Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 2  /  

Clausewitz’s ‘Warlike Element’ and the War in Ukraine

Clausewitz’s ‘Warlike Element’ and the War in Ukraine Clausewitz’s ‘Warlike Element’ and the War in Ukraine
Photo by manhhai (Flickr), CC by 2.0
To cite this article: Smith, M.L.R., “On Efficacy: A Beginner’s Guide to Strategic Theory,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, fall 2022, pages 10-17.

As the conflict in Ukraine unfolds, students of the famed Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz may wonder which of his concepts, aside from well-worn ones such as “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” still hold true. Of course, Clausewitz did the bulk of his thinking and writing some two hundred years ago. Since then, military hardware and fighting techniques, the likes of which he could not have imagined, have changed the character of war in both predictable and unpredictable ways. Fortunately, Clausewitz also said a great deal about war’s intangibles, those elements of conflict that exist in parallel to its changing character, but which have a timeless quality about them. One such concept, the “warlike element” (kriegerische Element) and its relationship to a people’s war or to the arming of an entire nation (Volksbewaffnung), can shed useful light on our observations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Warlike Element

Clausewitz’s warlike element is all but invisible in the Michael Howard and Peter Paret translations of On War.[i] Yet the concept was of central importance to the Prussian’s overall theory of war and is evident in some of his earlier writings. An excellent dissertation by a Finnish officer, Anders Palmgren, equates it to an “enthusiasm for fighting.”[ii] Indeed, it represents a quality of fierceness in warfare brought about not by destructive technologies, but by human feelings of “hatred” (Haß) and “enmity” (Feindschaft), both of which Clausewitz equated to a “blind natural instinct” (ein blinder Naturtrieb).[iii] The warlike element appears in Clausewitz’s trinitarian conception of war’s nature as enmity or hostility, and it captures what he understood to be war’s true spirit or essence (Geist). He used the warlike element—the quality of fierceness or an enthusiasm for fighting—as an antithesis to the geometric rules and principles that Adam Dietrich von Bűlow and Antoine Henri de Jomini claimed were the true spirit of modern war. In this sense, Clausewitz’s thinking showed the intellectual biases of the cultural movement known loosely as German romanticism, which prized the authentic and the natural over the artificial, and eschewed mechanistic rules and prescriptions for placing form above spirit.[iv]

Contrary to what some interpreters have claimed over the years, On War is more about the warlike element than it is about absolute war. Absolute war is nothing more than the warlike element, the true spirit of war, taken to its ultimate expression and the enthusiasm for fighting is unencumbered by any external constraints. Since real war is never absolved of such restraints, however, absolute war could never occur in reality. Napoleon’s wars came close to it, Clausewitz argued, due to the participation of the entire nation (Volk), especially the populace, which transformed war’s nature from the limited conflicts that had preceded it.

The warlike element captured not only how warlike some wars were, but also how unwarlike others were. Clausewitz likened such conflicts to a “restricted, shriveled up form of war” (beschränkte, zusammengeschrumpfte Gestalt des Krieges) or “half-things” (Halbdinge) because customs and conventions had stifled the true spirit of war.[v] Prussia engaged in such a half-thing in 1812, for instance, when it was forced to contribute some 20,000 troops to the Grande Armée for the invasion of Russia. Most Prussians felt little enthusiasm for the French cause and readily defected when the opportunity arose later that year.[vi] But such half-things, Clausewitz had to acknowledge, were wars too. In fact, they were more numerous historically than warlike wars. As Palmgren rightly notes, the concept of Politik (meaning policy or political interaction, depending on the context) allows Clausewitz to retain the warlike element because Politik functions as a guiding intelligence that shapes (or endeavors to) how warlike a war will be. Put differently, Politik enables Clausewitz to acknowledge most wars would fall between the extremes of warlike and unwarlike.

