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War is War is Clausewitz

(To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

As I started diving into the precisely vague wording of “war is war”, I found a clear connection: the intellectuals who admonish us to understand that “war is war” love Clausewitz. If I didn’t know any better, I would think the phrase “war is war” and Clausewitz were dating, or at least getting some on the side. This isn’t only an issue with the “war-is-war”-ior; military strategists have obsessed over Carl since he first published On War.

You may not know this, but Carl von Clausewitz is God.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Clausewitz is God, nor should he dominate American thinking on military strategy and theory the way hideous haircuts dominate the heads of Rangers. He has a place in military philosophy, there is no doubt about that, but the emphasis on Clausewitz today is out-of-control.

To make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting the “war is war” crowd, I asked the folks over at the SWJ discussion board what they thought of my first two posts. Sure enough, about eight comments down someone started using Clausewitz to clarify the definition of war, that’s how popular he is.

But Clausewitzian love goes further than interweb forums; academics use him all the time too. Colin Grey, who declares “war is war” in his Strategic Studies paper, writes “there is no need for us to devote attention to the nature of war; that vital task has been performed more than adequately by Carl von Clausewitz.” Colonel David Maxwell argrees that all we need to do is study more Clausewitz; he said it in two different papers for The Small Wars Journal.

I have a few issues with Clausewitz’s domination of military thought:

1. Is Clausewitz all there is? To go back to my “politics is politics” analogy, how many political theorists are there? One could argue Machievelli dominates the field, but not more than Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, not to mention the ancients like Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages. But military strategy has, in the terms of Professor Grey, only three: Clausewitz, Thucydides and Sun Tzu. I think one of the reasons the nature of warfare is disputed so frequently is that military theory rests almost primarily on the shoulders of one thinker. No other field or discipline is so narrow.

I appreciate his definition of war, but as the overarching father of all military thought, I don’t love reading him the way I loved reading, for example, the foundational thought in the theory of politics. Frankly, Clausewitz’s writing doesn’t sparkle like the writing of Plato, Machiavelli and Locke, not to mention the writing of our founding fathers.

2. Clausewitz is on the wrong end of my philosophical spectrum. Now this doesn’t mean conservative or liberal, realist or idealist, it means complicated and verbose. Long ago, I developed my own personal spectrum of philosophy: on one end are Kant and Derrida competing for the claim of the most incomprehensible philosopher, on the other is Plato’s “Crito” and Jesus’ parables, both examples of philosophy that can be read on several levels, but understood without taking a college class. (A friend of mine took a class on Kant at UCLA, and they were only able to work through forty pages. Forty.)
Clausewitz falls over the complicated German philosopher cliff. I mean, his work encompasses several volumes, was never finished, and was written in the Hegelian style--which means frequently you argue a point just to refute it later (thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis).

3. The most parroted assumptions are ridiculously vague. From what I can tell, the most significant achievement of Clausewitz was his definition of war--warfare is politics through other means (depending on the translation). Second to that was his classification of the three parts of warfare: 1. Violence, hatred and enmity (really two topics, violence and enmity) 2. chance or probability and 3. each opponent is subordinate to rational policy. It just seems that every human endeavor is the interaction of emotion, chance and rationality, be it diplomacy, economics, politics or war.

This simplification is probably more due to people simplifying philosophy as opposed to the philosopher himself. Philosophy, in general, suffers when it is simplified. Clausewitz equals “war is politics by other means”, Machiavelli is “rule at all costs”, Neitzsche believed in “the super man”. Nuance? Fuhgetaboutit. These quick snap definitions lose the subtlety of hundreds of pages of philosophy--and I think that simplification is magnified in Clausewitz’s case when it comes to “war is war”.

I don’t mean to slander Carl von Clausewitz here, nor do I intend to imply no one should read him. I advocate a middle ground: military officers should definitely read Clausewitz, but keep an open mind that he probably doesn’t have all the answers, or even most of them. No other intellectual field relies so heavily on one single thinker; I think it also does military theory and the philosophy of violence a disservice to assume Clausewitz has war all figured out when Hannah Arendt wrote a brilliant treatise, On Violence, that few military officers have read.

eigthteen comments

I am reminded of the great Roman physician Galen, whose studies and observations were so cutting edge for his time that for nearly a millenia afterwards, physicians hardly dared question his conclusions.

Does von Clausewitz still contribute to military discussions? Of course.

