v.14 APR 2015
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Christopher Bassford

M.C. Escher's image, Stars.
Color-enhanced detail from M.C. Escher, "Stars." The complex three-dimensional structure
is built entirely of intersecting triangles, and the living creatures who inhabit it are,
most conveniently for our purposes, chameleons.
Figure 1.

This paper is a heavily edited, enlarged, and updated version of a paper delivered to a conference at Oxford University on "Clausewitz in the 21st Century" in March 2005. It is designed for presentation in electronic format on the web. Two rather different (and shorter) published articles have been derived from this working paper: Christopher Bassford, Chapter 4, “The Primacy of Policy and the ‘Trinity’ in Clausewitz's Mature Thought,” in Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds., Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp.74-90; Christopher Bassford, "The Strange Persistence of Trinitarian Warfare," in Ralph Rotte and Christoph Schwarz, eds., War and Strategy (New York: Nova Science, 2011), pp.45-54.


See some interesting analysis of this paper by ZenPundit, et al, in "Bassford’s Dynamic Trinitarianism Part I" (September 10th, 2012) and "Bassford’s Dynamic Trinitarianism, Part II" (September 24th, 2012).


     The Range of Approaches to Clausewitz
     Universalizing Clausewitz
     The Problem of the Trinity

TEXT BOX: A Working Translation of the Text We’re Discussing


     Translation Issues—Linguistic, Cultural, and Psychological
     Opening Metaphors
     “Trinity” as a Word-Choice
     Enumerating the Elements of the Trinity
     The First Element: Violence and Emotion
     The Third Element: War’s Subordination to Reason

     Distinguishing ‘Politics’ from ‘Policy’
     War as an ‘Instrument’
     On War Is Not On Policy

     ‘Chance’ vs ‘Probability’





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I am a historian. Or, rather, I was formally trained as an historian. Today, as a "Professor of Strategy,” I'm not sure I can still characterize myself that way. But my approach to teaching strategy is essentially an historical approach. I routinely start out a new seminar group with the question, "So: Why do we study history, anyway?" Invariably, some earnest young colonel will volunteer that hoary old line from George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I will then fix what I hope is a withering eye on this student and say something to the effect of, "Well, Bubba/Bubbette, I've got some bad news for you: Those of us who do remember the past are also condemned to repeat it. We simply have the added pleasure of knowing we've been down this damned rathole before."

Unfortunately, even this minor pleasure does not appear to be widely shared. It has been barely one generation since the American defeat in Indochina. Nonetheless, in a dazzling display of historical forgetfulness worthy of the brain-damaged female protagonist of the movie "Fifty First Dates," our national security community appears to be stunned to discover that warfare can be waged by groups that do not look at all like the cast of the 1960s TV show, Hogan's Heroes. And many of the worst offenders are ... military historians. Prompted by what evidently appears to many writers to be the utterly new kind of warfare waged by organizations like, say, Al Qaeda, they spin out bold new buzzwords designed, shaman-style, to capture the spirit of this earthshakingly new innovation by giving it a name. Some popular examples are “non-state war,” "Fourth- (or Fifth-) Generation War," and the stunningly uncreative "the New Warfare." Most misleading of all (to the few who are equipped to assign any meaning whatsoever to the phrase) is "non-trinitarian war," a term coined by Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld to encapsulate a new, allegedly “non-Clausewitzian” approach to theorizing about war.

In reality, Clausewitz’s Trinitarian concept bears little resemblance to the concept Creveld claims to be refuting. The purposes of this paper are to examine the meaning and significance of this trinity and to explore its continuing relevance to contemporary political/military problems. A warning to “hard-headed realists,” “operators,” and “practical men”: Clausewitz was a practical soldier and he intended his work to serve as a very practical approach to real-world complexities—without avoiding the complexity. If you are one of those people who are repelled by the allegedly “hair-splitting” character of Clausewitzian theory, I advise you to stop reading now. I would also suggest that you quit—today—any profession connected to the higher levels of politics, public policy, or war.


The Range of Approaches to Clausewitz


My approach to any issue concerning Clausewitz is an eclectic one, reflecting the wide range of correspondents I engage as editor of The Clausewitz Homepage.*1 These tend to fall into four broad schools:


* an “Original Intent” school, primarily historians narrowly focused on Clausewitz’s own influences, drives, goals, and often the presumed limits to his thought and perceptions in the specific context of Prussia in the periods immediately surrounding the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon.


* an “Inspirationist” school, primarily present-minded political scientists, strategic-affairs types, soldiers, and business theorists who are interested in freely adapting Clausewitzian concepts exclusively to current issues. It also includes some historians interested in applying Clausewitzian ideas to historical problems outside the boundaries of the modern West.


* a “Receptionist” school,*2 primarily historians who are interested in the ideas and impacts of Clausewitzian inspirationists over time.


* an “Editorial” school—people who think they have clear ideas as to what Clausewitz “really meant” and how to edit the rough draft Clausewitz left behind in order to more faithfully convey his concepts.


In practice, I find that most of us—however much “purists” of one stripe or another might decry the heresies involved—tend to straddle these various schools to varying degrees, at varying times, for varying purposes. As one very bright business strategist once said to me, “It would be nice to know what’s ‘true,’ of course, but the more important question is, What is useful?”*3 After all, most readers of Clausewitz are fundamentally interested, not in understanding Clausewitz, but in understanding WAR (or perhaps its analogs, as in phases of business, etc.). In pursuit of the latter goal, each of the schools has a valuable contribution to make. Fortunately, I find that my own unfolding understanding of war itself seems to keep uncanny pace with my understanding of Clausewitz.


Universalizing Clausewitz


As a final prefatory comment, I should note a certain bias, of which I am well aware, in my own thinking. This is a bias towards universalizing Clausewitz, who, after all, sought with Vom Kriege to formulate a valid general theory of war. Thus I think it would be a "good" thing if the entire war-studies community could use the essentials of Clausewitzian theory as the common basis for comparative military-political studies across all human societies and history. A common understanding of the Trinity would do much to advance that project. While I am under no illusions that the achievement of such a common understanding is imminent (which would make me certifiably insane), that goal is implicit in the very existence of “military theory” as a coherent field of inquiry. Our current utter confusion will continue to prevail until we find some common theoretical structure within which to conduct our debates. I do not have space to explore that notion here to any great degree, but it certainly influences my choices in translation and in defining terms like policy and politics: We want definitions that are not confined to Prussia in the era of the French Revolution, the Westphalian-model state system, or Western civilization. As, I think, did Clausewitz. Because so much of the debate over Clausewitz tends to reflect an academic “instinct for the capillaries,” I offer this bias as a convenient target for anyone seeking the jugular vein of my analysis.


The Problem of the Trinity


The original version of this paper was instigated by Andreas Herberg-Rothe, who invited me to speak on this subject at Oxford University's conference on "Clausewitz in the 21st Century" in March 2005. I have been thinking systematically about this specific passage in On War since about 1991, and I am familiar with its intricacies and sandtraps. Thus it came not entirely as a surprise to me when the project began to metastasize. There is hardly a word or phrase in section 28 that cannot provoke debate, long before we get to wrestling with the section's overall meaning and import. The result is the present, bloated, digression-laden paper.

Conceptual trinities are inherently problematic, but especially in the context of contemporary American politics and policy. It is difficult enough to convey the meaning and implications of any single idea. But the world in which we actually operate is, despite what partisans and fundamentalists of various stripes like to pretend, never the simple unfolding of any one concept or force. Unfortunately, expanding a discussion even to two coexisting or contending ideas requires a philosophical leap into the obscure realm of “dialectical thinking"—especially if one’s purpose is more sophisticated than seeking merely to eliminate one of the two options or to split the difference. Attempting to adjust to the complex situation routinely created by the ongoing collision of two real-world facts thus makes one, in modern parlance, a "hopeless flip-flopper.” Juggling the meaning and implications of three interacting realities makes even splitting the difference obnoxiously difficult and is utterly beyond the pale of acceptable political analysis. As famed political strategist James Carville notes, "If you say three things, you say nothing."*4 This contemporary reality makes sensible thought impossible, so we will ignore it in this paper.

Many of the difficulties specifically with Clausewitz’s trinity seem at first to turn on issues of translation from the German into English. We will have to look at some of these issues. Ultimately, however, the problem has little to do with the German or English languages or cultures, per se. Rather, it derives from the different ways in which various individuals, disciplines, and subcultures understand the universe (or, as many phrase it, "How things really work")—issues raised most ably by Alan Beyerchen’s analysis of Clausewitz’s worldview in terms of nonlinear mathematics and Complexity science.*5 For reasons of space I will have to leave most of the staggering implications of Clausewitz’s choice of nonlinear scientific imagery to Alan. The two issues are not unrelated, because both turn on the interactivity of interdependent variables. But we can discuss, e.g., the word-choice issues regarding policy, politics, and Politik in rather traditional terms without invoking any new cosmic paradigms.

