NOTE: This version of Carl von Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the standard translation today, though for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation.
LEFT: Recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776.
Ends and Means in War
If we ask first of all for the aim upon which the whole war is to be directed, in order that it may be the right means for the attainment of the political object, we shall find that it is just as variable as are the political object and the particular circumstances of the war.
If, in the next place, we keep once more to the pure conception of war, then we must say that its political object properly lies out of its province, for if war is an act of violence to compel the enemy to fulfil our will, then in every case all depends on our overthrowing the enemy, that is, disarming him, and on that alone. This object, developed from abstract conceptions, but which is also the one aimed at in a great many cases in reality, we shall, in the first place, examine in this reality.
In connection with the plan of a campaign we shall hereafter examine more closely into the meaning of disarming a nation, but here we must at once draw a distinction between three things, which as three general objects comprise everything else within them. They are the military power, the country, and the will of the enemy.
The military power must be destroyed, that is, reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the war. This is the sense in which we wish to be understood hereafter, whenever we use the expression "destruction of the enemy's military power."
The country must be conquered, for out of the country a new military force may be formed.
But if even both these things are done, still the war, that is, the hostile feeling and action of hostile agencies, cannot be considered as at an end as long as the will of the enemy is not subdued also; that is, its Government and its allies forced into signing a peace, or the people into submission; for whilst we are in full occupation of the country the war may break out afresh, either in the interior or through assistance given by allies. No doubt this may also take place after a peace, but that shows nothing more than that every war does not carry in itself the elements for a complete decision and final settlement.
But even if this is the case, still with the conclusion of peace a number of sparks are always extinguished, which would have smouldered on quietly, and the excitement of the passions abates, because all those whose minds are disposed to peace, of which in all nations and under all circumstances, there is always a great number, turn themselves away completely from the road to resistance. Whatever may take place subsequently, we must always look upon the object as attained, and the business of war as ended, by a peace.
As protection of the country is that one of these objects to which the military force is destined, therefore the natural order is that first of all this force should be destroyed; then the country subdued; and through the effect of these two results, as well as the position we then hold, the enemy should be forced to make peace. Generally the destruction of the enemy's force is done by degrees, and in just the same measure the conquest of the country follows immediately. The two likewise usually react upon each other, because the loss of provinces occasions a diminution of military force. But this order is by no means necessary, and on that account it also does not always take place. The enemy's army, before it is sensibly weakened, may retreat to the opposite side of the country, or even quite out of the country. In this case, therefore, the greater part or the whole of the country is conquered.
But this object of war in the abstract, this final means of attaining the political object in which all others are combined, the disarming the enemy, is by no means general in reality, is not a condition necessary to peace, and therefore can in no wise be set up in theory as a law. There are innumerable instances of treaties in which peace has been settled before either party could be looked upon as disarmed; indeed, even before the balance had undergone any sensible alteration. Nay, further, if we look at the case in the concrete, then we must say that in a whole class of cases the idea of a complete defeat of the enemy would be a mere imaginative flight, especially if the enemy is considerably superior.
The reason why the object deduced from the conception of war is not adapted in general to real war, lies in the difference between the two, which is discussed in the preceding chapter. If it was as pure conception gives it, then a war between two states of very unequal military strength would appear an absurdity; therefore would be impossible. At most, the inequality between the physical forces might be such that it could be balanced by the moral forces, and that would not go far with our present social condition in Europe. Therefore, if we have seen wars take place between states of very unequal power, that has been the case because there is a wide difference between war in reality and its original conception.
There are two considerations, which as motives, may practically take the place of inability to continue the contest. The first is the improbability, the second is the excessive price of success.
According to what we have seen in the foregoing chapter, war must always set itself free from the strict law of logical necessity, and seek aid from the calculation of probabilities: and as this is so much the more the case, the more the war has a bias that way, from the circumstances out of which it has arisen—the smaller its motives are and the excitement it has raised—so it is also conceivable how out of this calculation of probabilities even motives to peace may arise. War does not therefore always require to be fought out until one party is overthrown; and we may suppose that, when the motives and passions are slight, a weak probability will suffice to move that side to which it is unfavourable to give way. Now, were the other side convinced of this beforehand, it is natural that he would strive for this probability only instead of first trying and making the detour of a total destruction of the enemy's army.
