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Clausewitz’s on War

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Knowledge is not necessarily a prerequisite  for exercising power; similarly, understanding Clausewitz’s On War is not a requirement for winning wars. Clausewitz has become an authority reference for those desiring to expand their knowledge of war. However, not all of Clausewitz’s ideas contribute to the knowledge of war or remain valid today (Echevarria, 2008). Some scholars and analysts contend that very little of what the Prussian theorists wrote so long ago applies to the contemporary war. Echevarria (2008) asserts that careful readers of the book On War will discover fundamental gaps and inconsistencies. Clausewitz did not write about the naval warfare nor did he address the roles that the economic power, diplomacy or information play in war. 

The book On War has two goals. The first goal is to shed light on the purpose of On War and the methodology Clausewitz employed to present his concepts. The second is to use that knowledge as a basis for understanding his general theory of war and his ideas concerning the relationship between war and politics and his principles of strategy (Echevarria, 2008). Studying the book provides today’s military practitioners and civilian analysts with a foundational understanding of the primary elements of an armed conflict.

Clausewitz’s masterwork is an attempt to capture what is known as the objective knowledge, observations that were universally valid and, thus, applicable to all wars. He wanted to present this knowledge as a scientific theory. Echevarria (2008) further says that through On War, Clausewitz introduced a combat or battle centric theory of war, which he hoped would displace other systems of his day. Clausewitz the realist claimed that war was merely another means of political activity, while Clausewitz the idealist considered combat to be the substance of war. Clausewitz’s revolutionary system is an examination of a cause and effect relationship fundamental to the conduct of war.           

Clausewitz’s Overall View of Warfare

Clausewitz viewswar as an act of violence to compel the enemy to do other person’s will. Cowley and Parker (2001) noted that war serves as an instrumental purpose, and it is distinguished from other human activities by the use of physical violence or force and cannot serve any purpose unless one side can compel the enemy to do so. Clausewitz says that once war begins, each side will force the opponent to use the maximum available physical force, which, in turn, compels the other to do the same. Cowley and Parker (2001) further says that each side will try to disarm the other to impose its will, rather than be forced to submit. Once this escalation commences, a war acquires its own momentum, which operates independent of the political logic and rational cost-benefit calculations (Cowley & Parker, 2001).Clausewitz noted that each war must also involve diplomatic and political efforts to make the victory acceptable in the long run. This observation led Clausewitz to conclude that war in reality is not exclusively based on dynamics of escalation, but it is moderated by political calculations, uncertainties, limits of strength and psychological factors (Cowley & Parker, 2001).  

According toClausewitz (2008), people involved in war must go beyond the strict rules of logical necessity. They must seek aid from the computation of probabilities. The more the war is biased towards those  conditions out of which it has emerged the smaller its grounds and the agitation it has raised are. Clausewitz (2008) also indicated that war may not necessarily be fought out until one party is overthrown. The contest in war is not the contest of an individual against another individual, but an organized whole, consisting of manifold parts. War should be fought such that every activity in war relates to the combat either directly or indirectly. During war, Clausewitz (2008) asserts that the soldier is levied, clothed, armed and exercised.  

The combat is the single activity during a war. Clausewitz (2008) says that in war, the destruction of the enemy is the means to the end. The destruction of the enemy’s military force is the foundation stone of all actions in war. Clausewitz further says that wars should be fought only at the level necessary to achieve them. Baylis (2006) noted that war is a paradoxical trinity composed of the passion, probability and reason. These tendencies generally correspond to the people, the military and the government. War is the province of chance. From this uncertainty of all intelligence and suppositions, this continual interposition of chance, the actor in war constantly finds things different from the expectations (Clausewitz, 2008).           

