The Key to the Country—er, I mean…Center of Gravity

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(I pray Carl von Clausewitz’ descendants don’t sue me)

There is no theoretical concept in the art of war dearer to the hearts of critics than the key to the country center of gravity, one of the more ridiculous terms found in Jomini Clausewitz. It has been the prize exhibit of numerous accounts of battles and campaigns—one of those pseudo-scientific terms with which critics hope to show their erudition. Yet the underlying concept has neither been established, nor even clearly defined. After all, Clausewitz only devoted maybe three pages to the topic in his entire book—roughly ten percent of the space I gave to defending swamps. But whatevs.

Behind the hoary martial metaphor of the “key to the country” “center of gravity,” there lurks a vague, confused idea, sometimes denoting an enemy’s greatest strengths, sometimes its greatest weakness. Indeed, the simple and not frankly valuable concept of the key to the country center of gravity has not been enough for the theoreticians; they have raised it to a higher power and used it to denote the single point against which one can defeat the entire enemy force. Indeed, that simple magic formula contrived to keep a tenuous hold on life and continued to spin its fragile thread in our literature.

If generals wishing to describe the importance of such a point in a single metaphor wish to call it the key to the country center of gravity, it would be pedantic to object; on the contrary, the expression is apt and agreeable. But if this little flower of speech is blown up to form the core of a whole system, branching out in various directions like a tree, sheer common sense should warn you to restrain yourselves. Just leave the whole metaphor thing to Tom Friedman.

The memoirs of wars and campaigns written by generals use the concept of a key to the country center of gravity in a practical but, on the other hand, very imprecise sense. Over time, this imprecise concept merged with closely related ones—the effect of which was to drive the matter still further into the realm of fantasy. This broke the dam of natural common sense; sensible discussion was swept away in a flood of illusions based on Newtonian analogies.

We shall now leave this mistaken idea of the key to the country center of gravity, with which we have dealt at such length only because a whole elegant system has been developed out of it. And not an insignificant number of SAMS monographs as well.

For more on the Key to the Country Center of Gravity, one of the most grossly abused concepts in Jomini Clausewitz, you can read more here.


Major Crispin Burke is a U.S. Army Aviator stationed at Fort Bragg. He’s not impressed with the fact that you know one or two quotes from Thucydides, Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz.