Focus on the Trinity: German Innovation From Moltke to World War I
The Prussian and German military developed a highly effective and adaptive management system through a coordinated effort to engage along all three aspects of warfare proposed by Carl von Clausewitz. This “wondrous (or paradoxical) trinity” is comprised of primordial violence, chance and probability, and reason as a facet of policy. Clausewitz relates these respectively to concerns of the people, the commander and his army, and the government. Innovation in the Prussian military, beginning in the 1860s and continuing through World War I, drove the creation of a powerful military force by aligning innovations to the three pillars of Clausewitz’s trinity. The concept of primordial violence and concerns of the people was reinforced by social acceptance of militarism and the elevation of the military profession to one of prominence and respect. To address chance and probability, the Auftragstaktik concept of decentralized operations, mission orders, and training using wargame scenarios helped to better prepare flexible military leaders. Finally, reason and government policy was addressed by investment in education systems that reinforced learning and supported other instruments of national power, especially manufacturing and technology.
The philosophical writings of Clausewitz heavily influenced Prussian military innovation and adaptation in the late 1800s. These theories on the conduct of war derived from his personal experience fighting Napoleon and from his multiple roles under Gerhard von Scharnhorst, a Prussian general who focused on institutional reforms within the Army. Among the most prominent conceptions Clausewitz discusses is war as a “wondrous trinity” of primordial violence, chance and probability, and reason. He argues the three aspects are both “deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another.” It is essential to consider all three aspects as pieces of a whole approach to war, as “a theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality.” As Prussian military and civilian leaders sought ways to improve and adapt the country’s ability to wage war, efforts placed against each of these three pillars of the trinity enabled development that made it a resilient and adaptable fighting force in World War I and beyond.
Pillar I: Primordial Violence
The first pillar of war primarily concerns the people and is composed of “primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force.” Clausewitz argues “the passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people.” As historian Christopher Bassford notes, this pillar does not discuss the act of physical violence, but rather the concept of “violent emotion as a motive force.” In other words, war is motivated through the intensity of emotion residing within the populace.
Prussian reforms in this area sought to inculcate a social acceptance of militarism and elevate the military profession to one of prominence and respect. In 1859, newly appointed war minister Albrecht von Roon expanded active service to three years, increased the peacetime officer corps, and reorganized the duties between the active force and the Landwehr (reserve forces). Although the overall strength of the force expanded throughout the late 1860s, the emphasis of Prussian Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke was on the quality of soldiers, as his strategic doctrine of synchronized movement into a concentrated effort required all units to be well-trained and capable of independent action. In the years following German unification in 1871 and leading to the start of World War I, German society considered military service to be highly prestigious, especially the officer profession as a career for educated young men. In fact, the desire to serve was so profound among the populace that there were not enough positions to meet the demand, unlike the situation in France and England, which struggled to maintain proficient officers. Prussian victories against Denmark, Austria, and France indoctrinated society into the idea of “prowess on the battlefield” and established the German Empire as one born of “military glory,” fueling the prestige of service.
Pillar II: Chance and Probability
The second pillar of Clausewitz’s trinity mainly concerns the “commander and his army” and consists of “the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam.” As historian Alan Beyerchen describes, war can be conceptualized as a nonlinear phenomenon rife with unpredictability that makes it challenging to assess analytically. Yet, Clausewitz refers to the existence of both chance, which is unpredictable and random, as well as probability, which is mathematical and can be calculated. Bassford points out that events may happen by chance, but are informed and acted upon by leaders who make decisions. War is thus subject to random unpredictability, but may be mitigated by the experience of leaders as they engage in preparation and make probabilistic calculations. This skill is developed through the creative spirit that Clausewitz describes, as leaders adapt and react to such nonlinearities.
