Reflections on Clausewitz’s “On War”; Chapter 1

Foreword: I’ve recently decided to undertake an in-depth study of  Carl Von Clausewitz’s book On War; one of Western Civilization’s greatest works of strategy.  I find that the best way to aid my study has always been to write down notes as I read; those notes are what follows.  Hopefully you find them a useful summary; if you wish to read along with me, I’d appreciate hearing your own thoughts in the comments section.

Chapter 1: What is War?

Clausewitz begins his treatise by dispelling the foolish notions which many wish to bring to the matter of armed conflict.

First, the desire to minimize the destructive nature of conflict; to try and find some sort of clever path forward which disarms the enemy, without inflicting pain in the process.

“…for in such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.”

Often you’ll hear the police criticized by non-combatants, with pleas that they “Shoot him in the leg, shoot the gun out of his hand,” or other such nonsense.  This ignores the core premise of conflict – be it a duel between men, or a war between nations – War is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.  Stopping short of the full measure of necessary violence runs the risk of having your opponent emerge victorious.  Moral weakness allows the foreign regime to dominate and exterminate you, and grants the home invader license to do with your family as he sees fit.

Civilized acts of (apparent) mercy, such as the police officer who uses a tazer instead of a machine gun, or the professional army which refrains from looting and rape, are nothing of the sort.  The civilized state of affairs precludes certain actions by its very nature; it renders them ineffective, and so the civilized warrior eschews the unmitigated violence of the savage, but it is the same form of restraint in which one holds off from returning fire “…until you see the whites of their eyes!”  It is instrumental in its application, not the moral phantasm of an untampered mind.

“…disarming or overthrowing the enemy – whichever we call it – must always be the aim of Warfare.”

Aim center of mass, and keep putting rounds downrange until he’s no longer a threat.

Next he touches on the difference between the theoretical and the practical.  The enemies strength is a function of their sum of available means (strength of arms), and their strength of will.  The former can be measured; the latter can be guessed.

This leads to the situation where – if both players in the conflict are operating rationally – the result of the war could, hypothetically, be determined without having to engage in any sort of destructive conflict (the original Star Trek series had an episode where this was the entire premise; a computer-synthesized war, where citizens of both sides voluntarily submitted themselves to disintegration after a mock-battle, to preserve the infrastructure of their cities).

This ‘bloodless’ sort of conflict fails for two reasons.  The first is simply human nature.  “…the human mind would hardly submit itself to this kind of logical chimera… for the human will does not derive its impulse from logical subtleties.”

The second reason is theoretic.  For war to be resolved in a simulation would require three conditions:

  1. The war must be a completely isolated act, without history, ideology, or passions influencing it.
  2. It must be limited to a single goal or solution.
  3. It must contain within itself a perfect solution.

The conditions he describes here are extant in the real world: we call such competitions “Sporting events”.  They exist in isolation – the desired outcome is specific and pre-defined – and the game can be played ‘perfectly’ (taking into account the random elements, such as weather, crowd turnout, and player variability).

This is the situation described in the science fiction film “War Games”; where the military computer – which is on the verge of launching a global nuclear holocaust – studies Tic Tac Toe (one of the few games which can be played perfectly, to be pedantic) and realizes that “The only winning move is not to play.”

Once again – rank amateur idealism which ignores the unknown unknowns which reality so consistently throws at us.

In Part 8, War does not consist of a single instantaneous blow, he points out that war is not a single action, but a series of actions; that the entire weight of a country cannot be brought to bear in a single action; the mountains, rivers, industrial base, population, and alliances of a country are elements which will be brought into the fore as time demands and allows.  For me this brings to mind the ‘Action Hero’ fallacy of well-coreographed fight scenes – the ‘perfect’ fight.  Real-world fights (with rare exceptions) are not one-punch affairs, nor are either combatant in full control during the proceedings.  It is an ongoing investigation and application of force to exert will.

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A theme running throughout this chapter is something Clausewitz calls the “extreme”; I would use the term asymptote.  If war were ‘perfect’ – if reality were perfect – the asymptote of any curve could be readily defined and achieved, since it would be a foregone conclusion.  But reality is messy, with setbacks and reactions, rendering this Platonic ideal impossible.  The full force of a country is never brought to bear, 100%, on a specific time and place.  The momentum of the conflict never accelerates towards perfection.  The ideal state is inherently impossible; whenever we get close, reality pushes us back into the realm of the normal.  This goes for life in general, as well as warfare in the specific; “a material standard into the place of the hypotheses of an extreme.”

