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SOME JUICY QUOTATIONS FROM
CLAUSEWITZ, ON WAR

(From the Michael Howard/Peter Paret translation, Princeton University Press, 1976/84, which is based on the original in German, Vom Kriege, Dummlers Verlag, Berlin, 1832.) This is the standard, though not the best, English translation. (Which translation do you have?)

We have long resisted posting a page like this, because Clausewitz's comments are routinely taken out of context and sometimes badly misused. But then we decided, what the hell, why not? The set of quotations below—collected by Lani Kass—has a certain continuity and conveys a better sense of the whole than most we have seen.

Here's a link to another short set of Clausewitz quotations, collected by Brainy Quote.



Pp 127-47. (Page references are to the Howard/Paret translation, Princeton edition.)

• War is fighting and operates in a peculiar element—danger.  But war is served by many activities quite different from it, all of which concern the maintenance of the fighting forces.  These preparatory activities are excluded from the narrower meaning of the art of war—the actual conduct of war, because they are concerned only with the creation, training, and maintenance of the fighting forces.  "The theory of war proper, on the other hand, is concerned with the use of these means, once they have been developed, for the purposes of the war."

• "Tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war."

• "In tactics the means are the fighting forces . . . the end is victory."  "The original means of strategy is victory—that is, tactical success; its ends . . . are those objects which will lead directly to peace."  Strategy . . . confers a special significance . . . on the engagement: it assigns a particular aim to it."

 - The activities characteristic of war may be split into two main categories: those that are merely preparations for war, and war proper.

• Earlier theorists aimed to equip the conduct of war with principles, rules, or even systems, and thus considered only factors that could be mathematically calculated (e.g., numerical superiority; supply; the base; interior lines).  All these attempts are objectionable, however, because they aim at fixed values. In war everything is uncertain and variable, intertwined with psychological forces and effects, and the product of a continuous interaction of opposites.

• Theory becomes infinitely more difficult as soon as it touches the realm of moral values.

• Thus it is easier to use theory to organize, plan, and conduct an engagement than it is to use it in determining the engagement’s purpose.

• Theory then becomes a guide to anyone who wants to learn about war from books; it will light his way, ease his progress, train his judgment, and help him to avoid pitfalls.

• "Theory need not be a positive doctrine, a sort of manual for action. . . .  It is an analytical investigation leading to a close acquaintance with the subject."

 Pp 226-229.

• "Fighting is the central military act. . . .  Engagements mean fighting.  The object of fighting is the destruction or defeat of the enemy."

• "What do we mean by the defeat of the enemy?  Simply the destruction of his forces, whether by death, injury, or any other means—either completely  or enough to make him stop fighting. . . .  The complete or partial destruction of the enemy must be regarded as the sole object of all engagements. . . .  Direct annihilation of the enemy's forces must always be the dominant consideration."

 Pp 357-359.

• Although the concept of defense is parrying a blow and its characteristic feature is awaiting the blow,  "if we are really waging war, we must return the enemy's blows. . . .  Thus a defensive campaign can be fought with offensive battles. . .   "The defensive form of war is not a simple shield, but a shield made up of well-directed blows."

• The object of defense is preservation; and since it is easier to hold ground than to take it, defense is easier than attack.  "But defense has a passive purpose: preservation; and attack a positive one: conquest. . . .  If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, if follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object."

• Defense is the stronger form of waging war.

 Pp 69-70.

 - As of 10 Jul 1827, Clausewitz regarded the first six books "merely as a rather formless mass that must be thoroughly reworked once more."  The revision would aim to bring out the two kinds of war more clearly:  first, war that aimed to "overthrow the enemy;" and second, war that aimed "merely to occupy some of his frontier districts."  He also aimed to make clear the point that "war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means."

 —As of 1830, Clausewitz still regarded his manuscript "as nothing but a collection of materials from which a theory of war was to have been distilled. . .  The first chapter of Book One alone I regard as finished.  It will at least serve the whole by indicating the direction I meant to follow everywhere."

