Small Wars Journal

Give Carl von Clausewitz and the Center of Gravity a Divorce

Tue, 07/02/2013 - 3:30am

Because we love Carl von Clausewitz and the center of gravity concept, we need to grant them a divorce- for our sake.  We tried for years to make it work, but it’s time to face reality, together they are just too abstract and confusing for us to embrace.

 The center of gravity concept, a mainstay of the US military “operational art” since 1986[1], has never fully satisfied doctrine’s intent.   According to Dr. Alex Ryan, a former School of Advanced Military Studies instructor, the concept is, “so abstract to be meaningless”[2]  Now if a ‘mainstay’ is so ‘abstract’ that subject matter experts declare it ‘meaningless’ we have a doctrinal problem.  The genesis of this problem is a doctrinal foundation built on dubious authorship and editing, underdeveloped theory, imprecise metaphors, and flawed translations. [3]  This Clausewitzian foundation, which was never very solid, is now collapsing under the weight of 21st century warfare.  For this reason it’s time to end our reliance on Clausewitz’s On War as the authority on the center of gravity concept.              

Doctrine writers recognizing the potential utility of the center of gravity concept understandably turned to the concept’s originator to provide the intellectual and theoretical base.  This established the Clausewitzian foundation.  However, overtime shortcoming in this course of action became more apparent and has reached the point where some advocated removing the concept from doctrine.[4]   The problem is the Clausewitzian foundation’s has four cracks, On War’s  questionable writing and editing, underdeveloped theory, reliance on metaphors, and the continual evolution of meaning, context and translation.  These four cracks argue against a reliance on Clausewitz and support the need for a divorce.

Crack One.  Clausewitz did not write On War.  His widow, assisted by military colleagues collected his notes and manuscripts after his death and compiled them.  They eventually produced 10 volumes of which the first three became On War.[5]  On War is not Clausewitz’s magnum opus.  It is a third party’s interpretation of his notes, manuscripts, and incomplete drafts without the benefit of Clausewitz reviewing or editing it.  At best On War is an incomplete first draft forever waiting revision by the author.

Crack Two.  Prior to his death Clausewitz wrote a note saying his manuscripts were nothing more than, “a mass of conceptions not brought into form…open to endless misconceptions.”[6]  His note was a warning that his ideas and theories were incomplete and any attempt to comprehend or draw conclusions from them would be full of errors.  It is clear he hadn’t finished forming his theories and was not ready to stand behind them as authoritative.  If Clausewitz was not willing to stand behind the work credited to him why should we?     

Crack Three.  Clausewitz was trying to explain 19th century European social-political theory and the phenomena of war –the ultimate social-political contest to military officers whose formal education was generally in engineering, not the social sciences.  So he resorted to mechanical metaphors that successfully conveyed the social-political concepts to Prussian officers grounded in engineering.[7]   The metaphors, while imperfect as all metaphors are, worked for 19th century military officers.  The problem today is many military officers now  have soft sciences backgrounds and mechanical metaphors confuse rather than clarify as they did in Clausewitz’s time.[8]  If a metaphor has to be explained then the use of a metaphor is inappropriate to begin with.

Crack Four.  Another problem is flawed translations.  Clausewitz never used the term “center of gravity”, or in German, “Gravitationspunkt”, he used the word schwerpunkt, which means weight of focus or point of effort which is different from center of gravity, hubs or sources of power. [9]   But it is easy to understand how an English translator when picturing this point of effort could think of a center of gravity which further illustrates the danger of metaphors.  Milan Vigo in Joint Operational Warfare Theory and Practice provides a detailed analysis of the evolution of schwerpunkt from focus of effort to center of gravity which is summarized below:[10]

  1. Schwerpunkt – main weight or focus or one’s efforts.
  2. Mid 19th century, schwerpunkt is associated with an enemy’s capital as the point of focus. Germans and Austrians used the word schwerpunktlinie to mean a line of main weight or effort that links one’s base of operations to the enemy’s capital. This is where the schwerpunkt as ‘the target’ understanding comes from.
  3. Late 19th century it comes to mean a section of the front where the bulk of one’s forces are employed to reach a decision. Schwerpunkt is now the ‘arrow’ not the target.  This is a subtle shift from the point of focus on a target, to the arrow or what is focused.  Count Alfred von Schlieffen and German military practice used the ‘arrow’ understanding up to WW II.
  4. Colonel J.J. Graham’s 1874 English language translation of On War  mistranslated Schwerpunkt as “center of gravity”[11]
  5. Post World War I German military progressively adds a new meaning using schwerpunkt to mean the focus of planning efforts.  This is a natural evolution of the late 19th century hybrid of ‘the arrow’ and the ‘target’ understandings.
  6. The Bundeswehr (German Army) now uses the English term “center of gravity” while the Austrian Army uses the German term “Gravitationspunkt” which translates to “center of gravity”. 

