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Old October 8th, 2012, 05:53 AM   #1
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Is Clausewitz still relevant?


Recently, I have set myself the following reading project. I am about two-thirds of the way through Clausewitz's masterpiece, and every two or three chapters I stop and read a serious history of some battle or campaign. I am poised to finish Gordon Rhea's 4 volume account of the Overland campaign, having just began the final volume on Cold Harbor. Before that, I peeled off a thrilling account of Shiloh by someone named Wiley Sword (sounds like a pseudonym). This exhausts my currently available material on the Civil War.

The question I am asking myself is whether to go "forward" or "backward" from this point. I have yet to read that famous account of the Peloponnesian War. I also have available a more recent account of the battle of Waterloo. So far, I have found that Clausewitz holds up quite well. It seems that every one of his assertions could be clearly illustrated by an example from the Civil War. I am particularly impressed by his description of military genius in great generals, and I find that both Lee and Grant possessed this quality in abundance. How tragic for my nation that Lee did not accept the Union command - the war probably would have been over in a year, with much suffering averted.

But what I really want to do is move forward and see how Clausewitz holds up when the accelerating development of military technology is factored in. I have an account of Passchendaele that looks promising, numerous studies of the Somme, an overview of the use of gas, and an overall overview called The Myth of the Great War. From there, WWII beckons (books on Stalingrad, The Hurtgen forrest, Tarawa, SLA Marshall's Night Drop, two volumes on the U-boat campaigns, etc., and then onto Korea).

I have already made a fairly comprehensive study of Vietnam (thanks particularly to the efforts of the late Keith Nolan). Here Clausewitz seems to be almost essential. For example, his formula that defines the end of all war as a political objective. That explains how the VC can lose the Tet Offensive in every conventional military sense, but still win the battle (because they achieved their political objective, i.e. weakening of American morale). His observation that the victor in battle often suffers losses equal to or even exceeding that of the loser helps explain why the strategy of attrition failed.

I look forward to any comments or suggestions.
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Old October 8th, 2012, 08:35 AM   #2
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In terms of military tactics, I am not sure how relevant he is, but in terms of the bigger picture, his famous "war is politics by other means", is still highly relevant.

He reminds us that wars are not fought for themselves, but for some other objective, and we can't lose sight of that. We can win the war, but lose the peace, if we don't realize what those goals are. US in Iraq is a classic example. While the US had not trouble to defeating the conventional Iraq military forces, it didn't plan well enough for what came after, and it still might lose what had been one of its main objectives, a stable democracy in Iraq. (Although with the Arab spring, I am a little more hopeful about achieving that goal. If we do, it will be due to a much to the Arabs themselves, than to the US.)
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Old October 8th, 2012, 09:05 AM   #3

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the basic premise of his theories i feel will always be just as relevant as Sun Tzu's The Art of War. its a heavy read a lot of the time and i do feel the need to do a second reading of it to understand it better. you can find examples of many of his theories through history and he even provides a few himself. i found his chapter on military genius to be the most interesting. the basic stuff of war will always remain and those qualities that make a successful general have not changed at all since the days of Alexander the Great. logistics will always be an issue, deciding between the offensive and defensive is unavoidable in war, establishing basic objectives and ensuring they match with your political objectives and so much more of which this book gives a detailed study on all. mandatory reading for any student of war i would say.

let me say as well that i am impressed by your ambitious reading schedule as you advance from one war to the next, be sure not to leave out the Falklands war, Arab-Israeli wars and today's war in afghanistan(though the lack of hindsight makes it hard to look at objectively but there are still a lot of memoir accounts of it available)
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Old October 16th, 2012, 09:05 AM   #4
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While it certainly has its value, i believe the book loses its value when both powers apply the ''mutual destruction theories'' with atomic weapons, something that is really a 20th century issue. However with the growth of environmentalism and the awareness of radiation, we might see a return to more ''classical warfare in a world war 1-2 fashion'', where clausewitz is relevant.
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Old October 16th, 2012, 09:56 AM   #5

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Good effing question. I too just recently finished On War by the implied behest of John Keegan as soon as I finished A History of Warfare.

I will echo most of his points as I haven't read too much on military theory outside of these two and, of course, Sun Tzu. I think of Clausewitz idea of war as the continuation of politics is a pandora's box. Once uttered and understood, has led us down a dark path. His idea of True War has reached its inevitable conclusion in the campaigns of WWI and WWII and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaski. And to follow it any further I think is a exercise in utter futility.

