This article originally appeared in Joint Forces Quarterly, Winter 1995-96. It is reproduced here with the permission of JFQ.

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by Antulio J. Echevarria II

Within the last two years historians and students of war have thought hard and written extensively about what the US military community now calls the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). The military's leading journals have recently published articles discussing the RMA's nature and its impact on future war—an emphasis on speed, precision, and intelligence rather than the mass production and target saturation so characteristic of industrial-age warfare. Likewise, literature from think tanks like the Strategic Studies Institute has soberly and thoroughly explored such issues as the RMA's impact on the structure and philosophy of the 21st-Century Army, on the execution of conflicts short of war, and on the nature and growth of information-age warfare. All are agreed that while older forms of warfare will continue to coexist with newer ones, the RMA, when it is complete, will mean that the conduct of future war will differ fundamentally from its antecedents. In its new form, future war will include soldiers with higher IQ's, knowledge-oriented weaponry, a five-dimensional battlefield (i.e., breadth, depth, height, space, and time—the ability and subsequently the need to act within the enemy's decision cycle), global envelopment, the capability to attack simultaneously and with precision at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels, and the apparent "civilianization of war" in terms of the broader public's increased direct and indirect participation in future conflict. In addition, the RMA is likely to pose serious challenges to statecraft as diplomats learn to adapt to the flow of real-time data and its impact on public opinion, and as the political limits and capabilities of future war are tested and explored.

Given the nature of this ongoing transformation, one might well ask whether the military thought of Carl von Clausewitz, developed over a hundred and seventy years ago, has anything relevant to offer to soldiers of the 21st century. Indeed, one author has recently argued that Clausewitz's wake is long overdue: "[Future] war will be fought not to pursue national interests, but to kill enemy leaders, to convert opponents to one's religion, to obtain booty, or sometimes, for simple entertainment. Thus the core of Clausewitz's philosophy of war—that states wage wars using armies in pursuit of political objectives—will disappear."*1 Other writers have maintained that nuclear weaponry, transnational constabulary warfare, counter-terrorism, counter-narcotrafficking, and the increased compartmentalization of political and military leadership evident in modern states have rendered obsolete Clausewitz's definition of war as an act of policy, and with it his tripartite conception of war.*2 We are further told that the value of Clausewitz's masterwork, On War, is diminished because of its failure to address war as a cultural phenomenon: It not only fails to explain why wars occur, it views war from only a single perspective, from within the Western nation-state paradigm.*3 This essay will argue two points: 1) the above arguments are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Clausewitz meant by politics; and 2) despite the technological changes now underway as a result of the current RMA, and those already in place due to the advent of nuclear weapons, his tripartite conception of war remains valid.

Clausewitz's description of war as a "continuation of politics (Politik) by other means" is of course well known. But it is unfortunately interpreted to mean that war is merely an act of state policy brought forth to acheive a political aim. At least part of the confusion surrounding this misunderstanding stems from the ambiguity of the German term Politik, for it means both policy and politics. But Clausewitz, too, deserves some blame, for he neglected to define in simple language how he wanted this multivalent term to be understood. Indeed, German scholars and soldiers alike have puzzled over this question since the late nineteenth century. Historian Eberhard Kessel argued, for example, that, for Clausewitz, Politik consisted of subjective and objective elements. The former pertained to the choice or choices made by the political leadership regarding the type of war to be waged and the specific aims to be pursued. The latter involved the dominant ideas, emotions, and political interrelationships unique to a given time and place.*4

In fact, Clausewitz's varied usage of Politik and the historical context within which he wrote indicate that he meant three things by the term. First, Clausewitz did intend Politik to mean policy, the extension of the will of the state, the decision to pursue a goal, political or otherwise. Second, Politik also meant politics as an external state of affairs, the strengths and weaknesses provided to a state by its geo-political position, its resources, alliances and treaties, and as an ongoing process of internal interaction between a state's key decision-making institutions and the personalities of its policy makers. Lastly, Clausewitz used Politik as an historically causative force, providing an explanatory pattern or framework for coherently viewing war's various manifestations over time.

