Academic journal article Military Review

Clausewitz's Schwerpunkt: Mistranslated from German-Misunderstood in English

Academic journal article Military Review

Clausewitz's Schwerpunkt: Mistranslated from German-Misunderstood in English

Article excerpt

Eine Operation ohne Schwerpunkt is wie ein Mann ohne Charakter. [An operation without Schwerpunkt is like a man without character.]

--Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg

AS THE U.S. ARMY moves forward in its efforts to transform itself in profound ways, it might be useful for its leadership to reexamine the origins of some concepts that serve as the theoretical underpinnings of current Army and joint doctrine. Among those that should be closely reconsidered is "center of gravity" (COG), a concept widely attributed to Carl von Clausewitz and now regarded as the heart of any sound plan for a campaign or major operation. (1) Even a cursory glance at the military literature of the last 30 years, starting with core doctrinal documents produced by the Army itself, reveals how pervasive and essential the COG concept has become in U.S. operational thinking. Massive amounts of time, energy, ink, and paper have been expended on defining, analyzing, and arguing how the concept should be properly applied within the context of a supposed Clausewitzian paradigm of war. Unfortunately, the major problem with this, at least from a historical perspective, is that Clausewitz never used the term "center of gravity." Furthermore, he might not have agreed entirely with what that concept now denotes in the American military lexicon.

The term from which the COG concept has been extrapolated, Schwerpunkt, really means "weight (or focus) of effort." In reassessing center of gravity as an underpinning of doctrine, it is important to observe that the original Schwerpunkt concept is actually closer in meaning to what the U.S. military now calls the "sector of main effort" and the "point of main attack" (defense). Although the original Clausewitzian rendering of Schwerpunkt could, like the COG, encompass both physical and human elements, it is less complicated to identify, but not necessarily to apply, than the U.S. concept of a COG or COGs. In contrast to the modern application of the concept of center of gravity, Clausewitz's Schwerpunkt dealt almost exclusively with the strategic level of war.

The purpose of this essay is to trace the development of the Schwerpunkt concept as the Germans understood and employed it (in a manner probably more congruous with Clausewitz's intent) from Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen's time as chief of the German general staff, through the interwar years, to World War II. We can then compare the German interpretation with its American counterpart to examine the validity of the current U.S. concept of center of gravity. Our investigation will perhaps offer a related but significantly different alternative to the modem COG concept, one that we might use to focus planning for future campaigns or major operations.

The Development of Schwerpunkt

Clausewitz used Schwerpunkt on several occasions in his seminal work On War (see chapter 4, "Closer Definition of the War's Objective: Suppression of the Enemy," of Book 8). In countries subject to domestic strife, he claimed, the Schwerpunkt is generally the capital. In the same paragraph he states that "in small countries that rely on large ones, it [Schwerpunkt] is usually the army of their protector; among alliances, it lies in the community of interests; and in popular uprisings it is the personality of leaders and public opinion. It is against these that our energies should be directed." (2)

When assessing all of these possibilities, one should keep Clausewitz's ideas on Schwerpunkt in context. Ultimately, Clausewitz firmly believed that the destruction or neutralization of the enemy's forces was the means to final victory. Identifying the Schwerpunkt would enable the attacker to effect those means.

Although several German and Austrian theoreticians in the mid- to late-nineteenth century stressed that the enemy capital constituted a Schwerpunkt against which one's efforts should be directed, the understood purpose for dealing with the capital was the same: to threaten or seize it as a means of ultimately destroying or neutralizing the enemy's armed forces. …

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