1. The Relationship between Defense and Attack*17

By claiming that the defense was the stronger form of war, Clausewitz challenged directly the military norm of his day (and many others) which maintained that the opposite was true. He reasoned that a combatant chose the defensive form of warfare because he was not strong enough either materially or morally to attack. The advantages provided by the defensive form of war (e.g., cover and concealment, shorter lines of supply, time, choice and preparation of the terrain, etc.) compensate for the defender's material or moral weakness, at least partially. Moreover, the defender's aim is merely self-preservation, a condition which is met even before the attacker begins to move and, in some cases, can be met even if the defender's army is defeated in battle (e.g., Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army). The attacker, on the other hand, enjoys few, if any, of the advantages of the defender and, in fact, has the burden of launching and sustaining the attack, for which he generally needs a significant advantage, either moral or material, or both. Thus, the defensive form of warfare is stronger because it affords more advantages to the side that adopts it while at the same time making fewer demands. But because the characteristic feature of the defense is waiting, and its goal preservation, it possesses a negative purpose. The offensive form of warfare, on the other hand, seeks to obtain or to conquer; hence, Clausewitz assigned it a positive purpose.

Stating that one form of warfare is stronger than another is of course not the same as advocating the one over the other. Clausewitz was quick to point out that neither form of war existed independently. A well-conducted defense, he wrote, usually consisted of many offensive blows (e.g., counterattacks and spoiling attacks): "One cannot think of the defense without that necessary component of the concept, the counterattack. ... Even in a defensive position awaiting the enemy assault, our bullets take the offensive."*18 Likewise, attackers must occasionally employ defensive measures to gain time or to re-locate forces, particularly if the resources to press forward continuously and evenly across an entire front are not available (e.g., Allied defensive operations in the Ardennes in the fall of 1944). Thus, "the act of attack, particularly in strategy, is a constant alternation and combination of attack and defense."*19

2. Relationship between Major and Minor Successes

The proposition that major successes help bring about minor ones derives from Clausewitz's general assumption that war, like every real phenomenon, consisted of a number of interdependent elements, when one was affected so, too, were the others, even if only minimally. Statements like, "small things always depend on great ones," or conversely, "that great tactical successes lead to great strategic ones," reflect this belief.*20 In turn, Clausewitz's exprience as a soldier taught him that the material and moral superiority gained from large victories often led to smaller ones. For example, the defeat of the main Prussian army at Jena-Auerstadt in 1806 led to a number of smaller garrisons and depots falling rather quickly into French hands. As Clausewitz wrote:

"The outcome of a major battle has a greater psychological effect on the loser than on the winner. This, in turn, gives rise to additional loss of material strength, which is echoed in loss of morale; the two become mutually interactive as each enhances and intensifies the other. So one must place special emphasis on the moral effect, which works in opposite directions on each side: while sapping the strength of the loser, it raises the vigor and energy of the winner. But the defeated side is the one most affected by it, since it becomes the direct cause of additional loss. Moreover, it is closely related to the dangers, exertions, and hardships -- in brief, to all the wear and tear inseparable from war. It merges with these conditions and is nurtured by them."*21

With this passage, Clausewitz did more than anticipate the modern offensive phases of exploitation and pursuit. He in fact recognized an overall interconnectedness of events within a particular theater of war, especially in terms of morale, such that a victorious outcome in one battle might contribute to success in others as well.

3. Conditions of Victory*22

Clausewitz derived his proposition that "victory consists not only in the occupation of the battlefield, but in the destruction of the enemy's physical and psychic forces" from the conditions of victory as he defined them for both the strategic and tactical levels of war. On the strategic level, Clausewitz wrote that victory in war required: 1) the complete or partial destruction of the enemy's armed forces; 2) the occupation of his country; and 3) the breaking of his will to fight. The political object, the original motive, for which the war was fought determines the extent to which each of these objectives is to be pursued.*23 On the tactical level, victory involves: 1) the enemy's greater loss of material strength; 2) his loss of morale; and 3) his admission of the same by abandoning his intentions.*24 The loss of the enemy's moral and physical forces, as Clausewitz pointed out, need not be actual. It can, and often is merely the threat of loss which is sufficient to bring about the surrender or capitulation of enemy forces. Moreover, for Clausewitz, breaking the enemy's morale possessed far more significance than the destruction of his material strength: "In the engagement, the loss of morale has proved the major decisive factor ... [it] becomes the means of achieving the margin of profit in the destruction of the enemy's physical forces which is the real purpose of the engagement [emphasis added]."*25 Indeed, the continued resistance of the French population after the battle of Sedan supports Clausewitz's emphasis on the psychological or irrational element of war. While the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs provides significant advantages to technology-based societies, the concept of a Peoples' War remains its Achilles heel, thereby underscoring the crucial role that cultural values, ideologies, and belief systems play in motivating a society for war.

