Were Carl von Clausewitz alive today, or, more reasonably able to comment by some means on the Russo-Ukraine War, he would be well within his rights to say, “I told you so,” as would Hans Delbrück. Why? Because Clausewitz defined Strategy as the use of engagements for the object of the war. As the Battle of Bakhmut rages, many feel compelled to comment on the Russian Army’s actions as something derived from the “operational level of war,” yet this is clearly a battle conducted via tactics for the aims of stategy. Those aims, as Delbrück would observe, are either annihilation or attrition and as many have stated, the Ukrainian defence of Bahkmut is to ‘wear down the Russian Army.” That is the literal meaning of attrition.
The only real insight the War in Ukraine is revealing to serious students of strategy is War does not change and warfare can change only slowly and never in ways that defy human comprehension.
Some readers could reasonably conclude that articles within this edition would challenge that view, but careful reading may suggest that is less certain than less careful reading might reveal. If you want a cast iron lesson from the current conflict, it should be this: time spent reading On War is never wasted.
There may also be the uncomfortable realisation that many of the pithy and simplistic observations of the US Reform movement of the 1970s and 80s are, as they did in 1991, mostly falling flat. Where is the decisive air power dimension to War this year? Where is the fast-moving manoeuvre warfare and so-called “combined arms” actions?
War is a product of politics, and Ukraine is showing this truth as clearly as possible in terms of the nature of the warfare observable, reflecting the political choices made by both sides. The fighting and bloodshed in Bahkmut is not an inevitable outcome of some objective truth about fighting in the 21st century. It is an outcome of political choices made by both sides, as emphasised by the report that the US Army advised the Ukrainians to abandon the town. Still, the political, not military, leaders of Ukraine said no. It is of little comfort to tell the cold, wet and wounded that they are fighting for a space on the map with little to no military value, but then what is “military value?” Such value can only come from its relevance to policy or politics. An officer of the Prussian Army of 1815 would see nothing in the current war that would make him think that mankind has evolved to such a degree that War was now somehow different.
William F. Owen
Editor, Military Strategy Magazine