Small Wars Journal

Clausewitz and His… Singularity?

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 9:33am

Clausewitz and His… Singularity?

Phil W. Reynolds

Long before his famous Trinity Clausewitz had discovered the Singularity.  No, no, YOU get out!  It’s true!  It’s not really a secret- it’s just that people who built their careers as Strategists (gasp!) get paid a lot of money to lecturing practitioners would prefer you to believe in the mystery of Clausewitz, a mystery that only Strategists (gasp!) can unravel.  The strategy-industrial complex is always promising that the key to victory in the next war is just a few more classes away.  A bit harsh, perhaps, but if it were found that the guy who is quoted to justify big wars and the absolute invincibility of the offensive battle actually understood that people’s war was stronger than the offensive, then a great many books would never sell and the war colleges might find themselves without a purpose.   And you, SF dudes, the Infantry, and everyone that’s climbed ridges and walked through alleys, have paid the price, in long wars, with no victory, no matter how much mass and destruction is applied to the enemy.  So, I present Clausewitz’ Singularity, in the hope that the last war has been blundered through, the last TICs are over, and the last pair of boots have worn out.

What Clausewitz Thought of On War…

In teasing out the Singularity, I am actually expanding Clausewitz’ philosophy, primarily as described in his opus, On War, to more fully account for the partisan of small wars, revolutions, internal wars, guerrilla wars and insurgencies which have increased in the post 9/11 world.[1] It was in his earliest writings and letters, after the Prussian defeat at Jena in 1806, that one finds the first fragile strands of this new theory, truncated as they are in the unfinished On War.  Clausewitz himself pointed out in 1827 that On War was “merely as a rather formless mass that must be thoroughly reworked once more…”[2] Just a year before his death, he still regarded the manuscript as “nothing but a collection of materials from which a theory of war was to have been distilled.”[3]  If Clausewitz himself thought something was missing, then perhaps we can allow ourselves an extended thought experiment to find this missing piece?

Having suffered through many of lectures from Strategists (gasp!) myself, I attempt to limit deep contextualization like the works of Peter Paret and Sibylle Scheipers.[4]   Dwelling in the mystery of over-contextualizing Clausewitz can remove him too far from the practitioner, as the reader falls further and further into German intellectualism with its Sturm and Drang of Hegel to Heidegger to the bleak plain of Wittgenstein.  German philosophy is a rather dismal affair.  Rather than engage in the intellectual dilettantism such a diverse incubator creates, I attempt to isolate a few basic thrusts of Clausewitzian philosophy as it can be applied to the security environment of the twenty-first century. If successful, this will allow some useful insights the likely wars of the 21st century.

Moving On…

In On War, Clausewitz developed a succinct model of war which he called the Trinity.  He describes how that trinity of forces collectivize violence through the mass production of military power.  Further, the model also describes how to destroy a state by separating any of the elements from the others.  However, the trinity has a significant flaw, sitting as it does at the end of the Napoleonic wars, in that it does not account fully for the partisan.  To Clausewitz, the ‘most beautiful of wars’ was that of the people’s war.[5]  In his early writings, and his seminars at the Prussian War College, his examples of the Tyrol and Vendee support this.  In the eight pages devoted to the guerrilla in On War, he viewed people’s war as a strategic defensive.  Clausewitz had early on determined that defense was stronger than offence, and the strategic defensive, incorporating a partisan war, was strongest of all, and could prove decisive.[6]  Clausewitz believed that only wars that harnessed the partisan could be a real war.[7] 

An astute reader would find the partisan rooted in the passion of the people, and this is the first problem we must confront.  An examination of his famous dictum “Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mid anderen Mitteln” (war is a mere continuation of... by other means) requires a proper translation.[8]  Daase and Davis have discussed the problem with the idea of policy versus politics, explaining that:

“the German word Politik can take on at least three meanings for which English provides distinct words.  If one translates Politik with “policy”… one is likely to conclude that Clausewitz is making a normative argument…  if however, one translates Politik with “politics” or “political affairs” as suggested by scholars such as Antulio Echevarria, Clausewtiz’ dictum seems more appropriately understood as a descriptive statement.”[9]

