Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 2  /  

What’s in a Name? Clausewitz’s Search to Define “Strategy”

What’s in a Name? Clausewitz’s Search to Define “Strategy” What’s in a Name? Clausewitz’s Search to Define “Strategy”
To cite this article: Stoker, Donald, “What’s in a Name? Clausewitz’s Search to Define ‘Strategy’”, Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2, spring 2016, pages 11-15.

This image is “displayed on the Clausewitz Homepage by courtesy of the Headquarters of the German Army Forces Command, Koblenz (HQ GARFCOM).”

Too often when writers use the word ‘strategy’ they do not make it particularly clear what they mean by the term. Many use it with abandon, making no effort to define it. Moreover, there is stunning variety in the way the term is utilized, something Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy makes clear.[i] Colin Gray defines strategy as “the use that is made of force for the ends of policy.”[ii] Edward N. Luttwak gives us an appendix of definitions in his Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace that includes this one from General André Beaufre: “The art of the dialectics of wills that use force to resolve their conflict.”[iii] An issue for every serious writer on the subject is this: How does one define strategy in a meaningful, useful way? Carl von Clausewitz spent much of his life tackling this dilemma, whether he did it successfully is another matter.

Born in 1780 in Burg, Prussia, by the time he was in his early twenties Clausewitz had already taken up his pen and embarked upon the intellectual journey that eventually produced On War. In 1804, having graduated first in his class just the year before from the Berlin School for Young Officers, Clausewitz was serving as the adjutant to Prince August von Preussen, a cousin of Prussia’s king. Clausewitz had been reading widely and his study of the military theory of his day produced in him a strong conviction of its collective weakness. He decided to fix this by writing his own book on the art of war. His effort was largely a response to reading works on military theory such as fellow Prussian Adam Heinrich Dietrich von Bülow’s (1757-1807) The Spirit of the Modern System of War (1799), as well as his conclusion that many of the authors were “sophists,” or, as in the case of Machiavelli, too stuck in the ancient world. The never completed surviving text is published as Strategie aus dem Jahr 1804, but the work (in 30 numbered sections) deals with a variety of military issues stretching from tactics, to the defense of mountains, to operations, to strategy, to command.[iv] He will tread much of this same ground in On War.

Strategie provides our earliest known effort, by Clausewitz, to try and get at what ‘strategy’ actually means. When examining Clausewitz’s quest we are regularly forced to consider his exploration of the terms ‘tactics’ and ‘strategy’ together because he often defines them in comparison to one another. In section 20 of Strategie he writes: “Tactics is the science of securing a victory through the employment of military forces in battle; strategy is the science of achieving the aim of the war through the linkage of individual battles, or to express it in more elegant terms: tactics is the science of employing military forces in battle; strategy the science of employing the individual battles to further the aim of the war. … In general, one can say that the idea of battle underpins everything in which military forces are employed, since otherwise one would have no need to employ military forces.”[v]

Moreover, in Strategie Clausewitz breaks with the thought and practices of Eighteenth Century warfare, a conclusion bolstered by his view on the utility of combat engagements in warfare. Eighteenth Century generals often preferred maneuver, sometimes believing this by itself could win a campaign. The French Revolutionaries increased warfare’s pace and intensity. Clausewitz understood this evolution: “In war everything turns on the engagement, which has either actually occurred or is merely intended by one side or even feigned. Engagement is therefore to strategy what hard money is to currency exchange.”[vi]

Critically, his discussions of strategy often encompass what today we would call strategy as well as operations, operational art, or campaigns. For example, in section 18, “The Operational Plan,” the first sentence reads: “Strategic plans are a thing unique unto themselves.”[vii] This is a strand in his work that continues into On War, and something that everyone reading any of Clausewitz’s work should keep in mind.

