The Wages of War without Strategy, Part I: Clausewitz, Vietnam, and the Roots of Strategic Confusion


It is important to remember, in the discussions on which we are about to embark, that they ultimately concern violence, and that our moral and practical decisions have real consequences in the use of force, and all that the use of force entails for suffering and death.

Philip Bobbit, The Shield of Achilles

In a matter of weeks, this country will see a change in presidential administrations.  President-elect Donald Trump will inherit a country that has been committed in overseas wars directly or indirectly during every decade from Vietnam until the present.  This is a country that will be seeking strategic definition and direction.  Those who follow national and international security issues closely will be seeking a rationale for the way ahead that will allay concerns about the state of the world and their place in it.  A question that persists is, with unmatched wealth and military prowess, why has America seen such poor outcomes in many of its wars from Vietnam to today?

To answer such questions, the president-elect and his senior-most national security advisors should be introspective, intellectually frank, and discerning of the more profound thinking on the nature of war.  They should be willing to think critically about the state of the world and the country and what should come next.  And if they heed just one suggestion, it should be: know the distinctions between policy, strategy, and military operations.  Remember the intended relationship among the three.  A number of the president-elect’s closest advisors are retired general officers.  His choice for secretary of defense, Gen. (retired) Jim Mattis, in particular, is known to be a voracious reader and student of military history and strategy.  Gen. Mattis has most certainly read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War and should embrace a measured and prudent adherence to the famous but often misunderstood axiom:

[W]ar is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.

And yet, one article has asserted that the president-elect seems to embrace an almost “apolitical vision of war,” as Dominic Tierney wrote recently in The Atlantic, terming it President-elect Trump’s “Clausewitz Problem.” He explains:

[W]hen Trump talks about war, he focuses almost solely on destruction—not on the larger political goals.  Trump promised to “beat the hell out of ISIS,” and the Islamic State “will be gone if I’m elected president.  And they’ll be gone quickly. They will be gone very, very quickly.”  Trump shows little interest in the political consequence of bombing, nation building, or the demands of post-conflict reconstruction.

Americans should hope that the president-elect will contemplate the guidance of the most experienced among his strategic advisers and members of his cabinet to square the new administration’s perspective on strategy and statecraft.  For the United States to find its footing in the next four to eight years, its senior leadership and its professional advisors should consider lessons long-observed, if rarely learned, about the wages of war without strategy.  The U.S. military does record lessons, fastidiously so, but it failed to absorb many of the strategic lessons in the aftermath of Vietnam because there was no consensus on the reasons for that failure.

Making war bereft of strategy has become an American addiction over the last 50 years. We win battles but not wars, and we win them at great political, material, and moral cost.  Since America first became mired in the jungles of Southeast Asia, it can boast only two notable examples of measured and prudent approaches to strategy that aimed to match ends, ways, and means. The first and arguably more successful example was the Persian Gulf War in 1991.  The second and more controversial was the laudable effort to craft a strategy for victory in Afghanistan with the surge that began in 2009.  For the latter, however, Pakistan’s duplicitous albeit predictable behavior and America’s inability to marshal the levers, resources, imagination, and will to compel Pakistan to desist accounted for the difference between theory and practice.

What’s more, bombing and decapitation are not strategies in and of themselves. The notion that the United States could simply carpet-bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other militants into extinction represents a divorce from the theory of war and strategy that Clausewitz expounded.  Nor will bombing them into the Stone Age lead to long-term success or victory in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, no matter how visceral and appealing the idea of that kind of simplicity and lethality is to some.

Carpet-bombing is not a strategy. Strategic bombing is a myth. The United States and Britain dropped tons of bombs on Germany during World War II, and it did not break Germany’s will.  The United States dropped seven million tons of bombs during the Vietnam War, and it did not bring victory.  Bombs alone cannot defeat an ideology.

This article is the first of a series that aims to take a long view at exploring what has ailed American strategy over the last half-century.  This installment highlights the continued value and salience of Clausewitz’s more profound and nuanced ideas about the nature of war that have been absent or misapplied during the last 50 years.  It remains almost certain that On War is still more superficially quoted than deeply understood. It is time for a return to the fundamentals of Clausewitz.

On Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz (1780 to 1831) was a Prussian soldier, professor, and intellectual, whose combat experience and deep reflection on strategy and military theory led to the writing and posthumous publication of Vom Kriege (On War) in 1832. To this day, it is heralded as the most influential work of Western military philosophy and strategy.

In the nearly two centuries since publication, Clausewitz’s ideas have continued to be translated, circulated in dozens of languages, and stridently debated.  But, his musings on the theory and practice of warfare “will remain valid as long as states, drug lords, warrior clans, and terrorist groups have mind to wage it.”

