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Bassford’s Dynamic Trinitarianism Part I.

“Clausewitz wants us to accept the practical reality that these dynamic forces are ever-present and constantly interacting in the everyday world….”

I just finished reading a working paper by Professor Christopher Bassford he has posted at Clausewitz.com that I am strongly recommending to the readership (with a hat tip to Peter at SWJ Blog).

Tiptoe Through the Trinity, or, The Strange Persistence of Trinitarian Warfare

At 31 pages of analytic prose, diagrams and footnotes regarding the nature of  Carl von Clausewitz’s “fascinating” trinity; how Bassford thinks Michael Howard and Peter Paret got some important points in their translation of On War wrong ; the real meaning of Politik and on the perfidy of non-trinitarians – Bassford’s paper is not a quick read but a worthwhile one. I learned some important things about On War from reading this paper and had some uncertain speculations strengthened by Bassford’s expertise on Clausewitz and Clausewitzians.  I am not going to attempt a summary of so long and abstruse an argument, but I would instead like to highlight some of Bassford’s more valuable insights. There were also a couple of points where, in stretching to make analogies with other fields, I think Bassford may be going astray, as well as some commentary I might make regarding “non-state war”.

This paper will be more digestible if we blog the topics one at a time, in succession.

The most important part in the paper and I think most helpful to people who have not read On War many times was Bassford’s emphasis on the extremely dynamic nature of Clausewitz’s “fascinating” (his translation) trinity:

….in fact, the Trinity is the central concept in On War. I don’t mean “central” in the sense that, say, Jon Sumida applied in his conference paper*7 to Clausewitz’s concept of the inherent superiority of the defensive form of war. That is, I do not argue that the Trinity is Clausewitz’s “most important” concept, that the desire to convey it was his primary motivation in writing, or that all of his other insights flowed from this one. Rather, I mean simply that the Trinity is the concept that ties all of Clausewitz’s many ideas together and binds them into a meaningful whole.

….In any case, the role of the Trinity within the narrow confines of Book One, Chapter One ofOn War, which reflects Clausewitz’s most mature thinking, is crucial. That chapter must be read in terms of Clausewitz’s dialectical examination of the nature of war. That discussion is very carefully structured but (purposefully, I suspect) largely unmarked by clear dialectical road markers labeling thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,*8 or even by sections clearly devoted to one stage of the dialectic or another. The Trinity itself represents the synthesis of this dialectical process.

….The H/P translation then gives the impression that the Trinity is being offered simply as an alternative metaphor. In truth, Clausewitz has already ceased riffing on the chameleon imagery. He is actually switching to a whole new metaphor, with a new structure, new entailments, and new purposes. The chameleon metaphor pointed to changes in war’s appearance from case to case; the Trinity addresses the underlying forces that drive those changes.

….The second problem here is the choice of modifying adjective. It seems that no modern translator is prepared to render wunderliche in the military context as “wonderful,” “wondrous,” or “marvelous” (much less “queer,” “quaint,” or “eccentric,” all good dictionary definitions). H/P 1976 gives “remarkable,” a throw-away word of no particular significance. This was changed to “paradoxical” in the 1984 edition, but this word seems to have no relationship to wunderliche and carries inappropriately negative connotations. Clausewitz wants us to accept the practical reality that these dynamic forces are ever-present and constantly interacting in the everyday world. But he clearly found this shifting interaction really, really interesting—to the point of being mesmerized by it.

…..Clausewitz, in contrast, was skeptical (to put it mildly) of any positive doctrine that was not highly context-specific. The pursuit of such a doctrine was entirely alien to his approach to theory. His Trinity was descriptive, not prescriptive, and foretold the very opposite of balance. (Schwebe carries the connotation of dynamism, not equilibrium.) The message of this Trinity was that the relationships among his three elements were inherently unstable and shifting. What he actually said was that “the task … is to keep our theory [of war] floating among these three tendencies,” and not to try to set, or to count on, any fixed relationship among them.

….it is the infinite variability among the trinity’s factors and in their interaction that underlies Clausewitz’s insistence on the inherent unpredictability of war. It is a classic model of Chaos, in the modern scientific sense.

….In short, this last element of the Trinity represents concrete reality, i.e., everything outside of our own skull and its emotions and calculations.

…. Clausewitz’s Trinity is all-inclusive and universal, comprising the subjective and the objective; the unilateral and multilateral; the intellectual, the emotional, and the physical components that comprise the phenomenon of war in any human construct. Indeed, through the subtraction of a few adjectives that narrow its scope to war, it is easily expanded to encompass all of human experience. It is thus a profoundly realistic concept.  

