Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 3, Issue 3  /  

Does War Have its Own Logic After All?

Does War Have its Own Logic After All? Does War Have its Own Logic After All?
To cite this article: Echevarria, Antulio J. II, “Does War Have its Own Logic After All?”, Infinity Journal, Volume 3, Issue 3, Summer 2013, pages 4-7.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Carl von Clausewitz observed that war has ‘its own grammar, but not its own logic.’[i] This analogy is still enormously popular, despite the fact that he used it only once in his voluminous masterwork, On War (1832). Among other things, it has become shorthand for the argument that military aims ought to remain subordinate to policy’s goals. It also represents a convenient way to express what many see as the military’s proper relationship to political authority. In addition, it accords well with another of Clausewitz’s memorable expressions: that ‘war is merely the continuation of policy (Politik) by other means.’[ii] These two observations have retained their popularity to the present for good reasons, not the least of which is the obvious need to control the destructive capacity of modern war. However, they tell us not that ‘war begins where diplomacy ends,’ but rather that war is diplomacy—though with the addition of violent means.[iii] Whereas contemporary wisdom holds that armed conflicts—even those akin to the bargaining model—represent a break in the normal flow of political activity, Clausewitz believed that war was a natural part of, and inseparable from, that activity. War’s logic was, thus, determined by the objectives and level of effort set for it by policy.

Since the end of World War II, however, a number of eminent scholars and military practitioners have taken issue with Clausewitz’s view that war defers to policy’s logic. In the late 1980s, historian Russell Weigley argued that policy often becomes an instrument of war rather than the other way around: ‘War in the twentieth century,’ he said, ‘is no longer the extension of politics by other means.’ Instead, it ‘has always tended to generate a politics of its own: to create its own momentum, to render obsolete the political purposes for which it was undertaken, and to erect its own political purpose.’[iv] Similarly, Cold War strategists, such as Bernard Brodie, have long interpreted Clausewitz’s On War, especially its first chapter, as saying that policy must maintain firm control over military activity lest war assume its own escalatory path in the direction of military victory.[v] In other words, Brodie and many of his Cold War colleagues tried to have it both ways: they claimed, on the one hand, that war had no logic of its own; while, on the other hand, they urged policy to do everything in its power to control war’s escalatory tendencies, thereby implying that war did have its own logic after all.

As this essay shows, the experience of the United States in the Second World War suggests that industrial-age war on a global scale did, indeed, generate a politics of its own, and that collectively its imperatives functioned more like a ‘logic’ than a ‘grammar.’

Terms & Perspectives.

The term ‘logic’ refers to the overall direction of the fighting, the ‘why;’ whereas ‘grammar’ is the sum of operational imperatives or principles, the ‘how’ of fighting. ‘Policy’ is typically defined by modern strategists as an official statement or position, such as the Monroe doctrine, hammered out through a combination of formal and informal processes. However, for Clausewitz, policy generally referred to the ‘intelligence of the personified state,’ or the ‘trustee’ or ‘representative of the separate interests of the whole community.’[vi] Policy, in other words, was a living entity—an individual, an organization, or an institution—with the authority to decide what was ‘best’ for the state, rather than a formal position or set of aims. King Frederick William III and his body of advisors fulfilled this role for Clausewitz’s Prussia; and, as history amply shows, the king’s decisions did not always align with the interests of the aristocracy, the nascent middle class, the peasantry, or the military. To be sure, modern scholars are likely to see the relationship between war and policy differently than Clausewitz due to dissimilarities in their cultural and historical backgrounds. In brief, the former tend to view war from a liberal-democratic perspective, and regard it as an evil that is only sometimes necessary; they are thus inclined to see it as disruptive to daily affairs. Clausewitz, on the other hand, considered war from the standpoint of a guardian of the state, and saw it as neither inherently good nor intrinsically evil, but as a natural artifact of political activity. Nonetheless, the fact that their perspectives are diametrically opposed does not eliminate the possibility that war might have a logic of its own.

Defining the Problem.

