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On War as an Unfinished Symphony

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

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On War by Carl von Clausewitz has been the most influential book on strategy and war of all time.

We can say this because On War is the standard by which all other works of strategy are measured and only a few compared – notably Sun Tzu’s Art of War and The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. The odd thing is that we can say this despite the fact that On War is more frequently shelved, cited or understood secondhand rather than read, even by military professionals. And furthermore, within the narrow demographic that reads Clausewitz seriously and critically, there can be heated dispute over what he meant, due to the difficulty of the text. Then there are the secondary effects, historical and military, of Clausewitz having been misunderstood, forgotten, ignored or at times, his strategic philosphy consciously rejected.

The shadow cast by On War is all the more remarkable given it’s circumstances of publication. Clausewitz died in 1831, at fifty-one, of cholera, having finally risen to a military post his talents merited. He had been writing On War since 1816 and it was far from completed or refined to his satisfaction and it is highly unlikely, in my view, that Clausewitz would have consented to it’s publication in the condition in which he left it. His determined and intellectually formidible widow, Marie von Clausewitz, further shaped the manuscript of On War, guided by her intimate knowledge of her husband’s ideas and was likely the best editor Clausewitz could have posthumously had.

Nevertheless, to my mind On War remains a magnificent unfinished symphony.

What would On War have looked like if Clausewitz had lived another twenty-five or thirty some years? Assuming continued good health, Clausewitz would have seen, perhaps commanded in, the First Schleswig War and at least studied the Crimean War from afar. He would have had another quarter-century of reading and mature reflection on his subject. Clausewitz, who had a keen understanding of history, would have also witnessed the grand European upheaval of liberal revolution in 1848 that rocked the Hohenzollern monarchy to it’s core. What new insights might Clausewitz have gleaned or expanded upon? Would his later chapters On War have evolved to equal the first?

Having outlived Marie (who died in 1836), would Clausewitz have become a deeply changed man?

What I find it difficult to believe is that Clausewitz, with his creatively driven and philosophically exacting mind,  would have been content to let the manuscript of On War rest where it stood in 1831. Or that we read today what Carl von Clausewitz ultimately intended.

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War, the Individual, Strategy and the State

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

 

One of the nicest things about ZP is the quality of the commenters. In a post by Charles Cameron, 2083 – Breivik and the Qur’an, deception and warfare, there was this exchange between Joseph Fouche and Seydlitz89 after the latter disputed the utility of looking at the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik through the lens of strategy:

Joseph Fouche:

From Clausewitzian perspective, Breivik’s actions are the conjunction of the three poles of the Trinity, two of which have nothing to with Breivik’s rationality. If CvC can’t be applied to madmen, criminals, mass murderers of children, or men trapped in their own little world, then Van Creveld’s contention that the actions of madmen can’t be considered political (in noted Clausewitzian Christopher Bassford’suse of the word) is correct. War would be “nontrinitarian“.

The words and ideas of murderous stooges have consequences as well as their actions. CvC can shine as much light on them as he can on any other field of human conflict.

Can Breivik’s actions can be considered war? Can an individual wage war? By his own sinister lights, Breivik considered himself at war, the Pied Piper of a host of other Breiviks born and unborn, even if that host only existed in his fevered imagination.

Can an individual have a strategy? Or can an individual only have a strategem? Breivik had a plan that had a tactical expression and apolitical effect (as here we comment on the doings of an otherwise obscure Norwegian). Does the jumbled mass of tissues that connect his evil ends with his evil means rise to the level of strategy?

In her recent book The Evolution of Strategy, noted CvC scholarBeatrice Heuser examines the modern history of the word strategy since Guibert revived it in the mid-eighteenth century. Even the core understanding of the word, the art of connecting political ends with (operational or tactical) military means, has shifted since CvC as the scale and ambitions of campaigns increased. Heuser herself chooses to refer to strategy as understood by Clausewitzians (connecting political ends with military means) with a capital S to differentiate [it] from other current uses.

In that light, was Breivik a Strategist or a strategist? Where do we put the raid on Harpers Ferry or the Beer Hall Putsch, two events that were equally ridiculous and equally consequential? What’s the cutoff point between crime and war? What’s the cutoff point between Strategy and strategy? John Brown’s 21? Herr Hitler’s 100? Or Breivik’s one?