 Pp 488-489.

 - In the defense of a theater, "the importance of possessing the country increases, the less a decision is actively sought by the belligerents."  When the war is governed by the urge for a decision, however, "such a decision may be made up of a single battle or a series of major engagements."  This likelihood "should be enough to call for the utmost possible concentration of strength. . . .  A major battle in a theater of operations is a collision between two centers of gravity; the more forces we can concentrate in our center of gravity, the more certain and massive the effect will be."

 Pp 577-627.

 - “No one starts a war--or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so--without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” (Makes a similar statement in Book 1, Chapter 1)

 - "The natural aim of military operations is the enemy's overthrow. . . . Since both belligerents hold that view, it would follow that military operations could not be suspended . . . until one or other side were finally defeated."  But that theoretical concept is not borne out in practice because of a "vast array of factors, forces, and conditions in national affairs that are affected by war."

 —"The degree of force that must be used against the enemy depends on the scale of political demands on either side. . . .  But they seldom are fully known.  Since in war too small an effort can result not just in failure, but in positive harm, each side is driven to outdo the other, which sets up an interaction."

• The aim of war should be the defeat of the enemy.  But what constitutes defeat?  The conquest of his whole territory is not always necessary, and total occupation of his territory may not be enough.

• Out of the dominant characteristics of both belligerents "a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends.  That is the point against which all our energies should be directed."

• "The acts we consider most important for the defeat of the enemy are . .
  – Destruction of his army, if it is at all significant
  – Seizure of his capital if it is not only the center of administration but also that of social, professional, and political activity
  – Delivery of an effective blow against his principal ally if that ally is more powerful than he."

• "Time . . . is less likely to bring favor to the victor than to the vanquished. . . An offensive war requires above all a quick, irresistible decision. . . .  Any kind of interruption, pause, or suspension of activity is inconsistent with the nature of offensive war."

• “A defender must always seek to change over to the attack as soon as he has gained the benefit of the defense.”

• "The defeat of the enemy . . . . presuppose[s] great physical or moral superiority or else an extremely enterprising spirit. . . .  When neither of these is present, the object of military activity can only be one of two kinds:  seizing a small or larger piece of enemy territory, or holding one's own until things take a better turn."  Thus "two kinds of limited war are possible:  offensive war with a limited aim, and defensive war."

• "It is of course well known that the only source of war is politics—the intercourse of governments and peoples. . . .  We maintain . . . that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.

• "If war is part of policy, policy will determine its character.  As policy becomes more ambitious and vigorous, so will war, and this may reach the point where war attains its absolute form. . . .  Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa."

• "No major proposal required for war can be worked out in ignorance of political factors. . . . [Likewise,] if war is to be fully consonant with political objectives, and policy suited to the means available for war, . . . the only sound expedient is to make the commander-in-chief a member of the cabinet."

• In limited war, we can achieve a positive aim by seizing and occupying a part of the enemy's territory.  However, this effort is burdened with the defense of other points not covered by our limited offensive.  Often the cost of this additional defense negates or even outweighs the advantages of our limited offensive.

• We can also undertake a limited defensive war, of which there are two distinct kinds.  In the first, we aim to keep our territory inviolate and hold it as long as possible, hoping time will change the external situation and relieve the pressure against us.  In the second, we adopt the defensive to help create the conditions for a counteroffensive and the pursuit of a positive aim.

• "Two basic principles . . . underlie all strategic planning. . . .

   – The first principle is:  act with the utmost concentration [trace the ultimate substance of enemy strength to the fewest possible sources; compress the attack on these sources to the fewest possible actions; and subordinate minor actions as much as possible].

   – The second principle is:  act with the utmost speed [every unnecessary expenditure of time and every unnecessary detour is a waste of strength; take the shortest possible road to the goal]."

   – The first task, then, in planning for a war is to identify the enemy’s center of gravity, and if possible trace it back to single one.