What came across to me from Bassford’s essay is that the Clausewitzian trinity makes the most sense understood as a true trinity – three separate coexistent forces in unity – and not a mere triad, which would be a simple grouping of three forces. So while Bassford is probably right that Clausewitz had no mystical intentions whatsoever here, his contemporary readership, aristocratic, educated, army officers versed in Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, would have grasped the difference and that primordial violence and hatred, probability and chance and the pure reason of policy were in fusion and tension and not three entirely separated forces.

I particularly like Bassford’s analysis that the trinity was unstable and shifting which wars frequently do, sliding from disciplined and limited use of military force to unconstrained barbarism or “total war” and back again.


10 Responses to “Bassford’s Dynamic Trinitarianism Part I.”

  1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    But what are the three elements of this Trinity?
    For those of us who haven’t memorized Clausewitz yet!

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl.
    here ya go – from book I. via Bassford:
    “ 1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force;

    2) the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and 

    3) its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.

  3. Zoe Says:

    Well analysed, mulled over, and discussed.

  4. James Joyner Says:

    It also doesn’t help that Harry Summers popularized a radically wrong version of the Clausewitzian Trinity among military officers. 

  5. zen Says:

    Thank you Zoe, more to come!
    hey Dr. joyner
    Agreed. Summers had a point about Vietnam and warped Clausewitz to make it (though, arguably, I think the US Army puts a very thin veneer of Clausewitz on a military culture that is a mash-up of Jominian ideas, mid 20th century industrial economy managerial bureaucracy and a fetish for technology) 

  6. J.ScottShipman Says:

    I am a recent student  of Clausewitz, and one thing I’ve found is Clausewitz was fond of many trinities:)) The one of above: passion, probability, and reason. But ends, ways, and means, and time, space, and mass are couple of others.

  7. L. C. Rees Says:

    Professor Bassford recently shifted his recommendation of which English translation of On War to read from Paret/Howard to O.J. Matthijs Jolles’. The differences are interesting:

    First the original, On War (1832):

    Der Krieg ist also nicht nur ein wahres Chamäleon, weil er in jedem konkreten Falle seine Natur etwas ändert, sondern er ist auch seinen Gesamterscheinungen nach, in Beziehung auf die in ihm herrschenden Tendenzen eine wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit, zusammengesetzt:

    aus der ursprünglichen Gewaltsamkeit seines Elementes, dem Haß und der Feindschaft, die wie ein blinder Naturtrieb anzusehen sind,
    aus dem Spiel der Wahrscheinlichkeiten und des Zufalls, die ihn zu einer freien Seelentätigkeit machen, und
    aus der untergeordneten Natur eines politischen Werkzeuges, wodurch er dem bloßen Verstande anheimfällt.

    Jolles (1943):

    War is, therefore, not only a veritable chameleon, because in each concrete case it changes somewhat its character, but it is also, when regarded as a whole, in relation to the tendencies predominating in it, a strange trinity, composed of:

    the original violence of its essence, the hate and enmity which are to be regarded as a blind, natural impulse,
    of the play of probabilities and chance, which make it a free activity of the emotions, and
    of the subordinate character of a political tool, through which it belongs to the province of pure intelligence.

    Howard/ Paret (1989):

    War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity – composed of:

    primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force;
    of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and
    of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.


  8. Ken Hoop Says:


    a classic!

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’m throwing in some of my own crabwise perspective onto the number three and what it affords us by way of refreshing our capacity for thought, in Number by the numbers: three / part 1 — featuring some interesting material on games from Chris Crawford — to be followed by two, maybe three more parts.

  10. seydlitz89 Says:

    Nice post on Prof. Bassford’s paper.  I think this quote puts his view of Section 28 in context:
    Clausewitz’s brief (five-paragraph, 300-word) discussion of the “trinity”—an interactive set of three forces that drive the events of war in the real world—represents the capstone of Clausewitzian theory. First, it is the synthesis of his dialectical exploration of the nature of war. Second, every identifiable concept in On War can be related to one or more of its elements. It is impossible to grasp the overall structure of this great and—despite the unfinished nature of the book—amazingly coherent body of ideas without an appreciation of the trinity.
    Think “capstone”.  
    Summers’s use of the material elements Clausewitz associated with the “remarkable trinity” was confusing but also useful.  It is after all these material elements which make each war unique, whereas the moral or non-material elements are what all wars have in common, thus providing the basis for Clausewitz’s General Theory of war.  I would add that Rupert Smith did much the same thing as Summers in his Utility of Force . . .
    As I mentioned in the Clausewitz Roundtable discussion, there is debate as to which dialectic is in play here.  I personally think that Clausewitz uses that of Schleiermacher which does not resolve the tensions present between the thesis and anti-thesis in the synthesis, but retains them. 

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