The Warlike Element Plus Arming the Nation

Clausewitz originally expected a war of national liberation, “a war that a people wages on its home ground for liberty and independence,” to be more warlike in nature than most other wars.[vii] The term Volksbewaffnung can mean arming the people, thus a people’s war, or arming the entire nation. In fact, Clausewitz, his mentor Gerd von Scharnhorst, and others of the Prussian Military Reorganization Commission had begun discussing ways to bring the Prussian populace, the monarchy, and the army together into a unified entity, a total nation in arms, through some form of universal military service.[viii] Either on its own, or as part of a conventional army, or as a combination of both, Clausewitz believed a people fighting for its liberty against an invader would surely display a high enthusiasm for fighting, a fierceness. Partisan activities in Spain, in the Tyrol, and in the Vendee, involved fighting that was especially bloody and merciless. These cases confirmed his views that if a populace wanted to be unconquerable in its fight for freedom, it would be. Even initial defeats would simply inspire later generations to continue fighting and do so at little financial cost. Officers and soldiers waging such conflicts should be considered heroes and patriots, not pariahs. Indeed, the government must compel the populace to take up arms for the preservation of the nation’s independence and honor. The involvement of the populace in warfare as soldiers and as partisans meant both the nature and character of war (as we would describe them) had changed.[ix]

Unfortunately, Clausewitz’s own Prussia failed to launch an insurrection after its defeat at the hands of the French in 1806/1807. Queen Louise, General Gebhard von Blűcher, and other high-ranking officials may well have seethed with the desire for revenge against the French after the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, which deprived Prussia of half its territory, imposed an indemnity of 155 million francs, and reduced its fighting forces to 44,000 troops.[x] But that animus had not spread to the larger populace. Prussian subjects were not fully enfranchised or invested in the state. Even some of the Prussian illuminati, such as Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel and Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who lived but twenty kilometers from each other near Jena, were eager for a French victory and had wished the “French army luck.”[xi] Both had embraced the popular narrative that Napoleon was not just a military genius but an agent of social and political change who would sweep away the stifling legal structures and practices of the “Ancien Régime” and replace them with more egalitarian ones.[xii] Hence, only a few local uprisings occurred, such as the one initiated by a cavalry officer by the name Major Ferdinand von Schill in May 1809, and those were quickly put down by the French and their allies. It would not be until 1813, after modest social, political, and economic reforms had taken effect and as a weakened Napoleon retreated from Russia, that Prussia’s populace showed any appetite for engaging in a war of liberation.

Clausewitz later analyzed the root causes of Prussia’s lack of fighting spirit in 1806 and 1807.[xiii] As he rightly observed, most of Prussia’s social classes expressed little desire to fight for the Prussian crown, especially against Napoleonic France. Moreover, Prussia’s strategists were divided over the best course of action to adopt as the French columns advanced. Save for a few enlightened souls, such as Clausewitz’s mentor Gerd von Scharnhorst, Prussia’s military leaders entertained antiquated ideas about fighting and campaigning. The rank and file were the product of mechanistic training devoid of spirit and neither organized nor psychologically prepared for a fast-paced, modern war. In short, the Prussians were decidedly unwarlike across every category of the Clausewitzian trinity. The French, by comparison, were fused together into a coherent, if not always cohesive, fighting machine. The French army, moreover, was led by one of history’s greatest commanders; its ranks were filled with citizen soldiers motivated by a keen nationalistic spirit, while the broader populace seemingly supported the war. Every element of the Clausewitzian trinity, in other words, was inclined in a warlike direction for the French; all three elements in alignment would prove too much for the divided and friction-filled Prussian state.

When Clausewitz wrote “The People in Arms,” chapter 26, book 6 of On War (presumably in the mid-1820s) his outlook had matured. He had experienced the grueling Russian campaign of 1812, had witnessed firsthand some of the brutality of partisan warfare, and had seen the ebb and flow of the fighting spirit of armies with citizen soldiers. Large numbers of Landwehr had deserted Blűcher’s forces during the heavy rainstorm that followed the Prussian defeat at Ligny, for instance. Fusing the government, the people, and the military together was not a panacea. For a people’s war or a nation in arms to succeed, Clausewitz maintained, it should be waged in conjunction with a conventional campaign conducted by a standing army. In addition, a people’s war must be waged (1) within the borders of the country, (2) not be decided by a single blow, (3) over a large expanse of territory, (4) by a defender with a suitable national character, and (5) across a rough and inaccessible countryside.[xiv] Clearly, these conditions are present in much of modern-day Ukraine. However, number 4, national character, derives from attitudes cultural chauvinism common among developed countries and may be dangerously misleading.