The overarching problem with attempting any short discussion of the Trinity in isolation is that, however much various writers may try to treat the Trinity as a discrete theoretical “nugget”—indeed, as an afterthought, a conception that allegedly popped into Clausewitz’s mind in the last phases of his unfinished writing process and was never effectively incorporated into the existing body of his theory*6—in fact, the Trinity is the central concept in On War. I don’t mean “central” in the sense that, say, Jon Sumida applied in his Oxford conference paper*7 to Clausewitz’s concept of the inherent superiority of the defensive form of war. That is, I do not argue that the Trinity is Clausewitz’s “most important” concept, that the desire to convey it was his primary motivation in writing, or that all of his other insights flowed from this one. Rather, I mean simply that the Trinity is the concept that ties all of Clausewitz’s many ideas together and binds them into a meaningful whole. This remains true whether Clausewitz conceived his theoretical universe with this construct in mind, or instead discovered only at the end of his efforts that the seemingly divergent roads he had been traveling all led, inexorably, to this particular intersection.

An intersection is of little significance, however, without reference to the roads that run through it. Thus it is difficult to confine a discussion of the Trinity within tidy boundaries: Any comprehensive examination must lead to every major issue in On War.

In any case, the role of the Trinity within the narrow confines of Book One, Chapter One of On War, which reflects Clausewitz’s most mature thinking, is crucial. That chapter must be read in terms of Clausewitz’s dialectical examination of the nature of war. That discussion is very carefully structured but (purposefully, I suspect) largely unmarked by clear dialectical road markers labeling thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,*8 or even by sections clearly devoted to one stage of the dialectic or another. The Trinity itself represents the synthesis of this dialectical process. In this chapter, at least, it is no afterthought, clearly being foreshadowed throughout the discussion. And there is a very clear reference back to this discussion in Chapter 6B of Book 8:


All the circumstances on which [war] rests, and which determine its leading features, viz., our own power, the enemy’s power, allies on both sides, the characteristics of the people and the governments respectively, etc., as enumerated in Book I, Chapter 1—are they not of a political nature, and are they not so intimately connected with the whole political intercourse that it is impossible to separate them from it? But this view is doubly indispensable if we reflect that real war is no such consistent effort tending to the last extreme, as it should be according to abstract theory, but a half-hearted thing, a contradiction in itself; that, as such, it cannot follow its own laws, but must be looked upon as part of another whole—and this whole is [Politik].*9


As the synthesis of his dialectic on the nature of war, the Trinity incorporates but also supersedes Clausewitz’s antithesis, i.e., the famous dictum that war is “merely the continuation of Politik by other means.” That antithesis is almost always treated as if it were the pinnacle and summary of On War’s argument. In a sense, the Trinity also contradicts this dictum, and in yet another sense it serves to define its key term–i.e., Politik.

Unfortunately, it has been my dismal experience in observing Clausewitz’s reception that fundamental, seemingly irresolvable, but most often unvoiced disagreements arise the moment that this word, Politik, and its most common English translations, politics and policy, are introduced. So our exploration of the Trinity must confront their various meanings and the confusion they create. I realize that most of us would prefer to skip this seemingly elementary-level exercise. But that is precisely why it is so necessary.




[See the German original here. See the Howard/Paret version here.]


28. THE CONSEQUENCES FOR THEORY (Bassford translation)

War is thus more than a mere chameleon, because it changes its nature to some extent in each concrete case. It is also, however, when it is regarded as a whole and in relation to the tendencies that dominate within it, a fascinating trinity—composed of:

**1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force;

2) the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and

3) its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.


The first of these three aspects concerns more the people; the second, more the commander and his army; the third, more the government. The passions that are to blaze up in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope that the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship among them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

The task, therefore, is to keep our theory [of war] floating among these three tendencies, as among three points of attraction. [See Figure 2.]

What lines might best be followed to achieve this difficult task will be explored in the book on the theory of war [i.e., Book Two]. In any case, the conception of war defined here will be the first ray of light into the fundamental structure of theory, which first sorts out the major components and allows us to distinguish them from one another.

Shown in bold are sections where this translation differs substantially from that in Howard/Paret.
This working translation is based on comparisons among the first edition of Vom Kriege, the 1873 translation by J.J. Graham (London: N. Trübner, 1873); the O.J. Matthijs Jolles translation (New York: Random House, 1943); and the Howard/Paret 1984 edition; and on long-running consultations with Tony Echevarria, Alan D. Beyerchen, Jon Sumida, Gebhard Schweigler, and Andreas Herberg-Rothe. Obviously, I bear sole responsibility for the result.

You can compare the entire first German edition and the 1873 Graham translation side-by-side here.
**The elements of the Trinity are enumerated here for the sake of clarity. There are no numbers in the original.

Text Box 1.



Translation Issues—Linguistic, Cultural, and Psychological


The Howard/Paret translation (hereafter cited as “H/P”) of section 28 is problematic in a great many ways. My discussion here reflects an alternate translation (Text Box 1, above) based on a systematic comparison of all three major English translations with the German original. The reader may want to grab a copy of the Howard/Paret translation and open it to page 89 (in the Princeton edition) or view it on-line here. My proposed corrections have been culled in many cases from the thoughts of others in this field, remain tentative, and are advanced here for the purpose of fostering debate and further progress. It should be no source of dismay to Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret that a whole community of scholars, given thirty years to contemplate their translation of this particular bit of text, should have come to a greater recognition of its importance and to discern alternatives in word choice more appropriate to our emerging understanding of Clausewitz’s meaning(s). None of this would have happened without the impetus given to this field by their original efforts.


Opening Metaphors


Starting with the very first sentence, we run into problems, even before the Trinity itself is introduced. Evidently, Clausewitz believed that his discussion prior to this point should have prepared the reader to accept the metaphor that he now introduces of war as a chameleon—which I take to mean that it easily changes its superficial appearance and coloration. But he also expects the reader to be prepared to understand that this metaphor, while pretty good as far as it goes,*10 is still insufficient, because war also changes in far deeper ways (i.e., its “nature”) according to the circumstances of each real-world case. By dropping the initial “thus,” H/P de-links the Trinity concept from the rest of the chapter, making it appear to be a new departure. The H/P translation then gives the impression that the Trinity is being offered simply as an alternative metaphor. In truth, Clausewitz has already ceased riffing on the chameleon imagery. He is actually switching to a whole new metaphor, with a new structure, new entailments, and new purposes. The chameleon metaphor pointed to changes in war’s appearance from case to case; the Trinity addresses the underlying forces that drive those changes.

The sense that Clausewitz's discussion is preliminary, tentative, and an afterthought is magnified by H/P's rendering of the conclusion to Section 28:


H/P: What lines might best be followed to achieve this difficult task will be explored in the book on the theory of war [Book Two]. At any rate, the preliminary concept of war which we have formulated casts a first ray of light on the basic structure of theory, and enables us to make an initial differentiation and identification of its major components.


This is very different from the proposed translation, which is more similar to the Graham and Jolles versions:


What lines might best be followed to achieve this difficult task will be explored in the book on the theory of war [i.e., Book Two]. In any case, the conception of war defined here will be the first ray of light into the fundamental structure of theory, which first sorts out the major components and allows us to distinguish them from one another.


As Jon Sumida put it to me in a recent letter (e-mail, 8 April 2014—this is a close paraphrasing), "Section 28's main point is that war's infinite variability in form poses extraordinary difficulties for anyone wanting to formulate a valid general theory of war, which is what Clausewitz believed his great contribution to theory would be." In this paragraph, Clausewitz confidently refers to the functions of theory—a problem he had already worked through before revising Chapter 1—and describes the elements of the Trinity as its main components.


“Trinity” as a Word-Choice


The next issue that arises is the very choice of the word “Trinity” (Dreifaltigkeit). Until recently, writers in English, at least, have largely ignored the cultural and psychological implications of this term, dripping as it is with religious implications. Since the re-emergence of religion as a strategic concern, especially since the attacks of 11 September 2001, I have been deluged with e-mails (some from markedly paranoid believers in other faiths) asking whether the Christian connotations of the English word-choice are a mere artifact of translation or—as is truly the case—a trustworthy reflection of the connotations of the original German. I am also asked whether this word-choice reflects some sort of mystical streak (not necessarily Christian) in Clausewitz’s personality.