The Prussian approach to this pillar is fundamentally embodied in the concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission tactics, for the conduct of operations. This approach emphasizes decentralization and initiative to the lowest levels and was introduced by von Moltke in the 1860s. For Moltke, the emphasis was not on enforcing the plan, but rather on encouraging independent judgment, ingenuity, and spontaneity on the part of leaders. Moltke also promoted the use of wargaming (Kriegsspiel) as a routine facet of training, along with the conduct of exercise rides (Uebungsreise) that both tested plans for future operations and reinforced critical thinking among military leaders. In the 1870s, the ability to simulate these nonlinearities and inspire the use of professional judgment was greatly improved by the introduction of the free war game (Freie Kriegsspiel), which reduced rule-based rigidity and made the games popular within the military ranks. Thus a culture developed within the German Army that stressed creative thinking against a challenging adversary as a “collision of two living forces.” In response, the German military often entrusted junior leaders with key positions and responsibilities, regardless of rank. By the outset of World War I, junior officers assumed key roles in executing operations and were routinely relied upon for their expertise in developing new approaches. The development and training of storm troop units (Sturmabteilungen) as combined arms teams across the German Army relied on the knowledge of captains and non-commissioned officers to seize opportunities and make decisions in the heat of battle. Leaders down to the squad level had independence and authority to reposition or counterattack, while the British and French centralized their decision making at the corps and army level.
Pillar III: Reason as a Facet of Policy
The final pillar described by Clausewitz concerns the government and considers war “as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.” Aside from the popular citation that war is a continuation of policy by other means, Clausewitz also notes “the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” For Beyerchen, this supports the nonlinearity concept by invoking war and politics as elements of a feedback loop that reinforce and influence each other—politics has influence over the military and military actions affect politics. Although Bassford takes issue with the word Politik and whether Clausewitz meant to discuss policy or politics, the end is the same as the discussion centers on the use of policy or politics to affect the military preparation for and conduct of war.
To develop social support of the military and implement the changes necessary for a culture of Auftragstaktik required political backing from national political institutions. The abundance of individuals wanting to serve in the military exceeded the number of positions available. To mitigate this and simultaneously expand the pool of available officers, the state created reserve corps commissions for those who received their degree from a secondary Gymnasium school. Military schools also provided the means for social mobility to those who lacked financial means and ensured high educational standards through a diverse liberal arts education. Not only did this system contribute a large number of highly trained officers for use in conflicts, it also allowed Germany to better integrate advanced technologies and rapidly train its soldiers to improve effectiveness. As historian John Mosier argues, “The ability to manufacture sophisticated weaponry was rooted in Germany’s highly developed industries, while their skill in deploying the armaments in the field was an attribute of the educational achievement of the soldiery.” Roon’s major personnel reform proposals in 1859 were also barely challenged by the parliament, aside from the financial cost, as both political sides appreciated the nationalistic bent of military service by citizens. Bismarck’s victories toward unification developed nationalistic German sentiment, which was further stoked by the rise of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1890 and a belief that Germany had a right to use its military as a force for change in the world. Even the end of World War I was seen less as a defeat and more through a revisionist lens by Germans seeking to revive nationalism and the honor of the military. Thus domestic policies and investments reinforced military effectiveness and social support while also integrating the military and economic elements of national power.
Discussion and Present Relevance
Prussian and German reforms in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to the development of a formidable military power through a focus on the three elements of Carl von Clausewitz’s “wondrous trinity.” Primordial violence, or passion inherent in the people, was supported through the expansion of military service by von Roon and the inculcation of military service as a prominent and worthy cause. Development of the Auftragstaktik culture by von Moltke addressed the pillar of chance and probability through war games and the development of innovative commanders. Finally, government actions to expand educational opportunities, integrate the military with other elements of national power, and stoke nationalistic sentiment set the conditions for military advancement. Perhaps most telling about these reforms is the fact that they were institutionalized to the level where the concepts and approaches continued even beyond the loss in World War I, through the interwar period, and set the conditions for the rise of another powerful German military in World War II.
