Carl von Clausewitz (July 1, 1780 – November 16, 1831) is one of those historical figures that once you encounter, you never forget. Not only is his work on military strategy mind blowing to the point where it indubitably changes the way you see the world, but as Dr. Christopher Bassford, Professor of Strategy at the National War College, pointed out in our conversation, “Clausewitz is cool.”
But I suppose those reasons for his enduring relevance and popularity are really one in the same. That is, Clausewitz is cool because he is so profound. Of course, to see it this way, you have to value serious intellectual inquiry. You have to have an affinity for critical thinking, strategic ideation, and the complexities of human nature. In short, Clausewitz is not for the intellectually timid.
I brought this issue up to Dr. Bassford, one of the leading American Scholars on Clausewitz, when I requested to do the interview. Here was our exchange:
S.H. Blannelberry: I wanted to ask you some basic questions about Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian soldier and great military strategist, but I wanted to avoid getting too theoretical. That said, it’s very difficult not to get pulled down the Clausewitzian-philosophical wormhole.
Christopher Bassford: Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it? Why discuss Clausewitz if you’re not interested in his major claim to fame–i.e., very sophisticated theory? You’re right, of course: Clausewitz’s ideas can really suck you into an inescapable conceptual gravity well. But the reason it’s inescapable is simply that it’s really, REALLY interesting. As the CEO of the Boston Consulting Group (a Fortune 500 business consulting outfit) once announced to his board, “Clausewitz is cool!” I was there, and was forced to agree.:-)
The choice simple: it was all or nothing. Either we were going to confront Clausewitz head on or we weren’t going to discuss him at all. There was no middle ground. So, off we went, down the rabbit hole. And 5,000-plus words later, I’m not even sure we scratched the surface. But one thing is for sure, it was an edifying experience and a lot of fun.
S.H. Blannelberry: What is war? What is war strategy? Maybe a better way of putting it, how do you personally define each?
Christopher Bassford: That question has a certain “Do you still beat your wife?”-quality to it–i.e., there are certain assumptions built into the question that have to be dispelled, and any quick answer is going to get me into trouble that’ll require a long time to recover from.
Virtually everybody has heard Clausewitz’s famous line that “War is simply the continuation of policy by other means.” Unfortunately, that a) is not a very good translation; b) is not his final version of the line; and c) seems to be interpreted by most writers/readers in ways that don’t have much to do with Clausewitz’s actual thinking on the subject. But what he actually said is a pretty good definition of war. I’ll offer what I think is a useful paraphrase. He said “War is simply an expression of politics with the addition of ‘other means,’ i.e., organized violence…. and we deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition’ of other means because we want to make it clear that war doesn’t suspend politics or change it into something different.” Therefore, there is no such thing as a separate “war strategy” or purely “military strategy.” Your military operations cannot be separated from your political ops, and any attempt to separate them–which both soldiers and politicians incessantly try to do–results in nonsense and often disaster.
“Strategy” is really hard to define–we argue about definitions constantly in the War Colleges. That’s OK–a sign that our brains are still working. The real world doesn’t permit us to nail it down. That’s true in most fields among real experts. For instance, working biologists are still engaged in really fundamental debates about the definitions of “sex” and “species”–though you’d never know that from the way science is taught in high schools and colleges. And our definitions change over time without any corresponding change to the underlying reality–it’s just a matter of fashion. We use the word “strategy” to cover long-term thinking/planning in virtually every field–including the latest ad campaign for laundry detergent. When Clausewitz uses the term “strategy,” he’s usually using it in the narrowly military sense (which should be OK–the word literally means “generalship”), and he defines it as the use of military forces to accomplish your political objectives in war. Some folks say that shows that he’s obsolete, but we talk about the same thing today simply substituting the new term “operational art” to cover the same ground.
