war on the rocks

Ain’t No Party Like a Clausewitz Party: Part 1

March 5, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series.

Ain’t No Party Like a Clausewitz Party Cuz a Clausewitz Party Don’t Stop

Part I: Defining War for Law and Theory


Ten years ago, an article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review argued that traditional legal distinctions “between war and peace, emergencies and normality, the foreign and the domestic, the external in the internal” had broken down in the context of the War on Terror; as a result, both international and domestic law were operating in “an outmoded legal paradigm.” This thoughtful and prescient article prefigured many later debates about Guantanamo Bay, torture, targeted killings, domestic surveillance, the scope of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, and U.S. counterterrorism policy writ large. That the author of this piece was a law professor named Rosa Brooks goes some way to explaining the disconnect we see today between Brooks’ conception of war and that of “the classically-trained Clausewitzian.”

I was pleased, of course, to be held up in Brooks’ recent essay as a defender of Clausewitzian orthodoxy—though I must assure Tom Ricks that I didn’t attend a war college. Brooks is right: I do hew to a traditionalist stance on war’s enduring nature and changing character, and I am “far from alone in [my] insistence on the importance of these Clausewitzian distinctions.” But, I fear this purported clash of philosophies amounts to much less than meets the eye. Few would argue with the contention that warfare is continually changing, or that technological advances will influence the way wars are fought—Clausewitz and his most careful interpreters certainly would not—and this seems to be the basic thesis around which the Future of War team has organized.

So, what is this debate really about?

What difference does it make how we define war? Why bother theorizing about its nature? What does it even mean to differentiate between war’s nature and its character? What are we trying to accomplish by differentiating war from non-war? What are the consequences of doing so ineffectively? We’ll work through all of these issues in the course of this three-part essay, but in this first installment, let’s start at the beginning: why define war at all?

Defining War: Differences Between Strategy and Law

Our approach to the question of what war is depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. Defining war for the purposes of law is a rather different proposition to defining it for the purposes of theory, strategy, or doctrine. In the case of the former, “war” is what the law-giver says it is. Law is a tool of the state. It is primarily concerned with drawing a distinction between two temporal-legal conditions —at war and not at war—so as to articulate rights and boundaries in each context. Whether the concept is internally consistent is less important than that it be clear, recognizable, and above all, useful.

There are consequences to prioritizing utility, as Brooks recognized in her 2004 law review article. The application of anachronistic legal categories and assumptions “to novel developments that were never even imagined by the drafters of the Geneva Conventions” allowed for the Bush administration’s plausible but problematic reading of the law of armed conflict. The result of this reading was a “war” in which “U.S. forces [could] attack, capture, detain, and kill with impunity, subject, of course, to political and diplomatic constraints, but virtually unfettered by legal constraints.”

In this earlier work, Brooks showed how the application of the traditional legal paradigm to modern conflict has created a mismatch between law and state behavior, freeing governments from the fetters they had previously accepted as legitimate and even beneficial. From this perspective, it’s easy to understand why Brooks is

not quite ready to accept the claim that the nature of war is ‘universal and eternal’ – or at any rate, I’m not sure that this is a particularly useful construct for understanding what is at stake in many current debates about what constitutes war.

What is at stake from a legal perspective is mostly the matter of who can be legitimately killed by whom, when, why, and how. Or to put it less crudely: how to perceive the transition from one legal context to another, in which the rights of and the relationship between the state and the individual may be significantly altered. From Brooks’ point of view, the law is failing precisely because it has stayed the same while the forms of “war” it’s being applied to have changed. Only by limiting our conception of “war” can we hope to limit the power of the state.

As successive administrations have shown, it is a reasonably straightforward matter for a state that has the capability to kill its foreign enemies to interpret the law in a manner that permits it. Blowing up an al-Qaeda propagandist, a hacker, or a drug trafficker with a Hellfire missile may be more legally defensible if we redefine war to include “infowar,” “cyberwar,” or “narcoterrorism,” but our new definition is less consistent, less coherent, and less valuable from a communicative and strategic standpoint. To identify these activities as acts of war can have legal and political utility, but we should consider the corrosive impact such an expansion has on our ability to deal effectively both with these types of threats and with more traditional forms of violent conflict.

