Clausewitz, On War, excerpts relating to term "Center[s] of Gravity."

This term "center of gravity" (Schwerpunkt) appears about 40 times in Clausewitz's book, most often with no particular or consistent meaning. See pp.163, 248, 258, 260, 391, 485-489, 489, 491, 595-597, 617-620, 623, 624, 633, 634. However, three more specialized discussions appear below. These are interesting and give insight into Clausewitz's thinking, but again, his use of the term varies greatly from discussion to discussion.

Clausewitz's term COG has been imported into US Service and Joint doctrine, with a number of general and sometimes quite specific—and very often completely contradictory—definitions. In the 1980s and 1990s, an inane, mind-numbing, near-theological discussion of COG engulfed the US doctrinal and PME communities. For an amusing but highly accurate discussion of this doctrinal problem, see Dr. Joe Strange, Chapter 3, "The Way We Were—Butch Cassidy and the Center of Gravity: Confusion and Chaos, Not Understanding," in Centers of Gravity & Critical Vulnerabilities: Building on the Clausewitzian Foundation So That We Can All Speak the Same Language Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University, series "Perspectives on Warfighting" number four, 1996.


1. The world was filled with admiration when Bonaparte, in February 1814, turned from Blücher after beating him at Etoges, Champ-Aubert, Montmirail, and elsewhere, to fall on Schwarzenberg, and beat him at Montereau and Mormant. By rapidly moving his main force back and forth, Bonaparte brilliantly exploited the allies' mistake of advancing with divided forces. If, people thought, these superb strokes in all directions failed to save him, at least it was not his fault. No one has yet asked what would have happened if, instead of turning away from Blücher, and back to Schwarzenberg, he had gone on hammering Blücher and had pursued him back to the Rhine. We are convinced that the complexion of the whole campaign would have been changed and that, instead of marching on Paris, the allied armies would have withdrawn across the Rhine. We do not require others to share our view, but no expert can doubt that the critic is bound to consider that alternative once it has been raised.
     The option is much more obvious in this case than in the previous one. Nevertheless it has been overlooked, because people are biased and blindly follow a single line of thought. The need for suggesting a better method than the one that is condemned has created the type of criticism which is used almost exclusively: the critic thinks he must only indicate the method which he considers to be better, without having to furnish proof. In consequence not everyone is convinced; others follow the same procedure, and a controversy starts without any basis for discussion. The whole literature on war is full of this kind of thing.
     The proof that we demand is needed whenever the advantage of the means suggested is not plain enough to rule out all doubts; it consists in taking each of the means and assessing and comparing the particular merits of each in relation to the objective. Once the matter has thus been reduced to simple truths, the controversy must either stop, or at least lead to new results. By the other method, the pros and cons simply cancel out.
     Suppose, for instance, that in the case of the last example, we had not been satisfied, and wanted to prove that the relentless pursuit of Blücher would have served Napoleon better than turning against Schwarzenberg. We would rely on the following simple truths:

1. Generally speaking, it is better to go on striking in the same direction than to move one's forces this way and that, because shifting troops back and forth involves losing time. Moreover, it is easier to achieve further successes where he enemy's morale has already been shaken by substantial losses; in this way, none of the superiority that has been attained will go unexploited.

2. Even though Blücher was weaker than Schwarzenberg, his enterprising spirit made him more important. The center of gravity lay with him, and he pulled the other forces in his direction.

3. The losses Blücher suffered were on the scale of a serious defeat. Bonaparte had thus gained so great a superiority over him as to leave no doubt that he would have to retreat as far as the Rhine, for no reserves of any consequence were stationed on that route.

4. No other possible success could have caused so much alarm or so impressed the allies' mind. With a staff which was known to be as timid and irresolute as Schwarzenberg's, this was bound to be an important consideration. The losses incurred by the Crown Prince of Württemberg at Montereau and by Count Wittgenstein at Mormant were sure to be fairly well known to Prince Schwarzenberg; on the other hand, news of the misfortunes that Blücher met with along his distant and discontinuous line between the Marne and the Rhine could have reached him only as an avalanche of rumors. Bonaparte's desperate thrust toward Vitry at the end of March was an attempt to test the effect that the threat of a strategic envelopment would have on the allies. It was obviously based on the principle of terror, but in wholly different circumstances now that Bonaparte had been defeated at Laon and Arcis, and Blücher had joined Schwarzenberg with 100,000 men.

Some people, of course, will not be convinced by these arguments, but at least they will not be able to reply that "as Bonaparte, in his thrust towards the Rhine, was threatening Schwarzenberg's base, so Schwarzenberg was threatening Paris, which was Bonaparte's." The reasons we have cited above should make it clear that it would not have occurred to Schwarzenberg to advance on Paris.