The first of these definitions is found predominantly in On War, Chapter 1 of Book I, which discusses war's nature. Because Clausewitz's undated prefatory note (the one presumably written in 1830) indicates that he considered only this chapter to be in final form, the temptation is great not to read beyond it. But readers must resist this temptation, for, while it may appear that the essence of what Clausewitz had to say about war might be grasped at the cost of reading fifteen pages rather than 600 (or over 800 in the latest German edition), this is not the case. In fact, as one historian has pointed out, strong (though circumstantial) evidence exists suggesting that the undated note was written some time before the note of 1827, and that On War is closer to completion than Clausewitzian scholars had previously believed.*5 Thus, as Christopher Bassford has succinctly explained, those who wish to gain a "genuine understanding of Clausewitz cannot escape the task of actually reading On War."*6 Indeed, one would do well to read beyond On War to include as many of Clausewitz's other writings as possible. His notes on history and politics and his essay on "Agitation" (Umtriebe), for example, show that his thought was continually evolving, and the hefty tome On War represents barely a third of it.*7 To be sure, Clausewitz is often clearer when read in his native language, but the primary prerequisites for understanding the great philosopher of war are really patience and the will to reflect.

In any case, the last three books of On War (Defense, Attack, and War Plans) contain most of Clausewitz's mature ideas as they pertain to the influence of politics on war. They also reveal that his military thought was becoming increasingly historicist—he sought to interpret individual historical epochs on their own terms and thus understood that the people who lived and fought in the wars of the past were governed by institutions, values, beliefs and customs unique to a specific time and place. It is in his chapter on "The Scale of the Military Objective and of the Effort to be Made" (Book VIII, 3B), in particular, that Clausewitz has broadened his conception of Politik to encompass definitions 1 and 2 mentioned above. He refers to policy-making, for example, as more than a mere act of intelligence or the product of pure reason: it is "an art in the broadest meaning of the term—the faculty of using judgment to detect the most important and decisive elements in the vast array of facts and situations."*8 This judgment, in turn, Clausewitz recognized as highly subjective, influenced by the "qualities of mind and character of the men making the decision—of the rulers, statesmen, and commanders, whether these roles are united in a single individual or not."*9 States and societies, too, were not limited in form to the monarchies (whether constitutional or absolutist) and semi-rigid social heirarchies characteristic of his day, but were "determined by their times and prevailing conditions;" states, for example, can be united, sovereign entities, a "personified intelligence acting according to simple and logical rules," or merely "an agglomeration of loosely associated forces."*10 Hence, the definition applies equally well to feudal lords, drug lords, or terrorist groups. Even Europe's numerous military institutions (e.g., its armies and command structures) have "differed in the various periods" of history.*11 In fact, in his later books Clausewitz's references to the "military" indicate that he meant by that term all institutions, procedures, philosophies, and values of the military as a community.

Clausewitz used several historical examples to illustrate how policy and political forces have shaped war from antiquity to the modern age. His discussions in the chapter on "The Scale of the Objective" include the vastly different yet profoundly similar wars of conquest and plunder carried out by the semi-nomadic Tartars (or Tatars) and those of expansion prosecuted by Napoleon. Clausewitz's selection of the Tartars as an example of politics directing war is significant, for, according to Keegan and van Creveld at least, their "tribal societies" fall outside the Western nation-state paradigm.*12 The Tartar tribes originated in Central Asia along with other Turkic peoples. In the 12th and 13th centuries they were overtaken by the Mongols and mixed with them. The Tartars participated in the Mongol invasions of eastern Europe and the Middle East.*13 They also converted to Islam and participated in the Ottoman Jihads, or Holy Wars of conversion, against the West. Tartar bands even raided Prussia in 1656-7, burning hundreds of villages, killing 23,000 people and stealing 34,000 captives to serve as slaves.*14 They thus fought for booty, to convert infidels, kill enemy leaders, and for entertainment—all motives for future war according to Metz. Yet, these motives, as Clausewitz understood, were shaped by resources available to the Tartars, their geopolitical position as a composite of Turkish and Mongol nations located in Central Asia, their nomadic culture and traditions, and the religious influence of Islam. All of these factors fell under the rubric of political forces in Clausewitz's eyes.
While the systems that Tartar bands used to formulate policy might have been less sophisticated than those of Frederick the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte (this is of course debatable), they proved no less decisive in terms of their ability to develop strategies and to direct military force in pursuit of political objectives. As we can see from this example, his use of Politik gave Clausewitz a perspective on war that was both trans-historical and trans-cultural, but one that, at the same time, respected both historical and cultural uniqueness. Thus, the elements that shape policy, according to Clausewitz, are both situational and cultural, objective and subjective (or rational, nonrational and irrational, according to current political-scientific models).*15 "The aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs, will be governed by the particular characteristics of his own [geo-political] position; but they will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character."*16

