Sunday, September 12, 2010

Discussion: Clausewitz and Summers

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Because On War was incomplete at the time of Clausewitz’s death, and considering the dialectical method of reasoning employed throughout the book, any author who quotes Clausewitz extensively and attempts to use On War to buttress their arguments, such as Summers in On Strategy, deserves more than the usual scrutiny. While Summers is an unabashed student of Clausewitz, it should be noted that Clausewitz has faced more than his share of critics since the publication of On Strategy. Primary charges from English-speaking academics include arguments from John Keegan that war is shaped by culture, not politics, and from Martin van Creveld and Mary Kaldor that war is no longer a state activity, fought by organized armies. Still, as pointed out by Paret, an indisputable expert on Clausewitz and his life’s work, On War possesses more coherence than many of Clausewitz’s critics allow. Any political entity--state, insurgency, guerilla movement--using violence to achieve a new order is engaging in war, according to Clausewitz’s theory.

Clausewitz was not writing a straightforward manual, a textbook of principles, or a policy guide, but instead he was developing a multifaceted and nuanced argument through different stages throughout On War. Clausewitz’s basic arguments revolved around war’s nature, the basic types of wars, and what he briefly introduced as a ‘remarkable trinity.’

For various reasons, Clausewitz became “fashionable” in the U.S. and among the American military establishment starting around 1976, and Summers was both a part of this and a reason for it. Probably more than anything else, Summers picked up Clausewitz’s main argument that strategic aims must be considered in light of political and military realities, and used--wielded--this principle to explain to a demoralized U.S. military the strategic loss in Vietnam.

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Summers pointed out that there was a brief attempt after the Korean War to begin to build a theoretical structure for U.S. military policy based on Clausewitzian principles, with the introduction of the Army’s 1954 Field Service Regulations. These Clausewitzian beginnings were soon overtaken by the impact of nuclear weapons on American military thought.[1] Clausewitz’s own writings suggest that he would not have agreed to having his theoretical study of war made into a concrete doctrine of any sort.

Harry G. Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, which outwardly portrayed itself as a critical Clausewitzian study of Vietnam, was one of the most influential analyses of the Vietnam War ever published. Its influence on the U.S. military has been extensive. It has been used as a primer for the formal study of strategy, and has become a pedagogic tool for teaching the principles of war and introducing new students of strategy to Clausewitz. However, it also reinforces an uncritical approach to the study of Clausewitz--there is no serious critique of Clausewitz’s work in On Strategy--and the uncritical study of Clausewitz can be useless at least, and intellectually dangerous at worst.

The overall undercurrent of Summers’ argument is that the problem with Vietnam was not that the principles of war and strategy were wrong, but that principles were not followed. Summers and Clausewitz view principles and theory in war differently. Because Clausewitz uses a dialectical approach to studying war, selective use of his work is almost bound to cause problems for authors and students. Clausewitz’s work must be taken as a whole, approached as a holistic theory, not as a collection of observations or principles to be followed in action. Clearly Summers was keen to promote Clausewitz’s theories but did he really understand them?

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Clausewitz was concerned with a general theory of war, while most analysts, Summers included, are concerned with one or more practical, historical examples, within a specific historical context. Over-use, or overly ambitious use of Clausewitz’s theories within particular historical contexts can result in unintended mistakes of analysis and theoretical problems. Clausewitz was not trying to develop a theory that explained the course and outcome of any particular war, but of all war, of any era. Summers believed that Clausewitz can be used as a how-to guide for understanding past wars and for fighting future wars.[2] Summers repeatedly cited Clausewitz to buttress his views of what the U.S. military did not do correctly during the Vietnam War. Clausewitz considered earlier theories of war unacceptable because they failed to expose the functional relationship between the changing forms of war, and its underlying (unchanging) dynamics. He observed that traditional theory became mired in historical peculiarities, which rendered universal guidance for practitioners impossible. “Clausewitz attempted to avoid this problem by building his own theory on what he considered to be war’s fundamental characteristics, and then deducing practical conclusions from these initial premises.”[3]

Although Clausewitz was aiming for a universal theory of war, he was not prone to expansive reasoning--and in fact that would have been inconsistent with the dialectical approach. For example, Clausewitz seemed to favor a more narrow, utilitarian definition of strategy than what some recent Clausewitzian interpreters have suggested from their reading of On War. According to Michael Howard, Clausewitz’s definition of strategy was deliberately and defiantly simplistic.[4] This suggests, generally, that the student should try to not read too much into Clausewitz’s text.

