International Relations

Carl Von Clausewitz’ Contribution to Our Understanding of War

Per Magnus Muren (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in International Relations .

Carl Von Clausewitz is widely regarded as one of the most influential strategic thinkers in history, and particularly western history. Many of the concepts he introduced in On War are still widely used in war colleges, strategic studies and military literature around the world.[1] However, there have been much debate around the continued relevance of Clausewitzian concepts and his Trinity to contemporary conflicts as Martin van Creveld seems to have been right when he predicted that after the Cold War conflicts would occur within, rather than between, states and thus not fit the Clausewitzian analysis and rationality.[2] This essay will concede that Clausewitz’ strategic prescriptions and maxims are very much a product of its time and culture and therefore holds limited value as a strategic manual apart from the historical significance. However, the relevance of his strategy as a guide to contemporary urban guerrilla warfare, terrorism, nuclear deterrence and future cyber wars are too easy of a target. Despite the shortcomings of On War, or perhaps because of them, this essay will argue that it is unfair to judge Clausewitz based on the particularities of his strategy and that On War should not be seen as a guide to winning wars but rather as a framework for thinking about war itself. Strategy is indeed a function of culture, technology and resources and thus Clausewitz main contribution to our understanding of war is not his strategic conclusions, as the character of war continuously changes, but rather his methodology and his discussion on the nature of war as inherently political. Ultimately this essay will argue that Clausewitz’ definition of war and his Trinity remains relevant as frameworks for analysing and understanding contemporary conflicts, despite Van Creveld and Keegan’s notable objections. But first we will look at the historical context of Clausewitz himself.

Carl Von Clausewitz was a Prussian General and war theorist who grew up in military service at the height of the European Enlightenment. Son of an officer he entered the Prussian army at eleven or twelve years old in 1792 and fought in five wars and at least thirty-six battles, including some of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic era.[3] He entered the Prussian Military Academy in Berlin in 1801 and probably studied the ideas of philosopher Immanuel Kant through the writings of Johann Gottfried Kiesewetter.[4] While at the academy he gained the favour and support of General Gerhard von Scharnhorst who further influenced Clausewitz to think analytically and ask fundamental questions about strategy and war. After serving in the Napoleonic wars for both the Prussian and Russian army he was eventually appointed to director of the military academy (Kriegsakademie) in 1818, which allowed him time to write his philosophy of war, which would eventually be published as On War (Vom Kriege) after his death. The early philosophical influence of Kant and Scharnhorst lead Clausewitz to be very concerned with theory. He is perhaps the first to ask “what war is” rather than just present a collection of strategic maxims. He realized that he first had to understand the nature of war based on the reality of war from his own experience and history worked into a theoretical framework which allowed him to identify universal aspects of war apart from the particulars of a specific conflict.[5] Clausewitz’ goal with On War was to come up with a universal definition of war or the essence of war, while allowing for the subjectivity of a changing character of war.[6] The universal framework or theory he derived from his understanding of the nature of war could then be applied to analyse any particular conflict despite the changing character of who is fighting whom where and with what weapons.

Clausewitz has been heavily criticized, most notably by John Keegan and Martin Van Creveld. Keegan argues that war is not the continuation of politics but rather the continuation of culture and Clausewitz’ thoughts are therefore trapped in his particular cultural context of the revolutionary wars of Napoleon.[7] Van Creveld similarly suggest that the Trinity, which includes the government, people and army to match reason, passion and chance respectively,[8] only applies to the fairly limited nation state conflicts of Clausewitz’ day, and that modern civil wars and ethnic conflict do not have such a division of labour nor are they governed and limited by the political reason of a state.[9] Now, if we look at the particularities of Clausewitz we see that he was heavily influenced by the French revolution and Napoleon’s ability to create a people’s army. During his time in the Napoleonic wars people went from being subjects to citizens and harnessing the passion of the people to fight for the state became an important factor for conducting military campaigns after the French revolution in 1799.[10] The influence of the campaigns in landlocked Europe and Russia are clearly seen in Clausewitz’ neglect of naval forces as he only discusses infantry, cavalry and artillery,[11] and the notion that superior numbers can make up for shortcomings in leadership and strategy.[12] The argument that defence has the advantage over offence, as the weaker will always seek a defensive posture to gain an equalising advantage from fortifications and knowledge of the land,[13] and the inclusion of the people as representatives of the passion, hatred and violence of war and the government as the reason in war that subjugates it to political objectives also reflect the way war was fought in his time.[14]

