Give us this day our daily Clausewitz

Clausewitz, Carl von. If modern military historians have a deity, Karl would have to be it. His concepts and themes – friction, the fog of war, war as an extension of policy by other means, the tension between rational policy and primordial passions in war – permeate military history and shape contemporary military theory. Like the Bible, his book On War is more often cited than read. If you need further proof of the Prussian oracle’s divine status, he even has his own trinity: not Father, Son and Holy Ghost mind you, but Emotion, Chance and Reason instead. Heck, he was omniscient as well, nonlinear before it was cool to be nonlinear (see Alan Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War”). People line up to be Clausewitz’s interpreter, not unlike more than a few prophets and modern televangelists. Like God, Clausewitz even has his own webpage. In this monotheistic universe Clausewitz, like the Christian God, has his own arch-rival, Jomini, who, if you ask most military historians, isn’t really that different from Satan.

Relative frequency of Jomini and Clausewitz in sample of English books from Google Books (Ngram viewer). Standard caveats apply.

As the trend from the above chart also suggests, both God and Clausewitz also seem to be fading in this increasingly secular age. We could go on with further parallels, but you get the idea.
So when Mark questioned the relevance of Clausewitz to non-state actors in an earlier post, this was akin to an atheistic denial of God, or at least an anti-trinitarian challenge. I’m somewhat agnostic myself, but what’s struck me of late about Clausewitz is his continuity with past military theorists. Numerous scholars have written about Clausewitz and his military thought, a few have even put his work in a broader historical context (e.g. Azar Gat’s The Origins of Military Thought and Beatrice Heuser’s The Evolution of Strategy and The Strategy Makers). And while all recognize Clausewitz’s historical debt, this most often takes the form of his reaction against the past. In particular, writers such as Gat highlight Clausewitz’s reaction against the geometrical theories dominant in the age of Enlightenment. Yet, just as Christian beliefs can be connected to earlier mystery cults, precursors to Clausewitz’s ideas are not difficult to find, and even less difficult to believe.
One parallel that I’ve been coming across of late is the Clausewitzian concept of friction (On War, book 1 chapters 7-8), certainly one of the most commonly mentioned proofs of Clausewitz’s omniscience. Most military historians, as if reciting from a catechism, can probably complete the following quote from rote memory: “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.” (As with the Bible, On War is also available in different translations, leading to disputes over which version most accurately reflects the ideas of the Creator.)
Clausewitzian friction is a useful metaphor to be sure, but one that should be placed in its broader historical context. The availability of the term friction was itself a matter of serendipitous timing. As is evident from the Google Ngram chart below, Clausewitz was fortunate to be riding a wave of late-18C friction-mania, which offered him the perfect term to encapsulate this idea of impersonal and personal forces working against the direction of intended motion.

(The spike of the capitalized form “Friction” appears to be a result of it taking off as a formal scientific term mid-century.)
But Clausewitz was hardly the first to recognize the underlying messiness of war, with unpredictable events and individuals conspiring to wreck the best combinations of commanders. Here we recall our previous caution to distinguish among the variety of early modern military voices. The Military Enlightenment’s geometrical theorists are oft-described as Jomini’s minions, but too often they are assumed to represent the totality of early modern military knowledge. Digging into other heretical texts, we find that the concept of friction was well-known to Clausewitz’s predecessors. With the fashionable term friction unavailable to them, they used a less scientific yet similarly ubiquitous concept: Chance. In fact, the idea that war was the domain of chance (sometimes Fate or Fortune) went back to the Ancients, and its causal force was attested to throughout the Middle Ages, in either a Christianized or personified sense of Fate. One recent medieval military historian has even gone so far as to argue that medieval battles were so rare because few wished to allow God the opportunity to weigh in on their disputes (David Whetham, Just Wars and Moral Victories: Surprise, Deception and the Normative Framework of European war in the later Middle Ages). Nor was this a purely medieval belief. Vauban, that doyen of geometrical sieges, cared little for the Ancients yet he too recognized the role of quirks of fate in his sieges, despite what many today claim about predictable timetables (Ostwald, “Like Clockwork? Clausewitzian Friction and the Scientific Siege in the Age of Vauban”). An appreciation of wartime friction clearly existed in the B.C. (Before Clausewitz) era.
While friction and chance grew from the same root, there was more disagreement over how you should respond when Fate turned against you. A neostoic might acquiesce to his fate with meek acceptance – the Wheel of Fate inevitably turns – but a prudent commander was taught that one shouldn’t tempt it in the first place, least of all on the field of battle. To quote one version given by an early 17th century French cleric and translated for an English audience almost a century later:”The Hazard and doubtful Chance of Wars, the mighty and surprizing Revolutions of Human Affairs; particularly the unaccountable Events of Engagements and Stratagems, which we see happen daily; and wherein, when the nicest Policy hath done its utmost, Providence hath still the chief Hand, and gives the finishing Stroke; For it is obvious to every Man’s Observation, that what the World calls Fortune, cannot pretend to so absolute a Dominion in any one Instance, as in the Decisions of the Field. And accordingly we often see, that One Hour there turns the whole Face of Affairs, and exalts or reduces a Prince to the very Reverse of what he was an Hour ago.” In other words: the best laid plans waylaid by a friction-wielding Fate.