Clausewitz’s basic conception of war included several interrelated theories. Considered by pure (and artificial) logic, war should escalate to extremes, as each belligerent intensifies its efforts to defeat the enemy; there being no obvious logic to restrain powers in the pursuit of their aims. However, in reality, specific political objectives, the relative advantage of remaining on the defensive as compared to going on the offensive, and the inherent imperfection of intelligence (which is nearly constant), all serve to limit the escalation of conflict in reality. To help explain what is encountered in reality, which includes at least as many limited wars as general wars, Clausewitz offered the counterargument that war is a continuation of political activity by other means. Finally, Clausewitz introduced the concept of a trinity of forces--always present but not necessarily in fixed proportions--to help reconcile the contradiction between absolute and real war.[5] Because Clausewitz’s core theories are interrelated, and only make full sense when taken all together, if one theory is taken in isolation it tends to lose the meaning Clausewitz originally intended.

Clausewitz’s distinction between absolute (in theory) and real war is essential for properly grasping On War. Furthermore, Clausewitz’s distinction between limited (for a limited objective) and general war (for a total, or unlimited objective) refers to typology. Clausewitz, at some point in his investigation, came to recognize two types of war. There were wars designed to bring about the complete submission of the enemy, forcing him to accept any peace the victor might choose, and there were wars that aimed only at the conquest of a small piece of territory--or other material resource--or a compromise peace.

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According to Clausewitz’s theory of absolute war, a theoretically pure concept of war, both belligerents must have the most extreme political aims possible (also in theory). Anything less and war would tend toward a point short of the absolute extreme. By Clausewitzian logic, anything less would translate into an advantage for the opposition, escalation by both sides would therefore be automatic and restrained only by the availability of means along with the ability to concentrate them against the enemy. War only goes to complete annihilation of one side or the other in theory. Clausewitz did not regard absolute war as a practical possibility.

Clausewitz considered the powerful wars of nationalism in his historical studies, and particularly those of the French Revolutionary period, as well as and as counterpoint to the dynastic wars, characterized by the limited objectives pursued by Frederick the Great. Clausewitz recognized that, primarily, political objectives moderate total war; human nature kept war from assuming its absolute nature. He recognized numerous forces which made war unpredictable and unable to be reduced to deterministic rules. Historical examples showed that political aims would change as circumstances changed, and belligerents would always be reacting to each other, or really how they perceived each other, since intelligence was always incomplete--perceptions would usually be less than perfect. Before his death in 1831, Clausewitz had identified two separate sources of constraint on the process of escalation: the involuntary restrictions associated with conducting military operations in the real world; and the voluntary restrictions arising from the political context in which wars are always fought.[6] Clausewitz died before he could finish developing his theories with respect to total and limited wars.[7] When Summers defined limited wars as the opposite of the unconditional aims of World War II, it isn’t clear that this is the same as what Clausewitz meant by limited wars.

Summers was convincing when he argued that American military and political leaders were confused over strategic objectives in Vietnam. He criticized U.S. policy during the Vietnam War for its emphasis on counterinsurgency, and winning the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people. He saw the proper U.S. strategic objective to be the destruction of the North Vietnamese military. While Summers made this point categorically, it is less clear that he was correct if U.S. strategic aims really were either limited or hopelessly unclear.

