A Prussian in the United States
By Andreas Herberg Rothe

[This is a rough English translation of the original MS of an article that appeared in the journal Europäische Sicherheit in October 2003.]

Carl von Clausewitz, so far the most important and outstanding theoretician of war, stands – not for the first time – in the spotlight of political debate. The present argument around Clausewitz has, however, a strategic character for the future discourse on war and force. The desicive question is, whether the “new wars” (Mary Kaldor) can still be seized adequately in Clausewitz’ categories. While for Clausewitz war is a means for a pre-determined purpose, for current warlords it mutates to a purpose which only serves its own. Clausewitzian theory is said to be allegedly restricted to war between states, and thus no longer applicable to the new forms of the war, which are essentially irregular fights for identity and existence. In particular, Clausewitz’s view of the primacy of policy over warfare, as the world-famous formula has come to be expressed, seems to be outdated by the new forms of war as well as the increasing meaninglessness of Politics

In the present discourse on the new forms of war Clausewitz stands representatively for the “old form” of war. Besides, in order to clarify the difference to the new forms of the war he is reduced to the indiscernibility of a few key words. The anti-Clausewitz effect is a discursive strategy, which replaces an independent reason for own, often doubtful positions in numerous cases. This becomes particularly clear in case of two of the earliest and at the same time most influential protagonists of a fundamental paradigm change in the political theory of the war, John Keegan and Martin van Creveld. Keegan on the one hand aims at returning to forms of a “primitive warfare” of modern states in times of means of massdestruction. In order to become better fair the phenomenon of the war, van Creveld on the other hand stresses not only the necessity for the development of an anti-Clausewitzian theory, but describes in desirable clarity that his position is purely Nietzche. Ideas expressing that only the fight by force would give sense to the human life, therefore no longer prove an incomprehensible background music of a correct analysis of the present developments, but reveal the fundamental conditions of van Creveld’s anti-Clausewitz paradigm changes. Now this change of the discourse around Clausewitz has also entered politics itself.

Carl von Clausewitz experienced an undreamt-of renaissance in the USA since the lost Vietnam War. His theory proved to be the crucial starting point for understanding the traumatic defeat. Colin Powell emphasized that the thoughts of Prussian Carl von Clausewitz were like a revelation for him. Clausewitz’s work On War was like a ray of light from the past that could illuminate also military problems of the present, he said. Clausewitz wrote that one reasonably should not begin any war without beeing absolutely clear, what one wants to reach in it. Powell commented: Error number one in Vietnam. This caused fundamental error number two in his view. The political guidance must give not only a war goal, which the army seeks to reach, but the population must support the war as well. In Vietnam all three sides, government, army and population looked what the others were doing and answers have been looked for, which nobody of them could give. Michael Handel, the strategist under the NeoClausewitzians, summarized that although the political guidance had further the primacy, another principle of Clausewitz was forgotten. This principle reads the fact that the political guidance must be conscious about one thing - which can carry military affairs out, what is militarily feasible and which exceeds its possibilities. This problem is today the quintessential point of the argument between Secretariy of Defense Rumsfeld and the former general and current Minister of Foreign Affairs Colin Powell: While Rumsfeld set obviously on the fact that due to the military strength of the USA, it could be done without allies, Powell knows that sometimes force can be eliminated only by still more force. Straight one as a soldier for many years he is more exactly conscious about the problem that liberty and order as well as a civilian society, are to be manufactured not by force only but that they require cooperative mechanisms.