Clausewitz’s struggle to define strategy continued in 1805 in his first significant published work, an anonymous review essay of Bülow’s aforementioned The Spirit of the Modern System of War in the journal Neue Bellona. Clausewitz found little to his taste in Bülow’s work and wasted no time showing it, insisting in his second paragraph that Bülow “has given us nothing other than a new title.” Clausewitz disliked Bülow’s ideas and method, deeming “the author’s pretension to a scientific approach laughable.”[viii] Clausewitz’s attacks echo ideas he developed in Strategie and lend weight to the idea that Strategie was at least partially a reaction to Bülow’s work. Clausewitz took great issue with Bülow’s definitions: “Strategy is the science of military movements beyond the enemy’s vision, tactics is within it.” Clausewitz’s dislike of those failing to define the terms of their argument developed early and he found it intellectually lazy: “Behind this expression, just as behind the technical phraseology of strategy in general, there often lurks a shaky, poorly defined and hazy idea.” He found Bülow’s definitions arbitrary and also reminded readers that the meanings of terms change over time (something to keep in mind when reading Clausewitz’s works). Clausewitz offered his own definition: “Strategy is nothing without battle; because battle is the agent which it uses, the means that it applies. Just as tactics is the use of armed forces in battle, strategy is the use of battle,—i.e., the linking of the individual battles to a whole, to the war’s ultimate end. All that strategy can do is determine that the individual battles are given at the right place at the right time and under as favorable circumstances as possible.” Of course, he insisted, you also want good results from these battles. You cannot achieve your end otherwise, “so you have to know how to fight.”[ix]

But Clausewitz also learned from Bülow. Clausewitz’s view of war’s inherent political nature was influenced by Bülow’s writing, which ultimately gives us the oft-quoted “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” Even at 25, battle, war, politics, all hang together in Clausewitz’s mind—integrated—and shot-through with purpose.[x]

He continued his effort during the years 1809-1812 to precisely define both “tactics” and “strategy,” tackling this in a number of different texts. In an addition he made to his Strategie in 1809, Clausewitz writes: “Strategy will furthermore concern itself with the combinations of individual engagements in furtherance of the war’s aim. It will seek to establish engagements at the most decisive points, and to secure victory as much as possible by means of the massing of military forces, and in this way also to make the most advantageous use of the military forces. It will determine and select intermediate goals, by means of which tactical success will link up with the war’s aim, namely the destruction of enemy military forces, the conquest of his provinces, etc.”[xi] He then tries to tie the two concepts together: “Tactics organizes the army in combat [in] such a way as to employ it appropriately for the purpose of obtaining a victory, while strategy does the same thing in war in order to make the best use of the individual engagements.”[xii]

From 1810-1812, one of Clausewitz’s duties was teaching at Berlin’s General War School, the future War College. In his lectures on ‘Little War,’ or ‘Partisan War,’ Clausewitz again defines strategy in relation to tactics. Tactics, he insists “comprises the teachings of the use of command of the armed forces in battle; strategy comprises the teachings of the employment and utilization of the battle.” He adds in his notes that “We believe, therefore, that the battle is to war what hard cash is for the general trade,” and goes on to insist that “strategy makes use of the battle as a means to reach its purpose.” He added an important distinction: “To determine, that means to define, strategy according to its means instead of its purposes is appropriate because the means (that is the battle), of which it makes use, are singular and cannot be dismissed without destroying the concept of war itself. Potential purposes, by contrast, are manifold and cannot be exhausted.”[xiii]

In an 1811 letter to his mentor August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, one in which he builds upon concepts presented in his lectures on “Little War” and returns to in On War, Clausewitz writes that “Tactics is the theory of the use of armed forces in battle.” But he says that since this is generally agreed upon, “the task now is for strategy to be defined such that the actual art of war is precisely described by both.” The problem though was clarifying what one meant by “the art of war.” To Clausewitz, in 1811 at least, “the art of war is the use of the trained armed forces for the purpose of war.” It did not include the physical preparations leading up to this. He built on this by breaking with the latter Eighteenth Century view of the decisive battle deciding the conflict’s outcome by describing what today we would define as operational warfare: “If I now consider that each war is not a single uninterrupted battle, but rather is composed of multiple battles separated by time and place, and then I see not one demonstration, they are all battle combinations.” But battle still mattered: “Like any other use of the armed forces, the idea of a battle is in its essence that one would otherwise not have any need of armed forces. For me this is of the greatest clarity and obviousness.” He goes on to insist that: “Battle is the money and the goods, strategy is the exchange; only by these does this obtain importance. He who squanders the fortune of the Lord (he who does not know how to fight well), he might as well give up the exchange entirely.”[xiv]