The problem with the first translation is that it elevates Clausewitz away from his practical work on the character of war.  If one accepts that policy is the correct translation, then one must search in his works for a meta-theory of war that privileges the state as paramount, that is, a state-centric version of war; that is, a Trinitarian version of war. However, the partisan victories in Vietnam in and Afghanistan require a different definition. This is the advantage of the second translation as politics, in that it allows for flexibility, something which Clausewitz understood when he wrote that war is a chameleon, and efforts must be adapted to the times. Understanding war as a continuation of the politics of people allows multiple points of entry into war, from the state, all the way to the individual, i.e., the partisan.  Fast forward to a twenty-first century filled with low-level conflicts which highly technical state war machines continue to fan, and this definitional issue has caused layer upon layer of conflicting analysis, with the likes of Michael Howard and Peter Paret on one side, and Mary Kaldor and Martin Van Crevald on the other, as Strategists divide themselves between Clausewitz’s military and political philosophies.  In view of this historical fracture over Clausewitzian philosophy and the fact that On War was unfinished, the missing explanations of the power of the partisan becomes paramount. There are enough surviving correspondences and manuscripts and hints in the unfinished On War itself to encourage this attempt.  Through an analysis of this material, a description emerges of Clausewitz’ much less well-known analogy, the Singularity.  The Singularity, not the Trinity, describes that engine of irregular war, the guerilla, or, the partisan.

The Singularity…

Before Napoleon, war was limited in scope, seeking only to change components of the international system.  Napoleon, with a chip on his shoulder, sought to change the system itself.  The key enabler of this change was unlimited power of early French nationalism.  Clausewitz intuited that the feelings of nationalism would work in similar way on the partisan.[10]  Clausewitz theorized that politics was a process, of which war was both part and product, described in On War as the Trinity.  This “remarkable trinity”  is one of passion (people), genius (the military commander), and reason (state).[11]  War was an interplay of the three, of “primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability and its subordination as an instrument of policy, and reason.”[12]  The product of the trinity working on each other was power in its potential form; in its kinetic form, we can call it force.  When force separates the components of the Trinity, resistance collapses. War was a composite of these three elements in which all activities in conflict are influenced by hatred and aggressiveness and tempered by the reasonable polices of government which extract the energy that is used to animate the army.[13]  The trinity collectivized war on a national scale that reflected the great change wars wherein the personal enmity of kings was redirected into state policy with military power seen as the key way to achieve policies. 

Napoleon was the genesé of this fundamentally new way of war.  The social forces that Napoleon inherited from the Revolution- that of creating citizens with a stake in the survival of the state- would create a powerful war machine that could defeat empires in a single powerful blow.  Clausewitz’ genius was to see the transmogrification of passion into people’s war, writing that “few people have a clear understanding of the full extent of this fearsome decisive measure…”[14]  The true partisan acts, and acts violently; he is an army of one.  The magnet of the trinity is unbalanced in the face of partisan violence.[15]   The instinct of the state is to add power, i.e., force to restore balance.  Clausewitz saw that power in the partisan resulted from a collapse of the trinity until a singularity is achieved.

This occurs because partisans do not labor under a trinity of passion, government, and military. Instead, all three are centered in the individual and produce an unlimited enmity because their adversary- states that spread neoliberalism through humanitarian interventions- require a change in the potential partisan’s life (social) modality which an existential threat.  One can no longer separate the trinity and force defeat.  Only destruction of the singularity can achieve the state war machine’s goal of a transformative peace.  In a Trinitarian war, disarming the adversary by destroying the army allows one to dictate peace.  However, the partisan fights for his existential self, completely committed to his goal.  The control of state war machines, honed ceaselessly through feedback loops, carefully delimit how war is supposed to be waged.  The protagonist in partisan wars rarely achieve that level of control.[16]   However, partisan war is not about the layering of bureaucracy or weapons.   It is about the relationship of means to ends and how social conditions- Clausewitz’ moral factors- facilitate the group mobilization required to sustain conflict against a more powerful adversary.  This is the practical application of Clausewitz’ moral factors but applied to the partisan’s cause.  How else to describe the willingness of a farmer to engage in war under vast power differentials?  

Yet More German Philosophy…

Clausewitz was very clear that the individual was decisive in war.  Clausewitz understood that in freeing a nation from domination and foreign oppression, politicization of the individual was the starting point of partisan war.   This was opposite of, as later analyses on the trinity would have it, the monolithic reliance on battle, reason or genius.  Indeed, Clausewitz would praise the power of the individual, seeing the difference between local regiments and those of his Prussian home: “The troops that are passing by give a truly aesthetic impression, but one that is quite different from our military parades. While the [Prussian] display rigid formations, here you can clearly discern the individual in all its singularity in the open ranks, and the steady movement of the procession coexists with diversity and the full expression of life.”[17]  This goes to the heart of the lacuna in his On War trinity: In Clausewitz’ vision, the passion and free will of the partisan was the harnessed sinews of people’s war. It was in his formulation of the Landswehr, a Prussian partisan army, was grounded in location, a piece of ground that tied the partisan through identity to the defense of his sense of self.[18]  And Clausewitz was developing this line of thought as early as 1807!

