Is Clausewitz Still Relevant Today?


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The nature of the war seen from his social and political implications was perhaps for the first time described by the general Carl von Clausewitz in the pages of “On War”. In terms of popularity, it seems undeniable that Clausewitz’s work has fueled hundreds of comments and criticisms that among all the XIX and XX century have shelled and analyzed his thought. “Not simply the greatest book On War but the one truly great book on that subject yet written” says Bernard Brody about “On War” (Brody: 1973, v.25:2).

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Is Clausewitz Still Relevant Today?

  1. 1. 1 Is Clausewitz still relevant today? Francisco Ruiz Sánchez Msc International Relations 2014 The University of Glasgow ___________________________________ Introduction Relevance: “The degree to which something is related or useful to what is happening or being talked about” [Cambridge’s British English Dictionary] A very useful way to measure the value of the obtained knowledge in the social sciences we could say that is the utility, or in my own words, the level of comprehension and understanding that this allows us to get from the real word. Does Clausewitz help us to understand the phenomenon of the war? It will be the purpose of this essay to convince the reader that his appreciations about war are still valid in the XXI century. The nature of the war seen from his social and political implications was perhaps for the first time described by the general Carl von Clausewitz in the pages of “On War”. In terms of popularity, it seems undeniable that Clausewitz’s work has fueled hundreds of comments and criticisms that among all the XIX and XX century have shelled and analyzed his thought. “Not simply the greatest book On War but the one truly great book on that subject yet written” says Bernard Brody about “On War” (Brody: 1973, v.25:2). To imagine Clausewitz as an inspiration for the Nazis or see him as a pacifist, is part of the unbelievable diverse interpretations that our author’s work has had throughout history (Kitchen: 1988, p.27). From a more objective military perspective,
  2. 2. 2 the ideas of “On War” can be taken indeed as a mere manual to prepare and wage war, a survival guide in armed conflict written by a general for other generals. Nevertheless, the most philosophical side of war that Clausewitz describes with the well-known trinity of its components (rational, emotional and military), the concept of friction within it or the absolute war, gives us the possibility to arrive at a deep and enriching analysis, comparing the background and essence of wars past to wars of today (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, p. 89). To carry on this analysis I will structure my reasoning in three straightforward parts. The first one will be centered on how Clausewitz’s basic concept of war fits in the XXI century, placing some emphasis upon its material evolution and the physical connections that we can interpret as inherent of the Clausewitzian trinity. Thus, I will connect this first part with the second one, which will be focused more in the purely tangible components of the contemporary war, as the nuclear technology, the instrumentalization of the war or the non-state actors. Then, in the final part of the essay, I will summarize the main reasons which lead me to the conclusion that the nature and basic components of the modern war still have a great resemblance to the ideas that Clausewitz exposed 182 years ago in the XIX century. The Clausewitzian trinity of war: In the past and in the XXI century To get started, I should delineate the meaning of the trinity of war according to Clausewitz, so in the next paragraphs I can proceed to analyze if these ideas are still useful when it comes to understand the wars of our time. Let’s begin with a brief review of Clausewitz’s original concept. Clausewitz structures war in three fundamental parts. First comes the part of the basic violence, hatred and enmity, what I will call the emotional part related to the
  3. 3. 3 population of the state; second is the part of politics, which establishes the rational limits of the war and lead its objectives; and third the part of the military genius, which Clausewitz relates with the realm of probability and chance, making reference to the courage and talent of the generals on the battlefield (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, p. 89). The emotional part of the war, the passion of the people, has to do with the psychological realm (Kitchen: 1988, p.36). Clausewitz extracts this idea taking the French Revolution as an example, when war became the business of the people with the creation of a national army which was the representation of the “nation in arms” (Esposito: 1954, p.20). Until then, the professional armies were formed by mercenaries who were fighting for reasons beyond them, for an economical reward. With the Napoleonic wars, Clausewitz realizes the determinant importance of the popular compromise with war (Espósito: 1954, pp.19-20). The soldiers then had a nation on their backs for the first time. Among the occidental states of the XXI century, the use of armed force is considered now more than ever subject to public opinion and society’s support. A war can be more or less popular depending on how the individuals within a state perceive the bound with the so-called national interest1 . This popular support has its influence not only in the military realm, but in the political realm as well, for we can understand that a government whose goals are not coherent with the feelings of the nation is doomed to disappear; the same way that an army without a nation pushing behind them would start with a relative disadvantage facing a war2 . However, with methods such as propaganda, in the media age of the XXI century there are diverse ways to directly influence public opinion and the engagement of the people in a war through all types of information with different content3 .
