Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz

On War

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz (IPA: [ˈklaʊzəvɪts]) (July 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831) was a Prussian soldier, military historian and influential military theorist. He is most famous for his military treatise Vom Kriege, translated into English as On War.

Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz Although Carl von Clausewitz participated in many military campaigns, he was primarily a military theorist interested in the examination of war.

He wrote a careful, systematic, philosophical examination of war in all its aspects, as he saw it and taught it.

The result was his principal work, On War, the West's premier work on the philosophy of war.

His examination was so carefully considered that it was only partially completed by the time of his death. Other soldiers before this time had written treatises on various military subjects, but none undertook a great philosophical examination of war on the scale of Clausewitz's and Tolstoy's, both of which were inspired by the events of the Napoleonic Era.

Clausewitz's work is still studied today, demonstrating its continued relevance. Lynn Montross writing on that topic in War Through the Ages said; "This 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 The one has been outdated by new weapons, the other still influences the strategy behind those weapons."

Clausewitz introduced systematic philosophical contemplation into Western military thinking, with powerful implications not only for historical and analytical writing but for practical policy, military instruction, and operational planning.

Principal ideas

A young Carl von Clausewitz. Vom Kriege (On War) is a long and intricate investigation of Clausewitz's observations based on his own experience in the Wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and on considerable historical research into those wars and others. It is shaped not only by purely military and political considerations but by Clausewitz's strong interests in art, science, and education.

Some of the key ideas discussed in On War include:

  • the dialectical approach to military analysis
  • the methods of "critical analysis"
  • the nature of the balance-of-power mechanism
  • the relationship between political objectives and military objectives in war
  • the asymmetrical relationship between attack and defense
  • the nature of "military genius" (involving matters of personality and character, beyond intellect)
  • the "fascinating trinity" (wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit) of war
  • philosophical distinctions between "absolute" or "ideal war," and "real war"
  • in "real war," the distinctive poles of a) limited war and b) war to "render the enemy helpless"
  • "war" belongs fundamentally to the social realm—rather than to the realms of art or science
  • "strategy" belongs primarily to the realm of art
  • "tactics" belongs primarily to the realm of science
  • the importance of "moral forces" (more than simply "morale") as opposed to quantifiable physical elements
  • the "military virtues" of professional armies (which do not necessarily trump the rather different virtues of other kinds of fighting forces)
  • conversely, the very real effects of a superiority in numbers and "mass"
  • the essential unpredictability of war the "fog" of war
  • "friction"
  • strategic and operational "centers of gravity"
  • the "culminating point of the offensive"
  • the "culminating point of victory"


Despite his death just prior to completing On War, Clausewitz' ideas have been widely influential in military theory.

Later Prussian and German generals such as Helmuth Graf von Moltke were clearly influenced by Clausewitz: Moltke's famous statement that "No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy" is a classic reflection of Clausewitz's insistence on the roles of chance, friction, "fog," and uncertainty in war.

The idea that actual war includes "friction" which deranges, to a greater or lesser degree, all prior arrangements, has become common currency in other fields as well (e.g., business strategy, sports).

Some claim that nuclear proliferation makes Clausewitzian concepts obsolescent after a period i.e., the 20th century--in which they dominated the world.

John E. Sheppard, Jr., argues that, by developing nuclear weapons, state-based conventional armies simultaneously both perfected their original purpose (to destroy a mirror image of themselves) and made themselves obsolete.

No two nuclear powers have ever used their nuclear weapons against each other, instead using conventional means or proxy wars to settle disputes.

If, hypothetically, such a conflict did in fact occur, both combatants would be effectively annihilated.

Therefore, the beginning of the 21st century has found many instances of state armies attempting to suppress terrorism, bloody feuds, raids and other intra/supra-state conflict whilst using conventional weaponry.

Others, however, argue that the essentials of Clausewitz's theoretical approach remain valid, but that our thinking must adjust to changed realities.

Knowing that "war is an expression of politics" does us no good unless we have a valid definition of "politics" and an understanding of how it is reflected in a specific situation.

The latter may well turn on religious passions, private interests and armies, etc.

While many commentators are quick to dismiss Clausewitz's political context as obsolete, it seems worthwhile to note that the states of the twentieth century were very different from Clausewitz's Prussia, and yet the World Wars are generally seen as "Clausewitzian warfare"; similarly, North and South Vietnam, and the United States as well, were quite unlike 18th century European states, yet it was the war in Indochina that brought the importance of Clausewitzian theory forcefully home to American thinkers.

Clausewitz himself was well aware of the politics that drove the Thirty Years' War, a conflict that bears a great deal of similarity to the current struggle in Iraq.

The idea that states cannot suppress rebellions or terrorism in a nuclear-armed world does not bear up well in the light of experience: Just as some rebellions and revolutions succeeded and some failed before 1945, some rebellions and revolutions have succeeded and some have failed in the years since.

Insurgencies were successfully suppressed in the Philippines, Yemen, and Malaysia--just a few of many examples.

Successful revolutions may destroy some states, but the revolutionaries simply establish new and stronger states--e.g., China, Vietnam, Iran--which seem to be quite capable of handling threats of renewed insurgency.

The real problem in determining Clausewitz's continuing relevance lies not with his own theoretical approach, which has stood up well over nearly two centuries of intense military and political change.

Rather, the problem lies in the way that thinkers with more immediate concerns have adapted Clausewitzian theory to their own narrowly defined eras.

When times change, people familiar only with Clausewitz's most recent interpreters, rather than with the original works, assume that the passing of cavalry, or Communism, or the USSR's Strategic Rocket Forces, means that Clausewitz is passé.

Yet we always seem to be comfortable describing the age of warfare just past as "Clausewitzian"--even though Clausewitz never saw a machinegun, a tank, a Viet Cong, or a nuclear weapon.

The phrase fog of war derives from Clausewitz's stress on how confused warfare can seem while one is immersed within it.[4] The term center of gravity, used in a specifically military context, derives from Clausewitz's usage (which he took from Newtonian Mechanics).

In the simplified and often confused form in which it appears in official US military doctrine, "Center of Gravity" refers to the basis of an opponent's power (at either the operational, strategic, or political level).

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