The world is a bewildering place. In trying to make sense of it, humans have always sought teachers or prophets who can explain everything to lesser mortals. Many humans never seem to get beyond the evolutionary stage of blindly repeating what a teacher told them – to the point where “teacher” becomes an infallible prophet. Whole religions have been constructed to buttress the legitimacy of such prophets; they are proclaimed the offspring of a deity or the only human in which the deity confided his or her all-surpassing knowledge, etc. If you think about it, this negates men’s (some men’s?) critical faculties, their ability to judge for themselves where the considered views of a great mind are truly applicable and helpful; where they might have applied to a particular time and circumstance only, but not necessarily to all times and ages; and where they might be plain wrong and prejudice-ridden. For if you accept that prophets are mere humans, and all humans are fallible, then prophets are fallible, even if they are exceptionally intelligent and prescient.
To recap: great teachers are people whose understanding of their times and some of its problems impresses others as particularly insightful, as containing truths which others had not discovered. But what is “truth” in this context? Remember that there is a difference between actions and human interpretation of these actions. Defiance of a government will be interpreted by the government itself as a rebellion; others will, in a more neutral vein, call this defiance an insurgency, and those involved in it will call it a fight against oppression and for freedom. Or is it criminal, mafia-type action, part of organised crime? Which is the truth? Any human attempt to encode truly existing phenomena in language presses any objective truth into distorting forms, namely, the words we use, with their complex, culture-bound connotations.
The process of interpretation, of explaining what is going on around us with words and concepts, has its own pitfalls. Every general explanation, every philosophy, every prophecy is the product of reflection on the particular circumstances of the times in which it is created, and is based on a particular selective interpretation and understanding of events known to the teacher, philosopher or prophet that have gone before that. The general explanation, and the general rule that a teacher/philosopher/prophet might deduce from this, are usually expressed in terms which suggest timeless application, while in reality it deals with particular circumstances. Consider the many times when bad fortune befell the Israelites because, in the view of one of their prophets, their moral standards had declined. This causality linking a decline in morals with (divine) punishment by bad fortune was extremely popular also among the Christian heirs of the Hebrew Bible, and has been trotted out to explain events time and again throughout the two millennia of Christianity. To any rational being, the Holocaust should have once and for all proved that this causality does not exist, as its victims had not done anything to bring this upon themselves, and the causes lay elsewhere entirely, exclusively in the perpetrators of this evil.
So, when Clausewitz told us that he wanted nothing to do with generals who want to avoid battle and bloodshed (On War Book IV.11), he was couching the bitter experience of Prussia in his own time – namely, that attempts to accommodate Napoleon in order to avoid war with him had failed – in general terms, as though they had timeless applicability. Yes, many observers since Antiquity have noted that, when confronted with an expansionist power that does not respect any rules of inter-entity behaviour (above all that of not coveting thy neighbour’s property), a weak state, especially a poorly defended but prosperous state, looks like a juicy sheep to a hungry wolf. The main problem is still posed by the wolf; the sheep’s behaviour is perfectly appropriate in dealing with other sheep, or cows, horses or donkeys grazing in the same meadow.
There is a general consensus that Clausewitz had original insights of great wisdom, but all of these were developed by him on the basis of the particular experiences of his own times, and a reading of quite recent history – he started with the Thirty Years’ War and dismissed anything earlier as irrelevant – through the prism of Prussia’s recent experiences. Some of the great insights Clausewitz is credited for had previously occurred to others. On some occasions, he re-invented a wheel or two. On others, he filched some very profound ideas from others without acknowledgement, not least the title of On War, which he took from his colleague August Rühle von Lilienstern’s publication of 1814.
Then there are things he got wrong, as he himself recognised in trying to revise his book On War during his own lifetime, a laudable project which he left incomplete when called away to a deployment in Poland, during which he died of cholera. There are other things he arguably got wrong which he did not recognise as mistakes. And there are important dimensions he left unexplored in On War, some deliberately, others by inclination, which are cardinal in investigating the question of how ends, ways and means hang together in warfare. For these dimensions, we have to turn to other thinkers, not Clausewitz, and we really should do so, rather than shrugging them off as unimportant or irrelevant, merely because “the Master” did not write about them.
