View Full Version : Clausewitz’s bad advice

William F. Owen
10-01-2008, 01:24 PM

This is an almost classic mis-reading of Clausewitz, and is best summed up when the author writes

A large part of this failure was that American leaders (and British as well) did not understand that the warriors of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban and other sects that fight us do not view war as an instrument of policy. Other cultural, biological and religious factors motivate them. They are not following the script of “On War.” They are not Clausewitzians. We need to understand what motivates them and not rely upon an outdated dictum for policymaking that belongs to another place and another time

al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, Taliban and other sects DO VIEW WAR as a "setting forth of Policy with the Admixutre of other means."

Every single one of those organisations has a position it seeks to achieve via violence and other means. Their motivation is not the issue.

The ape stuff is opaque to me. So what? Apes don't have economies, states or other instruments of power.

And the “someday” occurred Sept. 11, 2001, when modern-day kamikazes flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon for reasons that we still do not fully comprehend. Americans, Europeans and Israelis continue to puzzle over the motivations that drive men — and, increasingly, women — to sacrifice their lives to become suicide bombers, doing so with shouts of encouragement from family and friends.

The author may not understand why, but I think the vast majority of SWC have a very clear idea what motivates such men and CvC explains it very clearly when he spoke of uncontrollable passion, of primordial violence, hatred and enmity.

10-01-2008, 01:38 PM
Agreed - those groups certainly do have political goals. It appears the author has confused goals, motivation and strategy in this piece.

10-01-2008, 02:35 PM
I've always thought that a reading of "On War" should be preceded by a reading of Machiavelli's "The Prince", only to understand that, ultimately, power is the only desired political object, even if expressed differently across peoples, cultures, and time (and apparently creatures).

It's ironic that the author injects many cultural judgments into his argument against Clausewitz.

Ron Humphrey
10-01-2008, 02:38 PM
There are other areas of the article which I have questions about.

National War College professor Christopher Bassford has defined the Clausewitzian meaning of policy as “rational action undertaken by an individual or group which already has power in order to use, maintain and extend that power.”

How about Clausewitz maybe simply trying to portray that in "any" conflict between two actors one must remember that there will be agendas which provide the overarching forces behind what happens?

This broad definition means that virtually any motive could be forced inside it: greed, economics, religion, irredentism, revenge, honor, fear, domestic politics or resource deprivation to name but some. Is Clausewitz saying merely that one should have a reason for going to war? If so, that is hardly a useful insight. Rather, most would argue that the dictum has a few sub-correlates that give it greater depth:

Sounds good, lets see what they are

War should be an act of state policy devised by recognized leaders and not be left to individuals or groups interested in personal gain. The good of the state should be at issue.

Would this not in and of itself mean that

virtually any motive could be forced inside it: greed, economics, religion, irredentism, revenge, honor, fear, domestic politics or resource deprivation to name but some.
are for the most part those things which make up the lens through which the determination of "what" is for the good of the state?

The decision-making procedure should be rational and part of an established process. Leaders should perform a rigorous net assessment and not act on trivialities or whims.

Wouldn't this be somewhat questionable considering how often at least one of the parties to the conflict really wasn't given much choice in the matter. Once you've been attacked there's only so much one can do to avoid hitting back. Especially if the aggressor is determined to continue the fight.

As to the net assessment, OK
Best laid plans, of mice and men
And lets not forget murphy:wry:

This decision-making process should include a calculus of expected results, and a country shouldn’t go to war unless it intends to achieve its goals.

Makes sense but honestly how often has anyone taken on something without actually expecting to achieve it's goals:confused:

Motives for war ought to be grounded in a sense of legitimacy. Broadly speaking, the war should be just, legal or righteous — not simply “an act of naked aggression.”

How does that take into account anything outside of fencing, it would seem likely that no matter what at least one side would not be fulfilling one or more of the above requirements yet , the fight still happens:confused:

Decision-makers should have prepared the people mentally and physically for war and its sacrifices. The war should enjoy a large measure of popular support.


These five caveats make the dictum more actionable and practicable — to serve as guidelines for those contemplating war. In actuality, even these caveats and guidelines soon devolve into nonsense.

Agreed there too

William F. Owen
10-01-2008, 02:40 PM
I am kind of surprised that the editorial board at AFJI didn't pick up on the fundamental error or the failure to understand the source material.

It may be that I/we are judging the Colonel harshly and he is making a point that is simply poorly explained, but as of now, I can't see it.

