Portrait: Carl von Clausewitz, Prussian general and military theorist

Wednesday, 26 July 2017 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait

Carl von Clausewitz by Karl Wilhelm Wach

Carl von Clausewitz by Karl Wilhelm Wach

Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and military theorist who stressed the “moral” (psychological) and political aspects of war. His most notable work, Vom Kriege (On War), was unfinished at his death. Clausewitz was a realist in many different senses and, while in some respects a romantic, also drew heavily on the rationalist ideas of the European Enlightenment. Clausewitz’s thinking is often described as Hegelian because of his dialectical method; but, although he was probably personally acquainted with Hegel, there remains debate as to whether or not Clausewitz was in fact influenced by him. He stressed the dialectical interaction of diverse factors, noting how unexpected developments unfolding under the “fog of war” (i.e., in the face of incomplete, dubious, and often completely erroneous information and high levels of fear, doubt, and excitement) call for rapid decisions by alert commanders. He saw history as a vital check on erudite abstractions that did not accord with experience. In contrast to the early work of Antoine-Henri Jomini, he argued that war could not be quantified or reduced to mapwork, geometry, and graphs. Clausewitz had many aphorisms, of which the most famous is “War is the continuation of politics by other means.

Clausewitz was a professional combat soldier who was involved in numerous military campaigns, but he is famous primarily as a military theorist interested in the examination of war, utilizing the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon as frames of reference for his work. He wrote a careful, systematic, philosophical examination of war in all its aspects. The result was his principal book, On War, a major work on the philosophy of war. It was unfinished when Clausewitz died and contains material written at different stages in his intellectual evolution, producing some significant contradictions between different sections. The sequence and precise character of that evolution is a source of much debate, as are exact meaning behind his seemingly contradictory claims (discussions pertinent to the tactical, operational and strategic levels of war are one example). Clausewitz constantly sought to revise the text, particularly between 1827 and his departure on his last field assignments, to include more material on “people’s war” and forms of war other than high-intensity warfare between states, but relatively little of this material was included in the book. Soldiers before this time had written treatises on various military subjects, but none had undertaken a great philosophical examination of war on the scale of those written by Clausewitz and Leo Tolstoy, both of which were inspired by the events of the Napoleonic Era. Clausewitz’s work is still studied today, demonstrating its continued relevance. More than sixteen major English-language books that focused specifically on his work were published between 2005 and 2014, whereas his 19th-century rival Jomini faded from influence. Historian Lynn Montross said the outcome, “may be explained by the fact that Jomini produced a system of war, Clausewitz a philosophy. The one has been outdated by new weapons, the other still influences the strategy behind those weapons.” Jomini did not attempt to define war. Clausewitz did, providing (and dialectically comparing) a number of definitions. The first is his dialectical thesis: “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” The second, often treated as Clausewitz’s ‘bottom line,’ is in fact merely his dialectical antithesis: “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” The synthesis of his dialectical examination of the nature of war is his famous “trinity,” saying that war is “a fascinating trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.” Christopher Bassford says the best shorthand for Clausewitz’s trinity should be something like “violent emotion/chance/rational calculation.” However, it is frequently presented as “people/army/government,” a misunderstanding based on a later paragraph in the same chapter. This misrepresentation was popularized by U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers’ Vietnam-era interpretation, facilitated by weaknesses in the 1976 Howard/Paret translation. The degree to which Clausewitz managed to revise his manuscript to reflect that synthesis is the subject of much debate. His final reference to war and Politik, however, goes beyond his widely quoted antithesis: “War is simply the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition of other means’ because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace.”

Ostfriedhof Burg - Grave of Carl von Clausewitz © Olaf Meister/cc-by-sa-4.0 Carl von Clausewitz by Karl Wilhelm Wach Carl von Clausewitz - Vom Kriege/On War, first edition
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Ostfriedhof Burg - Grave of Carl von Clausewitz © Olaf Meister/cc-by-sa-4.0
Clausewitz introduced systematic philosophical contemplation into Western military thinking, with powerful implications not only for historical and analytical writing but also for practical policy, military instruction, and operational planning. He relied on his own experiences, contemporary writings about Napoleon, and on deep historical research. His historiographical approach is evident in his first extended study, written when he was 25, of the Thirty Years War. He rejects the Enlightenment‘s view of the war as a chaotic muddle and instead explains its drawn-out operations by the economy and technology of the age, the social characteristics of the troops, and the commanders’ politics and psychology. In On War, Clausewitz sees all wars as the sum of decisions, actions, and reactions in an uncertain and dangerous context, and also as a socio-political phenomenon. He also stressed the complex nature of war, which encompasses both the socio-political and the operational and stresses the primacy of state policy. The word strategy had only recently come into usage in modern Europe, and Clausewitz’s definition is quite narrow: “the use of engagements for the object of war.” Clausewitz conceived of war as a political, social, and military phenomenon which might — depending on circumstances — involve the entire population of a nation at war. In any case, Clausewitz saw military force as an instrument that states and other political actors use to pursue the ends of policy, in a dialectic between opposing wills, each with the aim of imposing his policies and will upon his enemy. Clausewitz’s emphasis on the inherent superiority of the defense suggests that habitual aggressors are likely to end up as failures. The inherent superiority of the defense obviously does not mean that the defender will always win, however: there are other asymmetries to be considered. He was interested in cooperation between the regular army and militia or partisan forces, or citizen soldiers, as one possible — sometimes the only — method of defense. In the circumstances of the Wars of the French Revolution and with Napoleon, which were energized by a rising spirit of nationalism, he emphasized the need for states to involve their entire populations in the conduct of war. This point is especially important, as these wars demonstrated that such energies could be of decisive importance and for a time led to a democratization of the armed forces much as universal suffrage democratized politics.

While Clausewitz was intensely aware of the value of intelligence at all levels, he was also very skeptical of the accuracy of much military intelligence: “Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain…. In short, most intelligence is false.” This circumstance is generally described as part of the fog of war. Such skeptical comments apply only to intelligence at the tactical and operational levels; at the strategic and political levels he constantly stressed the requirement for the best possible understanding of what today would be called strategic and political intelligence. His conclusions were influenced by his experiences in the Prussian Army, which was often in an intelligence fog due partly to the superior abilities of Napoleon’s system but even more to the nature of war. Clausewitz acknowledges that friction creates enormous difficulties for the realization of any plan, and the fog of war hinders commanders from knowing what is happening. It is precisely in the context of this challenge that he develops the concept of military genius, whose capabilities are seen above all in the execution of operations. ‘Military genius’ is not simply a matter of intellect, but a combination of qualities of intellect, experience, personality, and temperament (and there are many possible such combinations) that create a very highly developed mental aptitude for the waging of war.

Read more on Wikipedia Carl von Clausewitz (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.










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