But at the same time I think, whether people realize it or not, Clausewitzian thinking is completely inescapable in the face of modern war. This is actually a question I have been thinking about myself. It seems a good a time as any to ask.

Do you guys think that Al-Qaeda and modern guerrilla strategies of terrorism are the most complete embodiment of a Clausewitzian army?

Quote:
An army which preserves its usual formations under the heaviest fire, which is never shaken by imaginary fears, and in the face of real danger disputes the ground inch by inch, which, proud in the feeling of its victories, never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence in its leaders, even under the depressing effects of defeat; an army with all its physical powers, inured to privations and fatigue by exercise, like the muscles of an athlete; an army which looks upon all its toils as the means to victory, not as a curse which hovers over its standards, and which is always reminded of its duties and virtues by the short catechism of one idea, namely the honour of its arms;—Such an army is imbued with the true military spirit.
In the tactical sense, the Al-Qaedan militias do not embody any of these military virtues. But on a more general level, their militias do seem to exhibit these characteristics. Certainly having fought a far superior military in the traditional sense intensely for more than a decade, they have yet to lose faith or confidence in their leaders, they seem to be as ambitious and eager as ever before.

I've been thinking about this ever since I finished On War. Does Al-Qaeda practice Clausewitzian True War better than any other army in the world?
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Old October 16th, 2012, 12:06 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LegioXIII View Post
Do you guys think that Al-Qaeda and modern guerrilla strategies of terrorism are the most complete embodiment of a Clausewitzian army?
No. Al Qaeda strikes me more as criminal organization than any kind of army. Just look at the characteristics enumerated in the quote you provided from Clausewitz:

Quote:
An army which preserves its usual formations under the heaviest fire...
But they have no formations in the military sense at all. Clausewitz is talking about organized forces that fight other organized forces, but Al Qaeda does not attack other armies - they attack "soft targets," as on 9-11.

Quote:
...which is never shaken by imaginary fears, and in the face of real danger disputes the ground inch by inch...
But they do not capture or hold ground, let alone dispute the ground "inch by inch." In the face of organized, armed opposition ("real danger"), they would be forced to flee like cockroaches.

Quote:
...which, proud in the feeling of its victories, never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence in its leaders, even under the depressing effects of defeat...
Perhaps this one applies somewhat. I am sure that they are "proud in the feeling of [their] victories." But they have never experienced victory in the traditional military sense, because they are not an army that could win such a victory. Some of their terrorist attacks have been hugely successful, but this is a different kind of victory.

Quote:
...an army with all its physical powers, inured to privations and fatigue by exercise, like the muscles of an athlete...
This one does not apply at all. Clausewitz is referring to more traditional attributes, such as the ability to carry off a forced march over difficult terrain in very little time. Al Qaeda does not march anywhere. They never get together in large enough numbers to have such a march. I doubt they could muster one company of riflemen. What they do is plant sleeper agents, and these agents go through the mundane, daily activities of an anonymous private citizen (not the life of a soldier in an army, with all of its "privations and fatigue"), waiting patiently, perhaps for years, until the moment to strike has arrived.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Clausewitz
...an army which looks upon all its toils as the means to victory, not as a curse which hovers over its standards, and which is always reminded of its duties and virtues by the short catechism of one idea, namely the honour of its arms...
Perhaps this one is half-relevant, although I fail to see how can they can take pride in "the honour of [their] arms," when the arms in question are not rifles being used against enemy soldiers, but are box-cutters being used on confused civilians in an airplane.

Quote:
Such an army is imbued with the true military spirit.
Al Qaeda is certainly a very militant organization, but they are not an army. Hence, these comments do not apply.

If you are looking for an army from the post WWII era that embodies "the true military spirit," you can't go wrong with the communists in Vietnam.

If you want to read about troops who preserve their formations under the heaviest fire, read Hell in a Very Small Place, or We Were Soldiers Once... and Young. In fact, I have read over a dozen battle and campaign histories about Vietnam, and it seems to me that the NVA never once broke formation to flee in disorder, even under the most punishing fire. The ARVN would routinely flee in disorder (if you could even get them to fight in the first place).

