Ain’t No Party Like a Clausewitz Party: Part 2

March 10, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series. Read Part 1, Defining War for Law and Theory, here.

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

Part II: Technology and the Expansion of War


When we left off in Part I, we’d examined how Clausewitz’s method of critical analysis took account of technological change and historical contingency in the search for enduring strategic principles—and why a parsimonious, essentialist understanding of war’s fundamental nature was important to that project. But how could those principles—based as they are on the coordination of action in time and space—possibly remain constant when technological change speeds movement, increases weapons range, and thus so radically alters these calculations?

Another Prussian—one who considered his own views, significantly, to be “predicated on” those of Clausewitz—didn’t think they could. Sigismund von Schlichting was a veteran of Moltke’s wars of German unification who would ascend to corps command before retirement in 1896. His influential 1879 essay on infantry tactics helped earn him a leading role in the drafting of the progressive Army Field Regulations of 1888. Schlichting rejected the idea that either strategy or tactics at the turn of the twentieth century could be usefully studied from a Napoleonic foundation, arguing that the “increase in infrastructure and the building of roads, the railroad, the electric telegraph, the rifled weapon, and the increase in the size of the army” all served to render the experience of even 1866 unintelligible to the soldier of 1815. “All of these factors must be taken together with their collective effect in order to develop a strategy of the present day,” he continued, emphasizing that the way war was conducted had changed so significantly as to require casting aside whatever lessons history seemed to suggest. “There is absolutely no all-encompassing strategic teaching, whether one gets it out of teaching books of the past or the demands and the experiences of the present,” Schlichting confidently asserted. In closing his three-volume masterwork, he averred that “this immense subject is simply inexhaustible, and furthermore it is liable to continuous change. It is a living, organic creature that continually produces new seeds.”

Clausewitz could hardly have disagreed, and indeed he didn’t. Book III, Chapter 17 of On War begins with a clear statement: “All planning, particularly strategic planning, must pay attention to the character of contemporary warfare.” The text continues with a listing of what would in the late eighteenth century have seemed like rather surprising truths about warfare as waged and observed in the Napoleonic age:

  • War could in some instances be compressed nearly into a single act through audacity, forcefulness, and luck.
  • People’s war could succeed against the continent’s best army if the population waging it were suitably stubborn, committed, and well-armed.
  • A state of vast size may in fact be nearly impervious to conquest.
  • An unending string of defeats in battle and territorial losses do not necessarily foreclose ultimate success.
  • Effective use of a militia system could dramatically increase the fighting power of the army, even in campaigns on enemy territory.

Each of these lessons was in some way an unexpected product of the totalization of war—a trend that defines “the character of contemporary warfare” in Clausewitz’s era—and they led him to a logical conclusion:

Obviously, wars waged by both sides to the full extent of their national strength must be conducted on different principles from wars in which policy was based on the comparative size of the regular armies. (Book III, Chapter 17)

The influence of politics could serve to limit war’s violence, true, but in Clausewitz’s time, it proved to have the opposite effect. The Prussian was among the first to recognize that wars waged for national survival or similarly non-negotiable interests would require a different sort of strategy—one in which the exertions of the belligerents were commensurate with the terrible consequences of defeat. Clausewitz could perceive only dimly in the Napoleonic era a trend that would be fully realized in the wars of the twentieth century: the mobilization of all elements of state power and the reorganization of domestic life in support of the war effort. As war began to take on these new dimensions, Clausewitz recognized that strategy must adapt. Its ultimate aim could no longer be merely to bring superior numbers to bear at the decisive point, as destruction of the enemy’s field army would often no longer be sufficient to end the war—he could regenerate his forces or even arm and mobilize civilians to wage people’s war.

But the full implications of this way of thinking would not be apparent until nearly a century after Clausewitz’s time.