Clausewitz’s assertion about war’s relationship to politics is profound.  The distortion of that relationship by this country’s past military and political leaders has helped lay the groundwork for the state of perpetual war in which the United States finds itself today.

Apt application of Clausewitz’s precepts is among the casualties of the last 50 years of American political and military history.  Too often, after Vietnam and especially since 9/11, the United States has doubled down on its most reductive and temporarily comforting habits of thought: viewing the world as black and white, good or evil; believing in and demanding simple solutions; and regarding critical thought and serious debate as weak or unpatriotic.  Just as Americans have Twitterized the English language, so too have we relegated arguably the most fundamental tenet of strategy and military theory to a dangerously simplistic platitude.  A number of those charged with making policy and planning wars over the last half-century — most notably Weinberger and Powell in the aftermath of Vietnam, the National Command Authority at the outset of U.N. operations in Somalia, and senior civilian leadership in the George W. Bush administration in influencing Operation Iraqi Freedom — have neglected, misconstrued, or distorted Clausewitz’s axiom.  It is therefore not surprising that U.S. forces have entered Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria despite a questionable faculty to fully match stated ends with the employment of the “other means” to which Clausewitz alluded.

We cannot afford to continue this distortion of policy and strategy.  America’s proclivity for “global presence, power projection and interventionism” as strategy and “Instawar” as policy all but guarantee ISIL will not be the scariest monster the United States will face.

This, then, is a call to action but not to the reflexive military action into which this country is too often quick to jump.  It is a call to conscience but not to disengagement or to a sweeping rejection of the use of military force as “a true political instrument,” one strategic component of a realistic, well-considered, long-term policy.  It is a call that we, as military and intelligence service professionals, make to our prospective future senior security leaders to come back to Clausewitz.  And it is a call to the nation to restore the critical partnership and balance between the three sources of power in Clausewitz’s “remarkable trinity”— passion, probability, and policy, often associated with the people, the military, and the government, respectively.  We call upon each of these stakeholders to do its part in reflecting on the purpose of war as a servant of policy.

The Roots of Confusion

In the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, the United States would have benefited from deep reflection.  Instead, its leaders opted for historical airbrushing and a doctrine of confirmation bias. The purpose of this section is not to reflect the most up to date understanding of the history of American strategy-making in the Vietnam War, but rather to reveal how the U.S. military did and did not take lessons from early histories and assessments of the war.

The end of the Vietnam War led to a renewed interest in Clausewitz, with publication of the 1976 translation of On War by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.  Indeed, the U.S. military underwent a renaissance of sorts after the Vietnam War, refocusing professionally and intellectually.  However, it squandered the opportunity to base that renaissance on an honest autopsy of its shortcomings in Vietnam.  The version of Clausewitz adopted by a number of U.S. military institutions after Vietnam was selective and generally misconstrued some fundamental aspects of On War.

The military did not properly reflect upon Vietnam in the context of Clausewitz’s explanations of the nature and character of war.  The military and the Army did sponsor studies to learn what happened in Vietnam.  BDM and Kupperman and Associates produced works that analyzed the reasons and the lessons of that failed war.  These reports were essentially indictments of the U.S. Army’s inappropriate conventional approach to Vietnam. They found the Army was more focused on avoiding another such intervention than learning from its failures in waging low-intensity warfare.  They essentially criticized the American model of war, which focused on the destruction of enemy forces at the expense of political factors. A 1970 RAND report concluded:

The Army’s doctrine, its tactics, its organization, its weapons – its entire repertoire of warfare was designed for conventional war in Europe. In Vietnam, the Army simply performed its repertoire even though it was frequently irrelevant to the situation. Changes were proposed repeatedly, but few changes were made… Among the institutional obstacles to change are the belief that the changes proposed might not work…the belief that what has been needed is more of the same…that the war in Vietnam is an aberration…

The U.S. Army War College then hired Col. Harry Summers, a veteran of the war, to synthesize these studies. However, he ultimately disagreed with their findings in his own book, On Strategy.  Summers claimed to be representing the axioms found in On War and then filtered his analysis through his experiences in Vietnam.  He argued that the Army’s failures in Vietnam stemmed from its deviation from the big, conventional-war approach and its temporary and incomplete experiment with counterinsurgency.

A lack of consensus emerged on what happened and as a consequence, the Army as an institution did not absorb many lessons aptly, or at all. What is more, a number of senior civilian and military U.S. security officials and military commanders never fully understood the enemy and were thus unable to create a viable strategy to undermine the enemy’s will in relation to the value of the object to the enemy. This is something Clausewitz warned was critical.  For example, a number of senior American security practitioners were unable to fully fathom the intangible resources the North Vietnamese and their proxies brought to the fight — namely morale and will.  Furthermore, senior civilian leaders during most of President Johnson’s tenure did not genuinely appreciate the disproportionate values of the political objects and commitments of the two sides to their respective political objectives.