As the first chapter of On War shows, Clausewitz considered wars of conquest to be just as political as wars of limited aims. Policy remained sovereign in either type of conflict, though its authority was not absolute. It could change the purposes and aims of the war as well as the level of effort to be expended, and it could decide when the costs of the conflict exceeded its anticipated benefits. By taking up the sword, policy duly accepted the ‘grammar’ of swordplay; but policy’s hand still directed the thrusts and parries. Policy could select (or reject) specific operational imperatives, though some choices entail greater risk. However, Clausewitz did not address whether policy’s freedom of action might be usurped by certain operational imperatives, thereby making policy’s sovereignty more titular than real.

In contrast, modern scholars such as Weigley have warned that war’s grammar tends to exert a controlling influence over policy. This tendency was particularly evident during the two world wars, where, according to Weigley, ‘operational and tactical imperatives’ reined-in the ‘ambitious aims’ of both strategy and policy: ‘Instead of using war as an instrument of policy, [therefore] nations allowed operational and tactical feasibility to dictate policy.’ As a consequence, ‘long-range national purposes’ took a backseat to the ‘short-run expediencies of military strategy.’[vii] In short, the influence of war’s grammar was great enough to reverse, or at least corrupt, the relationship between war and policy described by Clausewitz.

Grammar versus Logic

The experience of the United States in the Second World War lends more than a little credence to Weigley’s view. Waging a global war in the industrial age did generate new policies, and new politics with them, particularly domestically. Considerable give-and-take took place between policy’s desires and war’s imperatives. The Doolittle raid in April 1942, for instance, was driven largely by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to strike back at the Japanese empire, and it was carried out despite significant operational limitations. It achieved little militarily; but it was immensely successful for Roosevelt politically and for the American public psychologically. As US General George C. Marshall wrote later about such psychological victories: ‘the leader of a democracy must keep the people entertained. That may sound like the wrong word, but it conveys the thought…. People demand action.’[viii] On the whole, though, military imperatives exerted more force than one would expect of mere rules of grammar. Their importance, in fact, meant that the ‘short-run expediencies of military strategy’ did at times take priority over ‘long-range national purposes.’

Military Imperatives

Perhaps the most important imperative in American military doctrine through the war was: to ‘be stronger at the decisive point.’[ix] It was recognized as the ‘first law’ of military strategy, and it had changed little since the early nineteenth century. This imperative supported several modern corollaries (principles of war), such as mass, objective, maneuver, initiative, and others hammered out initially by Jomini and Clausewitz and later refined by J.F.C. Fuller, among others; it was also a hedge against the debilitating effects of chance and uncertainty.[x] A relatively new corollary in this period was air superiority, and ‘being stronger in the air’ quickly became a prerequisite for successful ground and naval operations. On the one hand, the ‘first law’ of military strategy and its corollaries made it possible to achieve breakthroughs against strong defensive positions, as at El Alamein in 1942 and Normandy in 1944; and it enabled deep penetrations and envelopments, the hallmarks of twentieth-century maneuver warfare, as at the Falaise gap in 1944 and the Ruhr pocket in 1945.[xi] It also proved critical in naval engagements, as at the battle of Midway in 1942, and in amphibious operations, such as at Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945. On the other hand, massive quantities of tanks, aircraft, ships, guns, ammunition, and other supplies were necessary for any major operation. The operational pattern thus became one of ‘lunges,’ limited not only by enemy resistance, but also by the flow of logistics. Operational and tactical imperatives thus allowed forward movement on land and sea, but also acted as a regulator on that movement, and more or less checked political desires as well.

Aircraft technologies also gave rise to a new, though still theoretical, imperative in the form of strategic bombing. Prewar military and political expectations were that bombing a nation’s vital population and production centers would bring an opponent to its knees without the need for costly surface campaigns. Implementing this theory during the war consumed a great deal of resources, and inflicted massive amounts of damage: the Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943 caused an estimated 90,000 casualties; the bombing of Dresden in 1945 resulted in 80,000 casualties; and the Tokyo raids in May 1945 inflicted some 125,000 casualties.[xii] These efforts failed to break German or Japanese morale, and thus to meet policy’s desired aims. They did, however, prompt Axis combat aircraft and anti-aircraft weapons to be diverted from other fronts, and thus indirectly facilitated the advance of Allied ground and naval formations.[xiii] The theory was not validated by the events of the war; and it proved to be a false imperative, illustrating that military leadership can also be wrong about military capabilities.[xiv]