Hence, English translators took Clausewitz’s “schwerpunkt”, ‘the target or point of focus’ meaning mistranslated it into center of gravity which morphed into the source of power or ‘the arrow’ meaning. 

So the concept of the center of gravity or schwerpunkt evolved from focus of effort which became the enemy’s capital, to a location on the battle field where the forces were most concentrated, to a planning effort focus, to a hub or source of power.  This continuing evolution is clear evidence of a ‘conception not brought into form.’  The fact that the concept has changed several times since the publication of On War and has been adapted to fit different environments is sufficient reason challenge On War’s authority on the subject.

Clauswitzian scholar Dr. Christopher Bassford describes the problems associated with any translation, especially those dealing with theoretical concepts.

“Any translation from one language to another necessarily involves interpretation not only of the language but of the conceptual content.  Even the most honest and competent translation inevitably includes both technical errors and arguable or controversial—if not flatly wrong—conceptual interpretations.  And not all translators are honest and/or competent.  Further, even editors working in the original language have been known to take liberties with the writer's original words, sometimes because the writer (like most authors) genuinely needed editorial assistance.  Other editorial interventions are prompted by political fear or ambition, conceptual confusion, or contrary conviction (of either a technical or ideological nature).  Changes in the native version obviously can be reflected in translations.  All of these factors have certainly had an impact on the translation of Clausewitz, so which edition you get can be important.”[12]

To illustrate Dr. Bassford’s point the phrase, “the hub of all power and movement” that is closely associated with the current definition is actually the invention of translators Michael Howard and Peter Paret, not Clausewitz.[13]  There are many other instances in their translation On War where grievous errors were made and were never corrected, e.g. Meldungen are translated as intelligence instead  of “reports”; Kriegschauplatz is translated as theater of operations (a term Clausewitz never used but Jomini did) instead the correct translation “theater of war.”[14]  Another example of how translations change context and meaning is when Colonel J.J. Graham’s 1874 English translation is compared to Michael Howard and Peter Paret’s 1976 translation.  Graham says, “…this center generally lies in the capital.” While Howard and Paret say, “the center of gravity is generally the capital.…” ‘Lies in’ and ‘is generally the capital’ have very different meanings.[15]

In addition to translating and editing problems there is the simple problem of correctly understanding 200 year old context and usage.  Understanding Clausewitz’s German is challenging even for modern native speaking German scholars such as Dennis Prange of the Munich Foundation who explained even correct literal translations contain errors in meaning and context.[16]  For example early 19th century German officers would have understood Schwerpunkt as the target while early 20th century German officers saw it as the arrow because usage, not meaning, evolved over time.

These factors have so confused the meaning of the center of gravity that the concept is practically useless. Yet the concept has tremendous potential and can still become the mainstay of Operational Art that doctrine intended.  But to reach this potential we need a Clausewitz-center of Gravity divorce so we can establish a new center of gravity relationship based on modern military theory and the imperatives of the 21st century warfare.  

[1] Dept of the Army, FM 100-5, 10, Appx B 179-180

[2] Dr, Alex Ryan, email to LTC Celestino Perez, Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, passed on to Dale C. Eikmeier, 13 October 2011.

[3] Author’s conclusion based on the changing definitions and descriptions of the center of gravity in both US Army and Joint Doctrine from 1986 through 2011 (FM 100-5 1986/1993, JP 5-00.1 2002, JP 5-0 2006/2011) and the number of articles and critiques on centers of gravity (Strange, Echevarria, Vego, Eikmeier,)

[4] Discussions at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas during the winter and spring 2010 among Command General Staff College instructors, and the Deputy Commandant’s Initiative Group on the implementation of ‘Design’ in the US Army’s FM 5-0 The Operations Process. The issue was whether or not the design methodology and its “problem frame” would replace the center of gravity. 

[5] Dr. Christopher Bassford On line at (accessed 5 December 2011).

[6] B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, (Meridian, New York, New York, 1991),  344

[7] Presentation by Lars Falk, Swedish Defense Research Agency, “Centers of Gravity and Clausewitz’s Model of War” 2nd Annual Conference on Terrorism and Global Security, Washington D.C., Ambivium Institute on Security and Cooperation.  14-15 September 2011.  

