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Clausewitz and Center of Gravity

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?

12 Responses to “Clausewitz and Center of Gravity”

  1. blackandbluejayhawk Says:

    Eikmeier teaches center of gravity as part of his regular duties.  There is no one I know more qualified to write on the doctrinal applications of center of gravity.  What he is writing about is the conflation of Clausewitzian theory to doctrine and practice, which other authors like Antulio Echevarria have written on, but along more traditional angles.  Those who would cite Clausewitz don’t do so in a way that properly serves the conduct of operational art; those who attempt to apply theory directly to doctrine muddy the wars that don’t help.
    This is an attempt to clarify practice, and distinguish it from theory.  Good doctrine bridges theory and practice, but it’s rarely fully-defined in its early forms, as was the case for center of gravity in the 1980s when it appeared in US Army doctrine.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi blackandbluejayhawk,
    thank you for the further background on Colonel Eikmeier and the strong endorsement. Helpful.
    I am not a Clausewitzian BTW but Clausewitzian theory provides a great deal of conceptual structure for thinking about war and strategy – while I have problems with overly -hmmmm- “scriptural” approaches to CvC, without On War western strategic thinking would have a very large hole in it. 
    I am primarily interested in policy, strategy and grand strategy and look at operational art only for purposes of getting context for military history that I am reading or to analyze how strategy ended up being translated into tactics if there seems to be a “mismatch” somewhere. So my perspective is probably different. It sounds like Col. Eikmeier is educating and training professional operational planners and targeteers, who should be, from the handful I have met from different services, a brighter than average group.
    I do not agree that dropping “CoG” from the strategic lexicon is a good idea but I am disturbed to hear that the Colonel’s students simply are not “getting” the metaphor bc it is outside their intellectual frame of reference – it’s also a physics metaphor so an EE degree should not be required, just good HS science. It begs the question of what else besides Clausewitz is not being understood because the students never had any hard STEM preparation earlier in life. however, some of the students are going to go on and become general officers or instructors at war colleges and academies or serve as staff officers for combatant commanders, JCoS and at OSD where strategy is part of the picture. They can’t skate on this even if perhaps it gets in the way of day to day operational planning vice some more contemporary language. Ok, use contemporary language but teach CoG would be my advice because, later in their careers, it may have a different meaning than it did as a Major or Lt. Col

  3. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi zen and Happy 4th of July!
    Missed this little gem, will have a read a then comment . . . 

  4. larrydunbar Says:

    “Ok, use contemporary language but teach CoG would be my advice because, later in their careers, it may have a different meaning than it did as a Major or Lt. Col”

    Happy 4th of July!

    I think you make an excellent point. It sounds to me like the translation should read a moment of inertia instead of center of gravity, and just figuring out the difference may not help in a classroom discussion. Without reading up on it, the best way I can think of to explain the difference of the two is that with a COG, all the forces at the center are zero, while at the moment, in a moment of inertia, all the forces are 1, either negative or positive. And then it is just a matter of location, with the center of gravity nearly  always at the center of mass (I’ll have to look that one up), which I guess the the moment of inertia gets moved around by the weak forces as well as the strong, so it doesn’t have to be.

    And really, they are both, in a way, a sort of “focusing”, with a moment of inertia being more of a “point of effort”. On the other hand, if properly understood, a moment of inertia could be more helpful, in that it may give you another dimension to work with.

  5. seydlitz89 Says:

    Subject article is a hatchet job on Clausewitz . . . my response?  Why any?  Below my interest level . . . been there, done that . . .
    Much more interested in how you see Edward Joseph Snowden as a “strategically empowered individual” . . . wasn’t that the term/concept?     

  6. larrydunbar Says:

    My point being, I am sure, they have found this true that one can’t Orient to a center of gravity, because the sum of all forces Isolated (zero-sum forces) is, well, zero, so no movement (unmaneuverable). On the other hand, and I am only guessing now, a moment of inertia has a one or a negative-one, which is translated into a z-axis. So when you have a airplane like the F-35 that claims to be able to maneuver a z-axis, it pays to give it another look. 

