The Confusion of Clausewitz in Modern Warfare

The Confusion of Clausewitz in Modern Warfare
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
The Confusion of Clausewitz in Modern Warfare
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
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It is not uncommon in today’s world to see some quote of the infamous general Carl Von Clausewitz manuscript “on war” in an article or presentation advocating for current counterinsurgency strategies. Designed to win the hearts and minds of the people by combining politics and war into a single operation. Which can defeat the enemy in the ideological sphere rendering him impotent, but strangely enough you will find no such advice within Von Clausewitz’s manuscript. Instead, you find a constant and complete opposite:

Now philanthropists may easily imagine there is a skillful method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without causing great bloodshed, and that this is the proper tendency of the art of war. However plausible this may appear, it is an error which must be stamped out; for in such dangerous things as war; the errors which proceed from a spirit of compassion are the worst.

The source of this confusion is mostly from his statementwar is a continuation of policy(politics) by other means.” However, he continues to explain that while war is used to achieve political goals, it’s conducted differently. In Von Clausewitz mind there is a clear separation between the two:

We must say that the political object properly lies out of its province, for if war is an act of violence to compel the enemy to fulfill our will. Then in every case, all depends on our overthrowing the enemy, that is disarming him, and on that alone.

By disarming and overthrowing an enemy what von Clausewitz means is that you have to make it so, the enemy is not physically capable of continuing to fight even if he wants to, and that this must be done through force: “If our opponent is to be made to comply with our will, we must place him in a situation which is more oppressive to him than the sacrifice we demand; but the disadvantages of this position must not be of a transitory nature…otherwise, the enemy, instead of yielding, will hold out.” just as our current enemies in the middle east are now doing.

Von Clausewitz defines this as “the military power” and tells us in planning a campaign: “the military power must be destroyed, reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the war” he then goes on to say that we must conquer the country and regardless of their feelings force the enemy and people into submission while we are in control of their territory.

So destroy the military power, conquer the country, and force the people into submission. It’s a simple formula but one that has worked for thousands of years. He even warns us not to take the laws of war too seriously as he writes about the use of force:

Self -imposed restrictions, almost imperceptible and hardly worth mentioning, termed usages of international law, accompany it without essentially impairing its power. Violence that is to say physical force is, therefore, the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object. To attain the objective, the enemy must be disarmed, and disarmament becomes, therefore, the immediate object of hostilities ... It takes the place of the final object (the political object) and puts it aside as something we can eliminate from our calculations.

The problem is we do take the rules too seriously, and we have allowed them to impair the power of violence against our enemies. Restricting us from projecting any significant force that would “compel the enemies’ submission.” To make a blunt comparison the allies had rules established by the Geneva and Hague conventions in WWII, but it didn’t stop them from burning their enemies alive with flamethrowers and purposely carpet bombing cities full of civilians, and that’s what Von Clausewitz meant. They did what they had to do to make the enemy submit.

The Nazis and the Japanese imperial army were just as hardcore as today's enemy. The imperial Japanese are the ones who invented suicide bombing as a tactic. It doesn’t get any more hardcore than that. Yet they were still made to submit through the use of “utmost force” as Von Clausewitz terms it, and contrary to popular belief ideas are also defeated through the application of force.

For Ideas are produced, propagated, and spread from the enemies’ center of gravity (Their core). If you destroy it, the ideas will also die. Like a car running out of gasoline, the car won’t go very far from that point. Look no further than the way the ideas of Spartacus’ slave revolution were destroyed when the Romans annihilated the gladiators’ insurgency. In modern times we can point to the Nazi ideology and the threat it posed, or the Imperial Japanese and their ideologies. Beheading their enemies, capturing, torturing and raping young girls on a mass scale. Tactics so similar to that of ISIS, they might as well be the same.  Ideologies which were destroyed through violence and maximum use of force, just As von Clausewitz advocated.

If we want to destroy terrorism, nothing can stop us. Except for our own “self – imposed restrictions,” and if it’s not worth the effort and resources necessary to win a decisive victory, then we shouldn’t be fighting at all. We should be preparing for the fight that is worth it, because eventually such a fight will come, and we want to be ready for it. Not drained and broken.


Daniel Covany is a former American instructor at the Turkish Military Academy Kara Harp Okul (Land warfare school). 



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