It is obviously clear that naval and air power are important to modern militaries and that large armies of the people have been eclipsed by small tactical teams, insurgents hiding in the crowd, drones and nuclear deterrence in modern conflicts. The character of war no longer matches the chess board army versus army lined up across a huge battlefield image we get from Clausewitz. But Van Creveld and Keegan argues not only that the tools and techniques have changed, they argue that war is not the continuation of politics by other means[15] and that the Clausewitzian Trinity that subordinates war under the reason of politics and divides the different aspects of war between government, people and army no longer works as an analytical tool in ethnic conflicts, civil wars and guerrilla armies. Van Creveld argues in The Transformation of War that post 1945 the conflicts we see around the world flip the causality of war and political cause, that our need to “play” at war as human beings blurs the lines between political objective and war as an independent variable. In Van Creveld’s account the Trinity breaks down as there are no distinction between government, people and army in a world after nation state conflict.[16] Crime syndicates, war lords and guerrilla groups fight first then come up with a cause to fight for and the same individuals are the people, fighters and leaders at the same time. The fundamental criticism of Clausewitz here is that war is not rational. Passion and culture drive war and how war is fought, not politics according to Keegan and Van Creveld. Thus the Trinity loses its analytical power as arguably the most important part is taken away when we remove reason and politics.

However, the Trinity did not merely arise out of Napoleon’s way of war and the European nation states, although they were a significant influence. Clausewitz the soldier was also influenced by the Kantian notions of pure and practical reason which lead him to the dialectical approach of combining a theoretical examination of war with his real life military experience. He starts On War off by defining what war is in its purest form and comes up with the concept of absolute war. War as he defines it is a battle of wills using violence. “War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”[17] In this ideal image of war the conflict will escalate into the infinite and the logic of absolute war compels you to use the utmost force and commit every man, every resource and all you have to disarm the enemy and remove his ability to resist your will as quickly as possible.[18]

However, this absolute or ideal definition of war is both a paradox as it escalates infinitely out of control and not an accurate representation of war as observed in reality.[19] War is never an isolated act nor one decisive instant blow. War has a purpose which is often altered and reconsidered as two armies face of and grind against each other. The wills involved are not static entities but changing and moving. The outcomes of war are therefore never absolute. Tension and animosity might fluctuate and treaties might be broken or keep the peace. War in real life is full of uncertainty and chance which takes the place of the theoretical extremes. One must plan for the unknown and war is always fought based on probability, not absolute certainty.[20] Seeing that absolute war is not a reflection of reality Clausewitz modifies his definition to reflect war as dependent on purpose and probability. As war is fought for a purpose it is also limited by that purpose. What you wish to gain from the war and how much you are willing to sacrifice to gain it will determine your war efforts,[21] and so we get the definition: “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means.”[22] By systematically defining what war is as a basis for his theory Clausewitz goes beyond mere strategy prescriptions and instead of focusing on justifications or morality he provides us with the Trinity as an analytical tool to think about war and apply to our own particular context. His definition leads to three distinct components of war, the passion, hatred and violence necessary to dominate the will of the enemy, the chance and uncertainty of life which allows for creativity and judgment, and the purpose or reason for going to war. For the sake of illustration to his contemporaries Clausewitz places passion, chance and reason under the domains of the people, the army and government respectively,[23] but it could be applied to anyone who fights for whatever reason.

The enduring relevance and value of On War comes in large part from his methodology and analytical approach. Instead of simply telling us what is perceived as sound military strategy during his time he first establishes what war is as a way of touching upon something more universal. Interpreting Clausewitz as exclusively applicable to nation states is misunderstanding the purpose of the book, as Donald Stoker argues: “On War is not a book on how to fight or win a war, but how to think about fighting a war.”[24] How you fight will be different for the time and place but you can always look at what the motives for the war is, what each side is willing to sacrifice, how emotions and passion drive the different sides and how the uncertain and unexpected are taken advantage of or mishandled by the different sides. In this sense it is important to acknowledge that this argument sees book one in particular as important, as this was also the only book of On War Clausewitz himself considered complete[25] and it contains his theoretical framework and the Trinity from which he constructs the rest of his strategy.