If you want to read about troops who dispute the ground inch by inch, read about the joint Army-Marine Defense of Dong Ha, or Hamburger Hill.

The Vietnamese were very "proud in the feeling of their victories," especially after they won the battle for Dien Bien Phu. And they never gave in to despair, "even under the depressing effects of defeat," which is proven by Tet. The communists suffered terribly in this offensive, but they never gave up, and they eventually won the war.

The commanding officer at the siege on LZ X-ray asserted that NVA bravery and discipline under fire was equal to that of his own troops, and the only reason the siege was not entirely successful was the tremendous advantage in firepower on the American side.
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Old October 16th, 2012, 02:58 PM   #7

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I don't deny that tactically, Al-Qaeda is far removed from the glories of the Prussian regiments that Clausewitz was originally describing. Of course AQ are guerrilla fighters. Let me take this in a slightly more general point of view.

Quote:
An army which preserves its usual formations under the heaviest fire, which is never shaken by imaginary fears
AQ since the early days of the American counterattack have been enduring drone strikes with no real means of direct retaliation against this threat. This however has not seemed to hinder their global operations.

Quote:
which is never shaken by imaginary fears, and in the face of real danger disputes the ground inch by inch
I find it inappropriate to try to understand AQ's struggle as a purely geographic one (although there is a strong component to it).They are combating American Imperialism as an idea rather than what territories they can effectively hold, which seems to be a secondary objective. In that sense, I can see how their chipping away at American liberties by instilling fear into the general populace of the United States as inch by inch victories. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo, are not merely political grievances between parties but are indicators of the undermining of institutional civil values from afar. It seems as though every marine killed, every civilian murdered, every car blown up, every building bombed, thus far have shaken the bedrock of American values. If we take it in context of Clausewitz' grand thesis:

Quote:
war is the continuation of politics by other means
They are certainly beginning to render the United States politically and militarily impotent "inch by inch".

Quote:
proud in the feeling of its victories, never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence in its leaders
Pretty obvious but to your point about no traditional military victories. I would argue that this is where Clausewitizian thinking is hopelessly antiquated and where I think the American military is adapting too slowly. AQ is a non-state actor with a non-conventional military force. In the same way that the Huns and the Vikings did not have a military class within their society; I think it would be a mistake to think of AQ as akin to the modern state's military. War is sometimes not merely a continuation of politics. War can be culture as in the aforementioned examples. And the Afghani Mujahideen, from which AQ originate, are more of a warrior culture rather than a state-sponsored military and all of those traditional military victories in mind. Again, I am not arguing that AQ is the greatest of Clausewitizian armies rather that they are practising Total War far more effectively than the modern armies of the nation-states.

Quote:
...an army with all its physical powers, inured to privations and fatigue by exercise, like the muscles of an athlete...
You mentioned, sleeper agents, waiting patiently, and I think that quality in many ways is emblematic of enduring privations and fatigue. Again, I understand I may be stretching these definitions but as is the case with interpreting Sun Tzu for the modern age I would argue that Clausewitz needs such interpretations as well.

I feel as though anything beyond that line will just be regurgitating previous points. On the larger question of Clausewitizian relevance, I can only say that his more abstract ideas on the nature of war will always be relevant (if not wholly complete) but his ideas on the conduct and operations of an army are hopelessly antiquated.

Here, I guess I am trying to argue for a non-state actor without a non-traditional fighting force practicing Total War more effectively than that of the state armies Clausewitz was originally writing for.
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Old October 17th, 2012, 12:56 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by LegioXIII View Post
Of course AQ are guerrilla fighters.
Here I perceive some confusion on your part. I think we have to distinguish between the guerrilla fighters of the Taliban, and the terrorist network of Al Qaeda.

Quote:
Originally Posted by LegioXIII View Post
AQ since the early days of the American counterattack have been enduring drone strikes with no real means of direct retaliation against this threat. This however has not seemed to hinder their global operations.
I don't know a lot about these drone attacks, and I wonder if anyone outside of the government has any accurate knowledge here at all. I know that Obama has increased the pace of drone attacks, and he has already killed more people with this weapon in one term than Bush did in two. I believe I heard that somewhere.

