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A Clausewitzian on “Cohesion”

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Long time ZP readers are probably familiar with seydlitz89, a dedicated Clausewitzian and retired former military officer who comments here occasionally and blogs at Milpub regularly. I first read seydlitz89 at Dr. Chet Richards’ late, great, DNI site and seydlitz89 went on to participate in two extensive events at Chicago Boyz, the Clausewitz Roundtable and the Xenophon Roundtable and also had some of his more extensive writings featured on Clausewitz.com.

I would like to draw attention to one of those articles and seydlitz89’s focus on Clausewtz’s concept of “cohesion” and an implicit “theory of political development”. I am going to excerpt for my own purposes, but suggest that you read seydlitz89’s argument in full:

The Clausewitzian Concept of Cohesion as a Theory of Political Development

….The concept of cohesion comes up in various forms in On War and to lesser extent in Clausewitz’s other writings.   These forms of the overall concept include:

  • Cohesion as the moral (think tribalism, nationalism) and material (think constitution, institutions, shared views of how to define “civilization”) elements that make up the communal/social organizations of political communities, as exemplified in the three ideal types discussed below. Moral cohesion can be seen as the traditional communal values of a political community, what values and motivations guide people in their actions with family, friends and neighbours, whereas material cohesion are the modern cosmopolitan values associated with society or those social actions associated with institutions of various types. The two types exist is a certain state of constant stress and tension with modern values actually being destructive to the retention of traditional values (following Weber). Cohesion here is Clausewitz’s theory of politics which also includes the abstract concept of money. (Book VIII, Chapter 3B & the essay titled “Agitation”)
  • Cohesion provides the process behind which the center of gravities of both participants in a conventional war are formed. Lack of a center of gravity would indicate the inability to win decisively, which would include the target of conventional militaries committed to unconventional/guerrilla warfare. (Book VI, Chapter 27, Book VIII, Chapter 4)
  • Cohesion is the target of strategy in that tactical success is extended by strategic pursuit in order to expand the sphere of victory and bring about the disintegration of the enemy. Cohesion links the whole sequence of decisions (contingency) that allows the political purpose to be achieved through the means of the attained military goal, that is cohesion provides the chain of decisions/outcomes that unite political purpose with strategy and strategy with tactics, or vice versa. (Books II, IV, & Book VI Chapter 8)
  • Cohesion acts within the balance of power among various states – especially in terms of interests – with an aggressor having to contend with all the other states having an interest in maintaining the status quo. This would include the tendency for Clausewitz of a potential hegemon to fail in its attempt to dominate other peer states. (Book VI Chapter 6)
  • Cohesion can also be seen has having an influence in the varying states of balance, tension and movement through which all conflicts proceed. The cohesion (moral and material forces, willingness to take risks, soundness of the military aim in connection with the political purpose, etc) of each side being relatively equal while in balance, but increasing on one side during tension until a release of the tension (attack) and decreasing again during movement until balance is once again achieved or the conflict ends. (Book III, Chapter 18)
  • At the most abstract level the concept of cohesion could be seen as providing the unifying concept which maintains the various elements (the remarkable trinity and the operating principles) of Clausewitz’s general theory as part of a whole, the fields of attraction and tension that provide the general theory with its dynamic quality. (Book I Chapter 1)

Thus cohesion can be seen as a very broad concept, but for my purpose I am using only the first point listed above. 

and later:

….The third type of theory I wish to mention is what I refer to as Clausewitz’s theory of politics, or maybe more accurately, a theory of political development, which I see as inseparable from his concept of cohesion as I described in point one above in discussing the various forms of cohesion. 

For our purposes here we are interested in Clausewitz’s concept of cohesion as it pertains to this first point, the physical and moral cohesive elements of political communities, how cohesion acts in effect as a sliding scale of ever increasing (or deceasing) concentration, integration and organization of a political community. 

This is a very useful elucidation by seydlitz89, regardless if one favors Clausewitz or Sun Tzu or is altogether indifferent to military-strategic concerns and are more interested in broad questions of political philosophy and social policy.

