Why should we ask about the contemporary relevance of Clausewitz in the first place? Does War Studies really need constantly to have its major philosopher subject to permanent tribunal? It’s been many years already since Martin Van Creveld testified for the prosecution, as it were, measuring the great man’s ideas as he understood them against reality as he saw it and finding them to be distinctly wanting.[i] A little while later, Colin Gray, hardly a less illustrious scholar, reached entirely the opposite conclusion.[ii] Speaking for the defence, he declared (I paraphrase): Clausewitz was, Clausewitz is, and Clausewitz will ever be—hallowed is his name.
Whichever side you are on, perhaps we ought to agree to disagree and move on?
But then again, it does seem at the present juncture that it would be worthwhile getting a bit philosophical. I mean, consider that the greatest military power in the world today has not won a war in seventy-five years. So accustomed now is the world to this fact that it seems unremarkable when statesmen and commanders regularly voice the most astonishing garbage. ‘There is no military solution’, they say while deploying military force somewhere to do something, with a fig leaf of ‘whole of government’ other means—almost always badly-organised, ill-conceived, and under-skilled, though surprisingly often well-funded.
When asked in 2009 to define ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, President Obama demurred. The word worried him, he said.[iii] It’s not as though Obama was talking out of school, either. The irrelevance of ‘victory’ in contemporary conflict is in fact the orthodoxy taught in the staff colleges and university departments of international affairs where the foreign policy establishment (aka the ‘Blob’) is trained. Perhaps no one should be surprised at this since as far as the academy is concerned the simple question ‘what is war?’ is also a matter of debate.[iv]
Recently, ex-Secretary of Defence James Mattis, also by reputation one of the toughest and most capable of modern American generals, co-wrote a pre-emptive rebuke of whoever should take over the presidency in January 2021, Donald Trump or Joe Biden. American involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere must not be dismissed as ‘endless’ or ‘forever’ wars. The ‘work’ of building the capacity of other nations to govern themselves in ways that suit the Blob is neither ‘quick’ or ‘linear’ but is an ‘investment’ in ‘security’.[v] For readers not fluent in Blobbish, that means ‘forever wars’, just don’t you dare call them that.
In other words, the situation is that we frequently use military force as a tool of policy; the complication is that we have policy desires that are often strategically ridiculous, usually because they are props in domestic political theatre more than anything else, and/or hubristic and not actually achievable by military force. We have lost track of what war is for, and that is the case because (crazy as it sounds) we have lost track of what war is. Hence, the contemporary relevance of Clausewitz because for all of his faults he had a distinct view on that point.
It is a basic principle of science that a theory is discarded when its explanatory value is surpassed by another one. What is laid out in On War is a theory of war, or as close to a theory as one gets in social science—a description of the thing that explains how it works. If we declare that Clausewitz is irrelevant, then it behoves us to understand exactly what it is that we are putting in the proverbial recycle bin. For myself, with all respect to the great number of other scholars who have pored over the text with all the assiduousness of a madrassa valedictorian with the Koran, it comes down to this:
‘War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.’
Accept this as true and there is a lot that follows logically from it. For a start, it presupposes that there is some form of ‘violence’ involved. It is important to be precise about this, for which Thomas Schelling’s definition of force in war as the causing of pain and destruction of value is very useful.[vi] There are non-physical ways of doing both, and always have been, which means that there is (contrary to the chorus of airport-grade ‘new war’ analyses) nothing paradigm shattering about ‘cyber’, for instance.
It presupposes also that there is another thinking entity on the other side which has its own will, determination not to submit to yours, and the ingenuity to resist creatively. War, therefore, is reciprocal. What you may imagine doing to your opponent they can also imagine and prepare for accordingly or do something different from expectation in the hope of confounding your plans. You might say war is in a sense a competition of imaginations. It is significant that Napoleon once explained his extraordinary success in those sorts of terms:
If I always appear prepared, it is because before entering on an undertaking, I have meditated for long and have foreseen what may occur. It is not genius which reveals to me suddenly and secretly what I should do in circumstances unexpected by others, it is thought and meditation.[vii]
Eventually, though, the die is cast, somebody takes a shot, and the exchange of war’s ‘currency’, which is how Clausewitz described combat, begins to generate its own dynamic. In theory this is escalatory as both sides are driven by logic to exert the maximum possible pressure on one another.