Modern Military

Clausewitz’s contribution to the study and understanding of war remains unsurpassed. Today, his ideas on the primacy of the political control in war are still relevant, as well as the roles of the friction, uncertainty and chance. Based on historical examples, Clausewitz made contributions to the view of war as an art, to the need to avoid dogmatic and positive theories (Handel, 2012). According to Handel (2012), since Clausewitz’s time, the military and technological environment has undergone at least two major revolutions, one in the conventional realm and the other in the nuclear realm, which have caused a paradigmatic shift in the nature of war. Numerous smaller military technological and organizational revolutions have occurred as well. Handel (2012) further says that the element of uncertainty, which, according to Clausewitz, dominates in the warfare, has now been compounded by the introduction of a new dynamic variable. Many factors, including the performance of new and untested weapons systems on the battlefield, have caused a quantum jump in the complexity of warfare.

Clausewitz’s work is sparingly applied nowadays. Echevarria (2008) established that this is because Clausewitz could still justifiably argue that today armies are so much alike in weapons, training and equipment that there is little difference in such matters between the best and worst of them (p. 282). However, the wars of the 1860s irrefutably demonstrated that a new force multiplier, resorting to a modern jargon, had been introduced. The technological innovation could then, when all other things were equal, make a decisive difference, a fact that could have hardly been recognized in Clausewitz’s time. Handel (2012) noted that the advent of the new technological age was unmistakable, when the European military observers during the American Civil War focused their interest not on the study of military doctrines, but on the performance of new weapons. This new emphasis on the study of weaponry would have made little sense of Clausewitz’s work only fifty year’s earlier (Handel, 2012).

Subsequently, for military leaders in the technological age, the destruction of the enemy’s army, which was central to Clausewitz’s theory, became less important. The destruction or occupation of industrial centers necessary for the maintenance of enemy forces in the field became more crucial (Handel, 2012). For example, in the American Civil War, the industrial superiority of the North, despite the equal or superior generalship of the Confederacy, was critical. These developments would certainly have been strange to Clausewitz. Therefore, although Clausewitz recommended a war of annihilation whenever possible, a strategy emphasizing the ultimate decisive clash between opponents; a modern warfare is not only a clash between two armies, but also between the opponents’ industries, economic resources and entire populations. Therefore, it can be suggested that had Clausewitz written On War fifty or hundred years later, he could not have ignored the forces released by the industrial and technological revolution. He would probably have adapted his theory to the radically changed material environment (Handel, 2012).

Students of Military Studies

Despite its philosophical and epistemological dimensions, On War is a book written for the practical military reader as well as for strategists, political leaders and military studies. Cowley and Parker (2001) noted that Clausewitz wrote about war not as an armchair expert, but as the one, who had witnessed and participated in numerous campaigns during Napoleonic wars.

All students of military studies are not required to read this work. This is because the book is narrowly focused on how to wage a war in the most effective way. Cowley and Parker (2001) state that On War is not concerned with broader ethical questions, the causes and origins of war, and other questions that concern the modern student of war. Indeed, no less than 50 percent of On War is dedicated to purely operational, even tactical matters (Cowley & Parker, 2001).

Clausewitz’s book has failed to appeal to many military readers, because it lacks concrete, manual type answers. Cowley and Parker (2001) asserted that “the book never claimed to develop universally valid recipes, rules or principles that would guarantee success in war” (p. 91). In addition, he carefully showed the exceptions to every general principle or rule. The book On War forces serious readers to wrestle with the Clausewitz’s concepts and then develop their own critical ideas of what a war is all about (Cowley & Parker, 2001).      

Impact of Clausewitz’s Language on the Overall Content

Clausewitz’s language presents a major challenge of interpretation. Kinross (2007) emphasized that there were inherent difficulties in interpreting the thoughts and actions of contemporaries in a Clausewitzan light. Clausewitz for all his wonderful use of language is very difficult to read, especially if one does not take time to reflect on what it is he trying to say. On the other hand, it is important to realize that in any study of Clausewitz, there are problems in translating the work, many of which have led to serious misinterpretations. Kinross (2007) also noted that the Clausewitz’s definitions of theory and doctrine are critical pointers for this work. His language of conception of theory was rooted in the historical experience (Kinross, 2007).        

