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Do the Writings of Clausewitz have contemporary relevance? Essay

Carl Von Clausewitz has long been considered one of the most important writers in the field of military strategy and tactics. Born in 1780 he first saw action in 1793 when he was a Lance Corporal in the Prussian Army.1 He was to serve throughout the Napoleonic wars working for both the Prussians and the Russians. However:

“throughout his military career he never held a command and was probably unsuited for such. He was essentially a student of war…”2

However, despite this lack of command, Clausewitz had certainly gained enough experience during the Napoleonic wars to have a fairly comprehensive idea about what war was:

“Before he was forty, he had taken part in some of the greatest battles in the history of warfare and had seen the armies of Napoleon storm their way across Europe to Moscow… Alls this had been the result of military operations, but it was clear to Clausewitz as a young man that the explanation for the success or failure of these operations was not to be sought on the battlefield alone”.3

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As a result of this, during his career he came up with many ideas of views on the nature and conduct of war, writing literally thousands of pages of manuscripts on a wide range of areas ranging from politics to tactics.4 After the wars end, he set about trying to write a comprehensive eight part ‘guide’ on his ideas. This collection of essays and manuscripts became known as “Vom Kriege” (On War). Clausewitz died in 1831 having only completed six of the eight parts.5 Indeed it is important to realise that despite the importance of his work, it is still unfinished and does not cover a number of areas:

“On War contains a comprehensive analysis of the strategy operations and tactics of Napoleonic War, and of their 18th Century background. Left out of the account are most technological, administrative and organisational factors… On War deals almost entirely with the ultimate issues as Clausewitz saw them: Political and strategic planning and the conduct of hostilities”6

Since his death, Clausewitz’s work has come to be regarded as probably one of the most important works on military thinking ever written. Bernard Brodie once wrote that:

“His is not simply the greatest, but the only great book about war”7

Although Clausewitz is still seen as one of the greatest thinkers on war, the question remains – is he still relevant today? Given the immense changes in not only the way we conduct war, but also our attitudes towards war, does his thinking still have any relevance in an era of information warfare and peacekeeping missions? Also given the dramatic changes in the conduct of warfare are his works still important:

“As one US army general has (said) “the digitisation of the battlefield means the end of Clausewitz”8

Given the large size of Clausewitz’s work it is impossible look at the whole of On War for its continuing relevance. Instead for this essay I have chosen to examine a number of ideas in detail including the idea of war as part of policy, the notion of decisive battle and also his idea of a ‘centre of gravity’. Due to lack of space I have decided not focus on other areas such as the trinity between the politicians, the people and the armed forces, as well as looking at other areas.

At it’s simplest Clausewitz’s first book attempts to understand what war actually is and what it does. At it’s simplest he defined it as:

“War is an act of force to compel an enemy to do our will”9

This seems to be true, even today it is hard to imagine a nation state going to war without a rational reason to do so – be it to regain territory or to right a wrong. More recently the growth of Peace enforcement operations such as the war in Kosovo is a classic example of forcing a nation state to bow to the will of others. As such it seems that Clausewitz’s most simple definition still rings true today

Clausewitz’s next statement is far more controversial though:

“Kind hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: War is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst”10

The above paragraph seems to be aimed at those who have studied the writings of Sun Tzu – the Chinese strategist to which Clausewitz is frequently compared. Sun Tzu felt that war was not about bloodshed – instead he felt that:

“all warfare is based on deception…”11

Michael Handle wrote that

“Sun Tzu devotes considerable attention to the actions that precede war… for him diplomacy is the best means of achieving his ideal of victory without fighting or bloodshed”.12

It seems that Sun Tzu’s theory of warfare is based more on the notion of avoidance of war rather than the fighting of war itself, whereas Clausewitz feels that war occurs once all other policy choices have been exhausted:

“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”13

This seems to suggest that in Clausewitz’s mind, War should be seen as merely as a logical progression in policy once other policies such as diplomacy have failed – essentially war is pursued in order to further a States national interest. However some question whether this is still the case:

“Future war will be fought not to pursue national interests, but to kill enemy leaders, to convert opponents to one’s religion, to obtain booty, or sometimes for simple entertainment. Thus the core of Clausewitz’s .philosophy of war – that states wage war using armies in pursuit of political objectives will disappear. Others have maintained that nuclear weaponry, trans-national constabulary warfare, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotrafficking… have rendered obsolete Clausewitz’s definition of war as an act of policy”.14

