Small Wars Journal

A Clausewitz for Every Season (July 2010)

A Clausewitz for Every Season by Hew Strachan, The American Interest, July 2010

In 1975, Colin Powell entered the National War College in Washington, DC. Once there, Powell, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War for the first time. He was bowled over. On War was, Powell recalled in My American Journey, “like a beam of light from the past, still illuminating present-day military quandaries.” What particularly impressed him was Clausewitz’s view that the military itself formed only “one leg in a triad” whose other two elements were the government and the people. All three elements had to be engaged for war to be sustainable. In the Vietnam War, America’s had not been.

Powell may have been right about the Vietnam War, but not about Clausewitz. Like many others before him, Powell misread the final section of On War’s opening chapter—that which describes war as “a strange trinity.” Its three elements are not the people, the army and the government, but hate, chance and reason. Clausewitz went on to associate each of these three elements more particularly with the passions of the people, with the commander and his army, and with the political direction of the government. But in doing so he moved from the “trinity” itself to its application. The people, the army and the government are elements of the state, not elements of war. The distinction is crucial to the relevance of On War today…

Read on.

H/T Dave Maxwell

Comments

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 09/28/2015 - 7:44pm

I do hope those who often invoke Clausewitz incorrectly will read this especially to get the trinity right. Hew Strachan is one of the greatest living scholars on Clausewitz.