The Expansion of War and the Invention of Operational Art

As we can see, military thought has grappled with technological change and its implications for centuries; the challenge is not a uniquely modern one. The period from the late-middle nineteenth century through the 1930s could well be called an era of prolonged crisis in Western strategic thought, as theorists and practitioners alike struggled with the consequences of new applied technologies for their ability to maneuver and fight armies effectively in search of political decision. Contrary to popular myth, this dilemma was recognized long before bloody stalemate settled over the Western Front. The difficulties were no less pronounced in the east, though force-to-space ratios differed dramatically from the crowded battlefields of France and Belgium. In his literary account of the war’s opening days, August 1914, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote that “the extent of the battlefield had started to grow unmanageably.” A New York Times correspondent captured the same dynamic in a 1915 retrospective on the Eastern Front’s most significant early battle, noting that “Waterloo was fought and won in less time than it would take to cover the boundaries of the field of Tannenberg in a fast automobile.”

A number of European theorists struggled in the latter years of the nineteenth century with the tactical and strategic implications of what came to be known as “the empty battlefield.” Military forces were compelled to disperse, operate with comparative independence, and seek cover and concealment where it could be found in order to cope with the fearsome effects of accurate, high-volume fire. Schlichting was one of the first to perceive this development, recognizing that

the manner of fighting caused by modern weaponry requires mobility on the part of masses, and their dispersion in terrain for the selection of locations that prevent unhindered enemy observation and cannot be reached immediately by targeted enemy fire.

Increasing weapons range and accuracy both obviated the requirement for and made utterly suicidal the deliberate process of deployment on the battlefield, during which troops would transition from the column formation used for movement into the extended line most effective in battle. “In the present day”—1898 for Schlichting—“no battle begins this way, and no battle can. The number of combatants and their armament make it impossible.” An army that patiently arrayed itself for combat in view of the enemy and in range of his guns would be as good as destroyed.

This reality collapsed for Schlichting the clear Clausewitzian distinction between the march to the battlefield—a part of strategy—and the conduct of the battle itself. Napoleon’s practice had been to march dispersed and fight concentrated, a method of operating that was enabled by the articulation of armies into divisions and corps. These more manageable, smaller forces operated separately but not independently: the decisions of corps commanders were utterly subordinated to the will of the emperor, as he backed his own boldness and initiative in deciding to either concentrate forces decisively at the moment of truth or refuse battle until such concentration could be effected. But the extended range of Moltkean and later armies and the tremendous risk associated with massing in the face of the enemy’s weapons utterly shattered Clausewitz’s (and Napoleon’s) traditional preference for concentration in space and time to bring overwhelming superiority on the decisive point. (To quote a modern American interpreter of Schlichting, “by the time the massing can be accomplished, the defense has organized its fires and become impregnable.”) And if an army couldn’t mass to undertake a deliberate offensive, it would need to come to grips with the meeting engagement. In other words, it would need to be prepared to be decisively engaged and fight for its life everywhere it went, and at all times. The physical and conceptual distinctions between the battlefield—where the fighting takes place—and the theater of war—where armies operate during a campaign, moving in search of battle or advantage—had essentially vanished.

Early Soviet theorists, committed to developing a “Soviet military science” consistent with the precepts of dialectical materialism, seized on Schlichting’s ideas—but were also quick to note that those ideas had themselves been overtaken by continued technological change. A. A. Svechin, one of the three or four most influential strategic thinkers in the Red Army of the 1920s, wrote that Schlichting had at the end of his life “approached the analysis and evaluation of new events using an old yardstick; Moltke’s scale was just as obsolete for the 20th century as Napoleon’s scale had been for Moltke’s epoch.”

This emphasis on scale is significant. The battlefield of Guibert, Saxe, and Frederick’s era was mostly isolated in space and time from the influence of the belligerent societies or even the broader context of the war. The limitations of communication and movement meant that a tactical decision would usually be reached before any forces or resources beyond those immediately at hand could be brought to bear, and the comparatively short range of contemporary weapons demanded physical proximity. The social, political, logistical, and tactical innovations of the Napoleonic period diminished this isolation somewhat. The emperor could and did call on the full human resources of the state in service of the army, and his emphasis on deception, dispersed movement, and concentration to achieve superior strength at the decisive point meant that the outcome of the battle was more closely tied than ever to physical space and to the movement of armies that preceded it. Through skillful management of one’s own forces, appreciation for the tendencies and habits of the opposing commander, and boldness, the commander could hope to decide the outcome of the war at a single point in space and time.