  4. 4. 4 This irrevocable relationship among government and population was already clear in Clausewitz’s mind when he stated that war was a sort of political link between the people and their political leaders (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, p. 605). Politics, the rational part of the war, are fundamental in Clausewitz’s thought, and he interconnects them in a natural way with the passion and the feelings of the population4 . In relation with Clausewitz’s thinking, we could also say that, ironically, he militarizes politics when he says that “war is a continuation of politics by other means”, normalizing war as a concrete and disposable instrument for the states’ politics (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, p. 87). Bearing in mind the historical context of the time when “On War” was written, we can understand the nature of this statement. The leaders of the XVIII century and the early years of the XIX lead and planned wars directly, also having great influence in the strategic decisions of the armies. Moreover, since Napoleon rode into war on his horse’s back, the situation has changed significantly. On one hand, the professionalization in both political and military realms has blurred the connection between politics and war, while on the other hand, the power-sharing system of the occidental democracies has divided the responsibility of war (Shephard: 1990, p.94). If the power is shared, then the rationality is shared. A concrete example of the progressive separation of politics and war could be applied to the nuclear war, where the decision of pressing a button can result in the total destruction of a territory and its population in minutes. The political aims in a nuclear war don’t go beyond simple destruction, the total annihilation of the enemy. Thus, as we will see in the second part of the essay, the absolute war as Clausewitz calls it is nowadays more real than ever before in history (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, p. 78).
  5. 5. 5 Coming from the subjective debate among the emotional and the rational, we arrive at the third Clausewitzian pillar of the war study: the military genius. This is the material part of Clausewitz’s thinking, what we can touch and see in the war. In “On War”, the three parts of the war are succinctly summarized in a pair of paragraphs, where Clausewitz particularly denominates this section as “the play of chance and probability” (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, p. 89). Inside the realm of war, bad weather, illness, or lack of supplies are factors that can determine its course in favor of one side or the other. The different adverse situations however, can be remedied with the decisions of the generals, whose military genius is vital for a favorable outcome. Clausewitz names these sort of situations or factors inherent to the conflict the friction of war (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, p. 119). The current shape of war has changed a lot in two centuries. Technology has smoothened and prevented friction at the same time it has made armed conflict something much more effective and lethal. In this connection, Clausewitz tells us that within war we can find four main elements: danger, physical effort, inexactitude and opportunity (Clausewitz: [1832] 1984ed, pp. 100-113). Despite the technological advances and the improvement in intelligence, these elements are still present and have influence in the decisions taken by generals today. For this reason, the military command that reads these elements correctly and knows how to deal with the friction, is still more likely to succeed in war. Due to the instable character of these four elements, each war is different from the last one, with their circumstances and particular contexts that determine an endless range of outcomes (van Creveld: 1986, p. 41). Clausewitz in the modern warfare era
  6. 6. 6 We have seen in the first part of this essay how Clausewitz’s view of the war can still be related with wars of the XXI century. In this section I will focus on the more tangible aspects of modern conflicts and their relation to Clausewitz: their technological and functional evolution. The absolute war, as Clausewitz conceives it, could be interpreted as that in which the rational goals dictated by politics have been obviated, or in which the material implications have been abstracted (Shephard: 1990, p.86). In other words, war seen as the straightforward use of force with no other aim than the destruction of the enemy or the elimination of a threat. Although Clausewitz considered the concept of absolute war as something fanciful, he was able to reproduce that idea in his mind. Beyond the technological limitations of the XIX century, we know today that the possibility that an absolute war takes place is completely real due to nuclear weapons. Even though it is difficult to fit the nuclear debate into Clausewitz’s thought, the world has never experienced a war where the main warfare method was not the conventional one (Shephard: 1990, p.86). Moreover, if it is reasonable to think that Clausewitz’s notion of offensive-defensive strategy stays out of the nuclear debate, it is still valid for conventional warfare. Regardless of the fact that we have the means to create an absolute war, the majority of wars conducted by states today continue to have a political goal that justify them and gives them reason. This last reflection takes us to the idea of surgical war: the instrumentalization of war5 . The wars of the XXI century are far from XIX century wars, by both their magnitude and their aims. Today the wars fought by occidental countries seem to be limited by very concrete political ends. Therefore, war is becoming a relatively common instrument of politics. For instance, during the Gulf War of the early 90’s, the international coalition headed by the United States was only limited to expel the Iraqi
