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Most commentaries on Clausewitz’s great study of war observe that he was not systematic in his analysis. He adopted no comprehensive methodological approach but used a variety of analytical devices, shifting from one to another as he saw fit. On War therefore does not offer the strategist any clear instructions on how to go about doing strategy.[i] It is nonetheless worthwhile surveying the motley collection of the methods he does use, first to understand that a sophisticated analysis of war does not require sophisticated or abstruse methodology, and second to grasp that the best method is the one that brings greatest clarity to the topic at hand.
Even from a cursory reading of On War it is evident that Clausewitz frequently bases his analysis on opposites, polarities and contradictions: offence and defence, means and ends, action and reaction (Wechselwirkung), war with limited aims and war fought for survival or total overthrow of the enemy, strategies of attrition and of all-out effort, physical and psychological (moralisch in Clausewitz’s terminology) elements of warfare, theory and practice, art and science. These dualities are essentially polar opposites with pressures and tendencies, claims and counter-claims in both dirctions.
In other instances, however, his dualism is asymmetrical, notably in his contrasting of real war and absolute war (absoluter Krieg). Here the idea of absolute war represents an ideal or pure form of conflict towards which actual war may strive but in practice never achieves – rather like absolute zero in physics. The concept, however, allows him to explore and to emphasise the factors – collectively dubbed ‘friction’ – that ensure absolute war can never be realised in the real world.
What interested Clausewitz most was the complex and disputed no-man’s land between two simple concepts, the ways in which two differing elements might combine and re-combine over time, and the potential for transition from one to the other. Clausewitz’s dualist approach was intended both to identify the critical components of war in a clear fashion and to bring out its complexity. It is no surprise that much of On War is, as Alan Beyerchen puts it, a ‘forest of caveats and qualifications’.[ii]
Thus, Clausewitz argued that an offensive campaign was liable to reach a culminating point where it could no longer be sustained and defence must take over, an idea that goes back at least to Machiavelli. After all, defence – especially strategic defence, properly conducted – is for Clausewitz the stronger form of warfare so that even a successful offensive campaign must at some point pay heed to its defence. Napoleon’s fruitless occupation of Moscow finally brought this point home to the Emperor. Likewise, Clausewitz applauded the idea that defence ends with a transition to the counter-attack.
Judging when to shift from attack to defence or to launch a counter-attack is part of the stuff of strategy – and strategy for Clausewitz is ‘strictly speaking neither an art nor science’. Strategy, in practice, partakes of both but, if a choice must be made, Clausewitz prefers the term ‘art of war’ to ‘science of war’ because of the crucial element of human judgement . In tactics, by contrast, cause and effect are more closely linked and routine situations often arise so that rules can be applied more methodically. The attempt to disentangle science and art in the conduct of war is perhaps Clausewitz’s greatest contribution to the understanding of strategy.
At the political level – where art rather than science is clearly predominant – what begins as a war for limited objectives can turn into an all-out struggle as tension increases and neither side is willing to abandon the losses they have incurred. While Clausewitz argues that no state should take the first step into war without considering the last, he is only too aware that this counsel is rarely followed. The two types of war might be easily distinguished analytically but there is no certainty they can be kept separate in practice.
Dualism is also evident in a quite different field of analysis, namely Clausewitz’s discussion of the psychology of military commanders. While conceding that he is no expert in the discipline, Clausewitz looks first at the degree of stability or steadfastness in a commander which can be high or low. A second quality is the level of emotion or personal involvement of a commander which can also be either high or low. The greatest potential for military genius, Clausewitz concludes, is to be found in commanders ‘who are difficult to move but have strong feelings’  – a not too subtle allusion to his mentor Scharnhorst.
On War is pervaded with such dualistic analysis, albeit of a flexible and nuanced kind. But it is certainly not in any sense Hegelian though Clausewitz was familiar with the dialectical ideas of the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, an acquaintance of his for a time in Berlin. There is no grand historical scheme in On War, no progression from thesis to antithesis followed by a synthesis. Clausewitz was too focused on the practical and pressing realities of war.
