Carl von Clausewitz
NOTE: This version of Carl von Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation of Clausewitz's Vom Kriege (1832) published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the standard translation today; for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation. Consider the more modern versions and other relevant books shown below.
On Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow (Clausewitz.com, 2010). ISBN: 1453701508. This book is built around a new and complete translation of Clausewitz's study of the Waterloo campaign [Berlin: 1835], which is a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it.
Buy the best translation—recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776. Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu's Art of War in one volume. The translation of Clausewitz's On War is the 1943 version done by German literary scholar O.J. Matthijs Jolles at the University of Chicago during World War II—not today's standard translation, but certainly the most accurate.
Buy the standard English translation of Clausewitz's On War, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton University Press, 1976/84). ISBN: 0691018545 (paperback). Kindle edition. This quite readable translation appeared at the close of the Vietnam War and—principally for marketing and copyright reasons—has become the modern standard.
Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (University Press of Kansas, 2008). By Jon Tetsuro Sumida. ISBN: 9780700616169. *This is perhaps the most important recent book for anyone seeking to understand Clausewitz's thinking. Sumida contends that Clausewitz's central value lies in his method of reenacting the psychological difficulties of high command in order to promote the powers of intuition that he believed were essential to effective strategic decision-making. Sumida also correctly notes Clausewitz's argument that the defense is a stronger form of war, and goes on to explore the implications of that fact.
BOOK 1 • CHAPTER 3
The Genius for War
EVERY special calling in life, if it is to be followed with success, requires peculiar qualifications of understanding and soul. Where these are of a high order, and manifest themselves by extraordinary achievements the mind to which they belong is termed genius.
We know very well that this word is used in many significations, which are very different both in extent and nature, and that with many of these significations it is a very difficult task to define the essence of Genius; but as we neither profess to be philosopher nor grammarian, we must be allowed to keep to the meaning usual in ordinary language, and to understand by "genius" a very high mental capacity for certain employments.
We wish to stop for a moment over this faculty and dignity of the mind, in order to vindicate its title, and to explain more fully the meaning of the conception. But we shall not dwell on that (genius) which has obtained its title through a very great talent, at genius properly so-called, that is a conception which has no defined limits, and what we have to do is to bring under consideration every common tendency of the powers of the mind and soul towards the business of war, the whole of which common tendencies we may look upon as the essence of military genius. We say "common," for just therein consists military genius, that it is not one single quality bearing upon war, as, for instance, courage, while other qualities of mind and soul are wanting, or have a direction which is unserviceable for war; but that it is an harmonious association of powers, in which one or other may predominate, but none must be in opposition.
If every combatant required to be more or less endowed with military genius, then our armies would be very weak; for as it implies a peculiar bent of the intelligent powers, therefore it can only rarely be found where the mental powers of a people are called into requisition, and trained in so many different ways. The fewer the employment followed by a nation, the more that of arms predominates, so much the more prevalent military genius must also be found. But this merely applies to its prevalence, by no means to its degree, for that depends on the general state of intellectual culture in the country. If we look at a wild, warlike race, then we find a warlike spirit in individuals much more common than in a civilised people; for in the former almost every warrior possesses it; whilst in the civilised, whole masses are only carried away by it from necessity, never by inclination. But amongst uncivilised people we never find a really great general, and very seldom what we can properly call a military genius, because that requires a development of the intelligent powers which cannot be found in an uncivilised state. That a civilised people may also have a warlike tendency and development is a matter of course; and the more this is general, the more frequently also will military spirit be found in individuals in their armies. Now as this coincides in such case with the higher degree of civilisation, therefore from such nations have issued forth the most brilliant military exploits, as the Romans and the French have exemplified. The greatest names in these and in all other nations that have been renowned in war, belong strictly to epochs of higher culture.
From this we may infer how great a share the intelligent powers have in superior military genius. We shall now look more closely into this point.
War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior.
Courage is of two kinds; first, physical courage, or courage in presence of danger to the person: and next, moral courage, or courage before responsibility; whether it be before the judgment-seat of external authority, or of the inner power, the conscience. We only speak here of the first.
Courage before danger to the person, again, is of two kinds. First, it may be indifference to danger, whether proceeding from the organism of the individual, contempt of death, or habit: in any of these cases it is to be regarded as a permanent condition.
Secondly, courage may proceed from positive motives; such as personal pride, patriotism, enthusiasm of any kind. In this case courage is not so much a normal condition as an impulse.
We may conceive that the two kinds act differently. The first kind is more certain, because it has become a second nature, never forsakes the man: the second often leads him further. In the first there is more of firmness, in the second of boldness. The first leaves the judgment cooler, the second raises its power at times, but often bewilders it. The two combined make up the most perfect kind of courage.
War is the province of physical exertion and suffering. In order not to be completely overcome by them, a certain strength of body and mind is required, which, either natural or acquired, produces indifference to them. With these qualifications under the guidance of simply a sound understanding, a man is at once a proper instrument for war; and these are the qualifications so generally to be met with amongst wild and half-civilised tribes. If we go further in the demands which war makes on its votaries, then we find the powers of the understanding predominating. War is the province of uncertainty: three-fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated, are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty. Here, then, above all a fine and penetrating mind is called for, to grope out the truth by the tact of its judgment.