Personally, I prefer the larger use of “strategy” and define it as something like “the process of constantly interrelating ends and means in a particular context.” That sounds pretty mealy-mouthed, but the point is that both our ends/goals/objectives/intentions and our means/resources/energy/will/capabilities are constantly changing and getting out of alignment. And strategy is intensely context-dependent. A clever strategy for 1914 is utter nonsense a year later; strategic planning in Europe (or Pharmaceuticals) involves very different factors from strategic planning in Southeast Asia (or Agriculture).
SHB: Why is Carl Von Clausewitz’s work so critical to understanding war strategy and military philosophy, in particular his seminal masterpiece On War?
CB: Clausewitz made a number of very clever decisions when planning his writing campaign. First, he decided that he’d be dead before publication, so he could ignore any distorting concerns about book reviewers and angry political leaders. But he also realized that the strategic world would continue to change after his death and that he wouldn’t be around to incorporate those unpredictable changes into his advice. So he insists that people reading his work think about true fundamentals and make decisions for themselves rather than follow his canned guidance. Speaking as a defense consultant myself, I can tell you that this is very unusual; Clausewitz lacked our usual financial profit motive. Second, he asked really interesting questions, truly fundamental questions, that cannot be definitively answered once and for all but are always going to crop back up under changing circumstances. For instance, he asked your question “What is war?” Is it an art or a science? (Answer: Neither.) What is the true relationship between defense and attack, and how do we determine who’s playing which role? Which is the stronger form of war?
It may surprise you that his answer to that last question is that defense is inherently the stronger form of war and that habitual aggressors are likely to be destroyed. That’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? After all, he’s a German: He must be a bloody-minded bastard bent on world conquest. And a lot of writers (especially Germans) have simply ignored this part of his argument, thinking he must have drooled that out on an off-day or even that he was really just kidding. The major English-language abridgement of On War actually cut out his entire book on defense (book #6 of On War, out of 8 total), even though it’s by far the biggest chunk of the work.
SHB: Which, ironically, was never finished?!
CB: Some people think that one major reason the book continues to be so influential is because it’s unfinished. That allows people like me to interpolate or extrapolate all sorts of ideas that a truly polished edition would have blocked off. There’s a lot of truth to that, but this was clearly Clausewitz’s explicit intention. Personally, I doubt he would ever have “finished” the book in the sense people seem to want–he was an exploratory, evolutionary thinker who constantly challenged and adapted his own ideas. He was bound to keep playing with these concepts to the bitter end.
SHB: If I’m not mistaken, Clausewitz did not really gain traction in the U.S. until the Cold War, even though the first copy of On War was published in the U.S. circa 1942, what was it about the Cold War era that brought his work to the fore?
CB: Well, that’s not entirely true. Generals Patton, Wedemeyer, and Eisenhower were intensely interested in Clausewitz in the 1920s and 1930s. The US Naval War College was using him as early as the 1890s (using the 1873 British edition). There was a real burst of interest during World War II, partly because we were fighting the Germans and understanding Clausewitz seemed to offer a window into German behavior. (I don’t think that was particularly true. The post-World War I German government inquiry into Germany’s failures in that war concluded that Ludendorff, et al, had systematically and willfully flouted Clausewitz, and the modern German army thinks that the Wehrmacht didn’t have a clue what Clausewitz was getting at.) The best existing English translation of On War was done at the University of Chicago in 1943 by a German expatriate academic (whose primary motive was to avoid the draft by claiming to be doing vital war research). A great deal of the alleged Cold War U.S. interest in Clausewitz is based on the title of nuclear strategist Herman Kahn’s book, On Thermonuclear War, but there’s no evidence Kahn actually knew anything about Clausewitz. It was the non-nuclear Korean War that forcefully drew the U.S. national security community’s interest to Clausewitz’s thinking in terms of understanding our own limited-war strategy. It was our failures in Vietnam that truly made him fashionable among American soldiers.
SHB: To that point, did his notion of ‘Absolute War’ and its relationship to nuclear war play a factor?