However, Clausewitz world-famous formula does not form the theoretical background of the considerations of the latest NeoClausewitzians around Powell, but Clausewitz’ so-called “fascinating trinity.” This consists of three elements: primordial violence; the interplay of probability and chance; and the subordination of war as a tool of policy. It is noticeable that in this fascinating trinity the primacy of policy is repeated on the one hand, but at the same time is it only one of three tendencies that are equal in principle, as Clausewitz emphasizes. In the American literature, no agreement exists over how these conflicting tendencies of the fascinating trinity, from which for Clausewitz each war is compounded, are to be determined more exactly. (Some interpret them as comprising people, army, and government, others as irrationality, creativity, and rationality. My own opinion is that these forces are those of violence, fight and the primacy of policy.) Nonetheless, this trinity was the starting point for the renewal of military affairs on the theoretical level after the Vietnam War. This became apparent not only in the tremendous significance of Clausewitz in the general staff training like those of the officer corps at all, but his theory is also starting point of the military and war-guiding doctrines of the individual branches of service, in particular that of the US Marine Corps (which has been written, for example, by Christopher Bassford, one of the new NeoClausewitzians and editor of the the Clausewitz homepage www.clausewitz.com). Moreover, the fundamental difference between linear warfare (between regular armies) and nonlinear warfare (in which networks and not-hierarchically organized opponents are being fought), is intensively discussed in the USA on the basis of Clausewitz’ stress on friction in war, as Bassford emphazises. Scientifically this Clausewitz renaissance was supported by Peter Paret’s innovative book Clausewitz and the State (first published in 1976, not accidentally only three years after the Vietnam-desaster) as well as his following translation of Clausewitz’s major work On War which made a new quality in the interpretation of Clausewitz possible.

Clausewitz’s influence became particularly clear in the so-called Weinberger-Powell doctrine. (Weinberger was Secretary of Defense under Reagan, then-General Colin Powell his assistant.) This consisted of six points:

Test One: Is a vital national interest at stake?

The United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies.

Test Two: Will we commit enough forces to win?

If we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning.

Test Three: Do we have clearly defined political and military objectives?
If we decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives.

Test Four: Will we reassess and adjust our forces as necessary?

The relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed--their size, composition, and disposition--must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.

Test Five: Will Congress and the American people support the action?

Before the United States commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their
elected representatives in Congress.

Test Six: Is the use of force our last resort?

Powell commented on his own and Weinberger’s doctrine with the words: “Clausewitz would have applauded.”

Differently Donald Rumsfeld, who explicitly modified Clausewitz’s world-famous formula of war as the continuation of the policy with other means. He argues that one conducts 21st-century war no longer alone with other, thus military means, but with all means, be they economic, information-technological or other. Like in the past extensive politico-military transformations become obvious by slight changes in Clausewitz’ formula and a new interpretation of his theory. The problem of the break with Clausewitz, going beyond military-strategic reasons, raises fundamental questions. Rumsfeld’s appearingly slight modification of Clausewitz contained in last consequence a reversal of his formula of the war as continuation of the policy with other means.The question is whether there remains any difference between the civil society and a society at war, when all elements of the civil society are subordinated under the  purpose of defeating your enemies. In the long run politics and any civil society become the continuation of war – as Foucault and his ancestor Nietzsche and their descendent van Creveld have told us before. The contrast between the Rumsfeld doctrine and that of Powell becomes clearest in one sentence. While the Weinberger-Powell doctrine understands war explicitly as the last resort of policy, that of Rumsfeld could be summarized as: “Do everything you need to do first.” But this approach neglects any strategic dimension and exspecially the planning of the political and social circumstances of the situation after the war, the real purpose we are fighting for.