   – The second task is to ensure that the forces to be used against that point are concentrated for a main offensive.

 Pp 75-89.

• "War is . . . an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will."

• Because war is an act of force, committed against a living, reacting opponent, it produces three interactions that, in theory, lead to three extremes:  maximum use of force; total disarmament of the enemy; and maximum exertion of strength.

    – However, war never achieves its absolute nature because:  "war is never an isolated act;" "war does not consist of a single short blow;" and "in war the result is never final."

    – "Once the extreme is no longer feared or aimed at, it becomes a matter of judgment what degree of effort should be made; and this can only be based on . . . the laws of probability."

    – "War is also interrupted (or moderated), and thus made even more a gamble, by:  the superiority of defense over offense; imperfect knowledge of the situation; and the element of chance."

• "As this law [of extremes] begins to lose its force and as this determination wanes, the political aim will reassert itself. . . .  The political object —the original motive for the war—will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires."

    – "War is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means."

    – "The more powerful and inspiring the motives for war . . . the closer will war approach its abstract concept. . . .  The less intense the motives, the less will the military element's natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives."

    – "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking."

• "As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity . . . of the play of chance and probability . . . and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy."

Pp.90-123.

"If  . . . we consider the pure concept of war . . . . its aim would have always and solely to be to overcome the enemy and disarm him."  This encompasses "three broad objectives, which between them cover everything:  destroying the enemy's armed forces; occupying his country; and breaking his will to continue the struggle.

"But the aim of disarming the enemy (the object of war in the abstract . . .) is in fact not always encountered in reality, and need not be fully achieved as a condition of peace."

"Inability to carry on the struggle can, in practice, be replaced by two other grounds for making peace:  the first is the improbability of victory; the second is its unacceptable cost."

We may demonstrate to the enemy the improbability of his victory by:  obtaining a single victory; by seizing a province; or by conducting operations to produce direct political repercussions.

We may demonstrate to the enemy the unacceptable cost of his struggle by:  invading his territory; conducting operations to increase his suffering; or by wearing down the enemy.

There is only one means in war:  combat.

"Whenever armed forces . . . are used, the idea of combat must be present. . . .  The end for which a soldier is recruited, clothed, armed, and trained, the whole object of his sleeping, eating, drinking, and marching is simply that he should fight at the right place and the right time."

"If the idea of fighting underlies every use of the fighting forces, then their employment means simply the planning and organizing of a series of engagements. . .  The destruction of the enemy's forces is always the means by which the purpose of the engagement is achieved."

"When one force is a great deal stronger than the other, an estimate may be enough.  There will be no fighting:  the weaker side will yield at once. . . Even if no actual fighting occurs . . . the outcome rests on the assumption that if it came to fighting, the enemy would be destroyed."

"When we speak of destroying the enemy's forces we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces:  the moral element must also be considered."

"Destruction of the enemy forces is always the superior, more effective means, with which others cannot compete. . . .  The commander who wishes to adopt different means can reasonably do so only if he assumes his opponent to be equally unwilling to resort to major battles."

"Genius refers to a very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation. . . .  The essence of military genius . . . . consists in a harmonious combination of elements."

"War is the realm of danger; therefore courage is the soldier's first requirement"

"War is the realm of physical exertion and suffering. . . .  Birth or training must provide us with a certain strength of body and soul."

"We come now to the region dominated by the powers of intellect.  War is the realm of uncertainty . . . .  War is the realm of chance. . . .  Two qualities are indispensable:  first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.  The first of these qualities is described by the French term, coup d'oeil; the second is determination."

War's climate of danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance also demands other intellectual qualities.

"Presence of mind . . . is nothing but an increased capacity of dealing with the unexpected."

"Energy in action varies in proportion to the strength of its motive."  Of all the passions none is more powerful than ambition.

"Staunchness indicates the will's resistance to a single blow; endurance refers to prolonged resistance."