There are, of course, innumerable three-part theoretical constructs to which one can compare or relate Clausewitz’s Trinity—in, inter alia, Plato, St. Augustine, or Darwin.*11 Indeed, linguistic theorists have often proposed that proto-Indo-European culture revolved around a three-way conception of society, and that this conception is a unique marker of the PIE cultural legacy.*12 J.F.C. Fuller had a mystical obsession with a number of three-component constructs: "earth, water, and air" and "men, women, and children"—to which a skeptical J.E. Edmonds suggested adding "coat, trousers, and boots" and "knife, fork, and spoon."*13 I do not find this approach a particularly fruitful avenue to understanding Clausewitz’s meaning, but the other issues are of interest. There is no hint of religiosity or mysticism in Clausewitz’s thinking. He is very much a product of the Enlightenment in that respect. And it seems pretty obvious that it was his interest in modern science that brought the three-points-of-attraction imagery of paragraphs 3 and 4 forcefully to his attention. I suspect that many of those who see the Trinity as evidence of mysticism are simply people with a traditionally linear, Newtonian world view, who are baffled by Clausewitz’s obsession with chance, unpredictability, and disproportionality in the cause/effect relationship.*14

Nonetheless, Clausewitz was no doubt aware of the cultural significance and emotive power of the word. Whether he was seeking to exploit them, to defy them, or simply to have some fun with them, I have no idea.*15 But ZenPundit makes a powerful point, similar to comments I've heard Tony Echevarria and Andreas Herberg-Rothe make:


the Clausewitzian trinity makes the most sense understood as a true trinity—three separate coexistent forces in unity—and not a mere triad, which would be a simple grouping of three forces. So while Bassford is probably right that Clausewitz had no mystical intentions whatsoever here, his contemporary readership, aristocratic, educated, army officers versed in Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity, would have grasped the difference and that primordial violence and hatred, probability and chance, and the pure reason of policy were in fusion and tension and not three entirely separated forces.


The second problem here is the choice of modifying adjective. It seems that no modern translator is prepared to render wunderliche in the military context as “wonderful,” “wondrous,” or “marvelous” (much less “queer,” “quaint,” or “eccentric,” all good dictionary definitions). H/P 1976 gives “remarkable,” a throw-away word of no particular significance. This was changed to “paradoxical” in the 1984 edition, but this word seems to have no relationship to wunderliche and carries inappropriately negative connotations. Clausewitz wants us to accept the practical reality that these dynamic forces are ever-present and constantly interacting in the everyday world. But he clearly found this shifting interaction really, really interesting—to the point of being mesmerized by it. If that seems over the top, I suggest you actually watch the scientific demonstration he alludes to in paragraph 4 and see if you don’t find the experience hypnotic. Since wunderliche doesn’t lend itself to translation as hypnotic, however, I have settled on “fascinating.”*16


Same video, Flash format
Click on this image to see a video version. A somewhat different demonstration of a similar effect can be found
in an interactive FLASH animation of the famous 3-Body Problem in Newtonian physics.
Figure 2.


Enumerating the Elements of the Trinity


That brings us to the list of actual elements in the Trinity. Their identity will be readily evident to anyone who actually reads the first paragraph of his description: It is composed of: 1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity,*17 which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; 2) the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and 3) war’s element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason. I have little complaint about the H/P version of this list, with two important caveats: First, while we can accept “instrument of policy” here, there are factors that make this a special case. Second, H/P renders bloßen Verstande as “reason alone,” which is for rather glaring reasons contradictory to Clausewitz’s actual argument. More on that later. For convenience, this set of elements is usually labeled “emotion/ chance/ reason,” sometimes “violence/ chance & probability/ rational calculation,” or, even more abstractly, irrationality/ nonrationality/ rationality.”*18

This enumeration of the elements of the trinity—whichever set of words one chooses for shorthand—is not universally understood. For the most part, we will save for another diatribe, another day, the odd manner in which Martin van Creveld (and, in his train, John Keegan) have built an alternate Clausewitzian universe around a creative rewriting of this list. Here we will note only that the words “people,” “army,” and “government” (hereafter abbreviated PAG) appear nowhere at all in the paragraph that lists the Trinity’s components.*19

Creveld’s anti-Clausewitzian, PAGan interpretation derives not from On War itself but from the very much pro-Clausewitz work of U.S. Army Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. Prior to the American debacle in Vietnam, few thinkers writing in English had paid much serious attention to the Trinity as a distinct concept. The term first achieved prominence in skewed form in Summers’ influential 1981 study, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (written at the U.S. Army War College).*20 Summers focused on a secondary set of elements that were powerfully relevant in the specific circumstances in which American military thinkers found themselves during and after the defeat in Indochina. This unarguably useful secondary trinity (though Clausewitz did not apply that term to it) does indeed consist of the people, the army, and the government. Those elements appear in the second paragraph of section 28, where they are used to illustrate and clarify the primary concept, not to define it. In America’s traumatic war in Vietnam, those elements had come thoroughly unstuck from one another. Summers' interpretation of the PAG trinity was a positive doctrine, highly prescriptive: A nation could not hope to achieve victory in war unless these three elements were kept in harness together. H/P’s wording reinforced that notion with its message that “Our task … is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies.”

Clausewitz, in contrast, was skeptical (to put it mildly) of any positive doctrine that was not highly context-specific. The pursuit of such a doctrine was entirely alien to his approach to theory. His Trinity was descriptive, not prescriptive, and foretold the very opposite of balance. (Schwebe carries the connotation of dynamism, not equilibrium.) The message of this Trinity was that the relationships among his three elements were inherently unstable and shifting. What he actually said was that “the task … is to keep our theory [of war] floating among these three tendencies,” and not to try to set, or to count on, any fixed relationship among them.

We can blame Summers’ confusion partly on H/P’s unfortunate choice in translating Clausewitz’s descriptor for the links between the elements of the Trinity proper and the elements of this secondary trinity. By substituting “mainly” for mehr (which I’ve translated as “more”), H/P locks each of the elements of the actual trinity far too firmly and exclusively to each of these sets of human beings—violent emotion to the people, chance and probability to the commander and his army, and rational calculation to the government. In fact, each of the three categories that constitute the actual Trinity affects all of these human actors, to an extent that will vary wildly among societies, over time, and across situations. The army's officers and men and the political leadership are, to varying degrees in different societies, still members of the society they fight for or rule.*21 In almost all societies there is a “public,” whose proportion of the population varies a great deal, that expects to play a role in rational decision making. (Sometimes the only public that counts is the population of the army itself.) Commanders also indulge in rational calculation in pursuit of policy objectives. Political leaders are as often driven by personal needs as by their rational calculation of their societies' practical requirements. Events on the army's battlefields have a tremendous emotional and practical influence both on the people and on the political leadership, while popular and political factors, in turn, affect the army's performance.

As Vietnam fades in salience, it becomes clearer that the political-structural notion of the PAGans—while hardly irrelevant (and America’s recent misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan threaten to restore its immediate importance)—is much less than fundamental. Clearly, it is quite possible to fight and even win wars about which one's people don't give a damn, especially if that is the case on both sides, or if one side so vastly outclasses the other that victory comes quickly and relatively painlessly (e.g., the wars of Frederick the Great; Clinton in Bosnia).

In wars in which the population is aroused, however, Clausewitz was extremely pessimistic about the prospects of the aggressor. His powerful and pervasive argument that defense is inherently the stronger form of war was never explored in any great depth, in the English language at least, until Jon Sumida published his important book Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (University Press of Kansas, 2008). That argument turns in significant part on the passions of the people, which tend naturally to be more intense on the part of a population fighting on its own soil than they can ever be on the part of soldiers fighting far from home. This analysis has always been extremely controversial, for many reasons. For one thing, simply because the defense is inherently stronger does not mean the defender will win: There are other factors and other asymmetries to consider. Nonetheless, it has been amply borne out in examples like Spain, Russia (several times), Britain (1940), Vietnam, and now Iraq. This need not be taken as a moral condemnation of the American invasion of Iraq. The wholly justified Allied invasion of Germany in 1944 was also an act of conquest. Unfortunately, benefiting from Clausewitz's insight requires that one have the intellect and the moral courage to recognize when one is in fact waging a war of conquest. No Allied commander in 1945 Germany would have dreamed of tolerating armed local militias.

It is the infinite variability among the trinity's factors and in their interaction that underlies Clausewitz’s insistence on the inherent unpredictability of war. It is a classic model of Chaos, in the modern scientific sense. And it is this descriptive approach, permitting infinite variability within fundamental categories that can be identified in any context, that makes the Trinity such a promising basis for a comparative approach to military-political studies.

It is perhaps understandable that thinkers hostile to the State*22 or simply focused on “non-state” war might reject the people/army/government construct, though their fears (in some cases advocacy) of the eclipse of the State are wildly overblown. But one has to wonder whether any warfighting political construct mustn't have analogs for each of these elements—e.g., popular base, fighters, leadership. This makes the "non-trinitarian" concept a most peculiar sort of compound error. Creveld's and Keegan's assault on Clausewitz's Trinity is not only a classic "blow into the air," i.e., an assault on a position Clausewitz doesn't occupy. It is also a pointless attack on a concept that is quite useful in its own right. In any case, their failure to read the actual wording of the theory they so vociferously attack, and to grasp its deep relevance to the phenomena they describe, is hard to credit.