If we don’t use Clausewitz’ well known (but reductionist) formula as the decisive basis of our reflections but his own result for theory, the trinity, he remains not only further valid. In addition, his theory with the trinity as basic assumption describes each war if we extend the term of politics, Clausewitz used. Is in Clausewitz’ theory each war compound from the three simultaneously conflicting and interacting elements of violence, fight and the primacy of policy, this explains, why he could be suggested again and again to be outdated, but could always celebrate his revival. Because Clausewitz’ theory is becoming reduced by his interpreters and critics to only one of these three aspects, he seems to be outdated with fundamental transformations in this one range. For instance, due to the changes in the nuclear era he was dismissed in the sixties, but experienced his first renaissance through Raymond Aron and the NeoClausewitzians in the United States in their stress of the primacy of policy. In contrast to this, Clausewitz is outdated for his sharpest current critics, van Creveld and Keegan, because the third aspect of the fascinating trinity, which settled on the primacy of policy, in many cases no longer concerns states in their conduct of war. Now the latest NeoClausewitzians in the USA state again that the decisive point is only the crucial fight by force, independently of the social players in this fight. For this, Antulio Echevarria wrote, at present Director of Strategic Research at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College: “Clausewitz’s theory of war will remain valid as long as warlords, drug barons, international terrorists, racial or religious communities will wage war.”

In order to harmonize this position with the Clausewitz text, his term of politics must be interpreted extremely far. It means in this interpretation rather the political-social constitution of a community. Since in this way, however, the difference between “Politics” of states and the values of  respective communities, which lead the war, would be lost. So it would make sense to supplement the primacy of policy as general category by the affiliation of the fighters to a comprehensive community. If these communities are states, one can speak of politics in the modern sense, if they are racial, religious or other communities, the value systems and goals of these communities are more coining. If we  start with Clausewitz’s (a little bit modified) fascinating trinity of war, consisting of the primordial violence, the fight of two or several opponents as well as the affiliation of the fighters to a political, social or religious community, he is of importance for the analysis of wars not only today and for the entire 21st century. He formulates also a crucial reminder. Clausewitz stressed that, in his Russian campaign, Napoleon Bonaparte—who Clausewitz sarcastically called the “God of War”—won each individual battle of the war. At the end of this war he was nevertheless the defeated one and had to return to Paris like a beggar, without his destroyed army. Altogether, in almost twenty years of war, Napoleon lost only three large battles—and nevertheless lost everything, since he provoked by the primacy of military success more resistance than his still very large army, the largest which the world at that time had seen, could fight. Despite his military genius, Napoleon was missing a fundamental characteristic: He was not a great statesman. Both qualities collected would have been necessary, in order to arrange from military strength a durable order of peace.

Andreas Herberg Rothe, private lecturer at the Institute of Social Sciences of the Humboldt University, most recently published Das Rätsel Clausewitz: Politische Theorie des Krieges im Widerstreit (München, 2001) and Der Krieg: Geschichte und Gegenwart (Frankfurt: Campus-Einführungen, 2003).

Second part:

What can we learn furthermore from this very old Prussian, who died in 1830.Although there are tendencies within the current world society not to let war be conceivable as a purpose objective-resources relation, but rather to express violence as a form of life, it does not at all mean that the civilian states must adapt to this paradigm.

This would be the case with an additional assumption only: Martin van Creveld's position for instance appears to be defined by one Napoleon's maxim picked up by Carl Schmitt: only partisans help against the partisans. In other words: to successfully withstand and sustain future intervention wars both outside as well as inside of the state territory, it is necessary that the states or rather nations and communities come closer to the irregular way of fight of their enemies and give up especially the separation of combatants and non-combatants. With respect to the war in Vietnam, van Creveld argues explicitly that the American Army dissolves itself increasingly and therefore lost this war, being destroyed by a dilemma: the moral claim of following of the differentiation between combatants and non-combatants and of the warfare conventions corresponding with this claim on the one hand, and of the practical impossibility to follow these rules truly and effectively during a guerilla war on the other. Although following of this differentiation during future intervention wars and presumably fewer wars between the states which cannot, however, be excluded will be especially difficult, that must not mean to forget it up front. A civilian society and this society accompanying state cannot, in principle, give up this basic differentiation without putting themselves in question.  The differentiation of "civilian" and "military" and connected legitimate and illegitimate application of force, however controversial and disputed this problem may be, is the basis of every civilian society, of the society as such. Here too, Clausewitz represents the decisive antithesis to van Creveld. If the early Clausewitz were supporter of the Napoleonic strategy of extermination of the enemy and unleashed violence as a consequence of his overwhelming military success against the Prussian troops at Jena, he came to the contradictory conclusion because of the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo. Exactly the same strategy substantiating Napoleon's early success, led to his own disaster. Clausewitz came to the conclusion that the priority of fight and unleashed violence in war may be militarily successful short-term, in the long run, however, lead not only to a defeat, but to a complete decline as long as they remain tied to priority of the politics, according to the analysis of the final defeat of Napoleon. Clausewitz's analysis of Waterloo anticipates the one of Stalingrad.

