessary to have a feel for the mail, understand some aspects of his theory of war, and appreciate his influence.
Clausewitz was one of a rare breed of soldiers. Not only was he a synthesizer and innovator in matters relating to warfare and its conduct but also he was a practitioner. His career was remarkable both for its longevity (almost 43 years) and for the breadth of its experience. More important, it spanned two remarkably different eras of warfare.
As a young ensign of 12 or 13, he was part of an army that had been brought to the pinnacle of perfection under the tutelage of Frederick the Great for use in what has been termed the age of limited warfare. Armies of this period represented an investment of capital and manpower that monarchs could ill afford to squander in large, set-piece battles. Maneuver in lieu of battle and the use of the military for limited gains had, therefore, come be the overriding characteristics of warfare during this era. Fourteen years later, in 1806, he was an adjutant of all infantry battalion. In this position, he fought in his "first great Napoleonic battle . . . an experience so shatteringly different from the tedious marches of his boyhood that it was hard for him to comprehend them both belonging to the single activity, war."7 During the battles of Jena and Auerstedt (in Prussia) and the subsequent pursuit, the Prussian army was virtually destroyed, and Clausewitz was captured. After several months as a prisoner of the French, Clausewitz returned to Prussia and became the personal assistant to Gerhard von Scharnhorst, a senior officer who was deeply involved in the attempt to reform and reconstruct Prussia's army.8
This part of his life contained a number of unexpected benefits. His early campaigning in the 1790s included experience in linear warfare and operations against French partisans in the Vosges mountains, giving him knowledge of the "small wars" or "wars of detachments" that most Prussian officers never acquired. Along with this practical education, Clausewitz was exposed to a broad-ranging education in history, literature, and professional subjects due to intensive schooling within his regiment and subsequent time as a student at the War College in Berlin from 1801 to 1803. He also began to write and published his first piece, a scathing review of a work on military theory, in 1805. Paret claims that "it would not be inappropriate to regard his writings before a 1806 as essentially isolated insights--building blocks for a structure that had not yet been designed."9
Clausewitz remained involved in the struggle against Napoléon as a reformer in Prussia but most actively as a staff officer in the Russian army. After the Prussian monarch sided with Napoléon 1812, many of the reformers--including Clausewitz--sought commissions from the czar. Due apparently to his inability to speak Russian, Clausewitz was relegated to the role of a staff officer. In this position, he was present at the battle of Borodino and the crossing of the Berezina River (both in Russia) in 1812, two scenes of violence and tragedy that were to affect him greatly. He continued to fight with the Russians until 1814 when he was finally readmitted to the Prussian army.10 During the Waterloo campaign of 1815, Clausewitz once again served as a staff officer. This time he was chief of staff in the Prussian III Corps, the unit that held the attention of Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy long enough for Napoléon to be defeated at Waterloo by Marshal Gabbard von BIücher and the Duke of Wellington.
Subsequently, Clausewitz was appointed to the largely administrative post of the director of the War College in Berlin. It was here, with time on his hands, that he "returned seriously to theoretical work."11 During the past decade, "he had been very close to important and varied actions and yet always somewhat detached from them. . . When eventually peace was restored, his role became more and more that of a critical and synthesizing observer."12 It was at this point in his life (at approximately 36 years of age) that he began to consolidate from the thousands of his handwritten manuscript pages "a collection of essays . . . which gradually coalesced into a comprehensive theory that sought to define universal, permanent elements in war."13 This material was later to become his most influential work, On War.
Perhaps the most important factor affecting On War, however, was Clausewitz's personality. Michael Howard claims that Clausewitz "was always something of an introvert; solitary, bookish, shy, intellectually arrogant."14 Yet, based on letters written to his wife, we also know that he was a passionate man--one who was sensitive to the sufferings inherent in war. Thus, he paid far more attention to the human side of warfare than did many of his contemporaries (such as Jomini and Bulow, whose writings about war gloss over this important consideration). But the effect of his personality on his work was possibly even more acute than this example suggests.
Bernard Brodie felt that Clausewitz "seems to have had something more than the usual psychological need for recognition, which for him could come [only] through some mode of excellence in the profession in which he found himself."15 Marie von Clausewitz hinted at the source of his motivation when she wrote of her husband that although he was free "of any petty vanity, of restless egotism and ambition, he nevertheless felt the need to be truly useful, and not let his God-given abilities go to waste."16 Throughout his career, however, Clausewitz served as a staff officer and never as a commander. This man, appointed to the rank of major general at the age of 38, "still felt not sufficiently noticed."17 Bernard Brodie goes so far as to suggest that "the intriguing question is how much this man's neurosis affected his final work."18 Lack of recognition may, therefore, have spurred Clausewitz's intellectual efforts. Although the effects of his personality on his work are debated, one thing is certain: Clausewitz maintained an interest in a variety of intellectual disciplines throughout his mature years--in particular, philosophy.