4. Turning Movements and Flank Positions*26

Envelopments and turning movements are similar in nature. Their basic definitions have not changed since Clausewitz's day. Envelopments are maneuvers around or over the enemy's position, avoiding his strength, to strike at his flanks and rear. A turning movement is a variant of the envelopment in which the attacker avoids the defense entirely in order to seek key terrain deep in the enemy's rear and along his lines of communication, thus forcing him to abandon his position.*27 "The enveloping or turning movement," Clausewitz wrote, "may have two objectives. It may aim at disrupting, or cutting, communications, causing the army to wither and die, and thus be forced to retreat; or it may aim at cutting off the retreat itself."*28 Because such movements expose one's own lines of communication to attack, Clausewitz argued that "flanking operations, which have always been more popular in books than in the field," are rarely practicable, and "dangerous only to very long and vulnerable lines of communication."*29 Even the threat of being cut off, he maintained, should not be overrated; "experience has shown that where the troops are good and their commanders bold they are more likely to break through than be trapped."*30
Clausewitz defined a flank position as "any position that is meant to be held even though the enemy may pass it by: once he has, the only effect it can have is on his strategic flank."*31 This definition included all fortified positions since they are, in theory at least, "impregnable," and any unfortified position which happens to be cut off, regardless of whether it faces parallel or perpendicular to the enemy's line of advance (e.g., the Prussian position on the Saale during Napoleon's advance in 1806). He considered such flank positions effective if they cause the attacker to hesitate, but risky, particularly in the case of unfortified ones, if the attacker proceeded unchecked, since, as Clausewitz explained, "the defender will pretty well have lost his chances of retreat."*32

The development of rapid-firing, long-range rifles and machine guns in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made flanking operations more appealing to armies who wanted to close with the enemy while avoiding his deadly frontal fire. Moltke the Elder (Chief of Staff of the German General Staff, 1857-1888) seems to have perfected the technique of tactical envelopment in Germany's wars against Austria and France in 1866 and 1870 respectively. To Count Alfred von Schlieffen (Chief of Staff of the German General Staff, 1891-1905), however, flank attacks became something of an obsession -- they were the "essential element in all of military history."*33

Rather than treat the act of "falling on the enemy's rear" as an accomplishment in itself, "a prize exhibit," or a formula for success, Clausewitz soberly argued that flanking operations in general were most effective only under the following conditions: 1) while on the strategic defensive; 2) toward the end of a campaign, when the enemy's lines of communication have been extended; 3) especially during a retreat into the interior of the country; and 4) in conjunction with armed insurrection.*34 All of these conditions, save the last, were present in MacArthur's famous landing at Inchon during the Korean conflict, a classic turning movement that saved UN forces from defeat. As the lethality of the battlefield continues to increase, envelopments (including those vertical in nature) and turning movements are likely to gain even greater significance as forms of maneuver.

5. The Diminishing Force of the Attack, The Culminating Point of the Attack, and the Culminating Point of Victory*35

Clausewitz saw the diminishing force of the attack, the culminating point of the attack, and the culminating point of victory as related concepts. Anticipating the modern concept of strategic consumption, Clausewitz wrote: "All attackers find that their strength diminishes as they advance."*36 He then went on to identify seven factors which cause the depletion of the attackers strength: 1) occupation of the enemy's country; 2) the need to secure lines of communication; 3) losses incurred through combat and sickness; 4) the distance from replacements of both material and personnel; 5) by sieges and investment of fortresses; 6) by a reduction of effort (moral and physical); and 7) by the defection of allies. Yet, he was also quick to point out that "a weakening of the attack may be partially or completely cancelled out ... by a weakening of the defense."*37 Thus, the depletion of the attacker's strength, while demonstrably true, has no meaning unless it is considered in relation to the strength of the defender.

