Small Wars Journal

“A Conversation with Clausewitz”

Mon, 07/15/2013 - 8:47am

“A Conversation with Clausewitz”

Michael Forsyth

On a recent fall evening I fell asleep while reading a waft of articles questioning whether Carl von Clausewitz’s theory of war is still relevant in the 21st Century.  In the process of my reading I pulled out his treatise On War to see if what Clausewitz said disputed these well-written articles.  After some time I became frustrated as I attempted to decipher the great thinker’s abstract prose.  If only I could speak personally with the old master I would ask him in the first person to give me his opinion as to whether his theory could explain today’s phenomenon.  With that I dozed off thinking I would never find the answer.  Much to my surprise I received the opportunity of a lifetime.

I awakened in my den later to find a monocled old man in a blue Prussian military jacket sitting at my desk poring over the articles.  Startled by his appearance, I initially found myself speechless.  However, I quickly found my bearings and introduced myself to the old Prussian.  General Clausewitz soon eased the tension by insisting that I call him Carl.  After several minutes discussing some developments in modern warfare I asked, “Carl, would you mind granting me an interview to examine the question, ‘is On War still relevant in the 21st century’?”  “I would love to,” he quickly replied.  With that I began to ask some of the difficult questions that I had trouble answering.

Author (Mjf):  “Carl, you have had a chance to observe warfare in this century.  Would you say that the nature of war changes over time?”

Carl von Clausewitz (CvC):  “No, war in its essentials is unchanged throughout history.  It is characterized by violence, used for political purposes, to achieve something for the belligerents, and regulated by the leaders while tempered by the people.  In all cases war is affected by that which we cannot predict, which tends to balance outcomes.  Finally, and most important, human factors are always in play in war.  From human frailty in the face of the enemy to the moral courage of the great captains, every war is affected by the strengths and weaknesses of the participants.  I cannot identify any case or example in history where warfare has not exhibited these characteristics.”

Mjf:  Surprised by his quick, emphatic answer and logical answer I asked, “What has changed then?”

CvC:  “The methods.  And, even this answer I would qualify. What I see now is that war’s methods are shifting.  For example, just 70 years ago your nation engaged enemies in a conventional state vs. state war with standing armies.  Now the enemies facing your country have adopted unconventional methods.  In the war you are currently engaged in the enemy wears no uniform, does not conform to a standard of organization, uses subterfuge to strike, and then fades into the background to avoid decisive contact.  In short, this small form of war is designed to wear down the stronger enemy.  Also, the enemy is stateless and seeks to change the political discourse near their homes as well as abroad.  But, this development in the method of war does not surprise me.  In fact, I would expect any enemy to seek and use a method of war that provides them the best chance of winning and then imposing their will.

“If you will recall before 1648 warfare in Europe looked somewhat like what you are experiencing today.  At that time many different petty lords engaged in war of the most venal variety in order to break loyalties to their sovereign while imposing their religious brand in their fiefdoms.  This led to a cataclysm on the European continent in which one third of the population died as a result.  The Peace of Westphalia set in place the idea that only the sovereign could make war and, then under the auspices of a clear set of rules.  Thus, only states could make war and only when properly declared to prevent the blood-letting of the Thirty Years’ War.  It seems to me your recent experience represents a breakdown of that paradigm harking back to 1618.

“Therefore, the methods of war tend to be cyclical.  The pendulum swings between extremes of method: state-controlled total war or primordial war of peoples.  You may recall that I have written about state war and people’s war.  I covered state warfare quite thoroughly in my review of war because that was the dominant form of war in my time.  However, I spoke of people’s war as well since I was witness to it in Russia as the weaker army of the czar resorted to it to weaken the stronger Napoleon.  Then, once the emperor was sufficiently weakened the Russian army struck hard.  Therefore, I would submit that warfare’s methods evolve and swing as a pendulum.  The dominant form of war at any given time depends on the factors of relative strength of enemies, cultural environment, the passion of the people, time available, and leadership of the cause.  Thus, the enemy will choose methods designed to provide advantage which will eventually lead to victory.  We should expect nothing less from a thinking enemy.  Your duty to your nation as a leader is to determine the correct counter to mitigate the relative advantages of the enemy while enabling your sovereign to achieve the political objectives set forth.”

Mjf:  Another cogent answer from the general which led me to ask, “So, you believe that non-state actors have not changed the general thesis of On War?”

