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Clausewitz and the nature of w

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Clausewitz and the nature of w

Clausewitz and the Nature of War

In seeking out the fundamental nature of Clausewitz's own mature theories, perhaps the best place to start is with some of the most common misconceptions of his argument. Such misconceptions are almost always the product of writers who either never read On War (or read only the opening paragraphs or perhaps a condensation) or who sought intentionally (for propaganda purposes) to distort its content. The book's specific arguments are very clearly stated and rarely difficult to comprehend. The first of these misconceptions is the notion that Clausewitz considered war to be a "science."*1 Another (and related) misconception is that he considered war to be entirely a rational tool of state policy. The first idea is drastically wrong, the second only one side of a very important coin.

To Clausewitz, war (as opposed to strategy or tactics) was neither an "art" nor a "science." Those two terms often mark the parameters of theoretical debate on the subject, however, and Clausewitz's most ardent critics (Jomini, Liddell Hart, the early J.F.C. Fuller) tended to be those who treated war as a science. As Clausewitz argued, the object of science is knowledge and certainty, while the object of art is creative ability. Of course, all art involves some science (the mathematical sources of harmony, for example) and good science always involves creativity. Clausewitz saw tactics as more scientific in character and strategy as something of an art, but the conscious, rational exercise of "military strategy," a term much beloved of theorists and military historians, is a relatively rare occurrence in the real world. "It has become our general conviction," he said, "that ideas in war are generally so simple, and lie so near the surface, that the merit of their invention can seldom substantiate the talent of the commander who adopts them."*2 Most real events are driven by incomprehensible forces like chance, emotion, bureaucratic irrationalities, and intra'organizational politics, and a great many "strategic" decisions are made unconsciously, often long before the outbreak of hostilities. If pressed, Clausewitz would have placed

war-making closer to the domain of the arts, but neither definition was really satisfactory.

Instead, war is a form of social intercourse. The Prussian writer occasionally likened it to commerce or litigation, but more usually to politics.*3 The distinction is crucial: in both art and science, the actor is working on inanimate matter (or, in art, the passive and yielding emotions of the audience), whereas in business, politics, and war the actor's will is directed at an animate object that not only reacts but takes independent actions of its own. War is thus permeated by "intelligent forces." War is also "an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will," but it is never unilateral. It is a wrestling match--a contest between independent wills, in which skill and creativity are no more important than personality, chance, emotion, and the various dynamics that characterize any human interaction. When Clausewitz wrote that war may have a grammar of its own, but not its own logic, he meant that the logic of war, like politics, is the logic of social intercourse, not that of art or science.

This approach may seem to violate our usual concept of war, with its focus on clearly defined forms of "victory" and "defeat," but it corresponds well to our actual experience. For example, which of the following provides a better metaphor for the outcome of the war with Iraq?

1. Finishing a long, grueling, dangerous engineering project.

2. Completing a great painting or symphony.

3. "Winning" an argument with one's spouse.

Writing in German, Clausewitz used the word Politik, and his most famous phrase has been variously translated as "War is a continuation of `policy'--or of `politics'--by other means." For the purpose of argument, he assumed that state policy would be rational, that is, aimed at improving the situation of the society it represented. He also believed along with most Westerners of his era that war was a legitimate means for a state's advancement of its interests. This is often taken to mean that war is somehow a "rational" phenomenon, and Clausewitz is convicted of advocating the resort to war as a routine extension of unilateral state policy.

In fact, the choice of translation for Politik--"policy" or "politics"--indicates differing emphases on the part of the translator, for the two concepts are quite different."Policy" may be defined as rational action, undertaken by a group which already has power, in order to maintain and extend that power. Politics, in contrast, is simply the process (comprising an inchoate mix of rational, irrational, and non-rational elements) by which power is distributed within a given society.*4 And war is an expression

of--not a substitute for--politics. Thus, in calling war a "continuation" of politics, Clausewitz was advocating nothing. In accordance with his belief that theory must be descriptive rather than prescriptive, he was merely recognizing an existing reality. War is an expression of both policy and politics (see relevant cartoon), but "politics" is the interplay of conflicting forces, not the execution of one-sided policy initiatives.*5

The actual word Clausewitz used in his famous formulation is Fortsetzung--literally a "setting forth." Translating this word as "continuation," while technically correct, evidently implies to many that politics changes its essential nature when it metamorphoses into war.*6 This impression is contrary to Clausewitz's argument. War remains politics in all its complexity, with the added element of violence. The irrational and non-rational forces that affect and often drive politics have the same impact on war.

On the side of rationality, it is true that Clausewitz argued that a party resorting to war should do so with a clear idea as to what it means to accomplish and how it intends to proceed toward that goal. The connection of war to rational political goals meant that wars could not be made to follow some fixed pattern; the conduct of wars would have to vary in accordance with their political purposes. His definition of "strategy"--that it was "the use of combats for the purpose of the war"--has been criticized for overemphasizing the need for bloody battle, but its key point is "the [political] purpose of the war."

If war was to be an extension of policy, that is, a tool of policy, then military leaders must be subordinate to political leaders and strategy must be subordinate to policy. As the Moltke-Bismarck clash demonstrated, this poses practical organizational problems. Like many of Clausewitz's teachings, his solution was not a simple prescription but a dualism: The military instrument must be subordinated to the political leadership, but political leaders must understand its nature and limitations. Politicians must not attempt to use the instrument of war to achieve purposes for which it is unsuited.