CB: The two notions sound like they’re related, but our Cold War strategists’ thinking about nuclear Armageddon really derived from the Total War experience of the early 20th century, not from anybody’s theory. Of course, “Total War” is often blamed on Clausewitz too, but in fact he never used the term. Its originator seems to have been WWI German General Erich Ludendorff, who explicitly rejected Clausewitz, saying, “All theories of Clausewitz have to be thrown overboard. War and Politics serve the survival of the people, but war is the highest expression of the racial will to life.” Clausewitz’s term “Absolute War” or “Ideal War” is a philosophical abstraction–Clausewitz called it a “logical fantasy,” and he used it as a contrast to the way war actually goes down in real life. It was meant as a way of demonstrating how following “pure logic” in the realm of human politics would lead to absurdities and insanities. Contrary to rumor, the idea of beating your opponent to death just for the Hell of it did not originate with Clausewitz.
SHB: Speaking of types of war, how are Clausewitz’s paradigms of war, Absolute and Limited, helpful to understanding war? Could there be a third type? (The complete absence of war)?
CB: The complete absence of war is peace, not a third form of war. Though Lenin liked to say that politics in peace is just a continuation of war by other means, he was consciously turning Clausewitz on his head. Clausewitz personally was a pretty decent guy–certainly not a blood-thirsty revolutionary or counter-revolutionary.
But Absolute War and limited war are not the practical alternatives Clausewitz offers. The opposite of Absolute War (a philosophical abstraction, remember) is “Real War”–i.e., war as we have actually experienced it historically, with all of its messiness, confusion, weak-kneed politics, half-assed execution, most often ending in a whimper rather than a bang. “Real War” literally means, simply “war in the real world,” though some professorial types try to parse it into some highly specialized variant. Within real war, however, Clausewitz defined two very different kinds of objectives: 1) limited objectives (say, pure self-defense or offensive war to exact some very specific gain–say, a piece of territory), or 2) the objective of rendering our opponent politically and militarily helpless. Note first that these are kinds of objectives, not kinds of war. Objectives are unilateral while wars have at least two sides. So we have wars in which various players are pursuing various kinds of objectives. War in which both sides are seeking to utterly defeat the other do occur but are very rare; more often, both sides seek limited objectives or there is a mix. In Korea, for instance, North Korea sought total defeat and conquest of the South. South Korea would have liked to do the same to the North but lacked the capability. The United States first sought pure defense, then–sensing an opportunity–went for total conquest of the North until China intervened and handed us our ass, causing us to revert to limited objectives. China’s initial objectives aren’t clear but the PLA soon focused simply on preserving a North Korean buffer state. The Soviets stayed out of the war entirely, though they were probably capable of interdicting the sealanes by which we supplied our forces in the South. Our allies joined the war just to keep us happy–they didn’t really give a damn who ruled the peninsula. So Korea was only a “limited war” at certain times and for certain players. Calling the war as a whole “limited” is delusional.
There’s a tendency to think that “limited wars” are small and cheap and that wars aimed at eliminating the enemy’s ability to fight (which does not necessarily meaning eliminating the enemy state or its leadership) are big and expensive. But that’s confusing the scale of effort with the character of objectives. The US invasions of Grenada and Panama were of the high-end variety, though most Americans like to call them “limited wars” because we didn’t use The Bomb. World War I was a massive, bloody debacle, but most of the players, most of the time, were fighting for quite limited political objectives.
SHB: It seems as though war is an infinitely complex phenomenon. As such, trying to apprehend the nature of war presents a great challenge, yet Clausewitz finds a way to articulate the forces of war that gives one, at the very least, a rubric for analyzing it – his trinity model of tri-lateral forces – can you explain a little about this?
CB: Clausewitz’s famous “Trinity” is really a complete model of human reality–it comprises rational forces (our conscious, rational efforts to interrelate our ends and means); irrational forces (the emotional drives that impel us to think and act in the first place); and the non-rational forces of chance and probability–what I like to call the ‘fan of reality,’ which spatters the results of our rational calculations and emotional drives all over the landscape. A lot of writers confuse this abstract model with a rather specific illustration Clausewitz used regarding the relationship between the people, the army, and the government. They interpret this people/army/government model as The State, which is allegedly an obsolete dinosaur that’s quite irrelevant on the modern battlefield. (Tell that to Milosevich, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Ladin.) But they wouldn’t say that if they bothered to read all five (very short) paragraphs of the Trinity discussion.