The First Element: Violence and Emotion


Returning to Clausewitz’s actual Trinity, its first element is violence. Here, however, Clausewitz is not talking primarily about physical violence, but about violent emotion as a motive force. Actual physical violence can be generated by any of the elements, as Clausewitz demonstrated earlier in the chapter during his discussion of hostile intentions. These “are often unaccompanied by any sort of hostile feelings”—e.g., violence generated as a matter of course by the simple fact of military operations (i.e., under item 2 in the list) or as the result of rational calculation (under item 3). Thus these violent emotions need not be a motivating force behind the resort to war. Whether or not they are present initially, however, they will surely be called into being by the experience of actual violence and will affect behavior (whether by their strength or by their weakness). Let us pause to note that this first category is a product of the human mind and exists only inside individual skulls, but it is quite distinct from rational calculation.


The Third Element: War’s Subordination to Reason


Because reason, too, exists only inside individual skulls, let us skip the Trinity’s second category for the moment and go on to the third, war’s subordination to reason as an "instrument" of policy. There are only (!) four critical issues here: the meaning of reason or rationality; the manner in and extent to which war is subordinate to it; the meaning of the word Politik (the term that actually appears in the text here is politischen Werkzeuges); and the nature of that “instrumentality.”

The only point I want to make at the moment about reason or rationality is that, like emotion, it is a product of the individual human mind. Of course, it is quite different, with its properties of conscious ends/means calculation. As to war’s “subordination,” we can quickly dispose of an annoying translation problem: H/P’s version of this line reads that war is “subject to reason alone.” There is no reason for the word “alone” to be in there at all: Obviously, if war is subject to two other forces as well, it cannot be subject to reason “alone.”*23 The correct translation for bloßen Verstande here is “pure reason.” The “pure” seems to serve no great purpose, other than perhaps to demonstrate how artificial it is to separate human reason from human emotion. It may also be a bow to Kant, or simply formulaic in nature.




That leaves us with the problem of Politik. This is a huge subject, for it encompasses the entire issue of the relationship between it and war; perhaps 90% of debates about Clausewitz turn on it. Let us pause for a (long) moment and consider the meaning of those problematic words, Politik, politics, and policy.

Clausewitz seldom overtly defines Politik in any detail, and when he does so the definition is shaped to fit the immediate context. In translating Politik and related words, English-speakers feel compelled to choose between “politics” and “policy.” Some even prefer the much more specialized term “diplomacy,” which limits the discussion to relations among organized states—that is how Jomini’s Politique was usually rendered into English. Our choices can seriously distort Clausewitz's argument. Clausewitz himself would probably have been very comfortable with the word “statecraft,” the broad zone of concerns and activities within which "statesmen" operate. But that term avails us no greater clarity and might even lock him exclusively into the state, where so many modern writers want to (uselessly) maroon him. We are interested in what Clausewitz meant by Politik, of course, but our focus here is even more on the question of what we mean by policy and politics. The latter two terms are related but far from equivalent. Each captures a part of the meaning of Politik, but even used together they do not cover quite the same ground. Often, it seems, we do not understand even our own translations of On War, much less the original.

Telling students that war is an expression of X, without defining X, gets them nowhere. However, every reader and every translator has personal definitions of these terms—or, more likely, an inchoate set of definitions triggered selectively by context. Asked to define politics, most will stumble a bit and raise subjects like elections, political parties, ideological competition, personality games and favoritism, etc. We make sharp and utterly artificial distinctions between things that are “political” as opposed to “social,” “religious,” or “economic.” If politics is about elections or parties, there must not be any politics in monarchies or one-party states. If various wars are “really” about religion (e.g., those of the Maya, or the Crusades), “culture” (e.g., those of the British regimental system, according to Keegan), or environmental collapse (e.g., those on Easter Island), they must not be “continuations of politics.” If “policy” is made only by the governments of states, then war as waged by non-state actors—say, tribal societies, Al Qaeda, or the Hanseatic League—cannot be a “continuation of policy.”

During the 2005 Clausewitz conference at Oxford, Sir Michael Howard, in his usual matter-of-fact manner, said that he and Paret actually gave no systematic thought whatsoever to the choice of when and whether to use policy or politics when translating Politik. He went on to say, however, that he was biased in favor of the word policy primarily because of its grandeur: “Policy” is what great states do on the grand stage of history, whereas “politics” is a sordid process carried on incessantly, by everyone, but particularly by objectionable little men called “politicians,” in grubby, smoke-filled back rooms.*24

That is an interesting and revealing notion. In itself, however, it is of no great use as a theoretical distinction, especially since wars are waged by all kinds of political actors, not just “great states.” We must find a more fundamental and rigorous relationship between the two words. I don’t mean to impose such a distinction, but rather to derive one from usage (and from necessity). We are looking, of course, for a universal definition that applies across cultures and time, but one not contradicted by Clausewitz’s own usage. In practice, the distinctions I propose tend (but only that) to be consistent with the choices made in the H/P translation, because we actually understand the words in the same way. I've simply made the distinctions more overt and more consistent.


1. Politics and policy are both concerned with power. Power comes in many forms. It may be material in nature: the economic power of money or other resources, for example, or possession of the physical means for coercion (weapons and troops or police). Power is just as often psychological in nature: legal, religious, or scientific authority; intellectual or social prestige; a charismatic personality's ability to excite or persuade; a reputation, accurate or illusory, for diplomatic or military strength. Power provides the means to attack, but it also provides the means to resist attack. Power in itself is therefore neither good nor evil. By its nature, however, power must be distributed unevenly, to an extent that varies greatly from one society to another and within the same society over time.*25


2. "Politics" is the highly variable process by which power is distributed in any society: the family, the office, a religious order, a tribe, the state, an empire, a region, an alliance, the international community. The process of distributing power may be fairly orderly—through consensus, inheritance, election, some time-honored tradition. Or it may be chaotic—through intrigue, assassination, revolution, and warfare. Whatever process may be in place at any given time, politics is inherently dynamic and the process is always under pressures for change. Knowing that war is an expression of politics is of no use in grasping any particular situation unless we understand the political structures, processes, issues, and dynamics of that specific context.

I frequently hear that Clausewitzian thinking may apply to wars with political objectives (using “war” here in a sloppy, unilateral manner) but not to wars over economic issues or with economic objectives. In fact, of course, politics and economics are hardly exclusive of one another. First, even if you treat them as two isolated phenomena, they are very similar types of systems. But in reality, economics is just an element of politics: If politics is the general process by which general power is distributed, economics is just a subsystem by which power specifically over material wealth is distributed. In some societies, as in command economies, there is virtually no distinction. Even in market democracies, how much of domestic “politics” is really about the redistribution of wealth? Economic issues become “politicized” when strictly command or market processes are perceived to be providing economic outcomes unacceptable to groups capable of responding to the inequity with other kinds of tools (i.e., “other means,” which may or may not include violence). Thus, economic objectives easily become political objectives, and these, in turn, may be translated into military objectives.

The key characteristics of politics, however, are that it is multilateral and interactive—always involving give and take, interaction, competition, struggle. Political events and their outcomes are the product of conflicting, contradictory, sometimes cooperating or compromising, but often antagonistic forces, always modulated by chance. Outcomes are seldom if ever precisely what any individual participant desired or intended. Thus politics cannot be described as a “rational” process (though a community may achieve considerable success in rationally designing its internal political institutions so as to civilize the process). War—like politics—is inherently multilateral, of course, though Clausewitz often uses the term sloppily in the sense of a unilateral resort to organized violence.

I remember offering this broad definition over lunch to a prominent critic of Clausewitz, stressing the notion that “politics” permeates human interactions at every level of organization. His response was astonishment: “But that’s so banal! So mundane! Why, it applies to everything!”*26 And so it does. Clausewitz is describing the common, everyday world we actually live in. His definitions of such pervasive realities as power and politics had best be as mundane as possible.


3. "Policy," in contrast to politics, is unilateral and rational. Please do not confuse rationality with wisdom, however. As you may already suspect, there is no shortage of unwise policy out there. Policy (like strategy) represents a conscious effort by one entity in the political arena to bend its own power to the accomplishment of some purpose—some positive objective, perhaps, or merely the continuation of its own power or existence. Policy is the rational and one-sided subcomponent of politics, the reasoned purposes and actions of each of the various individual actors in the political struggle.


Distinguishing ‘Politics’ from ‘Policy’


The key distinction between politics and policy lies in interactivity. That is, politics is a multilateral phenomenon, whereas policy is the unilateral subcomponent thereof. My ally, myself, and my enemy are all bound up together in politics, but we each have our own policies. I have my policy/policies/strategies; my ally has his policy; as an alliance, we have our policy. My enemy also has his own policy. But though they shared the same political stage and then joined together in war, Hitler and Churchill did not share a policy, and the war as a whole had no purpose, objects, or aims at all (unless you assign some guiding teleological intelligence to the historical process, which I do not, nor did Clausewitz).