[8] Author’s experiences as a student and instructor at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, the School of Advanced Military Studies, as an instructor at the Army War College and as an operational level planner.  The mechanical meaning of center of gravity would have to be explained so use of the metaphor could be understood.  If a metaphor has to be explained the use of a metaphor is in appropriate to begin with.

[9] Milan Vego,  “Clausewitz's Schwerpunkt: Mistranslated from German Misunderstood in English”, on line at (accessed 10 January 2012). and Antulio J. Echevarria II, “Clausewitz’s Center Of Gravity: Changing Our Warfighting Doctrine—Again!”, (Carlisle Barracks, PAStrategic Studies Institute September 2003), 6

[10] Milan Vego,  Joint Operational Warfare Theory and Practice,  (Newport, RI, US Naval War College, September 2007), VII-37 –VII-48

[11] Colonel J.J. Graham’s 1874 English translation of On War, 144, 151, 331, available as an ebook at www.

[12]  Dr. Christopher Bassford on line article at  (accessed 5 December 2011).

[13] Dr. Joe Strange and Colonel Richard Iron, Understanding Centers of Gravity and Critical Vulnerabilities, National Defense University 2003,  .7 (accessed 15 December 2011).

[14] Email and phone discussions between Dr. Milan Vego,  U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island  and Dale C. Eikmeier, US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on 13 February 2012

[15] Dr. Joe Strange and Colonel Richard Iron, 10

[16] Dennis Prange, Munich Foundation discussions with the author at the 2nd Annual Conference on Terrorism and Global Security, Washington DC. Ambivium Institute on Security and Cooperation.  14-15 September 2011.


About the Author(s)

Colonel Dale C. Eikmeier retired from the Army after 30 years of service as an air defense artilleryman, joint planner, and strategist. Assignments include duty in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Campaigns include Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He has taught at the School of Advanced Military Studies, the US Army War College, and the Army Command and General Staff College. He holds a Masters in Military Arts and Sciences, a Masters in Management and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.



Fri, 07/05/2013 - 5:15pm

I certainly agree with Dale Eikmeier that the Howard/Paret translation is badly flawed. The alternative, however, is not the 1873 Graham translation—the 1943 Jolles translation is vastly superior. I will work through Dale's list of translation issues, looking to add ammo to my existing pile of indictments of H/P.

Personally, I got heartily sick of the whole CoG imbrolio decades ago. It's deranging. I try not to use the term at all but, as with a big cavity in a rotten tooth, my tongue sometimes won't leave it alone. For some strange reason, however, over the past week I've suddenly been bombarded with it. We're talking about a real fire-sack here at <em></em> central. I agree with Dale that we ought to divorce Clausewitz from the Great Center-Of-Gravity Debate. Clausewitz is (almost) an innocent victim in this illicit marriage. But I also think that we ought to drop the term entirely. It has no intrinsic meaning to begin with. Were there some clearly distinguishable and valuable underlying concept that has to have a name, it would be advisable to find some new term that can elicit harmony in the doctrinal world. But as far as I can tell, there is no such unitary concept. And doctrinal harmony is only a dream—not a very pleasant one at that. (With apologies to H. v Moltke.)

Discussions of Clausewitzian theory should always be filtered through a recognition that Clausewitz himself, in addition to being a truly brilliant theorist capable of high levels of useful abstraction, was also a profoundly gifted staff officer with a great deal of practical experience and common sense. <em>On War</em> presents a way of thinking about war, not a cookbook. Whenever the theoretical debate metastasizes into something like the present how-many-CoGs-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin level of absurdity, we should follow his advice: "Just as some plants bear fruit only if they don't shoot up too high, so in the practical arts the leaves and flowers of theory must be pruned and the plant kept close to its proper soil—experience." Of course, that makes some perhaps undue assumptions about the experience of some of the discussion's participants. It is not the case that Clausewitz wasn't willing to stand behind his theories, it's that his theories were never intended to be used as doctrine. Especially not by the kind of people who think that the universe of politics and war can be encompassed by one book (or, to be more precise, one set of buzzwords ripped entirely out of all meaningful context). As currently used in US doctrine, the term CoG should in most cases be replaced with 'Silver Bullet.' In translating <em>Vom Kriege</em> itself, we should be required to find a different phrase, suitable to context, for each appearance of <em>Schwerpunkt</em>. In our practical strategic discussions, we should drop COG entirely and replace it with "important thing" (lower-case, no acronyms allowed).