Fouche, who it must be said, is no fan of eminent Dutch-Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, is referering to MvC’s theory of the decline of the state and “non-trinitarian” warfare of non-state or non-Westphalian entities that van Creveld articulated in The Transformation of War, The Rise and Decline of the State and other books and articles since the 1990′s.  The 4GW school adopted van Creveld’s ideas of state decline and to significantly varying degrees, his critical attitude toward Clausewitzian theory (van Creveld’s own assessment of Clausewitz also seems to vary in his works).

Seydlitz89, himself a noted Clausewitzian, responded:

You’re mixing apples and oranges.  Clausewitzian strategic theory pertains to collectives, all concepts pertain to collectives – victory, defeat, strategy, tactics . . . and a very particular collective at that – political communities.  “War” does not consist of one individual fighting against a political community, that is criminality, and always has been.  This is the very definition of what being a criminal, an outcast, or a traitor is all about .  .  . “War” on the other hand is organized violence within or between political communities which involves once again collectives.  These collectives would have to enjoy both moral and material cohesion within them which in turn allows them to use violence as an instrument in their political actions.  The Nazis, as repugnant as they were, did gain “legitimacy” (yet another collective concept) over time and formed a political community around them of Germans dissatisfied with the “system” of their time, and their political takeover did constitute a revolution. 

ABB is all about ABB and nothing more.  Assuming that his “message” or rather mad rant is going to draw an audience and a following is an assumption, based on what exactly?  Great knowledge of how “Europeans” feel about immigration?  Define “Europeans” and how this act is going to mobilize concerted action against immigrants, draw a political community around it?

Even if he did appeal to a selection of alienated loners who bought his sorry soap, that would not constitute them as a political community nor make their struggle war.

If ABB is a “warrior” fighting a “war”, than so was Charles Manson.     

[ Sidebar: Seydlitz has, BTW, previously undertook a formal two-part paper at the old DNI site on this subject, one very much worth reading, that serves as a Clausewitzian rebuttal to van Creveld :The Decline of Strategic Theory - the Influence of The Transformation of War  and part II. The Continued Existence of the State: The Clausewitzian Concept of Cohesion ]

The discussion of whether or not an individual can wage “war” is interesting because it takes place largely at the level of fundamentals. Politics, polities, policy, the State, war. All terms with somewhat different meanings depending on the philosophical tradition brought to the table. Or lack thereof. Strategic discussions are frequently impoverished because of the extinction of systematic education in the Western canon in this country, it is almost dead, even at the university level, which means that those interested in matters of strategy and diplomacy need to dedicate themselves to personal programs of professional reading and reflection.  Some things need to be read firsthand and more than once to be understood.

Can an individual “wage war”? Can they have ” a strategy”? Some very meandering thoughts from me on the subject [Joseph Fouche and Seydlitz are cordially invited to guest-post here in response, if they so desire]:

Historically, this was usually a moot point. The ability of private individuals to use violence that could have a strategic effect on a whole political community was virtually nil – with one exception – assassination. While seldom fully successful, tyrannicide or regicide was celebrated and feared in the ancient world because in highly personalized polities with absolute rulers, such a decapitation attack could paralyze a society as heirs of the ruler struggled for succession or plunge it into anarchy and civil war. Walter LaQueur devotes the first part of his Voices of Terror to examples of ancient assassination for this reason.

Assassination, it should be said, is still more likely to be associated with personal grievance, mental illness or political protest than strategic intent. Brutus and Cassius and their fellow conspirators had a strategic intent in assassinating Julius Caesar, namely reversing the fortunes of civil war as well as the political intent of ending Caesar’s Dictatorship as a regime and restoring the Republic under the dominance of patrician Optimates. By contrast, Charles Guiteau who assassinated President Garfield was merely insane, while Soghomon Tehlirian’s motive for killing Talaat Pasha was vengeance for the Armenian Genocide.