I believe though that his views are still relevant, in that once a war has begun it should be fought aggressively until its logical conclusion, however unlike in Clausewitz’s time, today the conditions required for victory may be very different and as such it may be harder to achieve a logical conclusion.15

Clausewitz seems more focussed on the idea that the only means of resolving a war is bloodshed (the so called idea of decisive battle)

“The destruction of the enemies forces in war must always be the dominant consideration”16

While this may have been the ideal way of winning wars in the 19th Century it is arguable that in today’s world this view is obsolete for a variety of reasons. Firstly in the 19th Century the only real way of waging war was through lining up two opposing armies and fighting it out until one side one. This procedure was repeated until one country won the war. In today’s world the methods available to fight wars have changed – in place of armies, generals can use precision strikes with guided missiles fired from thousands of miles away to eliminate enemy units with minimal casualties.

Special forces units can be used to eliminate key figures and deprive armies of leadership at critical times17. However the main reason why Clausewitz’s views of the objectives in warfare could be seen as obsolete is due to the changing nature of warfare itself. When On War was written, war was a two dimensional affair – fought primarily on land and sea.18 In 2001 though war can be fought on land, sea, air, space and also in cyberspace. In addition there are a wide variety of unconventional types of wars to be fought. As James Adams notes:

“Today we are at war on several fronts. The fights against terrorism, organized crime, economic espionage and weapons proliferation are permanent conflicts that are likely to confront us through the next century… In this new world the soldier will be the young geek in uniform who can insert a virus into Tehran’s electricity supply to plunge the city into darkness”19

There have been suggestions that since 1990 the world (or at least the West) has undergone a so called Revolution in Military Affairs – i.e. a total change in the way that war is fought. Given this, is the idea of decisive battle still relevant? Some institutions clearly feel that it is not – especially as the types of wars that will be fought are so different:

“ironically the dominance that the US will gain from the RMA… will be such that the nature of future conflict will force competitors to deliver asymmetric strategies, including weapons of mass destruction, to counter the US superiority.20 In these new types of conflicts, the search for Clausewitzian decisive victory will be far more elusive and far less relevant than in conventional conflicts”.21

Despite the above quote, I believe that the idea is still relevant – but that the methods that can be used to bring about a decisive victory have changed. As has been seen an enemy can be defeated without using conventional ground troops at all – instead a wide range of different assets could be used. Indeed one view of future warfare suggests that victory (but not necessarily destruction) over an enemy force could be achieved without the use of weapons:

“First a computer virus is inserted into the aggressors telephone switching stations, bringing about a total failure of the phone system. Next computer logic bombs set to activate at certain times, destroy the electronic routers that control rail lines and military convoys… meanwhile enemy field officers obey the orders they receive over the radios unaware that the commands are phoney… US planes, specially outfitted for psychological operations, then jam the enemy’s TV broadcasts with propaganda messages that turn the populace against the ruler. When the despot boots up his PC, he finds that millions of dollars he has hoarded in his Swiss bank account have been zeroed out. Zapped. All without firing a shot”22

This example is quite interesting as it simultaneously supports the relevance of Clausewitz, while at the same time proving how his writings have become dated in places It supports the notion of decisive victory in that it shows how a country can conclusively defeat an enemy – thus supporting his idea of decisive victory. But at the same time it shows clearly that not all of Clausewitz is still relevant. For example Clausewitz seemed cynical about the idea of achieving victory without much (or any) violence:

“How are we to counter the highly sophisticated theory that supposes it is possible for a particularly ingenious method of inflicting minor direct damage on the enemy’s forces to lead to major indirect destruction; or that claims to produce by means of limited but skilfully applied blows, such paralysis of the enemy’s forces and control of his willpower as to constitute a significant shortcut to victory”23

This argument clearly shows that not all of Clausewitz has aged well – obviously during the Napoleonic era the idea of information warfare did not exist – so it would have been next to impossible to win a war using non violent means – however as has been shown in this age it is at least technically possible to achieve such a victory. It suggests that some parts of Clausewitz’s work should perhaps be seen as less relevant to certain situations than others.