He continued his discussion of tactics and strategy in early 1812 in what is generally referred to as his “Political Declaration” (Bekenntnisdenkschrift), something famously penned before leaving Prussia to serve in the Russian army. This exposition is succinct and more exacting, his concepts clearer: “Since war is no longer decided by a single battle as in barbarous nations, the Art of War is divided into two parts distinguished from one another by purpose and means. The first is the art of fighting. (Tactics). The second part of the Art is to combine several individual battles into a whole (for the purpose of the campaign, the war). (Strategy). The distinction between offensive and defensive war applies to both elements, and extends even into politics. The defense can thus be tactical, strategic, political.”[xv] ‘Strategy,’ as usual in Clausewitz’s writing, combines what today we classify as both the operational (campaign) and strategic realms. Moreover, his opening statement that “war is no longer decided by a single battle” is a clear indication of his recognition of the nature of war in what we have come to define as the modern era.

He treads some of the same ground yet again in two other extensive manuscripts composed from 1809-1812. They form part of the foundation of On War and show strong steps toward Clausewitz resolving what he saw as one of the problems with writing about military theory: having a coherent methodology.[xvi] The first of these two pieces begins by establishing the grounds of the discussion, which means—again—defining the differences between tactics and strategy. He goes on to argue the need for a new work on theory because of the confusion of terms and the lack of quality works on military history. He uses historical examples in his writing—his now standard approach—and is very critical of the existing military literature. He believes that part of its problem is that the relevant theory “is still in its infancy” and that as a result the excesses and quirky ideas in the current works should be considered “a kind of childhood disease.”[xvii]

The second major draft has this interesting passage: “The name, the scope, and the division of an art will be determined by its subject. The subject of the art of war is war. War is the manifest use of violence against others in order to force them to conform to our will, in other words it is the use the available means applied to the aim of the war. The theory of the art of war is the science of the use of available means for the aim of the war.”[xviii] War is the means to achieving ends. War is for a political purpose. War is to force the enemy to do our will. He has already laid many of the theoretical underpinnings of On War.

In mid-April 1812 Clausewitz was in Frankenstein, Prussia (now Ząbkowice Śląskie, Poland). While waiting for some much-needed money to arrive, he hurriedly scribbled his most important literary achievement up to this point: a manuscript meant for his student the Prussian Crown Prince. He told the prince he hoped to leave the young man some solid advice for when he was a soldier and told his wife Marie that he hoped the work “breathed a spark” into the young man’s soul.[xix] The work has come down to us as a little book called—in English—Principles of War.[xx] The work first appeared as an appendix to On War, but it really should be called “The Most Important Principles of the Conduct of War, to Supplement my Lessons to His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince.” A Russian translation appeared in 1888, and Hans Gatzke’s well-known English version appeared in 1942 in the midst of the Second World War.[xxi] Clausewitz said its contents were “not so much to give complete instruction to Your Royal Highness,” but rather that they would “stimulate and serve as a guide for your own reflection.”[xxii]

This book, like much of his earlier work, separates the study of war into tactics and strategy. He never defines tactics here, but he does define strategy: “the combination of individual engagements to attain the goal of the campaign or the war.” Again, Clausewitz’s definition encompasses what today we could call the operational realm, which is related to “the goal of the campaign,” as well as what we would call the strategic, which he would identify as the “goal of the…war.”[xxiii] Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini’s later nutshell definition doesn’t fall far from Clausewitz’s: “Strategy is the art of making war upon the map, and comprehends the whole theater of operations.” But Jomini’s more extended definition has 13 points, a survey touching on what today we call the strategic realm but dwelling largely upon the operational (or campaign) level of war.[xxiv]

