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27 February 2015


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I do not usually comment on SST guest author's essays but, in this case Richard and I have discussed this and so I will.

I have a problem with his evident interpretation of Clausewitz. Richard appears to subscribe to the idea that KvonC is so focussed on the combat parts of war that this is really all he is about. This view of the essentially incomplete book, "Vom Kriege" was very popular in the 19th and early 20th Centuries but is now thought of as inadequate by many, including me. In those days such terms as "The Mahdi of Mass" were applied to KvonC. He was a much subtler thinker than that.

He is a philosopher of war, a philosopher of war as a specialized act of will by which one polity seeks to compel another to accept the aggressor's wishes. In that process KvonC sees ALL WAR as "merely the continuation of policy by other means." To the end of continuing the originating policy by force, KvonC believed that successful war was possible only through the willing unity of what he called the trinity of "people, state and army." Without that unity of all the elements of society, he thought success to be very unlikely.

KvonC believed that once the army part of the trinity was employed then it must be seen that "war is ... an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will." and that "only great and general battles can produce great results," but that does not mean that he thought that THE WAR as a whole was simply a matter of great and general battles. KvonC thought of "absolute war," a favorite term for him, as "the way Napoleon waged war." (Michael Handel said this to me). Because of his Napoleonic context KvonC tended to think in terms of the kinds of battles and campaigns that Napoleon waged Austerlitz being the greatest example. But, as I wrote earlier "Vom Kriege" is essentially an unfinished work. He intended to write much additional material on what he (and Vo Nguyen Giap) called "people's war." Unfortunately, life is short and he never wrote that part except for a lot of notes that he left behind. If he had done so then it might have been clearer that Napoleon's experiences in Spain and Russia with guerrillas had a lot more relevance than some have thought is implied by the existing text, and that great battle like Gettysburg or Eylau are not necessarily the only path to victory. My point is that KvonC saw war as a full spectrum social experience for a country or people, and not as simply a matter of battles lost and won. pl

Patrick Bahzad

Thank you Richard for this insightful piece, as always. Hope you won't mind me disagreeing with you on some minor points, even though I understand your baseline and the necessity to choose among various theories about WWII and Nazi Germany the one that has your favour.

I find the analogy with early German strategy to bypass Allied superiority quite interesting. When looking at ISIS' actions in the ME, it reminds me of what Muhammad Ali said before his fight against Sonny Liston: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can't hit what the eyes can't see" (apologies for quoting the great Ali in same sentence as ISIS, but you get what I mean).

There definitely was something similar at work in Germany between 1933 and 1939. However, once has to consider that Hitler was a man driven by an idea and that reality always came second to that idea. As a visionary, he was able to secure gains nobody thought possible. But his great strategic aim was to avoid what was Germany's undoing in WWI, that is a "two front war". Beating the Anlgo-French was always going to be a priority before turning eastward, for his great enterprise of "Drang nach Osten", in a reset of 14th expansion by Teutonic Knights, or claiming back what he considered ancient Germanic tribal areas, if you go as far as (pre-)history.

That is where the balance between rationale thinking for tactical gains and genocidal strategic ideology went missing. At one point, even though there should have been a reality check, the fantasies of a fourth "Reich" that would last for a thousand years took precedence and led to blunders of epic proportions.

Whether ISIS will itself be victim of such hubris and delusions of grandeur remains to be seen. Regarding the Flanking strategy though, one has to accept the premise that it is definitely within ISIS reach to create such a flanking move aimed at putting pressure onto Baghdad through advances both in the West (in a south-east push) and in the East (through a much more difficult push towards Iranian border and Kurdish areas). I can't see that happen, except for a political agreement with the Kurds, in particular Talabani's PUK party, as Barzani's KDP is more hostile to ISIS.

Whether or not ISIS manages to reach its strategic goals in Iraq might actually be crucial to the survival of its leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi. Keep in mind that the ME has a tradition of political assassination and "coup d'état", contrary to the militaristic German State of Prussian inspiration. Caliphs, tyrants and dictators have been routinely sent to the afterlife in the ME. Not so in Germany, which is also one of the reasons why Hitler managed to stay in control until the bitter end.