The good news—or the bad news, depending on your level of faith in American democracy—is that both law and policy are products of politics. War, too, is born of politics, but its conduct largely obeys its own rules. Recognizing this fact is the first step toward appreciating how Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas about war differ so dramatically from those of Rosa Brooks.

Clausewitz’s Project

Brooks herself accepts that there is some value in Clausewitz’s distillation of war’s violent and political nature, conceding that “up to a point, this framework is helpful: If we want to theorize about war (as opposed to particular wars), we need some coherent way to distinguish war from non-war.” But, Clausewitz’s project wasn’t simply “to theorize about war”; he developed theory in order to test it against the empirical precedent of history, to separate that which had general validity from what did not and dispense with the latter, and then to use what remained as a practical guide to understanding and action. He developed theory, as did so many who came before him, in order to establish principles for the effective conduct of war.

Clausewitz’s criticism of other theorists—Saxe, Guibert, Lloyd, Bülow, Jomini, et al.—was focused primarily on their method rather than their aims. He believed his treatment of war to be the first that was sufficiently “scientific” and rigorous to yield valid conclusions. The “science” at the heart of Clausewitz’s method was the critical analysis of history. Writing a century and a half after the Prussian, Sir Michael Howard identified this approach with other scientific disciplines as

a sustained attempt to separate out the constraints in any situation from the variables, to explain what is of continuing validity and to discard what is ephemeral, to establish certain abiding principles and to reduce them to their briefest, most elegant formulation.

By way of a thorough, objective consideration of a few carefully selected historical examples—in which the actions and decisions of a commander would be examined in light of their specific situational context, the information then available, the range of possible alternatives, and the outcome—the practitioner of critical analysis tried to map cause to effect and understand the reasons behind success and failure. Through this approach, Clausewitz meant to identify the tactical and strategic principles, rules, or methods that seemed generally to hold across time and circumstance—though he adamantly opposed any prescriptive formula for their application. The “the constant change and diversity of the phenomena of war” meant that no principle could be established with such confidence as to be considered a law of action (Book II, Chapter 4).

But, before this critical method could be applied, it was first essential for Clausewitz to define the bounds of his subject—the substance to which his theory must correspond in practice—and parse its meaning. Not only did this entail distinguishing war from non-war, but further differentiating “preparations for war” from the conduct of “the war itself.” Under “preparations” were grouped all such matters as the recruitment and training of military forces, the production and fielding of weapons, the location of hospitals and provision of medical care, and general matters of supply and logistics. “The war itself” comprised only the use of military forces in the engagement (tactics), the use of the engagement for the purposes of the war (strategy), and those considerations of movement, billeting, and positioning of troops that bore directly on either the engagement’s form or its significance. “This we call the ‘Art of War’ in a limited sense, or the ‘Theory of the Conduct of War,’ or the ‘Theory of the Employment of the Armed Forces’—all of them denoting for us the same thing.” This is what Clausewitz theorized and intended to deduce principles about: the conduct of war by the commander.

Why construe the subject so narrowly? Clausewitz recognized that the excessive focus of those who had preceded him on such essentially peripheral concerns as matters of supply and logistics, lines of operation and direction of march, or the engineering problems of siegecraft had led those theorists to false conclusions. As a result, many championed supposedly timeless strategic principles that were invalid outside the specific conditions of their own time, or which utterly failed to account for the non-material factors that so often decided success and failure in war: fear, uncertainty, morale, resolve, and so forth. By abstracting the conduct of war from preparation for war, Clausewitz was able to focus his theory on those elements of war’s essence that distinguish it from all other political or social intercourse: the raw, instinctive passions and play of chance that are inherent to the violent, reciprocal clash of opposing wills.

History and Theory

For theory to correspond with reality, though, it must be tested against empirical truth—history as it has happened. In order to theorize about the conduct of wars in general, Clausewitz had to understand war as a total phenomenon. He could only understand war as a total phenomenon by aggregating the evidence of particular wars in history.