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Part 11, The political object now reappears.  Since war will not go to the extreme due to its innate nature, the political object comes back into the fore.  The less the enemy prepares, the less we will need to prepare; the less he values the sacrifice, the less he will resist; conversely, the less we value it, the less we will be inspired to fight.  All of this brings into question the events of the Great War which came decades later; why fight so hard and for so long over political objectives of such irrelevance… unless if the political objectives were something other than a small bit of territory in France?

He does note that if the populace is animated, even a trifling matter can result in great expenditures on both sides.  The more passionate the citizens, the less the political object matters; the more passive, the more that political objectives matter.

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In Part 16 he discusses how attack and defense are intrinsically different – thus explaining the long dull periods in war, which seem to be a contradiction.

Essentially: if it is in A’s interests to attack in four weeks, then it is in B’s interests to be attacked right now – however, from this does not follow the conclusion that it is in B’s interests to attack A at the present moment.  There is a polarity in desires, but not in decisions.  Note that this polarity explains the variance between attack and defense; defense, in and of itself, is superior to attack, but without the ability to compel action, the defender is left at the mercy of the attacker, who can choose to delay until circumstances better suit him.  This explains the conundrum which Quintus Curtius comments on in Sallust, his observation that well defended fortifications seem to fall more often than one might think.

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It is at this point that he begins to consider the moral (read: psychological) elements of warfare; particularly those of chance and courage.  Courage, he notes, does not contradict prudent calculation – it complements it – but it is a different quality of the mind which thrives on good fortune through boldness and daring (see the SAS motto: He who dares, wins).  It is interesting how our minds seek out clarity, but are attracted to uncertainty, with the goal of making it become clear.  Instead of subsisting in the theoretical realm of philosophical necessity, it seeks out the imaginative world of possibility.  Games, gambling, and war. “Courage and self reliance are, therefore, principles quite essential to War.”

It is at this point which he concludes his famous statement: “War is a continuance of policy by other means.” Since it isn’t a thing of the extreme – which he likens to an uncontrolled detonation in a mine – but an ongoing, pragmatic and courageous thing – the serious nature of the political objective will always be present.  War is but the means of achieving a political object.

Whenever the passions of the people and the political object are great, war will appear to be in its purest form – purely seeking out the defeat of the enemy.  When passions are weak and the object is trivial, where the political aims diverge from the means and nature of war, it is at these times when the war will appear to be most political (EG: Vietnam).  Both are equally political, however, despite appearances – and any view of history which attempts to extricate the means of war from the object of politics will fail to realize the significance of any actions.

His summary: war is a wonderful trinity of blind instinct and passion, the play of probabilities and chance which make it a free activity of the soul, subordinated to reason and the political will.  The first is embodied by the people; the second by the military; and the third by the government.

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Davis M.J. Aurini

Trained as a Historian at McMaster University, and as an Infantry soldier in the Canadian Forces, I'm a Scholar, Author, Film Maker, and a God fearing Catholic, who loves women for their illogical nature.

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1 Response

  1. Graham says:

    This is an excellent summary of the earlier chapters of Clausewitz. I believe you hit on both of Clausewitz’s most important points: 1. War is politics by other means. 2. Clausewitz’s triad (People/passion, Political Leadership/reason, and the military/violence).

    I think that, as you go down Clausewitz’s train of thought, you will make some of the same mistakes as some of our American and Italian predecessors (Billy Mitchell and Guilio Douhet) made between the first and second world wars. Most notably, the advocacy of the punishment strategy of bombing seen in both Japan and Germany (the worst being at Dresden and Tokyo). Punishment, a tactic that involves “punishing” the enemy population to force them to capitulate, actually raised the moral of the remaining citizenry, and cities that weren’t bombed actually had worse morale, and the entire effort was a waste of resources: https://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21586520-damning-verdict-bombing-campaign-europe-during-second-world-war-costly

    One of the key conclusions to the modern warrior and policy maker is that war, as the American conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. demonstrate, should be kept as distant as possible from the people if you want to lose. If war is cheap to start, it is cheaper to give up, and any country that fails to ignite the passion of its population is likely doomed to failure, even when it’s modern warrior class is possiblely the greatest generation of soldiers.

    This is also the reason why terrorism isn’t an effective means of assault. Attacking the people directly simply pisses them off. No amount of egalitarianism, humanitarianism, and other self-destructive ideologies can continue to propogate through and destroy a society if it is being actively assaulted from the outside. If the radical islamists we’re smart, they would wait for us to destroy ourselves, like some other patient powers in Eastern Europe and Asia.