With this more complete understanding of what Clausewitz meant by the term Politik, we can now turn to a more detailed consideration of his tripartite conception of war. This "remarkable or paradoxical trinity," as it is sometimes called, constitutes Clausewitz's framework, or model, for understanding war's changeable and diverse nature. Three forces or tendencies comprise it: blind emotional force, chance, and politics. "These three tendencies," he wrote, "are like three different codes of law, deeply rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another."*17 They in turn correspond to three representative bodies—the character and disposition of the populace, the skill and prowess of the military, and the wisdom and intelligence of the government:

    The Trinity
FIG.1. Clausewitz's Remarkable Trinity

Despite revolutionary advances in technology, this trinity will continue to remain relevant to future war. Nor will this relevance require the addition of technology as a fourth component in the remarkable trinity, a "squaring of the triangle," as Michael Handel has called it.*18 Advances in technology will not alter Clausewitz's framework of war because they affect war's grammar, not its logic. In other words, new technologies change only the form, not the nature of war. Clausewitz saw war as multi-dimensional and "chameleon-like," composed of subjective and objective natures. The former consisted of war's means which, since they varied according to time and place, Clausewitz considered subjective. The latter, on the other hand, encompassed the elements of violence, uncertainty, chance, and friction; and, while they embody numerous varieties and intensities, remain a constant part of war regardless of time and place. Moreover, because war was not an autonomous activity, but a social and human event, it possessed two tendencies, escalation and reciprocation, which, without the moderating influence of policy and the debilitating force of friction, tended to push warfighting itself towards a violent extreme. Thus, for Clausewitz, war might change its color like a chameleon, but its essential nature remained constant—violent, unpredictable, and prone to escalation.

Technology, in fact, resides in all three elements of the trinity without altering their basic relationship within it. Military technology, for example, might be defined as that used by a nation's armed forces for military purposes. While items like tanks and missiles fall under the military corner of the trinity, their component technologies (e.g., microchips and motherboards) generally originate within the civilian business community. Indeed, some types of technologies, namely, communications and transportation technologies, have broad application in all branches of the trinity, defying pat labels. The point is that the basic interdependency of the various components of the trinity will remain unchanged, despite revolutionary advances in technology itself. In fact, the RMA's continually evolving information and communication technologies will merely expand the immediacy—shorten the response time and heighten the sensitivity—of each component of the trinity in its interaction with the others.*19

To be sure, information technology will require an increase in the intelligence level of soldiers and civilians alike, or at least demand that they process more information in less time. But it will not change the fact that ruling bodies, whether they be recognized governments, revolutionary cells, terrorist leaders, or drug lords will make (or attempt to make) decisions regarding when, where, how, and why to apply military power. These decisions will in turn be influenced by political forces such as the power relationships provided by alliances and treaties (whether perceived or real), the effectiveness of key institutions involved in the decision-making process, and the general assumptions, beliefs, and expectations of the decision makers. Evidence concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis and that of the October 1973 War shows that even in the modern age misperceptions continue to create and/or exacerbate crisis situations.*20 Technology will speed the arrival of information (already approaching real time), it will even provide information in new forms (e.g., satellite imagery), and it may, depending on the scenario, reduce or expand the time available to make a decision. But decision makers will continue to receive that vast quantity of information through subjective filters; hence, the decisions they make will remain largely a matter of judgment, and that judgment will in turn be shaped by political forces.