Another problem Clausewitz grappled with in the Trinity was that reason and genius ameliorated the limitless enmity of the people.  Without reason, it was simply mob violence.  Something must be found to motivate the partisan in lieu of reason and genius.  The struggle over this unknown variable of motivation took decades and ultimately did not find its way into On War. [19]   Clausewitz turned to Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) understanding of freewill:  Man existed in a world of communicative cognition, in which the explanation of objects created the understanding of the object.  Kant could not simply leave the unexplained laying on God’s doorstep.  There could be no supra-natural (God-given) rules by which opposing forces could predict actions.  Kant’s ‘free play’ of imagination and understanding meant that the elements of conflict could only be known at the moment of discovery.[20] Significantly for our understanding of the partisan, and the problems the war-machine has therein is, if free will exists, then war is essentially unknowable.  In other words, the unknown in war is an expression of humanity’s free will. Troubling for us, Clausewitz did not complete the logic: if humanity is truly free and imaginative, then conflict is essentially unknowable and unpredictable.   These elements of imagination and understanding, of surprise and possibility, were strongest in the partisan.  Clausewitz saw hints of this in the voltigeurs, chasseurs and tirailleurs, the light infantry of his time, writing that “the individual…  has a spirit of initiative, confidence in himself and in his fortune of which those who held the line can hardly imagine.”[21]   The partisan harnesses this energy, with Clausewitz telling the big Prussian army that this psychology could not be subordinated by Army discipline, which seeks “to defeat the enemy with mere form and affords the individual the least possible opportunity to use his intellectual powers.”[22]

What Clausewitz meant was that the moral forces underpinning military action was stronger than simple material means any state could bring to bear.  He wrote in 1809: “The modern art of war, far from using men as simple machines, must vitalize their energies...”[23]  Clausewitz thought this animating function, this vitality, sprang from the soul of the people.  Herein lay the knotted locus through which his theory cannot pass without some transformation.  The elements of the trinity cannot be separated, but he allowed that the power of passion meant that it would overcome the force of the other two.  Passion collapses reason and genius into his singularity, sparking an operative mode completely at odds with the rules of organized warfare.  True partisans are violent, and Clausewitz understood, and even advocated this early in his writings that the partisan would “answer cruelty with cruelty [and] respond to atrocities with atrocity.”[24]    Clausewitz found a whisper of consistency between the state sponsored violence of the trinity and the passion fueled violence of the partisans by connecting the survival of his Prussian state with the worthiness of a people who would fight for the survival of their identity.  He was undoubtedly thinking of the French as the contra-example, a people who would never be able to throw off the yoke of a dictator through an educated and cosmopolitan culture.  Instead it was the poor, indigent, rough-clothed men and women with little to lose who would accept risk of death as the first step to freedom.  Fighting was how a people identified itself as worthy of freedom while at the same time identifying what was worth fighting for.  Fighting, and the willingness to close with the enemy was an implicit declaration and acceptance of a possible sacrifice of existence.  This was, to Clausewitz, sublime.

And so, to close that Kantian-Clausewitzian loop, free will replaces the genius and reason of the trinity.  To Clausewitz, violence in support of the goal of freedom was an expression of free will; this transformed the mob into an effective weapon of war.  All singly acting partisans were still acting out of the same motivations to achieve the same goals.  Clausewitz was predicting the decentralized networks of the twenty-first century.  He felt people were the wellspring of an undeniable energy that could overthrow a foreign power.  He spent much time attempting to ensure that his audience understood that passion was multiplied by free will, which, in the partisan, took the place of the reason provided by the state.  This theoretical somersault into practicality is very clear in his Testimonial (1812) where the integration of passion and reason is central to Clausewitz’s thought, and it continued to play a crucial role in his later thinking but was unfortunately occluded in On War

Why is all this important?  It provides a glimpse into Clausewitz’ understanding of humankind’s basic emotional response to war, particularly partisan war. The long period of time between the development of his basic understanding of free will and passion, and the notes of 1827 show an expansion of his understanding, but the only historical link in On War was the idea that partisan war was a supporting effort to the decisive battle.  This in spite of his declaration that defensive war was stronger than offense, and ‘people’s war’ being a strategic defense, was the strongest of all. Clausewitz was close, so very close, but the germs of King Cholera were closer.  He died of the epidemic in 1831 and left us only his unfinished theory.