This makes policy and politics very different things—even though each side's policy is produced via internal political processes (reflecting the nested, fractal *27 nature of human political organization).*28 This is not of merely semantic importance. The distinction is crucial, and there is a high price for confusion. The dangers inherent in thinking that war is “merely the continuation of [unilateral] policy” are obvious in the Bush administration's strategies in its invasion and occupation of Iraq: They include most of what Colin Gray has listed as characteristics of American strategic culture: indifference to history; the engineering style and dogged pursuit of the technical fix; impatience; blindness to cultural differences, indifference to strategy; and the evasion of politics.*29 Thus that very common translation of Politik is “Clausewitzian” only in a highly defective sense.

In general, H/P’s word-choice reflects this logic, despite its strong bias towards “policy.” Whenever the context can be construed as unilateral, as in the Trinity discussion, we see "policy." In Clausewitz’s final and most forcefully articulated version of the concept, however, the context is unarguably multilateral, with so strong an emphasis on intercourse and interactivity that, ultimately, even H/P is forced to use "politics" and "political":


We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace. How could it be otherwise? Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged?*30


Within the Trinity discussion itself, because the third element is war’s subordination to rationality, it may be entirely appropriate to use the word policy in translating that particular clause. But we must always bear in mind the awkward fact that, while Clausewitz seems in this discussion to be speaking from the perspective of one side in a war [e.g., the people (singular), the government (singular), and the commander and his army (singulars)], his topic in this chapter is the nature of war, which must by definition be multilateral. The clash of two or more rational, opposing, unilateral policies brings us into the realm of multilateral politics. Thus there really is no reason to avoid translating the Trinity's politischen Werkzeuges literally, i.e., as "political instrument."


Venn diagram showing nested nature of policy and politics.

A simplistic diagram. In reality, of course, the structure of politics is not nearly as hierarchical as such models would indicate. There are political and even policy ties among subgroups in different polities and between polities and subgroups in other polities. Trans-polity subgroups may overshadow one, some, or all polities in some situations. A group of polities (e.g., an alliance) has collective policies as well as political interactions with other polities and groups of polities. Etc., etc. The key points are a) that politics is the general phenomenon within which policy exists, b) that policy reflects the unilateral interest of a distinct actor while politics describes the bi- or multilateral interaction among actors, and c) that policy and politics are nested, fractal phenomena that tend to look similar at different scales of space, time, and numbers of people involved.
Figure 3.


War as an ‘Instrument’


That brings us to the problem of instrumentality. Force or violence is, of course, an instrument, in the sense of a hand-tool or weapon, of unilateral policy. War, however, must be bi- or multilateral in order to exist. Thus, while military force is indeed an instrument of unilateral policy, we should see war as an instrument of politics only in a very different, multilateral sense, as the basketball court is an instrument for the teams to play the game on, as the market is an instrument of trade, or the courtroom an instrument of litigation (“which,” as Clausewitz says, “so closely resembles war”).*31 This is precisely the same logic Clausewitz follows in arguing that war belongs neither to the domain of art (though he is willing to place [unilateral] strategy there) nor to the domain of science (though he places tactics there).


[R]ather, [war] is part of man's social existence. War is a clash between major interests, which is resolved by bloodshed—that is the only way in which it differs from other conflicts. Rather than comparing it to art we could more accurately compare it to commerce, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities; and it is still closer to politics, which in turn may be considered as a kind of commerce on a larger scale.*32


This is a source of much confusion, and were we able to give editorial advice to a living Clausewitz, we would have to insist that he be more consistent in distinguishing between military force as a tool or weapon of one side and war as an instrument or vehicle of multilateral interaction. Clausewitz seems simply to assume that his readers will distinguish, on the fly, whether he is speaking in the unilateral or the multilateral sense. After all, he has stressed time and again the interactive nature of war, and, of course, his own language’s term Politik encompasses both our multilateral politics and our unilateral policy. But this casual stance results in constant confusion for the translator and the reader. This is especially true regarding his next chapter’s discussion of “purpose and means,” which—again, assuming that war as a whole has no teleological purpose—are by nature unilateral. When we talk about the fundamental poles between which real-world wars vary, “war of limited aim” vs war to “render [the enemy] politically helpless or militarily impotent,” obviously (to Clausewitz), these are unilateral objectives rather than types of war in a wholistic sense. And they can coexist—that is, I may be fighting for limited objectives while my opponent is seeking my total destruction. Indeed, I can be fighting for very limited objectives against one enemy in a given theater of war while fighting for quite extreme objectives against another enemy in the same theater. If I think that my opponent’s objectives and behavior will be constrained simply because my objectives are limited, however, I will never understand our interaction.


On War Is Not On Policy


We sometimes forget, of course, that Clausewitz’s magnum opus is not about policy or politics, nor about human nature or the nature of reality. It is merely a mark of the book’s profundity that these matters arise immediately in any serious discussion of it. In fact, Clausewitz himself dismisses the political complexities of policy in order to focus on his true subject, the conduct of military operations in war:


That it [policy] can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor there.... here we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community.*33


There is no question that Clausewitz here is discussing policy in unilateral terms, as we have defined it.*34 The sentence preceding his convenient assumption is unambiguous:


It can be taken as agreed that the aim of policy is to unify and reconcile all aspects of internal administration as well as of spiritual values, and whatever else the moral philosopher may care to add. Policy, of course, is nothing in itself; it is simply the trustee for all these interests against other states.


There is some debate as to the reasons behind Clausewitz’s alleged failure to address policy itself. One view is that Clausewitz was politically cowed in the age of reaction after Napoleon’s defeat, and thus reluctant to address concrete political issues. This is a bit absurd, given Clausewitz’s political boldness during the later Napoleonic Wars, as well as the inflammatory character of some of his other writings (such as his pitiless criticism of the Prussian state in his Observations on Prussia in Her Great Catastrophe, written in the 1820s but unpublishable for generations). And Clausewitz could easily have made his theoretical points using non-Prussian cases—examples of bad policy leading to military disaster are not, after all, very hard to find. In any case, his wife Marie’s preface gives a very clear explanation of Clausewitz’s determination not to publish while he was still alive, which obviated any political motives for avoiding touchy subjects. Personally, I would argue that Clausewitz's focus on the relationship of policy to the military conduct of war,*35 rather than on what constitutes good policy itself, was simply an author’s act of economy. One gargantuan topic at a time, please.

One could argue that Clausewitz’s convenient assumption that policy “represents all interests of the community” is a fatal flaw in his approach to theory. In practice, one must wonder whether policy does not, even (or even particularly) in the democracies, consistently “subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power.” For example, we frequently see that political leaders—out of short-term self-interest—find it extraordinarily difficult to shut down a failing military adventure, long after it has proven pointless, counterproductive, or even ruinous for their societies. Thus, from the standpoint of the interests of the overall community (i.e., of one unified political entity), war may routinely be “merely an instrument for the continuation of bad policy by other means.” It represents the failure of the rest of the community to enforce its real interests over those of its self-serving leaders. If policy is inevitably driven by the short-term interests of politicians rather than by a genuine concern for the collective best interest, optimistic-sounding Clausewitzian formulations like the following may be a pipe-dream:


Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration. Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.*36


On the other hand, he's offering some good advice here, not necessarily a prediction. It seems rather superfluous to suggest that perhaps Clausewitz actually grasped the facts that there is such a thing as bad policy, that bad policy has military consequences, and that this in turn may have consequences for both the political leadership and the community whose interests it is supposed to represent. After all, despite his professional admiration of Napoleon as a soldier, Clausewitz had no sympathy whatsoever for the policies and political objectives of Napoleonic France, which he considered to be inherently flawed and very likely doomed to failure by their very nature.




Having beaten policy and politics to death, we now arrive, at last, at the second element of the Trinity: the play (I’d prefer he’d said “interplay,” just to nail the point down) of chance and probability. I have changed the sequence in this discussion in order to stress the important point that both emotion and reason are products of the human mind. In that sense, they are subjective forces. They are the internal sources of our desires and the internal governors of our efforts. While they are so different from one another that we must treat them separately, they are also intrinsically linked. There can be no “rational” consideration of goals without taking into account the emotions that give rise to the goals in the first place. Can we imagine policy, politics, economics, or reproduction without fear, love, greed, lust, or hope? But the chances and probabilities of which Clausewitz speaks are external to human desire and intent—they represent, purely and simply, the concrete (in this sense, “objective”) reality with which the actors must cope. That reality yields to their hopes, dreams, and plans only with great resistance (friction) and at great cost to themselves in time, energy, resources, and will. And, in the case of war, blood.

