Clausewitzean Ideas of War and how they Relate to Present Conflicts
As I am getting ready to begin the final class for my MA and complete my Thesis I have been re-reading Clausewitz and his ideas and theory of War. One of the things that that has struck me the most and made me realize how much Clausewitz is misunderstood is the way in which his most famous quote from the book about how “War is the continuation of policy by other meansâ€ is completely taken out of context in most history.
If you read his book further, and I assume that most generals, staff chiefs, and even military historians have then it is clear that this quote is just a starting point given the numerous caveats and expansions on that simple statement in his theory. Indeed, the very section that this quote heads explains what he means in a very concise and unambiguous manner; it is worth quoting in full.
“We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means. War in general, and the commander in any specific instance, is entitled to require that the trend and designs of policy shall not be inconsistent with these means. That of course, is no small demand; but however much it may affect political aims in a given case, it will never do more than modify them. The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.â€
The last sentence is critical for an understanding of what Clausewitz means when he speaks of war. He is not making the claim that war exists in a vacuum and that once war starts politics takes a back seat as some people seem to believe. It is clear that the Clausewitzean ideal of war is that it is a tool in the political leadershipâ€™s kit when they engage in diplomacy, indeed it the ultimate diplomatic act. It can be argued that in the Clausewitzean view of the world war, or the threat of war, backs up every act of political intercourse between nations.
The relationship between politics and war is not the most important thing about Clausewitzean theory to understand for the military historian though; that is the relationship or definition he gave for the object of war itself. Clausewitz says of the enemy in war that “the fighting force must be destroyed: that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight.â€ (italics in original)Â Note that this does necessarily call for the physical destruction of the enemy army, only that they can no longer fight. He goes on to specifically state that often the physical destruction of enemy forces is actually contrary to the political policy underlying the causes for war in the first place.
This leads us directly into a discussion of means and ends in war. It follows that if war is a political act, which it undoubtedly is and that the political objectives define the goals for war is waged; then the means to be employed should be tailored to achieving the ends with minimal waste and expenditure consistent with the ability of the combatants. Therefore, any undertaking of war should factor in the available means with the political objective. A practical application would be that if the conquest of a province is the goal then it is only necessary to conquer and maintain that province to achieve war aims or that if political concessions were the goal then only that amount of force needed to get the enemy to capitulate and grant those concessions would be required.
That brings me to present conflicts and an analysis of present world conflicts in light of Clausewitzean theory. Present conflicts are not just the hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; they include the long simmering conflict between the two Koreas that was highlighted by the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island yesterday and lastly the ongoing “War against International Terrorism.â€Â I will discuss each conflict in turn.
Iraq is no longer really a hot war following the successful 2008-2009 surge of mostly American troops there that coupled with intense political efforts led the local support for insurgents to dry up. There are probably lessons to be learned there that could be applied in Afghanistan although at present it appears that the US is attempting to simply import methods that worked in Iraq to Afghanistan without accounting for local and cultural differences between the two countries.
However, the argument could be made that the US strictly applied Clausewitzean principles when developing the strategy used in Iraq. Â The political goal for the Iraq war was a sustainable parliamentary democracy in an Iraq that would not provide funding or safe harbor from terrorists. The levels of force used by the US coupled with the political support given to the government seem to have achieved this goal although the jury will be out for at least several decades given the history of successful democracy, or lack thereof, in the Middle East.
The war in Afghanistan is a different animal entirely. The cultural factors are completely different from relatively culturally homogenous Iraq. The US appears to be trying to do the exact same thing in Afghanistan that they did in Iraq. A policy that is probably doomed to fail because of the cultural climate. It is almost as though there is a cookie cutter approach to strategy. Iraq is Muslim; Afghanistan is Muslim what worked in Iraq must therefore work in Afghanistan.
Additionally the ends and means calculation must take into account the much more logistically austere environment in Afghanistan; it is simply not possible to sustain the large numbers of ground troops required to successfully implement an Iraq style strategy the lines of supply just are not there. I do not doubt that eventually a winning strategy can be found, but whether one will be found depends on the will and staying power of the American people, who can at times be fickle.
The conflict between the Koreaâ€™s is another example where Clausewitzean theory is applicable although perhaps not in a way that many people might think. The situation on the Korean peninsula is strange because it is one in which the 1950-53 Korean war has not officially ended, yet a state of war even one at a low level exists that is subject to spikes in the hostility level based on the actions of the two protagonists. In genera it is North Korea that sparks armed confrontation either overtly or covertly and they do so to achieve specific, although sometimes opaque to outside observers, goals. There is a great degree of calculation of both means to ends and the use of military force to achieve those ends consistent with the degree of means and likelihood of success. The political dimension is that at some point North Korean provocations will reach a point at which the South Koreans feel they have no choice but to ramp up the level of military response consistent with their own political objectives. That level was almost reached this past spring with the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. The artillery bombardment of yesterday may tip the South Koreans over the line and cause them to administer a good slap to NK to demonstrate the Southâ€™s technical and tactical superiority to NK forces. The situation in Korea bears watching.
 Carl von Clausewitz. On War. Translated by Peter Paret and Michael Howard. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976. P. 87
 Ibid. p. 91