Paradoxically, new military technology both increases and decreases violence, chance, uncertainty, and friction in unforeseen and uneven ways. New weapons systems make it possible for both sides to observe and strike simultaneously throughout the depth of the battlefield, thus eliminating "safe" areas. The five-dimensional battlefield means that commanders must consider defeating an attack or counterattack from any number of directions and at any time. A general "lack of immunity" will prevail as units at all echelons of command and control will endure greater risk.*21 Precision-guided weapons systems and munitions do, indeed, increase the certainty of a hit or a kill, but the weak link in their effectiveness will remain the problem of supplying them with reliable and timely target data.*22 Enemies will continue to take measures and countermeasures to prevent this, and tactics will continue to change as a result. Hence, new technology alone will not prove decisive in future war; it will require a harness of sorts—a flexible and comprehensive doctrine that fully integrates the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war. Thus, the objective nature of Clausewitz's concept of war will remain relevant to future war.

Even the development of nuclear weaponry, the so-called absolute weapon, has not meant the death of Clausewitz, as some have claimed.*23 His dictum that "war is the continuation of Politik by other means" remains as valid in nuclear conflict as it does in more conventional-style warfare. The evolution of US nuclear strategy from "massive retaliation" in the 1950s to "flexible response" in the early 1960s, for example, reveals how Politik continued to influence war even in a nuclear environment.*24 Policy makers since 1945 have duly responded to changing political situations, growing strike and counter-strike capabilities, and the general will of the populace by determining that, because of its attendant risks, nuclear war did not suit US political objectives; hence, other more conventional forms of war received greater attention while nuclear weaponry assumed a deterrence role. Policy and politics have clearly conspired to force the avoidance of nuclear war.
To be sure, the destructive power of nuclear weaponry, the prospect of runaway escalation, and the concept of "superconductivity"—the elimination of friction by reducing the chain of events that must occur between the decision to launch and the actual launch of a nuclear strike—will reduce or negate entirely the influence that policy makers can have on the conduct of actual nuclear war should it occur.*25 Obviously, until the technology is developed that can harmlessly disarm nuclear weapons while in flight, the possibility of aborting or down-scaling nuclear war once a launch is initiated remains minimal. But these realities are merely products of the times. They constitute what Clausewitz, in his historicist approach, would have called the subjective elements of war—the means selected for its prosecution—in the nuclear age; and they serve to distinguish nuclear war from other forms. It may be going too far to say that such means constitute the ultimate expression of the remarkable trinity in terms of absolute war, but not by much.

Once again, we should bear in mind that Clausewitz's mature thought does not insist that warfare serve either a purely rational or purely political aim. In any case, the definition of a rational political aim is largely subjective. Terrorist groups sometimes launch suicide bombings which they consider completely rational. Indeed, the current "world order" makes it possible to imagine a limited nuclear exchange occurring between states or groups possessing relatively small arsenals.*26 Far from limiting the influence that Politik will exert over war, such an environment will likely increase it, while at the same time admittedly reducing the amount of time policy makers may have available to act once such a strike is initiated.
In fact, nuclear weaponry will not render irrelevant the intelligence of the government, the skill of the military, and the emotive force of the populace, as some believe. Rather, the advent of such weaponry along with its attendant strategies only reveals that each of the components of the trinity has changed over time. Diplomacy has become more aware that military action of any sort might generate unintended consequences and runaway escalation, and has developed systemic checks and precautions to prevent them. The military has gradually altered its age-old warrior ethos to prize, rather than eschew, intelligence and technical expertise. The populace, too, has changed, becoming more educated and more politicized, growing increasingly sensitive to the fact that its future rests in the hands of a few chosen officials. Such developments do not invalidate Clausewitz's trinity, but speak instead to its lasting durability and intrinsic dynamism.

Of course, not all of Clausewitz's military thought has remained relevant. His vision of war did not include its economic, air, sea, and space dimensions, for example. But his conception of war, his remarkable trinity, and his grasp of the relationship between Politik and war will remain valid as long as states, drug lords, warrior clans, and terrorist groups have mind to wage it.