CvC:  “Not at all.  From what I have observed what you term as non-state actors are politically motivated entities.  They are using violence as a means to attempt changing the political discourse to their advantage.  In other words, the leaders of such groups as al Qaida are dissatisfied with the political discourse within their home countries and on the international stage.  They do not believe they can affect change within the established system by normal means.  Therefore, they have decided to use violence – war – to affect the change desired.  In so doing, they must garner a base of support among the people and utilize a fringe religious philosophy to do so.  This is in some ways what happened in northern Europe in the mid-17th century.  So, in my opinion ‘non-state’ actors are using war as a means of political discourse as any state would.”

Mjf:  “Wow, I had never thought of it quite that way.  So, what you are conveying is that the nature of war is essentially constant while methods change.  And, these methods are generally not new if we examine history closely.  Ultimately war results from a political choice made by an entity – either state or non-state – seeking to change the status quo politically.” 

CvC:  “Yes, you have captured it succinctly.” 

Mjf:  “Sir, if we could shift to another topic I would like to ask you about technology.”

CvC:  “Why certainly.  I am fascinated by the changes since my time.  If only we had some of your precision weapons in 1806 we might have stopped Napoleon at Jena,” he said chuckling as he shifted in his chair and adjusted his monocle.

Mjf:  “That would have certainly shocked the emperor.”  Then I asked, “There are many today who advocate that technology is revolutionizing warfare and that this advancement can enable the possessor of superior tools to guarantee victory through their use.  Would you agree?”

CvC:  “Not at all.  We dealt with many changes in the 19th century too.  Further, technology only enhances the ability to practice war.  One cannot practice war without understanding what it is, which is why I wrote On War.  Thus, technology can continue to advance, but will not bring any better chance of victory without the practitioners mastering what war is.  There is a bit of hubris with those of you in your generation.  You somehow believe that progress and technological advancement started with your generation.  This is untrue.  My generation dealt with enormous changes in the early 19th century including societal, political, and yes, technological.  All generations of soldiers before us have too.  It was not these changes in technology or society that led to victory, it was the adaptation of the change to the phenomenon of war.  To formulate winning strategy you must understand how war works.  From this flow doctrine of implementation, organization of forces, and then the use of technology as an enabling mechanism.  Strategy flows from politics, which is the realm of human interaction.  Thus, amongst a sea of change the great constant in war over time is the human, social element.  As long as there are disputes among peoples, war will remain with us.  Therefore, my book was not written for soldiers to know how to fight wars.  No, I wrote it so that future generations like yours could think about and understand war as a social phenomenon.”

Mjf:  “Then how do we harness technology?”

CvC:  “By first cultivating the mind through the study of social sciences like history, political science, and psychology.  From this the military practitioner must then branch into the study of war in all its forms, but not until the broad foundation is established in the social sciences.  You may recall that I discussed the phenomenon of the military genius in my book.  I characterized such an individual as one who possesses moral courage, coup d’oeil – vision in your vernacular – presence of mind, energy, firmness, emotional balance, and strength of character.  These are social characteristics.  It is the mastering and development of these traits and skills that leads to a leader who can ‘harness technology’ as you might say.  However, the instances of military genius are a rarity at best.  Thus, nations must cultivate their leaders through a system of education as I noted before, combined with wide experiences.  Once this is achieved your nation will have a cadre of leaders who can develop strategy to win enabling it with technology.”

Mjf:  “If I understand you correctly technology can only be a game-changer in war if the user is sufficiently educated and has a flexible mind to use technology to the greatest advantage.”

CvC:  “Absolutely, technology is harnessed by the astute student and used by a shrewd player.”

Mjf:  “Thanks for that added perspective Carl.  Another question I have struggled with recently is whether or not the use of force still has utility today.  With the advent of social media, the rise of insurgency as the preferred mode of war, and prevalence of non-state actors can we really use war as a means to assert political will?”

CvC:  Hesitating for just a moment, Carl emphatically stated, “Yes, but I certainly understand why you are perplexed given the state of things today.  Force remains a means of political discourse with utility.  The cautionary note for you is in choosing the correct method to gain that utility.  Soldiers have struggled with this for millennia.  Napoleon struggled with people’s war in Spain as he chose the wrong way to stamp out the insurgency.  Yet in Naples he mollified the insurgency there to great effect.  By the same token, the emperor alternately succeeded and failed in conventional warfare as Austerlitz and Waterloo demonstrate.  Again, choosing the correct approach determines whether or not force has utility.  Further, I would add that war is a choice.  A nation does not have to make war if it chooses not.

