Contrasting Clausewitz and Contemporary Conflict

Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up, Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (London: Hurst/New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) £25/$32.50, 285 pgs.

There is a longstanding tradition in the United Kingdom of misinterpreting the Prussian soldier and theorist Clausewitz.  Liddell Hart’s mischaracterization of Clausewitz as the “Mahdi of Mass” and as the purveyor of absolute war is one of many examples.  Nonetheless, Sir Michael Howard’s co-edited translation with Peter Paret did much to dispel the most egregious misreadings on both sides of the Atlantic.  Oxford Professor Hew Strachan’s more recent “biography” of On War superbly places old Carl in context and helps contemporary students take in his profound insights.

Thus, this ambitious but somewhat unstructured book by a veteran soldier and young scholar is ironic.  Not because he abuses poor Carl —although he twists his ideas a bit – but because the author, former Royal Gurkha Rifles officer Emile Simpson, studied at Oxford and spent time with Strachan and the Leverhulme Changing Character of War program there.  Adding further to the irony is Michael Howard’s positive review of Simpson’s new book in the Times Literary Supplement.  Effusive praise from Sir Michael makes the book a must read, but the high expectations are difficult to live up to.  While it offers a few flashes of brilliance, War from the Ground Up is often irritating, and just as frequently confusing.

Simpson posits and defends a simple dichotomy in war types.  He defines traditional war and the “Clausewitzian paradigm” as wars fought to “establish military conditions for a political solution.”  The author contends that in such wars, the military operates as a “domain” and that it works indirectly to create the necessary conditions for political results.  This is contrasted with conflicts in which military forces are employed to “directly seek political, as opposed to military outcomes.”  Simpson finds that the trend is toward this latter form, where “military activity is not clearly distinguishable from political activity.”

Simpson’s construct is similar to the purported paradigm shift first identified by General Sir Rupert Smith in The Utility of Force.  Simpson builds upon Smith’s distinction in a more intellectual manner, exploiting key elements from Clausewitz and strategic theory.  Unlike Smith, Simpson does not really claim the displacement of the old tradition by a new paradigm; but, he does argue that contemporary wars are unique.  While Smith’s book was a product of his experiences in the Balkans, Simpson’s is tied to his personal investment in multiple tours in Afghanistan.

Both contingencies were cases in which a purely military victory was inappropriate to the specified policy aim, and in which Western military officers struggled to conceptualize the contest within the narrow or traditional conception of their professional sphere.  This struggle is reflected in the anti-Clausewitzian notion of the subtitle, 21st-Century Combat as Politics.  Our Prussian tutor is rolling over in his grave, crying, “It’s always all about politics.”

Simpson’s bifurcation of conflict by domain or effect did not do much for this reviewer.  The conversion of military effort to desired political effect is always a challenge in designing and implementing military strategy.  But all wars share two things: the threat or use of violence and desired political outcomes.  Clausewitz’s Trinitarian concept is elastic enough to distinguish traditional from irregular conflicts, and the concept of centers of gravity might have been better used to make the distinction that Simpson finds new or more important today.

Another Clausewitzian option for Simpson to have examined is the different “grammar” used to achieve strategic effect in different contexts.  In so-called traditional wars, operational grammar employs largely military means directed against military forces to affect a change in the will of the government.  In irregular contests, one employs a wider array of instruments (including economic aid, services and governance support) to impact the civilian population to gain the same effect.  The desired strategic effect remains the same (impose one’s will and alter the policy of the opponent); the difference is merely the path, means and grammar used.  Simpson implies the military as the principal force and that it acts directly to achieve targeted political outcomes.  Contemporary doctrine seeks to integrate military force and other assets in the so-called comprehensive approach.  Obviously, our author found little traction with this approach in Helmand Province where interagency resources were thin and ineffective.

