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An Introduction to Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict

As a Co-Founder and the Publisher of Infinity Journal, it is my pleasure to present you with an Infinity Journal Special Edition: Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict. In this edition, you will find six new perspectives that focus on the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and his relevance in contemporary armed conflict. Given that Clausewitz died nearly 200 years ago, and his writings are necessarily an outcome of his own experience and times, it is only logical to ask, what is the need for a ‘special edition’ on a man long passed? The six contributions in this edition argue, in the main, that much of what Clausewitz wrote throughout his short lifetime remains highly relevant to contemporary war and warfare. His writings continue to provide much needed guidance – both in theory and practice. At the same time, Clausewitz’s writings remain widely misunderstood. His theory of war and strategy – as well as many of Clausewitz’s well-known ideas and concepts – is often misapplied to contemporary doctrine, reports, articles, and other forms of discourse.

War, and the conduct in war, is remarkably distinct from any other human activity and field of inquiry. In fact, so distinct are war and warfare from all other areas of action and inquiry that it seems implausible that there may be one extraordinary thinker who has succeeded in proffering an understanding – for all time – of the interworking of an activity that remains complex, violent, and unpredictable. When we reflect on other areas of complex interests and activities, we can confidently, and for the most part in concert, point to a number of intellectual giants that have conquered a wide array of vital subjects. They have graced posterity with considerable understanding and guidance that we rarely question.

When it comes to the study of war and strategy – and despite the vast array of writings penned by brilliant men and women, both historical and contemporary – at the center of it all we still find Clausewitz. He did not invent the big questions in his study on war, yet he did ask and answer them in unique ways, using distinctive methods, and he did so in greater detail than anyone before or since. The result was success in the formulation of the foundations of a theory of war and strategy that no other theorist has before or since been able to rival, however incomplete they were upon his untimely death. This, of course, is not to paint Clausewitz in an infallible light, and his theory of war and strategy is by no means flawless. However, as far as observing, comprehending, and demonstrating via writings the fundamentals of war, Clausewitz is as close to a level of perfection as any theorist of war and strategy has so far been able to reach.

It is not that Clausewitz necessarily discovered or unlocked any mystery to war and warfare, and one should not look to his writings for this reason. Nor did he offer practical instruction in the problems of war. Rather, we look to Clausewitz for a deeper, more philosophical perspective of war and the conduct in war. This, in turn, has assisted men and women in time of war, as well as those interested in understanding the subject. We turn to Clausewitz for an understanding of the meaning of war, which in fact suits all wars of all time. We look to him to understand how and why war has an irrefutable and unbreakable connection to the political domain, and why this makes war one instrument of policy. Further, we look to Clausewitz to understand the meaning of strategy, which often serves as the basis of most modern definitions of the term. In one of his greatest achievements, Clausewitz gave us the ‘Fascinating Trinity’, in which we are able to clearly understand ingredients within the nature of war: enmity, chance, and purpose, and how these elements interact and play off of one another in warfare throughout history. Plainly stated, Clausewitz’s magnum opus, On War, is the finest work ever written on the most influential and formidable social activity that has afflicted and ennobled man since the advent of organized communities.

Though Clausewitz was not always clear in his writings, it remains the case that what he observed and subsequently wrote permits us to understand crucial aspects of war and strategy, which we can and should utilize when analyzing contemporary armed conflict. Carl von Clausewitz may have died in 1831, but his ideas live on, as can be seen in each article of this special edition. Today, the circle of individuals who understand what he wrote is small, and Infinity Journal is proud to present articles from six such men and women. In this special edition, each author has provided a new perspective on Clausewitz the man, his observations, and his enduring relevance.

Lt. Col. Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II writes on Clausewitz’s concept of the “center of gravity” and argues that contemporary military doctrine has made the concept the prerequisite for operational art. However, as Echevarria writes, the art really lies in understanding when not to use it.

Professor David Kaiser takes issue with those who have blamed Clausewitz for the First World War. He discusses Clausewitz’s influence upon the planning for that war, but adds that On War should have enabled statesmen and generals to draw more sensible conclusions after a stalemate developed. Kaiser also demonstrates how Clausewitz’s trinity can explain how the First World War came to an end.

Professor Beatrice Heuser has taken a different approach in how to understand Clausewitz. She explains that Clausewitz himself recognized that a conflict might not be decided permanently by a military victory, but he did not want to pursue the subject of how to move from the conduct of war to a lasting peace. This implies that On War cannot guide us much further on this subject, and rather than adhering only to the words of one man, we must look for guidance elsewhere.

Dr. Hugh Smith writes on ‘Clausewitz as Sociologist’, in which he argues that Clausewitz’s approach to war is imbued at every level with a sociological perspective, and it is this sociological dimension that serves as a major reason for the continuing relevance of his ideas.

William F. Owen argues what is means “To Be Clausewitzian”. For Owen, one must be able to understand the value of Clausewitz’s observations and insights and their relevance to actual war, such that one can use them for guidance and, with due judgment, apply them. He holds that “Clausewitzians” do not simply study On War out of academic interest. While not excluding other important works on war and warfare, it does mean that they use Clausewitz’s observations as their start point and foundation.

Finally, Adam Elkus explains Clausewitz’s distinction between policy and strategy and argues for its signal importance in 21st century strategy. He holds that it is not simply semantics: knowledge and proper application of Clausewitz’s ideas about policy and strategy can assist military analysts to think better about today’s security problems, while a poor understanding of the policy-strategy distinction can produce conceptual confusion.

It is my sincere pleasure to present you with Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, one of many Infinity Journal Special Editions to come.


A.E. Stahl
Publisher, Infinity Journal
February 2012