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Continuity in Confusion: Understanding Clausewitz’s Trinity (Part I)

 *This is the first of a three-part blog series by Dr Tom Waldman exploring Clausewitz’s famous trinity*

In the form of his ‘remarkable trinity’, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) laid the basis for a comprehensive understanding of war. The trinity can perhaps be more mystifying than edifying, particularly if read in isolation and without an appreciation of his wider work. Yet, the trinity can serve a number of purposes for students of war. Much that has been written about On War has missed the point of the trinity. There are understandable reasons for this. In its existing form the text is imperfect, incomplete and at times perplexing to the modern mind. An early death prevented Clausewitz from fully developing his ideas. Perhaps, had he lived longer, his work would be less prone to basic misunderstandings, but we should perhaps be cautious in that regard. Misunderstandings more often derive from a failure to read the text thoroughly or to comprehend its central ideas in their proper historical context.

Moreover, it has to be doubted whether Clausewitz would ever have been finally satisfied with his work. In accordance with his overarching dialectical approach to the subject, he wrote ‘organically’, constantly reworking concepts and testing propositions in the light of new experiences or historical evidence. These observations, rather than being redolent of a confused mind, reveal a thinker who had grasped the truth about his subject: no final word, no pithy theory would ever truly capture the essence of the phenomenon.

If read carefully and with an open mind, the trinity is capable of helping us to understand the essential dynamics of war even today. It cannot, of course, tell us anything substantive about modern conflict, but rather encourages consideration of the essential forces and dynamics that underlie any situation of organised violence waged for political ends. The value of this lies in the way that essentials are so often lost in the welter of overpowering images and the inordinate confusion of the ‘here and now’. The trinity forces us to separate what at first sight appears utterly chaotic and appreciate the fundamental dynamics of war. Reality is often chaotic, but equally, in historical perspective, there is an underlying consistency to such complexity; if not ‘method behind the madness’, then perhaps continuity behind the confusion.

The trinity is intended to nourish the intellect through a process which, as Clausewitz put it, ‘accustoms the mind to these truths’. It is not intended to be employed as a fixed framework, whereby one’s task would simply be to categorise facts and events into three distinct areas of reality and consider their relationship. Many existing secondary works on Clausewitz – with some notable exceptions – seem intended only to deepen the confusion and mystery surrounding his work. They claim On War is a notoriously complex puzzle which can only be solved through a dedicated and involved code-breaking process while in possession of esoteric knowledge unavailable to the non-expert. Perhaps more frustrating is the often convoluted language used to present their intellectual investigations. Clausewitz himself had no time for such an ‘ostentatious exhibition of ideas’:

Thus it has come about that out theoretical and critical literature, instead of giving plain, straightforward arguments in which the author at least always knows what he is saying and the reader what he is reading, is crammed with jargon, ending at obscure crossroads where the author loses his readers.

I do not mean to dismiss these contributions – they have, in some important respects, furthered our understanding – but in what follows I want to stress not only the accessibility of most Clausewitzian ideas, but their real, direct and vital relevance to contemporary strategic issues. Even a basic awareness of them might have helped avoid many of the most egregious strategic follies of recent decades; although, of course, the trinity itself reminds us that the very factors that so often subvert sensible strategy are inescapable and no form of knowledge can guarantee success in an activity so pervaded by chance. Clausewitz made this point in no uncertain terms: ‘Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.’ The key point is that those more inured to war’s ever-present forces will be best placed to confront and maybe even exploit them to their advantage. So, the modest aim here is to present a reading of Clausewitz’s trinity in a simple and straight-forward fashion to help clarify its main characteristics, elements, levels and meaning.

The trinitarian framework

Clausewitz’s brief description of the trinity comes at the end of Book 1, Chapter 1 of On War and is presented under the subheading, ‘The Consequences for Theory’. In this respect, the trinity represents his central analytical framework for comprehending the nature of war: it ‘ties all of Clausewitz’s many ideas together and binds them into a meaningful whole.’ Read in isolation, the trinity can and has led to as much confusion as clarity, because on first reading it can appear simplistic, imprecise and perhaps somewhat odd. As Hugh Smith observes, though Clausewitz ‘nowhere discusses passion, reason, and chance at length, these elements permeate his entire work.’ It might be more accurate to state that he does discuss those elements at considerable length, but rarely explicitly in direct reference to the trinity itself.