While a lot of traditional thinkers view Clausewitz’s “Trinity” discussion as some sort of vague mysticism, modern scientists find the scientific metaphor he used astoundingly realistic. He compared the relationship of war to rational calculation, political passion, and chance to a pendulum swinging amongst three sources of attraction. What he was referring to was a ROMP, a Randomly Oscillating Magnetic Pendulum. Buy one and watch it for a while. I can tell you as a historian that its behavior is a perfect metaphor for what really fascinates me as a historian of war–the wild swings of fortune, expectation, and actual outcomes that characterize military history. For scientists, this is a classic illustration of Chaos Theory and the so-called “Butterfly Effect” of Complexity science. I know that a lot of people are put off by those terms, but they reflect the very “hard” science and math of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Unfortunately, most historians and social scientists don’t read actual science and have no clue what the implications are.
SHB: One of his most famous quotes, “war is the continuation of politics by other means” – what exactly did he mean by this? (You have a very interesting and insightful interpretation of the word “politik”)
CB: I think we covered most of this earlier. People are pretty sloppy about saying “policy by other means” or “politics by other means,” but think about it–you’re really saying two wildly different things. To say that “War is an expression of X” without defining X is not really helping us out. So, how do you define politics? How do you define policy? Most people–including most political scientists, really start fumbling for their keys when you bring this up. But the basic difference is that policy is unilateral and politics is interactive. If you think that war is a continuation of what you want to accomplish, you don’t understand that the enemy–and everybody else, including your own troops–has a vote. You pursue the kind of engineering approach to war for which the Americans are notorious. War is thus far too frequently just a continuation of bad policy by other means. If you understand that war is a violent variation on the usual chaotic struggle for power and influence, in which your own butt is on the line all the time, well, you treat the problem very differently.
SHB: In terms of interpretation, why are there so many different interpretations of Clausewitz’s work?
CB: Well, I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on that subject, well before I had any particular interpretation of my own to flog. Much of the confusion and disagreement over On War reflects fundamental issues that Clausewitz himself could not address in any detail. That is, On War is a book that, for all its great length, attempts to focus narrowly on the practical problems of conducting military operations in war. It does not attempt to describe the character of the physical universe or the nature of man, nor to define such basic concepts as policy, politics, society, or the state. It is simply a mark of the book’s profundity that discussion of it inevitably raises all of these issues—and more—in stark form. People with varying views on these fundamental matters inevitably interpret Clausewitz in varying ways.
Some of my other findings weren’t very edifying. Most people who write about Clausewitz, including soldiers, journalists, and scholars, simply don’t read the book carefully (if at all), and they don’t take the time to really wrestle with it–it’s just another book on the pile. Beyond laziness, ignorance, and shallowness, ego and greed have a lot to do with it. Academic careers, after all, are also a continuation of politics by other means. And military affairs is a business. Clausewitz made his living as a soldier–a well-paid servant of the state. He did not write for money, did not care whether he sold a single copy of his book. He simply wanted to understand the subject. Most of his competitors were essentially businessmen. Sun Tzu (for whom I have the highest regard) was a mercenary and itinerant strategic consultant. Jomini was an on-again/off-again soldier, but for cash he relied on book sales. Liddell Hart (a closet Clausewitz imitator) was a brilliant but cash-poor military journalist whose career was nearly wrecked by his wrong-headed predictions in 1940 (which he later justified using Clausewitz’s theories on defense). Note that I’ve left out current Clausewitz-basher John Keegan — I’m trying to keep the discussion serious. :-) Ideology and nationalism certainly affect the way Clausewitz is presented. British resentment at Germany’s senseless wrecking of the Empire–a century after Clausewitz–certainly flavors many British discussions of his work. Lenin was a huge fan, but his interpretation is a Bolshevik one. And there are practical political issues as well. For instance, Wellington seems to have had a grudging respect for Clausewitz, though it was his staff that pressured him into responding to Clausewitz’s study of Waterloo, on the grounds that Clausewitz was the ablest and most honest analyst of the campaign. But Wellington put a misleading spin on Clausewitz because he was anxious to suppress serious discussions of the subject, concerned by domestic political controversies that swirled around it and because of tensions with Prussia over who won the battle, since Wellington was anxious to keep Prussia in the post-Napoleonic “Concert of Europe.”