Still more general in its influence on the resolution to peace is the consideration of the expenditure of force already made, and further required. As war is no act of blind passion, but is dominated over by the political object, therefore the value of that object determines the measure of the sacrifices by which it is to be purchased. This will be the case, not only as regards extent, but also as regards duration. As soon, therefore, as the required outlay becomes so great that the political object is no longer equal in value, the object must be given up, and peace will be the result.
We see, therefore, that in wars where one cannot completely disarm the other, the motives to peace on both sides will rise or fall on each side according to the probability of future success and the required outlay. If these motives were equally strong on both sides, they would meet in the centre of their political difference. Where they are strong on one side, they might be weak on the other. If their amount is only sufficient, peace will follow, but naturally to the advantage of that side which has the weakest motive for its conclusion. We purposely pass over here the difference which the positive and negative character of the political end must necessarily produce practically; for although that is, as we shall hereafter show, of the highest importance, still we are obliged to keep here to a more general point of view, because the original political views in the course of the war change very much, and at last may become totally different, just because they are determined by results and probable events.
Now comes the question how to influence the probability of success. In the first place, naturally by the same means which we use when the object is the subjugation of the enemy, by the destruction of his military force and the conquest of his provinces; but these two means are not exactly of the same import here as they would be in reference to that object. If we attack the enemy's army, it is a very different thing whether we intend to follow up the first blow with a succession of others until the whole force is destroyed, or whether we mean to content ourselves with a victory to shake the enemy's feeling of security, to convince him of our superiority, and to instil into him a feeling of apprehension about the future. If this is our object, we only go so far in the destruction of his forces as is sufficient. In like manner the conquest of the enemy's provinces is quite a different measure if the object is not the destruction of the enemy's army. In the latter case, the destruction of the army is the real effectual action, and the taking of the provinces only a consequence of it; to take them before the army had been defeated would always be looked upon only as a necessary evil. On the other hand, if our views are not directed upon the complete destruction of the enemy's force, and if we are sure that the enemy does not seek but fears to bring matters to a bloody decision, the taking possession of a weak or defenceless province is an advantage in itself, and if this advantage is of sufficient importance to make the enemy apprehensive about the general result, then it may also be regarded as a shorter road to peace.
But now we come upon a peculiar means of influencing the probability of the result without destroying the enemy's army, namely, upon the expeditions which have a direct connection with political views. If there are any enterprises which are particularly likely to break up the enemy's alliances or make them inoperative, to gain new alliances for ourselves, to raise political powers in our own favour, etc., etc., then it is easy to conceive how much these may increase the probability of success, and become a shorter way towards our aim than the routing of the enemy's army.
The second question is how to act upon the enemy's expenditure in strength, that is, to raise the price of success.
The enemy's outlay in strength lies in the wear and tear of his forces, consequently in the destruction of them on our part, and in the loss of provinces, consequently the conquest of them by us.
Here again, on account of the various significations of these means, so likewise it will be found that neither of them will be identical in its signification, in all cases if the objects are different. The smallness in general of this difference must not cause us perplexity, for in reality the weakest motives, the finest shades of difference, often decide in favour of this or that method of applying force. Our only business here is to show that certain conditions being supposed, the possibility of attaining the aim in different ways is no contradiction, absurdity, nor even error.
Besides these two means there are three other peculiar ways of directly increasing the waste of the enemy's force. The first is invasion, that is the occupation of the enemy's territory, not with a view to keeping it, but in order to levy contributions there, or to devastate it. The immediate object is here neither the conquest of the enemy's territory nor the defeat of his armed force, but merely to do him damage in a general way. The second way is to select for the object of our enterprises those points at which we can do the enemy most harm. Nothing is easier to conceive than two different directions in which our force may be employed, the first of which is to be preferred if our object is to defeat the enemy's army, while the other is more advantageous if the defeat of the enemy is out of the question. According to the usual mode of speaking we should say that the first is more military, the other more political. But if we take our view from the highest point, both are equally military, and neither the one nor the other can be eligible unless it suits the circumstances of the case. The third, by far the most important, from the great number of cases which it embraces, is the wearying out the enemy. We choose this expression not only to explain our meaning in few words but because it represents the thing exactly, and is not so figurative as may at first appear. The idea of wearying out in a struggle amounts in reality to a gradual exhaustion of the physical powers and of the will produced through the long continuance of exertion.