However, as the potential for using assassination at a strategic level exists, then the possibility that an individual may do so of their own accord, instead of as an agent of a state or out of personal grievance, also exists. It’s just quite rare once a society ascends from the Hobbesian hunter-gatherer stage of development to true chiefdoms or kingdoms because two things change: first, a chiefdom or kingdom is a political community that creates and enforces all kinds of constraints, incentives, rules and specialization of tasks related to warfare on individuals in the tribe. Secondly, the scale of society in a chiefdom or kingdom or state vs. a hunter-gatherer band makes an individual’s one-man war impractical. Society has grown far too large. Even if the head is willing, the reach exceeds the grasp.

Now, this truism of war being a collective endeavor, which Seydlitz rightly identifies as being the case and has been so for thousands of years, is now in jeopardy with the acceleration of technological capabilities and ever cheaper productions costs disseminating them into many hands. This is the theory of  the “superempowered individual“, that technology that can permit one person to inflict damage on an enormous scale was becoming too common, as is information about where such technology could be leveraged to best effect. We are not quite there yet, but we have had some serious foreshadowing of SEIs with Ted Kaczynski, the unknown Anthrax mail terrorist and the partially successful WMD terrorist efforts of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Right now, it is still collectives that are the likeliest culprits for waging a mass casualty attack but those collectives have gotten uncomfortably small in size. Nation-states are far more dangerous and versatile entities, if slow moving and obvious, but they are no longer required if your intent is to inflict strategic damage and eventually, all you will need is one unusually resourceful and intelligent individual.

With individuals and, more commonly, very small substate groups waging war, the nature of warfare will change from the culture of warfare that typified the era of Westphalian nation-states with their centralizing hierarchical bureaucracies, mobilized industrial economies, conventional armed forces and populations bristling with nationalism. Smaller entities that lack the vast resources of states are going to be idiosyncratic in their approach to warfare because their capacity to sustain conflict, what motivates them to stand, fight and die, how they conceive their “Ends” differs from that of states.

Can you use Clausewitz’s general theory to  analyze them? Sure, Clausewitz proposed, after all, a general theory of war, but if you operate with the implicit assumption that the non-state adversary will “do strategy”just  like a state your analysis is likely to be off. The utility of van Creveld’s theory is his emphasis on their non-Westphalian characteristics of these combatants and their blurring of war with crime, religion, culture and politics which goes to the heart of what might be the nature of warfare in this epoch; where the irregulars are no longer marginal players but represent the new normal and interstate conventional war among great powers is the outlier.

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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.

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The Day of the Clausewitzians

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

A couple of internet amigos who are hard-core Clausewitzians have put pen to paper of late ( or keys to board):

Wilf Owen at SWJ Blog:

The Toyota Horde

The subject of this article is a broad technical and operational examination of how almost any country on earth can currently gain a viable level of military power by building on the enduring elements of combined arms warfare. These elements are enduring and appeared in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. It is further suggested that skillfully applied this type of capability may enable its user to confront and possibly defeat NATO type expeditionary forces.

A number of popular opinions about the future nature of warfare have created a substantially misleading impression that the skills and equipment required for formation level combined arms capability, such as that possessed by NATO during the cold war is no longer needed, because few potential enemies possess similar peer capability. Thus the object of the article is to show just how simply a peer or near-peer capability can be acquired, and maintained.

Contrary to popular belief, there are many examples of where military action by irregular forces has inflicted battlefield defeats on regular forces. The most famous are the Boer defeats of the British Army during “Black Week” in December 1899 and the Hussite Wars of the 15th Century, where irregular forces, using improvised barricades made of ox wagons (wagenburgs) were able to stand against and defeat the armoured knights of the Holy Roman Empire. In both cases each irregular force was able to generate conventional military force from fairly meager resources. There is nothing novel, new or even complex, in this approach. It is common, enduring and proven.

Wilf, as usual, pulls few rhetorical punches. Read the rest here.

Now for the second piece, which rated a place of honor at Dr. Christopher Bassford’s Clausewitz Homepage (for those readers here whose interests are outside the realm of Clausewitzian strategy or military theory, this is sort of like a parish priest having their Sunday sermon published by the Vatican):

seydlitz89 at Clausewitz.com:

The Clausewitz Roundtable at Chicagoboyz.