There has been a great deal of discussion concerning which philosophers affected Clausewitz. The three that are normally bandied about are Montesquieu, Hegel, and Kant. The contribution of Montesquieu is not normally challenged. From him, Clausewitz developed a desire to write in an uncluttered, direct fashion as free from ambiguity as possible. His success is evident, yet perhaps underrated, in that short sections of On War can be quoted to explain entire chapters.19
The influence of Hegel and Kant is more open to question. Brodie states that Clausewitz, "in his desperate hunger for knowledge read Kant . . . [but] the one he obviously followed with the most respect and whose dialectical method he unfortunately adopted . . . was clearly Hegel."20 On the other hand, Roger Parkinson, an English biographer of Clausewitz, does not even mention Hegel, crediting Kant as the philosopher who influenced him the most.21 To a large extent, the argument is immaterial because "Clausewitz' lifetime coincided with the golden age of modern German scholarship, science, letters, and music."22 Michael Howard points out that "Clausewitz did not need to read the works of his contemporary Kant . . . to become familiar with the ideas that formed the basis of Kant's philosophy. He had also reabsorbed those ideas that had re-entered philosophical thought with the revival of Hellenism . . . the Socratic distinctions between the ideal and its manifestations, between the absolute, unattainable concept and the imperfect approaches to it in the real word.23 Clausewitz's methods, therefore, came "second and third hand from his cultural environment."24
His intent with On War was "to write a book that would not be forgotten after two or three years, and that might possibly be picked up more than once by those who are interested in the subject."25 According to Paret, Clausewitz planned to accomplish this purpose by penetrating "by means of logical analysis to the essence of absolute [or 'ideal'] war . . . [in order] to understand war in the various forms it actually takes, as a social and political phenomenon, and in its strategic, operational, and tactical aspects."26 Unlike many of his contemporaries, Clausewitz felt that war was inevitable and an "integral part of the world order" and so was something that was to be analyzed and understood, not shunned.27
During Clausewitz's lifetime, the conduct of war had been transformed. In order to come successfully to grips with this change, he needed to reexamine the subject thoroughly. We can see the direction of Clausewitz's analysis in On War as it was organized for final publication. The first book, "On the Nature of War," defines war and its place in the world order. It also identifies those elements that are always present in war. The next book, "On the Theory of War," discusses the possibilities and shortcomings of theory. Books three through seven discuss aspects of war at what today would be termed the operational and tactical levels. It is here that he goes into a detailed discussion of the themes developed in the first two books. The final book, "War Plans," once again takes up the themes of the dual nature of war and in "a sweep of theoretical and historical essays of great originality" looks at "the political character of war and the interaction of politics and strategy." This organization "does not, however, constitute a sure guide for the reader" because the "distinctions between the parts are less important than is the network of themes and arguments that links them."28
The first, and most important, problem was to define war and its nature. Clausewitz attempted to develop a concept of war as a Socratic ideal, stripped of all its outside influences.29 From this standpoint, war became a duel on a large scale, "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will."30 War, then, tended to become a series of "reciprocal actions" as each contestant attempted to overwhelm the other by the use of force. Once begun, this contest led to extremes (in theory) in that there was no "logical limit" to the application of force.31 The aim of this violence, at least from a theoretical standpoint, was to bring about the complete overthrow of the enemy.32
Clausewitz felt that the role of theory was to assist in the comprehension of reality and, more specifically, history. However, his historical studies convinced him that this view of war as always moving to an absolute form was incorrect,33 because war was "often far removed from the pure concept postulated by theory."34 In an attempt to come to grips with this problem, Clausewitz used a modified form of Hegel's dialectic.