The Greatest Weakness of the Work

The most essential weakness of On War is its obscurity. Clausewitz emphasizes the relationship between a war and politics and presents historical examples. The second weakness is that because On War is an educational work, it seems irrelevant to the problem-solvers in the military profession. Kassimeris and Buckley (2013) noted that not all Clausewitz’s ideas contribute to the knowledge of war or can be said to offer something of an enduring value. In his works, Clausewitz does not address every aspect of war. Careful readers will discover significant gaps and inconsistencies in On War. Kassimeris and Buckley (2013) noted that Clausewitz did not write about the naval warfare nor did he address the roles that the economic power, diplomacy and information play in war. Such weaknesses are only partially remedied by studying his many other works.   

The Greatest Strength of the Work

More than any other theorists on war, Clausewitz emphasized the roles of uncertainty, chance, friction and luck. Part of Clausewitz’s search for the most effective way to wage a war involved the development of methods to reduce the uncertainty. Clausewitz’s work is a rarity for soldiers to be very interested in the nature of war and, therefore, by the logical extension in theory to reveal that nature. Waldman (2013) noted that Clausewitz’s answer to questions that are a luxury for practical people is by far the most persuasive one. In order to function effectively as soldiers, there is an acute need for the sound education that explains the nature and working of statecraft, war and strategy. On War can provide the understanding of its subject that allows those, who are educable to be able to design and execute answers that might be relevant enough to meet the strategic problems that they face (Waldman, 2013). Clausewitz intended to present a holistic understanding of war, with distinctly porous categories in its working parts. 

Clausewitz was evidently the first to dissect the friction. Kassimeris and Buckley (2013) stated that Clausewitz saw the friction and psychological factors and as the principal influences separating a practice from a theory, and he believed that the correct knowledge could help commanders to improve their judgment and in effect close that gap. Clausewitz’s works are focused on the strength, rather than reducing war’s probabilities to a series of algorithms, as in the game or decision theory. Clausewitz was the first military theorist to attempt a scientific dissection of military genius (Kassimeris & Buckley, 2013). Kassimeris and Buckley (2013) emphasize that Clausewitz does not apply the dialectical modes of the argumentation that oscillates between concepts of the absolute and real war in order to confuse the reader. The basis of the strength of his works is that Clausewitz gains important insights in explaining why a war in reality is different from its logical construction (Kassimeris & Buckley, 2013). 

The Greatest Military Writing of All Time

On War fulfills its designation as the “greatest military writing of all time.” This is because Clausewitz’s overall concern was to replace the artificial systems of his day with the one that was grounded in the reality of war that is fighting or combat, including the threat of a combat (Kassimeris & Buckley, 2013). By confronting philosophical logical deliberations with the historical-empirical experience, Clausewitz gains outstanding insights into the nature of war and strategy. Through the proposition of war as an act of force that aims for peace, On War fulfils its designation as the “greatest military writing of all time.” Essentially, a war is the use of force in order to achieve goals the opponent intends to prevent. As a result, Clausewitz uses the analogy of a duel to illustrate this forceful relationship.    

Clausewitz defines war as a chameleon that lives in an environment best characterized as a paradoxical trinity. On War fulfills its designation as the greatest military writing of all time because of its fundamental insight that war is a social intercourse, which involves people, the commander and his military force, as well as the government. Clausewitz recognized the permanent dependence of war on policies and politics. Clausewitz as a witness of Napoleon’s warfare saw a real war heading towards the theoretical-logical absolute form. As he learned from the history, wars often occurred in rather limited forms, depending on the power relations in the international system and the predominant policies and politics of the war fighting states. As a result, it can be established that On War fulfills its designation as the “greatest military writing of all time.”


In conclusion, Clausewitz’s diversity of military assignments and richness of expertise in policies, politics, strategy and tactics contributed towards the emergence of an ideal military writing. Clausewitz has endowed readers with an unsurpassed theory, which they would abandon only to their loss. Clausewitz is a strategic mind, who gathered experience in all dimensions of the modern strategy. Reflecting upon the theory of war in general and strategy in particular, Clausewitz recognizes the necessity of scientific methods that are specifically tailored to match the nature of war. In this context, Clausewitz’s way of thinking is actually the only one that can provide a reasonable advice and enables an individual to come to sensible answers on the strategic question by himself or herself. 

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