Clausewitzian Deep Tracks: "Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat"

March 23, 2020
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“Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat.” Carl von Clausewitz. trans. Colonel J. J. Graham. On War. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Inc., 2004.


On War is not the only text Carl von Clausewitz wrote. An undercited and underread text is “Guide to Tactics, Or the Theory of the Combat.”[1] In English, it is found only in the Colonel John James Graham translation. Although it is located in the appendix of both the Hinterlassene Werke and Graham’s On War, its literal literary isolation hints at why it has been underexplored.[2] It has never been published in English as a standalone text.[3] It is mentioned in very few articles and books, and then only in passing. Hew Strachan’s Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography contends it was likely written between 1808 and 1812 while Clausewitz was working for Gerhard von Scharnhorst.[4] Paul Schuurman presents the only substantive engagement, which is limited to observations that “Guide to Tactics, Or the Theory of the Combat” contains Clausewitz’s thoughts on adversarial interaction, relationships between wholes and parts, and derives from the nature of military forces.[5] In Penser la guerre, Raymond Aron abstains from engaging with the text. He notes that at an epistemological and conceptual level “Guide to Tactics, Or the Theory of the Combat” is methodologically consistent with On War.[6] Beyond these references, it seems the greater community is unaware the work exists. This article seeks to change that.

“Guide to Tactics, Or the Theory of the Combat” is a better introduction to Clausewitz than On War. Of course, military professionals must understand that policy circumscribes the possibilities of military action, just as military means serve as an instrumental extension of politics. On War establishes the framework that fits the military into the larger geopolitical picture. It also defines war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”[7] Such an understanding of Clausewitz will not change the day-to-day operational or bureaucratic realities of the profession, however, insights from “Guide to Tactics, Or the Theory of the Combat” might. The text is pragmatic and relevant, even as, or especially because, it remains theoretical.

“Guide to Tactics, Or the Theory of the Combat” is a better introduction to Clausewitz than On War.

The text contains 604 propositions, divided into 28 sections. There is a treasure trove of insights. And although, like On War, it focuses on some specific tactics of the Napoleonic era, it treats the concepts abstractly. These formulations provide the theoretical distance necessary to apply Clausewitz’s ideas beyond the specificity of the time in which he wrote it. Much like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, it is a work rooted in its context that nevertheless contains timeless insights. Some keys pertain to a theory of victory, the difference between close combat and fire combat and their relationship to the destructive and decisive act, and the character of command. One can and should continuously mine the text. Here are a few gems.

The bodies of dead soldiers of Napoleon's Grand Armée left on the bridge over the River Kolocha after the Battle of Borodino, 1812, pained by Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur (Wikimedia)

Clausewitz begins with “the object of the combat.”[8] Combat seeks one or a combination of these three things: “destruction of the enemy’s armed forces,” “possession of some object,” or “merely victory for the credit of our arms.”[9] With the objective established, Clausewitz lays out his section on the “Theory of Victory.”[10] Victory, in Clausewitz’s time, was the “retirement of the enemy from the field of battle.”[11] Today, the battlefield is ever expanding and amorphous. Compelling the enemy to evacuate that realm by destruction or decision remains the desired end—be it on land or in cyberspace, for example. Clausewitz lists seven ways to achieve this aim. All are mental effects, catalyzed by perceptions about the enemy or oneself.[12] As Clausewitz says, “the enemy is moved to this” if one should engender in an enemy the belief, through attrition, that they have lost the necessary capacity to achieve their ends, or the belief that regenerating this capacity would not be worth the blood and treasure; the enemy’s morale is crushed; through the course of fighting, the enemy can be convinced he has lost position and therefore experience the same fears and beliefs intrinsic to the first set of beliefs; there is a mismatch between expected force employments; the enemy can be made to experience surprise or met unready; the enemy maintains the belief that their opponent has greater capacity; or the enemy maintains the belief that their opponent has a greater will.[13]

