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Uniting Clausewitz’s Trinity (Part II)

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

Moving beyond depiction of war as either art or science, Clausewitz maintained that war is ‘part of man’s social existence’ and is most akin to that from which it emerges: politics. Most importantly, Clausewitz’s strove to bridge the divide between universal and particularist approaches, aware that the former leads to empty generalities and the latter to doctrinal principles rapidly rendered obsolete. The trinity is the fruit of his theoretical labours, the final synthesis arrived at after years of intense study and historical analysis. The primary tendencies represent those timeless elements of war, which, whilst varying in their relative importance over time, and from one war to the next, will be apparent in any war, in any age. So, what were those universal elements?

The primary trinity

First, contrary to the way in which Clausewitz has often been represented, he stressed the ever-present potential for irrational and emotional behaviour in war. Whenever force is present in human relations, the feelings cannot fail to be involved, while any putative level of civilisation is no safeguard against capture by such feelings, which are especially prone to intense expression during conflict. Yet, Clausewitz recognises other potential sources of irrationality and it becomes clear, on close study, that these forces effect all actors in war. Ultimately, war is an activity in which rational behaviour can very easily be overwhelmed by passion, whether expressed through dogmatic adherence to ideological tenets, a belief in divine intervention on behalf of those fighting for the true God, trust in the magical properties of war masks or many other such things.

Clausewitz described this tendency as encapsulating the ‘hatred and enmity’ that pervades war. The historical record would surely support him in emphasising such feelings, and especially those associated with hatred and enmity. Yet, as Clausewitz was well aware, the emotional array of war is not only constituted by feelings of a nefarious kind. Virtuous emotions such as intense love, altruism and self-sacrifice can exist and there may be a surprising level of mutual respect and empathy between combatants on opposing sides. All can variably impinge on military effectiveness.

Second, war is pervaded by chance and probability. The source of this uncertainty lies primarily in war’s interactive nature, the physical conditions within which war takes place and the human condition. War is always conducted against an enemy with an independent will, that never passively submits and constantly seeks to outwit, deceive and destroy. Chance happenings pervade war, either as a result of the surprise moves of the enemy, the impact of external factors such as the weather or the limits of the human mind to foresee all potential possibilities. The unexpected moves, both political and military, of third parties adds to this chronically unpredictable environment and is exacerbated by the countless intangible factors involved and the inescapable ethnocentric blinkers that cloud objective analysis of enemy intentions and capabilities.

These are factors that even sophisticated technology cannot negate; information and intelligence in war is inevitably partial and prone to exaggeration and political manipulation. Combined with the effects of relentless danger, fear and physical and mental exertion, these factors coalesce to form a ‘general friction’ which makes war so much more difficult in reality than it may appear on paper. Yet, this realm of uncertainty is not necessarily cause for despair: one should remember that the enemy can no more escape its clutches. Chance and uncertainty should not be conceived as being everywhere, all of the time – there are observable linear cause and effect relationships in war. However, uncertainty is central to the nature of the phenomenon, along with the measures humans employ to overcome it.

Third, Clausewitz drew attention to the rational thread that runs through war in the form of the overarching influence of policy, whereby belligerents seek to tailor their available resources and means to ultimate ends through appropriate strategies and tactics. The influence of policy feeds into calculations regarding the costs, both material and psychological, groups are willing to pay given the value of the war’s object and the effort required. Although policy is never ‘tyrant’, can change dramatically as circumstances develop and may not always be deemed ‘reasonable’ according to universal standards of law or morality, the subordination of war to policy emphasises that no military victory is complete in and of itself. 

But there was another less obvious, yet fundamental implication of war’s subordination to policy; that it is inescapably intertwined in the wider realm of politics, within which policy is but one element. He held that war cannot be understood as an autonomous phenomenon, but was the continuation of politics, understood as an endless, multifaceted and dynamic process comprised of both internal and external aspects. Politics is the ‘womb of war’ and thus the main lines that run through war will remain fundamentally political. Yet, this wider perspective exerted a paradoxical effect, which emphasised to Clausewitz the limits of policy control on war. He understood that war, far from simply being a rational instrument, is also a continuation of the chaotic and unpredictable realm of the political, which introduces conflicting priorities for those engaged in war and that is beyond the complete control of any one group.

Common characteristics

All three primary tendencies share some common characteristics. First, they each present a picture of war from the point of view of an individual belligerent in war, yet the interactive and multilateral nature of war is implied in each case. The nature of war is presented through the eyes of one actor, while simultaneously being embedded in and crucially dependent on the context of interaction with others. The trinity is unilateral to the extent that it provides a route into comprehending war from the angle of one political entity. This perspective is vital precisely because war is meaningless without being understood as being comprised of unitary actors who come together in situations of conflicting interests. While it may appear contradictory to describe the trinity as comprehensive given its ostensibly unitary appearance, in fact, once its dependence on the interactive conception is understood, the contradictions disappear.