Now if we want to overcome the enemy by the duration of the contest we must content ourselves with as small objects as possible, for it is in the nature of the thing that a great end requires a greater expenditure of force than a small one; but the smallest object that we can propose to ourselves is simple passive resistance, that is a combat without any positive view. In this way, therefore, our means attain their greatest relative value, and therefore the result is best secured. How far now can this negative mode of proceeding be carried? Plainly not to absolute passivity, for mere endurance would not be fighting: and the defensive is an activity by which so much of the enemy's power must be destroyed, that he must give up his object. That alone is what we aim at in each single act, and therein consists the negative nature of our object.
No doubt this negative object in its single act is not so effective as the positive object in the same direction would be, supposing it successful; but there is this difference in its favour, that it succeeds more easily than the positive, and therefore it holds out greater certainty of success; what is wanting in the efficacy of its single act, must be gained through time, that is, through the duration of the contest, and therefore this negative intention, which constitutes the principle of the pure defensive, is also the natural means of overcoming the enemy by the duration of the combat, that is of wearing him out.
Here lies the origin of that difference of Offensive and Defensive, the influence of which prevails over the whole province of war. We cannot at present pursue this subject further than to observe that from this negative intention are to be deduced all the advantages and all the stronger forms of combat which are on the side of the Defensive, and in which that philosophical-dynamic law which exists between the greatness and the certainty of success is realised. We shall resume the consideration of all this hereafter.
If then the negative purpose, that is the concentration of all the means into a state of pure resistance, affords a superiority in the contest, and if this advantage is sufficient to balance whatever superiority in numbers the adversary may have, then the mere duration of the contest will suffice gradually to bring the loss of force on the part of the adversary to a point at which the political object can no longer be an equivalent, a point at which, therefore, he must give up the contest. We see then that this class of means, the wearying out of the enemy, includes the great number of cases in which the weaker resists the stronger.
Frederick the Great during the Seven Years' War was never strong enough to overthrow the Austrian monarchy; and if he had tried to do so after the fashion of Charles the Twelfth, he would inevitably have had to succumb himself. But after his skilful application of the system of husbanding his resources had shown the powers allied against him, through a seven years' war, that the actual expenditure of strength far exceeded what they had at first anticipated, they made peace.
We see then that there are many ways to the aim in war; that the complete subjugation of the enemy is not essential in every case, that the destruction of the enemy's military force, the conquest of enemy's provinces, the mere occupation of them, the mere invasion of them—enterprises which are aimed directly at political objects—lastly a passive expectation of the enemy's blow, are all means which, each in itself, may be used to force the enemy's will just according as the peculiar circumstances of the case lead us to expect more from the one or the other. We could still add to these a whole category of shorter methods of gaining the end, which might be called arguments ad hominem. What branch of human affairs is there in which these sparks of individual spirit have not made their appearance, flying over all formal considerations? And least of all can they fail to appear in war, where the personal character of the combatants plays such an important part, both in the cabinet and in the field. We limit ourselves to pointing this out, as it would be pedantry to attempt to reduce such influences into classes. Including these, we may say that the number of possible ways of reaching the aim rises to infinity.
To avoid under-estimating these different short roads to the aim, either estimating them only as rare exceptions, or holding the difference which they cause in the conduct of war as insignificant, we must bear in mind the diversity of political objects which may cause a war,—measure at a glance the distance which there is between a death struggle for political existence, and a war which a forced or tottering alliance makes a matter of disagreeable duty. Between the two, gradations innumerable occur in reality. If we reject one of these gradations in theory, we might with equal right reject the whole, which would be tantamount to shutting the real world completely out of sight.
These are the circumstances in general connected with the aim which we have to pursue in war; let us now turn to the means.
There is only one single means, it is the Fight. However diversified this may be in form, however widely it may differ from a rough vent of hatred and animosity in a hand-to-hand encounter, whatever number of things may introduce themselves which are not actual fighting, still it is always implied in the conception of war, that all the effects manifested have their roots in the combat.