Clausewitz is not focused on lethality, but rather on the why of lethality.[14] The why has not changed, even as the means have. For instance, when discussing the difference between close combat and fire combat, loosely correlated to maneuver and firepower, he observes, “Weapons with which the enemy can be attacked while he is at a distance are more instruments for the understanding; they allow the feelings, the ‘instinct for fighting’ properly called, to remain almost at rest, and this so much the more according as the range of their effects is greater.”[15] In other words, a weapon with great effective range, like artillery or aviation, allows a military force to affect another without subjecting their personnel to the fear and strain of close combat. Clausewitz could not have described the drone debates better.[16] Close combat, on the other hand, is that which is “nearest to the pugilistic encounter.”[17] Since it is akin to maneuver, close combat is fueled by passions, whereas fire combat, or fires, is distanced—intellectually, emotionally, and literally.[18]

“Both,” importantly, “have for their object the destruction of the enemy.”[19] However, the “epistemology of lethality” varies.[20] For close combat this “effect is quite certain.”[21] The certainty is what makes it lethal: an assured expectation of a future deadly harm. Fire combat, conversely, “is only more or less probable.”[22] This remains true today even as we seek to ever increase our tactical precision.[23] This credence differential is critical to identifying the variance between the destructive act and the decisive act. The reason the enemy is driven from the battlefield, which is victory as a decisive act, is because of the certainty of the destruction by close combat.[24] It is crucially not the destruction itself. Fire combat, on the other hand, is only “the preparation,” even if, or because, it destroys the adversary’s force.[25] All this follows from Clauswitzian epistemological views on victory.

“Napoleon I on the Borodino Heights” painted by Vasily Vereshchagin (Wikimedia)

Clausewitz provides clarity towards discipline, which is instant willing obedience to orders. His approach is more flexible. In “Analysis of the Combat,” Clausewitz distinguishes between the “Word of Command” and “a written or verbal Order.”[26] Command, he writes, “admits of no gradations, in point of fact it is a part of the execution.”[27] Commanders can rely on command if they are in close proximity to the forces engaged, where they can verbally command and control. Imagine these commands akin to battle drills, standard operating procedures, and immediate actions. Beyond that proximity, however, commanders must resort to orders. The order, Clausewitz contends, “is not the execution itself, but only a commission to execution,” to the extent that whoever receives “an Order is given, a certain independence.”[28] Clausewitz logically concludes that orders exist in part because a “plan [cannot] descend into the minutest details, as in the construction of a piece of inanimate machinery.”[29] This is true with an ever increasing ubiquity of computer systems, many of which use automation or artificial intelligence. It is because of these epistemic limitations, which are not alleviated by machines, that we have orders. Orders of “a certain independence” are a military’s heuristics; this is nothing less than mission command and the Prussian origins of Aufragstaktik.

“Carl von Clausewitz” pained by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikimedia)

In the section on “Character of Command,” Clausewitz distinguishes between two kinds of courage: physical courage, with which we are familiar, and a “courage of the mind,” or “courage d’esprit.”[30] This is not exactly like the concept of moral courage, instead it is the “courage to calculate upon the uncertain, and upon that to frame a course of action.”[31] Osur sense of moral courage is entailed by courage d’esprit. Clausewitz’s “courage of the mind” is wider and need not be constrained to ethical choices and actions. It is closer to trust. Defined by Oxford University Trust Fellow Rachel Botsman, “Trust is a confident relationship with the unknown.”[32] Leaders seek to foster trust with themselves, their subordinates, and with external agencies. Training and education is the best leaders have to manage, contend with, and execute in the face of uncertainty. This complements Clausewitz’s definition of risk, which “in the widest sense, is to suppose things which are not certain.”[33] Courage d’esprit is a kind of trust to execute in the face of risk.

Given that On War functions to describe the relationship of war to politics, “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat” describes the relationship of tactics to war.