This objective environment consists both of the physical world (including mountains, roads, weather, bullets, bayonets, IEDs, geography, demographics, technology, economics, disease vectors, etc.—in short, everything we cannot alter at once by merely wishing) and of the personalities, capabilities, hopes, dreams, plans, energies, resources, and will of other actors—the human ecology within which the participants’ perceptions, plans, and actions must co-evolve. We tend to think first of those other actors who are our opponents. As Churchill said, “No matter how enmeshed a commander becomes in the elaboration of his own thoughts, it is sometimes necessary to take the enemy into account.” But we need to think as well of our often recalcitrant or annoyingly self-centered allies,*37 of potentially influential neutrals, and, as Clausewitz makes clear in his discussion of friction, of those who are part of our own body politic and even of our own military machine:


But we should bear in mind that none of [war’s] components is of one piece: each part is composed of individuals, every one of whom retains his potential of friction. In theory it sounds reasonable enough: a battalion commander's duty is to carry out his orders; discipline welds the battalion together, its commander must be a man of tested capacity, and so the great beam turns on its iron pivot with a minimum of friction. In fact, it is different, and every fault and exaggeration of the theory is instantly exposed in war. A battalion is made up of individuals, the least important of whom may chance to delay things or somehow make them go wrong.*38


Obviously, such factors are at work during the making of our policy and strategy as well. These, once produced, are unilateral, but their production is via an internally multilateral, and therefore political, process.


‘Chance’ vs ‘Probability’


We have to assume that Clausewitz used the words chance and probability in tandem for a reason. That is, “chance and probability” are not a redundancy. Rather, they are two distinctly different things. Chance, in a pure sense, is arbitrary and incalculable. We can prepare for it only in a general manner. Probability, on the other hand, refers to things whose likelihood can to some useful extent be estimated. It is chance that there is a mountain range between France and Spain; it is quite a good probability that it will still be there when our armies arrive on the border. It is also chance that a copy of General Lee’s order of battle should be carelessly wrapped around a bunch of cigars and lost by their owner—and still moreso that the package should be found in the field, recognized, and delivered in a timely manner to the appropriate headquarters. What, however, is the probability that a George McClellan will actually act upon such a chance windfall? We would be fools to plan on such a chance occurrence, but also fools not to have a general apparatus for making and dealing with such finds, and fools for failing to act upon one when it occurs.

In short, this last element of the Trinity represents concrete reality, i.e., everything outside of our own skull and its emotions and calculations. It is true that in the military conduct of war, Clausewitz’s primary focus, these factors may loom largest for the commander and his army. The number, scope, range, tempo, and sheer variety of chance and probabilistic factors are massive at that level. But political leaders and policy makers must deal with such factors as well. It is therefore absurd to think—or to claim that Clausewitz thought—that courage, creativity, and skill are “mainly” requirements for military leaders.




“Non-state war” is one of the more amusing labels contemporary writers use when pursuing “non-Clausewitzian” ways to view current events. We need to explore it, because the notion that Clausewitzian theory applies only to warfare among well-defined Weberian states underlies most contemporary critiques of Clausewitz and most discussions of his Trinitarian concept.


Clausewitz and the State


War among non-state entities is, of course, extremely common, both historically and in the present. It is, in fact, the normal and natural situation of humankind. Any survey of the actual anthropological literature on the subject*39 (as opposed to certain historians’ faux-anthropological posturings) will make this abundantly clear. But then, so would simply examining the history of virtually any society.

Nearly all of the discussions of non-state warfare that appear in the field of “national security studies,” however, are ipso facto aimed at informing the security forces of modern states about their roles in such wars. Unfortunately for the cause of logical thought on the subject, the moment a state—e.g., the United States, Israel, Indonesia—gets involved in such a war, it ceases to be “non-state” war. And though the “non-state warfare” literature tends to be extremely pessimistic about the state’s competence and chances for success in such warfare, the obvious historical truth of the matter is that the modern, Western-style state has been extraordinarily successful in eliminating non-state military competitors. It is that very success which accounts for the wide-spread astonishment when such competition periodically reappears. Unfortunately, one’s successful past experience is useful only if one happens to be aware of it.

To be a bit more generous to the "New Wars" scholars, it is not merely ignorance of the historical success of the state in such warfare that inhibits an effective absorption of past strategic lessons. States achieved their successes through wildly varied combinations of different strategies. These included admirable advances like providing reliable, impartial courts, equality before the law, etc., i.e., all of the gentle and responsible traits of good governance advocated by popular counterinsurgency experts. But the state’s success has depended more or less equally upon its demonstrated readiness to employ brutal, often quite arbitrary and unfair violence—sometimes directed at categories of enemies so broad as to justify accusations of genocide. Such indiscriminant violence is often unnecessary and thus counterproductive, the product of viciousness and incompetence. On the other hand, sometimes it is merely the inevitable result of Clausewitzian friction—being fair, or reasonable, or even appearing to be, is sometimes just too damned hard to actually pull off, whatever the ethical character of the political objectives.

Our ability to find the right balance, to understand that either moderation or excess can be suicidal depending on the situation, is crippled by an inevitable collision between the strategist’s immediate need for unvarnished truth and the state’s permanent need for a very thick varnish of unifying mythology. It is one of the extreme ironies of human nature that even the most violent founders of successful states, often guilty of crimes beyond reckoning, tend to love their own children and to crave their admiration. The historical mythology they generate in order to preserve their achievement must obscure the political simplifications and the hard-to-ethically-justify violence that resulted. Success in this subterfuge may actually create the basis for a stable society and the subsequent growth of a genuine public morality amongst their successors. How else can we explain the presence in Russian history of a Kerensky, a Gorbachev? This poses a problem, one that Clausewitz addressed only obliquely: Can a decent society founded on comfortable myths conduct the kind of strategies that actually created it in the first place?

Given the inevitable divergences in interests within any given group, Clausewitz's convenient assumption about policy (i.e., that it is "representative of all interests of the community") is nonetheless a realistic assumption, so long as policy is not so visibly corrupt or disastrous as to break the community’s cohesion and its submission to existing leadership. In practice, of course, bad policy does lead to such ruptures. Badly managed external wars, in particular, often lead to internal strife, in which war may become a continuation of internal politics by other means. Or, rather, a continuation of politics that once was internal but has now—as the earlier community fragments—become external politics among an enlarged set of smaller players. These are not "non-state" wars: the original state, various state wannabes, and often other intervening states are among the players. The eventual outcome is usually one or more new and stronger states. The Chinese Civil War raged for four decades and involved a huge number of competing political entities, yet somehow the Chinese state emerged on top—and today brooks no challengers.

In the implications of this kind of transformation in a society's political structure lies an explanation for van Creveld's and Keegan's insistence that "non-state" warfare is "non-trinitarian." Or, to be more precise—since those two authors clearly don't understand what Clausewitz's trinitarian concept is in the first place—it provides an explanation as to why their "non-trinitarian" pronouncements appeal to many readers. Such readers evidently find the allegedly "new" conflicts baffling compared to the common but ahistorical illusion of "traditional state-on-state" warfare. The reason we suffer from this illusion is not that such messy wars have been rare, unimportant, or low in casualties—far from it. In actual fact, most warfare has always been of the "non-traditional" variety, and some of these wars vie in destructiveness with the greatest of conventional conflicts. The destructiveness of China's 19th-century Taiping Rebellion, a murky internal conflict rooted in ethnicity, gender, class, and a particularly weird form of Christianity, dwarfs that of the West's wars in the same period. Most wars have been struggles within an existing society—peasant rebellions, civil wars, coups d'états, revolutions, wars of succession or of secession, or "wars of unification" (i.e., wars of conquest upon which historians later bestow legitimacy because they created larger political communities that, in retrospect, somehow seem more logical). Traditional societies—e.g., India; China; Europe before the Westphalian settlement; the Ottoman Empire with its millet system; Iraq beneath the Stalinist veneer of the Baathist dictatorship—have always been conglomerates of various corporate (but non-state) entities which felt they had both the right and the duty to employ violence in support of the legitimate order. And the state has never suffered from any shortage of challengers to its monopoly on violence. The French state, for example, has fought immensely bloody and destructive wars against "internal" enemies: against overly powerful feudal vassals; against French Protestant town-dwellers; against the French middle class; against French Catholic peasants; against elements of the French army; and against the city of Paris—its own capital. Sometimes it actually lost such wars—in which case the opponent became the state. ("The State is dead—Long live the State.")

We tend to be unaware of this history, not because it is unimportant but because the myth of the modern state demands that it be minimized. Peasant rebellions and the like may be large in scale and hard-fought, but they tend to be swept under the historical rug. Military historians are generally obsessed with major battles in the open field, which are uncharacteristic of such wars. They are in any case hard to study because the losing side usually leaves few survivors and few if any records. The victorious warrior aristocrats don't boast too conspicuously of their mass butchery of the lower orders, in part because it is embarassing to acknowledge that such people could have put up a serious fight in the first place. More broadly, no wise person who enjoys the comforts, security, and freedom of life in a modern Western state, defined by Max Weber as "that organization which (successfully) maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a given territory," really wants to forcefully remind people that there have always been other options. Certainly no War College faculty, made up of career government employees, would feel natural doing so.

