Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 4  /  

When the Clausewitzian Trinity is Not Paradoxical

When the Clausewitzian Trinity is Not Paradoxical When the Clausewitzian Trinity is Not Paradoxical
To cite this article: Echevarria J. II., Antulio, “When the Clausewitzian Trinity is Not Paradoxical”, Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, summer 2019, pages 19-22.

By Karl Wilhelm Wach –,
Public Domain,


As Clausewitz scholars well know, Prussia’s renowned theorist never used the word paradoxical to describe his trinitarian concept of war’s nature. The adjective paradoxical was added by Michael Howard and Peter Paret as a translation of the German word “wünderliche” (wondrous) in their 1976 English edition of On War; they subsequently replaced paradoxical with the more suitable word “remarkable” in the revised edition that appeared in 1989.[i] However, many thousands of copies of the unrevised editions of On War remain in circulation. Consequently, the adjective paradoxical stubbornly persists as a descriptor of Clausewitz’s trinity. An uncomfortable number of students, for instance, use it in seminar discussions (until corrected). Moreover, even though Clausewitz scholars consciously avoid the word, they routinely describe the trinity in paradoxical terms, as if its elements—reason, passion, and chance—always work at cross purposes to one another.[ii] In effect, the meaning of the word paradoxical often informs how we see the trinity, even if we deliberately avoid using the adjective itself.

An important reason for this confusion is the long Western philosophical and literary traditions of representing reason and passion as natural opposites. Furthermore, our liberal-democratic assumptions presume balancing power among the government, the populace, and the military—the institutions to which Clausewitz loosely associated the elements of reason, passion, and chance—will always remain a problem. We have no reason to believe Howard and Paret thought differently. Additionally, military strategists have come to see the role of chance and probability as damaging to even the best laid plans. One of the points about On War that Howard wished to get across to policymakers, he has openly remarked, was how difficult friction makes everything in war.[iii] In short, regarding the trinity as paradoxical in nature, if not in name, seems eminently justifiable.

Unlike us, however, Clausewitz belonged to a movement within German Romanticism that sought to create a conceptual space in which reason and passion might coexist.[iv] History often portrays the Enlightenment and German Romanticism as fundamentally and irretrievably opposed to one another. But that representation is superficial and misleading. A great deal of Romanticism had to do with reconciling opposites through dialectical interactions. Nor were Clausewitz and the others who sought to reform the Prussian army after its defeat at the hands of Napoleon in 1806/1807 (Heinrich Freiherr vom und zum Stein, Hermann Boyen, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, August von Gneisenau, Carl von Grolman, among others) liberal democrats, despite recent efforts to cast them as such. The society to which they belonged was not a free one in the liberal-democratic sense; nor did they wish to overthrow their king, Frederick William III, to establish such a society as the French had done. What they wanted, instead, was to fuse the monarchy, the army, and the public together into a unified nation state.[v] And they wanted to do so primarily for the sake of achieving greater military efficiency and effectiveness, rather than spreading the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Nor did they see chance only as a disruptive force; it was, after all, a realm within which “the creative spirit is free to roam,” according to Clausewitz.[vi]

To project our assumptions and values onto the reformers, therefore, though inevitable to some extent, is to distort both their ideas and their aims. More to the point, our projections have restricted our ability to understand Clausewitz’s trinity. To remedy that, we must not only shun the adjective paradoxical, but also limit its ability to influence our thinking. In this way, we can open the door to several other trinitarian relationships worth exploring. The first of these, in fact, has interesting implications for military strategy.

From Paradoxical to “Wondrous”

If the trinity is not necessarily paradoxical, then one of its obvious alternatives is the opposite, a trinitarian relationship in which the elements are in accord rather than at odds. Under this alternative, reason, or the government’s purpose for the war would align well with the passions of the populace; the military would have enough experience and skill to accommodate the element of chance, and perhaps to exploit it. In Chapter 3, Book VIII, of On War, which is essentially a condensed history of war and civil-military relations from antiquity to the Napoleonic era, Clausewitz refers to three examples of such societies: Imperial Rome, the Tartars, and Napoleonic France.[vii] In each of these cases, wars were fought with greater ferocity, and possessed a greater “warlike” character, than in others. He suggests the cause for this difference lay in a certain consistency among the trinity’s elements, especially the integration of the populace into the military. The example of Napoleonic France is the most important because he and his colleagues saw France as a unified nation-state in which a single national identity appeared to fuel the fighting spirit of the Grande Armée.

