Strategic Theory

Given the sea-change in warfare which has seemingly taken place since the publication of Clausewitz “On War” in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is logical to wonder whether or not the principles detailed in  “On War” comprise a suitable framework for discussion of modern warfare. Interestingly enough, Clausewitz himself divided the elements of war into distinctive categories: objective and subjective with which he hoped to describe “those elements or qualities that every war has in common (such as friction and chance),” as “objective” while “subjective” was used to infer “those qualities that vary from war to war, such as the types of armed forces employed and their weapons and tactics.” This distinction demonstrate that Clausewitz intended for hsi theories to bridge the gaps in time between his articulation of them and a later reading or study of his principles.  (Echevarria and Gray 2005)

That said, it remains quite topical to ask: what role do Clausewitz’s exhaustive theories on war play in modern considerations of warfare and, also, do Clausewitz’s theories regarding war provide any useful paradigms or wisdom regarding the projection of warfare into humanity’s future, beyond even our own contemporary times? To complicate matters, though Clausewitz did distinguish between “objective” and “subjective” elements in warfare, nowhere did he “that the objective nature of war does not or cannot change;” on the contrary: Clausewitz seems to suggest that warfare is “more than a simple chameleon that only partially changes its nature from case to case” with the implication that while there may be some definite underlying principles of warfare which extend unchanged to some degree throughout history, these aspects may also “change color” and not prove as reliably predicted or abstracted as one would hope. (Echevarria and Gray 2005)

Before probing the densities of Clausewitz’s specific theories and principles of warfare as explicated in  On War for their  possible or probable relevance to present or future wars, it will prove useful to specifically determine just what aspects of modern warfare present the most challenging paradigm through which to view the theories presented in On War.  To begin, Kaldor’s the idea of “old” wars versus “new” wars is a relatively simple categorization:  with “old” standing  for a “stereotyped version of war, drawn from the experience of the last two centuries in Europe, in which war consisted of a conflict between two symmetrical warring parties, generally states or proto-states with legitimate interests,” and “new” wars standing for forms of war which adhere to asymmetrical models and produce more ambiguous forms of victory and defeat.

Another distinction between “old” wars and “new” wars is that of potential destructiveness with “the increase in the destructiveness and accuracy of all forms of military technology, as a consequence of the Clausewitzean logic of extremes,” foisting an era which has made “symmetrical war, war between similarly armed opponents, increasingly difficult. ” (Kaldor 2005, 210-211)

While it seems obvious that modern asymmetrically based warfare has put a superficial strain on Clausewitz’s overt definition of warfare as “an act of force to compel our adversary to do our will”; however, even when modern warfare is dissected for its potential variances from classical warfare, the net result may still be a potential fit for Clausewitz’s aphoristic statement.   (Clausewitz 1950, 5)

To some observers, modern warfare  can be “defined in terms of identity politics, that is to say, the claim to control the state or bits of the state in the name of an exclusive group identified in terms of ethnicity, religion or tribe” which yet comprises an attempt to compel an adversary by force to “do our will” although “this type of exclusive politics, whether based on ethnicity, religion or clan, can be contrasted with universalistic ideologies like earlier liberal nationalism or socialism, which proposed a state-building project for the entire population” and can, instead be regarded as expressions of will which originate outside of the nation-state.

(Kaldor 2005, 212)

However designated, acts of force in modern warfare adhere to Clausewitz’s underlying and unifying principles of “objective” and “subjective” war.  At influence here also is the contrasts between strategic and tactical goals and practices. A superficial change in tactics, or even a radical shift in tactics, will not and should not be regarded as a change in the fundamental goals or elements of warfare. Since tactics teach “the use of the armed forces in engagements, and strategy the use of engagements to attain the object of the war. ” (Clausewitz 1950, 62) The goal of war is to attain the strategic ends of the particular war: there is no single goal, no single purpose which can be said to encompass all wars; however victory and defeat can be defined as

the measurement of whether or not a war’s given strategic goals have been attained, regardless of the impetus, duration, or tactics involved in the overall prosecution of the war.

In some instances, the goal of war will be “the destruction of his [the enemy’s] military forces and the conquest of his provinces; ” in other wars, the strategic goal may be simply to cause the enemy to rethink his own position and strategy: “If we attack the enemy’s forces, it is a very different thing whether we intend to follow up the first blow with a succession of others, until the whole force is destroyed, or whether we mean to content ourselves with one victory in order to shatter the enemy’s feeling of security, to give him a feeling of our superiority, and so to instil into him apprehensions about the future.” (Clausewitz 1950, 21) These are two examples which span a good bit of the known strategic objectives of war or even the initiation of a single battle; they are not exhaustive examples and although they do represent divergent objectives, they also represent a simplification of historical evolution, along the lines of the “old” war “new” war paradigm and are meant simply to elucidate the changeable nature of Clausewitz’s over-reaching theories or at least the adaptability of these theories into a more modern setting.

In modern wars, it may be more difficult to distinguish an “offensive” action from a “defensive” action. The American invasion of Iraq, for example, has applications as a defensive tactic in the larger strategic picture of the “war on terror” but the specific engagement on the ground in Iraq involves an exchange of offensive and defensive tactics depending on the specific engagement and circumstances of individual battles.       Seen from the side of America’s enemies, the war in Iraq finds a fitting expression by Clausewitz on dissipating what comprises the enemy’s strength:

The enemy’s expenditure of strength lies in the wastage of his forces, consequently in the             destruction of them on our part, and in the loss of provinces, consequently the conquest of them by us.

