| This article originally appeared in Joint Forces Quarterly, Winter 1995-96.
It is reproduced here with the permission of JFQ.
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WAR AND POLITICS:
THE REVOLUTION IN MILITARY
CONTINUED RELEVANCE OF
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
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:
FIG.1. Clausewitz's Remarkable
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
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,
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
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
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
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