Wartime Policies

Operational imperatives also had a direct bearing on American military strategy, influencing not only the type of strategy chosen but also the measures necessary to execute it. Roosevelt succinctly articulated his strategy to Congress in February 1943: ‘We set as a primary task in the war of the Pacific a day-by-day and week-by-week and month-by-month destruction of more Japanese war materials than Japanese industry could replace.’[xv] US military strategy was, thus, clearly one of attrition, and it required retooling America’s industrial capacity to manufacture war material, and lots of it. By 1943, in fact, American production figures had surpassed those of the Axis by an appreciable margin: 47,000 US planes to 27,000 Axis aircraft; 24,000 American tanks to 11,000 Axis; six US heavy guns for every one produced by the Axis. By war’s end, the United States had produced 303,000 aircraft; 88,000 tanks; 237,000 artillery pieces; 2.4 million motor vehicles; one billion rounds of artillery ammunition; 41 billion rounds of small arms; and was launching 16 warships for every one built by Japan.[xvi]

Yet, achieving such production totals also necessitated introducing a host of new fiscal policies—such as the War Revenue Act, along with excess-profits taxes, and dozens of rationing programs—as well as the creation of 57 new organizations or agencies to oversee production, distribution, and to control prices.[xvii] Among these were the Office of Price Administration and Civilian Supply, the National War Labor Board, and the War Production Board. Such measures were also accompanied by new personnel policies or the revision of those already in existence, such as the Selective Service Act (September 1940).[xviii] The need to raise a large military force to fight a global war in the industrial age had necessitated new domestic policies, and the politics necessary to make them happen. As a graphic illustration of the change, Roosevelt’s public image also transformed: by December 1943, he was no longer ‘Dr. New Deal,’ administering to a patient attempting to recover from years of economic depression, but ‘Dr. Win the War,’ writing prescriptions for Allied victory over the Axis.[xix]

Military imperatives also had a bearing on several of Roosevelt’s strategic decisions during the war. For instance, his decision to stay the course on the ‘Germany First’ strategy, which had been agreed to in principle at the Anglo-American conference in February-March 1941, actually flew in the face of American public sentiment after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet, it made the most sense militarily because Germany posed the greater threat to his British and Russian allies. If either of them had been defeated or had concluded a separate peace, the goal of retaking Western Europe would have been tremendously more difficult, perhaps impossible. Likewise, Roosevelt’s decision on the location and timing of Stalin’s much desired ‘second front,’ the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) in 1942 rather than a direct assault across the English Channel either in that year or the year after, deferred to military considerations; Allied forces were simply not ready to undertake a major amphibious operation in western Europe. Even Roosevelt’s desire for the political aim of ‘unconditional surrender,’ which he defended at the Casablanca conference (January 1943), was relaxed in the cases of Italy and Japan, largely to reduce the likely military costs.

At the Yalta conference (February 1945), Roosevelt did give higher priority to the ‘short-run expediencies of military strategy’ than the ‘long-range national purposes.’[xx] While some critics claim he gave away too much to Stalin at both conferences, the tradeoff does show how important military imperatives had become. The Soviet Union was carrying the lion’s share of the war’s human costs and tied down the bulk of Hitler’s forces, destroying the equivalent of one division per day on the Eastern front. Without Soviet offensives, it is not likely the Western allies would have been able to gain a decisive foothold on the European continent until much later in the war. Military strategy did, at least in this important instance, take priority over grand strategy.

On the whole, then, the military imperatives associated with ‘being stronger at the decisive point’ carried great weight during the war. However, they served less as a set of rules (grammar) than as a collective antithesis (logic) to policy’s thesis. This dynamic occurred largely because political leaders (and some military ones) did not fully appreciate what military capabilities could actually accomplish under wartime conditions against competent and determined foes. The synthesis, whenever it occurred, represented an acceptance of the realities of military power. These realities made their presence felt in domestic policies as well as in high-level strategic decisions related to the changing circumstances of the war.