There is thus a gray area between soldiers' subordination to political leaders and their professional responsibility to educate those leaders in military realities. Exactly whose responsibility it is to sort out that ambiguity is a constitutional matter of some importance. Clausewitz did little to clarify it. In his original manuscript, Clausewitz said "If war is to be fully consonant with political objectives, and policy suited to the means available for war,... the only sound expedient is to make the commander-in-chief a member of the cabinet, so that the cabinet can share in the major aspects of his activities." This was altered in the second German edition (1853) to say "so that he may take part in its councils and decisions on important occasions."*7 Whether the change resulted from well intentioned editorial intervention (for the original edition is full of inconsistencies, obscurities, and obvious editorial errors) or more sinister motivations is unclear. This minor editorial subversion certainly was not the cause of later German strategic errors, as some have implied.*8 This constitutional question aside, it is clear that Clausewitz demanded the subordination of military to political

considerations throughout a conflict. As he said in 1831, "He who maintains, as is so often the case, that politics should not interfere with the conduct of a war has not grasped the ABCs of grand strategy."*9

Policy considerations also can demand actions that may seem irrational, depending on one's values. Clausewitz's desire that Prussia turn on Napoleon before the 1812 campaign would have demanded virtual state suicide in the short run, but he felt that the state's honor--and thus any hope for its future resurgence--required it.

Clausewitz saw both history and policy in the long run, and he pointed out that no strategic decision is ever final; it can always be reversed in another round of struggle. This side of Clausewitz is uncomfortable for modern Anglo-American readers because it reflects a romantic view of the state as something that transcends the collective

interest of its citizens. It provides a philosophical basis for apocalyptic policies like Hitler's and Japan's in World War Two. Most modern readings of Clausewitz, including my own, tend to skate over such aspects of On War. They are simply too alien to the spirit of our age to have much meaning.

So much for the rational control of war. On the other hand, Clausewitz lived during the transition from the 18th-century intellectual period called the Enlightenment (which stressed a rational approach to human problems) to the age of Romanticism (which was ushered in by the disasters of the French Revolution and stressed the irrational,

emotional aspects of man's make-up--including nationalism). His world view reflected elements of each. His vision of war thus falls also very much into the domain of the non-rational and even the irrational, "in which strictly logical reasoning often plays no part at all and is always apt to be a most unsuitable and awkward intellectual tool."*10 Because the flow of military events is uniquely shaped by the specifics of every situation, from its politics and personalities to the terrain and even the weather, the course of war is never predictable.

One of the most important requirements of strategy in Clausewitz's view is that the leadership correctly "establish ... the kind of war on which they are embarking."*11 This is often understood to mean that leaders should rationally decide the kind of war that will be undertaken. In fact, the nature of any given war is beyond rational

control: It is inherent in the situation and in the "spirit of the age." Good leaders, avoiding error and self-deception, can at best merely comprehend the real implications of a resort to violence and act accordingly.

Further, a war often takes on a dynamic beyond the intentions of those who launched it. The conduct of war always rests--in unpredictable proportions--on the variable energies, interests, abilities, and character of the peoples, the armies, and the governments involved. Political leaders may easily misjudge or lose control of passions on

their own side. Further, their opponents have similar such uncertainties as well as wills and creativity of their own.

In 1976, Russell Weigley--one of the most creative, interesting, and influential of modern American military historians--attacked Clausewitz for missing this very point. Weigley had clearly developed his own recognition that war tends to escape rational control, but denied Clausewitz any understanding of that fact, so central to the

Prussian's argument. Quoting Gerhard Ritter, he wrote that "what Clausewitz failed to see or at least to acknowledge is that war, once set off, may very well develop a logic of its own because the war events themselves may react on and alter the guiding will [note the singular case]; that it may roll on like an avalanche, burying all the

initial aims, all the aspirations of statesmen." In fact, the Prussian writer had noted very clearly that "the original political objects can greatly alter during the course of the war and may finally change entirely since they are influenced by events and their probable consequences."*12 Like so many of Clausewitz's critics, Weigley--via

Ritter--was engaged in reinventing the wheel. It is clear that Clausewitz's war is, despite all that intellect and reason can do to modify it, a game of chance outside the bounds of rational control.

"Would Prussia in 1792 have dared to invade France with 70,000 men if she had had an inkling that the repercussions in case of failure would be strong enough to overthrow the old European balance of power? Would she, in 1806, have risked war with France with 100,000 men, if she had suspected that the first shot would set off a mine that was to blow her to the skies?"*13

Thus Clausewitz was hardly one to urge that the resort to war be taken lightly or routinely, nor to claim that its result would necessarily further the unilateral policy goals of the party who launched it.

Another source of unpredictability was what Clausewitz called "friction," stemming from war's uncertainty, chance, suffering, confusion, exhaustion, and fear. Friction stems from the effects of time, space, and human nature; it is the fundamental and unavoidable force that makes war in reality differ from the abstract model of "absolute war." Events take time to unfold, with all that that implies. Purely military or political courses of action are deflected by countless delays and distractions. Strategic intelligence and battlefield information are often misleading or flatly wrong, and even the wisest order is subject to loss, delay, misinterpretation, poor execution, or willful disobedience. Every individual human being is a friction-producing cog in the machine of war, producing a delicate machine of endless complexity and unreliability.

"Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.... Action in war is like movement in a resistant element. Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results."*14 It is perhaps no accident that slang terms like SNAFU and FUBAR originated in ...

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