Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Can Clausewitz's insights be applied to contemporary warfare?


Carl von Clausewitz is “the greatest theorist of strategy”.[1] Although living in Prussia in the 18th and 19th century he is still relevant and widely read even today. His work has been the bases not only for theorists and scholars but also for the military. “On War is treated like holy script from which quotations are plucked to legitimize all sorts of policies and programs”[2].  The analysis of war in his book demonstrates that On War is relevant, even today, because as Dr Gray explains “the objective nature of war is permanent”[3]; the means are the ones that change and evolve. In this essay key points will be analysed. How do Clausewitz’s views expressed in his book ‘On War’ still apply to contemporary warfare, is he still read today and also we will take in to account the critics, who do not believe in the unchanging values of his observations. Also examples will prove the significance of Clausewitz’s writings.
            Clausewitz in his book On War talks about war generally, giving the reader definitions around it. But even when he gives us examples, in book eight, he refers to the past and his present, the Napoleonic era. He refers to examples which are even used in the modern epoch, for example the Tartars, Rome, Alexander the Great, the Medieval Monarchs and many more. But why is this book important? The answer is simple. Wars were becoming more complicated and a theory of strategy, a base for this discourse was needed. This is why it is read today and will still be read in the future.


            Clausewitz writes in book 1, chapter 1 that “war is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”[4]. This definition, as explained by Kaldor, implies that he is referring to “war between states”[5], which is relevant to the 20th century, although this is changing in the 21st century due to the wars against terrorism, i.e. against terrorist groups and not other states. This leads as some believe “to the conclusion that the motivation and goals of these non-state actors no longer follow political or ideological imperatives but have other sources which may be ethnic, economic, or the fact that violence has become an autonomous force”[6].
In the modern epoch the armies are controlled by the state, which means that they are subject to the will of the state, the political aspect of governance. This confirms Clausewitz’s belief “that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means”[7]. Even in the post 9/11 world we see that although the actors who engage in wars may be different from Clausewitz’s time, i.e. non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda, however the conflicts are still determined by politics, for example Hamas and Hezbollah. “Thus politics may not be controlled by the state as organizer and ‘policy-maker’, but that does not make wars any less political”[8], so the main actors in a conflict can be states or non-state actors.
            The way with which war was fought in his time, the “Napoleonic model”[9], was also identified in World War I. War and the way with which it was executed came close to Clausewitz’s view of absolute war, especially with the existence and use of nuclear weapons in World War II. Here we can refer to Clausewitz’s Trinitarian conception of war. Every modern author and analyst who examines ‘On War’ evaluates this theory which is present in every conflict, making it its ontological bases. War is compiled of three levels; first the political leaders (i.e. the government), second the military and third the people. We can identify here that these three levels “operate through reason, through chance and strategy and through emotion”[10]. This is the foundation of absolute war, which still exists in the modern era. Even though we have witnessed radical progress in technology, this important theory will continue to be applicable in future wars.
            Clausewitz’s relevance in the modern world and modern way of warfare is also recognized through the media and through books which both refer to ‘On War’ as the bases of their views and theories. The Prussian author is the main source scholars and reporters use when referring to matters of war. This is no coincidence. Clausewitz analysed war systematically clarifying all its aspects. As explained above, war has not changed, only the means with which it is fought. So Clausewitz’s theories are applicable and relevant today. Many articles concerning the Iraq invasion refer to Clausewitz and his theories. For example Lawrence Freedman explains; “‘War is the continuation of Politics by Other Means’. Yes. After more than 170 years, the thesis of Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz still applies. War is violence with a purpose.”[11] The thing that has altered is whose purpose is being served and the nature of conflict. Importantly, the post 9/11 world refers to Clausewitz and his work. Thomas Ricks in his book Fiasco illustrates Ike Skelton giving advice to the White House by quoting Clausewitz stating that it is required in war “not to take the first step without considering the last”[12]. This is an important point since the Bush administration did not foresee the difficulties that would occur after invading Iraq. This is why politicians and the military should always have in mind that “no one starts a war- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it”[13]. Here we are reminded of Clausewitz’s point in Book 1 when he refers to war as “a game of cards”[14]. War is chance, a gamble which should be the last resort due to the consequences, which could be disastrous.  One can identify the fact that the theory behind the actions taken in modern wars is based on past literature and especially Clausewitz’s On War. Many articles refer to this source to also explain the actions taken by the numerous states or other political actors, for example Jihad in the 21st century.
            The strong bonds between the military and governments, i.e. politics, can be detected when looking at examples from contemporary wars. An example is Kosovo where “the key to being able to sustain the campaign was not military resources or casualties but the ability to sustain political support in the face of the uncertainties and contingencies of war”[15]. Also Brodie believes that the condemning examination of the catastrophe of Vietnam is due to the absence of a feasible policy in that country.  
            Clausewitz and his theories have also been criticised by contemporary scholars. Some authors believe that “future wars will be fought not to pursue national interest but to kill enemy leaders...or for simple entertainment. Thus the core of Clausewitz’s philosophy of war that states wage wars using armies in pursuit of political objectives will disappear”[16]. Echevaria also gives us other reasons why Clausewitz is not relevant describing how nuclear weapons, terrorism, narcotics and the political and military leaderships have changed during the course of time. These are problems that the Prussian author could not foresee. Van Creveld points the archaic nature of Clausewitz’s ‘Trinitarian conception of theory’. He also argues that “Trinitarian war is not War with a capital W but merely one of the many forms that war has assumed”[17]. General Colin in 1911 had also “considered Clausewitz’s theory to be obsolete for a number of reasons, among them the impact of modern firepower...”[18] General von Kuhn had the same view. Metz on the other hand describes how “he remains an icon at all the US war colleges while his writings are bent, twisted and stretched to explain everything”[19]. Fleming points that “when war turns out according to his timeless theories, Clausewitz told us to expect it. When it turns out otherwise, Clausewitz told us to expect that too”[20]. So we see that although critics oppose Clausewitz’s relevance there are those who by ‘bending’ his words find a relevance to modern warfare.
            Clausewitz’s insights have been applied to contemporary warfare and the biggest example of this is World War I and World War II where we have total war, a theory which was analysed by the Prussian author together with the Real war. These two examples show how the “two opponents aim at the total defeat of the other”[21] encouraging an accumulation of man power and weaponry.
            Case studies and examples from around the globe show that Clausewitz can be applied to warfare in the 20th and 21st centuries. Gardner describes how “in Iraq ‘the Clausewitzian focus on decisive battle and bloodshed’ encouraged American commanders to deploy a large invasion force that sparked an insurgency...The Iraqi quagmire can thus be attributed largely to the embrace of outdated Clausewitzian dictums regarding the necessity of decisive land battles”[22]. Mao Zedong and Vo Nguyen Giap had the Prussian author as their bases when revolting in China and Vietnam respectively. The use of guerrilla campaigns and the eventual transition to conventional warfare are known and identifiable to Clausewitz. Two authors, Stephen Biddle and Jeffrey Friedman, exhibit that “in their recent examination of the 2006 war in Lebanon Hezbollah employed both guerrilla and conventional methods against Israeli forces”[23].  
            Clausewitz is relevant today even as a source of thought. In the 2nd Gulf War the Bush Administration acted having read and having being inspired by ‘On War’. “Critic William Lind quotes Clausewitz to warn that statesmen and commanders must be clear about what sort of war they are fighting”[24]. But as Weinberger suggests, the US forces should think of war as a last alternative, as Clausewitz stated before him. “By definition war is always the last resort”[25].
            Through this essay we can identify that Clausewitz’s insights can be applied to contemporary warfare. ‘On War’ and ‘The Peloponnesian War’ are the two key sources on strategy. Both works are indispensable for comprehending existing and modern wars. The way with which Clausewitz understands war, the theory of trinity, the relationship among Politik and war will continue providing that states, terrorist groups and many more conflict factions have the mentality of pursuing it. Clausewitz’s relevance is important and valid when we take in to account that “the basic philosophy of war used by the US military remains Clausewitzian”[26].