"Strength of mind or of character" is "the ability to keep one's head at times of exceptional stress and violent emotion."

"Firmness cannot show itself, of course, if a man keeps changing his mind."  It demands sticking to one's convictions.

The relationship between warfare and terrain demands "the faculty of quickly and accurately grasping the topography of any area."

"If we then ask what sort of mind is likeliest to display the qualities of military genius . . . it is the inquiring rather than the creative mind, the comprehensive rather than the specialized approach, the calm rather than the excitable head."

"We have identified danger, physical exertion, intelligence, and friction as the elements that coalesce to form the atmosphere of war, and turn it into a medium that impedes activity."

"The novice cannot pass through these layers of increasing intensity of danger without sensing that here ideas are governed by other factors, that the light of reason is refracted in a quite different from that which is normal in academic speculation."

"If no one had the right to give his views on military operations except when he is frozen, or faint from heat and thirst, or depressed from privation and fatigue, objective and accurate views would be even rarer than they are."

"Many intelligence reports in war are contradictory; even more are false, and most are uncertain."

"Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.  The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction. . . .  This tremendous friction . . . is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance. . . .  Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes."

"The good general must know friction in order to overcome it whenever possible, and in order not to expect a standard of achievement in his operations which this very friction makes impossible."

"Is there any lubricant that will reduce this abrasion?  Only one . . . combat experience."

Pp 177-204.

"Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war.  The strategist must therefore define an aim for the entire operational side of the war that will be in accordance with its purpose. . . .  The aim will determine the series of actions intended to achieve it."

"Results are of two kinds:  direct and indirect. . . .  The possession of provinces, cities, fortresses, roads, bridges, munitions dumps, etc., may be the immediate object of an engagement, but can never be the final one."

"If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next, but instead succumb to the idea that the capture of certain geographical points or the seizure of undefended provinces are of value in themselves, we are liable to regard them as windfall profits."

"The strategic elements that affect the use of engagements may be classified into various types:  moral, physical, mathematical, geographical, and statistical."

The moral elements [everything that is created by intellectual and psychological qualities and influences] are among the most important in war.  Unfortunately, they will not yield to academic wisdom.  They cannot be classified or counted. . . .  The effects of physical and psychological factors form an organic whole.   In formulating any rule concerning physical factors, the theorist must bear in mind the part that moral factors may play in it."

The principal moral elements . . . . are:  the skill of the commander, the experience and courage of the troops, and their patriotic spirit.

"An army that maintains its cohesion; . . that cannot be shaken by fears . . ; [that] will not lose the strength to obey orders and its respect and trust for its officers . . ; [that] has been steeled by training in privation and effort; . . that is mindful of the honor of its arms—such an army is imbued with the true military spirit."

“There are only two sources for this spirit. . . .  The first is a series of victorious wars; the second, frequent exertions of the army to the utmost limits of its strength."

“In what field of human activity is boldness more at home than in war? . . .  It must be granted a certain power over and above successful calculations involving space, time, and magnitude of forces."

"In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. . . .  Perseverance in the chosen course is the essential counterweight."

A universal desire is to take the enemy by surprise as a means to gain superiority.  But "it is equally true that by its very nature surprise can rarely be outstandingly successful. . . .  In strategy surprise becomes more feasible the closer it occurs to the tactical realm, and more difficult, the more it approaches the higher levels of policy."

"Cunning implies secret purpose. . . .  It is itself a form of deceit. . . .  No human characteristic appears so suited to the task of directing and inspiring strategy. . . .  [Yet] the fact remains that these qualities do not figure prominently in the history of war."

"Superiority of numbers is the most common element in victory. . . .  Superiority . . .  can obviously reach the point where it is overwhelming. . . .  It thus follows that as many troops as possible should be brought into the engagement at the decisive point.

"The best strategy is always to be very strong; first in general, and then at the decisive point. . . .  There is no higher and simpler law of strategy than that of keeping one's forces concentrated."


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