On War by General Carl Von Clausewitz

Recently I read the book ‘On War’ which is a classic military text, written by General Carl Von Clausewitz. He makes an attempt to understand the rapidly changing nature of war in Napoleonic Europe, as the old military order was destroyed and first national armies were raised. He tries to explain how the war is now fought for ‘ideas’ or a cause rather than ‘spoils’. He was the first military strategist to explain this fundamental change, and his book became the standard text of warfare in the 19th and early 20th century. The ideological nature of war that Clausewitz first outlined was demonstrated in its extreme form on the eastern front in the Second World War, where history’s bloodiest battles were fought between the extreme right-wing (Nazis) and the extreme left-wing (Soviets) ideologies. It was a war of total destruction and, as Clausewitz had predicted, one with extreme costs and casualties and finishing only when one of the belligerents was completely destroyed.

This is a classic text, originally written in German as Vom Kriege and published after the author’s death, and different translations are available. This review uses the translation by J.J. Graham, revised by F. N. Maude, published by Wordsworth Editions Limited.

The original text begins with an introduction by Clausewitz’s wife. This is because Clausewitz died before he could finish his manuscript. He wrote the book as a series of notes after the Napoleonic wars, and set about revising the draft in 1827, but died in 1831 before he could finish it. His wife compiled his work, finished a few last chapters by herself, and published it in 1832. She jokes at the fact that a treatise on war starts with a preface by a female hand. The work is divided into four major parts, among eight books. Book one deals with the nature of war, book two, the most crucial part, with the theory of war. Book three and the rest deal with the strategy and combat tactics.

Clausewitz starts the book with a simple definition of war as ‘an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will’. But, he immediately finds this definition insufficient to describe all wars. Here he describes two types of war. The first is an absolute war fought for total supremacy over, or complete destruction of, the enemy and fought with the use of utmost violence. The second kind of war is a limited war, where the conduct of war is restricted by the realities of life and the specific objectives for which it is fought. Politics becomes central to the conduct of this kind of war. Here the most famous and the most criticized observation comes ‘War is a mere continuation of policy by other means’ and it is not just a political act but also a real political instrument. This centrality of politics should never be lost and the objective of the war never forgotten. The political objectives not only determine the cause but also the conduct of war. The more ambitious the objectives, greater is the effort required and more similar it becomes to an ‘absolute’ war.

Then he deals with the end and the means in war. He argues that though complete and total destruction of the enemy should be the objective of war, the improbability and the high cost and effort that this requires limits this totality. Also, the objectives for which a war is waged might change mid-way. The conduct of war is never simple and he calls war as nothing more than ‘a calculation of probabilities’ , and does not favour formation of ‘war doctrine’, since tying oneself into a set conduct does not guarantee success. He argues that physical and mental strength are necessary for warfare. Moral strength is necessary for mobilising people for warfare, and a successful commander can win a war by morally defeating, or destroying the enemy’s will to fight. Moral strength is also necessary to unite soldiers into a single formidable fighting force. He also talks about the ability of a good commander to grasp the situation in the battlefield and decide the best course of conduct, and that commander should have enough resolve to believe in the righteousness of his own decisions. These qualities cannot be taught, and a commander should not carry any pre-conceptions to a battlefield. Teaching of military history and tactics may only help in deepening the understanding of conflict.

He also talks about the dangers in a battlefield, physical exertion and its role, information and its reliability and the commander’s ability to differentiate between correct information and rumours. He compares war to walking in water. Just like in water, where even the simplest of tasks like walking becomes difficult, in war often the simplest things are the toughest things. A good commander should be able to see through these difficulties.

The rest of the book deals with finer details of military strategy and combat conditions of the 19th century. Surprisingly he never talks about the naval strategies. As regard to the combat strategy he advises to ‘locate the centre of gravity of enemy’ and devote all resources to destroy it. He regards the destruction of the enemy’s military forces as the most important objective of war. It should be noted that this differs from complete destruction of the enemy itself. Clausewitz also ignores the relevance of diplomacy to war, though he says that war is an extension of politics, and never talks about the diplomatic tactics required to win a war. He says that superiority in numbers is often a decisive factor in a battle, though it is not necessary that a massive concentration of force may guarantee success. He values the ‘element of surprise’, which when combined with superiority in numbers can deliver a powerful blow to the enemy. When the enemy is caught in a surprise attack and his forces are in disarray, Clausewitz advises to deliver maximum possible damage. He says that often a defensive strategy of war is stronger than offensive, since the attacking forces often operate in alien conditions. He says that the attacker often has problems of long supply lines, hostile population, and unknown terrain. It is easy to ‘preserve than to acquire’. He devotes an entire book (Book 6) to the art of defence and then the next one to attack.

Talking about defence, he is perhaps inspired by Cossacks during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, who waged guerrilla warfare against the invading French army. They inflicted huge losses on the French army. Clausewitz says that guerrilla warfare is most effective when it is fought in the interior, which is rough and inaccessible for the enemy, and waged with the aim of wearing down his strength and the will to fight. The territory should be large and tough to penetrate for enemy and the character of the resisting fighters should be compatible to this kind of warfare.

Clausewitz’s theories and observations have largely stood the test of time for the last two hundred years. We have seen trench and defensive warfare in the First World War one, total and absolute warfare between two opposing ideologies in the Second World War, Guerrilla wars in Africa, Indochina and South America. Superpowers have been defeated by guerrillas in Indochina and Afghanistan. Nuclear weapons have been used and the world pushed towards a specter of total destruction with MAD (mutually assured destruction) doctrines. Today, Clausewitz’s insights remain as relevant as they were in the 19th century.

It is really interesting to interpret some of the recent conflicts, through Clausewitz’s observations. It becomes clear why America has not been able to finish its war on terror. They lack a clearly defined political goal for the conflict. Taliban’s guerrilla strategy and their conviction that they can wear out America’s will to fight are also comprehensible. The heavy American reluctance for full-scale participation in Afghan war is also logical. The American home-front is currently weak, and it is better off focussing on domestic issues rather than wasting its energies abroad. Its short time goal, of securing American homeland, has already been achieved, and the larger ‘war on terror’ carries no political support. During the Iraq war, the American doctrine of ‘shock and awe’ clearly followed the Clausewitzian logic of striking at the ‘centre of gravity’. The book is a part of curricula at military schools worldwide, and is a must read for anyone trying to understand the modern nature and objectives of warfare. The modern warfare is one in which people often fight for ideas and entities, where the conflict is total and home-front is often as important as the real battlefront. Its central message of warfare being just a part of politics and being just another instrument of policy is relevant even today.

Shivraj Negi

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