Ain’t No Party Like a Clausewitz Party: Part 3

Odyssey Dawn

Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series. Read Part 1, Defining War for Law and Theory, here, and Part 2, Technology and the Expansion of War, here.

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

Part III: Strategy, Politics, and Keeping “War” Limited


The first two installments of this essay explored the differing aims of strategic theory and law in defining what war is and examined how ideas about war’s scope – and by extension, about strategy – have been influenced by political and technological change. In the terms so central to the original debate, Parts I and II dealt with questions about war’s nature and its character, respectively, explaining why conceptual continuity is essential to a practical appreciation of historical change. Today’s installment concludes the series by offering some answers to the questions with which we began: why does it matter how we define war? and what are the consequences of doing so ineffectively?

Killing Theory: Stretching the Meaning of “War”

Just as in the past, those who wish to develop coherent strategic theory in our day must appreciate the peculiarities of the way modern war is conducted. Technology, as always, plays a part in this. Continuing advances in communications technology, dramatic improvements in mobility, and most of all, increases in the range and lethality of weapons have been accompanied by a continuing expansion in the way we conceive of war’s physical scope. If we understand the term in the classical sense as the area in which weapons’ effects can be felt, it’s fair to say that the “battlefield” now spans the entire globe, while the “theater of war” is not simply the zone in which opposing armies physically interact but could be any place where the enemy is present.

This geographic broadening has precipitated – just like it did for the Soviets – a broadening of our temporal and political conceptions of war. Soviet theorists understood the complexity and scale of twentieth-century war to require constant preparation and the subordination of domestic politics, economics, and public life to the needs of the warfare state. In the missile age, our own technology-driven sense of insecurity and ubiquitous threat has driven us to virtually abandon the conceptual distinction between wartime and peacetime; instead we perceive a “spectrum of conflict” distinguished at its more violent points by the existence of “active combat operations.” When long-range strike assets allow a superpower to deliver ordnance to any spot on the map without preparatory deployment or mobilization, the use of force as a political instrument is made faster, easier, and more routine – not to mention more practicable in isolation. A sharp, short, devastating blow can seem to obviate the need for prolonged physical struggle, saving society the exertions of an extended war while disguising costs as an unremarkable feature of the militarized “steady state.”

In Clausewitz’s time, one could scarcely conceive of railroads, never mind long-range strike weapons whose controller need not even be present in the theater of war. Surely he would argue that strategic principles from the era of the infantry square and l’arme blanche have little use for theory in a time of intercontinental ballistic missiles and sophisticated fighter aircraft – particularly when our modern idea of war includes a great many factors beyond the manipulation of bodies of troops. We must, as the sage insists, pay attention to the character of contemporary warfare. The pace of technological, social, and political change in the modern era undoubtedly complicates our efforts to distill timeless principles of strategy. It may even demand, as Svechin and Tukhachevskiy suggested in their own time, an entirely new way of thinking about strategy and the way war is waged.

Can a unilateral, punitive missile strike launched from thousands of miles away be treated under the same definition and theory as the physical, reciprocal duel of Clausewitz’s construct? Is a one-off Tomahawk strike really war, or is it merely an isolated political act effected through military means? If the former, we can be “at war” at a moment’s notice with anyone, anywhere, and at any time – or with everyone, everywhere, at all times. And if the latter, does a “Theory of the Conduct of War” or a “Theory of Strategy” still apply? What does this mean for the way we think about and conduct war? Whatever the answers, we must acknowledge that this expanding concept poses a real problem for theory.

These questions are counterintuitive and challenging, but they get to the heart of Clausewitz’s conception of war and illustrate its enduring value. Key elements of war’s allegedly unchanging nature – reciprocal interaction between adversaries, the pervasive influence of danger, or the violent passions stirred up by a physical fight – are absent in this example. As Rosa Brooks points out, the concepts of “financial war” and “cyberwar” are similarly limited; indeed, they abandon nearly all characteristic tendencies of war as it is traditionally understood and retain only the character of purposive adversarial action. Neither is violent in any traditional sense of the word, Brooks notes, nor are they really interactive. (If the U.S. falls victim to a one-off, unattributed act of cyber-sabotage, can we then say it was a “war”?) And yet “numerous scholars, military strategists, and other commentators,” we’re told, employ these terms “not at all metaphorically.” Doesn’t this mean, we’re asked, “that the ‘nature’ of war is indeed changing?” But this is merely begging the question. Whatever the common parlance, we must first accept that these things are war before we conclude that their existence suggests that war’s nature is changing!