That being said, I fully agree with the baseline of your piece, regarding the necessity to contemplate the consequences of actions, before deciding about a course of action. For every action, there's a reaction ... Being able to anticipate those possible reactions, 3-4-5 moves ahead, with all the contingencies that they entail, that is what makes a real statesman or shrewd politician.

Patrick Bahzad

Sorry Pat, had already posted a first comment on Richard's piece, before I saw yours, but I concur with your assessment.

The fact that Clausewitz' conceptions are coming back nowadays is certainly related to politicians wanting to consider war as another way of achieving their political goals with regards to foreign policy or vital/national "interests", whether for good or bad.

The prospect of MAD had prevented any such thinking from materializing in Europe during the cold war made, but today, some people think they can revert to this summarized version of Clausewitz' thoughts about war as a continuation of politics by other means.

What they fail to apprehend is, as you mention, the fact that war is not happening in a vacuum in which only the military assets you put in place have a bearing on the outcome, but war is seen by Clausewitz as an entreprise encompassing all aspects of society.

In this sense, he is one of the first military thinkers who entertained the idea of "total war". The industrialisation would add to this concept another dimension, which culminated into Europe's tumbling into WWI.

However, Clausewitz didn't not just write about "grand war" as such, but also about what he called "small war", when he worked on this concept with Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. This concept of "small war" is often overlooked, but is not very distant to what we would call "asymetric warfare" today and it could be linked to communist works about "people's wars" as incarnated by Giap's campaigns answering the "total war" unleashed upon him by his adversaries with the "total mobilization" of the people.

A very interesting subject, as current events show that making the wrong diagnosis, even based on brilliant thinkers, can only lead to administering the wrong cure.


Patrick Bahzad

When I was a student at the War College there was a brief period in which KvonC was in fashion, but the Fulda gap beckoned as as a summons to a very simplified form of attritional combat leading to eventual escalation to nucs and he soon fell from favor except with strange people like me. Is the material on "small war" available in English or French? pl

Patrick Bahzad

It is available in French, as we never totally stopped studying it, considering the kind of engagements we had during our colonial or post-colonial wars, but I can check if the "Ecole de guerre" has an English version of it.

Zachary Smith

(I know these assertions can be argued, and numerous books have been written about them and I am picking and choosing among my library to make an argument.)


Well, THAT part can't be contested. The Nazis were indeed concerned about a repeat of WW1 hunger, and worked to ensure it wouldn't happen again. After the blitzkreig victory in the West, that was guaranteed. For the remainder of the war Germany lived 'high on the hog' with confiscated foods from the conquered lands. Attacking the USSR was about a German Empire and nothing else.

"Then came the tragic British misstep. Hot heads in the UK suddenly issued a guarantee of support to Poland and Romania without consulting with Russia. This sudden move, this sharp reversal of attitude, was bound to be seen as a provocation to Hitler, and it was."

I'm sorry, but this is just plain silly.


Patrick Bahzad

I would like to see these documents. pl

Patrick Bahzad

If you interested in the French version, I have that at home somewhere, so could send it right away ! for English translation, as mentioned, would have to get back to "Ecole de Guerre" library and ask.

Patrick Bahzad

OK Pat, will send by mail ! few hundred pages of it though ;-)


Patrick Bahzad

Will be glad to reimburse for expense. Perhaps there is a digital version in either language? pl

Patrick Bahzad

Pat, Just sent you all I got here as PDF or Word onto your email ! Hope it came through !

Babak Makkinejad

You can get it scanned and send the electronic PDF file.

It would be very large.

William R. Cumming

War and certainly modern warfare is so complex IMO that few but professional soldiers understand it and many professional soldiers fortunate for me contribute to this blog.

But there may be a fundamental flaw in the thinking of KvonC and later theoreticians of warfare. Is almost a foregone conclusion that at least two lessons of WWII have proved lasting. First that the apparatus of the nation-state can if fully developed control large populations whether in peace or war. And the absence of open fully militarized warfare is certainly not peace.

Sir John Keegan in his ON WAR identifies many age-old factors in humans that can lead to warfare. IMO nuclear weapons have almost nothing to do with the human traditions of warfare.