R.N. Carew Hunt defines the dialectic as "the theory of the union of opposites." Essentially, this definition means that a certain idea, proposition, or condition (thesis) contains in it certain weaknesses or flaws (contradictions). As these faults are exposed over time, there develops a counter or opposite (antithesis). The antithesis itself contains certain contradictions as well, and slowly a synthesis arises that embraces the truths involved in both.35 Clausewitz did not use this method exactly, however, because this "formal, highly structured" approach "would have seemed inappropriate."36 Clausewitz viewed the dialectic as "a continuous interaction between opposite poles, each fully comprehensive only in terms of the other."37 One, of the benefits of this approach was that "it defines each element as sharply as possible while insisting on the absence of discrete limits." Moreover, the poles "are never absolute opposites; rather one flows into the other."38
The opposite of the "pure" form of war and the other part of its "dual" nature was war constrained by limits. The primary factor that limited conflict was its subordination to politics, for the "political object . . . will . . . determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires."39 War was not a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence (as the pure concept would require),[for otherwise] war would of its own independent will usurp the place of policy the moment policy had brought it into being."40 Another factor that acted to force war further from its ideal form was the play of chance and probability.41 "No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance. And through the element of chance, guesswork and luck come to play a great part in war."42
Thus, Clausewitz identified the three dominant tendencies of war (or paradoxical trinity as he called them): war's "primordial violence," its subordination to policy, and chance. In order to be completely understood, wars must be fully analyzed using these elements, for this "trinitarian definition still contains a decisive innovation-it alone is valid for real wars and it is valid for all real wars."43
Yet, to take advantage of this framework and not overwhelm it with the mass of available data, Clausewitz realized that the "principal detail[s] must be grouped and abstracted." Accordingly, Clausewitz developed other concepts to help explain specific operational characteristics or general ideas.44 It is here that soldiers have tended to focus their reading because Clausewitz offers "certain ideas and convictions" that are presented "like small nuggets of pure metal."45 Two of the most intriguing and interesting are the concepts of friction and the culminating point.
To some extent, the concept of friction is merely an elegantly stated predecessor of Murphy's Law: "Countless minor incidents--the kind you can never really foresee--combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal."46 It is "the force that make the apparently easy so difficult."47 Anyone who has been on a military exercise can recount countless incidents of friction in action, but it is best illustrated by the parachute drops into Normandy prior to the D-day landings on 6 June 1944.
Planning for this operation had been under way for many months (some elements, for years) prior to the execution of the plan. The almost disastrous Allied parachute drop into Sicily had prompted a great deal of thought about how to make the D-day insertions error free. In order to reduce the dispersion of the jumpers, specially trained pathfinders were to land prior to the arrival of the main elements of the airborne forces. They were to mark the drop zones with lights that, based on various patterns and colors, would indicate what units were to drop where. To avoid repeating the debacle at Sicily--where a nervous, trigger-happy invasion fleet fired at the airborne armada causing serious loss--planners routed air corridors away from friendly naval formations. Certain measures aided in the identification of friendly troops on the ground: American flags were sewn onto the upper arms of uniforms, and a special order was placed for thousands of children's noisemakers called "crickets" to enable friendly soldiers to identify on another in the dark. 48
Notwithstanding all this detailed preparation, a glance at the dispersal patterns of individual planeloads or "sticks" presented in The West Point Atlas of American Wars shows that jumpers were still widely scattered.49Some of the pathfinder equipment failed to work, and several of the pathfinder groups were improperly placed. These problems were compounded by heavy antiaircraft fire over the Cotentin Peninsula, patchy cloud cover, and recently arrived and inexperienced transport pilots. As a result, many of the paratroopers were dropped miles away from their drop zones, some even fit the English Channel. Gen Maxwell Taylor, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, found himself alone for several minutes after he hit the ground. Several hours later, he had gathered together only 90 soldiers. Their skills ranged from those of military policemen to clerks to infantrymen. Moreover, the contingent was heavy on officers, causing Taylor to remark that "never were so few led by so many."50 In this case, a combination of planned-for and unforeseen incidents caused operations to go awry and almost doom several thousand highly trained Allied soldiers.
Somewhat related to the concept of friction is that of the culminating point. Just as friction detracts from the efficiency and combat power of the force so does the concept of the culminating point deal with the gradual decrease in a unit's available combat power. Losses, extension of all area of operations, and the requirement for garrisons all cause an attacking force to get to the "point where their remaining strength is just not enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace. Beyond that point the scale turns and the reaction [counterattack] follows with a force that is usually much stronger than that of the original attack."51
In 1942, the forces of Gen Erwin Rommel had defeated the British in the North African battles around El Gazala and Bir Hacheim. The German pursuit tested until the British reached the strong natural defensive position at El Alamein. The Qattara Depression to the south and the Mediterranean to the north effectively restricted Rommel's room to maneuver and channeled him into a narrow corridor, depriving him of the advantages he had enjoyed in the more open arenas to the west. Here the pursuit stalled, and the race began to see which side could first reconstitute and replenish its forces. Rommel's supply lines were stretched along the coast of North Africa and from there back across the Mediterranean. The British were able to draw upon their system of bases in Egypt, and their possession of Malta enabled them to interdict Rommel's supply lines, thus giving them a marked advantage. By October, when the British had achieved clear superiority in all classes of weaponry, supply, and manpower, they attacked--driving the Germans back to Tunisia far to the west."52 The Germans had reached beyond their culminating point and paid the price. Rommel gambled at El Alamein and lost. Clearly, Clausewitz has lessons to offer the practicing professional, but how did he influence those who followed him?