One area which appears to still be relevant is Clausewitz’s comments on the application of force. In the West today public opinion seems to favour engagements with minimal casualties – the public seem to want intervention when scenes of suffering are on TV (the so called CNN effect), but at the same time seem unwilling to tolerate the idea of people dying to stop the suffering24. This is a situation where Clausewitz noted that:

“If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves while the other side refrain, the first will gain the upper hand”.25

This idea seems to have been taken onboard by a number of third world leaders who have engaged in some form of conflict with Western Countries (primarily the USA). A good example of this is the conflicts in Somalia – when the USA sent in troops to help restore order to the country they were hampered by restrictive rules of engagement and limited amounts of equipment – for example tanks as these were felt inappropriate.

26On the other hand, the opposition led by self styled Warlord General Aideed had no such restrictions – and it showed – he was repeatedly able to gain the upper hand and when US/UN troops attempted to capture him he was able to ambush and kill literally dozens of them.27 The images of American bodies being abused were enough to force an immediate and humiliating withdrawal from Somalia – a classic Clausewitzian example of one side using force when the other was unwilling and gaining the advantage – in this case over the strongest power in the world.

This lesson illustrates an area where Clausewitz’s views on war are still highly relevant – indeed it appears that other countries learnt from this experience – in Haiti for example when the US sent a landing ship into the country to enforce a UN brokered peace agreement in 1994 they were met by a bunch of thugs who:

“shook their fists, waved placards and shouted threats at the US ship. They were hooligans who would have dispersed at the first sign of well armed troops. But among their slogans was one in particular “we are going to turn this place into another Somalia”. News of the ‘Welcome Party’ and its curses were flashed to Washington where it provoked a panic…. The Clinton administration immediately ordered the (USS) Harlan County to withdraw from Haitian waters and to sail back to the USA”28

Again this is another good example of how even the threat to employ violence against a country which is not prepared to do so can have a major influence out of all proportion to the size of the protestors. It also demonstrates the continuing influence of Clausewitzian ideas.

The example used above of the American experience in Somalia and Haiti is also relevant to Clausewitz’s ideas on ‘The centre of gravity’ – an idea which Clausewitz defined as follows:

“What the theorist has to say here is this: one must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of those characteristics a certain centre of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement on which everything depends. That is the point at which all our energies should be directed”29

Furthermore Clausewitz identified three key components of this idea:

“The Opponents army, his capital and, if he had a stronger protector the army of his ally. Since all of these were vulnerable to attack, said Clausewitz, ‘the defeat and destruction of his fighting force remains the best way to begin, and will in any case be a very significant feature of the campaign'”30

A good example of this would be the case of the Royal Navy during the Falklands War – Argentina identified the carriers as the centre of gravity for the UK operation and spent a good deal of time trying to sink them. As the commander of the Task Force noted:

“If they hit Hermes or Invincible the Royal Navy will somehow be publicly disgraced…Worse yet, the British military will become the laughing stock of the world, limping home in defeat. John Bull humbled at last. At sea.”31

Although Clausewitz did not write on maritime warfare this is a clear example of how important the destruction of a naval fighting component can be to the success of a war.

Other good examples of a country identifying and targeting the centre of gravity include Iraq’s use of Scud missiles against Israel during the Gulf war – had Israel responded militarily then it is likely that the coalition against Iraq would have collapsed as it seems doubtful that Arab powers such as Egypt and Syria would willingly fight on the same side as Israel. This supports Clausewitz’s ideas of attacking the armies (or at least cities) of allies to win the war.

32 For the coalition however attacking and destroying the Iraqi army (primarily the Republican Guard) was of vital importance – not only as knocking it out would win the war – but also destroying the Republican Guard would remove Saddam Hussein’s power base and hopefully make it impossible for him to remain as leader of Iraq. The Gulf War is a good example then of Clausewitz’s ideas continuing to be highly relevant to the planning of a military campaign. However some commentators (QUOTE!!) feel that the Gulf War was probably the last large conventional war to be fought by the West and that the nature of war in the future has changed.

I believe then that the centre of gravity idea is still highly relevant – however I feel that it has become more refined since Clausewitz’s time. Although Clausewitz feels that there are only three key areas to which it applies, I feel that today the centre of gravity can be practically anything. For example in Somalia and Haiti – the use of force and the threat to use force proved the Americans centre – when faced with even the possibility of casualties, the Americans withdrew.

This suggests that today the centre of gravity can be anything from a capital city to a single infantryman – who if killed could cause a change in policy. Another change is that Clausewitz assumed that the centre of gravity would be identical for both sides – whereas today that is not the case – a good example is that of the asymmetric warfare that is being waged between the USA and the terrorist Osama Bin Laden – he recognised the Pentagon and World Trade Centre as key examples of American power and prestige and saw them as their centre of gravity in any terrorist action. The Americans on the other hand see Bin Laden as the key centre of gravity – The most powerful country on earth is fighting a war, with a single man as their key target.

