Clausewitz's Theory: On War and Its Application Today

By New, Larry D. | Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Clausewitz's Theory: On War and Its Application Today


New, Larry D., Air & Space Power Journal


CARL VON CLAUSEWITZ, the renowned theorist of war, stated that "a certain grasp of military affairs is vital for those in charge of general policy."1 Recognizing the reality of government leaders not being military experts, he went on to say, "The only sound expedient is to make the commander-in-chief a member of the cabinet."2 Many governments, including that of the United States, are so organized that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by law the top military advisor to the president. Our record of military success in this century indicates Clausewitz was right. The stronger the relationship between the nation's senior military commanders and the government, the more effective we have been at using the military instrument of foreign policy to achieve national political objectives. The strength of that relationship depends on the commander's ability to communicate and the statesman's ability to grasp the inherent linkage between the nature of war, the purpose of war, and the conduct of war. Clausewitz called this linkage a paradoxical trinity with three aspects: the people, the commander and his army, and the government.3 The people have to do with the nature of war, the military with the conduct of war, and the government with the purpose of war. This paper addresses how Clausewitzian theory applies to America's recent history and how the theory that holds true may be applied to future situations in which the military instrument is considered or used in foreign policy.

Definitions

Before embarking on a discussion of the nature, purpose, and conduct of war, we must first establish a point of reference for each of these terms. This paper addresses these three terms in reference to Clausewitz, who spent a great deal of effort theorizing about these three elements and their relationship with war. The purpose and conduct of war are fairly straightforward. The purpose of war is to achieve an end state different and hopefully better than the beginning state-the reason for fighting. The conduct of war refers to the tactics, operations, and strategies of the war-the how of fighting. The more nebulous term is the nature of war. This term is made even more vague in Clausewitz's writing for a few reasons. First, the reference for this writing is a translation of Clausewitz from his native German to English. Second, the reference uses a few different terms such as nature, kind, and character apparently synonymously. Third, Clausewitz starts his writings on war by defining it as absolute in nature. Then, over a span of 12 years and eight books, he recognizes most wars are not fought absolutely but with limited means defined by the political objectives The absolute nature of war refers to its horror. War is about people and property being destroyed, damaged, and captured. That is the primary reason why the decision to use the military instrument of foreign policy should not be made without considering all its implications. The discussion in this paper uses Clausewitz's latter idea and describes the nature of a war to be what means a state is willing to dedicate to fighting a particular war versus the nature of war in general. Thus, this paper uses the purpose as the ends, the nature as the means, and the conduct as the techniques applied in war.

The Nature of War

Clausewitz stated, "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking."' The nature of US wars since World War II has been primarily asymmetric. With the advent of nuclear weapons and sophisticated biological and chemical weapons, or weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the United States has relied on these weapons as a deterrent to those with similar capabilities. At the same time, we have withheld their use, viewing them as a last-resort measure to be employed only when our survival is at stake. Therefore, with one possible exception, we have fought wars with limited means. …

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