Do the Writings of Clausewitz have contemporary relevance?

Authors Avatar

                 Do the Writings of Clausewitz have contemporary relevance?

Carl Von Clausewitz has long been considered one of the most important writers in the field of military strategy and tactics. Born in 1780 he first saw action in 1793 when he was a Lance Corporal in the Prussian Army. He was to serve throughout the Napoleonic wars working for both the Prussians and the Russians. However:

throughout his military career he never held a command and was probably unsuited for such. He was essentially a student of war…”

However, despite this lack of command, Clausewitz had certainly gained enough experience during the Napoleonic wars to have a fairly comprehensive idea about what war was:

“Before he was forty, he had taken part in some of the greatest battles in the history of warfare and had seen the armies of Napoleon storm their way across Europe to Moscow… Alls this had been the result of military operations, but it was clear to Clausewitz as a young man that the explanation for the success or failure of these operations was not to be sought on the battlefield alone”.

As a result of this, during his career he came up with many ideas of views on the nature and  conduct of  war, writing literally thousands of pages of manuscripts on a wide range of areas ranging from politics to tactics. After the wars end, he set about trying to write a comprehensive eight part ‘guide’ on his ideas. This collection of essays and manuscripts became known as “Vom Kriege” (On War). Clausewitz died in 1831 having only completed six of the eight parts. Indeed it is important to realise that despite the importance of his work, it is still unfinished and does not cover a number of areas:

“On War contains a comprehensive analysis of the strategy operations and tactics of Napoleonic War, and of their 18th Century background. Left out of the account are most technological, administrative and organisational factors… On War deals almost entirely with the ultimate issues as Clausewitz saw them: Political and strategic planning and the conduct of hostilities”

Since his death, Clausewitz’s work has come to be regarded as probably one of the most important works on military thinking ever written. Bernard Brodie once wrote that:

“His is not simply the greatest, but the only great book about war”

Although Clausewitz is still seen as one of the greatest thinkers on war, the question remains – is he still relevant today? Given the immense changes in not only the way we conduct war, but also our attitudes towards war,  does his thinking still have any relevance in an era of information warfare and peacekeeping missions? Also given the dramatic changes in the conduct of warfare are his works still important:

“As one US army general has (said)  “the digitisation of the battlefield means the end of Clausewitz”

Given the large size of Clausewitz’s work it is impossible look at the whole of On War for its continuing relevance. Instead for this essay I have chosen to examine a number of ideas in detail including the idea of war as part of policy, the notion of  decisive battle and also his idea of a ‘centre of gravity’. Due to lack of space I have decided not focus on other areas such as the trinity between the politicians, the people and the armed forces, as well as looking at other areas.

At it’s simplest Clausewitz’s first book attempts to understand what war actually is and what it does. At it’s simplest he defined it as:

“War is an act of force to compel an enemy to do our will”

This seems to be true, even today it is hard to imagine a nation state going to war without a rational reason to do so – be it to regain territory or to right a wrong. More recently the growth of Peace enforcement operations such as the war in Kosovo is a classic example of forcing a nation state to bow to the will of others.  As such it seems that Clausewitz’s most simple definition still rings true today

Clausewitz’s next statement is far more controversial though:

“Kind hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that  must be exposed: War is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst”

The above paragraph seems to be aimed at those who have studied the writings of Sun Tzu – the Chinese strategist to which Clausewitz is frequently compared. Sun Tzu felt that war was not about bloodshed – instead he felt that:

Join now!

“all warfare is based on deception…”

Michael Handle wrote that

Sun Tzu devotes considerable attention to the actions that precede war… for him diplomacy is the best means of achieving his ideal of victory without fighting or bloodshed”.

It seems that Sun Tzu’s theory of warfare is based more on the notion of avoidance of war rather than the fighting of war itself, whereas Clausewitz feels that war occurs once all other policy choices have been exhausted:

War is merely the continuation of policy by other means”

This seems to suggest that ...

This is a preview of the whole essay