<em>Schwerpunkt</em> is in fact sometimes used in German for "center of gravity" in Mechanics, and Clausewitz made it very clear that he was (at least at certain points in his discussion) drawing on that science as a metaphorical source-domain. Unfortunately, Clausewitz actually got the scientific concept wrong—the physical CoG does not necessarily lie where the mass is most densely concentrated. That doesn't bother me because Clausewitz never intended the term to take on anything like the theological meaning it has assumed in the USA. In his unedited drafts (the level of unfinished-ness and what I call the "evolutionary character" of <em>Vom Kriege</em> as we have it are, of course, a central source of controversy amongst Clausewitz specialists) he was casting about for powerful metaphors and hit on <em>Schwerpunkt</em> about 90 times. It became a verbal tic. The role of COG as a metaphor—rather than as a term of art—is much clearer in the Jolles translation, which only bothers to list "Gravity, center of, in armed forces," twice (pp.465-466). In the vast majority of those 90+ uses, he simply means "the really important thing in this particular discussion here in this paragraph" (RITITPDHITP). Sometimes he's talking about what we'd call the tactical or operational "main effort." In three or four specific discussions he uses it in a more particular way, but each time quite differently—particularly at the operational and policy levels. Those specific discussions cover quite distinct ideas. But Clausewitz was very insistent about not wanting to create a brain-dead jargon, so he constantly used different terms to describe the same idea and the same terms to describe different ideas, in order to keep the focus on the ideas rather than have them fall victim to our Pavlovian reflexes. So, if we were to draw a singular doctrinal meaning of the term it would be something very general like "focus your thoughts on stuff that's really important and quit chasing trivialities."

That's good advice, I think, and simple common sense. Unfortunately, it fails to satisfy the American Quest for the Silver Bullet (AQSB) or the Bureaucratic Quest for the Universal Regulation (BQUR). In any case, you can't do it at all if every player in the corporate democracy decides he's going to chase whatever's convenient for his agency, service, branch, party, or self, as we invariably do. Fortunately, our massive and multifaceted power often allows us to gnaw our opponents to death with a thousand individually irrelevant termite bites. Should efficiency ever become important, however, we might be in trouble.

All this is not to say that many of the different ideas being kicked around under the CoG label are bad ones. They're mostly good ideas. But their value is destroyed if we insist that only one can be the true Holy Grail—oops—CoG. One example is what the Marines call Critical Vulnerability. Commandant Al Gray initially insisted that this was covalent with CoG, but it became very clear during our doctrinal debates at MCCDC that a) that wasn't what the rest of DoD meant by the term and the USMC wasn't going to win the Joint food fight, and b) in order for a V to be a CV, it had to be something that addressed something not merely vulnerable but also critically important—i.e., a CoG. Otherwise you end up bombing a pre-industrial country back into the pre-industrial age simply because you have B-52s (and in the meantime losing the war). So the USMC adopted both terms with distinct meanings for each. Both are useful concepts: the CoG is a strength and the CV is something we can strike at in a way that undermines it. But if the CoG is the enemy's army, well, it's hard to see how the army itself can be a vulnerability (unless you're Mussolini's Italy).

When I do use the term CoG (for any purpose other than to heap aspersions upon the ridiculous doctrinal debate it has inspired) it is as a metaphor. Clausewitz's most prominent metaphor for war is that of two wrestlers.When two wrestlers are in contact, the physical center of gravity cannot fully belong to either player—it is something created by their interaction. It's constantly shifting, and where it is depends on the very particular situation at a very particular time. If you get too attached to one definition, you're bound to get wrong-footed in the next phase. In other words, quit worrying about what the CoG is <em>in general</em> and start worrying about what's important in the specific given situation. And, if you have some energy to spare, think about what might become important in the <em>next</em> situation and how you might start leveraging those dynamics now. Similarly, we ought to quit worrying about what <em>kind</em> of a war we're in—3rd, 4th, 5th generation, hybrid, "new," etc.—and focus on understanding the fight we are <em>in</em>. The Butterfly Effect more-or-less guarantees that the fine details of the reality will trump any characteristics attributable to a general class—even in the rare case that your type-classification isn't a meaningless military, bureaucratic, or academic fantasy to begin with.

Bill M.