Ken White
10-01-2008, 03:43 PM
I'm surprised the AFJI picked it up.

10-01-2008, 03:53 PM
Here is what I posted on the AFJI in repsonse to Dr. Meilinger's article on Clausewtiz.

Clausewitz is still good!!!


I must respectfully disagree with Dr. (COL) Meilinger’s article.

Again, It is with all due respect that I believe the argument above suffers from the classic mistake people make when discussing Clausewitz and he even alludes to when he says that soldiers, etc quote him glibly and supposed that his ideas on war as practiced during the Napoleonic era are still relevant today. I think he would agree that part of the problem with Clausewitz is that people “cherry pick” his ideas (or famous quotes, e.g., “war is a duel”, “the fog and friction of war”, “the center of gravity”, “coup d’oeil” “war is a continuation of policy” and the most incorrectly used phrase the trinity of the people, the government, and the military) and use certain of those quotes to justify their position or strengthen their argument (or as rationale to go to war). I think that is what he did here by only looking at war is an instrument of policy.

But now I will make the same mistake as Dr Meilinger and try to counter his argument with a single idea from Clausewitz and argue that this idea is still relevant today and it counters in my mind what he says in his article. I think the most important and enduring part of On War is found on page 89 of the Howard and Paret translation in which he says that “war is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case.” To me that single sentence counters every example of war given above in the article. Every example of war is different and is based on the (complex) conditions that exist at the time. No two wars are the same.

But the most important idea on that page is about what the real “trinity” is: “As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability with which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.” (and of course he goes on to say that these are generally represented by the people, the military, and the government).

I would say that the trinity certainly explains the “ape analogies” that Dr Meilinger uses above as they represent the blind natural force that Clausewitz recognized if unchecked by rational control would lead to total war. I think that what we see today in regards to Al Qaeda is the dominance of primordial violence, hatred, enmity that is unchecked by the rationale control of a government and its “military” operations (e.g., terrorist acts) have certainly had success because of their creative spirit but there has also been a certain element of chance that have made some of them successful(e.g., we know they never foresaw the collapse of the WTC from their attack by aircraft) while others have failed.

I think you can also argue that many of the above examples of war are the result of miscalculation by policy makers/national leaders who did not exercise rational control and in fact allowed the trait of primordial violence (testosterone??) to dominate their supposed rational decision-making. The bottom line is that when the paradoxical trinity is out of balance we have war and the more out of balance that trinity is the more brutal (or total) that war can and most likely will be and I think that applies to state on state conflict and state and non-state actor conflict and all forms of insurgencies or revolutionary or asymmetric or 4th generation war.

But I think the real bottom line is that Clausewitz is not prescriptive. The more we try to read Clausewitz for literal methods for going to war and for conducting operations in war, the more we will misunderstand Clausewitz and discount his importance. I think that the criteria that Dr Meilinger lays out above for conducting the “policy analysis” for going to war is a result of studying and interpreting Clausewitz and like the Powell/Weinberger “doctrine” he deduces a (Jominian-like?) checklist to follow to decide on going to war. Of course if all nation states used the same criteria we might be better off and perhaps many do, but of course the paradoxical trinity comes into play and that damned true chameleon is always lurking around changing colors based on the complex environment in which it finds itself. And of course we also deal with non-state actors who are so full of hatred and enmity and practice primordial violence. Clausewitz does not give us the answers on war. His work is the simply the springboard for us to begin the study and analysis of war (and it is hard to use the word “simply” in a sentence describing Clausewitz!!).

Now that I have made the same mistake as Dr Meilinger and used only one idea from Clausewitz to make my argument I will close with saying that there are probably enough conflicting thoughts, ideas, and theories in On War to rationalize any argument. That is why I believe that the answers to any complex political-military problem can be found by reading Clausewitz (and Sun-Tzu, and Thucydides as well) – the answers are not found IN their works, but through studying them we can discern solutions to complex problems and understand the nature of the conflicts and wars in which we find ourselves.

10-01-2008, 05:19 PM
I've always thought that a reading of "On War" should be preceded by a reading of Machiavelli's "The Prince", only to understand that, ultimately, power is the only desired political object, even if expressed differently across peoples, cultures, and time (and apparently creatures).

It's ironic that the author injects many cultural judgments into his argument against Clausewitz.

If you prescribe The Prince as a precursor, I'd also suggest reading his Art of War before you dig into CvC's version.