Military Strategy Magazine  /  Clausewitz & Contemporary Conflict  /  

To Be Clausewitzian

To Be Clausewitzian To Be Clausewitzian
To cite this article: Owen, William F., “To Be Clausewitzian”, Infinity Journal Special Edition, Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict, February 2012, pages 20-23.

While “Clausewitzian” is neither really a noun nor an adjective, there has to be some word to describe those who adhere to the writings of Carl von Clausewitz. Accepting that to be the case, it seems sensible to ask what does it mean to be Clausewitzian? How is that expressed in certain individuals and how do they differ from others.

Clausewitz is clearly a source of controversy. He is widely misunderstood, and read by fewer men than those who claim to have actually read his works. This is especially the case with his detractors, or rather those who insist that he was fundamentally mistaken in what he wrote. The reason that Clausewitz’s detractors are often so mistaken and ill informed, is that they have usually not read and studied the work concerned in enough detail to gain the necessary insight. The shortcomings of Clausewitz’s work that really do exist are really only understood by those who have actually studied him, and have done so in some considerable detail.

Additionally and perhaps ironically, you can really only understand where Clausewitz fell short when you understand the real genius in what he got right – and that which he did get right substantially outweighs what he got wrong, or perhaps less right.


Adherence literally means to “stick to” – so why should anyone “stick to” Clausewitz? While Clausewitz wrote a lot, his masterwork, On War, is the key relevant text to those who adhere. To Clausewitzians, On War stands tall because no other work of military thought gives such correct and useful guidance. Beyond anything else, “Clausewitzians” do not just study Clausewitz’s On War out of academic interest. They use it as the basis of their thinking. This does not mean they exclude all else, but it does mean they use Clausewitz’s observations as their start point, and foundation.

One of the greatest misconceptions associated with Clausewitz is that his work is a product of his time and his period of experience. This is true, but it in no way detracts. Clausewitz’s work is still proving extremely useful and practical today, and will do so in the future. Clausewitzians see no real mystery in war and warfare today. It still conforms to nearly every point and observation On War raised, so sticking to Clausewitz has real value. Clausewitzians are not wringing their hands over “complexity” and “understanding” because they see nothing that complex or hard to understand. War has always been one of the most complex and difficult undertakings humans face. That has never changed, and it has never become more complex for the men of time.

What is often extremely hard to understand is the lack of logic – and arguable stupidity – behind the various policies certain contemporary governments or armed groups seek to achieve via violence. However, On War can be effectively used to point out this lack of logic and stupidity. This is largely intolerable to those seeking reputation and/or funding as being the next man or woman with the next big idea, because Clausewitz basically tells us that these are false prophets and that there are no big clever ideas. Sometimes “War” is indeed that metaphorical sandwich packed with faeces – one from which we are all forced to take a bite! That being the case, good choices should always trump clever solutions.

So why are Clausewitzians not confused? Are they deluding themselves? Explaining why someone is not confused always rests on suggesting that they correctly understand the nature of the problem they see. Put simply, On War explained the nature of the problems that war presents us with, and why some solutions are bound to fail and some succeed. It really is that simple. To Clausewitzians there simply is no mystery as why and how the US was defeated in Vietnam, or why and how stunning Rhodesian military success did not ensure the survival of the all-white regime that attempted to stand against Black Nationalist violence.

Take Mao and Giap, who were at least on some level adherents to Clausewitz. We know Moa read On War and went on to teach it to others. When a North Vietnamese officer observed, “That may be true. It is also irrelevant,” to Harry Summers’ statement that the North Vietnamese had never defeated US forces on the battlefield, it is painfully clear that the North Vietnamese were better students of Clausewitz than any of their opponents. Additionally On War more than adequately explains Israel’s lack of success in the 2006 Lebanon War, as does his work for the outcome in any conflict. Various analysts may pontificate, and argue, but Clausewitzians will not be confused.

Thus “On War” remains vastly relevant and vastly useful. Indeed one can be rightly suspicious of anyone who indulges in military or strategic thought who is not well grounded in On War. This is not to suggest that a deep understanding of On War is a required union-card to pontificating on war and military matters. No such card should exist. But people not well-versed in Clausewitz are extremely prone to gaining insights that Clausewitz already had, and then claiming them for their own; or worse, roaming far and wide in attempts to free themselves of the logic of Clausewitz’s arguments. This leads to assertions such as “counter-insurgency is not war” or that “war has changed” in attempts to reframe the argument and live outside the useful box Clausewitz constructed for us. To a Clausewitzian such thinking risks asserting that the earth is flat and that the sun revolves around it.

