The greatest challenges of the common era may very well spur a sense of coordinated effort across all three interconnected elements of the Clausewitzian trinity that will help enhance both preparation and effectiveness of the United States in future conflicts.
For modern readers, the fear Napoleon and his victories struck into the hearts of European monarchs and generals is inconceivable…Not everyone saw Napoleon as a military genius beyond human explanation, however. Scharnhorst admired his understanding of the social and political changes wrought by the French Revolution and his ability to apply these changes to warfare. Nonetheless, Scharnhorst believed Napoleon’s success harbored clues about his possible defeat.
Without Gerhard von Scharnhorst, it is unlikely there would be a Carl von Clausewitz. An officer with extraordinary talents and intellect, and an even more remarkable fate, Scharnhorst forever changed the path of the Prussian Army, molded the idea of the Prusso-German General Staff, and forged some of the most influential concepts in the realm of military theory and practice. Yet, he is primarily known as a teacher and mentor to the West’s most influential strategic thinker, Carl von Clausewitz...especially among those less versed in German language and history. With this series, The Strategy Bridge strives to fill this gap.
Charles Dickens fans should note that this article is not about one of your favorite Victorian novels. Rather, it examines the case of Admiral Horatio Nelson, Baron of the Nile, and how his expectations of what his military operations might accomplish often matched the results. Secondarily, this characteristic of great expectations aligns nicely with attributes in Carl von Clausewitz’s exposition of military genius in On War. Finally, both Nelson’s approach, and Clausewitzian examination of the concept of military genius have a direct bearing on how officers command at sea.
A successful cyber doctrine must epitomize Clausewitz’s argument in favor of an active or attack-based defense, found in a relatively unknown but rich section of On War entitled “Methods of Resistance.” The chapter opens with a compelling reminder that the advantage of the defense is its defining purpose is to ward off an attack, and this warding off has as its principal strength the idea of awaiting.
Let’s renounce the dictum that “war is thus an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will.” Instead, let’s focus on understanding wars as involving fighting others to achieve tacitly or formally agreed political outcomes. War is not, in the end, about compulsion, it is all about bargaining violently.
We must rethink our reading of Clausewitz's work as a search for and a description of eternal principles for an objective understanding of war. The nature of war is one thing, but war as instantiated in actual conflict and combat is another thing altogether; yet, both must somehow be held together in order to understand war. It is in this paradox that Cormier thinks we must locate, evaluate, and apply Clausewitz's ideas.
Boyd sought not so much to circumvent Clausewitz as to use the Prussian’s concepts as fuel in his own mental refinery. And Boyd’s message to his audience was that the process of mental refinement could not stop, nor be confined to the ideas of any one individual, no matter how insightful they might be. What might Clausewitz have made of such a critique? Judging by his own words, he would likely have been of the same mind.
Military theory is a way of distilling the raw materials of history into a concentrated, potent form that educates the strategist and commander. In this way, theory can serve as a starting point for strategy. While sound military theory is a good starting point for strategy, however, context and execution matter. The positive impacts of theory upon strategy are often limited by the context in which theoretical principles are applied, and by the commander’s judgment and skill in applying them.
To read Clausewitz on war is akin to reading John Muir on forests: each understood the particulars of his subject uncommonly well, but gained immortality for his insight into the nature and function of the whole. Scales on War, by contrast, is like a field guide to trees: full of interesting detail on the parts but with little to say about the entire ecosystem.
The political nature of the combatants changes the character of the war being fought. It starts with the idea that wars are different based on the type of political organization fighting the war. Democracies fight wars differently than autocracies, which fight wars differently than theocracies. The political nature of each of these types of government offer both strengths and weaknesses during the campaign. To develop a complete strategy the military and political leadership must take these differences into account.
McCain has usefully drawn our attention to a case that teaches by negative example. In the same way that the United States thought that anti-terrorism operations in Southwest Asia and Africa would contribute to strategic victory in the global war on terrorism, South African leaders believed that that the use of highly trained and mobile forces in operations against Cuban forces and insurgents would ensure the survival of white majority rule and domination over Namibia. The end result demonstrates the difficulty of devising a grand strategy in the face of great uncertainty and flux.
The dramatic title of a 2015 magazine article in The Atlantic by Dominic Tierney, “Why has America Stopped Winning Wars?,” underscored a portrayal of the final military deaths in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq as both remarkable and poignant. A better question and the focus here is: Why do U.S. military outcomes after 1945 so often fail to achieve the policy objectives for which they are begun?
A recent article on The Strategy Bridge by James Dubik suggests U.S. policy on Islamic extremism suffers from Groundhog Day syndrome: endless policy repetition going nowhere. I wholeheartedly agree, but offer a different take on his argument. Islam is, at the most basic level, waging a war against itself, and we would do well to attend to this.
While Carl von Clausewitz is often quoted, in reality his treatise On War is rarely studied in depth. In times when the U.S. military struggles to find its strategic footing, however, reading and debating Clausewitz’s complex ideas are needed more now than ever before. Perhaps even the times and conditions in which he developed them deserve a second look, for they contain lessons about how strategic thinkers grow and develop.
Strategists are a critical bunch. After all, critical analysis is an important skill for those involved in scrutinizing international relations, history, and policy to generate insights. It is therefore curious that Martin Van Creveld’s book A History of Strategy: From Sun Tzu to William S. Lind immediately opens itself to the nitpicking of strategists in two related regards. First, the treatment of such a vast topic is too brief, running just 124 pages. Second, as a natural extension of its brevity, the details about the strategists it addresses are rather sparse. If the reader is able to overlook these limitations, however, A History of Strategy is a useful overview of the figures and ideas that form the canon of strategic thought.
Over the last eighteen months, the Australian podcast the Dead Prussian has asked each of its guests a simple yet deeply contested question: “What is war?” Answers have ranged from Professor Hal Brand’s insightful “war is a tragic but inescapable aspect of international politics” to my own citation of John Keegan’s “war is collective killing for some collective purpose.”Nobody so far has said that war is a “game”. Thankfully this isn’t surprising; anyone who has fought in war, or just studied it, will be aware that this would trivialise the destruction that can lie within. But it is also of note that nobody so far has labeled war as a duel.