Theory and the Trinity

The final passage of On War’s Book I, Chapter 1 is centered around Clausewitz’s well-known description of war as a wunderliche dreifaltigkeit – a “wondrous trinity.” When regarded as a whole, as a total phenomenon inclusive of all its possible manifestations, war’s nature is seen to consist of a varying and variable relationship among three dominant and seemingly ever-present tendencies: the natural hatred and other emotions that inhere in war’s essential violence, the interaction of probabilities and chance, and the influence of its subordinate status as a instrument of policy. To the Clausewitzian mind, war’s nature is variable in the sense that the arrangement and influence of these three dominant tendencies in a particular war is constantly in flux and always basically sui generis. It is not changeable in the sense that one of the dominant tendencies can be absent and its essential elements reconsidered. If this were so, then theory – that which allows us to derive principles for war’s conduct – would be lost.

If we abandon the meaningful and essential distinction between war and non-war, or even between “the war itself” and the preparation for war, then the very substance of the idea has been transmuted into nothingness – the concept has lost all analytic utility. What then is war’s nature? What differentiates war from phenomena of a different nature? Why not then speak of espionage war and diplomacy war and business war, or even of sporting war? What then keeps us from treating defense budgeting as part of war, or industrial output, or trade policy? Why not simply adopt Lenin’s perversion of Clausewitz: that politics is nothing more than war by other means?

The answer is simple: doing so risks making us bad at war while undermining our Constitution. To identify all forms of adversarial interstate competition as “war” serves no practical, legal, or theoretical purpose. It doesn’t make us more capable of waging war effectively or accomplishing our national goals. It doesn’t help us to limit war or shield ourselves from the challenging and potentially damaging policy choices of our competitors. What it does do is encourage the ineffective and careless employment of varied and qualitatively different means for inappropriate ends (by eliding differences in how those means operate and thus what they can accomplish), while simultaneously threatening to flip the normatively instrumental relationship between policy and war on its head.

Already many fear we’ve lost the capacity for strategy – that is, that we are unable to take effective, purposive action in war, to conceive of and effect a plan to use available tools to achieve our policy aims in the face of violent opposition. Careless advocacy for the employment of the military instrument – both in the context of an ongoing war and as an isolated political act – without a concrete idea of how it will contribute to the achievement of our goals is a commonplace that barely merits mention. These conditions can only worsen as we blur the lines between war and other forms of political intercourse. Not only do these varying forms of interaction employ different means and operate according to different dynamics, but – it seems to scarcely need saying – they are appropriate to very different ends.

What’s more, we are in danger of losing perspective on the differing cost/benefit equations associated with fighting, contending, or competing – and that’s something that’s not likely to improve as we increasingly come to think of deniable, unilateral acts that put no Americans at risk as “war.” In other words, we risk the further insulation of the body politic from the acts of violence performed in our name, unmooring us from the reality of war; indifferent to the opposing will, insensitive to any danger, and forgetful of war’s violence, we are aware only of what we want and the presumed legitimacy of our purpose.

In the philosophical and scientific tradition of the Prussian sage, modern Clausewitzians emphasize war’s enduring nature as a way to define and control the subject. This allows strategic thinkers to draw conclusions about the implications of warfare’s contemporary character that are both true and meaningful, and should help them to understand future war in a way that recognizes continuity while sufficiently accounting for change. The adoption of new technologies will undoubtedly influence future war’s character as it has throughout history, but those technologies no more compel us to discard our theoretically-useful understanding of war’s nature than did the railroad or the rifled musket. Technology is a significant part of the historical, political, and social context that helps define the shape of each particular war. Our task in preparing for future war is to try to understand the implications of that context before it develops – indeed, before even its broad outlines are clearly visible to us. We do ourselves a disservice if, in our eagerness to proclaim novelty, we discard the useful theoretical scaffolding left behind by our predecessors.

