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Clausewitz and Center of Gravity

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2013

At Small Wars Journal a provocative essay by Col. Dale C. Eikmeier:

Give Carl von Clausewitz and the Center of Gravity a Divorce

….Because we love Carl von Clausewitz and the center of gravity concept, we need to grant them a divorce- for our sake.  We tried for years to make it work, but it’s time to face reality, together they are just too abstract and confusing for us to embrace.

 The center of gravity concept, a mainstay of the US military “operational art” since 1986[1], has never fully satisfied doctrine’s intent.   According to Dr. Alex Ryan, a former School of Advanced Military Studies instructor, the concept is, “so abstract to be meaningless”[2]  Now if a ‘mainstay’ is so ‘abstract’ that subject matter experts declare it ‘meaningless’ we have a doctrinal problem.  The genesis of this problem is a doctrinal foundation built on dubious authorship and editing, underdeveloped theory, imprecise metaphors, and flawed translations. [3]  This Clausewitzian foundation, which was never very solid, is now collapsing under the weight of 21st century warfare.  For this reason it’s time to end our reliance on Clausewitz’s On War as the authority on the center of gravity concept.

….Crack Four.  Another problem is flawed translations.  Clausewitz never used the term “center of gravity”, or in German, “Gravitationspunkt”, he used the word schwerpunkt, which means weight of focus or point of effort which is different from center of gravity, hubs or sources of power. [9]   But it is easy to understand how an English translator when picturing this point of effort could think of a center of gravity which further illustrates the danger of metaphors.  Milan Vigo in Joint Operational Warfare Theory and Practice provides a detailed analysis of the evolution of schwerpunkt from focus of effort to center of gravity which is summarized below:[10]

  1. Schwerpunkt – main weight or focus or one’s efforts.
  2. Mid 19th century, schwerpunkt is associated with an enemy’s capital as the point of focus. Germans and Austrians used the word schwerpunktlinie to mean a line of main weight or effort that links one’s base of operations to the enemy’s capital. This is where the schwerpunkt as ‘the target’ understanding comes from.
  3. Late 19th century it comes to mean a section of the front where the bulk of one’s forces are employed to reach a decision. Schwerpunkt is now the ‘arrow’ not the target.  This is a subtle shift from the point of focus on a target, to the arrow or what is focused.  Count Alfred von Schlieffen and German military practice used the ‘arrow’ understanding up to WW II.
  4. Colonel J.J. Graham’s 1874 English language translation of On War  mistranslated Schwerpunkt as “center of gravity”[11]
  5. Post World War I German military progressively adds a new meaning using schwerpunkt to mean the focus of planning efforts.  This is a natural evolution of the late 19th century hybrid of ‘the arrow’ and the ‘target’ understandings.
  6. The Bundeswehr (German Army) now uses the English term “center of gravity” while the Austrian Army uses the German term “Gravitationspunkt” which translates to “center of gravity”. 

Hence, English translators took Clausewitz’s “schwerpunkt”, ‘the target or point of focus’ meaning mistranslated it into center of gravity which morphed into the source of power or ‘the arrow’ meaning. 

I’m not understanding Eikmeier’s hostility to the employment of metaphor as a device for learning as it is a conceptual bridge for understanding without which human society would not have made much progress.  Yes, metaphors can be misunderstood or abused but so can just about everything else. Most important ideas were either understood by or are most easily explained by metaphor and analogy.

“Center of gravity” in Clausewitzian theory is often misunderstood by non-experts or incorrectly identified in the enemy in practice in the midst of a war, but the same can be said of many other valuable concepts. Ask people to explain “gravity” itself and see how precisely scientific an explanation you receive, but that hardly means we should abandon the concept.

Regarding translation from On War, Eikmeier may have a more valid point but I am not qualified to assess it. I have a fair grasp of the political-historical context but not the linguistic and cultural nuances of early 19th century German language expression. Maybe Seydlitz89 will care to weigh in here?

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For the record: al-Raymi’s Message to the American People

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a quick, minor note ]
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You may of course already know this, but in case you don’t…

May eye was caught by the words “Your leaders are assaultive, oppressive and tyrannical” in the English subtitles to Qasim al-Raymi‘s “Message to the American People” video (upper panel, below)…

I guess it was the word “assaultive” that really caught my eye… I wasn’t looking forward to transcribing the entire video, so I went to the net to see if anyone else had done the job — which was when I realized I’d seen that same phrase before, in the latest issue, #11, of Inspire magazine (lower panel, above).

So this is just a quick note to say if you want to quote al-Raymi, there’s no need to transcribe the video, he says what he says in Inspire #11 pp. 8-9.

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I suspect we could glean quite a bit if we listened with careful ears to the phrasings used by jihadist sources when writing or speaking in English or translating into it. There are some interesting characteristic turns of phrase — I haven’t been making notes as yet, but “to proceed” is one that is often used to end the scriptural prelims and turn to the message of the day… And there was that curious phrasing in the Khorasanist video Tamerlan Tsarnaev favorited, “The word Taliqan not just mentions the Taliqan region of today only, but…”

There are many interesting ways to read a text, and reading for tone and phrasing is one of them…

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Sources, h/t to Aaron Zelin at Jihadology:

  • Al-Raymi, al-Malahim video
  • Al Raymi, al-Malahim Inspire magazine
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    Great question!

    Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- from Paradise Regained: Overcoming Terrorism in Star Trek Into Darkness ]
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    Matt Ford, guest-blogging at Grand Blog Tarkin [includes spoilers] asks:

    How many young Americans learned Arabic and Pashto or studied counterterrorism and international relations because nineteen men flew three planes into a building and one into the ground, killing thousands?

    Great question!

    And how many in the UK after 9/11? — and after 7/7?

    **

    Also worth reading [and also includes spoilers]:

    Amy Davidson, Is “Star Trek into Darkness” a drone allegory?

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    Jottings 9: Boko / Beaucoup Haram

    Monday, May 20th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- who just can't resist a skilled bilingual pun, and is also curious these days about terrorist logos & branding ]
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    Hamas logo, left, and putative Boko Haram logo, right, compared


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    I found my delicious multilingual pun in a comment from April 2012 on an RFI post titled Boko Haram en renfort des islamistes armés dans le nord du Mali:

    Ces voyous la je les appèlerai plutôt bokou haram! Lisez ça beaucoup haram. … Ce qu’ils font peut juste être qualifié de beaucoup haram.

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    BTW, does Boko Haram really use a Hamas logo with its own name clumsily cut’n'pasted across the top, as illustrated above and suggested here?

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    On getting it right, eh?

    Thursday, April 25th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- with a little help from the Buddha, fake quotes, self-referential paradox, a pinch of salt, and two tbsps of anthropology ]
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    Over the last ten days we have seen a whole lot of speculation, misinformation, spin and gossip masquerading as analysis and journalism, and that was on my mind when I ran across an alleged Buddha-quote that told me to use my common sense — and since my common sense told me there probably wasn’t a phrase in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, that would correspond too closely to the highly idiomatic English usage, common sense, I thought I should check it out with Fake Buddha Quotes, my go-to place for checking what the Buddha is supposed to have said:

    I’m pretty sure the Buddha never said “Pretty sure I never said that” too, for much the same reason.

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    But what delights me most about all this is just how self-referential this all is: the Buddha allegedly warns us against trusting what we read even when it’s attributed to him, in what turns out to be a faux quote attributed to him, based on a real quote that reads (in one translation):

    Any teaching should not be accepted as true for the following ten reasons: hearsay, tradition, rumor, accepted scriptures, surmise, axiom, logical reasoning, a feeling of affinity for the matter being pondered, the ability or attractiveness of the person offering the teaching, the fact that the teaching is offered by “my” teacher. Rather, the teaching should be accepted as true when one knows by direct experience that such is the case.

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    Fpr what it’s worth, the abbreviated version doesn’t mean the same as the original. From Koun Franz at Sweeping Zen:

    his is a very different idea. The original says we need to verify through direct experience; the popular version says that we can stand back from the practice, at a distance, and use reason to determine its authenticity.

    Or this, from Bodhipaksa, the Fake Buddha Quotes guy, :

    The Buddha of course isn’t saying we should jettison reason and common sense. What he’s implying is that both those things can be misleading and what’s ultimately the arbiter of what’s true is experience. It’s when you “know for yourselves” that something is true through experience that you know it’s true.

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    Another comment on the same page led me to this first comment on cultures and languages –

    which in turn reminded me of the second, a long-time favorite of mine from the time when I was some sort of Anthro professor in dreamy Oregon…

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    And, y’lnow, both those quotes in my second pair give you a visceral sense of what today’s SWJ article by Robert R. Greene Sands and Thomas J. Haines, Promoting Cross-Cultural Competence in Intelligence Professionals is very rightly on about, though it’s all phrased in a manner so abstract you might easily miss the point…

    Mitigating cognitive, cultural and a host of tradecraft biases is essential for intelligence professionals to navigate through today’s culturally complex environments. Adopting the perspective of contemporary cultural groups, including nation-states, often defies understanding because the intelligence professional is challenged to both appreciate and consequently discern meaning of behavior that is predicated on vastly different beliefs and value systems. Fundamental to this dissonance is a markedly different cultural reality resulting from different histories, traditions and the stasis of culture. The professional’s western and deeply seated worldview impedes either the analysis itself, or is perjured by the cognitive restrictions imposed by the structured analytic strategies used.

    The quote about the Wintu — it’s from Dorothy Lee, Linguistic Reflection of Wintu Thought, Chapter 9 in Dennis and Barbara Tedlock‘s Teachings from the American earth: Indian religion and philosophy — goes on to say:

    The Wintu relationship with nature is one of intimacy and mutual courtesy. He kills a deer only when he needs it for his livelihood, and utilizes every part of it, hoofs and marrow and hide and sinew and flesh. Waste is abhorrent to him, not because he believes in the intrinsic virtue of thrift, but because the deer had died for him.

    Now there‘s “a markedly different cultural reality” for you!

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