v.14 APR 2015
TIP-TOE THROUGH THE TRINITY
THE STRANGE PERSISTENCE
OF TRINITARIAN WARFARE
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.
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.
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, Clausewitzs 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
complexitieswithout 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
tend to fall into four broad schools:
* an Original Intent school,
primarily historians narrowly focused on Clausewitzs 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 schoolpeople
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 ushowever much purists
of one stripe or another might decry the heresies involvedtend 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 whats 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.
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.
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
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 ones 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 Clausewitzs 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 Beyerchens analysis of Clausewitzs 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 Clausewitzs 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 nuggetindeed, as an
afterthought, a conception that allegedly popped into Clausewitzs
mind in the last phases of his unfinished writing process and was never
effectively incorporated into the existing body of his theory*6in
fact, the Trinity is the central concept in On War. I dont
mean central in the sense that, say, Jon Sumida applied in
his Oxford conference paper*7 to Clausewitzs concept of the inherent superiority of the defensive
form of war. That is, I do not argue that the Trinity is Clausewitzs
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 Clausewitzs 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 Clausewitzs most
mature thinking, is crucial. That chapter must be read in terms of Clausewitzs
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 enemys power, allies
on both sides, the characteristics of the people and the governments
respectively, etc., as enumerated in Book I, Chapter 1are 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 wholeand this whole
As the synthesis of his dialectic on the nature of war, the Trinity incorporates
but also supersedes Clausewitzs 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 Wars argument. In a sense, the Trinity also
contradicts this dictum, and in yet another sense it serves to define
its key termi.e., Politik.
Unfortunately, it has been my dismal experience in observing Clausewitzs
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.
WORKING TRANSLATION OF THE
TEXT WERE DISCUSSING
[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
**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
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.
DISCUSSION OF THE TRINITY
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 Clausewitzs meaning(s). None of this would have
happened without the impetus given to this field by their original efforts.
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 chameleonwhich
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 wars appearance from
case to case; the Trinity addresses the underlying forces that drive those
The sense that Clausewitz's discussion is preliminary, tentative, and
an afterthought is magnified by H/P's rendering of the conclusion to Section
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 theorya
problem he had already worked through before revising Chapter 1and
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 oras
is truly the casea 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 Clausewitzs
There are, of course, innumerable three-part theoretical constructs to
which one can compare or relate Clausewitzs Trinityin, 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
Clausewitzs meaning, but the other issues are of interest. There
is no hint of religiosity or mysticism in Clausewitzs 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 Clausewitzs 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 trinitythree separate coexistent forces in unityand 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 interestingto 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 dont find
the experience hypnotic. Since wunderliche doesnt 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
interactive FLASH animation of the famous 3-Body Problem in Newtonian physics.
Enumerating the Elements of the
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) wars
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 Clausewitzs
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 trinitywhichever
set of words one chooses for shorthandis 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 Trinitys
Crevelds 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 Americas 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/Ps wording
reinforced that notion with its message that Our task
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
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
We can blame Summers confusion partly on H/Ps unfortunate
choice in translating Clausewitzs descriptor for the links between
the elements of the Trinity proper and the elements of this secondary
trinity. By substituting mainly for mehr (which Ive
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 beingsviolent 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 PAGanswhile hardly irrelevant (and Americas
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 Clausewitzs 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 elementse.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 Clausewitzs 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 feelingse.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:
Wars Subordination to Reason
Because reason, too, exists only inside individual skulls, let us skip
the Trinitys second category for the moment and go on to the third,
wars 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
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 wars subordination, we can quickly
dispose of an annoying translation problem: H/Ps 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.
POLITICS, AND POLICY
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 statesthat is how Jominis 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 termsor, 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 actorssay,
tribal societies, Al Qaeda, or the Hanseatic Leaguecannot be a continuation
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 dont 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 Clausewitzs 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
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 orderlythrough
consensus, inheritance, election, some time-honored tradition. Or it may
be chaoticthrough 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 interactivealways 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). Warlike politicsis
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 thats 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 purposesome
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.
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 thingseven 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/Ps 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 Clausewitzs 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 wars
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."
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.