SHB: Does it stem from a healthy tension between his brilliant insight on one hand, and a lack of clarity on the other? (In addition to is reluctance to publish the book, I think he lamented that On War was a “formless mass’ at one point).
CB: Yeah, but we’re not sure at precisely what point in his writing he made that comment. I certainly don’t think what we have merits that description. There’s a great deal of structure, cross-reference, and continuity there. The young British General J.F.C. Fuller was infuriated by Clausewitz’s sneering comments about the idea of a “science” of war, which is what Fuller was trying to concoct. In 1926, he called On War “little more than a mass of notes, a cloud of flame and smoke,” and dismissed Clausewitz as “a general of the agricultural period of war.” But he nonetheless continued to wrestle with Clausewitz’s strange ideas. The older Fuller, an accomplished soldier and historian, said of his own last work that, if it had any merit, it was “because my study of Clausewitz has compelled me to write it.”
I don’t think that Clausewitz’s discussion is unclear–it’s just long, deep, and hard. A lot of the apparent contradictions are intentional: Clausewitz liked to lay out various possibilities and perspectives in the course of making his actual argument. That dialectical approach was common in his time and place but is not part of our culture today. We find it confusing. But there are also discontinuities and contradictions in the book because the manuscripts Marie edited into On War were a hodge-podge of essays written at different (often uncertain) dates. Since Clausewitz tested his ideas rigorously and revised them if they failed, the structure and language of his theories changed over time. If you’re a Clausewitz scholar, the evolutionary path that Clausewitz’s treatment takes is fascinating. If you’re a regular human being looking for a straightforward argument, well, it’s tough. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. But I hang out with a strange crowd.
SHB: Fog and Friction. They’re similar notions, but they don’t quite mean the same. In your mind, what’s the key difference?
CB: Clausewitz didn’t actually use the term “fog of war.” Jennie Kiesling pointed that out in an insightful essay. Just like Paul Kennedy never actually said “imperial overstretch.” But the metaphor is so striking and seems so compatible with Clausewitz’s general presentation of friction, uncertainly, and unpredictability that it seems a natural fit. I’m reluctant to try to define friction too precisely. (Barry Watts wrote a pretty rigorous analysis of it, if you’re interested in a scientific analysis.) Clausewitz called it “the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.” It’s not just things that go wrong, however. After all, if it weren’t for friction you couldn’t make it across the living room and romance wouldn’t be nearly so interesting.
SHB: Did Clausewitz have any particular thoughts on the instruments of war (in particular guns)?
CB: Clausewitz the theorist doesn’t say much. Clausewitz the troop trainer and doctrine writer did, but I don’t recall him ever mentioning the Second Amendment. Clausewitz says very little about technology–it’s human beings that fascinated him. There are, however, a lot of tactical discussions in On War and in his earlier Principles of War. Those aren’t the parts people read these days.
SHB: Do you see Clausewitzian philosophy being manifested on today’s battlefields?
CB: I could interpret that question a few different ways. Are there people out there consciously attempting to take a Clausewitzian approach? Sure–virtually all Western and all Marxist armies employ a great deal of Clausewitzian phraseology. American doctrine is full of Clausewitzian terms–especially the unfortunate verbal tic “Center of Gravity” or the more useful “culminating point of the offensive.” I don’t think I’ve ever been in a planning cell where somebody didn’t quote Moltke’s paraphrasing Clausewitz to the effect that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” My own experience is that no plan survives contact with the guy taking notes, much less the staff or one’s own troops. American politicians and soldiers are absolutely obsessed with the notion that war is a continuation of policy, which they seem to assume means that we invade countries in order to put a chicken in every pot and a smile on every voter’s face. Whether this is what Clausewitz would have prescribed is irrelevant–he made the comment as a statement of fact, not as useful advice. If you listen to the very best military leaders we have today, you’ll hear a lot of Clausewitzian analysis, and some of it is very good indeed. H.R. McMasters comes to mind.