    After all, a harrier may be able to maneuver up and down a z-axis, but as Boyd would say that is hardly a “hook” nor an attribute that one can use to keep inside a turning aircraft in front or behind you.

    And besides the enemy is never going to “over-shoot” you, just shoot you. 🙂 

  7. zen Says:

    Hi Seydlitz,
    Is Snowden a superempowered individual? He certainly had that potential had he timed his data drop during, say, the last two or three weeks before the presidential election – the political impact might have caused an abrupt shift of national policy and a strategic effect. I do not think Mr. Snowden was thinking competently in broad political terms, much less strategic ones. He has raised a ruckus and revealed a disturbingly wide net of surveillance but in a way where there is no direct pressure motivating or compelling specific action. So he falls short of say, the effect of the al Qaida bombing in Spain that helped (along with the government’s own inept response) bring down the Spanish government and a pull out of Spanish troops from Iraq

  8. larrydunbar Says:

    “Is Snowden a superempowered individual? He certainly had that potential had he timed his data drop during, say, the last two or three weeks before the presidential election”

    He must have been somewhat superempowered if most of the talk on your web site was about human resources issues (such as hiring practices).

    I think this fact that he was super-empowered kinda says it in the decentralized network’s Observing his $200,000.00 salary, and that fact made it so, i.e. in a, to paraphrase, a time in which FDR/Churchill dominated, “the market has spoken and it is I”, sort of way.  

  9. Mr. X Says:

    Some Civil War 1.0 and 2.0 thoughts:

    A few observations…

    1)The 30% of the population that are larded up land barges…think of the percentage of eighteen year olds who can’t come even close to meeting the minimum PT requirements…don’t go to war. A fattened up version of Brave New World for elites mixed with Idiocracy (superb Mike Judge movie) for the rest seems more likely than true 1984.

    1984 style NSA surveillance is more for the handful of ‘dangerous’ investigative journalists/heavily armed militia-type ‘3 percenters’ (aka ‘threats’) and obsessively watching foreign powers, right down to any smart guys in countries with subservient, allied governments like Germany who might be able to build a better mousetrap for Bosch than some nerd at GE (not to mention as Max Keiser says NSA economic espionage may be critical to some HFT/Insider Trading scams prominent members of the political class…Feinstein <cough> <cough>…may be involved in).

    The downside of course, as Zen correctly pointed out, is that our government has created a treasure trove of blackmail material for any semi-competent foreign intelligence service (even the Iranians are getting better at hacking all the time, and they’re far behind Russia and China). Zen could’ve added that being totally dependent on SIGINT and the big eyes in the sky makes our intelligence services lazy in the realm of human intelligence or tracking anyone who operates totally off the grid. Hence we should expect to continue to be inferior to Russian and Chinese tradecraft/HUMINT. It wasn’t as if during the Cold War we weren’t almost totally reliant on disaffected defectors coming in ‘off the street’ whereas the Soviets had a farm system built up to identify ‘talent’. We were just damn lucky to have an overwhelming technological and economic edge over their system.

    2) Even reasonably fit Israeli girls prefer sending half naked pictures of themselves on social media sites to going to war. So scratch conscripting even fit women.

    3) Cops whom everyone knows in small towns and suburbs…don’t go to war with the local population that knows where they live or work. Only masked policemen (think Mexico or the Russian tax police in the 1990s) or those moved around to parts far away from their kith and kin commit atrocities.

  10. Mr. X Says:

    4) The American people will by and large tolerate wholesale electronic violations of their 4th Amendment rights so long as the violation of their 1st and 2nd doesn’t get too extreme (the e-spying after all, unless it leads to mass blackmail of every anti-Obama pastor or tea party activist’s porn surfing habits, doesn’t hit home for the most part). This is connected to point 5 which is…

    5) Unlike the old Stasi, mass e-surveillance is not particularly manpower intensive, aside from hiring thousands of online trolls (probably a burgeoning industry under Obama) to dominate social media chatter when it gets exposed. But actually ACTING on said surveillance in a huge country like the U.S. with door kicking/blackbagging troublesome folks is very manpower intensive.