But it is for his threefold divisions rather than his dualism that Clausewitz is perhaps best known and sometimes most misunderstood. His celebrated trinity – the conception of war as a compound of passion, reason and chance – appears in chapter 1 of Book I of On War and, though not further examined as a trinity, runs through his entire work. For passion, reason and chance are in war what Clausewitz calls ‘dominant tendencies’ . Every war contains a mix of the irrational and uncontrollable (passion), the rational and instrumental (reason), and the unpredictable and unknowable (chance). War partakes of this ‘remarkable trinity’ (wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit) because it is simply ‘part of man’s social existence’ [89, 149]. In this respect making war resembles other important human activities such as making money and making love.
- Passion: this is the bedrock of war, providing its original motivation and shaping its objectives. Clausewitz uses the terms hatred [Hass] and enmity [Feindlichkeit] to indicate the sort of passion he has in mind in relation to war. Conflict between states or peoples arises in many ways – perhaps a matter of historic antagonism, clashing interests or popular hostility whipped up by governments. Mutual antagonism may or may not lead to war but where it runs high there can be ‘such a mass of inflammable material, that the slightest quarrel can produce a wholly disproportionate effect – a real explosion’ . Once violence breaks out, moreover, hostile feelings are easily stirred up even if there is no great underlying tension between states at war. In short, the use of force cannot fail to involve the emotions [138, 76].
Making a further distinction between civilised and uncivilised peoples, Clausewitz observes that the latter are ‘ruled by passion’ and the former ‘by the mind’. Yet even civilised peoples ‘can be fired with a passionate hatred for each other’ and consequently abandon reason. By the same token it is ‘an obvious fallacy’, Clausewitz insists, to conclude that civilised states could go to war purely as a rational act . For passion is ‘a blind natural force’ , a necessary and dynamic element, feeding into war and feeding off it, civilisation or no civilisation.
- Reason: this is the factor that seeks to direct the violence of war effectively and efficiently towards a goal. It seeks to make war an instrument of policy and, ideally but unattainably, to make it ‘subject to reason alone’ . Reason imposes a purpose and a structure on violence which is otherwise meaningless and unthinking. Thus strategy employs reason, selecting the most effective means to reach the desired goals of the campaign while taking into account the likely consequences of one’s own actions and anticipating the actions of an opponent.
Whether reason can be applied effectively to foreign policy goals is an issue that Clausewitz does not settle.[iii] On the one hand, he believes that a nation’s interests are objective and self-evident, namely defending its territory, upholding its honour (prestige or credibility in modern terms) and ensuring its sovereign independence. Reason plays a leading part in determining how these are best secured. On the other hand, Clausewitz accepts that a state has the right to set whatever goals it wishes, however risky or contrary to common sense they may seem. It was thus Napoleon’s prerogative to seek to conquer Russia; if he is to be condemned, it is for choosing an inferior means to achieve his improbable ambition.
In reality, of course, reason never fully controls the passions or the unpredictability of war and politics. Clausewitz’s position is that reason should seek to control such unruly forces as far as possible. Equally, reason can never be entirely eliminated from war. For even ‘the most savage, almost instinctive, passion of hatred cannot be conceived as existing without hostile intent’  i.e. without some sort of goal in mind against an enemy and without some thought being given as to how to achieve it. Arguably, contemporary terrorism qualifies on this score even though its calculation of means and ends may be defective and unrealistic.
- Chance: this is the third element of the trinity and is ‘the very last thing that war lacks’. ‘No other human activity’, Clausewitz maintains, ‘is so continuously or universally bound up with chance’ . Chance is present because war is a complex and dynamic set of human interactions, all subject to a pervading friction – the difference between war on paper and war in reality . There can never be sufficient information or reliable enough theories to predict the course of a war in any detail. Those who engage in war, moreover, must take decisions on inadequate and unreliable information in rapidly changing situations and in the face of physical danger, all against an enemy whose next move is probably unknown and perhaps unknowable. Guesswork and luck always play a part in war so that itmust ultimately be regarded as ‘a gamble’ .