But I would take your question in a different sense. Does Clausewitz’s description of the complex and chaotic way in which events unfold in war match our experience today? Try as we might to attain the “frictionless battlefield” and achieve perfect situational awareness via technology, we are constantly surprised. Or think of Clausewitz’s trinitarian pendulum imagery. Analysts often treat it as if they can coldly assess the various trinitarian factors that interplay in war, but if you want to use that pendulum as a metaphor, remember that we’re not standing outside the system dispassionately observing events–we’re riding on the tip of the damned thing as it careens wildly from pole to pole. Do you remember the expectations of 50,000 American dead in the First Gulf War? The despair of airpower enthusiasts as the bombing campaign against Serbia “dragged on” for all of 78 days? The conviction in some quarters that the brilliant Sun-Tzuian rascal Milosevich was bound to triumph over the plodding, “Clausewitzian” NATO dweebs? The heart-in-your-throat uncertainty as American forces swept into Afghanistan after 9/11 or Baghdad in 2003? And the way those victories mutated into frustration and disillusionment? Those emotions and uncertainties somehow get lost in the post-battle talking-head news analysis. But listen for them next time around.
It occurred to me that I never properly introduced Dr. Bassford (I was so anxious to jump right into the interview). By now though, if you’ve read his answers to my questions, it would be redundant for me to tell you how brilliant he is. That is overwhelmingly apparent. Nevertheless, if you’re curious about his career and credentials, here is his professional bio, courtesy of Clausewitz.com:
Chris Bassford graduated from the College of William and Mary with a BA in History and Academic Honors in Interdisciplinary Studies for a dissertation on tactical nuclear weapons. He obtained an MA in American diplomatic history from the Ohio University before serving five years on active duty as a U.S. Army field artillery officer, with tours in Korea and Germany. He then completed a Ph.D. in modern European and military history at Purdue University before accepting an Olin postdoctoral fellowship in national security studies at the Ohio State University. Subsequently, he was director of studies in the theory and nature of war at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, then associate professor of National Policy Issues at the U.S. Army War College. He returned to the Marine Corps orbit as a concepts and doctrine analyst for Marine Corps Combat Developments Command. He is presently Professor of Strategy at the National War College, in Washington, DC. As an independent consultant, writer, and lecturer, he has written scholarly books, military concepts and doctrine, as well as articles for the popular press, and spoken at schools as varied as UVA’s Darden School of Business and the George C. Marshall Center for European Security Studies, in Garmisch, Germany.
Bassford is the author of several books, including The Spit-Shine Syndrome: Organizational Irrationality in the American Field Army (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988) and Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945 (Oxford University Press, 1994). He is one of the editors of the Boston Consulting Group’s business-oriented Clausewitz On Strategy: Inspiration and Insight from a Master Strategist (New York: Wiley, 2001), and also conceived and edited Carl von Clausewitz and Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815 (Clausewitz.com, 2010). As a Marine Corps concepts and doctrine writer he authored MCDP 1-1, Strategy, MCDP 1-2, Campaigning, MCWP 5-1, Marine Corps Planning (Draft), MCWP 2-15.3, Ground Reconnaissance Operations (Draft, 1998), and MCWP 3-2, Aviation Operations (Coordinating Draft, 1998), and participated in the writing of several other USMC and Joint concepts and doctrinal publications.
Special Note: if you liked what he had to say, you should definitely check out his On Waterloo book, great stuff!
I’d really like to thank Dr. Bassford for taking the time out of his busy schedule to deliver such a detailed snapshot of Clausewitzian theory. I am truly inspired by his erudition and his ability to delineate the most complicated aspects of On War in such real and practical terms.
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