Second, all three tendencies are essentially ambiguous in relation to the rise to extremes in war. Clausewitz concludes that whether a rise to extremes actually occurs can only be determined by war in reality, embedded in its real political, social and physical contexts: it never simply follows what logic might suggest. None of the three tendencies represent forces which necessarily cause escalation – they are a priori ambiguous in this respect. They all can lead to extremes, but equally they may exert countervailing, limiting forces. The trinity as a whole might usefully be conceived of as a ‘vehicle’, the direction of which is by no means preordained until the driver is in and moving.

Third, in strategic terms the three tendencies are neither necessarily positive or negative influences, but dependent on the way in which they are handled or exploited. At first glance, it may appear that chance and probability exerts an unambiguously debilitating effect. In fact, this realm of uncertainty is one of great opportunity, which commanders can exploit through daring stratagems or considered restraint. Likewise, policy is strategically neutral. Policy is not always wise and can exert a negative affect on rational behaviour: it can be unclear, make unrealistic demands on the military or may itself be mistaken. Conversely, sound policy can have a positive impact on strategic effectiveness – clear objectives provide the military with a good idea of the kind of military operations required. Finally, violent emotions can lead to wholly unrealistic polices or operations driven by excessive ambition, blinding religious conviction or burning vengeance. But, such passions can be a most effective strategic asset if exploited effectively.

Subjective manifestations and context

The three tendencies manifest themselves – at the secondary level – in different ways in different times and places due to the varying contextual conditions in which societies conduct war. The idea of context – understood as a tertiary level in the trinitarian framework – is present in the section in On War outlining the trinity, but in the somewhat hidden form of the chameleon metaphor. This has led to a failure to appreciate the in-built idea of change within the theory. Context should be understood as an ever-present multifaceted web comprised of a number of interconnected prominent dimensions that interact over time. Context surrounds war but is also reciprocally dependent on the behaviour of actors and the development of events.

One crucial passage represents a concise expression of Clausewitz’s holistic framework and enables us to determine the place context assumes in it. He states that: ‘The aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs, must be governed by the particular characteristics of his own position [secondary level]; but they will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character [context]. Finally, they must always be governed by the general conclusions to be drawn from the nature of war itself [primary level].’

The secondary trinity – of people, army and government – is intended as a means of capturing the manifestation of the three primary forces in relation to particular wars: an ‘operationalization’ of the trinity. It is clear that Clausewitz utilizes this trinity as an illustrative device to instantiate the more ephemeral primary forces. Whatever the complexity of any war, analogues of the secondary trinity will be apparent. The secondary trinity can manifest itself in many potential forms, but war cannot make sense without some grasp of the groups that conduct it. Bassford convincingly argues that more inclusive terms can help avoid misinterpretations. He suggests that ‘leadership’; ‘fighters’ and ‘popular base’ may be more appropriate. The secondary level does not present a rigid sociological description of war in reality: as war’s contexts change, so too will it.

The trinity as a unity

Crucially, the trinity has to be conceived of as a unity – as an indivisible and integrative whole – in so far as none of the primary tendencies make sense in isolation and none is a priori more important than the others. As Clausewitz’s final synthesis, the trinity is intended to convey the inextricable interaction of the central forces operating in war. Moreover, this unity – of three things in one – is not of a static nature, but one that is constantly morphing, displaying dynamism and constant change. Clausewitz employs the nonlinear scientific metaphor of a weight suspended over three magnets to convey the sense in which war charts a complex, unpredictable and random course between these three points of attraction.

As soon as one delves deeper into the separate elements of the trinity it becomes immediately apparent that any strict delineation between them is necessarily arbitrary and insufficient. Just as no human can be neatly compartmentalised into rational, creative and emotional sides, nor can war be so divided. The trinity is an incredible simplification of reality, yet a necessary one for understanding a phenomenon that could so easily escape the bounds of human mental capacity.

As a number of commentators have noted, there are many topics Clausewitz ostensibly omits. On War is short on technology, economics, law or naval matters. Yet, equally of course, Clausewitz says nothing about air combat, nuclear weapons or cyber-warfare. This remind us that he could not have written about everything to do with war, nor was that his intention. The trinity establishes a framework of underlying essentials and is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate fundamental change in war’s subjective manifestations in the concrete case, as shaped by the continual interplay of changing conditions, while remaining firmly anchored to the fundamental forces that drive and shape all forms of conflict.

For any of those forces to be absent, war must necessarily become something else, for these elements are integral to its nature. They radically alter in their expression, relative influence and relationship to one another from one war to the next and within the same war; at times certain elements may dominate, while others are pushed into the shade. Nevertheless, a theory that ignored any one of them ‘would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.’ Even for commanders who believe war can be approached as an autonomous activity, it can never, in reality, be isolated from its political context. No matter how technologically advanced the armed force, there are too many contingent factors for chance to be truly banished. War is fought by humans and where violence enters into social relations, passions are inevitably stirred.

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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