More problematic, however, was the emergence in 1984 of the so-called Weinberger Doctrine.  Proponents of this doctrine claimed it was rooted in Clausewitz, but this was not the case.  It cherry-picked elements from Clausewitz in a manner that distorted the theory.  In the end, the essence of the Weinberger Doctrine and its subsequent Powell Corollary was that the United States military should wage only big, conventional wars by engaging quickly and decisively in “go-big-then-go-home” campaigns.

It was not simply that senior defense civilian and military leaders at the time did not get Clausewitz, who is, admittedly, not an easy read.  As one of us wrote elsewhere, it was that they purposefully ignored studies that captured the more balanced and measured explanations for failure and embraced those — most notably Summers’ — that found the opposite explanations, that the military did not wage it conventionally enough.

Had the country not fallen to confirmation bias about its military strengths after Vietnam, things might look very different today.  America might have been more prepared in terms of intellectual capital and strategic savvy to better understand the challenges of fighting its future wars.  The Weinberger rules tended to limit policy and strategy to interstate war thinking.  The doctrine as it stood, eschewed other kinds of wars, notwithstanding policy necessity.  Rather than a tribute to Clausewitz’s genius, then, the Weinberger Doctrine became a conspicuous example of the U.S. defense and military institutions’ misunderstanding and misapplication of his cardinal axiom.

The Implications of Not Understanding Clausewitz

As discussed, the Army drew two flawed conclusions from the Vietnam War, which an accurate reading of Clausewitz might have helped it avert.  The first was that, militarily, the war was an aberration and, therefore, required no serious operational reassessments or organizational changes. The second was that, to the extent there were lessons to be gleaned from Vietnam, they were adequately encapsulated in the Weinberger Doctrine’s six tenets and were readily applicable to whatever future conflicts the United States might undertake. The doctrine prescribed what kind of wars the American military would fight and proscribed those it would not fight, roughly summed up by the slogan “no more Vietnams.”

Rather than fading as a distant aberration, the Vietnam War became a recurrent political and military metaphor. The United States has continually come up short in assessing the character of the wars in which it engages. One principal determinant of Vietnam’s poor outcome was that, before committing to the war, U.S. political leaders failed to assess the value of the objective or failed to act in accordance with such an assessment. President Johnson stated on tape in a May 1964 phone conversation with the Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy, “I don’t think [Vietnam] is worth fighting for.”  Once fully engaged in waging it, senior civilian leaders continued to prescribe limits and constraints on the use of force to preclude escalation. Key military leaders in the theater were less sanguine about the prospects for success compared to what the public heard and perceived, at least until Tet of 1968.  When senior leaders fail to treat war as a distinct means of achieving a carefully identified political object and when policy and strategy no longer communicate both ways, it creates an imbalance in the trinity.  In such cases, war and violence become a substitute for strategy or worse for policy.

Clausewitz’s trinity goes hand-in-hand with his famous axiom.  Among the combinations of the individual elements of the trinity, each reflects a potential distinct character of the war in question.  As Clausewitz wrote:

The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope, which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance, depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

Simply identifying a meaningful political objective, however, is not enough to ensure long-term victory.  Clausewitz argues that the trinity and each of its components determine a nation’s behavior and its associated capacity for war — two critical variables to assess before committing forces. Intangible factors like popular motivation, belief in a government’s abilities, and support for a political objective are paramount in determining how willing the nation will be to sustain support for war’s brutalities. The military should consider the quality of leadership, an understanding of the political objective, its relationship with civilian overseers, and the quality of doctrine. Even though the dynamics between the elements of the trinity and the interaction with the enemy trinity ebb and flow throughout a war, a balance must be sought between the people — the nation’s civilians, the legitimating entity behind the government; the political leadership — responsible for, and accountable to, the policy it prescribes; and the military — which must be ready and willing to execute the policy.

As America neared the 21st century, Clausewitz’s remarkable trinity was remarkably imbalanced.  Senior political and national security leaders were remiss in their responsibilities to formulate and articulate coherent political purposes.  Military professionals were increasingly inclined to fill this void in strategy with operational methods and actions.  Both groups ignored the principle “that in war military aims cannot be divorced from political purposes, and the ultimate decisions rest with the civilian political leaders of the state.”


Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a U.S. Army Colonel who has served several tours in Afghanistan and has served in Iraq.  He formerly taught strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and has written a number of books and articles on irregular warfare and Afghanistan. 

Jacqueline Tame is an intelligence professional with the Defense Intelligence Agency who recently graduated from the U.S. Naval War College senior course, with Distinction.  The ideas in this series do not represent the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Army, or the Defense Intelligence Agency.

In the next installment of this series, the authors will explore the implications of this imbalance and the distortion of Clausewitz as they pertain to America’s long-term involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Image: U.S. Army Center of Military History