In practice, however, the tendency to maximise force is modified by the political object, or original motive, of the war. It may be that you wish for something from your opponent very desperately and are prepared to fight correspondingly hard to get it, whereas your opponent might well care less about the object and wish, therefore, to fight more economically, to ‘invest’ in the war to a more limited degree. The reverse is possible as is, too, the case where both sides are equally committed—and any number of combinations in between. The point is that, to an extent, war is governed by reason the province of which is the statesman.
While reason may tend to limit escalation in war, keeping the costs of violence within the bounds of the expected benefits generated thereby, it is not necessarily the case that this will suffice. That is because war is also governed by emotion. More precisely, the ultimate wellspring of war is a ‘blind natural force’ made up of ‘hatred, enmity, and primordial violence’, which Clausewitz called passion. When whole societies are possessed by mutual fear and loathing that may trigger an explosion in a given war’s conduct that is wholly disproportionate with the original motive.
Finally, another thing Clausewitz tells us is that there is an irreducible chanciness in war. It is impossible to know exactly what the consequences will be of any particular action. No technology has yet taken it away, though that claim is often made; and there is no foreseeable technology that might, though some current futurists claim that AI might do the trick. Dealing with the ‘play of chance and probability’ in war is in essence the art of the commander.[viii]
I have left many other points unsaid and have obviously simplified quite a lot. Experts will disagree on matters of detail. It is well known that On War is an unfinished text, possesses a good number of apparent contradictions and ambiguities, and exists in a range of English translations that vary in tone, expression, and word choice.[ix] For purposes of moving on, however, the above is what I think are the main elements of Clausewitz’s answer to the question ‘what is war?’
There are other ways of looking at it. Let’s consider a few.
War is a ‘big effort’ against something really bad
Everyone is familiar with phrases like the ‘war on drugs’, the ‘war on poverty’, and more recently the ‘war on COVID’. The logic here is every simple: you have a genuinely bad thing which people fear and dislike and which, arguably, requires a large collective effort to address. It is natural in such cases for politicians to reach for the vocabulary of war when they talk about ‘campaigns’ to ‘defeat’ these sorts of ‘threats’ to national ‘security’ understood as an element of a state’s existential wellbeing.[x] We used to understand this as usually no more than a rhetorical device—good, emotive speechwriting, basically.
But then we had the ‘War on Terror’ which rather considerably blurred the matter. On the one hand, most people recognised that you cannot make war on an abstract noun; on the other hand, the ‘war’ was quite real in terms of the volume of militarised killing and dying. For that matter, too, it turned out that the ‘war on drugs’ involved a good amount of organised violence. Is this sort of war just metaphorically ‘war’ then or is it, in fact, the real deal?
The late, great military historian Sir Michael Howard was amongst the first to try seriously to understand what the War on Terror was about. His answer, rather reluctantly, was yes—we were at war, or at any rate that was the term with which we were stuck. The really interesting part, though, was his view on what the war was about. What we are dealing with, he said, was a ‘state of mind’, quite literally a mood of ‘sullen resentment’ that had overtaken the Islamic world.[xi]
How do you combat a mood? Can you suppress it with napalm? Can you stab it in the eye with a bayonet? Though the term itself was banished from official usage even before the end of the Bush administration, the global ‘War on Terror’ in all but name is still going strong at nineteen years and counting. In all that time, despite the launch of ten thousand glittering careers in ‘strategic communications’ no one really has figured out a plausible strategy for a war of ideas. One thing that would seem apparent is that making ‘war’ on the mood of sullenly resentful people makes them more resentfully sullen.
Q. What kind of war is it that does not have an enemy? A. A euphemism.
War is a thing that we use to ‘hold the ring’ until politics sorts itself out
Quite obviously, this raises the supremely pertinent question: if armed forces are to be used in this war-but-not-quite-war then how and for what purposes? One influential answer to this rests on the premise that war, in the words of British general Rupert Smith, understood as ‘battle in a field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs’, simply no longer exists.[xii] There is no war anymore.