  7. 7. 7 forces of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, stopping most of the military activities once that target was achieved. Today’s wars are calibrated and the states in general don’t risk their people, sovereignty or territory in international conflicts. Each war is rationalized and measured by the belligerent actors, attending to the moral of each government and its society altogether6 . The actors in modern warfare also change. Clausewitz conceived that the symmetry of war was based on the idea of state against state. The terrorism or guerrilla warfare seem to have had a convoluted fitting into Clausewitz’s vision of war7 . Nevertheless, even with this outlook we usually have the figure of the state in one of the parts, as in the case of the anti-terrorist warfare of the occidental community for example. Therefore, when Barack Obama talks about the war on terror, he takes into account that, if it is true that the war is not against another state, it feeds from the hatred and revengeful feelings of the North American people, it is structured by the aims settled by foreign policy (and national security) and of course its success depends on the military genius of his armies. Even in the guerrilla warfare, the state is generally present, and usually both bands will fight to preserve its structure or to transform it radically. Conclusion The relevance of Clausewitz’s thinking in terms of utility is the question I have tried to answer. When we wonder if a 182 year old encyclopedia is still able to help us understand the world, the only apparent response is to try and see if its definitions still make sense based on our inquiries. Here I have tried to analyze the utility of that encyclopedia. In this essay I have talked about XXI century warfare using ideas and concepts from the XIX century. The success of this approach was conditioned to see if these ideas
  8. 8. 8 could help us to grasp the nature and components of something as gripping and explosive as war in times of today. I have proved here that this is still possible. The ideas that Clausewitz outlined to explain war were useful then and now. He was the first to appreciate war as it really is, even in its more psychological sense. He is the man that rationalizes war from a soldier’s perspective and that also explains what happens within that phenomenon. Nowadays we can complete these ideas from a more economic-industrial perspective of war, studying the modern military strategy of modern war, and also researching in deep the character of the actors that are involved. Nevertheless, the aim of this essay was to prove that Clausewitz is still relevant, for the simple reason that his central idea of the trinity of the war and key concepts such as absolute war and friction still make sense in the XXI century. Clausewitz’s legacy was in fact nothing less than setting the first stone of the academic study of the war and military strategy, in what is the great Babel tower of the military studies. NOTES 1: National Interest could be understood from a lot of different perspectives, as the realist’s survival issue, cultural preservation or economic interests, among others. 2: In relative terms, technological advantages can be determinant in the outcome of a two-state war. Nevertheless, we can see with the example of Vietnam that whilst the North Vietnamese were fighting for material or survival reasons (such as defending themselves from the invasion of foreign forces in their territory), the US military was fighting for something utterly rationalized by the political realm, as was the fight against the communist threat by containing it in a third country. Technological superiority was not as strong as what we could call a nation’s determination. In this case the ends of the Vietnamese were clear, while the United States’ were not.
  9. 9. 9 3: CNN article about manipulation through media: media-iraq/ 4: For example, the fear can be a dominant feeling of the population and be within the members of the government. For instance with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the feelings of fear and uncertainty between Kennedy and Kruschev almost eroded all kind of rational action and morale, coming very close to a nuclear war (Kitchen: 1988, p.36) 5: O’Driscoll, Cian. Lecture International Security, October 2013. “Clausewitz” 6: For example: Religion, culture, justice or the pure existence of the state. Nevertheless, the possibility that a war could be waged without popular consent seems more likely today than ever before (F. Ins: Special powers of the US president granted by the Patriot Act of 2001) 7: However, Clausewitz talks about the guerrillas in On War, pp. 482, 482; although always headed by the government of a state.
  10. 10. 10 Bibliography - Brodie, Bernard (1973) ‘Clausewitz: a Passion for War’, World Politics, v.25, no.2, January 1973. - Cambridge Dictionaries Online, (Accessed on 14/10/13) - Clausewitz, Carl von, ([1832] 1996). On war, ed. and trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Pare (Princeton: Princeton University Press). - Esposito, Vincent J. (1954) ‘War as a continuation of Politics’ Military Affairs, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring , pp.19-26 . - Kitchen, Martin (1998) ‘The political history of Clausewitz’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 11:1, 27-50. - Shephard, John (1990) ‘Is Clausewitz Still Relevant?’ Parameters, Vol XX, September, No 3. - van Creveld, Martin (1986) ‘The eternal Clausewitz’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 9:2-3, 35-50.