But neither does the actions of ISIS/DAESH have anything to do with the modern state.

And the second transformational change since WWII is that the real elements of a nation-states power may no longer have much to do with traditions of human warfare.

The past is not prologue!



There are services like "We Transfer" that will send gigabytes of files free. pl

Charles I

For some of our wars today, the question, enemies, foreign or domestic, comes to mind.

As a means to assert control, quash dissent, bait-and-switch policy formation, transfer wealth, sabotage future governance by not funding the wars, etc, etc, which I know are pressing concerns for many domestic politicians, aside from war rabid true believers.


I have nothing to add, but thanks to all for an interesting discussion. Perhaps time to pull my copy of "Strategy" off the book shelve.

I have an interesting shelve organization, "Strategy" sits next to "Terror out of Zion."

Time to reread both



"...it might have been clearer that Napoleon's experiences in Spain and Russia with guerrillas had a lot more relevance than some have thought is implied by the existing text..."

Is this a factor that can be used against ISIS in their attempts to control territories in the proclaimed Caliphate? Doesn't the existing natural tendencies within Sunni Islam that generates the ISIS adherents give them an additional source of recruiting should guerrilla warfare be used against them or does successful action influence such potential recruits to find another outlet for their action?

Dave Schuler

My dad, who was in Germany in 1937, spoke fluent German, and heard some of Hitler's speeches in person said that in person (and in German) he was electrifying, charismatic. The old film clips we see and most of us can't understand fail to convey that.

ex-PFC Chuck

Dave Schuler:
"The old film clips we see and most of us can't understand fail to convey that."
They conveyed it to me when I listened to tapes of some of those speeches a while back. This, however, may be related to the fact that more than half a century I was marginally fluent in German and over the years have retained a feel for the cadence of the language. Sadly the fluency has almost completely withered away from disuse.


There is a dimension missing from this piece; Hitler had a great deal of British and American admirers both for his transformation of Germany and as the proverbial "Bulwark against Communism", I venture to suggest that the road to World War II was hardly as linear and easy to see and perhaps avoid as is suggested, nor were the main players ignorant dolts.

I suggest that one might read "FIve Days in London: May 1940" and "Burying Caesar"about the struggle for the control of the British Conservative party to understand a little more about the complex interplay of personalities and viewpoints among the various decision makers.

What we might be able to say is that if Halifax had bested Churchill in the leadership contest, Hitler may have then succeeded in negotiating some sort of rapprochement with Britain and France that would have given him a free hand in the East.

To put that another way, there were those in Britain and America who would have been quite satisfied to watch Germany and Russia fight.

What concerns me today are the Washington idiots who think that the contest we have fomented between Ukrainians can be quarantined.


Fundamental problem: Mistakes c. 1800 only wiped out a few million people, mostly with starvation/disease, as the most serious weapons were the mortar or the ship-mounted cannon battery. The Earth was more forgiving. Mistakes c. 2015 can wipe out entire species. So applying 1800 philosophy to 2015 situations is wrong. Peace is cheaper than war. Cooperation is cheaper than dominance.

C Webb

Napoleon/Hitler might have been psychopathic. It can't be known for certain. They showed behaviour we could say was psychopathic, but it's also possible that we might not fully understand or know that facts that were motivating their actions.

Napoleon's favourite book...

Napoleon's reading habits

Napoleon's Portable Library

Some of Hitler's paintings...

Complicated individuals.

Patrick Bahzad

Sorry talking in riddles to me there ! We're talking about strategic principles in operations of war, not about contingencies related to period of time you referring to. Mistake !


Dave Schuler,

Typically, we only see clips of what Hitler was like at the climax of a speech. Taken out of context, he often seems like a lunatic.

It's a long time ago, but I went to a full screening of Triumph of the Will. If I remember correctly, it has a full speech that is quite different from what you usually see, and much more effective. And as ex-PFC Chuck says, fluency in German helps.


If war is the continuation of politics, then a party is defeated when it's policy is neutralized.

Was America defeated in Iraq? In RVN?

What is ISIS' policy goal?

What do we need to do to frustrate ISIS?

Why would we want to do more -- economy of force, anyone -- than frustrate ISIS?

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