[1] Gaddis John Lewis, ‘A grand Strategy of Transformation’, Foreign Policy, (Nov/Dec 2002)
[2] Metz Steven, ‘A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of 21st-Century Warfare’, Parameters, (Winter 1994-95),p. 126
[3] Echevaria Antulio, Gray Colin, ‘Clausewitz and “How Has War Changed?”’, Journal Article Excerpt, Parameters, Vol. 35, (2005)
[4] Clausewitz von Carl, On War, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 13
[5] Kaldor Mary, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 2nd ed., (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2009), p.17
[6] Herberg-Rothe Andreas, ‘Carl von Clausewitz today- the primacy of politics in war and conflict’, World Security Network Newsletter, (February 21, 2009) p. 1
[7] Clausewitz von Carl, On War, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 28
[8] Herberg-Rothe Andreas, ‘Carl von Clausewitz today- the primacy of politics in war and conflict’, World Security Network Newsletter, (February 21, 2009), p. 4
[9] Kaldor Mary, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 2nd ed., (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2009), p.25
[10] Kaldor Mary, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, 2nd ed., (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2009), p.23
[11]Freedman Lawrence, ‘“War”, a “Think Again”’, Foreign Policy (July-August 2003)
[12] Ricks Thomas E., Fiasco The American Military Adventure in Iraq, (London, Penguin Books, 2007), p. 59
[13] Fleming Bruce, ‘Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?’, Parameters, (Spring 2004), p. 62
[14] Clausewitz von Carl, On War, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 27
[15] Brown Robin, Clausewitz in the age of Al-Jazeera: Rethinking the Military-Media Relationship, (Leeds, Harvard Symposium: Restless Searchlight: The Media and Terrorism, 2002), p. 6
[16] Echevaria Antulio, ‘War and Politics: The Revolution in Military Affairs and the Continued Relevance of Clausewitz’, (Joint Forces Quarterly, Winter 1995-96)
[17] Metz Steven, ‘A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of 21st-Century Warfare’, Parameters, (Winter 1994-95),p. 129
[18] Heuser Beatrice, “Reading Clausewitz”, (London, Pimlico, 2002), p. 179
[19] Metz Steven, ‘A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of 21st-Century Warfare’, Parameters, (Winter 1994-95),p. 126
[20] Fleming Bruce, ‘Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?’, Parameters, (Spring 2004), p. 65
[21] Brown Robin, Clausewitz in the age of Al-Jazeera: Rethinking the Military-Media Relationship, (Leeds, Harvard Symposium: Restless Searchlight: The Media and Terrorism, 2002), p. 4
[22] Gardner Nikolas, ‘Resurrecting the “Icon” The Enduring Relevance of Clausewitz’s On War’, Strategic Studies Quarterly, (Spring 2009), p. 121 
[23] Gardner Nikolas, ‘Resurrecting the “Icon” The Enduring Relevance of Clausewitz’s On War’, Strategic Studies Quarterly, (Spring 2009), p. 124 
[24] Fleming Bruce, ‘Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?’, Parameters, (Spring 2004), p. 62
[25] Fleming Bruce, ‘Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?’, Parameters, (Spring 2004), p. 75
[26] Metz Steven, ‘A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of 21st-Century Warfare’, Parameters, (Winter 1994-95),p. 131

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