Automatons and Angry Bears

The antagonism between the Trinititarian view and those that hue to the Singularity can now be seen in modern wars.  A state trains its soldiers to task to achieve state objectives.  Operating under the singularity, passion rules the partisan, which drives war to the extreme. The partisan connects his acts of violence to the protection of his identity, a concept foreign to professional soldiers.  ISIS, AQ, the Taliban, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, even the Maute Group, and stretching back to the Tamils, the Mujahedeen, the Viet Cong and the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) have been able to link the survival of the people with support for conflict.  The acts of violence, particularly against civilians is derived from the survival instinct triggered by conflict.  The effect on the partisan is that she “expects neither justice nor mercy from his enemy. He (or she- Mothers will fight like grizzly bears for their children) is turned away from the conventional enmity of the contained war and given himself up to another – the real – enmity that rises through terror and counter terror, up to annihilation.”[25]  This is the basis for Clausewitz’ formulation of real war (or absolute war- he used both phrases), described as enemies between whom there was no humanitarian limits to what force could be used for.  Partisan war is absolute war.  What Napoleon achieved with nationalism in the name of the state, the partisan does with identity.  Clausewitz understood that war occurs in time and place, thus making it a social, and ultimately, political phenomenon.  Partisan wars are subject to the partisans’ own vision of themselves as a product of its history, and what they think the future should be[26]  These moral factors “… are the forces that give rise to war; the same forces circumscribe and moderate it.[27]  They themselves, however, are not part of war; they already exist before fighting starts.”  It is these social conditions that in the partisan frees unlimited enmity.

Clausewitz understood the risks inherent on relying on force.  Endless money and technology generating powerful force could lead to establishing the wrong objectives for the war, which could lead to a disastrous strategy. Not understanding the operative affective of the singularity has led to many badly managed wars against better prepared partisans.  These failed wars, already exceedingly complex, become more so by the inability of Trinitarian war to achieve policy objectives.   During the recent partisan wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, headquarters of ten and twenty thousand people compiled reams of orders and directives.  In order to avoid the overwhelming cognitive slow down, the complexity of the war was distilled to the simple precept of violent of tactical action at the lowest level.  This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy in which simple directives became the way to simplify the war.    This drive to violence became singular in its own way, and the need for more and more tactical actions, the idea that just a few more battalions, just a bit more mass, would solve the riddle was paramount.  But the idea of mass as strategy fails in identity wars, wherein the adversary is the individual.  To break the partisan, battles would become a never-ending series of executions of individuals.  In a very real way, in partisan war, each individual becomes a battlefield. 

Don’t Pick a Fight with Farmers…

They believe in themselves and breed like rabbits.  Beyond that, the Singularity doesn’t have rules.  It’s a bit more like a philosophy.  Once it is found, On War becomes just so many confused words.  The vital links which Clausewitz clawed from his own experiences in war itself are not expressed there, but in his scattered papers.  Thankfully, many of them are now being translated into English. We are a nation of slackers when it comes to learning other languages.  But Clausewitz did begin the work of fusing war with the concept of the partisan.  To be a partisan is be bound up in the society in which one exists, because the society is bound up in the cause.  Starting over with On War, and translating that bothersome, famous quote[28] as politics allows us to elevate the partisan from the ineluctable mystery of On War, into a function.  The necessary first step has been to re-conceptualize the Trinity as incomplete in order to reveal its inability to account for the partisan.  In doing so, the Singularity has emerged. I do not think Clausewitz would be disappointed, however the strategy-industrial complex may be.

End Notes

[1] Allansson, Marie, Erik Melander & Lotta Themnér (2017) Organized violence, 1989-2016. Journal of Peace Research 54(4).  Also, Gleditsch, Nils Petter, Peter Wallensteen, Mikael Eriksson, Margareta Sollenberg, and Håvard Strand (2002) Armed Conflict 1946-2001: A New Dataset. Journal of Peace Research 39(5).

[2] Clausewitz, “Note of 10 July 1827,” in On War, pg. 69.

[3] Daase, Chistopher and Davis James W. Eds, Trans. Clausewitz on Small Wars. Oxford, England. Oxford University Press. 2015. Pg. 4

[4] Paret, Peter. Clausewitz in his Time: Essays in the Cultural and intellectual History of Thinking About War. Berghan Books. Oxford, UK. 2015. Scheipers, Sibylle. The Most Beautiful of Wars: Carl von Clausewitz.” European Journal of International Security.  2:1(47-63)

[5] Scheipers, Sibylle. The Most Beautiful of Wars: Carl von Clausewitz.” European Journal of International Security.  2:1(47-63).