War Everywhere: Rights and Strategy in a Constitutional Republic

The expansion of the battlefield in time and space and the attendant broadening of the concept of war have in the modern era been universally associated with an interconnected cluster of social and political trends: the totalization of war, the militarization of civic life, and the securitization of politics. In the process, national politics – indeed, national life – is subsumed by the ever-growing needs of the warfare state – in modern parlance, to “national security.” Society becomes the “great rear” that supports the never-ending war effort, whether military forces are actively engaged in combat or not. The state defines itself by its ability to amass resources, rationalize and manage production, and regulate civic life in the service of war. That this condition has obtained in the United States for the better part of the last 75 years – most visibly during World War II, unashamedly during much of the Cold War and Global War on Terror, and rather subtly during the 1990s – makes it no less offensive to our traditional republican ideals.

This trend, however obviously it deforms the liberal idea that security enables the general welfare, is understandable in a state that is constantly faced with the threat of extinction (or at least believes it is). This largely explains the consistent thread linking centuries of Tsarist policy toward the “near abroad” with later Soviet military theory, and makes intelligible the popularity of Ludendorff’s idea of Der Totale Krieg and its later adoption by the Nazis. It does not explain why so many Americans should seem so eager to subordinate law and politics to the purported exigencies of an imagined “grand strategy,” “long war,” or even to “national security.”

To be sure, there’s no better way to get your program funded by Congress than to talk up the “national security threat” it purportedly mitigates; American politicians of all ideological stripes are united in their fealty to government’s prime directive. “Safety from external danger,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 8, “is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates.” But to speak of internet-enabled espionage or adversarial currency manipulation as matters of “external danger,” much less as forms of war, is to punt on difficult questions that ought ultimately to be answered by politics. Labeling “cyberwarfare” as war may simplify the legal question at issue, but it will not make any ethically simpler or more justifiable a decision to kill the teenaged, self-declared “al-Qaeda hacker” that Rosa Brooks posits, nor will it confer on that act the power of strategic decision. What such labeling will do is to semantically conflate irritating criminal activity and armed conflict, end-running the vital political debate over how to prevent, deter, and respond to such acts and empowering those fear-mongering zealots whose reflexive recourse to war is grounded in a refusal to suffer any threat to perfect “security.” Federalist No. 8’s strategic analysis of Europe in 1787 was, in retrospect, poor, but Hamilton was right about this:

The violent destruction of life and property incident to war; the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty, to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they, at length, become willing to run the risk of being less free.

So we see that a broadening concept of war is not only less analytically useful to the military theorist, but more worrisome to the republican political philosopher. Widening our definition to include the nonviolent, the unilateral, and the criminal alongside the interactive and the violently destructive thus does not strike me as a positive development for those who seek either to use war effectively or to limit war in the future.

I’ve paired these two aims by design, as they underline the apparent difference and underlying similarity between Brooks’s purpose and Clausewitz’s. As I discussed in Part I, Brooks is concerned with the definition of war as a legal question, while for Clausewitz it was simultaneously a philosophical and a practical one. As we’ve seen, Clausewitz defined war so as to taxonomize it, to isolate it and study it in the real world and theorize about its effective conduct – about strategy and tactics. Brooks wants to define war so as to make it intelligible to the law (which likewise can be seen as a tool of state power, or at least a facilitator of it). But in a constitutional republic, law has a fundamentally conservative imperative that strategy does not: it must uphold the rights of citizens, protect them from one another, and give them assurance against the indulgences of their government. Brooks’s intent – as she made clear in 2004 – is to keep the law from obsolescing: not only to permit the means of the state to be employed effectively in defense of its citizens, but to ensure that the use of those means is sufficiently constrained as to preserve due process and the rule of law.

Strategy seeks only to serve policy, “the personified intelligence of the state.” But the personified intelligence of a liberal republic can and must occasionally limit its ambitions and energies in all but the most dire emergencies so as to preserve the individual rights on which that republic is founded. So the aims of strategy and the aims of law must eventually diverge at that point where external and internal utility come into conflict. And that point – as it should be in our society – is determined by politics. On this matter, I suspect Brooks and the Clausewitzians agree.


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