A common understanding may, at one time, perhaps hit upon this truth by accident: an extraordinary courage, at another time, may compensate for the want of this tact: but in the majority of cases the average result will always bring to light the deficient understanding.
War is the province of chance. In no sphere of human activity is such a margin to be left for this intruder, because none is so much in constant contact with him on all sides. He increases the uncertainty of every circumstance, and deranges the course of events.
From this uncertainty of all intelligence and suppositions, this continual interposition of chance, the actor in war constantly finds things different to his expectations; and this cannot fail to have an influence on his plans, or at least on the presumptions connected with these plans. If this influence is so great as to render the pre-determined plan completely nugatory, then, as a rule, a new one must be substituted in its place; but at the moment the necessary data are often wanting for this, because in the course of action circumstances press for immediate decision, and allow no time to look about for fresh data, often not enough for mature consideration. But it much more often happens that the correction of one premise, and the knowledge of chance events which have arisen, are not quite sufficient to overthrow our plans completely, but only suffice to produce hesitation. Our knowledge of circumstances has increased, but our uncertainty, instead of having diminished, has only increased. The reason of this is, that we do not gain all our experience at once, but by degrees; so our determinations continue to be assailed incessantly by fresh experience; and the mind, if we may use the expression, must always be under arms.
Now, if it is to get safely through this perpetual conflict with the unexpected, two qualities are indispensable: in the first place an understanding which, even in the midst of this intense obscurity, is not without some traces of inner light, which lead to the truth, and then the courage to follow this faint light. The first is figuratively expressed by the French phrase coup d'oeil. The other is resolution. As the battle is the feature in war to which attention was originally chiefly directed, and as time and space are important elements in it, and were more particularly so when cavalry with their rapid decisions were the chief arm, the idea of rapid and correct decision related in the first instance to the estimation of these two elements, and to denote the idea an expression was adopted which actually only points to a correct judgment by eye. Many teachers of the art of war also then gave this limited signification as the definition of coup d'oeil. But it is undeniable that all able decisions formed in the moment of action soon came to be understood by the expression, as for instance the hitting upon the right point of attack, etc. It is, therefore, not only the physical, but more frequently the mental eye which is meant in coup d'oeil. Naturally, the expression, like the thing, is always more in its place in the field of tactics: still, it must not be wanting in strategy, inasmuch as in it rapid decisions are often necessary. If we strip this conception of that which the expression has given it of the over figurative and restricted, then it amounts simply to the rapid discovery of a truth, which to the ordinary mind is either not visible at all or only becomes so after long examination and reflection.
Resolution is an act of courage in single instances, and if it becomes a characteristic trait, it is a habit of the mind. But here we do not mean courage in face of bodily danger, but in face of responsibility, therefore to a certain extent against moral danger. This has been often called courage d'esprit, on the ground that it springs from the understanding; nevertheless, it is no act of the understanding on that account; it is an act of feeling. Mere intelligence is still not courage, for we often see the cleverest people devoid of resolution. The mind must, therefore, first awaken the feeling of courage, and then be guided and supported by it, because in momentary emergencies the man is swayed more by his feelings than his thoughts.
We have assigned to resolution the office of removing the torments of doubt, and the dangers of delay, when there are no sufficient motives for guidance. Through the unscrupulous use of language which is prevalent, this term is often applied to the mere propensity to daring, to bravery, boldness, or temerity. But, when there are sufficient motives in the man, let them be objective or subjective, true or false, we have no right to speak of his resolution; for, when we do so, we put ourselves in his place, and we throw into the scale doubts which did not exist with him.
Here, there is no question of anything but of strength and weakness. We are not pedantic enough to dispute with the use of language about this little misapplication, our observation is only intended to remove wrong objections.
This resolution now, which overcomes the state of doubting, can only be called forth by the intellect and in fact by a peculiar tendency of the same. We maintain that the mere union of a superior understanding and the necessary feelings are not sufficient to make up resolution. There are persons who possess the keenest perception for the most difficult problems, who are also not fearful of responsibility, and yet in cases of difficulty cannot come to a resolution. Their courage and their sagacity operate independently of each other, do not give each other a hand, and on that account do not produce resolution as a result. The forerunner of resolution is an act of the mind making evident the necessity of venturing, and thus influencing the will. This quite peculiar direction of the mind, which conquers every other fear in man by the fear of wavering or doubting, is what makes up resolution in strong minds: therefore, in our opinion, men who have little intelligence can never be resolute. They may act without hesitation under perplexing circumstances, but then they act without reflection. Now of course, when a man acts without reflection he cannot be at variance with himself by doubts, and such a mode of action may now and then lead to the right point; but we say now as before, it is the average result which indicates the existence of military genius. Should our assertion appear extraordinary to any one, because he knows many a resolute hussar-officer who is no deep thinker, we must remind him that the question here is about a peculiar direction of the mind, and not about great thinking powers.