Some re-invented wheels
Some ideas which continue to be very stimulating and which are usually attributed to Clausewitz had been articulated by others long before him. Clausewitz is famous for his attributing greater potential to the defensive than to offence. He drew this from the very particular experience he had as an officer serving the Russian Tsar during Napoleon’s catastrophic 1812 campaign in Europe’s largest state – a state so large that it spans two continents. Space, time, and General Winter defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée to the point where only few of its soldiers survived the expedition. For any country that has copious territories and hinterland to withdraw into, the rule holds: the Prusso-Brandenburg state, too, defeated and deprived of its more important Brandenburg capital, Berlin, could withdraw to the remote Prussian capital of Königsberg, and from there organise a liberation of the occupied areas. The Spanish opposition to Napoleon had lost Madrid, but it could wage its Guerrilla throughout the Iberian Peninsula, and finally prevail. Contemporary experiences confirmed Clausewitz’s observation. Consider, by contrast, the situation of Israel in the 1960s and today. Where is the depth that it could use for its defence?
Moreover, arguments in favour of the defensive were not new: others before Clausewitz had described a defensive stance as stronger than an offensive one that carried aggression into enemy territory. Already Raimond de Beccarie de Pavie, Baron de Fourquevaux had deduced from his readings of the Classics, in his Instructions on the Waging of War (1548), that “A wise captain ought to resist the violence of his enemies, rather than to assault them furiously. For [a] furious [onslaught] is easily resisted by fast and sure-footed men, and if it is withstood once, the rest is nothing, both because the attackers will be out of breath, and also as their order becomes disrupted, no matter how little haste they show in marching. Also, the first heat cools down when they see the constancy of the defending force…”. Count Guibert, whose General Essay on Tactics (1772) Clausewitz had read and paraphrased in On War, had articulated a perfect state which would have no reason for attacking others, but which would have enormous moral strength in resisting aggression. The state’s motto would be “Liberty, Safety, Protection”, and while it would be no threat to its neighbours, it would be undefeatable: “Let an enemy come and insult these happy and pacific people, they will rise justly incensed, and quit their tranquil habitation. Should they be driven to extremes, they will spill the last drop of their blood to obtain satisfaction; they will be avenged, they will ensure to themselves, by the fire, the splendour of their vengeance, a future and lasting peace.”
More wisely than Clausewitz, Machiavelli did not pronounce a fixed rule, but noted in his Discourses on Livy (1531) that there were arguments for and against taking a defensive or an offensive stance: “He who takes the offensive shows more spirit than he who awaits an attack, and so inspires his army with more confidence; and, in addition to this, deprives the enemy of the power to utilize his own resources …” On the other hand, Machiavelli argued, pre-empting the argument about inner lines which strategists made three hundred years later, “to await the enemy’s attack has many advantages; for, without any disadvantage to yourself, you can impose on him many disadvantages in the matter of provisions and of anything else of which an army has need; you can better thwart his plans owing to your having a better knowledge of the country than he has; and again, you can oppose him with stronger forces owing to the ease with which you can bring them altogether, which you could not do were they all at a distance from their homes; also, if you are routed, you can easily reform, both because a considerable part of your army will survive since it has a refuge at hand, and because reinforcements have not to come from a distance.” Moreover, if one had a “country well equipped with arms”, one would be more difficult to defeat in one’s own country. If by contrast one had “a country ill equipped with arms, … the enemy should be kept at a distance.” War, in that case, would more profitably be carried into his territory.
A second key discovery usually attributed to Clausewitz is that it is crucial to identify one’s war aims before going to war. Again, he was not the first to make this discovery. Already Bertrand de Loque had written in his Two Treatises on War and on Duelling (1589): “See first that you have perfect knowledge of what you want to undertake…and then put it into practice to effect it.”