1. Steven Metz, "A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of
21st-Century Warfare," Parameters 24, No. 4 (Winter
1994-95): 126-32, here 130.

2. John E. Sheppard, Jr., "On War: Is Clausewitz Still
Relevant?" Parameters (September 1990): 85-99; Martin
van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: Free
Press, 1991), esp. 33-62.

3. John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1993), 11ff.

4. E. Kessel, "Zur Genesis der modernen Kriegslehren,"
Wehrwissenschaftliche Rundschau 3, No. 9 (July 1953):
405-423, esp. 410-17. See also: Hans Rothfels, Carl von
Clausewitz. Politik und Krieg. Eine ideengeschichtliche Studie
(Berlin: Dümmler, 1920). In its polemics with Hans
Delbrück, the German Great General Staff argued that war was
indeed subordinate to politics, but that political forces had
changed since Clausewitz's day. They saw politics as a
Social-Dawinistic struggle for national existence that demanded war
waged to the utmost.

5. Azar Gat, "Clausewitz's final Notes,"
Militärgeschichtliche Mitteilungen (1/89): 45-50. The
essay also appears in Azar Gat, The Origins of Military Thought
from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1989), 255-63.

6. Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of
Clausewitz in Britain and America 1815-1945 (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1994), 7.

7. These and other essays can be found in English translation in
Carl von Clausewitz, Historical and Political Writings, ed.
and trans. by Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1992).

8. On War, VIII,3B, 585.

9. On War, VIII,3B, 586.

10. On War, VIII,3B, pp. 586 and 588.

11. On War, VIII,3B, 588.

12. Keegan, esp. 11-40; and Creveld, esp. 33-62.

13. Douglas S. Benson, The Tartar War (Chicago: Maverick
Publishing, 1981).

14. F.L. Carsten, The Origins of Prussia (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1954), 208.

15. See the excellent discussion by Bassford in Clausewitz,
22-24, and his recent essay, "John Keegan and the Grand
Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz: a Polemic," War in
History I, No. 3, (1994), 319-336.

16. On War, VIII,3B, 594.

17. On War, I,1, 89.

18. Michael Handel, "Clausewitz in the Age of
Technology," in Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, ed.
Michael Handel (Totowa, NJ: Frank Cass, 1986), 58-62.

19. See also Jablonsky, 34.

20. Robert B. McCalla, Uncertain Perceptions: U.S. Cold War
Crisis Decision Making (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan
Press, 1992).

21. Avraham Rotem, "The Land Battle of the 1990s," in
Technology and Strategy: Future Trends, ed. Shai Feldman
(Jerusalem: The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1989), 56.

22. Shai Feldman, "Technology and Strategy: Concluding
Remarks," in Technology and Strategy, 130.

23. Sheppard, 88-91; and Martin van Creveld, Nuclear
Prolifieration and the Future of Conflict (New York: The Free
Press, 1993), esp. 43-64.

24. Of course, the development of US nuclear strategy does not end
there. The strategies of the early 1960s eventually gave rise to
Mutual Assured Destruction, Mutual Agreed Assured Destruction,
Carter's Countervailing Strategy, Reagan's Strategic Defense
Initiative, etc. Donald M. Snow, National Security: Enduring
Problems in a Changing Defense Environment, 2nd Ed., (New York:
St. Martin's Press, 1991); Henry S. Rowen, "The Evolution of
Strategic Nuclear Doctrine," in Strategic Thought in the
Nuclear Age, ed. Laurence Martin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1981), 131-156; and Fan Zhen Jiang, "Is War
Obsolete? A Chinese Perspective," in Essays on Strategy
VI, ed. Thomas C. Gill (Washington, DC: National Defense
University Press, 1989), 189-201.

25. Stephen J. Cimbala, Force and Diplomacy in the Future
(New York: Praeger, 1992); and Richard N. Lebow, "Clausewitz
and Crisis Stability," Political Science Quarterly 1
(Spring 1988): 81-110.

26. Jerome Kahan, Nuclear Threats from Small States
(Carlisle Barracks, Pa: US Army War College, Strategic Studies
Institute, 1994).

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