The current paradigm instead is one of ‘war amongst the people’ which is characterised by a continuous criss-crossing between ‘confrontations’ (i.e., political competition between nations with an admixture of military means) and ‘conflicts’ (i.e., military operations with an admixture of political communication/machination). The typical job of the military in this context is to create or restore in a society that has been deranged by war conditions that will allow ‘normal’ civil life to reassert itself in which case a ‘political solution’ may be found.
How exactly to do this is a matter of considerable debate. If you imagine a broken society as a sort of wonky machine that is barely working or seemingly at risk of some catastrophic failure, then the job is to fix it—while it is still operating. ‘It’ could be anything from the justice system to the transport network or power and communications grid, or all of the above quite likely. In theory, it’s not the army’s job to do the fixing; rather, it is to provide the security needed for other state agencies and NGOs to do that work. In practice, however, it doesn’t usually work out that way. The military ends up doing most of the heavy lifting, sometimes enthusiastically and creatively, but generally not well.[xiii]
We call these sorts of wars ‘stabilisation’ or more often ‘counterinsurgency’ (the distinction between the two is esoteric) which is perhaps a slight improvement over the previous term of art: Military Operations Other Than War. Current doctrine is packed full of ‘lessons’ for doing them which, to judge from Afghanistan and Iraq, are rather dubious. There is an argument that under current constraints for Western military powers counterinsurgency is politically impossible.[xiv] For certain, such wars (if we may call them that) are ‘protracted, thankless, invertebrate’ and best avoided as the guru of small wars C.E. Callwell explained over a hundred years ago.[xv]
The primary problem is the passionless-ness that is at the heart of the way of war the West has developed. Oft-described as ‘post-heroic’, its essential conundrum is this: politicians perceive that they must ‘do something!’ about a horrific situation that is broadcast into the consciousness of their electorate by global media; that something usually takes the form of military action.[xvi] It is imperative to be seen to have acted while the cameras are running, not so much to have succeeded in the long term (by definition someone else’s problem)—see the earlier point on victory.
The precepts that underpin ‘do something!’ wars are usually couched in morally transcendent terms such as defending against terror at home by fighting radicals abroad, or the need to prevent mass suffering (i.e., the ‘responsibility to protect’ people against their own governments). However, the strategies that value-maximising politicians adopt for dealing with them are usually low and dishonest. No one understands this better than those on the receiving end of ‘assistance’. Why should foreign elites decide to govern their countries in ways that are congenial to our interests rather than their own? It is eminently possible to buy partial and temporary compliance with one’s wishes but in the absence of wherewithal to compel that is as far as it goes.
Q. What kind of war is it that is seemingly so deficient in will? A. A lost one.
War is something we use to prevent war
Everybody’s heard the Vietnam War-era line ‘we had to destroy the town to save it.’ It long ago entered the popular lexicon—a convenient and recognisable phrase for journalists to use as a ‘hook’ when describing anything both macabre and ironic. The fact is, though, that it is also unfortunately quite applicable to the doctrine of preventive wars that came to the fore of American security policy after 11 September 2001. It does not matter that the New York Times trenchantly observed that it was a failure 16 years ago.[xvii] It is the default condition of modern strategy even now.
The logical mechanics of war prevention by war are not complicated. It starts with a threat hypothesis of something that is both extremely bad and also plausible. Think of it as the international politics version of being ‘credibly accused’ of something heinous. The hypothesis is transmuted into a societal perception of crisis through an assailment of rhetoric of disaster, emergency, catastrophe and apocalypse lest action not be taken. There is no alternative, is the core message. We must fight now so that we don’t have to fight more later; people must suffer now so that they do not suffer more later.
It works well because it is not intrinsically logically wrong. Normal people are perfectly familiar with all kinds of instances in life where voluntarily enduring pain now is better than involuntarily getting more of it later. But there is more to it. Consider these lines from the aforementioned article by Gen. Mattis on the direction of American foreign policy:
International engagement allows the United States to see and act at a distance, as threats are gathering, rather than waiting for them to assume proportions that ultimately make them much costlier and more dangerous to defeat. Defeating emerging threats in particular puts a premium on having visibility far from the homeland to allow for early warning and rapid adaptation to unanticipated developments.