As previously noted, this means that if you want to be next “military thought rock-star” you will be compelled to ditch Clausewitz. The reason for this is simple: no one in Congress, the US Army or British Parliament wants to be told that a long dead Prussian General was more right than anyone else, and that the answers are all there if only they would bother to read the book and study the work.


We can be pretty sure that the Clausewitzians are not deluded because their understanding can be tested. The observations Clausewitz made do explain existing phenomena, and thus this enables a certain degree of general prediction. There is some 5,000 years of evidence in this regard. The problems occur when people want to contest phenomena.

For example, even quite sensible people are inclined to differentiate between wars fought for reasons of “politics” and those fought for “religion.” No war in the entire history of the world has ever been fought over a point of theology, no more than any war has been fought over which was the best movie of all time. Roman Catholics and Protestants killed each over of who had the power and/or freedom to live as they wished to live. They did not fight about whether the sacrament represents the body of Christ or transforms into the body of Christ – they fought over the ability of one political group to impose that view onto another. Similarly, Al Qaeda seeks political conditions and behaviours, especially via Sharia Law. Al Qaeda is no more a religious organisation than Greenpeace.

The logic, reasons and even paradoxes of almost everything Clausewitz said can be traced to the simple understanding that war is fought to gain (or thus preserve) a political condition or behaviour. Clausewitzians are rightly dismissive of ideas such as “globalization causes conflict” and “war today is more complex/complicated” because they know that those who utter such things have not realized that it is the policy that drives the violence. Just as critically, they realise that it is the results of the violence that alter or modify the policy. What seems like a good or necessary policy may seem less so 60,000 casualties later, for instance.

Understanding what Clausewitz wrote is greatly dependant on understanding the meaning of the word “policy” as a condition of behaviour people seek, and that war, and thus “strategy” is seeking it via violence. Additionally and critically, people – be they leaderships, populations or armies – set a price in blood, time and treasure on what gaining that policy is worth. That price, and the consequences of its payment, is what separates policy sought via violence from policy sought via peaceful means or diplomacy. When people can no longer pay the price of the war or the conflict, the war – at least for a time – is over.

This is not to claim that something so simple is all that there is in On War. Far from it, but the genius of Clausewitz was to usefully reduce war to being a matter of things that were and are fundamentally simple, and yet which context makes endlessly complicated or even impossible. Simple does not mean easy. Walking on a tightrope is fundamentally simple, but it is not easy. If you then imagine trying to walk a tight rope while being attacked by a swarm of bees, we can then see that a simple act, requiring great skill, can require even more skill if and when difficulties accumulate. Sometimes the conditions will be so bad that walking the rope will be impossible.

In that one regard, war is no different as Clausewitz so brilliantly explained when he observed that no war could be won if the policy it was being fought for was impossible or unreasonable to achieve via violence. The possibility or impossibility of this thing is usually set by the amount of blood, treasure and time anyone might be prepared to spend to gain it. Critically, we should not to confuse war with warfare. Warfare is how fighting is done, and if done badly the cost is usually too high for the policy to bear.


Arguably, Clausewitz never helped his case by being able to consistently write clearly and simply. More frustratingly, he died before he could get his magnum opus into anything like a publishable form. Obviously this opens the door to competing interpretations as to what he actually said and meant, and the plausible allegation that he left critical things unsaid, or was actually mistaken. This provides a rich seam for debate, and the ongoing debates amongst Clausewitz scholars that are to an extent necessary. Yet this can also imply that there are fatal cracks in the simple edifice Clausewitz constructed. There may well be small cracks, but nothing that threatens the structure.

What cracks exist tend to be imagined by those seeking a perfection that can be never found. There can be no over-arching “mega-theory” of war. Clausewitz was arguably a realist, though perhaps less so than Machiavelli. His work never dealt with a lot of items deemed to be of interest today, because he simply considered them as a distraction to the real issue under discussion. There are many things On War never discusses. Clausewitz was never concerned with “ethics” or “economics” because he simply saw no reason to be so. What leader, people or army had ever attempted to set forth a policy that they knew was “unethical.” The Nazis believed their cause to be highly ethical, as did the Khmer Rouge, but not surprisingly their enemies disagreed. What people believe to be “ethical” was and is politics. The great question of war and strategy is whether the ends really do justify the consequences of the means themselves, and as Clausewitz pointed out, there is but one means and that is combat!

