Reflection on Clausewitz Chapter 2: Ends and Means in War

Read Part 1 here.

What is the specific object of war that will satisfy the political object?  It is a variable as the political object itself and the circumstances.

If we consider war in the abstract – excluding the political – it is once again about disarming the enemy (this often winds up being the goal in practical reality).  In considering this, let us divide the enemy as we divided ourselves: his military power, his country, and his fighting spirit – the will of the enemy.

The first must be destroyed – which is to say, rendered incapable of waging war.

The country must be conquered, else a new army can rise to replace the old.

But if this is all that is done – and how many recent wars have stopped short after conquering the country? – there will yet remain a fighting spirit in the populace.  This fighting spirit will manifest in the predictable ways.  To destroy the enemy’s will requires the resignation of the government and her allies.  How many of our present wars remain falsely-concluded because the conquered nation’s allies continue to send ‘freedom fighters’ into held territory?

Note: if the government is destroyed by the conflict, then the people must be put into submission – and the allies otherwise dealt with.  We fail to take this step in the present time.

Now step back from the abstract; while generally speaking, it makes sense to first subdue the enemy’s military, and then conquer its territory, this order is not written in stone.  If the enemy’s army withdraws, the territory can be conquered – and by conquering the territory the army is then weakened.  In many cases, peace can be settled before the enemy has been fully disarmed.  Often the dream of completely defeating the enemy is just that – a dream, particularly if the enemy is more formidable.  Peace can still be attained without total disarmament; by maneuvering in the field.

This explains why wars between unevenly matched opponents are not an absurdity; the weaker opponent can still ‘win’ the war by maneuvering and defensive use of terrain, as well as the threat of insurgency should the stronger opponent prove victorious.  By waging such a war, they can ensure that the stronger opponent’s will is not imposed upon them – and perhaps, even impose their will on the stronger one.

Two considerations: the improbability of, and the excessive price of success.

As mentioned in the last chapter, war must set itself free from the laws of logical necessity; at its core is the heroic gamble.

The weaker the passions and political object are, the more significance the aspect of probability; in other words, simply being a tough target will drive satiated predators on to an easier target.

Next, the excessive price – how much has been spent on victory thus far?  If the value of the object is less than the price of sustained military effort, it should be dropped, and peace made… though of course, this ignores the sunk cost/gambler’s fallacy – and the atrocity we’d see later during the Great War (ah, Democracy…).

Note that both of the above will shift the perspective of both warring parties, as probabilistic events become settled – become results – which influence the directions of the future probabilities.

So with this delineated, he turns to consider how we might affect these probabilities?  To maintain our own momentum, and to drain the enemy of the means and will to fight.

Militarily; do we attack the army?  Or seize the province?

Politically; how do we break up alliances?

How do we raise the cost of our enemy’s success?

  1. Invade the territory, not to occupy, but to unseat the enemy temporarily. To do him damage in a general way.
  2. Attack the points where we can do the most harm – not to defeat the military, but to cripple its infrastructure.
  3. Wear out the enemy; exhaust him.

To wear out the enemy, focus on small victories, not large; for large victories require great effort (wearing us out) while small victories come at a cheap price.  The smallest victory is simply passive resistance – though not too passive, since we must still exhaust him.  Defense is the ‘negative’ object; wearing him down is the ‘positive’ object.

Frederick the Great did this during the 7 Years War; exhausting his enemies by employing the defensive, until they sued for peace.

“We see then that there are many ways to one’s object in War; that the complete subjugation of the enemy is not essential in every case; that the destruction of the enemy’s military force, the conquest of the enemy’s provinces, the mere occupation of them, the mere invasion of them – enterprises which are aimed directly at political objects – lastly, a passive expectation of the enemy’s blow, are all means which, each in itself, may be used to force the enemy’s will according as the peculiar circumstances of the case lead us to expect more from the one or the other.”

Clausewitz notes that ad hominem attacks on the character of the opposing general are also possible – but so infinite in their possibility that it would be senseless to write out different scenarios.

At this point, he concludes his discussion of the circumstances – the differing politics which spans from life-and-death struggle, to necessary war due to an old and crumbling alliance – and turns his focus towards the means, the fight itself.  The fight – the soldier – the battle – this is the ultimate focus of all military activity, logistical or otherwise.

But war is not just individual heroics (somebody should have told the French this during the 100 years war…) but a contest of organized wholes.  He delves into what is – in my opinion – a repetition of what he’s already delineated.  While the means of war is destruction of the enemy’s ability to fight, it is not necessarily the direct object.  For instance – if a unit is ordered to take a hill, then the hill is the object (possibly a strategic emplacement for an artillery battery); if it can be taken without engaging in hostilities, all the better.  Thus the higher purpose is ultimately to destroy the enemy’s ability to fight (by controlling the high ground) but the immediate object is not destroying his ability to fight – the immediate object is capturing the hill by any means necessary.

Beautiful quote: “The decision by arms is, for all operations in War, great and small, what cash payment is in bill transactions.” His point here is that – even if a mere show of force manages to force the enemy off the hill, there is an implied combat.  Violence is the ultimate arbiter.

And yet, he speaks against rashness; mistaking the short-term for the long-term, the tactical for the strategic. “Win every battle but lose the war.” Seek the method which is least costly when it succeeds, and less dangerous when it fails.

But what of the defensive war?  There is no positive object here, merely the exhaustion of the enemy – instead of the destruction of the enemy, the preservation of our own forces.  This doesn’t mean that our object is bloodless.  The nature of defensiveness is the postponement of action in time and space (EG: retreat) but if the moment for action has arrived, and it cannot be avoided without out ruinous disadvantage, then you must fight!  Just ask TF2’s Soldier.

Over wars of a trifling nature, a general might twist and turn to avoid bloodshed – but he should always remember that contest of arms is the firstborn son of war.  Over petty matters it might be avoided… but never assume that it won’t spontaneously arise, for blood is the ultimate means of war.



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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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