Fri, 07/05/2013 - 4:47am

In reply to by Fuchs


I'm in no position to assess Clausewitz's actual intent when he wrote about Schwerpunkt, but I like your explanation. This differs little from our focus on Baghdad when we initiated hostilities in Iraq. We assumed risk in Northern Iraq and other locations to concentrate our resources on the decisive battle in Baghdad. It can be argued that worked, since the seizure of Baghdad resulted in the collapse of the Iraqi Army (at least in its conventional form) and the ousting of Saddam from power. Unfortunately we didn't have much a plan B for what followed, but that doesn't lessen Clausewitz's thoughts on Schwerpunkt. It is applicable in some situations and not in others, but our (U.S. military) evolving interpretation of the center of gravity (COG) concept results in its misuse.

Case in point, is the highly irrational COG concept our military leaders blindly accept is that in COIN the population is the COG and if it is somehow won over (whatever that actually means) the insurgency will defeated. First off the population is not a singular thing we can mass our resources or effects on in any way that will be decisive. Second, even if in a particular country the population was of single mindset except the insurgents, gaining their support won't decisively defeat the insurgents. Even if most Afghans reject the Taliban that hardly means they can't effectively continue their struggle as long as they have a semi-secure base in Pakistan. If there is anything resembling a COG it will be a political agreement, but the path to get there is always complicated. Political warfare is complex and trying to over simplify it with a COG results in a form of strategic paralysis.

I believe Professor David Perkins from Harvard is right when he says 90% of the errors in thinking are due to perception, not our logic. In general our logic is pretty decent, but if we perceive the problem incorrectly it doesn't matter how excellent our logic is, we'll develop a plan to solve the wrong problem. This is IMO is where the U.S. military abuses the COG concept. Planners rush to come up with some poorly thought out COG so they can rapidly move on to solving the problem. More often than not we got it wrong, so we're solving the wrong or non-existent problem, and this results in our failure to explore the issue in depth from multiple angles to consider multiple ways to frame the situation and then shape it to achieve our objectives (this assumes we have time, and more often than not we do at the strategic level). Einstein was onto something when he said you should spend 90% of your time defining the problem and 10% solving it. Clausewitz wrote something similar about the importance of understanding the nature of the war your about to embark upon before you go. We would do so much better if we even dedicated 30% of our time truly seeking understanding of the problem and not defaulting to dumbing it down to a COG, which as you point out in your blog was not what Clausewitz intended.

It worries me when the author suggests we adapt the COG concept to modern warfare. Why? Why don't we use the concept as intended when it is appropriate, and develop other and more appropriate concepts when that is appropriate?

G Martin

Thu, 07/04/2013 - 4:28pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

I have taken Ben's use of the term "Positivism" to mean the philosophy that espouses that one can take physical science methodology and apply it to anything in order to understand it. So, for instance, one can use that same scientific methodology to "understand" human population groups. One alternative is to turn to "Post-positivism"- which attempts to argue that things like human population groups aren't understood by classical scientific methods (if they can be "understood" at all).


Thu, 07/04/2013 - 12:55am

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

My answer would be: sometimes, yes...depending upon the situation. That may not be the answer you wanted, but based upon your methodology of discourse here at SWJ, it probably matters little.

Generally, discussions at SWJ and other journals are exciting because through the exchange and sharing of ideas and thoughts, novel creation occurs and discovery. But we cannot always have that with all of our participants.

We live in the worlds we create, I suppose.



Vitesse et Puissance

Mon, 07/08/2013 - 1:08pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

I actually agree with what Dayuhan says here. That is part of my frustration. Not be to a definitions Nazi, but I cannot help but note the similarities of this discussion of the term Schwerpunkt(aka Center of Gravity) with Thomas Kuhn's handling of the word "paradigm" in "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". The book "Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge: Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy" contains a paper by the computational linguist Margaret Masterman, in which she claims that Kuhn uses the term in twenty two (!!) different ways. No wonder most social scientists cannot explain what a "paradigm" really is, even though they throw the word around all the time. So - irrespective of scholastic hand-wringing over a fairly simple term - I'd be inclined to cut the late Major General von Clausewitz some slack here, even though his use of the German language continues to defeat me. (It is not as baddy as his friend Hegel - I don't know how anyone gets that stuff into readable English.) If I were given the unenviable task of translating his work, I think I would avoid excessive paraphrasing, if for no other reason than the term in context, not unlike the Greek "logos" or the English "paradigm" can be used in many different senses.