… failure to adequately invest in relationships with allies and partners and to cooperate with them to shape the international environment risks the erosion of this network—allowing a long-tended garden to become choked with weeds. Even worse, it could result in the emergence of other, competing networks, presaging an international order from which the United States is excluded, unable to influence outcomes because it is simply not present.
The first paragraph follows the logic already described. In this case specifically it is the rationale for why ‘there is no alternative’ to remaining in Afghanistan despite, i) the war having been demonstratively lost since at least 2008 and, ii) ‘pack up and go home now’ being an obvious option.
The second paragraph, though, does something quite different. It is a near perfect example of the status quo-maintenance orientation of the current elite, which seeks to keep things as much as possible as they are. As it says elsewhere in the article, the current international order is ‘manifestly advantageous’, and it follows therefore that no one should be permitted to mess with it.[xviii]
There is nothing intrinsically wrong about wishing to keep things the same. In 2004, the Republican political strategist Karl Rove infamously described the nature of America’s place in international order:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.[xix]
The surprising thing was not so much what he said per se. It was, rather, the in-your-face way that he said it. Normally, the Blob is more diplomatic in its choice of words, provides a little more lubricant before administering the suppository. For example, America is very powerful, yes, but it is no dread empire. It is rather a gardener closely tending its patch against the encroachment of weeds. Same message, just nicer.
I think, however, that what is of particular interest to the present discussion is what I would describe as the difference between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ strategies. A positive strategy proceeds from the question ‘how do I produce the thing in the world which I want?’ whereas a negative strategy works from the opposite ‘how do I prevent the occurrence of the thing in the world which I fear?’ The wars that are conceived in positive strategies have an independent point, for better or worse. That is normally what we think of as strategy.
Those that are conceived in negative strategies do not have a distinctively independent point. Whatever they are for basically depends on what the enemy (should one be actually definable) is against. That is what strategy is about now.
Q. What kind of war is it that has no point? A. An endless one.
Usually, one hears that Clausewitz needs to be knocked from his pedestal because when he wrote On War there were no machine guns, computers, social media, and so on and so forth. It seems to me that that is all irrelevant. None of those things really challenge ‘Clausewitz’s rules’ as I understand them. Perhaps nuclear weapons do, as noted below; but technological change in itself is not a problem for the theory. A more important challenge, but harder to get at from the perspective of many contemporary international security analysts because they are trained so exquisitely in theory, and usually obsessed with technology, but are generally ignorant of history and dismissive of culture, is the frankly quite alien place from which he wrote.
It is said that ‘the past is a foreign country’. The part of the world which Clausewitz lived in and which he addressed was at the beginning of the modern era, a highly mechanistic period of history, it was optimistic, and it was bold. The West, particularly, was culturally and politically ambitious, believed strongly in the superiority (i.e., universality) of its values, and in its responsibility to rule other people for their own good. It believed that war worked and that it could (indeed, should) be applied rationally to the advancement of certain goals.
The hubristic overreach of these ideas has caused terrible consequences, as is now obvious from our perspective at the beginning of the ‘information age’ sometimes described as the era of postmodernity.[xx] However, that the project of modernism was on the proverbial hiding to nothing was not obvious at its start. It took a hundred years and the First World War before the likes of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin were able to remark on the bitter fruit of this essentially optimistic outlook:
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals… This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution.[xxi]
Even then, Berlin was an outlier. Twenty years later in the wake of an even more savage world war, not to mention the holocaust, George Orwell’s 1984, a grim warning of the reversal of human progress towards freedom, caught more public attention. By the 1960s postmodernism was the dominant belief system of the cultural elite, as brilliantly observed in Tom Wolfe’s 1975 novel of the art world The Painted Word. Nowadays, though, a mood of defeated expectation, frustration at the failure to create utopia, miasmic apprehension of multiple overlapping crises, and perception of manifest decline, is practically universal.