One can remain a student of Clausewitz while not necessarily agreeing with all of his propositions—or rather how they are represented today. The obvious conclusion that grammar and logic influence one another is unsatisfying. Clausewitz stated that ‘policy is interwoven throughout the whole activity of war and exerts a continuous influence over it insofar as its violent nature permits.’[xxi] However, influence does not necessarily amount to control: policy still influences the use of violence even if it must revise its thesis in response to war’s anti-thesis. Clausewitz said that ‘the art of war’ and ‘military commanders’ have the right to demand that the aims of policy be consistent with the violent nature of war’s means; unfortunately, his precise meaning cannot be determined today.

In sum, the core question becomes which elements of war’s grammar, if any, are inviolable, and just how critical they are to success. It may serve us better to think of war’s collective imperatives less as grammar, and more as an integrated system of logic. Ideally, policy’s thesis and the collective antithesis of operational imperatives are reconciled in the dialectical process of formulating strategy; but clearly that does not always happen. In any case, it may be worthwhile to re-examine our understanding of small wars as well as large ones to determine more broadly how the dynamics between policy and war actually work. That knowledge could well lead to a new general theory of war.


[i] Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, 19th Ed., Book VIII, Chap. 6B, p. 991.
[ii] VK, VIII/3B, 970-74; On War, 592-93. Similarly, war takes on the nature of the systems (the customs and conventions) that govern political activity, and its nature changes as the nature of those systems changes.
[iii] For an example of this view, see Alex Weisiger, Logics of War: Explanations for Limited and Unlimited Conflicts (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2013), 13.
[iv] Russell Weigley, ‘The Political and Strategic Dimensions of Military Effectiveness,’ in Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, eds., Military Effectiveness, 3 vols. (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1988), vol. 3, 341 and 363.
[v] Bernard Brodie, ‘A Guide to the Reading of On War,’ in On War, 641-714, esp. 646.
[vi] VK I/1, 212; and VIII/6B, 993; On War, 88, 606.
[vii] Weigley, ‘Political and Strategic Dimensions,’ 363.
[viii] Mark A. Stoler, George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century (Boston: Twayne, 1989), 101.
[ix] The Principles of Strategy for an Independent Corps or Army in a Theater of Operations (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: Command and General Staff College, 1936), 37.
[x] John I. Alger, The Quest for Victory: The History of the Principles of War (Westport: Greenwood, 1982).
[xi] The invasion of Normandy involved some 4,000 ships and landing vessels; nearly 176,000 troops; 2,500 heavy bombers; and 7,000 fighters. Within a month, the number of troops ashore had grown to one million; and the quantity of vehicles had risen to 150,000. John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris (New York: Penguin, 1994).
[xii] Richard J. Overy, The Air War, 1939–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Potomac, 2005); and Why the Allies Won (New York: Norton, 1997).
[xiii] Adam J. Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Penguin, 2007), 627; Walter W. Rostow, Concept and Controversy: Sixty Years of Taking Ideas to Market (Austin: University of Texas, 2003), 39-41; also Overy, Air War; and Why Allies Won.
[xiv] The US Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after the war provided only enough evidence to conclude that bombing major population and industrial centers was necessary, but not sufficient. United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report (European War), 30 September 1945; Summary Report (Pacific War), 1 July 1946.
[xv] Franklin D. Roosevelt: “State of the Union Address,” January 7, 1943. Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project;
[xvi] James A. Huston, The Sinews of War: Army Logistics, 1775-1953 (Washington: GPO, 1966), 474-81. J. Garry Clifford, “World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course,” in Paul S. Boyer, ed., Oxford Companion to United States History (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001), 846.
[xvii] To be more precise, 28 of these were created between September 1, 1939 and December 7, 1941; and 29 were created after December 7, 1941. All told, more than 100 agencies were created between 1940 and 1946, and only 17 were retained after the war. Hugh Rostkoff, America’s Economic Way of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2012), 181-82.
[xviii] Maury Klein, A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America for World War II (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 81-83, 212-24; Allan R. Millett, Peter Maslowski, and William B. Feis, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States from 1607-2012, 3rd Ed. (New York: Free Press, 2012), 370.
[xix] Lynn Weiner and Ronald Tallman, ‘The Popular Iconography of FDR,’ in Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Shaping of American Political Cultures, Nancy B. Young, William D. Pederson, Bryon W. Daynes, eds., (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2001): 9-18.
[xx] On the importance of these decisions, see John Keegan, The Second World War (New York: Viking, 1989), 541-42.
[xxi] VK I/1, 210; On War, 83.