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
[R]ather, [war] is part of man's social existence. War is a clash
between major interests, which is resolved by bloodshedthat 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 languages 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 chapters discussion of
purpose and means, whichagain, assuming that war as
a whole has no teleological purposeare 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 coexistthat 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 opponents 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 Clausewitzs magnum opus is not about policy or politics, nor about human nature or the nature
of reality. It is merely a mark of the books 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 Clausewitzs alleged
failure to address policy itself. One view is that Clausewitz was politically
cowed in the age of reaction after Napoleons defeat, and thus reluctant
to address concrete political issues. This is a bit absurd, given Clausewitzs
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 casesexamples
of bad policy leading to military disaster are not, after all, very hard
to find. In any case, his wife Maries preface gives a very clear
explanation of Clausewitzs 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 authors
act of economy. One gargantuan topic at a time, please.
One could argue that Clausewitzs 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 leadersout
of short-term self-interestfind 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
CHANCE AND PROBABILITY
Having beaten policy and politics to death, we now arrive, at last, at
the second element of the Trinity: the play (Id prefer hed
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 intentthey 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
actorsthe 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 [wars] 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 Lees order
of battle should be carelessly wrapped around a bunch of cigars and lost
by their ownerand 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, Clausewitzs 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 thinkor
to claim that Clausewitz thoughtthat 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
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 statee.g., the United States, Israel, Indonesiagets
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 states 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, ones 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 states success
has depended more or less equally upon its demonstrated readiness to employ
brutal, often quite arbitrary and unfair violencesometimes 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 frictionbeing
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
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 strategists immediate need for
unvarnished truth and the states 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 communitys 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
nowas the earlier community fragmentsbecome 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 topand 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 precisesince those two authors clearly don't understand
what Clausewitz's trinitarian concept is in the first placeit 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 casualtiesfar
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 societypeasant 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
societiese.g., India; China; Europe before the Westphalian settlement;
the Ottoman Empire with its millet system; Iraq beneath the Stalinist
veneer of the Baathist dictatorshiphave 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 Parisits own
capital. Sometimes it actually lost such warsin which case the opponent
became the state. ("The State is deadLong 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 statei.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 wars
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 factionsthus 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
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 paralysisi.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 outcomeif the issues are ever actually resolvedis
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 sideshowever blinded by uncertainty and enshrouded
in the mystery required for survival in such an environmentwill
continue to drive events.
It seems obvious that civil wars, rebellions, and revolutionsof
which Clausewitz was well aware, and which by definition take place
within a single state or societyare 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 Clausewitzs original intent or of our own understanding
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.
Another ying/yang/yong conceptualization.
An animated fractal—hypnotic ("fascinating"),
dynamic, but in this case far too regular.
Click to animate: "Generation of an icosahedron by the intersection
of five tetrahedra: geometrical and crystallographic
features of the intermediate polyhedra."
A notional, idiosyncratic, and indefensible-in-detail
ordering of some
other Clausewitzian concepts under the categories of the Trinity.
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 sentenceat 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. Clausewitzs 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 soilexperience.*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."
and Part Two
[*2] Obviously, my own historical research
has concentrated on this approachsee 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 Clausewitzs sloppiness in the use of the word
[*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 Alans 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 Gats discussions of
the evolution of Clausewitzs 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. Gats obsession with the
ghosts of Clausewitzs earlier conceptions, however interesting those
ghosts may be in helping us understand Clausewitzs personal evolution,
serves only to distort our understanding of his mature thought.
[*7] A newer version of which
appears as Jon Sumidas 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
Goulds 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,
[*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
Fullers 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 inputsAKA the Butterfly Effectare
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
[*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 trinityand
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 Clausewitzs 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 Ive seen this formula elsewhere
[*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,
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 hed 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
[*24] Not an exact quote, but I believe
Ive 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 Clausewitzs 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 scalese.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 thingprocesses
of interrelating means and endsat 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.
Ive listed six characteristics out of Grays eight.
[*30] Book 8, Chapter 6B., p.605 in
[*31] H/P, p.357.
[*32] H/P, p.149.
[*33] Clausewitz, On War, H/P,
[*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.