If you cannot afford an army, you cannot have an army. That obviously does not exclude you from political violence, but Clausewitz was no more inclined to discuss raising or supporting an Army than someone who is writing a book on Skateboarding is likely to discuss how you should save money to buy a skateboard. The premise of the work rests on the fact that the reader already owns a skateboard.

Again, this is actually one of the greatest strengths of Clausewitz’s work – in that what is of equal use to communists and capitalists, governments and rebels or Zionists and Salafists. Clausewitz sought an instrumental understanding, and it is in that regard that Clausewitz is at his most useful. He kept the theory free from political opinions in order to drive down to the basics. Much like Newtonian physics, the basics still hold good within the subjects On War discussed. Indeed, Newtonian physics is more than adequate for getting to the Moon, or walking a tight rope. Newtonian physics may not provide the answer to everything, but so what? If getting to the Moon or not falling off the tight rope is the task, Newtonian physics is good enough.

Simply put, Clausewitz tells you just about everything you need to know about war and what is more, he tells you what you cannot know because war is fundamentally human, and human beings are a bit complicated. The wondrous trinity of passion, chance and reason may not be 100% perfect, but it more than adequately explains and demonstrates why human beings are sometimes not easy to understand or predict. However, it is exactly this monstrous condition that Clausewitz helps guide us through (adequately though somewhat imperfectly) when he associates the trinity with people, leadership and armed force. It also helps us begin to see the problems when the leadership becomes the source of passion, as with Hitler or to a far lesser extent as might be alleged with the US neo-conservative idea of a “war on terror,” when obviously the leadership should form the source of reason.

You do have to read a lot of Clausewitz to get to the great “Ta-da!” moments that make his work so valuable, and sadly these “Ta-da” moments or phrases tend to get quoted imperfectly or out of context. Yet that should not detract from the utility of Clausewitzian statements such as “Strategy is the use of engagements for the purposes of war.” Like it or not, that is a simple, useful and not incorrect description of strategy. As more than one person is attributed to have said, “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple.” Arguably Clausewitz’s genius lies here, and ensures his works relevance and endurance.

Again, this can greatly vex those who want to argue as to what strategy is or what differentiates “grand strategy” from strategy. However, Clausewitz did not write On War to fuel the academics, theorists, and “think tankers” of future generations. He had seen war up close and he knew strategy and tactics to be entirely practical skills, requiring skilled execution in the real world. He knew guidance was required and he also knew that sound theory provided a better guide to understanding than problem specific solutions. Idealists may start wars, but realists have to fight them. He knew real peril lay in erroneously thinking there was some kind-hearted and ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy as Chapter 1 Book 1 so elegantly explains, and that the use of force logically requires restriction.

Indeed the shortcomings or inherent flaws that lie at the heart of every new big idea, be that the latest so-called theories on counter-insurgency, Fourth Generation Warfare, or Effects Based Operations, were and are all amply predicted and explained by Clausewitz’s writings, even when he could not possibly conceive that such future fallacies would raise their heads. This was because he correctly characterized the nature of war and the problems inherent to understanding that nature in a way that enables some degree of solution. (If and when a solution was or is even possible, because sometimes there simply is no comfortable or clever solution.) While never explicit, though strongly implied, Clausewitz warned that stupid things badly done were always bad and sometimes “both parachutes fail”. A successful business relies in large part on the basic requirement of having a product or service people wish to pay for. If you do not have that service or product, you are doomed. How you use violence to force political conditions and behaviors onto others is in no way exempt from such fundamental and simple ideas.

Here’s To The Clausewitzians!

Sticking to Clausewitz does not merely mean having read and understood On War, though that is largely required. Nor does it mean being a scholar of the work, replete with a detailed knowledge of its author’s life and times – though that helps, and being grossly ignorant of those things will not aid your understanding. It really just means that you “get what he was saying”. If you see the simple ideas that link into one coherent understanding, and those stand the tests of history and theory, then you are a Clausewitzian. Clausewitzians are not confused about war, warfare and strategy, because they read a book that explained about 90% of what could be usefully explained.

More importantly, the information in that book provides guidance, which can still be used today. 

Copy link
Powered by Social Snap