2.    The scale of a victory's sphere of influence depends, of course, on the scale of the victory, and that in turn depends on the size of the defeated force. For this reason, the blow from which the broadest and most favorable repercussions can be expected will be aimed against that area where the greatest concentration of enemy troops can be found; the larger the force with which the blow is struck, the surer its effect will be. This rather obvious sequence leads us to an analogy that will illustrate it more clearly—that is, the nature and effect of a center of gravity.
     A center of gravity is always found where the mass is concentrated most densely. It presents the most effective target for a blow; furthermore, the heaviest blow is that struck by the center of gravity. The same holds true in war. The fighting forces of each belligerent—whether a single state or an alliance of states—have a certain unity and therefore some cohesion. Where there is cohesion, the analogy of the center of gravity can be applied. Thus, these forces will possess certain centers of gravity, which, by their movement and direction, govern the rest; and those centers of gravity will be found wherever the forces are most concentrated. But in war as in the world of inanimate matter the effect produced on a center of gravity is determined and limited by the cohesion of the parts. In either case, a blow may well be stronger than the resistance requires, and in that case it may strike nothing but air, and so be a waste of energy.
     There is a decided difference between the cohesion of a single army, led into battle under the personal command of a single general, and that of an allied force extending over 250 or 500 miles, or even operating against different fronts. In the one, cohesion is at its strongest and unity at its closest. In the other, unity is remote, frequently found only in mutual political interests, and even then rather precarious and imperfect; cohesion between the parts will usually be very loose, and often completely fictitious.
     On the one hand then, the force at which our blow is to be aimed requires that our strength be concentrated to the utmost; on the other, any excess is to be regarded as a decided disadvantage, since it involves a waste of energy, which in turn means a lack of strength elsewhere.
     It is therefore a major act of strategic judgment to distinguish these centers of gravity in the enemy's forces and to identify their spheres of effectiveness. One will constantly be called upon to estimate the effect that an advance or a retreat by part of the forces on either side will have upon the rest.
     Far from believing we have discovered a new technique, we are merely providing a rationale for the actions of every general in history, which serves to explain their connection with the nature of the problem.
     The last book will describe how this idea of a center of gravity in the enemy's force operates throughout the plan of war. In fact, that is where the matter properly belongs; we have merely drawn on it here in order not to leave a gap in the present argument. Our reflections are intended to demonstrate the general reasons for dividing one's forces. Basically, there are two conflicting interests: one, possession of the country, tends to disperse the fighting forces; the other, a stroke at the center of gravity of the enemy's forces, tends, in some degree, to keep them concentrated.
     This is how operational theaters, or individual armies' zones of operations, are created. A country and the forces stationed there are divided in such a way that any decision obtained by the main force in a particular theater directly affects the whole and carries everything along with it. We say directly, since any decision reached in one particular operational theater is also bound to have a more or less remote effect on adjoining areas.
     We want to reiterate emphatically that here, as elsewhere, our definitions are aimed only at the centers of certain concepts; we neither wish nor can give them sharp outlines. The nature of the matter should make this obvious enough.
     Our position, then, is that a theater of war, be it large or small, and the forces stationed there, no matter what their size, represent the sort of unity in which a single center of gravity can be identified. That is the place where the decision should be reached; a victory at that point is in its fullest sense identical with the defense of the theater of operations.


3.    These events are proof that success is not due simply to general causes. Particular factors can often be decisive—details only known to those who were on the spot. There can also be moral factors which never come to light; while issues can be decided by chances and incidents so minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes.
     What the theorist has to say here is this: one must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics 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.
     Small things always depend on great ones, unimportant on important, accidentals on essentials. This must guide our approach.
     For Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles XII, and Frederick the Great, the center of gravity was their army. If the army had been destroyed, they would all have gone down in history as failures. In countries subject to domestic strife, the center of gravity is generally the capital. In small countries that rely on large ones, it is usually the army of their protector. Among alliances, it lies in the community of interest, and in popular uprisings it is the personalities of the leaders and public opinion. It is against these that our energies should be directed. If the enemy is thrown off balance, he must not be given time to recover. Blow after blow must be aimed in the same direction: the victor, in other words, must strike with all his strength and not just against a fraction of the enemy's. Not by taking things the easy way—using superior strength to filch some province, preferring the security of this minor conquest to great success—but by constantly seeking out the center of his power, by daring all to win all, will one really defeat the enemy.
     Still, no matter what the central feature of the enemy's power may be—the point on which your efforts must converge—the defeat and destruction of his fighting force remains the best way to begin, and in every case will be a very significant feature of the campaign.
     Basing our comments on general experience, the acts we consider most important for the defeat of the enemy are the following:

1. Destruction of his army, if it is at all significant.

2. Seizure of his capital if it is not only the center of administration but also that of social, professional, and political activity.

3. Delivery of an effective blow against his principal ally if that ally is more powerful than he.

     Up till now we have assumed—as is generally permissible—that the enemy is a single power. But having made the point that the defeat of the enemy consists in overcoming the resistance concentrated in his center of gravity, we must abandon this assumption and examine the case when there is more than one enemy to defeat.
     If two or more states combine against another, the result is still politically speaking a single war. But this political unity is a matter of degree. The question is then whether each state is pursuing an independent interest and has its own independent means of doing so, or whether the interests and forces of most of the allies are subordinate to those of the leader. The more this is the case, the easier will it be to regard all our opponents as a single entity, hence all the easier to concentrate our principal enterprise into one great blow. If this is at all feasible it will be much the most effective means to victory.
     I would, therefore, state it as a principle that if you can vanquish all your enemies by defeating one of them, that defeat must be the main objective in the war. In this one enemy we strike at the center of gravity of the entire conflict.
     There are very few cases where this conception is not applicable—where it would not be realistic to reduce several centers of gravity to one. Where this is not so, there is admittedly no alternative but to act as if there were two wars or even more, each with its own object. This assumes the existence of several independent opponents, and consequently great superiority on their part. When this is the case, to defeat the enemy is out of the question.