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By the end of the age of absolutism, limited wars flowing from narrow policy fought by dispassionate professionals became increasingly rare. Limited warfare gave way to general war--also called total war--especially following the levee en masse and the fielding of French Revolutionary armies brimming with national zeal, at least through the first few years of fighting. Because of the times in which he lived, Clausewitz focused on political and social factors of war while deliberately saving any serious mention of technology or economics in war. But war was changing. By the beginning of the twentieth century, war was conducted in four distinct dimensions: the operational, the logistical, the social, and the technologic, and no successful strategy could be formulated that did not take account of all of four.[8]

Because Clausewitz studied the wars of Frederick and the wars of Napoleon he was forced at accept that some wars seemed to hurdle toward extreme violence and national destruction, while others did not. There is a spectrum of war from total wars of annihilation to more simple wars of limited, even very limited aims. Clausewitz recognized that war can take many forms and bloody conflicts of decisive battles and total war aims were not always the result. In wars that are fought over lesser goals, reason tends to impose more of a restraining influence on the translation of passion into strategic action.[9] Clausewitz described war as ‘a remarkable trinity’ composed of political objectives, of operational instruments, and of popular passions--the latter, he pointed out, made the wars of Revolutionary France so different in kind from those of Frederick earlier.

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For all of its apparent controversy, Clausewitz’s concept of a remarkable trinity is in fact rather vague. The function of the trinity in Clausewitzian theory has yet to be clearly explained. It isn’t even clear that Clausewitz considered his treatment of the matter in On War to be complete. Clausewitz’s model of war’s fundamental nature, for any war, is made up of three basic forces: emotion, chance, and reason, which were only later solidified by Summers as the people, the army, and the government. According to Christopher Bassford, the trinity is, in fact, Clausewitz’s description of the psychological environment of politics, and the only element of this trinity that makes it unique to war is that the emotions discussed are those that might incline people to engage in organized violence.[10] It is not clear that Clausewitz actually meant to convey that the people, the army, and the government are in fact the embodiments of the forces he was theorizing about.

It is important to note that the three elements of the Clausewitzian trinity are not the people, the army, and the government (as repeated by Summers), rather passion and hatred, chance and probability, and policy, the guiding intelligence of war. He then loosely discussed these within the three manifestations most appropriate to the age in which he lived. The three sides of the trinity are meant to represent a whole, indivisible, as opposed to a policy recommendation. Summers understood that for a nation to ignore the passions (of the people) it was inviting failure in war. But he also seems to make the mistake of fixing a relationship between the three elements with the convictions that U.S. political leaders failed to establish appropriate political aims and failed to build the support of the American people for the war in Vietnam.

It seems reasonable that in Clausewitz’s original conception, it was the trinity’s ability to accommodate the combined influence of reason, passion and chance in warfare that rendered it conceptually useful. It is the constant interplay between passion, chance and reason that explains why all real wars diverge from the absolute to a greater or lesser degree. According to one writer, as long as the conduct of war is influenced by reason, passion and chance, the trinity remains a useful framework for analysis.[11] Summers would have agreed. For clarity, Clausewitz’s state-based labels can be replaced with a set that better describes their functional equivalent among the relevant non-state actors threatening traditional states today; government, army and people might be replaced by leaders, fighters and supporters, and the trinity is again relevant to today’s operating environment.[12]

Although I suspect that Summers misused Clausewitz’s concept of a trinity, in any case, Summers made a lot out of a piece of imagery--that Clausewitz may have chosen as a physical analogy--that is mentioned in half of a page in On War. Clausewitz argued that the course of war is driven by complex and inherently unpredictable interactions that occur as conflicting human intentions, driven by rational calculation (policy) and violent, irrational emotion, manifest in reality and against each other. Addressing a particular conflict in another time, Summers recast that dynamic trinity as a fixed, triangular relationship among the people, the army, and the government.[13] Summers’ reformulation (or reinterpretation) of Clausewitz’s trinity may have been helpful for illustrating his arguments about the national-level disconnect between popular will, government policy, and military action in Vietnam, but in the process, incorrect characterizations of Clausewitz have made their way into further discussions about issues entirely separate from the Vietnam War. This idea that war ‘is a trinity’ has taken on a life of its own, without any real sound basis in Clausewitz’s actual writing.