Bernard Brodie once wrote that, in his view, Clausewitz's influence "was rather low, perhaps very low."53 The 1,500 copies of the first edition of On War were not sold until 20 years following its publication in 1832.54The European discovery of Clausewitz was slow and closely related to the emergence of Helmuth von Moltke as chief of the General Staff of the Prussian army and Prussia's successes in the wars of 1866 and 1870. Moltke claimed that Clausewitz, the Bible, and Homer had influenced him tremendously. The result was that "Clausewitz instantly, became fashionable."55 Moltke looked primarily at the operational aspects of Clausewitz's writing and insisted that the concept of military subordination to political control should be reversed. Unfortunately. "it was Moltke's view of the matter, not that of Clausewitz, which became dominant in Imperial Germany . . . even though it was during these years that Clausewitz was being most widely acclaimed."56 Colmar von der Goltz, in The Nation inArms (1883), pushed for the adoption of the idea (in theory adopted from Clausewitz) that wars should be pushed to their utmost limits.57 Although a direct contradiction of Clausewitz's idea that effort in wars should be proportional to political goals, von der Goltz's proposal was in accordance with the theoretical concept that wars will always seek the extremes in violence.58
Similar notions were developing in France. The popularity of Ardent du Picq's writings on the value of the moral force in war coincided with the introduction of a course of lectures on Clausewitz given at the École de Guerra in 1884, "which was to influence an entire generation of French officers; the generation which was to mold the thinking of the French army at the turn of the century and to lead it during the Great War,"59 These "wrong-headed" ideas of war pushed to the upper limits of violence and the superiority of moral forces were to bring about the blood baths on the Western Front in World War I. As Sir B. H. Liddell Hart wrote, generals became "intoxicated with the blood-red wine" that they thought they saw in On War."60
But World War I turned the attention of soldiers in the United States to Clausewitz, and by 1928 his "stature as an oracle" had "risen rapidly" even though the first American translation of Clausewitz was not published until 1943.61 However, Russell Weigley persuasively argues in The American Way of War that Clausewitz's teachings neither coincided with the American temperament nor were suitable to the next war (World War II) this country was called upon to fight because it was total in nature.62
Following World War II, the United States turned to its nuclear monopoly as a guarantor of peace and safety. The war in Korea, confrontations around the globe with communism in "nonshooting" wars, and dissatisfaction with the options offered by the policy of massive retaliation led to a surge of criticism during the late 1950s. When John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, he wholeheartedly adopted the strategy of flexible response. Although it appeared that the Clausewitzian concept of linking the use and amount of force to political goals was finally realized, there were problems in its application. Instead of weighing the imponderables of war as Clausewitz insisted, military thinkers in the 1960s emphasized "the rationalistic side of the equation. A concern with the quantifiable [that] may have led to an underestimation of the intangible."63 The result was a "routinization, the bureaucratization of the application of force."64
The trauma that the nation and the armed forces suffered in Vietnam has turned the attention of many people to a more detailed study of Clausewitz. It is interesting to note, however, that Clausewitz can be applied to the same situation but yield different results. In On Strategy, Col Harry G. Summers argued that we failed to view the war in Clausewitzian terms and thus were unable to determine its true nature. The United States, in this view, focused on the counterinsurgency effort in South Vietnam, dissipating effort that should have been directed against the actual source of the problem--North Vietnam.65 Lt Col William Staudenmaier, on the other hand, argued in Parameters that we performed poorly in the war by not recognizing that its true key was the support of the people in the south.66 The issue has yet to be resolved and will provide a fertile ground for generations of scholars.
In the last 150 years. Clausewitz has been condemned, maligned, misunderstood, praised, and hailed as a genius. It is too early to tell whether or not the current "Clausewitzian revival" is transient or permanent. Paret, however, claims that "European and American defense analysis no longer finds Clausewitz as an obstacle to be overcome or avoided. Often without realizing it, writers are pursuing the goals indicated by Clausewitz: the defining of means, ends, and implications, so that they can be used theoretically and applied in the formulation of policy."67 What is certain is that both "as theorist of war and as an interpreter of Europe entering the modern age, Clausewitz has come to mean more to this century than he did to his own."68 Today's officers should study Clausewitz and draw their own conclusions.
Maj Michael W. Cannon. USA (USMA: MA, University of Iowa) is a student at the
School for Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has served with the 11th
and 3d Armored Cavalry Regiments in West Germany and Texas, respectively, and most
recently was assistant professor of history at the United States Military Academy. Major
Cannon is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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