    And this is where, alongside the breakdown of the fiat money dollar, the Communist/NWO whatever you want to call it “dream” of finally irrevocably taking down the U.S. from within is faltering. No matter how thuggish cops may get, they find themselves limited by people who know their rights or popular outrage stirred by the very social media the System needs to spread its status quo propaganda. The very IPhones intended to keep tabs on everyone also allow everyone to film police brutality, sometimes surreptitiously. In other words, the only way to take down the U.S. from within is to, as Milton would say, ‘rule in hell’ — to hit us with EMPs or to make life in these States so hellish that even the vast majority of non-psychopathic elites would be begging for an Egypt-style military coup again an ‘elected’ (e-voting machine’d in) tyrant.

  11. Mr. X Says:

    6) Even bad cops who won’t report illegal or brutal behavior by their peers will only put up with this crap so long as they have some prospect of a pension and/or reasonable pay levels. QE to infinity destroys even the prospect of keeping all but the highest paid employees and contractors loyal when the risks of siding with tyranny become ludicrous compared to the pitiful levels of pay and/or contempt the higher ups have, particularly for their ‘muscle’. The elites may proclaim that they worship police and military but we know the truth (Henry Kissinger called enlisted men ‘dumb animals’ back in the 1970s).

    Treating vets like crap with a labrynthine VA in the best of times (prior to budget cuts), calling returning vets the top terrorist threat (MIAC Report), denying their 2nd Amendment rights on even undiagnosed PTSD grounds (the epidemic of ‘letters from the VA’ to gun owners) slowly destroys morale along with bad conduct in the force. After all cops still in the ranks talk to retired cops. The DHS empire builders in D.C. haven’t factored in the crisis in muni borrowing to the point that cities, towns and states (Illinois, anyone?) won’t even be able to borrow to meet current budget holes much less meet their obligations with just a slight rise in interest rates. What good are 2 billion bullets and 1,800 MRAPs without local police or state police willing to help the operators/trigger pullers? About as good as the massive arms stockpile of Nicolae Ceausescu’s feared secret police in 1989…hence I have started to see the massive DHS domestic arms buildup as an admission of weakness rather than of strength by the D.C. fascists.
    7) For all the reasons stated above, I think the only ‘2nd Civil War’ or ‘Revolutionary War’ America could ever have would be low level insurgency and/or ‘dirty war’ in retaliation. In other words, a conflict with a few thousand ex-military elite operators on both sides backed by hundreds of thousands of sympathizers or militarized police/DHS for the ‘federal’ side. It would be ‘Dirty War/blackbagging/denied drone strikes’ versus ‘sniper raids, IEDs, hit and run tactics, mass hacks perhaps backed by foreign servers/regimes’.

    I would much rather have 1989 Romania/East Germany in America than Argentina in the 1970s-style civil war. What say you ZP readers?

  12. Mr. X Says:

    Re: the ‘super empowered individual’ and the threat they pose…

    With all of the above said, at some point if the alienation between the governing elites and the governed grows, we are going to see someone like Snowden but far more bloody minded. A sort of modern day John Brown who might just start capping people with .303 long rifles as they enter or exit these massive fusion centers. If I were the guy operating the Utah Data Center I’d be morbidly paranoid and have 24 hour drone coverage within two or three kilometers of the base gate plus trunk-checkpoints in a five mile radius!

    Again please understand I am not endorsing ANY of the above, anymore than the authors of the Tea Party Insurrection of 2016 at SWJ were endorsing invading South Carolina with U.S. Marines. I only point out what hundreds of other bloggers wrote at the time, that if a murderously indiscriminate psychopath like Dorner could have sympathizers online, how much more an ‘insurrectionist’ or team of ‘insurrectionists’ who attacks in a far more targeted manner? That is where I FEAR we’re headed if peaceful appeals for oversight are brushed aside and even leaks that merely confirm what millions suspected and other whistleblowers alleged are treated as high treason.

    EOT for me. 

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