Clausewitz’s theoretical model--and even “model” is probably too strong of a word--of three core forces was meant to illuminate the diverse and changeable nature of war, whereas Summers fixed the model into a three sided figure of people, army, and government--conceptual rigidity replaced conceptual flexibility. Summers took what was probably a still incomplete idea of three closely related forces, labeled them, then used his reformed model to critique U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. While his critique may have been valid his use of Clausewitz was questionable.

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In attempting to grapple with the legacy of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military has almost made a catechism of the idea that if there is an insurgency in a country, then the center of gravity must be the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people of that country. The problem with this approach, as has been pointed out numerous times by soldiers and scholars, is that ‘hearts and minds’ is an entirely ethereal concept. The more tangible the center of gravity, the more useful it is as a guide to military action.[14] Summers would have agreed with this new, emerging consensus.

Summers argued, concerning the Vietnam War, that the American people were deliberately excluded from the strategic equation, first by the academic-based limited war theorists and then by their President and Commander-in-Chief. Summers was convinced that the U.S. had disregarded Clausewitz’s pronouncements concerning ignoring a component of the trinity.

It is left to speculation how Clausewitz would have reacted to Summers’ account in On Strategy. In a note, written in July 1827, Clausewitz outlined his plans for completing On War. Even though the note specifically refers to ‘two kinds’ of war, it also seemed to reflect his realization, based on years of historical study, that no two wars are the same. Clausewitz seemed to stress, certainly in On War, that the historical record must be closely examined and adhered to, and the practice of selecting historical evidence to match preconceived theory ultimately proves useless. Clausewitz’s world view, particularly his historicist bent, provided the intellectual context for this thinking. Historicism, which was influenced by the German Romantic Movement, defined history as being a relative concept, and rejected absolute standards, emphasizing the relevance of the ‘spirit of the age’ to all historical epochs.[15] It isn’t at all clear that Clausewitz would have seen his theory as explaining the course of the Vietnam War.

On the other hand, Clausewitz would have likely approved of Summers’ persistent arguments about the supreme role of clear, positively defined strategic aims, and the need to focus all available military power on the attainment of those aims. Clausewitz insisted repeatedly that the use of the military had to be consonant with whatever political goals the government was trying to achieve. “Because only politics provided the basis for military action, Clausewitz wrote, political considerations became critical for the planning of wars, campaigns, and even of battles.”[16]

Summers misunderstood some important aspects of Clausewitz’s theory, especially with regard to the trinity and limited wars.


1. See Harry G. Summers, Jr., “Clausewitz: Eastern and Western Approaches to War,” Air University Review (March-April 1986): np.

2. Bruce Fleming, “Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?” Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College 34 (Spring 2004): 67.

3. John Stone, “Clausewitz’s Trinity and Contemporary Conflict,” Civil Wars 9 (September 2007): 285.

4. Michael Howard, “The Forgotten Dimensions of Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 57 (Summer 1979): 975.

5. Nikolas Gardner, “Resurrecting the ‘Icon’: The Enduring Relevance of Clausewitz’s On War,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 3 (Spring 2009): 121-122.

6. John Stone, “Politics, Technology and the Revolution in Military Affairs,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 27 (September 2004): 410.

7. James O. Tubbs, Allied Force and Clausewitz’s Theory of Limited War (Washington, DC: National War College, 2002), 11.

8. See Howard.

9. Stone, “Clausewitz’s Trinity”: 287.

10. Quoted in Gardner: 126.

11. Stone, “Clausewitz’s Trinity”: 283.

12. Ibid.: 284.

13. Christopher Bassford, “Interpreting the Legacy of Clausewitz,” Joint Force Quarterly 35 (Summer 2003): 19.

14. Frank ‘Scott’ Douglas, “Waging the Inchoate War: Defining, Fighting, and Second-Guessing the ‘Long War,’” The Journal of Strategic Studies 30 (June 2007): 394.

15. Stuart Kinross, “Clausewitz and Low-Intensity Conflict,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 27 (March 2004): 39.

16. David Kaiser, “Review Essay: Back to Clausewitz,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 32 (August 2009): 675.