Of course, as historians have shown, Napoleonic France and the French army were wracked by internal divisions of their own.[viii] Nonetheless, to Prussia’s reformers (not all of whom were Prussians by the way) the French state was far more united than was their monarchy. They looked upon France’s citizen army as an exemplary model for mobilizing, and channeling, the patriotic passions of the populace. They also looked favorably upon the French system of promotion based on merit rather than birth, which they felt put a greater number of better talented generals at Napoleon’s disposal. To turn Prussia into such an efficient military state would, as a minimum, require abolishing serfdom and establishing the army as a “school of the nation,” an institution capable of promoting a national identity and inculcating proper military virtues like patriotism and a willingness to sacrifice for the Volk.[ix]

In fact, the Prussia of 1806 was the opposite of France in every element of the trinity. As Clausewitz explained in “Observations on Prussia and Her Great Catastrophe,” his country’s populace “remained uninvolved” and singularly disinterested throughout the conflict; its military lacked any semblance of the warlike spirit, its generals were living off the laurels of the Frederician era and could neither lead nor plan, and the army’s tactics and procedures had “declined into empty formality;” and the government, for its part, could not fathom the type of war that was about to befall it, could not fashion appropriate policies, and could not decide upon a strategy.[x] A modern equivalent of the Prussia of 1806 is the America of the Vietnam era, a society severely divided along racial, ethnic, class, and generational lines. The US military at the time was populated largely by citizen-soldier conscripts, but not all social classes or racial groups were equally represented in its ranks. Many members of the middle and upper-middle classes received exemptions and thus avoided directly serving in the war. Moreover, the government could not balance the demands of domestic politics with the needs of foreign policy; nor could it develop a military strategy capable of translating its will into a desirable outcome—a negotiated settlement similar to that which it had obtained for Korea—without provoking a general escalation.

Between the two extremes of a unified, coherent trinity, on the one hand, and a paradoxical one, on the other hand, we have three alternatives. In the first of these, reason-chance, the government and the military are generally aligned, but less so the citizenry. Clausewitz described this as the situation in Europe for most of the eighteenth century, when “political and military institutions had developed into an effective instrument.” Wars became solely the concern of governments which, he went on to say, essentially “parted company with their peoples.”[xi] Other examples include America’s so-called Banana Wars in which the United States frequently sent its small military to intervene in Latin America.[xii] The US populace was largely unaffected by, and essentially oblivious to, the interventions, but US business interests benefitted. Iconic military leaders like USMC Maj-Gen. Smedley Butler, who participated in all but a few of them, attempted to raise public awareness by arguing “War Is a Racket!”[xiii] Some security experts see the same relationship today, which they describe as a form of militarism.[xiv] The US government has a relatively small, but highly professional all-volunteer military force that conducts interventions worldwide. Indeed, the American public openly praises its citizen-soldiers, but it is ignorant of most aspects of military life and barely understands the US government’s foreign policy goals.

In the second case, reason-passion, the government and the populace are essentially well integrated, but the military is not. This situation suggests the presence of large and increasingly comfortable, if not affluent, working and middle classes which identify with the government because its policies favor their interests or create new economic opportunities. The America of the 1920s is a classic example; real wages for working and middle classes rose by 33 percent from 1914 to 1929.[xv] Under such conditions, military service became unattractive save for a small number of professional officers and unenterprising enlisted personnel. Another example is the rise of affluent middle classes in early modern Europe which, as Clausewitz noted, avoided military service; hence, commercial cities and small republics outsourced their security requirements to mercenary organizations like the condottieri.[xvi] These organizations, however, owed no real allegiance to the government or to the public, except through the purse; the condottieri, in particular, became notorious for fighting sham battles designed to line the pockets of both sides. We find a perverse example of that situation today in parts of West Africa. Groups of military personnel act as rebels at night, and soldiers by day; they attack a village at night (disguised as rebels) and liberate it the next day (dressed as soldiers).[xvii] Thus, they extort both the government and the populace.