That this must also always be so in the greatest diversity and complication of the reality, is proved in a very simple manner. All that takes place in war takes place through armed forces, but where the forces of war, i. e., armed men are applied, there the idea of fighting must of necessity be at the foundation.
All, therefore, that relates to forces of war—all that is connected with their creation, maintenance, and application, belongs to military activity.
Creation and maintenance are obviously only the means, whilst application is the object.
The contest in war is not a contest of individual against individual, but an organised whole, consisting of manifold parts; in this great whole we may distinguish units of two kinds, the one determined by the subject, the other by the object. In an army the mass of combatants ranges itself always into an order of new units, which again form members of a higher order. The combat of each of these members forms, therefore, also a more or less distinct unit. Further, the motive of the fight; therefore its object forms its unit.
Now to each of these units which we distinguish in the contest, we attach the name of combat.
If the idea of combat lies at the foundation of every application of armed power, then also the application of armed force in general, is nothing more than the determining and arranging a certain number of combats.
Every activity in war, therefore, necessarily relates to the combat either directly or indirectly. The soldier is levied, clothed, armed, exercised, he sleeps, eats, drinks and marches, all merely to fight at the right time and place.
If, therefore, all the threads of military activity terminate in the combat, we shall grasp them all when we settle the order of the combats. Only from this order and its execution proceed the effects; never directly from the conditions preceding them. Now, in the combat all the action is directed to the destruction of the enemy, or rather of his fighting powers, for this lies in the conception of combat. The destruction of the enemy's fighting power is, therefore, always the means to attain the object of the combat.
This object may likewise be the mere destruction of the enemy's armed force; but that is not by any means necessary, and it may be something quite different. Whenever, for instance, as we have shown, the defeat of the enemy is not the only means to attain the political object, whenever there are other objects which may be pursued, as the aim in a war, then it follows of itself that such other objects may become the object of particular acts of warfare, and, therefore, also the object of combats.
But even those combats which, as subordinate acts, are in the strict sense devoted to the destruction of the enemy's fighting force, need not have that destruction itself as their first object.
If we think of the manifold parts of a great armed force, of the number of circumstances which come into activity when it is employed, then it is clear that the combat of such a force must also require a manifold organisation, a subordinating of parts and formation. There may and must naturally arise for particular parts a number of objects which are not themselves the destruction of the enemy's armed force, and which, while they certainly contribute to increase that destruction, do so only in an indirect manner. If a battalion is ordered to drive the enemy from a rising ground, or a bridge, &c., then properly the occupation of any such locality is the real object, the destruction of the enemy's armed force, which takes place, only the means or secondary matter. If the enemy can be driven away merely by a demonstration, the object is attained all the same; but this hill or bridge is, in point of fact, only required as a means of increasing the gross amount of loss inflicted on the enemy's armed force. If this is the case on the field of battle, much more must it be so on the whole theatre of war, where not only one army is opposed to another, but one State, one nation, one whole country to another. Here the number of possible relations, and consequently possible combinations, is much greater, the diversity of measures increased, and by the gradation of objects each subordinate to another, the first means employed is further apart from the ultimate object.
It is, therefore, for many reasons possible that the object of a combat is not the destruction of the enemy's force, that is, of the force opposed to us, but that this only appears as a means. But in all such cases it is no longer a question of complete destruction, for the combat is here nothing else but a measure of strength—has in itself no value except only that of the present result, that is, of its decision.
But a measuring of strength may be effected in cases where the opposing sides are very unequal by a mere comparative estimate. In such cases no fighting will take place, and the weaker will immediately give way.
If the object of a combat is not always the destruction of the enemy's forces therein engaged—and if its object can often be attained as well without the combat taking place at all, by merely making a resolve to fight, and by the circumstances to which that gives rise—then that explains how a whole campaign may be carried on with great activity without the actual combat playing any notable part in it.
That this may be so, military history proves by a hundred examples. How many of those cases had a bloodless decision which can be justified, that is, without involving a contradiction; and whether some of the celebrities who rose out of them would stand criticism we shall leave undecided, for all we have to do with the matter is to show the possibility of such a course of events in war.