“Some readers have somehow interpreted my book as an advocacy for war or a specific type of war.  Nothing is further from the truth.  As a witness to decades of debilitating warfare across Europe I can tell you that I do not advocate war.  After witnessing the suffering of Prussia as a result of Napoleon’s desire to extend the French revolution, I would say that war is only entered upon with due consideration by the sovereign and his advisers.  But, war does come at times even when your nation has attempted to avoid it.  Thus, readiness is key and this through study and exercise.

“So, to answer your question, war still has utility, but only after deep consideration by the political leaders and with military advisers who are able to determine the method to achieve the end.  If anyone enters into war without a clear political end or sound method, then no use of force has utility.  The utility of force is determined by the intellectual effort exerted before the decision is made.  Without mental application before a conflict, force can never have utility.”

Mjf:  “Sir, it is interesting to note that you have again addressed the need for an educated and flexible mind.”

CvC:  “Certainly.  No matter the question, only a properly educated, trained, and experienced professional can derive answers to the complex issues surrounding war and its application.”

Mjf:  After a while the old master became fatigued so we paused to have some tea.  Feeling refreshed the general encouraged me to continue with the interview and I concluded with an open-ended question.  “Thank you so much for coming to help me think through the problems of modern war.  Is there anything else you would leave with me to consider as a professional soldier?”

CvC:  “It has been my pleasure to discuss these things with you.  As you may recall I used to answer letters and inquiries from young professionals around Europe and from my students at the Kriegsakademie.  I have always enjoyed the opportunity to converse with young soldiers, so let me conclude by saying this.  War remains a social phenomenon rising from the intercourse of politics.  Whether the actor is a state or a ‘non-state’ actor their agenda is fueled by a desire to achieve some favorable political outcome.  This is a constant.  Change in warfare is germane to its methods.  History shows us that there is little new under the sun.  All belligerents seek to use a method of war that provides an advantage over their opponent so that they can achieve the political end.  The method may be people’s war or a more conventional approach and possibly even a combination of the two.  Whatever the case you as a professional must apply your intellect to determine the correct method in line with the political leadership.  Thus, what I see today in war appears as a normal progression across time.

“Military professionals must always deal within the realm of uncertainty.  Few generations have had a clear picture of the circumstances in war, its environment, and how change affects war making.  This, of course, causes what I call friction.  But, the antidote to uncertainty is a fertile mind.  A soldier must never become intellectually lazy.  Rather, a soldier must cultivate the mind through inquiry, education, and wide experience.  This provides a foundation that enables the soldier to think more clearly about future problems in all their complexity.

“Finally, do not forget the trinity.  The interaction of people with their government and the effects of chance exert enormous influence on the conduct of war.  The political leaders must consider the will of their own people and that of the people of a potential enemy as well.  Clashing cultures should give leaders pause as they consider use of force.  We must never believe that our thought processes can be used as a template when thinking about potential enemies.  Chance multiplies risk and must temper decision-making.  One who does not consider how the elements of the triad interact enters into war at his/her own peril.  Thank you for listening to this old warrior and if you have questions take time to review my text, specifically Book 1 of On War.”

Upon conclusion of the interview General Clausewitz engaged me in a discussion of much lighter subjects such as music and his love of horses.  I found this aspect of his personality fascinating as it humanized the general in a way that we never see in history when discussion his contributions to the social phenomenon of war.  This aspect of the interview made it all the more informative.  Ultimately, General Clausewitz answered all my questions and provided a few considerations that will remain important for military professionals today and in coming eras.  Chief among his observations is the admonition to develop a fertile mind and one that has elasticity to develop unique solutions to disparate problems.  I was also struck by the fact that the general was so emphatic that the emergence of non-state actors does not alter his belief that war is always fought for a political purpose.  Thus, war has utility today only when the political ends are thoroughly considered so that the proper method to achieve them is chosen.  Finally, a full consideration of the interaction between the elements of Clausewitz’s trinity – people, government, and chance – is a must to ensure that the decision for war is feasible given the unique social and operational environment that a state (or non-state) may find itself in.  In today’s complex world only a cultivated mind can derive the potential solutions to such difficult problems posed by modern war.

About the Author(s)

Colonel Michael J. Forsyth is commander of the 196th Infantry Brigade. He taught Introduction to Military Theory at the U.S. Air Force Academy and holds three master's degrees; Military History from Louisiana State University, Military Art and Science from the School of Advanced Military Studies at Leavenworth, and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.



Fri, 08/30/2013 - 8:51am

A great take on one of the classics. Thank you for literally... "bringing Clausewitz to life."