From a translator's point of view, I can easily understand the rationale for selecting the less precise term "center of gravity" over "centroid" as an acceptable term of art. What would you do if the Commandant of the U.S. Army War College had the habit of throwing around the word "centroid" as one of his favorite buzz words ? Ever worked for a guy like that ? Yes - pretty soon, you'd have an entire division apppointed to exploring its deeper meanings. Oh, I forgot - this is the discussion thread that complains we're already doing that.

I would like to thank Major Zweibelson for giving me a predictably pragmatic response to a simple yes-or-no question. Ben - if I could somehow get you to embrace your inner pragmatist, once and for all, that would be a form of progress. And just remember - you are not alone.

For what it is worth, you can find the Masterman article in

"Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge Vol. 4 : Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London 1965", Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, ed.
ISBN-10: 0521096235 | ISBN-13: 9780521096232

Portions of it are out on Google, but since there is no electronic copy otherwise available, yhou probably have to buy the whole thing in print version.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 07/04/2013 - 9:02am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan: Your comment is a keeper. I am cutting and pasting it for future reference. This should probably be added to the SWJ Quote of the Day (if not year) and posted with in the section describing SWJ and the ROE. Thank you.


Wed, 07/03/2013 - 10:48pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

Vitesse et Puissance....

Re this:

<i>He uses the term "postivist" in an excessively broad manner, with no meaningful definition</i>

I think you miss the purpose here.

I have observed in these discussions that when you want to portray your idea as new, cool, and racy the first thing you do is to call your idea "post-modern" and some competing idea "positivist". The second thing you do is to call your idea "quantum" and the other "Newtonian". Actual relevance to these concepts need not be demonstrated and is totally unnecessary, the point is to make yourself sound philosophical and scientific, and to make any more down-to-earth rendition sound tired and old.

If those devices fail, you leverage the jargon of management by using "leverage" as a verb.

The key for the observer is to cut through the language politics and address the substance of the argument, stripped of jargon and superfluous verbiage. That can be a frustrating process: more than once I've stripped away jargon and superfluous verbiage and found myself staring at a blank screen.

Vitesse et Puissance

Mon, 07/08/2013 - 2:08pm

In reply to by Fuchs

I'm just contrrary enough to go for the bait here. Is the centroid a fixed location, or does it move over time ? For moving bodies, the chances are that the answer is the latter (does move over time. Do I care - well, to echo the inimitable Major Zweibelson, it does depend on what I'm doing. For my purposes, it is usually sufficient to fix the centroid at its approximate location, as if the mass all resided at this point. It is, after all, computationally much more demanding to worry about the centroid's displacement, even if the results are more accurate.

I would suggest that for the purposes to which Clausewitz uses the term, spatial precision is not the issue. When, in an orders group, I specify the "point of main effort" as that little clump of trees across the valley where I intend my last remaining reserve commit itself, totally and irrevocably - only to find out a few hours later what a really, really bad idea that was - it was my bad idea from the start. A few hundred meters this way or that wouldn't have mattered. This is what I meant by "discovering" the center of gravity. Liddell Hart, in fact, uses this issue as his own personal Schwerpuknt in his jihad against Clausewitz. If indeed, the "Mahdi of Mass" knows no other business than what Napoleon did at Borodino - committing strength against strength, the results would seem
self-evident to all but the dullest of boys. That said, one doesn't need to be a fundamentalist to appreciate the literal sense of a text.


Wed, 07/03/2013 - 8:51pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

The centre of gravity is only by chance at the fulcrum. Even the tiniest bend of the beam leads to a divergence.

Besides; Clausewitz didn't understand Newtonian mechanics anyway. His description of what a Schwerpunkt is in physics in in the German original utter nonsense. He believed that the centre of gravity is where there's usually the most mass.
The centre of gravity of a football is in its relatively empty cavity.

The whole link to physics is thus irrelevant for military theory. The Clausewitzian Schwerpunkt uses the same word as physics for a totally different concept. "concentration" or "overriding priority" fit better, for example.

Vitesse et Puissance

Wed, 07/03/2013 - 6:48pm

Well I stand corrected with respect to the German translation...note however that in a balance beam, the center of gravity IS at the fulcrum. In engineering language, the term "centroid" is actually clearer and less ambiguous than "center of gravity". Now, as for "discovery", that was my own embellishment, a forelorn attempt at compromise. Using the language of "recon pull" tactics - one finds the location where to form the main effort (aka Schwerpunkt). I would like to challenge Maj Zweibelson as to whether he believes that concentration of force in time and space is a useful concept at all. I really don't have time for his intellectual bouncing and weaving. He uses the term "postivist" in an excessively broad manner, with no meaningful definition - perhaps he is trying to use the term as a metaphor for something else - in which case, I don't really know what he is talking about, and can be forgiven for suspecting that neither does he.

