Sunday, October 6, 2013

Notes to Clausewitz's On War, Book 3, Part I

Notes to Carl von Clausewitz, On War.  Ed. and Trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.  Princeton University Press, 1976

On War Book 3:  On Strategy In General

It’s important to note that only Book One of On War is the only book that Clausewitz considered as complete.  Books Three (On Strategy in General) and Eight (On War Plans): Peter Paret considers the most beneficial and integrated with respect to Book One.

“The Enduring legacy of Clausewitz is that he ignored question of “how” “posed by modern science since the 17th century and returned to earlier questions, the Platonic “what is” and the Aristotelian “what for,” which are more valid ones for investigating social phenomena like strategy and war.”  (Creveld, pp. 42-43)

3.1    Chapter One: Strategy

Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war. (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 177)  Strategic theory must therefore study the engagement in terms of its possible results and of the moral and psychological forces that largely determine its course.  (Id.) 

The strategist… will draft the plan of the war, and the aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it:  he will, in fact, shape the individual campaigns and, within these, decide on the individual engagements… The strategist, in short, must maintain control throughout.  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 177)

Strategic theory, therefore, deals with planning; or rather, it attempts to shed light on the components of war and their interrelationships, stressing those few principles or rules that can be demonstrated. (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 177)

A prince or general can best demonstrate his genius by managing a campaign exactly to suit his objectives and his resources, doing neither too much nor too little.  But the effects of genius show not so much in novel forms of action as in the ultimate success of the whole.  What we should admire is the accurate fulfillment of the unspoken assumptions, the smooth harmony of the whole activity, which only becomes evident in final success.  (Book Three, Chapter One, pp. 177-178)

In fact, the means and forms that the strategist employs are so very simple, so familiar from constant repetition, that it seems ridiculous in the light of common sense when critics discuss them, as they do so often, with pompous solemnity.  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178)

In other words, in was as in politics results count.  Clausewitz states that strategy cannot be reduced to examining only material factors as it cannot exist outside the moral realm.  Contrary to the beliefs of some operations analysts [number crunchers] and academic theorists [who usually have no military experience other than reading books] it cannot just be reduced to “a few mathematical formulas of equilibrium and superiority, of time and space, limited by a few angles and lines.”  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178)

The relations between the material factors are all very simple; what is more difficult to grasp are the intellectual factors involved.  Even so, it is only in the highest realms of strategy that intellectual complications and extreme diversity of factors and relationships occur.  At that level, there is little or no difference between strategy, policy, and statesmanship … there their influence is greater in questions of quantity and scale that in forms of execution.  Where execution is dominant, as it is in the individual events of a war whether great or small, then intellectual factors are reduced to a minimum.  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178)

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Alfred, Lord Tennyson


Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.


"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Clausewitz observes that “Everything in strategy is simple, but that does not mean that everything is easy.”  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178) This is the equivalent of the modern observation that it is easy to start a war but it is not so easy to complete it successfully.  Why?

Once is has  been determined, from the political conditions, what a war is meant to achieve and what it can achieve, it is easy to chart the course.  But great strength of character, as well as great lucidity and firmness of mind, is required in order to follow through steadily, to carry out the plan, and not to be thrown off course by thousands of diversions.  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178)

Clausewitz states that it takes “more strength of will to make an important decision in strategy than in tactics.”  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178)  The reason for this is that there is more time for deliberation and “ample room for apprehensions, one’s own and those of others; for objections and remonstrations and, in consequence, for premature regrets.”  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 178)   It takes a person of strong will to make strategic decisions which will affect the course of the war.  However, strong will is not enough.  It has to be combined with knowledge of what you are doing.  Saddam Hussein had a strong will and made disastrous strategic decisions because he didn’t know what he was doing. 

The other aspect to be admired concerns the difficulties of execution.  Maneuvers designed to turn a flank are easily planned.  It is equally easy to conceive a plan for keeping a small force concentrated so that it can meet a scattered enemy on equal terms at any point, and to multiply its strength by rapid movement.  There is nothing admirable about the ideas themselves.  Faced with such simple concepts, we have to admit that they are simple.

            But let a general try to imitate Frederick! [the Great] (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 179)

This is the part of strategy that most would-be generals fail to understand.  The concepts of strategy are in of themselves simple. Their execution is what separates a Frederick the Great or a Napoleon from a Saddam Hussein.

Another difficult of execution involves exertions and great hardships imposed on the armed forces.  Clausewitz states that during Frederick the Great’s Campaign of 1760 against the Austrians and the Russians, his army was constantly on the move and had to be ready to fight on a moment’s notice.  Under these conditions, he decisively defeated the Austrians at Leignitz and at Torgau.  (McCleod, p. 322)

Could this be done without subjecting the military machine to serious friction?  Is a general, by sheer force of intellect, able to produce such mobility with the ease of a surveyor manipulating an astrolabe?  Are the generals and supreme commander not moved by the sight of the misery suffered by their pitiful, hungry, and thirsty comrades in arms?  Are complaint and misgivings about such conditions not reported to the high command?  Would an ordinary made date to ask for such sacrifices, and would these not automatically lower the morale of the troops, corrupt their discipline, in short undermine their fighting spirit unless an overwhelming belief in the greatness and infallibility of their commander outweighed all other considerations?  It is this which commands our respect; it is these miracles of execution that we have to admire.  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 180)

Clausewitz own experience is in the Napoleonic Wars.  Napoleon made the same point in his maxims:  “XV.  The first consideration with a general who offers battle should be the glory and honour [sic] of his arms; the safety and preservation of his men is only the second; but it is in the enterprise and courage resulting from the former that the latter will most assuredly be found.” (Chandler, p. 60)

In strategy:

We are constantly brought back to the question:  what, at any given stage of the war or campaign, will be the likely outcome of all major and minor engagements that the two sides can offer one another?  In the planning of a campaign or a war, this alone will decide the measures that have to be taken from the outset.  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 182)

If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next, but instead succumb to the idea that the capture of certain geographical points or the seizure of undefended provinces are of value in themselves,  we are liable to regard them as windfall profits … [W]e also ignore the possibility that their possession may later lead to definite disadvantages… [J]ust as a businessman cannot take the profit from a single transaction and put it into a separate account, so an isolated advantage gained in war cannot be assessed separately from the over result…
By looking on each engagement as part of a series, at least insofar as events are predictable, the commander is always on the high road to his goal.  (Book Three, Chapter One, p. 182)

Thus war is a continuum both in time and space and breadth as well.  The strategist must be able to link these engagements into one whole sequence in order to succeed. 


Chandler, D. G. (1988). The Military Maxims of Napoleon. New York: Macmillan Publishing Complany.

Creveld, M. v. (1986). Eternal Clausewitz. In M. I. Handel (Ed.), Clausewtiz and Modern Strategy. London: Frank Cass.

McCleod, T. (2001). Fredrick II 'the Great', King of Prussia. In R. Holmes (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to Military History (pp. 321-323). London: Oxford University Press.




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