The aims of wars
More importantly, Clausewitz was dangerously reductionist in his definition of the aim of all wars, namely, the “imposition of our will upon the enemy” (Book I.1). It is a great line, and many strategists have embraced it happily. It is doubtless what the aim of wars is. But it is not what the aim of war should be, if it is to have lasting effects which, on balance, are preferable to the situation before the war, notwithstanding the horrendous cost of achieving them. As many writers before him, starting with Aristotle and Cicero, had noted, and as Clausewitz had omitted to say, the only generally acceptable aim of any war can be a better peace, one which has to be tolerable to the former enemy, who must be turned into a peaceful partner in the post-war world. If he isn’t, he will seek revenge, and the best victory will turn to ashes in a new war with its new sacrifices. That means, however, that a brutal, unilateral imposition of one’s will upon the enemy is unlikely to lead to a lasting peace, unless the enemy is annihilated, as Carthage eventually was by Rome. A peace with which the defeated side cannot live in the long term will necessarily engender a new war to reverse the situation. Clausewitz was clever enough to recognise this. Pessimistically, he wrote in Book I.1: “In war the result is never final: … even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.” Negating any possibility that defeated adversaries might be persuaded or seduced into accepting a post-war settlement by offering them conditions they could live with, he added in Book I.2: “the war, that is the animosity and the reciprocal effects of hostile elements, cannot be considered to have ended so long as the enemy’s will has not been broken: in other words, so long as the enemy government and its allies have not been driven to ask for peace, or the population made to submit.” He conceded that the hostility of the population might lead to the renewal of fighting, but in the greatest cop-out of his book, he cut this line of argument short with the words: “Be that as it may, we must always consider that with the conclusion of peace the purpose of the war has been achieved and its business is at an end.” If the end of the war is a lasting peace, however, and not merely a military victory, this is a cardinal mistake in Clausewitz’s reasoning, and it is a grave fault of his to have censored his own thinking beyond military victory. Generations of subsequent strategists followed him in this mistake, and this did indeed, as Liddell Hart argued, contribute to the mass-slaughter of the wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Aims or ends, ways and means
In revising his book On War, Clausewitz did in fact hit on the fact that not all wars are fought for the end of absolute victory, or the absolute crushing of the enemy. He wrote in a note on defence written in 1827, “Thus if we perhaps find that among 50 wars, 49 … have a limited aim and do not aim to strike down the enemy we must understand that [these 49 cases are also] part of the nature of [war] and we must not assume every time that [these limited aims and the resulting conduct of war] are due to mistaken ideas, or a lack of energy etc.” He concluded that the political aims or ends of such wars differed, as war “is guided by … politics.” In On War (Book VII.3), however, he merely listed two extreme permutations of such aims: the conquest of a country and the annihilation of the enemy’s armed forces on the one hand, or the conquest merely of a “province, a strip of territory, a fortress, etc. Any one of these can be of sufficient value as political cards in peace [negotiations], either to be retained or exchanged.” While he added that “The object of strategic attack, therefore, may be thought of in countless gradations, from the conquest of a whole country to that of an insignificant patch of territory”, he did not take the next step, namely to consider what different strategies, or ways and means of waging war different war aims would dictate. This, by contrast, was done in considerable detail by Clausewitz’s great rival Jomini. The Swiss general divided wars into several categories, according to their aims and purposes. These were:
- “Offensive wars to reclaim rights”, in his view “the most just war[s]”, even though they would normally be waged on territory at that stage held by the enemy (hence “offensive”, involving the invasion of somebody else’s territory).
- Politically defensive wars which were “offensive from a military point of view”. This would include pre-emptive wars, wars in which one attacked an enemy, anticipating an attack by him.
- “Wars of expediency”, to snatch something from a weak neighbour.
- “Wars with or without allies”.
- “Wars of intervention” in the “internal affairs of a neighbouring state”.
- “Aggressive war for Conquest and other Reasons”, which could be “a crime against humanity”, even though Jomini thought that “it is better to attack than to be invaded”.
- “Wars of opinion” or what would later become known as ideological wars (such as the war between Revolutionary France and its adversaries).
- Wars of resistance against foreign invasion involving the mobilisation of the entire people. He had personal experience of the 1808-1813 Spanish Guerrilla against France, which he had experienced as particularly dreadful.
- “Civil Wars, and Wars of Religion”.
Jomini each time considered in detail how differently these wars would be waged, as a function of their aims. We look in vain for such discussions in Clausewitz’s works.
This is not to say that Clausewitz was unaware of this variable and its important effects on the waging of war. Again following many others from Machiavelli (whom he explicitly admired) to Guibert, Clausewitz wrote about the importance of the populations on both sides and their commitment to a war effort (in turn a function of how concerned they are by the war aims) in the context of his “strange trinity”. But there, again, he did not go beyond stating that the three poles of his trinity were variables, even interdependent variables, but rather examined the ways in which they could interrelate, and with which effects.
There are other subjects of considerable importance that Clausewitz failed to tackle in On War, which include the effects of values on the ways and means of waging war, but also social, financial and economic dimensions, not to mention other more technical topics, such as logistics, or naval warfare, omissions for which he has often been criticised. None of this is to question that he was a genius, or that we can learn much from him, or that his works are worth reading and re-reading. But beware of turning humans into divinely-inspired prophets whose words of gold are applicable to all times and all circumstances. Don’t think of Clausewitz as infallible prophet of Mars, or fount of timeless truths. Turn to as many wise thinkers as possible for possible explanations of and approaches to a problem you face, not just to one “great master”, be it Sun Tzu, Thucydides, or Clausewitz. And use your own judgement and values to see if their views really help you with the situation you confront.