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Topic: Clausewits 'On War'  (Read 3601 times)
To Understand Everything Means To Forgive Everyone.
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Facta Infecta Fieri Nequeunt!

« on: March 19, 2007, 02:55:20 PM »

The essential dialectic axis around which the entire work ‘On War’ revolves is the interplay between theoretical and actual (historic) war modulated by the three factors that together provide the means of war: passionate violence (assigned to people), chance occurrence (assigned to military leadership) and political reason (assigned to government/diplomacy). The framework within which these take place is invariably the European-style state composed of the axiomatic trinity of the public, the military and the government. These are entities united by a diplomatic purpose behind wars, a means of effecting them and a rational war-objective.

It is obvious that the role of religion as a (missing) war factor (either as a purpose or as means) is totally beyond the reach of Clausewitz’s analysis because of the nature of the areligious revolutionary times he was influenced by (and where secular ideologies replace religion). One could possibly relegate it to the unpredictable empirical category of Clausewitz (“friction”) but that would predicate the matter on the idea that it is a “wild card” (when in fact it is a factor quite fit for analysis). That it is not one of the three elements of state-as-war-foundation in Clausewitz theory of war is simply owed to the Western idea of separation of Church and State (which by itself does not eliminate religion from state government but simply recognizes religion as a separate government with its own field).

The first of eight books of 'On War' (titled “On the Nature of War”) defines the general characteristics of war in the world of European states," and identifies elements that are always present in the conduct of war: danger, physical and mental effort, psychological factors," 1 as well as empirical vicissitudes that Clausewitz lumped together under "friction." The only means of war recognized is COMBAT because of the purpose and objective of war (projecting one’s will upon the enemy).

It is to Clausewitz’s credit that he recognized the more destructive nature of nationalism-inspired wars than the dynastic wars of the preceding period.

“Combat is the only effective force in war; its aim is to destroy the enemy's forces as a means to a further end. That holds good even if no actual fighting occurs, because the outcome rests on the assumption that if it came to fighting, the enemy would be destroyed.” 1a

That is for example why the Moroccan crisis of 1908 ended (else it would have started WWI).

The beautiful clarity and the customary Germanic thoroughness with which Clausewitz approaches and then analyzes his subject-matter can find no better example than in the following definitions of TACTICS and STRATEGY:

"Tactics constitute the theory of the use of armed forces in battle; strategy forms the theory of using battle for the purposes of the war." 2

Clausewitz's intellectual opponent in the elite circles of the Prussian Military was the Baroque strategist von Bulow (a representative of a dying but tenacious breed whose ethics if not tactics would help preserve the European social order in the 19th century against the Liberal social virus) whose thought still operated in the environment of linear battle tactics, relational and positional warfare filled with genuine sportsmanship (the idea that one does not fight a war to the finish – which is perhaps why in 1792 at Valmy the Baroque powers withdrew before the West’s first nationalist state), and coordinated with diplomacy although not on the order of Spanish Escoriale, French Versailles and Austrian Schoenbrunn because Prussia was not a first-rate power.

Although Clausewitz himself has proven in the course of his career that the Liberal social virus of change that Napoleon carried over from the French Revolution (and ultimately set in motion against himself) could work its way even into the Conservative Prussian officers' corps (had Clausewitz's friend and leader Scharnhorst not been killed in battle - he could have become a George Washington or Napoleon of Germany) - Clausewitz, as a well bred man, yielded before the greatness of his sacred duty to the State and its King and devoted himself to apolitical military tasks and scientifically-prepared historical work instead – but not before the Prussian King made some crucial political concessions and Hardenberg’s military reform (that turned Prussian military into a version of the Napoleonic type). At the root of his decision not to politically pursue the ideas of the revolution whose military implications he promoted at every turn (such as when he made Napoleon’s reluctant commander of the Prussian auxiliaries, Yorck, switch sides in the midst of the Russian campaign and without approval from the Prussian king) had to have been his detestation of the social implications of the French Revolution (with which he became acquainted during his French captivity following the Jena-Auerstadt disaster) and perhaps, a concern for his career. Even if Prussia did not embrace every aspect of the French Revolution – the ‘Young Germany’ did – and it would soon cause disturbances (most notably in 1848).