Yet chance cannot be given too great a place in war for that would be to deny the value of reason in the form of strategy and the role of passion embodied in commitment to a cause. No battle can be won entirely by chance, for material factors such as the size of armies and psychological factors such as morale and leadership play a part. Among both generals and ordinary soldiers, qualities of mind and temperament are of first importance and Clausewitz gives them much attention. For the general, chance in war means that ‘the creative spirit is free to roam’  and his skill, experience and judgement in assessing probabilities can reduce the role of chance. Chance is neither malevolent nor benign; it can be confronted, and to an extent managed, but never eliminated.
War thus contains elements of passion, reason and chance – in varying combinations. None can be eliminated though one or more might dominate in any given war or at any phase of a conflict. There is no fixed relationship between them. The balance between these three ‘tendencies’, Clausewitz argues, is ‘like an object suspended between three magnets’ . It is inherently unstable, always liable to move unpredictably this way and that.
Clausewitz’s second famous trinity – and the two are sometimes confused – is not abstract but institutional, namely that of government, army and people. While Clausewitz refers frequently to these institutions (or the ‘estates’ of rulers, warriors and commoners), he does not examine them at length in On War though some of his other writings go into greater detail.[iv] These institutions are central to his view of war, however, because they actually make war possible and shape its character. One side at least must have some sort of political leadership that sets goals and chooses means; it must possess more or less organised fighting forces; and contain a population that will fight in and pay for its army. Regular war is fought between two or more states with these characteristics though war can also occur when one side lacks a coherent government, defined fighting forces and united populations. The ‘guerrilla’ or ‘little war’ against Napoleon in Spain was an example familiar to Clausewitz.
The social and political relationship between government, army and people was crucial to Clausewitz’s perception of war as a changeable phenomenon. He had seen how France mobilised its populace first to fight for the revolution, then to follow Napoleon on his military quest for glory. Prussia, Clausewitz concluded, had no option but to make greater use of the talents and enthusiasm of its people if it wanted to create a military force that could match that of France. Prussia needed reform not only in its army but also in the wider society – though not to the point of changing its form of government. Change society and war itself will change.
Two or three trinities
What Clausewitz did not much explore was the relationship between the two trinities: the underlying elements of war and the manifest institutions of war. He makes one passing reference when he says that passion ‘mainly concerns’  the people; reason, the government; and chance, the military commander and his army. In other words, Clausewitz sees the passions necessary in war (hatred and enmity) as ‘already … inherent in the people’  while reason is of concern to government since it must determine the ends and means of war, and the play of chance and probability in fighting is the natural province of the army.
Yet Clausewitz’s original wording on the relationship between each institution and the foundational elements of war in fact ‘concerns more’ (mehr … zugewendet) which suggests that the links are by no means exclusive.[vi] Among the people, opinion and feelings may be fickle and subject to chance developments, while they may also show a certain common sense (reason) in how they expect to be employed in war. (The growth of democracy, education and ideas of human rights have made this link much stronger than in Clausewitz’s time.) The army must also manage the passions and feelings of its troops which may be patriotic but can also be truculent and troublesome, while at the same time it deals with government as the latter seeks to impose objectives on and shape strategy for its armed forces. Finally, a government seeks to bring reason to bear in war but must also come to terms with the passions of its people and the sheer unpredictability of events that influence the course of a war.