But I’d be willing to bet that he would get lost in his own fog in today’s conflicts.

Clausewitz certainly gets the most press and attention. But I hope you’ve heard of Jomini, Fuller, Liddell-Hart, Mahan, Moltke Sr, etc. I could go on. Read some of them and then read some Army, Marine Corps, and Joint doctrine. They had a huge influence, probably more so than Clausewitz. You hear about Clausewitz a lot, but he doesn’t dominate the field as much as you think.

Good thought piece. I was wondering where y’all were going to go with the crtique of “war is war.”

As a side note, at NPS, Dr. Gordon McCormick suggested that Clausevitz only wrote about big wars (i.e. interstate wars), and Clausewitz had began writing about small wars (wars of the people) before his death, but it was never completed. I never checked to see if that was true, but I always found it interesting.

In addition to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, I’d include Mao, Ghandi, and King.

@ Wingnut- Great analogy with Galen. I think you could argue the same thing happened with Plato and Aristotle too. For a millenia Christian scholastic scholars were rewriting and commenting on them. However, philosophy eventually burst forth with plenty of thinkers.

@Xenophon- I have indeed heard of all the thinkers you have mentioned. I read “The Makers of Modern Strategy” back in college and in touched on all of them, then I read some of their works. Having said that, if you measured the modern papers that cite those thinkers compared to how many cite Clausewitz, it wouldn’t be close. The SWJ discussion board is another perfect example. Even the SSI conference paper posted on the thread I link to has multiple mentions of Clausewitz, but I don’t think any others.

I totally agree that Moltke Sr. dominates US Army doctrine, especially when it comes to staffs and planning.

@MikeF- I love that Clausewitz may differentiate between “big wars” and “wars of the people”. In my next post on this series, I think for next Monday, I specifically talk about population. I even back in the day defined “wars of the people” as “political wars”. It would be interesting to research that further.

If there’s an opposite of Godwin’s Law, it’s Clausewitz’ law.

It would be amusing if Clausewitz’ “On War” were like Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, which many believe was written as a satire. As such, much of the book is written in a dialectic format, in which “straw men” must be deconstructed. Thus, cherry-picking quotes from the book is problematic, as the “straw man” position is often attributed to Clausewitz.

You had me at “If I didn’t know any better, I would think the phrase “war is war” and Clausewitz were dating, or at least getting some on the side.”

But seriously. On War has dominated the war colleges and by extension theaters for what I’ll agree is too long. In our discussions of WW1 memoirs this term, we’ve tried to map battlefield decisions against Clausewitzian doctrine, and we keep framing the equation against a recurring question: at which point is this total war, and at which exigence?

We’re finding that we can find academic reasons for saying it’s Clausewitz and logical, practical ones for exigence. Humans make decisions under stress that confound and deny doctrine.

I don’t think that Clausewitz would advocate that he be the single font of knowledge. However, I do think that Clausewitz is worth the effort to grapple with. The english translation is difficult to work through (and I don’t read German), but I have found it no harder to wade through than many philosophers (including Arendt). As context, I’d strongly recommend reading Paret’s Clausewitz and the State, a biography. What I think you will find is an officer experiencing the upheaval of his nation, world order and warfighting, and attempting a systemic study to figure it out. His iterative approach, and constant revisions, as well as frustatrated efforts to reform his home army, remind me of the efforts of many officers today. For a different look at the real “intent” and import of Clausewitz, I’d also recommend Jon Sumida’s Decoding Clausewitz. Phil Ridderhof

@ Mike F – Martin luther King?

I also love your idea that war is related to peace, but I don’t think many people view it that way.

Eric C- Especially King. Michael is discussing other philosophies of war. Read the Letter in a Birmingham Jail. King’s movement is facing violent suppression from the government and terrorism (I hate that word) from other groups (KKK). By any definitions of injustice, he can legally claim the right to rise up and rebel as an insurgency. Malcolm X supported that idea. Instead, he calls on his people to first conduct self-introspection to ensure their hearts and motives are pure and then literally turn the other cheek in a strategy of meeting violence with non-violence. I’d suggest that’s another philosophy of war.

If King had gone violent, then it is possible that we could still be stuck facing a protracted low-level insurgency in the US.

The question that I’ve considered is when will it work? What conditions have to be met in order for a strategy of non-violence to succeed in a violent conflict. In the case of the Civil Rights movement, I think you have to study the conflict for the past 400 years to have the conditions met.