But most of these attacks are against the Taliban, are they not? The assassinations by drone of international operatives, like Anwar al-Awlaki, do indeed get all of the press. But I would imagine that most of these attacks are carried out against military forces, in support of our own ground forces. Not necessarily when our troops are in direct combat, because the drone pilots may have difficulty distinguishing friendly forces when they are so close to the enemy. But, as the enemy withdraws from the battle, it may be possible to track their path of retreat - you may find assembly points and staging areas, and then with one missile you can take out 10 or 20 Taliban fighters. That is one way to use such a weapon, I would think.

So when you say that "AQ" has been enduring drone strikes for years, I get a little confused. It is true that Taliban troops have been enduring these strikes with seemingly no negative impact on morale, and they continue to field troops against US Marines with deadly effectiveness. As an American, I am starting to worry. Like Vietnam, the enemy will not submit to our will, even after years of effort. As in Vietnam, I am skeptical of our goals and tactics.

But Al Qaeda is a different story. It is more difficult to estimate the impact of drone assassination on international terrorist operations. These kind of diffuse networks may be more susceptible to tactics of targeted assassination. The point is, these are two different types of organization, and the standards by which we measure one (Clausewitz is relevant in evaluating the Taliban) may not be applicable to the other (diffuse terrorist networks like AQ).

That is not to say that AQ has been ineffective in achieving their goals. I agree with this completely:

Quote:
Originally Posted by LegioXIII View Post
...I can see how their chipping away at American liberties by instilling fear into the general populace of the United States as inch by inch victories. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo, are not merely political grievances between parties but are indicators of the undermining of institutional civil values from afar. It seems as though every marine killed, every civilian murdered, every car blown up, every building bombed, thus far have shaken the bedrock of American values.
Every time a TSA agent feels up a crippled old lady in an airport in America, that is a victory for AQ.

But it is not necessarily a victory for the Taliban. The struggle of the Taliban can be defined in terms of geography: they want the US out of what they consider to be their country. AQ might actually might be working at cross purposes with the Taliban - for example, it was the 9-11 attacks which justified Bush's invasion of Afghanistan in the first place.

Reflect a little further on Clausewitz's "grand thesis."

Quote:
war is the continuation of politics by other means
The key phrase is "by other means." Clausewitz defines the means very precisely. It all boils down to combat.

AQ does not fight anyone, unless you call slashing a women's throat on an airplane fighting. Al Qaeda does not use the means of combat to achieve their goals. They use the means of civilian terrorism (something that is inseparable from war, I will admit). But they use only terrorism as their method. They never "fight" anybody. It is the Taliban who is doing all of the real fighting.

Therefore, Clausewitz does not apply, with AQ. I will admit that they use violence to achieve their political goals. But the mafia also uses violence to gain a political end (primarily they use violence for economic goals, but these are very closely related to political concerns). That does not mean that the mafia is an army, and it should not necessarily be evaluated according to Clausewitzian standards.

The truth is that Clausewitz has some application in all competitive activities - party poilitcs, corporate politics, football, you name it. But, you should not allow yourself to be carried away - the Republican party is the perfect embodiment of Clausewitz's ideas, Monsanto is the perfect embodiment, the Patriots football team, and so on. You can only stretch an analogy so far.

And it is not AQ who is rendering us politically impotent. We are doing that to ourselves.
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Old October 17th, 2012, 11:07 PM   #9

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Very interesting comments in this thread. I'd like to mention a few things (and hopefully add to them in positive contribution.)

However, first: I believe the late-author Keith Nolan is from my hometown, Granite City, Ill. I recall first hearing about him when the local newspaper did a story on this teenager who was writing a book about the Vietnam War. He began by placing ads asking Vietnam vets to contact him, which they did in droves.

In regard to al-Qaida, it doesn't exist in Afghanistan anymore, except for maybe a few cells. In no way is it a significant presence there anymore. The organization has in fact been decimated and its global activities have indeed been hugely squelched. Ten years ago it was capable of carrying out major terrorist attacks on the US and Spain and as well blowing up embassies in Africa. So, how long has it been since al-Qaida has carried out a subsequent terrorist attack in the US or Europe? They haven't been capable of one. The latest public info is that al-Qaida plans for terrorist attacks in the US involve setting forest fires. That's ridiculous. But that's what al-Qaida has been reduced to in regard to attacking the US. Ridiculous things. I thought their goal was to drive the US out of Saudi Arabia and all of the Middle East. Sooo, they now intend to do this by setting forest fires? Ridiculous. Actually, because of the Iran regime and their attempts to get a nuke (much like North Korea) most Middle East governments want the US to remain in the Middle East.