Today, the United States military similarly grapples with challenges that are related to the Clausewitzian trinity and must also be viewed from a whole-of-war perspective. Related to the first pillar, polling by Gallup indicates American society generally views the military in a positive light, with approximately 75% indicating a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military and a nearly unanimous opinion that the U.S. military is one of the greatest in the world. Data from polling by Harris regularly rates “military officer” as among the most prestigious occupations in America, with 78% of respondents rating it as such in 2014. However, the same poll also found that while 79% of adults aged 69 or older would encourage their child to pursue a career as a military officer, only 60% of adults under age 37 would do so. Considering military service across all ranks, a Gallup poll in 2005 found that only 51% of respondents would be supportive if their child wanted to serve, while 48% would suggest another profession. More recent polls focused on the millennial generation find declining interest in military service as compared to previous generations. Data from the Harvard Public Opinion Project in 2018 found that 83% of males between 18 and 29 years old and 88% of females would definitely not or likely not join the military. The U.S. Army missed its recruitment goal in 2018 and projects similar challenges in meeting end-strength in 2019, all while attempting to grow in size. This presents a paradox: a public that generally supports and thinks highly of the military, but appears to be waning in desire to serve.
New military approaches to chance and probability focus on the uncertainty underlying operations of increasing complexity. In 2014, the U.S. Army Operating Concept, entitled “Win in a Complex World,” highlighted the need for agile and adaptive leaders, enhanced training to allow those leaders to thrive under uncertainty, and redundant systems for risk mitigation. Systems for learning and training that focus on adaptivity and flexibility, especially the Outcomes-Based Training and Education (OBT&E) model and Adaptive Leader Methodology (ALM), continue to gain traction within the training and education infrastructure of the military, using situational problem-solving exercises in a free-play, force-on-force environment and focusing on the outcome and creativity rather than pre-defined solutions. These are reminiscent of Moltke’s Freie Kriegsspiel approach, which allowed wargaming to gain popularity in the Prussian military and enhanced the cultural shift toward Auftragstaktik.
In 2018, the U.S. Army Operating Concept was updated to define a new Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) vision for realization by 2028. This approach focuses on how the U.S. Army will take actions that create uncertainty for the adversary and thus affect its combat effectiveness. A similar Multi-Domain Operations approach is also underway in Russia, with an array of specialized units actively integrating into Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) formations. For example, Russian actions against Ukraine in 2014 displayed the ability to integrate cyber, electronic warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), long-range precision fires, and ground forces under a single commander. Taken in succession, these visions of addressing complexity and integration across multiple domains reiterate the inherent nonlinearities in war, the need to enhance the ability of military leaders to thrive in such an environment, and then exacerbate these challenges for enemy forces.
Underlying these challenges is the impact of policy and politics on military preparedness. As militaries acknowledge and shift toward a multi-domain approach, critical legal and policy challenges confront both military and civilian leadership. The realm of cyberspace alone contains numerous disputed areas, including the authorization and use of offensive cyber capabilities, challenges with attribution of nefarious actors, risks to civilian infrastructure, and contradictory definitions across domestic and international agencies. The use of space as a military asset continues to increase with the creation of a United States Space Force and successful testing of satellite destruction systems by China and India. Although militarization of space is strictly prohibited under international treaty, numerous nation-states continue to recognize its strategic importance and take advantage of ambiguities within existing laws.
Policymakers must consider and address these and other issues to provide clear guidance to the military and enable effective action. Continued collaboration across public, private, and academic circles has the potential to enhance innovation and address issues of common concern in a world of ever-growing uncertainty. For example, the newly created Army Futures Command is establishing numerous collaboration centers, such as the Army Artificial Intelligence Task Force based at Carnegie Mellon University. The U.S. Marine Corps is seeking to address a gap in attracting cyber talent through the concept of a cyber auxiliary force with the prestige of connection to the military but without the restrictions associated with uniformed service. International exercises across domains, such as NATO exploration of counter-cyber and counter-electronic warfare techniques, will similarly enhance global understanding and appreciation of challenges in these areas. Such approaches also place a greater emphasis on connecting with the civilian population and exposing a greater number of citizens to the military. In this way, the greatest challenges of the common era may very well spur a sense of coordinated effort across all three interconnected elements of the Clausewitzian trinity that will help enhance both preparation and effectiveness of the United States in future conflicts.
Jaison D. Desai is an officer in the United States Army and holds a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University. The author would like to acknowledge Ed Coss, Ph.D., Department of Military History, Command and General Staff College, Fort Belvoir, VA for his review and suggestions. The views expressed in this article are those of the author; they do not necessarily reflect official policies or positions of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
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