This is a dramatic change from the days of mass warfare which Clausewitz was used to, and demonstrates not only the rapidly changing nature of warfare, but also illustrates the way that Clausewitz’s ideas can continue to be adapted to look at warfare in the present day.

During this essay I have looked at a number of Clausewitz’s ideas in an attempt to see whether they have continuing relevance in a world where warfare is very different from the time when On War was written. By and large I feel that Clausewitz’s ideas are still relevant – or at least able to be adapted into the present day. Where he is not so relevant is more due to the development of weapons and styles of warfare that he could not have possibly been aware of, rather than through any fault of his own. I feel that the following quote sums up nicely the relevance of Clausewitz to this day:

“Of course not all of Clausewitz’s military thought has remained relevant. His vision of war did not include its economic, air, sea and space dimensions for example. But his concept of war…will remain valid as long as states, drug lords, warrior clans and terrorist groups have mind to wage it”33

1 Information taken from On War, p5, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press.

2 The Conduct of War 1789-1961, Chapter 4, p59. Major General J.F.C.Fuller, 1972 Methuen

3 Clausewitz, Michael Howard, p11, 1983, Oxford University Press.

4 Information taken from On War, p5, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

5 Indeed there is evidence to suggest that by 1827 he considered only the first chapter of book one to be complete – the remainder needing revision. Source The Conduct of War 1789-1961, Chapter 4, p59. Major General J.F.C.Fuller, 1972 Methuen

6 Makers of Modern Strategy, p208, Oxford University Press, 2000 edition.

7 Clausewitz, Michael Howard, p01, 1983, Oxford University Press.

8 Quote taken from www.gov.au/lwsc/publications/CA%eEssays/RMA

9 On War, p75, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

10 On War, p75, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

11 Sun Tzu’s art of War, The modern Chinese interpretation, p95 General Tao Hanzhang, 1987, David and Charles

12 Masters of War, Sun Tzu, Clausewitz and Jomini, p32, Michael I.Handel 1992, Frank Cass

13 On War, p87, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

14 Quote taken from www.Clausewitz.com, however text is from an article originally published in Joint Forces Quarterly, Winter 1995-1996 which is reproduced on the website.

15 For example – what are the current victory objectives in the campaign in Afghanistan and how will we know when victory has been achieved?

16 On War, p230, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

17 For example the possible attempts at the time of writing by US/UK special forces to capture or eliminate Osama Bin Laden.

18 Even then Clausewitz did not attempt to write on maritime operations – concentrating solely on land warfare.

19 The Next World War,p14, James Adams, 1998 Hutchinson.

20 A good example of this prediction was seen with the terrorist attack on the 11th of September.

21 Quote taken from www.gov.au/lwsc/publications/CA%eEssays/RMA

22 Flashpoint World War Three, p153-154, Andrew Murray, 1997, Pluto Press

23 On War, p228, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

24 Given the current situation in the USA it will be interesting to see whether the so called ‘body bag’ syndrome has ended or whether once US troops are killed, public opinion will change to demand a more peaceful solution.

25 On War, p75-76, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

26 Information taken from Deliver us From Evil, (Chapter 4), William Shawcross,2000, Bloomsbury.

27 Total American losses in Somalia were 30 dead, 175 wounded, the UN lost 72 killed and 87 wounded (Source World Conflicts, Patrick Brogan, 1998, Bloomsbury)

28 Deliver us from evil, p103, William Shawcross, 2000 Bloomsbury.

29 On War, p596, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press

30 Clausewitz, Michael Howard, p39, 1983, Oxford University Press. (Professor Howard incorporates a quote from On War, p596, Carl Von Clausewitz, (edited by Michael Howard & Peter Paret), 1984, Princeton University Press)

31 One Hundred Days, p100, Admiral Sandy Woodward, 1992, Harper Collins

32 However – given the overwhelming amount of Western military power in the region and the political willpower to fight the war, it seems likely that Iraq would still have lost the war – whether Israel was a centre of gravity in the sense that it could remove the coalition from the war seems dubious.

33 Quote taken from www.Clausewitz.com, however text is from an article originally published in Joint Forces Quarterly, Winter 1995-1996 which is reproduced on the website.

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