I have several remarks;

(a) "center of gravity" (AE) or "centre of gravity" (BE) is a perfectly fine translation for "Schwerpunkt"

(b) Some written texts in the Bundeswehr may now used an Anglicism, but the word "Schwerpunkt" is still perfectly in use and its meaning in civilian German language has long since been enlarged due to CvC.

(c) Most Americans didn't 'get' the real German concept of a Schwerpunkt anyway. I cite FMFM-1 "Warfighting" field manual (1989):

"(...) Sometimes known as the center of gravity. However, there is a danger in using this term. Introducing the term into the theory of war Clausewitz wrote (p.485): "A center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated the most densely. It presents the most effective target for a blow; furthermore, the heaviest blow is that struck by the center of gravity." Clearly, Clausewitz was advocating a climatic test of strength against strength "by daring all to win all" (p. 596). This approach is consistent with Clausewitz' historical perspective. But we have since come to prefer pitting strength against weakness. Applying the term to modern warfare, we must make it clear that by the enemy's center of gravity we do not mean a source of strength, but rather a critical vulnerability."

(d) Too abstract and confusing? Seriously? Replace the half-wits if Schwerpunkt is too complicated for them. Also fire that instructor.

(e) I disagree with the characterisation of "Schwerpuntk" usage up to end of WW2. The modified idea of a Schwerpunkt in use during ~1870 till today is rather the application of the concept on different levels. To CvC it was on the level which concerns generals or field marshals. By WW2 it was being applied down to company level at least if not even lower (such as calling the machinegun the "Schwerpunktwaffe" - Schwerpunkt-weapon of the infantry squad leader).


The military idea "Schwerpunkt" is soon two centuries old. It's still being treated as a near-miracle and high art - but seemingly only in anglophone writings.
It is a concept which addresses resource shortages and requires austerity and risk-taking as well as a lot of self-discipline. Maybe this makes it so difficult to some people and institutions.

G Martin

Thu, 07/04/2013 - 4:23pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

I take it as either intellectual laziness or cultural defensiveness when folks dismiss any deconstruction as "post modern philosophical B.S.". Although deconstructionism- like anything else- can be used in non-productive ways, this does not mean attempting to get at the logic that underpins a certain abstraction is a waste of time.

I would much rather deconstruct our attempts to use metaphors to understand abstract concepts than to do what most of my peers do: accept the conventional wisdom on faith and remain blind to any gaps in knowledge that leaves them.


Wed, 07/03/2013 - 7:57am

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

"When you strip away all the post-modern philosophical B.S., the concept is simple, clear, and understandable to persons of average intelligence. Not much more need be said about it."

Gosh, I could not disagree more. However, it never helps your position to make such a tautological statement as above while insulting other perspectives.

The COG concept as used in western military applications today is not simple, in my opinion...and in the likely opinions of the many PME instructors I have worked with. Students have a hard time with it, as do faculty. It is not very clear because we are applying a physics metaphor to human behavior in large groups and societies...

I think there is quite a bit more to be said about it, and Dale's work here, as well as many of the SWJ bloggers' thoughts and time relate to that necessary discussion we need to have. Perhaps CvC is clear and simple, but we are just applying it wrong? If so- why? What is driving that? Maybe, just maybe, something out of left field might break us of this cycle and get us on the right track with CvC as it ought to be done- something as kooky as a post-modern philosophical perspective even!

There are other ways of seeing the world, and other ways of interpreting it. Maintaining a rigid positivist worldview only reinforces us continuing to repeat the same errors and expect different results.



Tue, 07/02/2013 - 9:14pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

"The direct translation of "Schwerpunkt" in English is not "point of main effort". It is the English word "fulcrum". The fulcrum IS the center of gravity"

This was utter nonsense.

Go to and type either "fulcrum" or "Schwerpunkt" - you won't find either in the list of correct translations.

Schwerpunkt =
emphasis - pl.: emphases
focus pl.: focuses, foci
balance point
core area
focal point
key aspect
main focus [fig.]
stress [fig.]
barycenterAE / barycentreBE [phys.]
centerAE of gravity [abbr.: CG] [engin.][phys.][tech.]
centerAE of mass [geol.][phys.]
centreBE of gravity [abbr.: CG] [engin.][phys.][tech.]
centreBE of mass [geol.][phys.]
centroid [engin.]