If I was advising the Palestinian movement, then I would suggest a strategy of non-violence is the only strategy that would eventually lead to peace.

And yes, peace is intertwined with war.


I love the idea of incorporating peace studies with war studies, and studying how politics influences them all. In that regard, I totally think MLK should be studied for how he conducted his movement. Many people forget that to conduct non-violence his followers had to be rigorously trained to not react in violence. After plenty of training, then his followers could stand up to dogs and water hoses and the like. The civil rights movement shows that non-violence does not equal passivity.

I also like “Blog Them Out of The Stone Age”‘s approach to the Civil Rights movement as an insurgency.

IMO, an understanding of peace studies is imperative to gain a tactical advangtage when negotiating the peace. Allow me to provide one brief example.

By the summer of 2007 in Iraq, my troop used enough violence to stop the violence of the civil war in the Diyala River Valley. Bing West would dub this as the biggest tribe. I had the upper-hand, wasta, or whatever. Anyways, the multiple players agreed to start meeting towards talks of reconciliation and conflict resolution. Prior to the competing parties meeting, I would meet individually with each group to try and orchestrate the meetings towards my desired endstate. The meeting before the meeting if you will.

During these meetings, I would question the reasons and motivations behind each leader’s actions.

“Are you done fighting, or do I need to kill some more?”

“Why are you fighting? Are your attacks based off greed, revenge, or anger? Seriously, I want you to think about that.”

“On the other hand, do you really want peace? Do you want to resolve this conflict? If you honestly do, then you must do it non-violently. Otherwise, this war will keep going on and on. Moreover, the government will eventually crush you, and you will be left with nothing.”

So began to peace talks. The frustrating understanding remains the amount of violence that it took for me to move into a respected position as an external actor to be listened to.

Mike, great story that gets at the heart of what I want to do with this series.

The reason I don’t like “war is war” is that it assumes the violence is an endstate. As your story illustrates, and my personal experience as a platoon leader echoes, the violence is a tool that can help facilitate political resolution. Violence (fighting and killing) can also frustrate political resolution. The point is the politics is the underlying issue.

Our next post in this series will touch on this point.

Honestly, I don’t understand your argument. Clausewitz gets a lot of mention, but his actual influence? Out of control? More like hardly there at all, at least in terms of effect on current US military planning.

I think that at the political or national strategic level – where his general theory of war should have the most influence, actually should form the basis for a theory of strategy – there has been precious little indication of that influence in US policy since 2001. From a Clausewitzian perspective we “lost” the Iraq war some time ago, but we remain in country due mostly to domestic political reasons, which is hardly “Clausewitzian”. Ditto with Afghanistan.

In term of Clausewitz’s art of Napoleonic warfare, as opposed to his general theory of war, is that the “Clausewitz is god”-like influence you are talking about? COIN? How often is Clausewitz mentioned in the current COIN manual?

Too complicated? What would you expect from a general theory of war, a theory able to encompass all wars? It takes time and effort to understand, just as Hannah Arendt’s ideal type of Totalitarianism book – as opposed to her essay on Violence – takes time to understand and is complicated, but then modern politics and how it developed over time is complicated. Ditto with war.

@ seyditz – How is Arendt totalitarian? I thought she wrote a whole book about how the Nazis were bad? (I mean, the National Review ranked “The Origins of Totalitarianism” as their 15th favorite non-fiction book of the twentieth century. I hope they aren’t totalitarians.)

“I think one of the reasons the nature of warfare is disputed so frequently is that military theory rests almost primarily on the shoulders of one thinker.”

The problem is rather that he died before he finished his work.
His widow published only a draft, not a completed work.

Eric, an “ideal type” is not the same as an “ideal”. Constructing an “ideal type” is a method of describing something very complex, and by definition does not exist in reality, but can be used in analyzing actual observations . . . yet another example of complex, but very useful concepts . . . It certainly does not mean that the author finds the subject of the “ideal type” ideal . . . but I thought that obvious.

Clausewitz’s “absolute war” and “war in reality” can be taken as “ideal types” as Raymond Aron and others have pointed out.

DO You, Guys, agree that the older concepts advanced by Clausewitz that applied to interstate war cannot be applied to guerilla warfare and thus require complete change from military strategy to morality? PROS AND CONS? Would love to hear you point of view!

@ Seydiltz – It wasn’t obvious . . . obscure academic terms aren’t obvious . . . I’d said that was obvious . . . but I’m not rude.