We have only one means in war—the battle; but this means, by the infinite variety of ways in which it may be applied, leads us into all the different ways which the multiplicity of objects allows of, so that we seem to have gained nothing; but that is not the case, for from this unity of means proceeds a thread which assists the study of the subject, as it runs through the whole web of military activity, and holds it together.
But we have considered the destruction of the enemy's force as one of the objects which may be pursued in war, and left undecided what importance should be given to it amongst other objects. In certain cases it will depend on circumstances, and as a general question we have left its value undetermined. We are once more brought back upon it, and we shall be able to get an insight into the value which must necessarily be accorded to it.
The combat is the single activity in war; in the combat the destruction of the enemy opposed to us is the means to the end; it is so even when the combat does not actually take place, because in that case there lies at the root of the decision the supposition at all events that this destruction is to be regarded as beyond doubt. It follows, therefore, that the destruction of the enemy's military force is the foundation-stone of all action in war, the great support of all combinations, which rest upon it like the arch on its abutments. All action, therefore, takes place on the supposition that if the solution by force of arms which lies at its foundation should be realised, it will be a favourable one. The decision by arms is, for all operations in war, great and small, what cash payment is in bill transactions. However remote from each other these relations, however seldom the realisation may take place, still it can never entirely fail to occur.
If the decision by arms lies at the foundation of all combinations, then it follows that the enemy can defeat each of them by gaining a successful decision with arms, not merely if it is that one on which our combination directly depends, but also by any other, if it is only important enough for every important decision by arms—that is, destruction of the enemy's forces reacts upon all preceding it, because, like a liquid element, they bring themselves to a level.
Thus, the destruction of the enemy's armed force appears, therefore, always as the superior and more effectual means, to which all others must give way.
But certainly it is only when there is a supposed equality in all other conditions that we can ascribe to the destruction of the enemy's armed force a greater efficacy. It would, therefore, be a great mistake to draw from it the conclusion that a blind dash must always gain the victory over skill and caution. An unskilful attack would lead to the destruction of our own and not of the enemy's force, and therefore is not what is here meant. The superior efficacy belongs not to the means but to the end, and we are only comparing the effect of one realised aim with the other.
If we speak of the destruction of the enemy's armed force, we must expressly point out that nothing obliges us to confine this idea to the mere physical force; on the contrary, the moral is necessarily implied as well, because both in fact are interwoven with each other even in the most minute details, and, therefore, cannot be separated. But it is just in connection with the inevitable effect which has been referred to, of a great act of destruction (a great victory) upon all other decisions by arms, that this moral element is most fluid, if we may use that expression, and, therefore, distributes itself the most easily through all the parts.
Against the far superior worth which the destruction of the enemy's armed force has over all other means, stands the expense and risk of this means, and it is only to avoid these that any other means are taken.
That this means must be costly stands to reason, for the waste of our own military forces must, ceteris paribus, always be greater the more our aim is directed upon the destruction of the enemy's.
But the danger of this means lies in this, that just the greater efficacy which we seek recoils on ourselves, and therefore has worse consequences in case we fail of success.
Other methods are, therefore, less costly when they succeed, less dangerous when they fail; but in this is necessarily lodged the condition that they are only opposed to similar ones, that is, that the enemy acts on the same principle; for if the enemy should choose the way of a great decision by arms, our means must on that account be changed against our will, in order to correspond with his. Then all depends on the issue of the act of destruction; but of course it is evident that, ceteris paribus, in this act we must be at a disadvantage in all respects because our views and our means had been directed in part upon other objects, which is not the case with the enemy. Two different objects of which one is not part of the other exclude each other; and, therefore, a force which may be applicable for the one, may not serve for the other. If, therefore, one of two belligerents is determined to take the way of the great decision by arms, then he has also a high probability of success, as soon as he is certain his opponent will not take that way, but follows a different object; and every one who sets before himself any such other aim only does so in a reasonable manner, provided he acts on the supposition that his adversary has as little intention as he has of resorting to the great decision by arms.