"fulcrum" =
der Stützpunkt
die Abstützung
die Drehachse
der Drehpunkt
der Gelenkpunkt
der Hebelpunkt

"So when military German uses such a phrase as "die Schwerpunkt bilden""
Correct German language: "den Schwerpunkt bilden" and no, nothing about discovery involved.

S.O. from Germany

Vitesse et Puissance

Tue, 07/02/2013 - 1:41pm

If you don't even bother to reflect on the physics underlying the metaphor, it is pretty hard to understand the metaphor itself. How did these people even manage to pass freshman level physics at West Point. And what about other commissioning sources where a course physics is not even required...still, the concept is pretty easy when you deconstruct the language out the original German. So here goes. The direct translation of "Schwerpunkt" in English is not "point of main effort". It is the English word "fulcrum". The fulcrum IS the center of gravity - and the concept implies balance as much as it does concentration of energy. So when military German uses such a phrase as "die Schwerpunkt bilden" - literally, "form the fulcrum (aka center of gravity)", that action implies an act of discovery as much as an act of will. When you strip away all the post-modern philosophical B.S., the concept is simple, clear, and understandable to persons of average intelligence. Not much more need be said about it. As long as the concept has pragmatic value, it may be used as a tool of military art and science, and if it loses its pragmatic value, US Army doctrine may shuck it off like every other concept it wishes to forget. But one should not simply dismiss it in the typical manner of the philistines who just don't bother trying to understand the products of other cultures and times.


Tue, 07/02/2013 - 1:06pm

Dale, there is much to think about given what you've written and the way you've written it. I second bz... there is room and reason for you to go deeper with this line of thought. Thanks.

Robert C. Jones

Tue, 07/02/2013 - 10:23am

Dale, BZ,

Thank you. There is tremendous value in CvC's work - but much of that value is lost when applied either too universally or too dogmatically either one. Good thoughts.


G Martin

Thu, 07/04/2013 - 4:16pm

In reply to by bz

Great paper- and agree with BZ- one could go further. But, a few days ago right before a targeting class for UW in which CoG was used ("targeting CVs of the CRs of the CCs of the CoC will ensure success") we got our updated SHARPS training in which the same linear logic was presented in this way:

Sexual innuendo leads to sexual harassment leads to sexual assault which leads to homicide.

To me the logic seems the same...

I suggest you do not go far enough here, but I really enjoyed your points and the research. I find that nearly all of the metaphors in 'On War' relate to physics/engineering concepts- essentially a functionalist/positivist paradigm that ties directly into where and when Clause wrote his ideas . I found your points (or cracks) very interesting, but why does Clause (or his wife and editors) draw towards physical metaphors? Gravity, lines, fog, friction, etc. The only one perhaps not in line as a metaphor is the "duel on a grand scale" which I would argue is still in keeping with a simplistic, or at the most, a complicated conduct the duel there are rules that must be obeyed. The reasons (social, political, cultural) drive the duel process, and the conduct of the duel may end with unexpected outcomes (as Vice President Burr probably reflected deeply upon), one must play by the societal rules (within that paradigm, perhaps) or face the consequences. Now, complex warfare is nothing like a duel...but that is another discussion.

Back to my point; why does the military devote itself entirely to Clause/Jomini in doctrine, practice, theory, and ultimately, our preferred paradigm? Our entire decision-making process rests upon these physical metaphors cast within the structure of the functionalist/positivist mindset where reductionism, linear causality, and detailed description drive our reasoning...our educators use a process where the instructors slowly reveal knowledge to the students, and only the young learn tactics while only the old and experienced are invited towards the sunset of their careers to "learn" strategy...and strategy is taught in a universal process where the tenets of Dead Carl remain "true" and singular.

Are there levels of war because we say there are, or because they emerge out of human conflict in some observable and reliable fashion regardless of conflict? Are COGs the same? Is 'fog and friction' just the way to sweep failure under the carpet after doing MDMP, campaign planning, and targeting cycles fail to produce the predicted results? In other words, are we trapped in a cycle of attempting to interpret a non-Clausewitzian world of modern conflict with Clausewitzian (and Jominian) terms, symbols, metaphors, concepts, and procedures? Worse still, do we blindly apply these to our enemies, and demand that they too play by the same rules? Are we trying to host a duel against our foes when there is no duel at all, except in our minds?