(Clausewitz 1950, 22)
Strictly speaking, Clausewitz viewed defensive strategy as only a partial articulation of an overall war-strategy. His suggestion is that defense is really a tactical element: “What is the conception of defense? The warding off of a blow. What then is its characteristic sign? The awaiting of this blow. This is the sign which makes any act a defensive one, and by this sign alone can defense be distinguished from attack in war” however, Clausewitz is careful to point out that the use of defensive tactics alone “completely contradicts the conception of war, because there would then be war carried on by one side only, it follows that defense in war can only be relative, and the above characteristic sign must therefore only be applied to the conception as a whole; it must not be extended to all parts of it.” (Clausewitz 1950, 317)

On the other hand, attacks in warfare provide the most direct extension of  Clausewitz’s definition of warfare as  “an act of force to compel our adversary to do our will” and as such, the attack in Clausewitz’s theories of war implies that the attacker either possesses the initiative in a given struggle or believes he does, or hopes to win initiative back through the use of an attack.

Attacks, like defense, are a a prat of overall war strategy and seldom, if ever, comprise the pure totality of a given war strategy. In fact, as related above regarding the US invasion of Iraq single actions in a given campaign may be regarded as attacks in tactical connection, but defensive “blows” in relation to overall strategy. Both offense and defense must be regarded under Clausewitz’s detailed analysis and definition of strategy:

Strategy is the use of the engagement to attain the object of the war. It must therefore     give an aim to the whole military action, which aim must be in accordance with the        object of the war. In other words, strategy maps out the plan of the war, and to the      aforesaid aim it affixes the series of acts which are to lead to it; that is, it makes the plans          for the separate campaigns and arranges the engagements to be fought in each of them.                       (Clausewitz 1950, 117)

Implied in the above definition, which is also an implication of the goals of warfare, is the idea that prolonged struggle between opposing forces produces a series of engagements: some offensive, some defensive in nature and that the execution of tactical modes is a crucial aspect of whether or not success within the subjective ramifications of “victory” will be achieved by any side in a prolonged struggle. In this way, duration factors as one of the underlying elements of warfare in Clausewitz’s theories. There can be no exact determination of the duration of any given war before its actual fighting: “The duration of an engagement is necessarily bound up with its essential conditions. These conditions are: absolute amount of strength, relation in strength and arms between the two sides, and the nature of the country”; however, extrapolation of probable duration from pre-engagement factors is only guesswork: a battle will dictate its own duration. (Clausewitz 1950, 187)

That said, some expectations can be gleaned: ” A cavalry engagement is decided sooner than an infantry engagement; and an engagement entirely between infantry more quickly than if artillery is present; in mountains and forests we do not advance as quickly as on level ground. All this is clear enough” if still shrouded in possible unknown contingencies.  However, knowing the probable duration of a given engagement can be of great help in determining tactical execution in battle, proper. (Clausewitz 1950, 187)

In general, a long war is less desirable than a short war because a long war  represents the obstruction of a single victorious party in any given state of opposition, puts strain on the military forces, and dictates that many engagements, rather than few, will be resultant in the ensuing campaign. Since one hopes to achieve one’s objectives in warfare as quickly as possible so as to prevent the possibility of some kind of unforeseen contingency or drastic change in conditions. Despite this generalization, Clausewitz is careful to point out that “there is no question at all here of scientific formulas and problems. The relations of the material things are all very simple. The comprehension of the moral forces which come into play is more difficult. Still, even in respect to these, it is only in the highest branches of strategy that intellectual complications and a great diversity of quantities and relations are to be looked for” suggesting that in prolonged struggles  as in those of short duration, the leadership roles and “moral” authority of the combatants in question plays a decisive role in the outcome of such engagements. (Clausewitz 1950, 118)

This alter observation offers the modern reader an important insight into the fluidity of Clausewitz’s paradigms which seem to partake of the “objvctive” only insomuch as they become insulated from the damaging influences of time and historical “advancement” in military theory. Clausewitz’s observation that — due to the aforementioned “moral” considerations, “strategy borders on politics and statesmanship, or rather it becomes both itself, and, as we have observed before, these have more influence on how much or how little is to be done than on how it is to be executed” and this observation, apart from Clausewitz’s exhaustive and precise explication of the fundamentals of warfare at a tactical and strategic level, may stand as the most important of all for the modern student.

Clausewitz’s conclusion regarding the ‘moral” influences of war may seem, far and away beyond his notions of “objective” and “subjective” or his definitions of the means and ends of warfare, as the most antiquated notion of all.  However, his admonition that the execution of war lies somewhat beyond its moral or political “causes” is clear when he states that “in the single acts of war both great and small, the mental and moral quantities are already reduced to a very small number.” (Clausewitz 1950, 118)

In conclusion, Clausewitz’s On war offers the modern reader an uncannily prescient vision of modern war and its paradigms. The interested student will leave Clausewitz’s writings with a much deeper understanding of the objective and subjective criteria which define and occasion armed conflict and it seems prudent to suggest that the definitions of warfare and the definitions of tactics and strategy forwarded by Clausewitz have increased rather than decreased in relevancy over the intervening centuries.