In the third case, passion-chance, the populace and the military are generally aligned, but the government is not. We find this relationship prevalent in rebellions and military coups, especially as one of their primary causes is that the practices of the incumbent regime have alienated the populace. This disaffection makes the public susceptible to the leadership of the revolutionary movement or the military junta. The situation is often dynamic, however, as both sides must vie for the support of the populace or deny it to the other. In Revolutionary America, for instance, the populace was believed to have been divided roughly into thirds: one loyal to the British crown, one loyal to the patriots, and one—the contested middle third—which remained uncommitted until the outcome became certain.[xviii] Passion is, therefore, contested space in such conflicts. To rephrase the relationship between chance and passion in Maoist terms, the revolutionary “fish” (military) must find enough “water” (people) to sustain itself and then to expand its base of support.[xix] The role of the populace in military coups varies. In some cases, the coups begin by leveraging popular support; in others, they seek public support after the fact as a way to consolidate power and to establish legitimacy.[xx] The citizen-militias of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century America, which frequently challenged the authority of the federal government, offer examples that are less extreme. In the War of 1812, for instance, the government had difficulty controlling the state militias, which frequently pursued their own agendas.[xxi] In fact, the struggle to establish the limits of federal control remained a central feature of American history well into the twentieth century.

The most important strategic implication of these comparisons, as Clausewitz suggests in “Observations on Prussia and Her Great Catastrophe” and in Book VIII of On War, is that societies in which all trinitarian elements are aligned, such as Napoleon’s France, enjoy a superior advantage over the others. Aligned societies can take war to a more destructive level, one that approaches the absolute. The elements of the trinity, when aligned, can achieve a collective momentum or force, a synergy of sorts (in today’s terminology) that is greater than the sum of the individual parts. In such cases, political leaders can more easily mobilize their country’s resources; political aims are easier to establish and to communicate; commanders have more scope to use their creativity to destroy their opponents; they can push their troops to extreme efforts and expose them to greater risks because of their higher levels of motivation. None of that was the case, as Clausewitz pointed out, for the Prussian army of 1806, populated as it was with mercenaries or unwilling conscripts, or with narrow-minded officers stuck in a rigid, mechanistic operational system. In short, the synergistic effectiveness of the Grande Armée owed itself not just to mobilization, but rather to the presence of a warlike animating spirit that can only come when the individual elements are not just maximized, but unified. Clausewitz’s emphasis on “spirit” as an animating force distinguishes his work, as well as that of some of his colleagues, not only from that of von Bülow, who saw the Spirit of the Modern System of War in geometric terms, but also from other Western treatises on armed conflict, such as Henry Lloyd’s theory of the base, that stressed logistics and material factors.[xxii]

Obviously, this advantage of the “warlike spirit” can be taken too far, as the examples of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany illustrate. The Allies’ response—massive physical force—was appropriate for the Second World War, though counterproductive in other situations. As it turned out, the Axis armies could not overcome the material-technological advantages of the Allied powers, an important modern aspect of war conspicuously absent from Clausewitz’s trinity.[xxiii]


For obvious reasons, strategists must periodically challenge their assumptions. By regarding Clausewitz’s trinity only through a paradoxical lens, whether explicitly or implicitly, we deny ourselves an opportunity to analyze how this concept applies to other situations, and how military strategy must accommodate, or possibly exploit them. It can help us lift students out of the tactical mindset that is reinforced by regarding the trinity as a paradoxical pendulum that illustrates the immediate swings of war, but never the deeper cultures or the three elements in combination. Sudden flashes of fear and anger are certainly authentic aspects of armed conflict. But they affect battles more than wars. Strategists must, therefore, endeavor to understand the degree to which the societies of their adversaries are structurally integrated and culturally disposed to absorb the psychic as well as the physical demands of war.

The more we learn about North Vietnamese society and its commitment to national reunification, for instance, the more important this lesson appears.[xxiv] This is not to say information about Vietnamese society and culture was not available to US policymakers and strategists. It was. But they failed to understand it and instead underestimated the resilience of their foe, which several times bounced back from losses that would have crippled other societies. If American leadership had truly committed itself to understanding the type of society it was going up against, compared to the one it attempted to support and the limits of its own, perhaps it could have settled on a more rational strategy. As difficult as it might have been to sell at the time, such a strategy would have likely entailed drawing Containment’s “line in the sand” elsewhere, preferably where trinitarian circumstances inclined more in America’s favor. At the very least, such an analysis would have deprived the US Government of one more excuse for failure.

Lifting the paradoxical fog that enshrouds the trinity also enables us to see more clearly what Clausewitz meant by arguing war was “more than a true chameleon.” Not only can war’s character, its external aspects, change—so too can its internal elements. These can change in intensity, to be sure; but also, in certain combinations, they can generate a synergy, and an exceptionally virulent form of warfare, one that differs qualitatively from our modern notion of “total war.” Clausewitz hit upon a fair point, though, that ultimately war conforms to the political conditions of its time. It is not a thing in itself. To attempt to fashion a synergistic form of war for its own sake, in other words, is bound to fail unless the appropriate circumstances are present.