The paradoxical about the criticism of Clausewitz is that it could be answered just by himself. Because quite obviously the early Clausewitz, supporter of Napoleon's strategy and of the extermination principle as military means, is criticized for instance by Keegan. On the contrary, van Creveld's polemics is aimed at the later Clausewitz, who emphasized the antithesis between limited and unlimited warfare, which became the critical point of his (not carried out) intention to rework his whole work. In this respect, Keegan's criticism could be answered by referencing the later Clausewitz, van Creveld's criticism on the other hand, with reference to the early one. But first of all both show how the current approaches of development of a non-Clausewitz theory of war move within a field of antithesis, pegged out by just the early and later Clausewitz himself. Although the early Clausewitz was orientated towards the Napoleonic strategy of unconditional offensive and extermination of the enemy and not only towards his military defeat, the position of the later Clausewitz was defined by other priorities, resulting from Napoleon's defeats. Now the difference between a limited and unlimited warfare and the insight of the necessity of war limitation became the focal point of his thinking. There are four fundamental antitheses between the early and later Clausewitz to emphasize, which are still the central point of today's discussion.

a. The priority of violence and fight or of the politics

b. The existential warfare, or rather such, regarding own identity of the early, compared to the instrumental view of war of the later Clausewitz.

c. The unleashed violence, according to the early Clausewitz the principle of extermination, as means of a military success in contrast to the priority of limited warfare or limitation of violence during wars.

d. The abolishment of the separation of combatants from non-combatants in contrast to reestablishment of this fundamental difference according to later Clausewitz.

In spite of both unarguable limits and questionable positions, Clausewitz used theseantitheses to create a discursive field within which the theory of war moves still today – at least in its essential part. In contrast to popular interpretations towards the end of his life, on the grounds of his contradictory war experience he took the appropriate logical step. In his "Result for the Theory" he interprets war as "odd Trinity," as chameleon assembled from three contradictory tendencies, from "the initial violence" of war, from the peculiarities of the fight as well as from the subordinated nature of war as political tool. One thing makes this "odd Trinity" stand out up front: although Clausewitz explicitly repeats the priority of politics in it – this priority is at the same time only one of three basically equal tendencies making up every war. In the hitherto interpretations, only one side of this conflict of antitheses, which Clausewitz saw every war characterized with, has almost always been made absolute – be it the priority of politics or the alleged extermination principle. An attempt is currently being made to resolve this conflict of contradictory tendencies within war, in favor of the fight and violence. Nevertheless, should these categories be analytically appropriate to describe the undisputed developments of the current world society and should new answers be needed, they would not be suitable as instructions for other states' actions. Even though Clausewitz's political concept cannot be used directly anymore today, the relation of politics and war as he described it in conflict of tendencies of war applies still today. In whatever way the new relations between war and violence in the world society are described - most probably they can be interpreted as neo-Carl-Schmitt wars, due to their decisive part represented by intensified friend-foe relation of communities - the Clausewitz's theory remains the point of reference for actions of states and civilian societies.

This, however, on condition of a reconstruction not limited to   catchwords, but interpreting Clausewitz's approach as a discourse of contradictory tendencies within which also the current changes take place. Should, however, the existing states, because of a short-term military success, be orientated towards a non-Clausewitz warfare symbolized by Nietzsche, they would, exactly because of this, first create the violent conditions which are already reality in today's Black Africa.