In effect, the modern age ultimately put Western civilization in a conundrum. Science and engineering produced dazzling technologies in every field from the generation of energy, to the velocity of communications, the power of computing, the speed of mobility, and of course to ever more powerful weapons. But the problems of the world increased at the same rate. War between great powers, in particular, grew steadily less plausible as a rational act as the destructive power of weapons increased—the exploding of the atomic bombs on Japanese cities in 1945 marking the tipping point; meanwhile the decisiveness of ‘small wars’ also receded as ‘the rest’ gradually developed war strategies and techniques to defeat the West.
It is not, to my mind, that Clausewitz’s rules are irrelevant to the present day. They are fundamentally true—fundamentally in the sense that they were true before he even existed let alone when he wrote them down. The main problem is that postmodern society has serious problems with the truth. It believes that everything is socially constructed, that words make reality, even when it comes to war. It is not surprising then that the Blob has tried to imagine into existence all kinds of wars that would suit it better than the real kind on offer.
We have tried to have war without enemies, because it is ‘dehumanising’ and ‘othering’ to call people so; but that has not diminished the pain and suffering of war one bit. We have gotten ourselves involved in plenty of wars on the basis of laudable moral principles; but in precious few have we shown the will to pay the cost to see them through to resolution. We now fight wars continuously for the purposes of status quo maintenance—preventing change as opposed to making it.
In summary, it is not Clausewitz who is wrong about war. It is us. His rules are simple, in essence. When better one’s come along let’s use them. In the meanwhile, let’s respect them a lot more and maybe use war a lot less.
[i] Martin Van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991).
[ii] Colin Gray, ‘Clausewitz Rules, OK? The Future is the Past—with GPS’, Review of International Studies, Vol. 25 (December 1999), pp. 161-1982.
[iii] ‘Nightline Interview with President Obama’, RealClearPolitics (23 July 2009), https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/07/23/nightline_interview_with_president_obama_transcript_97608.html
[iv] A point remarked upon long ago by Hew Strachan in ‘The Changing Character of War’, Europaeum Lecture (Geneva: Graduate Institute of International Relations, 9 November 2006), p. 2.
[v] Kori Schake, Jim Mattis, Jim Ellis, and Joe Felter, ‘Defence in Depth: Why US Security Depends on Alliances—Now More than Ever’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 99, No. 6 (November/December 2020), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-11-23/defense-depth
[vi] Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 2.
[vii] Quoted in Carl H. Builder, Steven C. Bankes, and Richard Nordin, Command Concepts: A Theory Derived from the Practice of Command and Control (Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1999), p. 117.
[viii] The text I have based my assessment upon is Michael Howard and Peter Paret’s translation of Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), basically chap. 1.
[ix] For what it is worth, of the many currently available discussions of the relevance of Clausewitz the one that has influenced me the most is Antulio Echevarria’s, Clausewitz and Contemporary War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
[x] See Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap de Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner, 1998).
[xi] Michael Howard, ‘The Long War’, Survival, Vol. 48, No. 4 (2006), pp. 7-14.
[xii] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2005), p. 1.
[xiii] I recall in 2008 at an Afghanistan counterinsurgency conference in which I participated at the UK Defence Academy talking to two British Army colonels about their efforts marketing Afghan apricots to the big British supermarket chains. They were impressive. Is it not an odd thing, though, for a country to take 25 years to train someone to command a brigade in combat only to employ them as traveling salesmen? There are many thousands of such examples, though. Hands down, the best-informed scholarly account of them is Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
[xiv] M.L.R. Smith and David Martin Jones, The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles, and Paradoxes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
[xv] C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, 3rd ed. (Abingdon: Purnell Book Services, 1906), p. 12.
[xvi] Edward Luttwak, ‘Toward Postheroic Warfare’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 4 ((July/August 1999).
[xvii] ‘Preventive War: A Failed Doctrine’, New York Times (12 September 2004),
[xviii] To be clear, personally, I do not think that the current international order is manifestly advantageous, on the whole. Obviously, though, the current elite feels that it is, otherwise they would not be a current elite.
[xix] Quoted in Ron Suskind, ‘Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush’, New York Times Magazine (17 October 2004), https://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/17/magazine/faith-certainty-and-the-presidency-of-george-w-bush.html
[xx] See Frank Webster, Theories of the Information Society, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 1995), chap. 9 ‘Information and Postmodernity’.
[xxi] Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in Isaiah Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays (London: Pimlico, 1998), p. 237.