The author of ‘On War’ claims that defense is the stronger mode of fighting than the attack because the former carries a negative purpose of denying the enemy its advantages, of balancing out the equation of power between the attacking and the defending side:

“..from the negative purpose derive all the advantages, all the more effective forms, of fighting, and that in it is expressed the dynamic relationship between the magnitude and the likelihood of success…” 3

The five modes of fighting wars are:

- destruction of military forces
- occupation of home territory
- reduction or sacking of provinces
- sanctions to exact suffering of enemy public
- attrition of the will to fight

Since resistance or defense serve to wear down the enemy morale for war even by merely winning time (if nothing else) – “Thus, the negative aim, which lies at the heart of pure resistance, is also the natural formula for outlasting the enemy, for wearing him down.” 4

The example of Prussian king Frederick holding out alone against a coalition of Baroque states of Europe, France, Austria and Russia in Seven Years’ War (even though England appeared to be an ally) is for Clausewitz the perfect example of the advantage or superiority inherent in the defensive form of fighting, although the coalition forces in that war were not attacking using Napoleonic methods. Had the aims of his opponents been anything like the motives of the revolutionary age – Frederick would not have stood a chance. But his opponents were at times merely wanting to teach him a lesson and curb his power rather than change the type of government or annihilate his state. Of course, the aristocratic generals had other ideas – but they were matched on the battlefield by Frederick’s cunning.

Clausewitz does not distinguish the ages of history for which his ideas are more relevant than not – and so his logical and timeless picture therefore picks and chooses examples to fit the theory – but leaves just enough room for the empirical unknown (“friction”) to make the work seem more ambitious than it perhaps was. Here is an example of the kind of provision for eventualities that makes his work powerful:

“The roads leading to success in war range from the destruction of the enemy's forces, the conquest of his territory, to a temporary occupation or invasion, to projects with an immediate political purpose, and finally to passively awaiting the enemy's attacks.” 5

Also, he recognizes the value of leadership in war, and the changing political background that determines the nature of the war to be fought and the degree of desperation on the part of the warring parties.

Certainly, Clausewitz thought that a strong government (undemocratic preferably) will prevent the passions of the people from running amock through a carefully crafted domestic policy that is geared for foreign purposes. One must understand that the purpose of State as a public Being in its proper condition (or even existing) is there so that it can be effective in war abroad. State without war is as impossible as thoughtless intellect. Effective war-making is in fact the proper purpose of any state. It is not there to be a nurse for the weak the way some misunderstand it to be. The better the internal shape of the State – the more effective its foreign policies and thus also, its war-waging record.

Thus, the failures and successes in war are a direct reflection of the domestic situation.

Ultimately, the battlefield success is the ‘holy grail’ of combat and the best news for the policy aims of any war – even the one whose outcome does not depend upon the destruction of enemy forces.

“That the method of destruction cannot fail to be expensive is understandable; other things being equal, the more intent we are on destroying the enemy's forces, the greater our own efforts must be. The danger of this method is that the greater the success we seek, the greater will be the damage if we fail.”

Certainly, the application of this wisdom is what allows us to label the German military actions in WWII as ‘reckless’ or the post-invasion initial American occupation of Iraq as ‘presumptuous.’ Oftentimes, modest aims are far more suitable – especially with weak governments. Czarist Russia fell on that account.

The nature of war is to support the state without which civilized life is unimaginable – but pious falsehoods that mask cowardice and seek refuge from stark reality in utopian ideals – they are the real reason that states go under in history (and not any wars). That is why the real (or the most dangerous) enemy of the American soldiers during the Vietnam War period was to be found back home.


1 Clausewitz, ‘On War’ chapter 2
1a ibid.
2 Peter Paret, “Makers of Modern Strategy” p.190 (a quote from Clausewitz’s early
polemic article that appeared in 1805)
3 Clausewitz, ‘On War’ chapter 2
4 ibid.
5 ibid.
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