Carl von Clausewitz’s Advice: Make War, Not Love Against Terrorism

by | Aug 19, 2002 | POLITICS, Terrorism

I just recently finished reading Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (Vom Kriege)–the first time I had read the book since college. It occurred to me just how much the planners of the war on terrorism can learn from Clausewitz as they strategize the destruction of al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations, as well as the defeat […]

I just recently finished reading Carl von Clausewitz’s On War (Vom Kriege)–the first time I had read the book since college. It occurred to me just how much the planners of the war on terrorism can learn from Clausewitz as they strategize the destruction of al-Qaeda and related terrorist organizations, as well as the defeat and elimination of enemy governments.

It is important to remember the state of warfare prior to Clausewitz, as well as the primary influences on his work. Clausewitz’s theories of war were shaped in large part by the defeats suffered by the Prussians at the hands of Napoleon and his Grande Armee. The culminating battles at Jena and Auerstadt were particularly impressive, as they were routs that represented the new thinking in war. Until the advent of Napoleon and his method of prosecuting war, warfare was an activity for the aristocrat class, and it was not fought for the purpose of engendering the total destruction of the enemy. The pre-Napoleonic army was made up of highly trained professionals who viewed service in the military as a job, nothing more. The conduct of war itself was almost gentlemanly in nature and execution. The scope and execution of warfare was limited, and the high expenses associated with the maintenance and upkeep of the typical pre-Napoleonic army ensured that warfare would not become too vast in scope. Loyalties in warfare were shifting, with constant defections of general staffs to different armies, and different supreme commanders.

The objective of a particular battle in pre-Napoleonic warfare was to ensure the tactical advantage for a particular side. An analogy may be made between pre-Napoleonic armies, and the boxer who goes for the decision in a bout, instead of endeavoring to knock out his opponent. Such was the conduct of war. Additionally, retreat and/or surrender were seen as practical and honorable alternatives to the complete destruction of one’s army, and were made use of often.

However, with the advent of Napoleon, war became an activity for the masses, with conscription and patriotic fervor driving the activity more and more. Within short order, the enemies of the Grande Armee learned that Napoleon was not interested in maneuver or winning decisions. Rather, Napoleon focused on the complete and total destruction of his enemy. And generals emulated Napoleon in fighting wars to achieve the destruction of the enemy. The aristocratic class and the professional soldiers were not as prevalent in the structure of a military organization as in the past. Instead, national armies relied on conscripts to fill the ranks, and taught the conscripts to fight with passion and vigor by infusing them with ideas, as well as with instruction in the military arts. The ideas that drove the Grande Armee and other armies in the post-Napoleonic era included love of country, loyalty to a king or emperor, and in the specific case of the Grande Armee, the propagation of the ideals of the French Revolution–liberty, equality and fraternity.

For Clausewitz, Napoleon’s stunning and crushing victory over Clausewitz’s Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt drove the value of the new mode of warfare home. With his twin victories, Napoleon utterly defeated the Prussian empire, and fully persuaded Clausewitz to accepting Napoleonic strategy and tactics as representing the preferred conduct of warfare.

So how does Clausewitz help us in our current conflict with terrorism? He reminds us that in war, we must be able to utterly and completely defeat and destroy the enemy in order to force the enemy to do our will. In making this point, Clausewitz cites the Napoleonic example, and he also brings his own words to bear on the issue:

If the enemy is thrown off balance, he must not be given time to recover. Blow after blow must be struck in the same direction: the victor, in other words, must strike with all his strength… by daring to win all, will one really defeat the enemy.

Why is this particular bit of advice important to remember? The answer is that in our recent past, we have not heeded Clausewitz’s admonition. While it was seen as wise to end the Persian Gulf War after one hundred hours of ground combat so as to avoid dissipation of the coalition and to help engender a peace process in the Middle East, subsequent events have proven that it would have been better for the administration of President Bush the Elder to push to Baghdad and demand unconditional surrender from Iraq, and the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s government. Hindsight is certainly 20/20, and a fair case may be made that in 1991, it made perfect sense not to go beyond the bounds of the UN resolutions authorizing the use of force, but after 11 years, and the death of three thousand people in one day, it should be clear to us that a mortal enemy must not be suffered to remain powerful. Rather, his strength and power must be dissipated and destroyed so that he may no longer pose a threat to American national security.

We also failed to heed Clausewitz’s admonition during the Clinton Administration–settling for furious yet ineffective cruise missile strikes against terrorist targets after the commission of each horrendous act of terrorism. These attacks failed to impress terrorists in the slightest, let alone destroy them. Instead, they conveyed the message that the United States was not serious about the elimination of the terrorist threat–a message that emboldened terrorists like Osama bin Laden, causing him to launch vicious terrorist operations like the bombing of the USS Cole and the commission of the acts of September 11th. As such, the United States will have to conduct its war on terrorism in a Napoleonic manner–aiming for as complete a destruction of terrorist forces as possible. This entails ensuring that al-Qaeda no longer has a global reach, and fighting the next Persian Gulf War to total victory over Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime–a victory that would culminate with the end of the regime.

A study of the German/Prussian military in Clausewitz’s time is also important in instructing us on what not to do in war. Post-Jena/Auerstadt, the policy of the German general staff up to World War II was to have superior officers give specific and detailed instructions to military subordinates on how particular strategies and tactics are to be achieved. While the Germans/Prussians were quite successful in their military history with the operational procedures they used, the fact remains that for American forces, the best approach is to ensure that subordinates have enough leeway to improvise a response to whatever variables they find on the battlefield. It is a military maxim that carefully laid war plans never survive first contact with the enemy. This makes it all the more important to allow subordinates in the American military structure to be able to adjust military plans as appropriate, based on the situation at hand. American military commanders must trust their subordinates, and be able to delegate authority to them.

The average American soldier is well disciplined, highly trained, well educated, and quite intelligent. His/her talents and attributes must be used to the hilt, and the best way to do this is to encourage American soldiers to make a valuable intellectual contribution to the planning and execution of the war against terrorism. From chess, we learn that even the lowliest pawn can become a queen–the most powerful piece on the board. In the ranks of the Grande Armee itself, every soldier was given a field marshal’s baton, symbolizing the heights to which that soldier could rise if he were able to display the proper initiative and degree of competence. The American soldier must be similarly assured of his/her importance and ability to make a substantive contribution to the conduct of warfare. This can be best accomplished by ensuring that the American soldier is empowered to make an intellectual contribution to the war, as well as a physical one. Such empowerment is possible only with a delegation of authority by military superiors to their subordinates that will allow those subordinates in the heat of battle and in the preparation of a military action to lend their own intelligence and experience to the shaping of plans.

Far from being quaint and antiquated, Clausewitz’s lessons and admonitions on the conduct of war are as applicable today as they were in the era in which they were written. If Clausewitz’s words and the examples of his time are kept in mind in America’s own war on terrorism, it will significantly enhance and augment the ability of our military to implement American policy goals, and destroy the global reach of al-Qaeda, similar organizations, and the states that sponsor their terrorism. Revolutionary warfighting doctrines and state-of-the-art technology are certainly valuable components to the successful prosecution of any war. However, it is worth remembering that a one hundred seventy year old treatise on war; read and reread by military leaders and scholars around the world, may yet have something to teach us about how to achieve the military and political victory we seek.

— Made available through Tech Central Station –

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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