But what we have here said of another direction of views and forces relates only to other positive objects, which we may propose to ourselves in war besides the destruction of the enemy's force, not by any means to the pure defensive, which may be adopted with a view thereby to exhaust the enemy's forces. In the pure defensive, the positive object is wanting, and, therefore, while on the defensive, our forces cannot at the same time be directed on other objects; they can only be employed to defeat the intentions of the enemy.
We have now to consider the opposite of the destruction of the enemy's armed force, that is to say, the preservation of our own. These two efforts always go together, as they mutually act and re-act on each other; they are integral parts of one and the same view, and we have only to ascertain what effect is produced when one or the other has the predominance. The endeavour to destroy the enemy's force has a positive object and leads to positive results, of which the final aim is the conquest of the enemy. The preservation of our own forces has a negative object, leads therefore to the defeat of the enemy's intentions, that is to pure resistance, of which the final aim can be nothing more than to prolong the duration of the contest, so that the enemy shall exhaust himself in it.
The effort with a positive object calls into existence the act of destruction; the effort with the negative object awaits it.
How far this state of expectation should and may be carried we shall enter into more particularly in the theory of attack and defence, at the origin of which we again find ourselves. Here we shall content ourselves with saying that the awaiting must be no absolute endurance, and that in the action bound up with it the destruction of the enemy's armed force engaged in this conflict may be the aim just as well as anything else. It would, therefore, be a great error in the fundamental idea to suppose that the consequence of the negative course is that we are precluded from choosing the destruction of the enemy's military force as our object, and must prefer a bloodless solution. The advantage which the negative effort gives may certainly lead to that, but only at the risk of its not being the most advisable method, as that question is dependent on totally different conditions, resting not with ourselves but with our opponents. This other bloodless way cannot, therefore, be looked upon at all as the natural means of satisfying our great anxiety to spare our forces; on the contrary, when circumstances are not favourable to that way, it would be the means of completely ruining them. Very many Generals have fallen into this error, and been ruined by it. The only necessary effect resulting from the superiority of the negative effort is the delay of the decision, so that the party acting takes refuge in that way, as it were, in the expectation of the decisive moment. The consequence of that is generally the postponement of the action as much as possible in time and also in space, in so far as space is in connection with it. If the moment has arrived in which this can no longer be done without ruinous disadvantage, then the advantage of the negative must be considered as exhausted, and then comes forward unchanged the effort for the destruction of the enemy's force, which was kept back by a counterpoise, but never discarded.
We have seen, therefore, in the foregoing reflections, that there are many ways to the aim, that is, to the attainment of the political object; but that the only means is the combat, and that consequently everything is subject to a supreme law: which is the decision by arms; that where this is really demanded by one, it is a redress which cannot be refused by the other; that, therefore, a belligerent who takes any other way must make sure that his opponent will not take this means of redress, or his cause may be lost in that supreme court; that, therefore, in short, the destruction of the enemy's armed force amongst all the objects which can be pursued in war appears always as that one which overrules all.
What may be achieved by combinations of another kind in war we shall only learn in the sequel, and naturally only by degrees. We content ourselves here with acknowledging in general their possibility, as something pointing to the difference between the reality and the conception, and to the influence of particular circumstances. But we could not avoid showing at once that the bloody solution of the crisis, the effort for the destruction of the enemy's force, is the firstborn son of war. If when political objects are unimportant, motives weak, the excitement of forces small, a cautious commander tries in all kinds of ways, without great crises and bloody solutions, to twist himself skilfully into a peace through the characteristic weaknesses of his enemy in the field and in the Cabinet, we have no right to find fault with him, if the premises on which he acts are well founded and justified by success; still we must require him to remember that he only travels on forbidden tracks, where the God of War may surprise him; that he ought always to keep his eye on the enemy, in order that he may not have to defend himself with a dress rapier if the enemy takes up a sharp sword.
The consequences of the nature of war, how end and means act in it, how in the modifications of reality it deviates sometimes more sometimes less from its strict original conception, plays backwards and forwards, yet always remains under that strict conception as under a supreme law: all this we must retain in idea, and bear constantly in mind in the consideration of each of the succeeding subjects, if we would rightly comprehend their true relations and proper importance, and not become involved incessantly in the most glaring contradictions with the reality, and at last with our own selves.