Clausewitz was writing three-quarters of a century before Einstein and yet the latter's special and general theories of relativity shed some light on what Clausewitz really meant. What he really meant, he never really spelled out very succinctly, which coupled with the translation issues I mentioned before, means that to understand Clausewitz, one must study a lot of his work and take his theories in as a totality. It is especially easy to take his writings out of context.
I am suggesting here that Einstein’s theories make great analogies for understanding Clausewitz’s theories. However, there are two things to keep in mind. First, I am pointing out analogies only, not that there is any real connection between the two theorists. And, second, what I keep coming back to, Clausewitz was attempting a very large, expansive, kind of unified theory of war—and he was not close to any sort of final product.
The classical view of war was as a large drama of clashing wills and warrior skill. War is a contest, just on a large scale. The side with the larger will and skill wins—the formula being fixed. This fixed view of war—where politics and friction play no significant part—is what I find analogous to the absolute physics of Newton. (There is, in fact, a theoretical link between Newton’s theory of absolute time and space, and Clausewitz’s notion of absolute war. This is discussed at length in a source that I have already cited in another post.) Einstein’s theory of special relativity turned Newtonian physics on its head by postulating that space and time are perceived differently by different observers—leading to his famous equation that showed an equivalency between matter and energy.
Even though there is no historical connection between the two, it is uncanny how E=mc2 and “war is a continuation of politics by other means” are similar constructs. By this humorous little line of reasoning: energy is war, politics is matter, and the “other means” is the speed of light squared. Einstein’s equation relies on c, the speed of light, which in special relativity is at least somewhat of a theoretical construct since it is the ideal speed of light in a perfect vacuum (no friction—yet another surprising parallel). If we think now of c as violence, then Clausewitz’s speed of light was pure violence unimpeded by any friction whatsoever. He goes to lengths to show how war is never actually, in the real world, free of friction. Einstein had to lay the foundation of relativity with his special theory first, before going on to really radically change physics with his general theory of relativity. Similarly, Clausewitz (in the draft that comes down to us) uses the first parts of On War to lay some theoretical groundwork, before getting into a deeper examination of war in the real world.
Interestingly, Einstein’s general theory takes relativity (a theoretical construct) and applies it to motion as modified by real-world forces such as gravitation. Similarly, Clausewitz saw that not only does war never reach its theoretical absolute state, but most war throughout history doesn’t even appear to be lower forms of absolute war. In fact, war as it really manifests itself in the world, appears to be shaped by forces beyond the pure ones, the ones he identified early on, such as violence, hatred, and complete destruction. This other kind of war—what he found over and over again throughout history—is what he called limited war.
- “You have to consider deterrence in the twin contexts of the full theory of strategy and the moving historical landscape. Strategy has many dimensions, and because deterrence is strategic behavior any and all of those dimensions can smooth the way, or impede the path, to deterrence success. Any dimension—people, culture, information and intelligence, time, and so forth—can provide details that unravel an intended episode of deterrence. Because deterrence worked yesterday, it does not follow that it will work tomorrow, and one may be hard pressed to prove that deterrence did work yesterday.” --- Colin S. Gray, “Deterrence in the 21st Century,” Comparative Strategy 19, no. 3 (July-September 2000): 259.