You should consider turning this into an "Ask Clausewitz" blog and have Dead Carl provide commentary on contemporary events.

I would like to ask him a question about his take on issues such as use of the military for activities short of war, and about what he would do on Syria.

Oh, and I would want to know what he thinks of Kim Kardashian.

Bill M.

Thu, 07/18/2013 - 5:01am

In reply to by GBNT73

I'm no expert on the "real" trinity, but I was always taught it consisted of 1. primordial violence, the interaction of chance and probability, and subordination to political or policy goals (not necessarily a state's goals). I have also seen it explained as the military, the government, and the people, and until your post never pursued exploring why there are apparently two separate trinities (or interpretations of Clausewitz's Trinity concept). There is an explanation below that makes sense, but I don't know if that is an accepted explanation by academics. Clearly, at least in my opinion, the interpretation I am using relates to irregular warfare or warfare among people as much as it relates to warfare between states. Hoping Clausewitz experts will pile on and expand upon this and clarify it.

(Quote) The problem appears in Jablonsky's discussion of "what Clausewitz had referred to as the `remarkable trinity': the military, the government, and the people."*1 There is a serious discrepancy between this definition of the "remarkable trinity" and the definition given by Clausewitz himself in On War: Clausewitz defines the components of the trinity as (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; (2) the play of chance and probability; and (3) war's element of subordination to rational policy.*2 By no means originating with Jablonsky, this discrepancy appears frequently in recent analyses, both those that enlist Clausewitz's support and those which attack the Prussian philosopher of war as benighted, evil, or simply irrelevant. In fact, the "remarkable" or "paradoxical" trinity*3 is one of the Clausewitzian concepts most frequently cited in all of recent military literature. Since interpretations of Clausewitz are a source of such extensive controversy, it seems important to differentiate between what Clausewitz actually said and other concepts of a trinity that are derived from--but not the same as--the "remarkable trinity" defined in On War.*4 (end quote)

An interesting article -- likely an exellent read for new officers. If the author had the time, another interesting "conversation" would be between CvC and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

But how I wish we could move past the Trinity. The People-State-Army Trinity utterly breaks down in the face of regional Wars Amongst the People. Even in State-v-State warfare the Trinity reveals very little of the complexities of societies coping with conflict. Unified nations no longer exist like they did when CvC wrote his stuff. This is only exacerbated by the ease of global communications and awareness. Open, emergent systems are not so easily explained...

Bill C.

Tue, 07/16/2013 - 12:20pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Thus, not so much warfare which is similar to that which occurs in Europe before 1648 and involves the political objectives of petty lords.

But, rather, warfare which is timeless, and which occurs throughout the world, when great nations/empires, seeking expansion in "regions afar off," are met with resistance to their political objectives, which often are: the transformation, incorporation and assimilation of outlier states and societies.

Let us be brave enough and wise enough to address CvC's ideas -- and the critical questions asked by the author -- through this latter and seemingly more correct lense.

Bill C.

Mon, 07/15/2013 - 12:21pm

The single most important thing that I believe we can do, re: Clausewitz, is to consider OUR actions, OUR motivations, etc. (and not so much those of the enemy) from the perspective that he (Clausewitz) offers.

We are, after all, the 800 pound gorilla on the international affairs stage, the most powerful nation the world has ever known and the winners of Cold War.

Thus, we must ask ourselves -- first and foremost -- and with due consideration of our recent actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere:

a. What is the political objective that the United States (not AQ) wishes to achieve?

Let us say, for the sake of this exercise, that the political objective that the United States wishes to achieve (as evidenced by Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) is the further westernization of the non-western/less-western states and societies.

b. What is the status quo that we (not AQ) seek to alter?

Herein, and for the benefit of this discussion, let us say that the status quo that the United States wishes to alter is the fact that, nearly 15 years after the end of the Cold War, there are still states and societies "out there" that are not adequately organized, oriented, ordered and/or configured along modern western lines.

(AQ et. al, and in this example, to be viewed as simply using methods/approaches -- consistent with their asymmetrical status -- to resist the political objective [the westernization of their states and societies] that the United States and its allies seek to achieve.)

Now let us consider such questions as the nature of war and whether it has changed, the role of non-state actors, the utility of technology and, indeed, the utility of force (conventional, unconventional, etc.) from this perspective, to wit: from the perspective of the political objective of the 800 pound gorilla on the international affairs stage, the most powerful nation the world has ever known and the winners of the Cold War.