If it seems there’s something a bit circular about all of this, it should come as no surprise. Clausewitz spent much of his adult life working on detailed campaign histories, assembling what facts were available and turning a critical eye to the war-making of Napoleon, Frederick, and others. His theory developed and evolved in harness with this historical work, maturing beyond the too-limited conclusions suggested by his narrow experience of revolutionary war. Many of On War’s most influential passages are presumed to have been written between 1827 and 1830, at the same time Clausewitz was assembling his magisterial history of the Waterloo campaign. Work on the theoretical treatise that became On War was bracketed on the back end by that study, and on the front end by Clausewitz’s incisive examination of yet another campaign in which he had participated: Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of (and 1813 retreat from) Russia.

As I alluded to earlier in remarking on Clausewitz’s aversion to prescriptive laws of action, the principles of war were for him something more like a framework of best practices through which to examine what made certain commanders effective. Many earlier writers had argued that true military genius rose above principles and rules, succeeding even in rejection of them, and thus could not be analyzed or explained. Clausewitz thought this absurd. He mocked “theory” that made no attempt to account for the purported inspiration or intuition of great captains:

Pity the soldier who is supposed to crawl among these scraps of rules, not good enough for genius, which genius can ignore, or laugh at. No, what genius does is the best rule, and theory can do no better than show how and why this should be the case. Pity the theory that conflicts with reason! (Book II, Chapter 2)

The true function of theory at the strategic level was to examine what made successful commanders effective.

This again points up the interactive relationship between theory and practice in Clausewitz’s method: theory was only useful insofar as it explained—to the extent possible considering the limits on information and the fundamentally uncertain nature of war—why real commanders had had success in real wars. If theory suggested a rule that actual practice (as observed in history) had seemed to violate, either the “rule” was flawed or the history was bad. Thus, theory, and the principles and rules implicit in it, had to be modified to come into harmony with reality.

Clausewitz’s views, of course, are historically contingent. As we have seen, his theory was built both on his personal experience of war in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods and on his study of the broader history of war (especially its recent history in Europe). Indeed, Clausewitz’s critical analysis of history led him to the realization that what had seemed like self-evident truths about war’s tendency to absolute violence—that is, the pure theoretical conclusion that war would always escalate, with the belligerents knowing that to limit their efforts in the face of the unlimited efforts of the enemy would spell certain disaster—were no more than observations of the politically, socially, and technologically contingent character of war in his own time. His theory—his understanding of war as a phenomenon and of what real war could look like in its varied manifestations—had to take account not only of variation, but of historical change.

Now get ready for the not-so surprising bit: Clausewitz thought the only history that could provide a particularly useful guide to theory was that of the period in which conditions roughly approximated those of his own era (Book II, Chapter 5). He was suspicious of ancient history not only because of changes in technology and fighting forces, but because the scarcity of reliable information about events gave theorists the opportunity to use vaguely-described battles and campaigns to draw whatever specious conclusions fit their preference, and to prescribe flawed principles accordingly. (This is the same reason Clausewitz thought it better to study just one historical example in great depth than to assemble piles of them that are only superficially considered.) Remembering his emphasis on the form and significance of the engagement—that is, on battle—this temporal and technological limitation was only natural. The commander’s ability to coordinate action in time and space—to bring superior force against the enemy at the decisive point—“everywhere lies at the foundation of strategy, and is, so to speak, its daily bread” (Book III, Chapter 8). And that ability depends on a realistic understanding of what is physically possible on the battlefield and in the theater of war, something that requires a great deal of imagination and mental discipline when considering an era in which tactics and technology differ dramatically from our own. “The further one progresses from broad generalities to details,” he wrote, “the less one is able to select examples and experiences from remote times. We are in no position to evaluate the relevant events correctly, nor to apply them to the wholly different means we use today” (Book II, Chapter 6).

We should now see clearly that Clausewitz’s idea of war’s enduring nature absolutely did not preclude an understanding of war’s changing character. In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how military thought has coped with significant political, social, and technological change since Clausewitz’s time—and why that evolution has posed a challenge both for those who wish to limit war and those who seek to wage it more effectively.


Christopher Mewett is a military analyst, strategist, and support contractor to the U.S. Department of the Army. The ideas and opinions expressed herein are solely his own, and do not represent those of his employer or any agency of the government.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army