Keegan and Creveld’s fundamental criticism is that war is not rational, that culture does more to explain war than politics and Clausewitz is therefore too culturally specific to the formalized battles between European nation states in the Napoleonic era, where decisive battles could lead to a political settlement. Van Creveld notes that war is not necessarily a means to an end as Clausewitz assumes but could also be an end in itself. People might take up a cause just to fight, not fight for a cause. Heuser mentions arms trade, military industry, prestige of the leader as reasons why war itself becomes an end. Organized crime and mafia syndicates in the Balkans in the 1990s thrived of the anarchy caused by the conflict and therefore sought to prolong the fighting.[26] However, if we truly acknowledge the cultural context of war and broaden our understanding of the political beyond the nation state we can still apply Clausewitz to these scenarios. He might have used Nation states in his examples but there is no real distinction between civil society, economics, culture, religion and politics in Clausewitz. It is all included under the umbrella of politics. Nor does he make any moral or logical evaluations of the political reasons for war, all that matters is that they are there and the people doing the fighting believes in them.

 Keegan argues that war is the end of politics and exists as its own cultural expression, which would fall under the umbrella of politics in Clausewitz. By understanding the political aims of the war you can begin to understand how and why the actual means of force are used. This applies to everything but violent crimes of passion as we all believe ourselves to act rationally and with intent even when it might look absurd and meaningless from the outside. The rationality of the political motivations for a war cannot be judged on its validity or morality in Clausewitz. Even the World Wars, which seems to have escalated into the impossible absolute war, seem to have had ill-defined political aims, especially the first, and immense cost of life defying any rationality. But we cannot call a war absurd in hindsight. Rationality is relative to a perceived goal. Clausewitz tells us to understand those goals so a strategy to achieve or prevent it can be devised. What you are willing to sacrifice will limit how you can fight. How you value human life, the cost to your own troops, financial costs, willingness to inflict and sustain collateral damage are all limiting political factors which are shaped by culture, history, international norms and available resources. Even crime lords and terrorists operate with an internal rationality and thus reason, passion and chance govern their actions in violent conflict. By broadening our understanding of the political in Clausewitz we can apply the Trinity to any conflict and be a step closer to understanding why the conflict exists, not necessarily how to fight it.


Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.

New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Creveld, Martin Van. The Transformation of War. New York: Free Press, 1991.

Echevarria, Antulio J. Clausewitz and Contemporary War. YouTube: US Army War College. Published, Mar 25, 2010.

Heuser, Beatrice. Reading Clausewitz. London: Pimlico, 2002.

Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. 2nd Edition. London: Pimlico, 2004.

Stoker, Donald. Donald Stoker: “Clausewitz: His Life and Work” | Talks at Google.

YouTube: Published, Dec 30, 2014.

[1] Heuser, Beatrice. (2002) Reading Clausewitz. London: Pimlico, p179.

[2] Creveld, Martin Van. (1991) The Transformation of War. New York: The Free Press.

[3] Stoker, Donald. (2014) YouTube: Donald Stoker: “Clausewitz: His Life and Work” | Talks at Google.

[4] Echevarria, Antulio J. (2010) YouTube: USArmyWarCollege: Clausewitz and Contemporary War.

[5] Stoker. (2014) Clausewitz: His Life and Work.

[6] Echevarria. (2010) Clausewitz and Contemporary War.

[7] Keegan, John. (2004) A History of Warfare. 2nd Edition. London: Pimlico. Ch 1: War in Human History.

[8] Clausewitz, Carl Von. (1989) On War. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1:28.

[9] Creveld. (1991) The Transformation of War.

[10] Stoker. (2014) Clausewitz: His Life and Work.

[11] Clausewitz. On War. 5:4.

[12] Ibid. 3:8.

[13] Ibid. 6:1-30.

[14] Ibid. 1:28.

[15] Keegan, (2004) A History of Warfare. p1.

[16] Creveld. (1991) The Transformation of War.

[17] Clausewitz. On War. 1:1.

[18] Ibid. 1:2-5.

[19] Ibid. 1:6

[20] Ibid. 1:10.

[21] Ibid. 1:11.

[22] Ibid. 1:24.

[23] Ibid. 1:28.

[24] Stoker. (2014) Clausewitz: His Life and Work.

[25] Clausewitz. On War. Introduction.

[26] Heuser. (2002) Reading Clausewitz. p190-191.

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