My interest in Clausewitz goes back to my childhood when, being very interested in simulated wargames, I bought of copy of On War as a member of the military book club-that is at 12.  This was the the old, 19th-Century translation. I found it hard going and gave up about a third of the way through. 

It was only about 20 years later, after my service on active duty in the Marine Corps and serving as a US Army intelligence officer in Berlin, that I finally actually read On War,  that being the Howard/Paret translation, and realized that there was very much more to the work than I had ever suspected.  Being involved in strategic HUMINT collection was the spark that indicated for me the need of strategic theory, and specifically a theory that could be flexible enough to cover all sorts of conflicts, from industrial war to tense relations between otherwise friendly states or other political entities.

….I found out about the Chicagoboyz Clausewitz Roundtable quite by accident.  I was doing my usual Google search of “Clausewitz” under “news” when a post at Zen Pundit’s blog popped up.  As my comments and the responses show, I was more than eager to contribute.

What resulted was a very interesting mix of views on Clausewitz, some from people who had been familiar with Clausewitz through their military backgrounds or other reasons, as well as intelligent people who simply had picked up the book and started to read.  While this roundtable discussion would not be a good introduction to Clausewitz, since a beginning student might be led far astray by some of the comments, the roundtable did produce a wide variety of interesting perspectives and applications that the serious student of Clausewitz should find stimulating.  In short, the Chicagoboyz Clausewitz Roundtable reflects both the advantages and disadvantages of using the Internet as a forum for dialogue, as an attempt at establishing a dialectic.  The weaknesses would include the nature of blog posting in general, which requires a serious proofreading effort after the fact in spite of the best intentions of the poster.

Read the rest here ( seydlitz89 gives a nice nod in his essay to the moving spirit behind the roundtable, Lexington Green)

I’ve participated in and helped organize quite a few online roundtables and Think Tank 2.0 events, and while all of them were successful and had their own zeitgeist, I can safely say that The Clausewitz Roundtable was the best.

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New Post at Clausewitz Roundtable

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

I have a new post up at the closing Clausewitz Roundtable at Chicago Boyz.

Clausewitz, “On War” Book VI: The Shadow of the East

….One of the anomalies of the crusade of Napoleon’s Grande Armee into the Russia of Tsar Alexander is that the Russians began in a position of numerical inferiority, something that had not happened at any other time except during the Mongol Yoke. Even Hitler’s massive onslaught of 150 Wehrmacht divisions hurled into the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 did not enjoy the advantage in numbers held by Napoleon in 1812. Napoleon’s host had an almost mythic quality, reminiscent of the army of Great King Xerxes in The Persian Wars. Historian Alan Schom writes:

“Napoleon’s mighty force was phenomenal in size and strength as it continued its advance. They were marching by the thousands, the tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands. It was incredible, it was fascinating, it was aew inspiring, but above all, it was terrifying. All Europe was trembling at the very thought of this massive Gallic-led horde, the likes of which had not been seen since the eighth century invasion of Europe by the Arabs and Berbers, and before that by Attila the Hun. Bavarians, Wurttemburgers, troops from Berg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Nassau-Aremberg, Isenburg, Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Wurzberg, Saxony, Anhalt-Berburg, Schwarzburg-Sondershausen, Waldeck, Schaumburg-Lippe, Westphalia, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Oldenburg, occupied Denmark, occupied Prussia, occupied Spain and Portugal, occupied Holland, occupied Switzerland, northern Italy, the occupied Papal States, Danzig and Illyria, tiny San Marino and the miniature principality of Liechtenstein….the marched hundreds of miles, some ultimately two thousand miles, because once more Napoleon Bonaparte had refused peace, because – obsessed beyond any rational thought – he demanded war and further conquest”[1]

Tsar Alexander responded to the “Gallic horde” by trading space for time, evacuating Vitebsk and famously, Moscow, which was set to the torch. Alexander made use of the terrain, Russia’s vast and unforgiving span of earth to decimate the invaders whose lines of supply stretched vaporously thin.

Read the rest here.

The roundtable has been of superb quality and I will do a final aggregation post of the final third of the contributions once everyone has posted their concluding remarks.

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