[6] Clausewitz, Carl. “Testimonial,” Clausewitz on Small Wars.  Christopher Daase and James W. Davis, Eds, Trans.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 2015. Pg. 182.

[7] Sumida, John Testuro. Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to War.  University of Kansas Press. Lawrence, Kansas. 2008. Pg. 135.

[8] War is a mere continuation of… by other means

[9] Daase and Davis, Clausewitz on Small Wars, Pg. 5.

[10] Clausewitz, On War, Pp. 479-483.

[11] Clausewitz, On War, Pg. 89.

[12] Clausewitz, On War, Pg. 89.

[13] Paret, Peter. Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories and His Times. Princton, NJ.  Princeton University Press. Pg. 369.

[14] Clausewitz, Carl. “Testimonial,” Clausewitz on Small Wars.  Christopher Daase and James W. Davis, Eds, Trans.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 2015. Pg. 196.

[15] Clausewitz. Carl. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Ed., Trans.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976. Pg. 89.

[16] Reynolds, Philip W.  “Why They Fight: Identity Conflict and Splintering in Mindanao,” unpublished mss.

[17] Paret, Clausewitz in his Time, p. 46.

[18] Clausewitz, Carl. “Testimonial,” Clausewitz on Small Wars.  Christopher Daase and James W. Davis, Eds, Trans.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 2015. Pg. 186.

[19] Scheipers, Sibylle. The Most Beautiful of Wars: Carl von Clausewitz.” European Journal of International Security.  2:1(47-63)

[20] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Reason, John H. Bernard, trans. Cosimo Classics, New York. 2007.  Pp. 38-39.

[21] Clausewitz, Carl. “My Lectures on Small War, held at the War College in 1810 and 1811,” Clausewitz on Small Wars. Christopher Daase and James W. Davis, Eds, Trans.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 2015. Pg. 23.

[22] Clausewitz, Carl. “Strategic Critique of the Campaign of 1814 in France,” Carl Von Clausewitz: Historical and Political Writings. Peter Paret and D. Moran, Eds, Trans. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 2014. Pg. 282

[23] Paret, Peter. Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories and His Times. Princton, NJ.  Princeton University Press. Pg. 177.

[24] Clausewitz, Carl. “The Arming of the People,” Clausewitz on Small Wars. Christopher Daase and James W. Davis, Eds, Trans.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 2015. Pg. 205.

[25] Schmitt, Carl, The Theory of the Partisan: A Commentary on the Concept of the Political.  Trans. G.L. Ulmen. New York: Telos Press Publishing, 2007. Pg. 7

[26] Herberg-Rothe, Andreas.  Clausewitz’s Puzzle: The Political Theory of War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pg. 86.

[27] Clausewitz. Carl. On War. Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Ed., Trans.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976. Pg. 76.

[28] War is a mere continuation of… by other means

Categories: Clausewitz

About the Author(s)

Dr. Phil W. Reynolds is a guest lecturer at the University of Hawaii.  He is the author of Ouroboros: Understanding the War Machine of Liberalism. This article is written for his tribe.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:50am

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RT Colorado

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 2:04pm

A "pity" and fun to read discussion of Clausewitz and like nearly every other article on "Strategy", myopic. If there's any question as to what Clausewitz meant in his "On War" well by all means lets dig the bastard up and ask him, because that is as valid an approach as trying to deduce from his writing what he "really meant". Those who lecture on Strategy suffer from the same inter-disciplinary biases that professionals in other disciplines suffer from and amazingly it's difficult to get them to see the truth of their biases. Pick any profession and you'll see it, Strategists are no different. Those who lecture on Strategy love to quote ancient strategists; Sun-tzu or Thucydides...and particularly Napoleon and Clausewitz. While the past has something to teach us, the real lesson is not to be bogged down by the past. In any example of a "wise" theorist is the key component of being original in their time. Napoleon was a genius...for a period,until a wise older saying came to light "God is one the side of the bigger Battalions" (Frederick the Great). While Napoleon was a great innovator, eventually the "wear and tear" of warfare brought his brilliance to naught. If there is a lesson in studying past innovators in warfare it's that they most eventually fail...eventually fail. What we should study isn't just the successes, but more importantly what led to their failure. Arguing the "real meaning" of Clausewitz is fun, but not very relevant in today's modern world, just like quoting Themistocles or Thucydides is no longer relevant.