In the strategy section of his book for the Crown Prince, Clausewitz lays out three “General Principles” for action foreshadowing advice in On War on how to attack enemy “centers of gravity.” He advises attacking the army and public opinion, as well as the enemy’s material resources, which leads to attacking cities, fortresses, and such. He argues public opinion is injured by military victories and seizure of the enemy’s capital. He stresses acting with great energy, the importance of the “moral impression” resulting from your actions (a hint of the “moral forces” of On War), concentration, the criticality of time (never waste it), surprise (it “plays a much greater role in strategy than in tactics”—something, we will see, also repeated in On War), and the importance of pursuing an enemy defeated in battle.[xxv]

Clausewitz’s quest went on. In his history of the 1814 campaign in France written (probably) in the early 1820s, he doesn’t provide as solid a definition of strategy as usual, calling it “the art of war.” But in this text he does give us his belief that the war (of which he was a veteran) provided great examples to illustrate strategic thinking (but one must again keep in mind here that his definition of strategy encompasses what today we would call operations—campaigns—as well as strategy). Among these were the manner in which the diplomatic and political machinations impact the strategy and operations of both sides, even acting as brakes upon them and contributing to the “complete manifestation of the nature and purpose” of the war. The large forces involved, the distinct offensive and defensive phases, how events forced the diversion of forces and the related maneuvering, the use by one side or the other of operational bases, key lines of communication, and “mass mobilization,” and because “the moral factors that play such an important role in all wars are here clearly enunciated,” something fed by the fact that “the commanders and armies are familiar to each other in their character and essence such that this can justifiably be taken into account in the calculations. In most cases, however, at the beginning of wars these present a rather undefined and uncertain aspect.”[xxvi] To the critic of Clausewitz, who believes he is trying to lay down rules, he might offer the following defense from his work on 1814: “We are a long way from considering our principles regarding the art of war (strategy) as absolute truth and equally the result that arises from one such example.”[xxvii]

In 1816 Clausewitz began writing On War, which appeared in print after his 1831 death. His effort to define strategy culminates in this work and he tackles the old problem of definition in a similar manner. He writes: “tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war.”[xxviii] This is not far from what he wrote in Strategie in 1804. “Tactics,” he also said, “are chiefly based on fire power.”[xxix] Clausewitz believes that “Strategy is harder than tactics because you have more time to act and thus more time to doubt. Also, in tactics you can see what is going on, in strategy you have to guess.”[xxx]

What is in some ways more interesting, and arguably more useful to the modern reader, is his discussion of the task of the ‘strategist’: He writes that “strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war. The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. In other words, he will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it: he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide on the individual engagements.”[xxxi] Obviously, in many other places in On War Clausewitz goes on to discuss elements of strategy and many related factors, but first he had to work out the foundations for his discussion in his own mind.

Clausewitz’s greatest legacy is as a military theorist, and arguably, at least for now, he is the most influential one. “On War remains the greatest work on its subject yet written,” historian Daniel Moran writes. But importantly, Moran also notes that “Its subject, however, is war, not strategy as such.”[xxxii] This is a key distinction. Clausewitz’s work is often cherry-picked to teach strategy (I know, I do it all the time), but Clausewitz intended it as for more than that. Like so many other serious theorists Clausewitz struggled to build a clear, sensible foundation that would stand the test of time. But did he do this successfully in regard to defining strategy as his definition clearly encompasses what today we would term both the strategic and operational realm? That is something for the reader to consider. But we will add that this problem does not in itself make what Clausewitz said incorrect or irrelevant, but it does force us to place it in the context of his times, and do the necessary intellectual translation to our own.