Drawing directly from his observations concerning the diminishing force of the attack, Clausewitz concluded that most attacks do not lead directly to the end of hostilities, but instead reach a culminating point at which the "superior strength of the attack[er] ... is just enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace."*38 By way of corollary, Clausewitz determined that the moral and physical superiority gained through a successful battle generally augmented the strength of the victor, adding to his superiority, but only to a certain extent, and this he called the culminating point of victory.*39 This circumstance, he pointed out, was particularly evident in wars in which it was not possible for the victor to completely defeat his opponent. The same factors that contributed to reducing the strength of the attacker also played a role in diminishing the moral and material superiority that a military force gained through victory:

"[Thus,] the utilization of a victory, a continued advance in an offensive campaign, will usually swallow up the superiority with which one began or which was gained by the victory.... This culminating point in victory is bound to recur in every future war in which the destruction of the enemy cannot be the military aim, and this will presumably be true of most wars. The natural goal of all campaign plans, therefore, is the turning point at which attack becomes defense [-- the culminating point of the attack]."*40

In short, attacks that did not result in peace must end in defense. To proceed beyond the culminating point of the attack merely invited disaster, for it was erroneous to assume "that so long as an attack progresses there must still be some superiority on its side."*41 Clausewitz continued: "It is therefore important to calculate this point correctly when planning the campaign. An attacker may otherwise take on more than he can manage ... ; a defender must be able to recognize this error if the enemy commits it, and exploit it to the full."*42 Both Napoleon's and Hitler's campaigns in Russia serve as ample illustrations of what can happen when an attacker exceeds his culminating point.

Unfortunately, Clausewitz's step toward a theory of applied strategy remained only that; and it is impossible to say precisely where he would have gone with his list of propositions. On the one hand, he might have used a triangular structure similar to that of the remarkable trinity, which explained the nature of war, to clarify applied strategy. Clausewitz might thus have set his list of principles in opposition to his elements of strategy (Book III) which, because they vary with each situation, account for the uniqueness of strategic operations in general: 1) the moral -- intellectual and psychological factors (e.g., genius of the commander and spirit of the army); 2) the physical -- army size and composition; 3) the mathematical -- geometric factors (e.g., angles of impact and flanking fires); 4) the geographical -- the influence of terrain; and 5) the statistical -- support and maintenance.*43 In addition, Clausewitz's concept of a center of gravity, Schwerpunkt, which became an integral part of his later discussions regarding the conduct of war, offers perhaps the best controlling element for a theory of applied strategy. His framework for a theory of applied strategy might thus have looked like this:

[Figure 4 -- A Possible Framework for Applied Strategy]

Clausewitz defined Schwerpunkt as 'the center of all power and movement (Zentrum der Kraft und Bewegung) ... upon which everything depends.'*44 The concept itself originated with Clausewitz's belief in the near-metaphysical interdependency of all elements and all levels of war; it also reflects the extent to which the holistic and harmonizing tendencies of German idealism had influenced him. Paradoxically, the center of gravity represents both the predominant strengths and weaknesses of the geo-political or politico-military position of each belligerent state relative to its allies and opponents: if it is removed, impaired, or destroyed, then the alliance or state that it supported would collapse. Although he argued that the 'destruction of the enemy's fighting force is the best way to begin,' Clausewitz saw moral and physical force as separate but related sources of strength; hence, he recognized more than one possibility for a center of gravity, namely, an enemy's army, his capital, alliance systems, personalities of leaders, and public opinion.*45 In general, however, these last pertain more to the level of strategy than applied strategy. We can only wonder whether in subsequent revisions of On War Clausewitz would have developed the concept further.

On the other hand, he might simply have developed his list of propositions into a more sophisticated set of principles of war to replace those that he had prepared for the Crown Prince.*46 Indeed, many of the chapters in Book III correspond to the principles of war as we know them today.*47 In any case, Clausewitz certainly needed to rewrite Book III (Strategy), formally addressing the relationship between the principles of applied strategy and strategic operations in general, paying particular attention to conflicts short of war.


Clausewitz's approach to theory itself differed from others in that his attempted to account for all the impediments to action, all the imponderables -- genius, chance, friction, uncertainty, etc. -- and all the variations in scenario that result from the particularity of individual circumstances and prevent war from becoming a science. Given the predelictions of the day, Clausewitz's response to the crisis in theory was itself rather astonishing -- he redefined the term 'theory.' Rather than using it to mean formula or established procedure, as most Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers of his time had done, he redefined it in broader terms to indicate a 'framework for study' or a 'basis for conceptualization.' In this sense, he did indeed provide the 'revolution' in the theory of war that he so desired.*48

At any rate, the undated note, whether placed before or after the note of 1827, shows us that Clausewitz was a multi-dimensional military thinker, torn between the desire to make sense of his world by systematizing it, and the need to avoid applying rigid principles to a changing and diverse phenomenon. He, like so many of his contemporaries, attempted to harness the intricacies and inconsistencies of war through the use of reason. That he was far more successful in this endeavor than most owes to the fact that he did not allow his theory to predict, but required it to explain; he did not merely search for universal principles, but sought to strike a tri-namic balance between them, historical change, and the force of circumstances.


Return to Readings

Return to Clausewitz Homepage