To better comprehend these linkages, a third trinity needs to be invoked – one that Clausewitz himself uses extensively, albeit not explicitly, in the context of the foundational trinity of passion, reason and chance. This is the functional trinity of fighting, strategy and policy which represent a hierarchy of means and ends in the conduct of war. The purpose of fighting is to win the battle, strategy is the employment of battle to achieve the goals of the campaign, and the purpose of the campaign is to achieve the political objectives of the war. We can now put the three trinities together in a way that accords with Clausewitz’s thinking though it is not a schema that he himself spelled out.[vii]
Figure 1: The Trinity of Trinities
The principal activities of war – fighting, strategy and policy – are located close to the two institutions primarily responsible for them and between two of the three fundamental forces of passion, reason and chance. Thus, fighting pertains to the people who provide the manpower and skills and to the army which organises its personnel and capabilities and takes them into harm’s way. And in fighting, chance and passion – in the form of patriotism, unit loyalty and personal commitment – are most in evidence since reason has (it can be hoped) already played its part in shaping strategy and policy. Government by and large takes a back seat with regard to fighting.
Strategy is developed by the army’s leaders and the government in combination, a military-political relationship that is sometimes collaborative, sometimes conflictual. Army focuses on leadership and direction of its forces in the campaign while government seeks to ensure that the campaign promotes its policy goals. Strategy also deals primarily with reason and chance. The selection of military means and political ends represents an effort to impose rationality on an activity in which chance and probability loom large. The populace play little part, if any, in the formulation of strategy.
Policy, finally, combines passion and reason. Passion is necessary whether a state simply wishes to defend itself or to conquer a continent or anything in between. It is a driving force that can lead in many directions. Reason must be called upon to select the appropriate means to achieve the chosen objectives. This is the business of government and its people. Where autocracy rules, the people may play a minor role, though even then they must provide the army’s manpower, skills and commitment to fight. Democratic polities are more likely to see an enhanced role for public opinion, the result of elections and the influence of media. The Army may have something to say on policy but this should relate primarily to what military force can or cannot achieve rather than setting policy goals. At all events, the relationship between passion and reason – expressed in terms of policy – is never settled.
Clausewitz did not adopt the idea of simple, direct links between the people and passion, between the army and chance, and between the government and reason. Nor is anything simple or stable in the relationships between reason and passion, passion and chance, and chance and reason. In this trinity of trinities there is constant interplay both within each of the trinities and between all of the trinities. The ‘object’ Clausewitz saw as suspended between the three magnets of passion, reason and chance is in fact a complex and variable entity called war that is itself a compound of two further trinities: the institutions that conduct it and the activities that define and distinguish it. The combinations among these trinities will vary enormously from war to war.
Those who seek a simple formula for success in strategy in On War will therefore be disappointed. Clausewitz does offer some general propositions about what makes for success in strategy – for example, have greater numbers than your enemy, or aim to destroy the ‘centre of gravity’ on which the opponent’s power depends – but these propositions are not guarantees of victory and need to be qualified by the particular circumstances of a given war. Strategists may learn the importance of careful analysis from Clausewitz’s methodological mix and gain a sense of the complexity of strategy but they will not learn what decisions to make. The first and perhaps only lesson to learn is the complexity of war itself. Strategy, as Clausewitz would be the first to insist, is not meant to be easy.
[i] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976. Subsequent references to On War are in square brackets in the text.
[ii] ‘Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War’, International Security vol. 17 no. 3 (Winter 1992-3), p. 89. Beyerchen sees this as representing the nature of actual warfare.
[iii] Hugh Smith, On Clausewitz,: A Study of Military and Political Ideas, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2005, pp. 220-22
[iv] See Carl von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings, edited and translated by Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, Princeton University Press, 1992
[v] Hugh Smith, ‘Clausewitz as Sociologist’, Infinity Journal, Special Edition, 2012 https://www.infinityjournal.com/article/47/Clausewitz_as_Sociologist/
[vi] Christopher Bassford, ‘The Primacy of Policy and the ‘Trinity’ in Clausewitz’s Mature Thought’ in Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 81
[vii] For further discussion see Smith, On Clausewitz, pp. 120-3.