This analysis is anything but exhaustive. What separates “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat” is how it situates itself in relation to On War. In many ways it serves as its inverse. Given that On War functions to describe the relationship of war to politics, “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat” describes the relationship of tactics to war. As Martin Kornberger and Anders Engberg-Pedersen argue, “Strategy is the interface between policy and tactics.”[34] Strategy—the interface—infuses “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat” with its purpose and initiative, limited, as we know from On War, by the extent of policy. To understand war requires analysis on both sides of the interface. That means a balanced understanding between On War and “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat.” Moreover, for military professionals, “Guide to Tactics, or the Theory of the Combat,” is a better place to start.


Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps currently serving with the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. She has an MA in War Studies from King's College London. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Colonel J. J. Graham (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 2004), Appendix, 798-870. I read the Graham translation in 2013, but it took until 2020 to finally read the Appendix. Such is the plight of too many appendices.

[2] The German title is “Leitfaden zur Bearbeitung der Taktik der Gefechtslehre.”

[3] There is a French edition, Théorie du Combat, published in 1998.

[4] Hew Strachan, Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 118.

[5] Paul Schuurman, “War as a System: A Three-Stage Model for the Development of Clausewitz’s Thinking on Military Conflict and Its Constraints,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37, no. 6-7 (December 2014), 926-948.

[6] Raymond Aron, Penser la guerre (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), 30. Strikingly Aron continues, “Ce texte, entièrement négligé par les lecteurs français avant 1914, aurait évité bien des erreurs.” A subjunctive claim to make French teachers swoon and the Lost Generation found. There is also a short analysis, using “Guide to Tactics, or a Theory of the Combat,” on the difference between the attack and the defense on page 271.

[7] Clausewitz, 3.

[8] Clausewitz, 798.

[9] Clausewitz, 798.

[10] Clausewitz, 798.

[11] Clausewitz, 798.

[12] Cf. B. A. Friedman’s On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle for further description of this tactical goal; cf. Anders Engberg-Pedersen’s Empire of Chance in which he persuasively argues for “war as a problem of knowledge.” [Anders Engberg-Pedersen, Empire of Chance: The Napoleonic Wars and the Disorder of Things (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 3.] Engberg-Pedersen’s work describes On War’s poetics and Clausewitz’s project as united by the desire to manage and train for uncertainty in war. The epistemological bent found in Clausewitz’s “Theory of Victory” is consistent with Engberg-Pedersen’s claim.

[13] Clausewitz, 798-799.

[14] Olivia Garard, “Lethality: An Inquiry,” The Strategy Bridge, 1 November 2018, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2018/11/1/lethality-an-inquiry.

[15] Clausewitz, 803.

[16] Cf. Anderson et al. “Trust, Troops, and Reapers: Getting Drone Research Right” at War on the Rocks and Olivia Garard “Fragments Through a Straw, Darkly: #Reviewing Drone,” at The Strategy Bridge.

[17] Clausewitz, 803.

[18] Clausewitz, 803.

[19] Clausewitz, 803

[20] Matthew Ford, “The epistemology of lethality: Bullets, knowledge trajectories, kinetic effects,” European Journal of International Security 5, no. 1 (February 2020), 77.

[21] Garard, “Lethality: An Inquiry.”

[22] Clausewitz, 803.

[23] Olivia Garard, “Targeting Clausewitzian Judgements: Fusing Precision and Accuracy to Strategy and Tactics,” The Strategy Bridge, 20 September 2016, https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2016/9/20/targeting-clausewitzian-judgments-fusing-precision-and-accuracy-to-strategy-and-tactics. Consider how the military uses the concepts of probability of incapacitation or the probability of hit.

[24] Clausewitz, 804.

[25] Clausewitz, 804.

[26] Clausewitz, 810.

[27] Clausewitz, 810.

[28] Clausewitz, 810.

[29] Clausewitz, 810.

[30] Clausewitz, 866.

[31] Clausewitz, 866.

[32] Trust Falls, Your Undivided Attention, Podcast, https://your-undivided-attention.simplecast.com/episodes/trust-falls.

[33] Clausewitz, 828.

[34] Martin Kornberger and Anders Engberg-Pedersen, “Reading Clausewitz, reimagining the practice of strategy,” Strategic Organization 0, no. 00 (June 2019), 6.



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