Because of the demands and power of the statist myth, we systematically fail to study intra-state war, even when it is part and parcel of "normal" state-on-state conflict. War College students in America may learn about the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, normally presented as a struggle between the French state and the Prussian state—i.e., without reference to the other German participants or the alternative governments and armies in France. But they will normally be taught nothing about the Revolutions of 1848, which created the context for the war. Nor will they study the War of the Paris Commune, a bloody part of the war’s messy and complex end-game, which left a mark on the French nation arguably greater than did the defeat by Prussia. Neither will they study the problems the Union Army faced during "Reconstruction" of the conquered Confederacy. No, the American Civil War began in 1861 and ended in 1865. The preliminary struggles in Kansas, Missouri, and at Harper's Ferry, and the subsequent failures of occupation and Reconstruction culminating in the political compromise of 1876, exist only in some other universe. Amongst students raised on the healing national myth of Appomattox, the surprise attending the conflict in Iraq after the fall of Saddam should come as no surprise at all.

Wars within a disintegrating state or other long-established political context tend by nature to be especially confusing and complex. The breakdown of established, visible, public structures that accompanies an insurgency adds great ambiguity. New structures struggle to take form but also struggle to hide from still-dangerous remnants of the old order, competitors, or strong external powers who may intervene. Internal wars tend to have a lot of players, at least at first, and the relative complexity of multilateral warfare is always high. Especially if the society in question tends strongly by nature or history to be a single political unit, there is likely to be only one survivor among the contending factions—thus the stakes will be very high for all and the intensity of the struggle can be expected to be correspondingly great. Uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity, and danger ramp up confusion. They therefore ramp up fear throughout a society, to levels seen, in “conventional” wars, only on the battlefield itself.

The structure of the resulting fur-ball may become so complex as to be incomprehensible, not only to analysts but to the participants themselves. In such circumstances, the complexities, ambiguities, and levels of obfuscation necessary for the various players' survival are so high that the competing leaderships will find rational policymaking crushingly difficult. Fighting organizations may find themselves cut off from their originating populations and from their political leadership. A leadership group may be eliminated, perhaps to be replaced by a former enemy or painfully regenerated by elements of the population or its fighting forces. The only rational solution for political or military leaders may be paralysis—i.e., persistence in strategies that may lead nowhere but at least serve to keep the game in play. Similarly, historians and other analysts may find it difficult or impossible to produce the credible illusion of clarity that they and their audiences naturally crave.

None of this, however, means that there is no structure to the conflict. It is simply that the particulars of the structure are difficult to detect through the intensified fog caused by such wars' complexity. As analysts grope through that fog for some useful truth or understanding, both "trinitarian" approaches will remain useful tools. It may take an unaccustomed degree of imagination to figure out how they apply. As Michelangelo allegedly said while staring at an opaque block of marble, "There's a statue in there somewhere." In intra-society warfare, there may be several armed organizations and several competing sets of leadership, but they may be drawing on, and competing for control of, a single population. Or the warring populations may be intermixed and ambiguously differentiated by ethnicity, ideology, confession, class, etc. If there is truly only one population, we are talking about a revolution or a true civil war in which the outcome—if the issues are ever actually resolved—is likely to be one state. But if there are in fact or in potential several distinguishable populations, we may be talking about:


* a war of secession (in which the stable resolution may be two or more successor states). If the secession fails, later politicians and their historians will call it a "civil war."


* genocide, in which one or more competitor(s) may be wiped out in one sense or another, and thus lost to history. (History may or may not be written by the victors. Confederate and Wehrmacht generals managed to exert a rather disproportionate influence on the histories written about the wars they lost. But history is, of necessity, written by the survivors.)


* an imperial war in which one population will emerge as the victor over others within a single territorial state that is, in fact, a multi-societal empire rather than a "nation-state" (however the imperial myth or ideology may portray it).


(This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list. But pay attention to the deceits noted in each example.)


In every case, both versions of the Trinity will remain useful tools for breaking into the problem. The PAGan people/army/government structures (or their population-base/fighting organization/leadership analogs) are still there, even if hidden in the fog, though the number and the complexity of their intersections may multiply. How could we possibly understand a conflict without identifying these players? It is quite conceivable that there may be populations without leadership, or fighting organizations whose leaders represents no interests but their own. But these cases still fall within the construct, the purpose of which is not to force the contending parties into mirror-image molds, but rather to provide a meaningful basis for understanding the similarities and differences among them. Clausewitz's actual trinitarian formulation also continues to apply. The rolling interplay among the participants' emotions, the impacts of chance and probability on the political and military battlefields, and the considered calculations of leaders on all sides—however blinded by uncertainty and enshrouded in the mystery required for survival in such an environment—will continue to drive events.

It seems obvious that civil wars, rebellions, and revolutions—of which Clausewitz was well aware, and which by definition take place within a single state or society—are expressions of internal politics, some of it quite “private” in nature. And certainly he was aware that the foreign policies and strategies of states are driven in very large part by the unilateral, purely internal concerns of their rulers. It is ultimately impossible to disentangle internal and external politics. In any case, we are well aware that war occurs even in the absence of the state. Thus there seems to be little point, and less value, to clinging to the interstate-only interpretation of the famous dictum, in terms either of Clausewitz’s original intent or of our own understanding of it.

On the other hand, there is great value in recognizing that, if we are to understand and describe war in any context as an expression of politics, it is necessary to understand the structure, methods, issues, and dynamics of politics in that context. If the state is not part of that particular context, or if the state is only one of many players, then we simply have to work through the implications of that fact. This, it seems fairly obvious, is what Clausewitz expected us to do.

The only alternative to making sense of the struggle in this manner is to assume, as many in fact do, that the struggle makes no sense in the first place. Collectively, of course, that may well be true: The potential benefits of any war tend to flow only to a few (though there are exceptions to this, as to any generalization), and even those few may find the outcome a net loss. But to any individual or group caught up in the maelstrom, that conclusion is likely to be worthless as a guide to either understanding or action.



Simplistic triangular images.

Static, simplistic, and generally useless
visual metaphors for Clausewitz's trinity.
Figure 4.

Truth, Passion, and Passion/Charisma/Skill 
Figure 4.2..
A good example of why we ought to stick with Clausewitz's original model.
[From Sebastian L. v. Gorka, "How the Terrorist Attacks of 2001 Have Signalled a Fundamental Change in the Nature of Conflict," Elcano, 135/2010 - 14/9/2010.]

The Clausewitzian Pentagonity
RIGHT: "The Clausewitzian Pentagonity."
This model has obvious appeal for the U.S. DoD, but in fact economic and technological factors, which of course existed even in Clausewitz's day (and Caesar's), are covered under the "chance & probability" heading, which accounts for all contextual aspects.
Figure 4.5.
Yi, Yang, and Yong--the Clausewitzian Trinity
This one has some interesting cross-cultural resonances.
Figure 5.
Intersecting pyramids as an image of the Trinity.
A more realistic visual metaphor, in this case of a war along the lines of the
Thirty Years' War or recent struggles in Iraq. But it needs to be animated,
as in Figures 2 and 8. No visual depiction of Clausewitz's trinity can convey
his concept if it isn't constantly changing. But perhaps the best visual
metaphor would be that offered by Figure 1 (if we could make it move).
Figure 6.

Another Yin, Yang, Yoong conceptualization.
Another ying/yang/yong conceptualization.
An animated fractal image.
An animated fractal—hypnotic ("fascinating"),
dynamic, but in this case far too regular.
Figure 8.
  another view using intersecting polyhedrons
Click to animate: "Generation of an icosahedron by the intersection
of five tetrahedra: geometrical and crystallographic
features of the intermediate polyhedra."
[Original URL]
Figure 9.

Schemativ view of the Trinity
A notional, idiosyncratic, and indefensible-in-detail ordering of some
other Clausewitzian concepts under the categories of the Trinity.
Figure 10.