Furthermore, I think Clausewitz’s speculations on cohesion were, like many of his systemic perceptions in On War, remarkably farsighted and intuitively rooted in a scientific reality that was unknown and untestable in his day. The conservative and eponymous scholar, Paul Johnson noted in his book Birth of the Modern that the 1820’s represented a time of great intellectual ferment when the arts, humanities and sciences were not yet compartmentalized, professionalized and estranged from one another. To paraphrase Johnson, it was still an era when a scientist like Faraday and an artist ( probably Harriet Jane Moore) could and did have a productive conversation about the properties of light in complete seriousness. As an intellectual, Clausewitz shared that zeitgeist.

In a military frame of reference,  the concept of “cohesion” brings to mind the Greek-Macedonian Phalanx as a representative example

but the phenomena appears not merely in military tactics or in human social relations but throughout the animal kingdom. Howard Bloom, the popular science writer using a sociobiological perspective, used “Spartanism” and “Phalanx” as metaphors for documented behaviors of creatures as disparate as bacteria, baboons and hard shell Baptists. “Groups under threat, constrict” Bloom wrote in Global Brain and this characteristic of cohesion appears to apply even when the groups are not sentient. Network theorists and scientists can explain collective behavior in terms of “strong” and “weak” ties, nodes and hubs and resilience, including emergent behavior of systems are not even alive.

Cohesion is an aspect of the natural world.

Stocking Stuffers……

Saturday, December 12th, 2009

In a burst of raw self-interest – and also a little love for my blogfriends – these books make nifty gifts for any war nerd or deep thinker on your Christmas list:

The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War – Mark Safranski (Ed.)


Threats in the Age of Obama – Michael Tanji (Ed.)

Great Powers: America and the World After Bush – Thomas P.M. Barnett

Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization – John Robb

Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd – Frans Osinga


The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism  by Howard Bloom

Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count  by Richard Nisbett

Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld  by Jeffrey Carr

This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America’s Most Violent Gang  by Samuel Logan

Full Disclosure:

In copmpliance with new Federal regulations of dubious Constitutional merit, I hearby declare ZP does not accept money for publishing reviews or any paid advertising. Courtesy review copies were extended to me by authors or publishers acting on behalf of Sam Logan, Tom Barnett and Jeff Carr. I edited the first book in this post and was a contributing author to the second one. All of the books, with the exception of Cyber Warfare have been the subject of prior reviews or posts at ZP.

The First Genocide?

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Or perhaps the analogy of Cain and Abel?

Remains Show Human Killed Neanderthal

Newly analyzed remains suggest that a modern human killed a Neanderthal man in what is now Iraq between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago. The finding is scant but tantalizing evidence for a theory that modern humans helped to kill off the Neanderthals. The probable weapon of choice: A thrown spear.

The evidence: A lethal wound on the remains of a Neanderthal skeleton. The victim: A 40- to 50-year-old male, now called Shanidar 3, with signs of arthritis and a sharp, deep slice in his left ninth rib. “What we’ve got is a rib injury, with any number of scenarios that could explain it,” said study researcher Steven Churchill, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina. “We’re not suggesting there was a blitzkrieg, with modern humans marching across the land and executing the Neandertals [aka Neanderthals]. I want to say that loud and clear.” But he added, “We think the best explanation for this injury is a projectile weapon, and given who had those and who didn’t, that implies at least one act of inter-species aggression.”

What is interesting about the disappearance of the Neanderthal is that it is hard to explain simply in terms of competition for resources with early Homo Sapiens, given that the global human population was astronomically low. The Neanderthal too, would have had many physical advantages, given their more robust physiology, over their evolutionary cousins. Speculation has ranged from climate change, to immunological differences to the cognitive and cultural.

Could a key cultural difference have been a propensity of Homo Sapiens to make war? To seek out, rather than avoid conflict?

