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Clausewitz’s Trinity in the Twenty-First Century (Part III)

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

Almost all discussion on the nature of war and strategy commences, wittingly and unwittingly, against the backdrop of purportedly Clausewitzian ideas and utilises concepts first fully developed by him. The flood of studies in recent years claiming deep changes in the nature of contemporary war has led many commentators to return to Clausewitz and, ultimately, to the trinity.

Some claim that we have entered into an era of so-called ‘new wars’ in which, due to the impact of globalization and the rise of identity politics, war’s deeper purpose has changed – war, for instance, is fought for economic gain by actors who wish to sustain the conflict rather than seek victory. Others claim that the rise of non-state warfare, in the form of irregular conflict, renders obsolete a theory formulated in an age of major state warfare. Some commentators argue that great changes in war’s material aspects occasions Clausewitz’s irrelevance as a ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ promises to dissipate his famous ‘fog of war.’ Some believe – albeit for different reasons – that the continued adherence to Clausewitzian notions of war is cognitively blinkering, strategically harmful or even poses a threat to civilization. Jan Willem Honig has argued that Clausewitz stands at the root of a putative modern strategic crisis. All these critiques are united in their belief that, for whatever reason, Clausewitz is no longer or never really was a reliable guide for understanding war.

Generally, it appears that the claim of novelty in contemporary war tends to rest less on objective observations of what went before, than on the ideas of Clausewitz, who is painted as the chief interpreter of a dying form of inter-state war. Likewise, those who claim that war has not changed do so on the grounds that Clausewitz essentially got it right. The central problem here lies not in the fact that Clausewitz is utilised as a starting point for such discussion, but that his ideas are often distorted in order to add weight to particular arguments. If Clausewitz represents all that purportedly went before, then any thesis claiming a new era of warfare can only benefit from knocking him off his pedestal.

Yet, crucially, the trinity certainly cannot explain everything. Analysts of contemporary conflict provide students with detailed descriptions of the events, causes and dynamics that define the regrettably numerous wars fought across the globe. These specialist studies are indispensable and Clausewitz cannot supplant them. They reveal the extremely complex character of wars that have emerged in recent decades; wars that appear radically different from traditional interstate wars prominent throughout most of the modern era.

Whether all the features of these wars are as novel as some proclaim need not worry us greatly; the central and unmistakable point being that historical experience has revealed radically different forms of war over the ages. Clausewitz wrote at a time dominated by wars fought between the armies of sovereign states. That he witnessed, and even lectured on emergent forms of guerrilla conflict and ‘people’s war’ cannot hide this fact. His historical studies provided him with an awareness of different types of war, but the emphasis of his work was on interstate war and, more specifically, its Napoleonic manifestation.  Clausewitz knew nothing of the United Nations, 24 hour mass media or laser-guided munitions: he was no Nostradamus. Essentially, the problem is one that Clausewitz himself grappled with: how to reconcile the universal and the particular in theory.

Clausewitz’s approach emphasised the limits of what he believed possible in any theory of war. He understood the profound difficulty of making truly timeless observations on a subject as vast and complex as war. This recognition of extreme particularity almost led him to the relativistic conclusion that no general statements in theory were possible – indeed, he stated that each age would have held to its own theory of war. He would no doubt sympathise with those scholars who highlight the unique aspects of contemporary conflict.

Yet, Clausewitz was ever attempting to establish the bounds of generalisable insights without succumbing to observations of meaningless banality. To achieve this he would require not only a detailed comprehension of the dynamics of particular wars, but also a sense of how wars differed throughout history. In a manner largely unprecedented in military theory, he began the process of, as he put it, ‘thinking about the subject for years on end and testing each conclusion against the history of war’, delving beneath the surface of war in an attempt to distinguish the essential from the incidental, the timeless from the particular. The trinity is the culmination of this endeavour. It is intended to convey dynamism, flexibility, change and complexity. We should approach it as Clausewitz explicitly intended us to: as a guide to judgement, not a prescriptive manual with which any war can easily be understood or, indeed, fought. When considering the more extreme pronouncements of the ‘new wars’ scholars, we should listen to Thucydides who had it that, ‘Any novelty in an argument deceives you at once, but when the argument is tried and proved you become unwilling to follow it; you look with suspicion on what is normal and are the slaves of every paradox that comes your way.’

 * * *

 For many, Clausewitz’s work will raise as many questions as it answers. It should be approached with caution, but also with relish, confident that one will emerge from close study of it with a sounder understanding of war. To fully comprehend its ideas, some knowledge of the context in which it was written is valuable as well as an understanding of its unfinished status. Failure to accommodate these factors has led to distortions of Clausewitz’s ideas that are not justified in reference to the text. Nevertheless, those willing to take time to understand these problems can find in On War, most notably through the trinity, powerful concepts which speak across the ages.

Perhaps the central reason for Clausewitz’s timelessness lies in his perceptive insight into the basic realities of human nature, particularly as they are wont to be expressed in times of war. Along with such thinkers as Thucydides and Machiavelli, he achieved that difficult task of seeing through the blinding confusion of the present, into the fundamental continuities of the human social condition. Not all his insights achieved this standard. Clausewitz was not only a philosopher of war, but a soldier responding to the exigencies of his time, hence much of On War is inevitably time-bound. The implications of the changing forms of war during the twenty-first century will no doubt continue to generate intense debate, but as Clausewitz taught, we should pause before being overawed by impressions. On War is not a textbook with all the answers. Rather it is an invitation to study an immensely complex phenomenon for which there are no easy answers.


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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