The Ukrainian Defense of Kyiv in 2022

The Ukrainian defense of Kyiv offers a modern example of Clausewitz’s warlike element and his notion of people’s war combined. Early reports indicate Ukrainian civilians, plus the 112th and 114th Territorial Defense Forces, as well as the 72nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade conducted a successful defense of Kyiv.[xv] Scores of YouTube videos and other media showed many Ukrainian civilians arming themselves with the most basic of weapons, from Kalashnikovs to Molotov cocktails, and preparing to defend their homes and neighborhoods against invasion. As two retired US Army officers, Colonel Liam Collins and Major John Spenser, both of whom interviewed Ukrainian civilians and military personnel after the battle of Kyiv, explain:

Collins: “On the 24th [of February] the Ukrainian forces definitely had a plan they were going to execute as soon as the Russians launched . . . but were not yet in position . . . [once the assault occurred] they quickly moved into position with the 72nd Mech defending Kyiv proper at the city limits . . . relying on this informal group of volunteer forces operating forward of that main defensive line outside of the city limits.”

Spencer: “Right . . . it was an irregular force that was part of this defense in depth . . .”

Collins: “Everyone had heard about the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force before the war . . . the question is how important was their role and how organized were they? That was one of the surprises . . . the formal Territorial Defense Force was only officially established on the 1st of January . . . but they weren’t really organized until the 31st of March or the beginning of April . . . after the defense of Kyiv they were established into formal unites. Before that time, it was just a lot of civilians showing up, getting issued a rifle or an AK and couple of magazines with no one really giving them any direction . . . then moving out, self-organizing, to defend a bridge, or defend a position, doing what was necessary to defend their nation . . . Yet the volunteers were extremely effective.”

Spencer: “this is the theme in one of the articles we’ve written about, the role of volunteers in the defense of Kyiv. . . and in outlying cities . . . like Buca . . . literally ‘community defenders’ were part of this early defense in depth. . . some of them were veterans with prior experience. . . some had a few training events . . . and became leaders.”

Collins: “You almost had what I equate to a ‘county-level national guard’ and they turn their county seat or whatever into a headquarters.”[xvi]

Both officers went on to recommend combining regular and irregular forces into a total defense concept along the lines of the Ukrainian example.[xvii] As always, early observations must be confirmed through further research. Nonetheless, these insights are well enough supported to warrant opening a more deliberate dialogue on the topic.

To be sure, the Ukrainian defense of Kyiv serves well as a microcosm of Clausewitz’s related concepts of the warlike element and Volksbewaffnung in action. Yet we would do well to remember it was not fighting spirit with an integrated defense that proved decisive; a multiplicity of Russian mistakes also contributed to the successful defense of Kyiv. Russian columns moved without security forward or along the flanks or overhead, and thus drove into ambushes. The Russian airborne units were left unsupported, and hence were wiped out. By the accounts of Spencer and Collins, even Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces were unprepared for the Russian assault due to poor organization and planning. Fortunately, Ukrainian enmity toward the Russian invader aided the defenders in overcoming their shortfalls. But we cannot count on the Russians to make the same mistakes in the future. We must also keep in mind the warnings of Russian experts who argue the Kremlin is rarely, if ever, likely to be deterred on strategic matters dealing with Ukraine. Therefore, a fully vetted defensive concept, not just one based on deterrence, is necessary. Both concepts should be based on partnering regular and irregular units to achieve a conventional defense augmented by an unconventional insurrection.

Moreover, should another Russian invasion happen elsewhere, the defenders might not have the benefit of facing an ill-prepared and poorly led invading force. Therefore, best to prepare in advance. Accordingly, NATO’s member states must conduct rigorous defense reviews of their armed forces and their operational concepts. These reviews must ensure each nation’s regular and irregular components are well prepared; they must train together, become acquainted with each other’s leaders at all echelons and conduct periodic joint rehearsals of their defensive missions. Indeed, NATO’s interoperability challenges may increase greatly as regular armies from one member cross-train with irregular forces in another. Nonetheless, it may be crucial to ensuring the success of Article 5.