The Social Science of War

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

Briefly, here is a juxtaposition of posts worth looking at that portray war through the lens of the social scientist:

Rethinking SecurityThe Study of War as A Social Science

…Rather, it would be better to re-concieve the study of strategic affairs as a multi-disciplinary social science major combining sociology, international relations, philosophy, political science, cognitive science, economics, history, and “pure” military theory. This would be intellectually rigorous enough to banish forever the stereotype of the armchair general and the wargamer.

I see learning about strategy in itself as the key aim of such a curriculum–the goal would be to produce a student able to either apply his or her learnings in a think-tank or government, join the armed forces, come up with reasonable anti-war critiques as an activist, resolve conflict as a humanitarian, or apply strategy in the corporate world.

War as a social science akin to sociology or economics would bring empirical and quantitative rigor into the study of military history and affairs on the undergraduate level as well as a focus on the mechanics of war (tactics, operational art, strategy, and grand strategy) rarely seen outside of a Professional Military Education (PME).

SWJ Blog –  The Genetic Roots of the War on Terrorism

….In the article, titled “A Natural History of Peace,” Stanford Professor Robert M. Sapolsky compares and contrasts human aggressive tendencies with well-documented propensities for violence among several species of primates, and develops a case suggesting that human aggression of the kind that produces warfare mainly stems from the genetic impulses rooted in humans as primates (not a new suggestion of itself). But more significantly, he offers proof extracted from a now robust body of field work that even strong genetic tendencies for violence in certain species of primates can be mitigated by exposure to the equivalent of “cultural” forces. He singles out from the body of such observations the case history of one group of baboons (a particularly aggressive and violent species of primate) that he calls the Forest Troop, the intensely aggressive behavior of which was ameliorated after exposure to the more peaceful and tolerant “mores” of another baboon troop of an identical species with which the Forest Troop had come in contact. He concludes by asserting that “some primate species can make peace despite violent traits that seem built into their natures.” He goes on to muse, “The challenge now is to figure out under what conditions that can happen, and whether humans can manage the trick themselves.”

Sapolsky’s argument frames the issues associated with the current global conflict in which the United States is now engaged in a potentially very useful light: as a biological problem best understood and dealt with using means specifically tailored to deal with human genetic tendencies in order to promote cooperation and tolerance instead of competitive violence. This stands in contrast to the current approach which appears to assume that the conflict mainly results from a combination of cultural and economic factors that can be dealt with by a strategy that combines selected violence, targeted monetary investments mixed, and cross cultural messages through so called strategic communications.

The Social Sciences are a powerful but fractionating, reifying lens. Individually, they unearth certain aspects of large and highly complex phenomena albeit at the cost, at times, of distorting the proportional importance to the whole of the aspect that the social scientist chooses to study. The sociobiological perspective is a radical and controversial one but it is a position that is far more open to empirical investgation in a scientific sense than are many traditional components of strategic theorizing.  At Rethinking Security, Adam wisely tries to balance the heavy load of quantitative methods in his proposed program with at least a few qualitative disciplines; input from military practitioners and security experts would also be helpful to the prospective student in this regard as well.

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007


The father of sociobiology and prophet of consilience, E.O. Wilson is featured in SEED.

The Synthesizer

“…. In the late 1950s, Wilson discovered pheromones as the basis of chemical communication in ants. He identified 624 ant species in one genus and named 337 of them (19 percent of all ant species in the Western hemisphere). He established evolutionary biology as an esteemed pursuit in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the discovery of the double helix and the molecular revolution it unleashed were eclipsing more traditional scientific disciplines. His work with Robert MacArthur on island biogeography is a seminal text in ecology. He’s been recognized internationally for contributions to science and the humanities and has received numerous awards including the National Medal of Science and Japan’s International Prize for Biology. He’s won two Pulitzers. And if Rachel Carson is the mother of the modern-day environmental movement, Edward O. Wilson is quite arguably its father. Indeed, those who know him call this work his mission. “

Read the rest here.

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