What Soviet theorist G. S. Isserson called the “strategy of a single point” saw its ultimate realization at Königsburg and Sedan, but Moltke’s wars—and events on the other side of the Atlantic—offered a hint of further changes to come. Advances in firepower and accuracy forced armies to disperse, as we’ve seen from Schlichting, causing a broadening of the front. And the increasing size of armies—enabled by economic growth, national mobilization, and rapid, streamlined rail transportation to the front—allowed for the thickening of lines and deepening of fronts. The forces that manned them were fed with a steady stream of ammunition, replacements, and war materiel by well-developed road and rail networks that connected front to rear. This rendered all but impossible the envelopments that had in previous times offered the chance of decisive victory; infiltration and deep penetration as a means of opening a flank were promising ideas, but they had to await the advent and wide adoption of enabling technologies through motorization and/or mechanization. The “strategy of the continuous front,” however well-adapted to the realities of the modern battlefield, seemed incapable of achieving decision.

Reimagining Strategy, Totalizing War, and Militarizing Politics

Soviet military thinkers began in the 1920s to speak of operativnoe iskusstvo (“operational warfare” or “operational art”) as the way of conceptually linking the scattered tactical actions that characterized modern war, distributed in time and space—including through the depth of the enemy’s front—to achieve the objectives of the campaign. “Operational art” was thus essentially a re-designation of what Clausewitz had called strategy in order to conceptually account for the changes technology had wrought on warfare and military thought. In line with war’s expanding scope, “strategy” had come to mean something more like what we mean by it today: not only the coordination of all military forces and operations in pursuit of the war aims, but the application of all elements of national power, and even the optimization of war production and the organization of domestic politics to enable the military effort. In Svechin’s expansive redefinition, strategy was nothing less than “the art of waging war in its economic, political, geographic, and logistical dimension.”

Svechin and the rest of his cohort—M. V. Frunze, M. N. Tukhachevskiy, and V. K. Triandafillov, later succeeded by Isserson—were writing in the aftermath of the Great War, when the mobilization of domestic economies, integration of naval strategy with ground campaigns, coordination of allied armies and decision-making, and the sheer geographic scope of the war had seemed to necessitate a reconsideration of the classical policy–strategy–tactics paradigm. Just as importantly, the Bolsheviks had emerged from the Polish–Soviet War and the Russian Civil War to consolidate their grip on the state. The Soviet Union was born of war—indeed the Bolsheviks understood war as essential to and inseparable from their vision of political change. Its political and military leadership were united as one, and its military theory was (thanks to Frunze) suffused with the Marxist-Leninst ideology that animated its politics. Not only that, but the presumed condition of ongoing existential competition between the communist and capitalist worlds demanded a Soviet military (and thus a national security apparatus) that was prepared at all times for war.

This moment in history offered for military thought a fortuitous convergence: “the character of contemporary warfare”—expensive, expansive, wanting in tactical decision, requiring sacrifice and mobilization from the entire society—had been made evident by recent experience, while the character of contemporary politics demanded a unifying vision for the role of war in the life of the state. By creating this new “operational level of war,” these Soviet theorists simultaneously reconstructed a conceptual space in which military forces could achieve decision and acknowledged in their re-definition of strategy a truth about modern industrial war: that events and decisions away from the battlefield (and even away from the theater of war) played a crucial role in the war’s outcome. Lenin had written that “war tests all the economic and organizational forces of the nation.” The Soviet military thinkers of the interwar period set about establishing a theoretical basis for a society that could rise to that test: the militarized “warfare state.” Where Guibert’s battlefield had been isolated in time and space, Foch’s and Ludendorff’s was precisely the opposite: it had merged with the rest of national life.

Clausewitz noted the beginnings of this trend, as we have seen, and his broad-minded treatment of war’s fundamental nature allows for productive consideration of what seems on the surface to be a radically different form of war using the same theoretical framework. Only by recognizing essential continuities alongside dramatic changes in context can we hope to apply the Prussian’s analytical method, building useful strategic theory by discarding the peripheral and retaining the vital. In the third and final portion of this essay, we’ll take a look at why this continued focus on war’s enduring nature is so important—not only for our prospects of strategic success, but for the health of our republic. And in the process, we’ll see just how much Rosa Brooks and this particular Clausewitzian agree about what’s at stake in these definitional debates.


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: Official U.S. Navy Imagery