The avoidance of uncertain battle quoted above is a mainstay of the military historiography; we have been less quick to appreciate that their hesitancy was itself recognition of an early modern form of friction. Instead, we focus so much on Clausewitz and his Napoleonic muse (or is it Father and Son?) because they seem to represent a revolutionary departure from this prudential ideal: embracing friction rather than avoiding it, particularly in that most frictionful of military engagements, battle. But here too, Clausewitz was merely fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. Machiavelli, for example, famously refused to accept passivity in the face of changing Fate when he contended that Fortuna (like a woman) needed to be beaten into submission. Not surprisingly, Machiavelli was far more willing to counsel his readers to battle, rather than the ‘safer’ alternative of siege (J.R. Hale, “To Fortify or Not to Fortify? Machiavelli’s Contribution to a Renaissance Debate”). Just as noteworthy, Clausewitz’s (partial) solution to friction, real-world experience, also drew upon this same long tradition, witness the sacred texts’ constant enjoinders to match book-learning with experiential wisdom.

In short, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that, like Newton, Clausewitz too stood on the shoulders of giants. Or we might conclude with a reworking of our deistic metaphor. The Orthodox believe in a divine Clausewitz and a luciferian Jomini cast down from heaven. Perhaps it would be better to say that Clausewitz is instead an Olympic god who stood on the shoulders of Titans.
Comments (4)

4 thoughts on “Give us this day our daily Clausewitz

    • Charron, Pierre. Of wisdom Three books. Written originally in French, by the Sieur de Charron. With an account of the author. Made English by George Stanhope. London: printed for R. Bonwick J. Tonson W. Freeman Tim. Goodwin J. Walthoe and 6 others in London, 1707.
      He was an acquaintance of Montaigne FWIW. The translator George Stanhope was chaplain to William and Mary, and then again to Anne.

  1. Machiavelli also had an earlier version of Clausewitz’s “war as an extension of policy” dictum–one doesn’t even have to read very closely to stumble across the concept in both The Prince and On War (Machiavelli’s dialogue, that is, not Clausewitz’s books). Seen this way, the most seminal element about Clausewitz’s work might not be the actual concepts of friction, war-as-policy, or whatever, but the way he identifies and names them as distinct concepts that can be discussed in a scholarly manner without having to resort to vague terms/concepts like chance or divine providence. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that he has changed the face of the academic study of war far more than he has changed the theory and practice of war itself.

  2. Two thoughts:

    The first is that it seems incredibly naive for someone to believe that Clausewitz “invented” or even “discovered” the concept of friction. Humanity is a chaotic system, of which warfare is one aspect. A simplistic, linear approach to that (or any) aspect seems doomed from the start.

    The second is that it’s interesting to see the first Google graph show when Clausewitz took the lead from Jomini (the diabolical Hun providing the justification for Germany’s WWI strategy more than 80 years ahead of time – another simplistic analysis).

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