A bit of Clausewitz

So, speaking of Clausewitz, here are some reflections from reading him. (If you think the blogs are a bit eclectic today, yes, I’m working through a queue of things I drafted in a notebook..)

Zweck vs. Ziel – one of the things everyone sort-of knows about him is “the maintenance of the aim”, but I think the distinction between these two concepts is more important. They translate into English as “purpose” and “aim”. Zweck is why you’re doing this to begin with; it is fundamentally political in nature. Ziel is what you’re trying to achieve in order to arrive at the purpose.

Although the aim is military and the purpose political, the relationship between them is bidirectional – the requirements of the purpose affect the selection of the aim, but the practical considerations (the friction) that also affect the choice of the aim have an impact on the purpose, because not all aims that would lead to the purpose are possible.

An example: the Americans in Iraq. They had clear aims – defeat the Iraqi military, destroy anything to do with WMD they found, occupy Baghdad, and remove Saddam. They never did work out the purpose, or rather, different actors in the US establishment had different and conflicting purposes, and as a result, the aims beyond that were entirely incoherent and led nowhere.

The distinction between limited and total war – for Clausewitz, this is perhaps the most important strategic question. Are we involved in a limited conflict, in which many different secondary aims may be important and allowable, or a total one, in which only the absolute and utter concentration of strength on absolute victory is acceptable?

Napoleon changes everything – Clausewitz got invaded by the French twice, as a Prussian and as a Prussian rebel in Russian service, and unsurprisingly the experience changed him. He thought that the way European armies fought before Napoleon was a permanent state of limited war, really only an extension of diplomacy, and the repeated disasters that befell them against the French were down to a failure to grasp the extreme nature of the challenge.

The warlike element – “At war, everything is simple but nothing is easy”. Everything is more difficult and more uncertain. The denser the warlike element, the greater the advantage to the defending side, and the greater the impact of time. As a result, all wars are limited to some extent, subject to friction, and therefore to political considerations. Also, as soon as violence is used, rationality is weakened, and irrational, emotional responses are stronger.

The landscape is an act of imagination – a related point is the concept of the coup d’oeil, the ability of an effective commander to assess the possibilities of the landscape, and therefore of the warlike element, intuitively and visually. Clausewitz argues that this is a faculty of the imagination.

The culminating point – all offensive action eventually ends in defence, at the latest, at the point where the warlike element has become thick enough that no further progress is possible. It is vital to achieve aims, which ideally will deliver the purpose, before this point.

An example: the Argentines on the Falklands. The culminating point, beyond which they had to go over to the defensive, was immediately after landing successfully. They had done their worst, which was not sufficient to achieve their political purpose in itself, and the problem was now how to hold onto their gains. The British, in trying to recapture the islands, had their own culminating point, quite independent of enemy action, in that they had to finish the campaign before the weather and the wear and tear on ships’ machinery forced them to stop.

Another example: the Americans in Iraq, again. Once that statue bit the tarmac, they had achieved their aims and had nowhere further to go but onto the defensive.

Rate and flow – Clausewitz spends a lot of effort dispelling the idea that some geometric disposition of troops or other will win. Instead, it’s all about time and speed and mass, something he borrows from the French, and hence, logistics.

Against geniuses – he really doesn’t like the notion that great men transcend the rules that bind the average. “Rules that only apply to stupid people must be stupid rules.”

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