In formulating the trinity, Clausewitz simply wanted to argue that war is made up of three central elements or ‘dominant tendencies’. So, war is ‘composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.’ These tendencies have been variously condensed into short-hand versions such as ‘hostility, chance and purpose’ or even ‘irrational, non-rational and rational factors.’ Here they will be referred to as passion, chance and policy (or politics). This set of three constitutes the ‘primary’ or ‘objective’ trinity. Each of the tendencies of the primary trinity is mainly manifested in a corresponding subject within society: respectively, the people, the commander and his army, and the government. This set of elements constitutes the ‘secondary’ or ‘subjective’ trinity. In addition to these two central conceptual levels is the often overlooked level of context (not itself comprising a trinity). This partially hidden level of the framework serves a vital theoretical role with regard to the way it explains change at the secondary level. Context might usefully be considered a ‘tertiary’ level.

Before outlining the three tendencies and levels of the trinity in a little greater detail, it is important to establish a number of key suppositions on which the framework rests, and which Clausewitz did not explicitly state in the section outlining the trinity. The trinity cannot be properly understood without appreciating their ever-present underlying influence: to paraphrase Clausewitz, they are like the colour an artists gives to the underpainting which determines the tone of the canvas.

First, Clausewitz’s understanding of war places humans with all their quirks, vanities, fears and hopes at the centre of the phenomenon. This perspective is easily overlooked because it is war’s material character that is perhaps most striking to the observer, exacerbated today by the extent to which technology – with its apotheosis in nuclear weapons and high-tech information technology – appears to dominate its conduct. The effect can be blinding in its capacity to divert attention from the basic fact that it is still humans that ultimately wield such technology.

Second, throughout, Clausewitz emphasises ‘the duel’, the fact that war is always a ‘continuous interaction of opposites’ between two or more belligerents – it is not an ‘exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter’, but at an ‘animate object that reacts.’ It becomes clear that it is this complex interaction that accounts for so much that is unique about the phenomenon. War is a violent conflict of wills, a ‘conflict of living forces’ which, on interaction, create new political and military realties that no one belligerent fully controls.

Third, fighting and combat lie at the heart of the phenomenon, no matter how rarely violent engagements actually occur. However, the idea of fighting has to be a universal feature whether latent or actual, otherwise the whole subject begins to lose its defining character. Clausewitz’s emphasis on fighting does not entail that he believed outcomes could not be achieved without fighting, but that such outcomes were ultimately based on the perceived threat or expected effects of combat. Therefore, his thinking is appropriate to deterrence or coercion where force is simply threatened: results can be produced ‘by the mere possibility of an engagement; the possibility has acquired reality.’

While seemingly commonsensical, these ideas are often neglected or ignored. Militaries have a tendency to seek answers to problems in technological elixirs, diverting attention away from human realities. Some militaries get so caught up in perfecting their own operations that they forget there is always a living and thinking enemy always attempting to frustrate their plans. The belief that wars can be won without fighting, perhaps through political positioning, clever manoeuvre or shrewd stratagems hides the fact that such successes are dependent on the threat or prospect of actual engagement.

War, in Clausewitz’s conception, is predicated on these foundations. Yet, in order to arrive at an accurate theory, he required methods that would enable him to avoid the pitfalls he believed earlier thinkers had fallen into. Rejecting both the stereotypically mechanistic Enlightenment approach and the fatalistic excesses of the Romantic outlook, Clausewitz struck a middling course. Rather than seeking any final conclusions, he forcefully expressed the limits of any theory of war. Nevertheless, he believed that by employing clear concepts free of jargon and approaching the subject in the spirit of scientific endeavour, sound theory could elucidate war’s internal structures. He was particularly conscious of ensuring that his theory remained anchored to reality through the testing of logical propositions against both history and personal experience. A direct consequence of this was the recognition that war is inescapably ‘intertwined with psychological factors and effects.’


Dr Tom Waldman is Research Fellow at the University of York. He is author of War, Clausewitz and the Trinity (Ashgate, 2013).


Follow Tom on Twitter @tom_waldman

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