[i] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
[ii] Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17.
[iii] Edward N. Luttwak, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1984), 239-41.
[iv] Carl von Clausewitz, Strategie: aus dem Jahr 1804, mit Zusätzen von 1808 und 1809, Eberhard Kessel, ed. (Hamburg: Hanseatische Verlagsanstalt, 1937), 37-82. I have generally relied upon a translation: Carl von Clausewitz, Strategie: from the year 1804, with addenda from 1808 and 1809, Marc Guarin, trans. (Unpublished manuscript, 2012). This will be published as: Carl von Clausewitz, Strategie, Donald Stoker and Christopher Bassford, eds., Marc Guarin, trans. (Fort Bragg, NC:, 2016).
[v] Clausewitz, Strategie, 25.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid., 33.
[viii] [Carl von Clausewitz], “Bemerkungen über die reine und angewandte Strategie des Herrn von Bulow; oder Kritik der darin enthaltenen Ansichten,” Neue Bellona, IX, No. 3 (1805), 252-53.
[ix] Clausewitz, “Bemerkungen,” 255, 261, 266-67, 271, 273; Clausewitz, Strategie, 27.
[x] Hans Rothfels, Carl von Clausewitz, Politik und Krieg: Eine ideengeschichtliche Studie (Berlin: Dümmlers, 1920), 57; Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985, 2007), 93-94.
[xi] Clausewitz, Strategie, 40.
[xii] Ibid., 41.
[xiii] Author’s emphasis: Carl von Clausewitz, Clausewitz on Small War, Christopher Daase and James W. Davis, ed. and trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 22 and note.
[xiv] Clausewitz to Gneisenau, June 17, 1811, Schriften—Aufsätze—Studien—Briefe, Werner Hahlweg, ed., 2 vols (in 3) (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966), 1:640-48, Niels Nielsen, trans. On the links between “Little War” and On War, see Hahlweg, ed., Schriften, 1:644 fn. 11.
[xv] Clausewitz, [Bekenntnisdenkschrift], [Feb. 1812], Hahlweg, ed., Schriften, 1:742-43.
[xvi] Hahlweg notes, Schriften, 2/1:17, 19-20.
[xvii] Hahlweg, ed., Schriften, 2/1:22-69, espec. 22, 44. Hahlweg points out that some of this material had appeared previously: Carl von Clausewitz, Geist und Tat: Das Vermächtnis des Soldaten und Denkers, Walther Malmsten Schering, ed. (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1941), 52-60.
[xviii] Hahlweg, ed., Schriften, 2/1:78.
[xix] Clausewitz to Marie, Apr. 12, 13, 18, 28, 1812, in Karl Schwartz, Leben des Generals Carl von Clausewitz und der Frau Marie von Clausewitz, 2 Vols. (Berlin: Dümmlers, 1878), 1:508-14, 516-17; Clausewitz to den Kronprinzen Friedrich Wilhelm, Mar. 29, 1812, in Verstreute Kleine Schriften, Werner Hahlweg, ed. (Osnabrück: Biblio, 1979), 169-71. For a biography of Marie see: Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[xx] Carl von Clausewitz, Principles of War, Hans W. Gatzke ed., and trans. (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1960). The original: “Die wichtigsten Grundsätze des Kriegsführens zur Ergänzung meine Unterrichts bei Sr. Königlichsten Hoheit dem Kronprinzen,” in Carl von Clausewitz, Hinterlassene Werke des Generals Carl von Clausewitz über Krieg und Kriegführung, 10 vols. (Berlin, 1832-37; 2nd ed., 1857-63), (1857), 3:179-223.
[xxi] Paret, Clausewitz, 194 and fn. 62; Hahlweg notes, Schriften, 2/1:102-3.
[xxii] Clausewitz, Principles, 11-12; Paret, Clausewitz, 195-96, fn. 65.
[xxiii] Clausewitz, Principles, 45.
[xxiv] Henri-Antoine de Jomini, The Art of War, G.H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill, trans. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1862; Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978), 61-62.
[xxv] Clausewitz, Principles, 45-47.
[xxvi] Peter Paret and Daniel J. Moran in Carl von Clausewitz, Historical and Political Writings, Peter Paret and Daniel Moran, ed. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 205; Carl von Clausewitz, “Strategic Critique of the 1814 Campaign,” Niels Nielsen, trans. (Unpublished Manuscript, 2012), 19, 20, 22. The original: Carl von Clausewitz, “Strategische Kritik des Feldzuges von 1814 in Frankreich,” in Hinterlassene Werke, (1867), 7:307-404.
[xxvii] Clausewitz, “Strategic Critique of the 1814 Campaign,” 19-20.
[xxviii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, ed. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 128.
[xxix] Ibid., 205.
[xxx] Ibid., 178-79.
[xxxi] Ibid., 177.
[xxxii] Daniel J. Moran, “Strategic Theory and the History of Warfare,” (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2001), 7.