Much of the criticism of Clausewitz essentially boils down to a complaint that he never stated his entire theory in a way we could all grasp by reading a single pithy sentence—at most, a pithy paragraph. Nonetheless, the 300-word Section 28 of Book 1, Chapter 1, of On War is an amazingly compressed summation of reality. Clausewitz’s Trinity is all-inclusive and universal, comprising the subjective and the objective; the unilateral and multilateral; the intellectual, the emotional, and the physical components that comprise the phenomenon of war in any human construct. Indeed, through the subtraction of a few adjectives that narrow its scope to war, it is easily expanded to encompass all of human experience. It is thus a profoundly realistic concept. Understanding it as the central, connecting idea in Clausewitzian theory will help us to order the often confusing welter of his ideas and to apply them, in a useful, comparative manner, both to the history of the world we live in and to its present realities. Most important, Clausewitz's realism (not to be confused with political science's artificial "Realism," which only partly overlaps Clausewitz's approach) will help us steer clear of the worst tendencies of theory and of ideology, of “pure reason” and logic, and of pure emotion. As Clausewitz himself said of his theory as a whole:


Its scientific character consists in an attempt to investigate the essence of the phenomena of war and to indicate the links between these phenomena and the nature of their component parts. No logical conclusion has been avoided; but whenever the thread became too thin I have preferred to break it off and go back to the relevant phenomena of experience. Just as some plants bear fruit only if they don't shoot up too high, so in the practical arts the leaves and flowers of theory must be pruned and the plant kept close to its proper soil—experience.*40


But perhaps Sir Michael Howard said it best in criticizing the strategic theorists of the nuclear age:


"[Hermann] Kahn and his colleagues ... ignor[ed] all three elements in the Clausewitzian trinity: popular passion, the risks and uncertainties of the military environment, and the political purpose for which the war was fought. Their calculations bore no relation to war as mankind has known it throughout history.*41



See also ZenPundit, two discussions on the present paper, "Bassford's Dynamic Trinitarianism."
Part One and Part Two.
[*1] http://www.clausewitz.com/
[*2] Obviously, my own historical research has concentrated on this approach—see Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). My work as a doctrine writer, analyst and teacher tends towards the inspirationist, and the present essay certainly reflects an editorialist approach, e.g., in criticizing what I allege to be Clausewitz’s sloppiness in the use of the word “war.”
[*3] I should note that, after I had presented this paper at the “Clausewitz in the 21st Century” conference, Andreas Herberg-Rothe thanked me for my “useful discussion.”
[*4] James Carville, as [apparently] quoted in Barry Schwartz, “In 'Sticky' Ideas, More Is Less,” Washington Post, Wednesday, January 17, 2007, p.C08, a review of Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House, 2007).
[*5] See Alan’s contribution to the conference, or Alan D. Beyerchen, "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War," International Security, 17:3 (Winter, 1992), pp. 59-90. I have long argued that this is the most important article published on Clausewitz in the past thirty years. It is also available in French: "Clausewitz: Non Linéarité et Imprévisibilité de la Guerre," Theorie, Littérature, Enseignement, 12 (1994), pp165-98.
[*6] Azar Gat’s discussions of the evolution of Clausewitz’s thinking seems to be the source of this widespread notion. I have no particular opinion on his reconstruction, other than that it is largely irrelevant. Gat’s obsession with the ghosts of Clausewitz’s earlier conceptions, however interesting those ghosts may be in helping us understand Clausewitz’s personal evolution, serves only to distort our understanding of his mature thought.
[*7] A newer version of which appears as Jon Sumida’s contribution to the conference proceedings. See also his book, Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008.
[*8] The terms dialectic, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis appear in On War, respectively, one, three, four, and one time each.
[*9] Here I have used the translation by Jolles, because H/P is confusing as regards the attitude of “theory” towards the tendency of war in the real world to escalate towards the absolute. Jolles made it clear that Clausewitz is talking about a delusory form of theory rather than the approach to theory he himself espoused. Actually, however, Clausewitz did not use the word “theory” at all in this paragraph.
[*10] Plenty of sophisticated writers are perfectly happy with this initial metaphor: “War is a chameleon, possessed of an infinite capacity to adapt itself to changing circumstances.” Andrew Bacevich, “Debellicised,” London Review of Books, 3 March 2005.
[*11] See, for instance, Stephen Jay Gould’s exegesis of the “three central principles constituting a tripod of necessary support” for Darwinian evolutionism, in The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2002), p.11.
[*12] See J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.139 and passim.
[*13] [J.E. Edmonds], referring to Fuller’s trinities in a review of Fuller's Foundations of the Science of War (London: Hutchinson and Company, 1926), Army Quarterly, 12 (1926), 165-66.
[*14] That is, major effects from minor or even undetected inputs—AKA the “Butterfly Effect”—are a perfectly valid expectation for anyone familiar with Chaos or Complexity theory or nonlinear mathematics, but they appear inexplicable, counterintuitive, and “unscientific” to thinkers trained in the linearizing tradition. Calling the latter view “Newtonian” is a bit unfair to Newton himself.
[*15] Responding to this, Andreas noted the following: “The context in which Clausewitz took notice of the concept of the trinity is in my opinion clearly the book Anthropology by Henrik Steffens (1822), which ends with praising the trinity—and as we know, Steffens lectured the whole winter 1824/25 after an invitation by Gneisenau, if I remember right, and Clausewitz didn't miss any of the lectures. Taking into account the importance of the trinity for Steffens and that Clausewitz attended his lectures the whole winter, it seems to me very clear that there is a connection between Steffens’ Christian/romantic concept of the trinity and that of Clausewitz. Of course, Clausewitz used it in a non-religious way, one could perhaps say in an analytical sense, but the methodological approach is just the same: God the father = Force/violence as generating principle; the son = the army and its commander as the mediating tendency; and finally the Holy Spirit as ‘governing principle,’ in Steffen's term Regierer.” [And Clausewitz’s term, usually translated as “government,” is Regierung.] We could probably generate an entire cottage industry with this issue, to no useful purpose. In any case, Clausewitz did not see violent emotion as any more a "generating" principle than the other two elements of the trinity, since he was clear that physical violence or war could just as well be generated via chance or rational calculation.
[*16] I seem to be having some success selling this: Google recently gave me 1010 links for +"fascinating trinity" +war, only a few of which were directly to my own writings. Of course, some had nothing to do with Clausewitz, either. A video of the experiment Clausewitz describes can be found at http://www.clausewitz.com/video/romp2.mov.
[*17] Roger D. Carstens, “Talk the walk on Iraq,” The Washington Times, August 12, 2002, lists these three nouns as the Trinity. In this case, Carstens may simply have been a victim of his editors, but I’ve seen this formula elsewhere as well.
[*18] I believe that I myself, in an earlier incarnation, am responsible for this last one.
[*19] I have written about this at length elsewhere. See especially Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres, "Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity," Parameters, Autumn 1995.
[*20] Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (written at the U.S. Army War College c.1981; published Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982). In conversations I had with Harry in the late 1980s, I gathered that he was aware of both trinities, but he largely dismissed the Trinity proper as a meaningless abstraction. In later conversations, however, it was clear that he’d entirely forgotten the original formulation.
[*21] Exceptions do occur, of course, e.g., the Mamertines in ancient Sicily. The theoretical construct can handle such variations.
[*22] "The state's most remarkable products to date have been Hiroshima and Auschwitz.... Whatever the future may bring, it cannot be much worse." Martin van Creveld, "The Fate of the State," Parameters, Spring 1996. In van Creveld's case, such statements may merely reflect pessimism. But hostility to the state has characterized hostile treatments of Clausewitz at least since Anatol Rapoport's long and atrocious introduction to the Penguin edition of On War, first published in 1968, which was animated by outrage at Henry Kissinger's "neo-Clausewitzianism."
[*23] This error appears to be in part a simple mistranslation and in part an erroneous repetition of the phrase from paragraph 4, “government alone.” It may also reflect the general tendency in H/P to overemphasize the rational elements in Clausewitz’s approach.
[*24] Not an exact quote, but I believe I’ve captured the essence.
[*25] In this discussion, I am to some rather large extent plagiarizing myself from the sections on policy and politics in MCDP 1-1: Strategy (United States Marine Corps, 1997). However, this definition is essentially congruent with Max Weber's: "'politics' for us means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state." Max Weber, lecture "Politics as a Vocation," January 1919.
[*26] This is the same kind of mentality that insists on describing Clausewitz’s “real war” as some very particular sub-type, when in fact all it means is war as we really experience it, in all of its real-world variety.
[*27] ‘Fractal’ is a term from nonlinear geometry. Here, it refers to the tendency of patterns to look similar at different scales—e.g., the surface of a rock under a microscope looks rather like the face of a rock cliff or an aerial photo of a mountain range; the veining in a leaf is similar to the branching of the tree, etc.
[*28] Tactics, operations, military strategy, grand strategy, and policy are all essentially the same thing—processes of interrelating means and ends—at different scales of time, space, and numbers of people and resources involved.
[*29] Colin S. Gray, "History and Strategic Culture," in Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein, Editors, The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States, and War (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 592-598. I’ve listed six characteristics out of Gray’s eight.
[*30] Book 8, Chapter 6B., p.605 in Howard/Paret.
[*31] H/P, p.357.
[*32] H/P, p.149.
[*33] Clausewitz, On War, H/P, p.606.
[*34] It is an interesting exercise, however, to think about the implications of changing the word to “politics.”
[*35] As in his discussion of civil-military relations in Book 8, Chapter 6.
[*36] H/P, p.92.
[*37] As we are apt to perceive them when their interests diverge from our own.
[*38] Book 1, Chapter 7, “Friction in War,” H/P p.119.
[*39] See, for examples, Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit, trans. Melanie Hersey, The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005); Debra L. Martin and David W. Freyer, eds., Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1997).
[*40] Clausewitz, H/P, p.61.
[*41] Michael Howard, "The Military Philosopher," Times Literary Supplement, June 25, 1976, 754-755.

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