In countries where al-Qaida does operate, the local military, security, and police organizations work with the US. The fact is, al-Qaida lost the terrorist war bin Ladin started. Are they capable of carrying out isolate terrorist attacks? Yes. But that's about it. Al-Qaida has in fact killed far more fellow muslims and non-westerners than they have Americans and Europeans. Middle East governments and peoples dislike al-Qaida as much as they dislike that regime in Iran.
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In regard to US involvement in Afghanistan, there isn't much we can do as long as Pakistan provides sanctuary for the Taliban while the Afghan central government is corrupt. The Pakistani government is even more corrupt. It does remind one of the Vietnam War. The US accomplished its mission. It took out al-Qaida and bin Ladin. It's time to come home.

I wouldn't get depressed over this. 16 years after the US lost the Vietnam War, the USSR was gone and the Cold War was over (which is why we were in South Vietnam.) Should the Taliban again take over the country, the fault lies completely with the current Afghan central government. The top officials have no doubt made certain they'll be able to get out and live off the billions they've stored in Swiss bank accounts.
------------------

The VC got destroyed during Tet and never recovered. After 1968, the NVA took over the war. This actually worked out well for the Hanoi regime, as after the war they didn't have to worry about dealing with southern VC in regard to governing South Vietnam. The US media is real bad about turning foreigners into monolithic entities and ignoring their differences and conflicts. The northern communists and southern communists had many issues, but worked together as they had a common opponent.
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Clausewitz (hey, finally, this is what the thread is about!) I think he's been superceded by 20th-century military thought. Clausewitz concentrated on direct, frontal battles. This is the very opposite of what is taught at West Point. It is US military doctrine (when involved in a conventional war) to avoid any direct frontal attack until after the enemy's rear areas have been decimated (including their electronics) and even then it's US doctrine to first attack on the flanks or in the rear areas.

Much 20th-century thought dates from the aftermath of WW I. WW I was a very Clausewitzian war. New thinkers came forward, such as Guderian, who would become well-known during WW II, with new ideas about fighting wars or battles. These ideas were actually very old, pre-Clausewitz ideas, and go all the way back to ancient times.

In regard to the ideas which superceded Clausewitz, I highly recommend B.H. Liddell Hart's book Strategy. Mercifully it's a slim volume, but it covers warfare from 490 bce to the 1st Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. Included is an interesting insight about guerilla warfare from Lawrence of Arabia.
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Old October 18th, 2012, 12:32 PM   #10
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I recall first hearing about [Keith Nolan] when the local newspaper did a story on this teenager who was writing a book about the Vietnam War. He began by placing ads asking Vietnam vets to contact him, which they did in droves.
No opinion on Vietnam is even close to complete without some familiarity with his books.

I don't want to talk about Afghanistan too much, because there is no Keith Nolan for this war - a trustworthy historian that you can base a solid opinion on. For starters, the events are to fresh in the memory. Nolan's first book, on Hue, is from 1983. 15 years allows a good period for a more complete digestion of the facts.

But now, in Afghanistan, we have a war that has been going on for 15 years. It seems like 15 years, anyway - already a longer war than Nam, in any case, by a few years (well over the 8-year record set there, and counting!).

Bush should have used 9-11 as a pretext to start a war, with full conscription, the same way that Roosevelt used Pearl Harbor as a pretext to enter WWII. What a weakling Bush was: he misted up like a little girl, on 9-11. I can't tell you how embarrassing it was to watch the behavior of my commander-in-chief, after this terrible attack! The first public appearance, when a decisive show of strength would have been appropriate, and he looked like such a little girl: he flew around for hours in his secure airplane, as if he was afraid to land, and then when he finally did work up the nerve for a public appearance, he looked like he was about to bust out crying. That does not inspire confidence.

Look at his first big speech after 9-11. When he should be announcing plans to seek a declaration of war in Congress, he instead tires this:

Quote:
[O]ne of the great goals of this nation's war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry. It's to tell the traveling public: Get on board. Do your business around the country. Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots. Get down to Disney World in Florida.
We are in a state of war, and that is all he has for us? Don't change your plans to go to Disney World? This does not inspire confidence in my political leadership.

Last edited by Student; October 18th, 2012 at 12:38 PM.
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