Moreover, the distinction that the military operates in traditional wars within a conceptual “military domain” suggests it is distinguishable from policy and politics, which to Clausewitz would be the preceptor of the conflict.  Simpson argues – in terms that former Marine General Charles Krulak might agree with – that “the military dimension of war is pierced by political considerations at the tactical level.”  But, he overreaches with the notion that there has been an “expansion of the traditional apolitical military domain beyond the physical clash of armed forces to include its political, social and economic context even at the local level.”  Military operations are never apolitical in origin, design or effect.

This is a questionable challenge to On War.  There was never a traditional, apolitical military domain in Clausewitz’s conception.  The author’s notion of a traditional paradigm, one with an isolated sphere or domain, is a perspective mistakenly held by some American and British military officials.  However, this notion is heretical to Clausewitz’s essential construct of war as a continuation of politics by (or with) other means.  The Prussian sage did not seek to explain war outside of its political context.  Instead, he sought to make his students understand that politics drives and permeates war continuously.

Likewise, the author’s second form of conflict, those which “directly seek political, as opposed to military outcomes,” is also suspect.  Military forces do not work directly for political outcomes in such contests.  They are employed in concert with other instruments and tools in an integrated way.  There are desired military or security efforts, but the principal effort is to support or enable legitimate government by establishing a monopoly on the use of force, and to create the time and space needed to establish or re-establish a functioning government which has gained the consent of the governed.  There is always a currency conversion from physical effects or control to desired political resolution.  This conversion occurs in both conventional wars and armed rebellions.  Here, our author may be overly privileging his personal experience from Helmand, and over-generalizing from one specific context into the future.

More positively, the two chapters on strategic narrative are excellent, and perhaps the best in the field today.  Simpson notes that war can be understood as a competition between strategic narratives, which are always been present in all conflicts, to explain actions for deploying to, conducting and concluding a conflict.  He ties the concept of the narrative to Clausewitz’s emphasis on moral factors and the passion component of the Trinity.  In doing so, he creates a unique construct with its own Trinitarian design of Aristotelian origins.  Simpson observes that “Strategy convinces less through Aristotle’s logos, the rational component of narrative, and pathos, emotional appeals, but more through ethos, the moral component of narrative.”

This builds on Rupert Smith’s formulation of modern commanders as “dueling producers” seeking to match actions with their narrative and augmenting their storyline with the power of imagery distributed by TV, video and live stream telecommunications.  But our author goes much further with a conception of “nested” target groups and the complexity of multiple audiences in contemporary conflict.  T. E. Lawrence made the same point with “ever expanding circles” and multiple audiences in his campaign from nearly a century ago.  Lawrence extolled the virtue of the printing press as a weapon of war; no doubt today he would have his own web site, Facebook page, blog, and Twitter account.  Simpson upgrades Lawrence for the 21st Century.

The American military has struggled with this concept in developing its counterinsurgency doctrine, and the Joint Center for Operational Analysis’s Decade of War assessment makes clear that “the battle of the narrative” is a critical shortfall in U.S. military operations.  Efforts to incorporate this lesson within updates to NATO, Joint and Service doctrine should start with a close reading of Simpson.

The brilliance of the narrative chapters does not carry over into the conclusion.  Its discursive nature, lacking in structure and clarity, is more confusing than illuminating.  Simpson’s elusive presentation is never pretentious, yet neither is it clear or convincing.  Chocked with perceptive flashes, it occasionally rambles and requires close reading.

In sum, this is a bold attempt by a soldier/scholar to give meaning to his tours in Afghanistan and to contribute to an ongoing debate about the ever-evolving character of conflict.  It is an industrious effort to help the field come to grips with contemporary wars, which tests, if not stretches the continued relevance of On War.  While Simpson may not have fully reached the heights he tried to scale, the breadth of this effort is audacious and the committed reader will find significant value in the discourse it generates about warfare, politics and strategy.  For that reason, the book is commended for only the most serious students of modern warfare.


Mr. Hoffman is a Contributing Editor of War on the Rocks. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University.  These are his comments alone and do not reflect the policies or position of DoD, the Joint Staff or NDU.


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