Clearly, the Clausewitz of eighteenth-century Prussia regarded armed conflict differently than we do today. His concepts of the warlike element and its relationship to a nation in arms, to the extent we can reconstruct them today, shed light on some of the events surrounding the defense of Kyiv. While competent military strategists have long appreciated the value of morale, it remains difficult to quantify. Nor is it qualitatively the same as primordial hatred or enmity. Nor is primordial hatred qualitatively the same as passion, which can have warlike and anti-warlike characteristics. In attempting to trace enmity in war to something primordial, Clausewitz might have erred. But his error still gives us food for thought.

Modern military professionals talk of war’s nature as chameleon-like. A chameleon’s skin may change color to fit its surroundings, but it remains a chameleon. In contrast, war’s character—the institutions that participate in war, the weapons, the doctrines, and indeed the whole process of warfare itself—is said to change over time and across cultures. According to military professionals, those changes do not alter war’s nature because war, at root, remains war. True. But Clausewitz said war was not like a chameleon. Its surface features change, yes; but, as he tried to say, so, too, do its inner forces. These expand and contract even as they rearrange themselves in ways that sometimes transform armed conflict from one type into another.[xviii] The so-called chameleon might transform into a dragon, for instance; or the dragon might become a lowly newt.

By insisting war’s nature is constant—all serve political purposes, fluctuate with the ups and downs of human emotions, and turn more on probability than predictability—modern military professionals deprive armed conflict of its ability to transform from one creature to another. They are, however, not necessarily aware they are doing so. Ironically, military professionals might not genuinely believe war’s nature is as constant as they claim, since they tend to regard today’s “small wars” much like the half-things of Clausewitz’s day rather than as “real” wars. It is probably better this way. Only inept leaders would prepare for the world wars of the twentieth century, with their unparalleled destructiveness and unmatched levels of primordial hatred, in the same way as they would for one of the Banana wars. Clausewitz’s warlike element reminds us all wars may be of the same nature, yet truly different.


[i] Compare: C. v. Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 592-93; C. v. Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, 19th Ed. (Berlin: Dűmmlers, 1980), 970-74.
[ii] Anders Palmgren, Visions of Strategy: Following Clausewitz’s Train of Thought (Helsinki: National Defense University, 2014), 401, and 183ff; this is the only work I have found that treats the concept in depth.
[iii] VK, Bk I, Chp 1, 213; On War, 89.
[iv] Frederick C. Beiser, The Fate of Reason: German Philosophy from Kant to Fichte (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987).
[v] VK, Bk VIII, Chp. 6B, 968, 991-92; On War, 609.
[vi] By the Convention of Tauroggen, December 30, 1812, which Clausewitz facilitated.
[vii] C. v. Clausewitz, Historical and Political Writings, ed. and trans. Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), Letter to German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, January 1809, 283.
[viii] William O. Shanahan, Prussian Military Reforms 1786-1813 (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 127-49.
[ix] James Davis and Christopher Daase, Clausewitz On Small War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 170-96.
[x] Michael V. Leggiere, Blűcher: Scourge of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 96-97.
[xi] Letter to Niethammer, dated October 13, 1806, in Hegel: The Letters, trans. Clark Butler and Christiane Seiler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 115.
[xii] “Thanks to the bath of her Revolution,” wrote Hegel in 1807, “the French Nation has freed herself of many institutions which the human spirit had outgrown like the shoes of a child. These institutions . . . continue to oppress other nations as so many fetters devoid of spirit.” Hegel: Letters, 302.
[xiii] Carl von Clausewitz, Preussen in seiner grossen Katastrophe (Wien and Leipzig: Karolinger 2001); the best translation is “Observations on Prussia in Her Great Catastrophe” (written between 1823 and 1825) in Historical and Political Writings, 75.
[xiv] Compare Howard and Paret, On War, 480; Davis and Daase, Clausewitz On Small War, 222.
[xv] In Ukraine will be formed more than 150 territorial defence battalions - Militarnyi
[xvi] Studying the Battle of Kyiv, Part 1 | Urban Warfare Project (
[xvii] How volunteers can help defeat great powers (
[xviii] Vom Kriege, Bk I, 212-13; On War, 89.