We also would do well to remember states do not go to war; societies do. But societies are made up of any number of institutions, and Clausewitz’s trinity only reflects three general categories. The populace, for instance, can be subdivided into numerous social institutions, such as churches, schools, and labor organizations, all of which will have different but perhaps overlapping cultures. Unity and division are, therefore, relative qualities, and frictions abound in every society. Fundamentally, however, some societies seem to bear the strains of war better than others. As strategists, we need to understand not only the societies of our adversaries, but also the strengths and weaknesses of our own compared to theirs.


[i] C.v. Clausewitz, Vom Kriege. Hinterlassens Werke des Generals Carl von Clausewitz, 19th Ed., Werner Hahlweg (ed.) (Bonn: Dűmmlers, 1991) Book I, Chap. 1, p. 213; C.v. Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans. (ed.) (Princeton: Princeton University, 1989), 89.
[ii] The elements can be represented in various ways but are referred to here as reason, passion, and chance to facilitate discussion.
[iii] Remarks delivered at “Clausewitz and the 21st Century,” a conference at Oxford University, 2007.
[iv] James Sheehan, German History 1770-1866 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 347-52; F.C. Beiser, Enlightenment, Revolution, and Romanticism: The Genesis of Modern German Political Thought 1790-1800 (Cambridge: Harvard, 1992).
[v] Guy Stanton Ford, Stein and the Era of Reform in Prussia, 1807-1815 (Gloucester, Mass: Smith, 1965).
[vi] Vom Kriege, I/1, p. 213; On War, 89.
[vii] Vom Kriege, VIII/3, p. 970-72; On War, 592-93.
[viii] Thomas Hippler, “Volunteers of the French Revolutionary Wars: Myths and Reinterpretations,” in War Volunteering in Modern Times: From the French Revolution to the Second World War,” Christine Krűger and Sonja Levsen, eds. (New York: Pallgrave Macmillan, 2011), 23-39.
[ix] Dierk Walter, “Reluctant Reformers, Observant Disciples: The Prussian Military Reforms, 1807-1814,” in Roger Chickering and Stig Förster, eds. War in the Age of Revolution, 1775-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2010), 99.
[x] C. v. Clausewitz, “Observations on Prussia and Her Great Catastrophe,” in Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, trans. and ed. Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (Princeton: Princeton University, 1992), 33, 41, 75.
[xi] On War, 589.
[xii] Panama (1903, 1918-20), Cuba (1906-09, 1917-20), Honduras (1912-19, 1924-25), Nicaragua (1912-25, 1926-33), Haiti (1915-34), Mexico (1914, 1916), Dominican Republic (1916-24).
[xiii] Hans Schmidt, Marine Maverik: General Smedley D. Butler and the Contradictions of American Military History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998).
[xiv] Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War, 2d Ed. (New York: Oxford University, 2013).
[xv] G.M. Walton and H. Rockoff, History of the American Economy, 11th Ed., (Mason, OH: Cengage, 2010), 400.
[xvi] On War, 587.
[xvii] Thus, the idiom “so-bels” for soldier-rebels. Robert L. Feldman and Michael Ben Arrous, “Confronting Africa’s Sobels,” Parameters 43, 4 (Winter 2013-14): 67-75.
[xviii] A.R. Millett, P. Maslowski, W.B. Feis, For the Common Defense, 3rd Ed. (New York: Free Press, 2012), 47-50.
[xix] As Mao famously wrote: “The people are like water and the army is like fish.” Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. 2 (London: International, 1954), 119.
[xx] Naunihal Singh, Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2014).
[xxi] American Military History (Washington DC: US Army Center of Military History, 1989), 123-24.
[xxii] A.H.D. v. Blow, The Spirit of the Modern System of War (London: 1806); H.E. Lloyd, History of the Late War between the King of Prussia and the Empress of Germany and Her Allies (London: 1781).
[xxiii] For more on this point, see Michael I. Handel, “Clausewitz in the Age of Technology,” in Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, M. Handel, ed. (London: Frank Cass, 1986), 51-93.
[xxiv] Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2012); Pierre Asselin, Hanoi’s Road to the Vietnam War (Berkeley: University of California, 2013).