We believe, therefore, that resolution is indebted to a special direction of the mind for its existence, a direction which belongs to a strong head, rather than to a brilliant one. In corroboration of this genealogy of resolution we may add that there have been many instances of men who have shown the greatest resolution in an inferior rank, and have lost it in a higher position. While on the one hand they are obliged to resolve, on the other they see the dangers of a wrong decision, and as they are surrounded with things new to them, their understanding loses its original force, and they become only the more timid the more they become aware of the danger of the irresolution into which they have fallen, and the more they have formerly been in the habit of acting on the spur of the moment.
From the coup d'oeil and resolution, we are naturally led to speak of its kindred quality, presence of mind, which in a region of the unexpected like war must act a great part, for it is indeed nothing but a great conquest over the unexpected. As we admire presence of mind in a pithy answer to anything said unexpectedly, so we admire it in a ready expedient on sudden danger. Neither the answer nor the expedient need be in themselves extraordinary, if they only hit the point; for that which as the result of mature reflection would be nothing unusual, therefore insignificant in its impression on us, may as an instantaneous act of the mind produce a pleasing impression. The expression "presence of mind" certainly denotes very fitly the readiness and rapidity of the help rendered by the mind.
Whether this noble quality of a man is to be ascribed more to the peculiarity of his mind or to the equanimity of his feelings, depends on the nature of the case, although neither of the two can be entirely wanting. A telling repartee bespeaks rather a ready wit, a ready expedient on sudden danger implies more particularly a well-balanced mind.
If we take a general view of the four elements composing the atmosphere in which war moves, of danger, physical efforts, uncertainty, and chance, it is easy to conceive that a great force of mind and understanding are requisite to be able to make way with safety and success amongst such opposing elements, a force which, according to the different modifications arising out of circumstances, we find termed by military writers and annalists as energy, firmness, staunchness, strength of mind and character. All these manifestations of the heroic nature might be regarded as one and the same power of volition, modified according to circumstances; but nearly related as these things are to each other, still they are not one and the same, and it is desirable for us to distinguish here a little more closely at least the action of the powers of the soul in relation to them.
In the first place, to make the conception clear, it is essential to observe that the weight, burden, resistance, or whatever it may be called, by which that force of the soul in the general is brought to light, is only in a very small measure the enemy's activity, the enemy's resistance, the enemy's action directly. The enemy's activity only affects the general directly in the first place in relation to his person, without disturbing his action as commander. If the enemy, instead of two hours, resists for four, the commander instead of two hours is four hours in danger; this is a quantity which plainly diminishes the higher the rank of the commander. What is it for one in the post of commander-in-chief? It is nothing.
Secondly, although the opposition offered by the enemy has a direct effect on the commander through the loss of means arising from prolonged resistance, and the responsibility connected with that loss, and his force of will is first tested and called forth by these anxious considerations; still we maintain that this is not the heaviest burden by far which he has to bear, because he has only himself to settle with. All the other effects of the enemy's resistance act directly upon the combatants under his command, and through them re-act upon him.
As long as a troop full of good courage fights with zeal and spirit, it is seldom necessary for the chief to show great energy of purpose in the pursuit of his object. But, as soon as difficulties arise—and that must always happen when great results are at stake—then things no longer move on of themselves like a well-oiled machine, the machine itself then begins to offer resistance, and to overcome this, the commander must have a great force of will. By this resistance, we must not exactly suppose disobedience and murmurs, although these are frequent enough with particular individuals; it is the whole feeling of the dissolution of all physical and moral power, it is the heart-rending sight of the bloody sacrifice which the commander has to contend with in himself, and then, in all others who directly or indirectly transfer to him their impressions, feelings, anxieties and desires. As the forces in one individual after another become prostrated, and can no longer be excited and supported by an effort of his own will, the whole inertia of the mass gradually rests its weight on the will of the commander: by the spark in his breast, by the light of his spirit, the spark of purposes, the light of hope must be kindled afresh in others: in so far only as he is equal to this, he stands above the masses, and continues to be their master; whenever that influence ceases and his own spirit is no longer strong enough to revive the spirit of all others, the masses drawing him down with them sink into the lower region of animal nature, which shrinks from danger and knows not shame. These are the weights which the courage and intelligent faculties of the military commander have to overcome, if he is to make his name illustrious. They increase with the masses, and, therefore, if the forces in question are to continue equal to the burden, they must rise in proportion to the height of the station.
Energy in action expresses the strength of the motive through which the action is excited, let the motive have its origin in a conviction of the understanding, or in an impulse. But the latter can hardly ever be wanting where great force is to show itself.
Of all the noble feelings which fill the human heart in the exciting tumult of battle, none, we must admit, are so powerful and constant as the soul's thirst for honour and renown, which the German language treats so unfairly, and tends to depreciate by the unworthy associations in the words Ehrgeiz (greed of honour) and Ruhmsucht (hankering after glory). No doubt it is just in war that the abuse of these proud aspirations of the soul must bring upon the human race the most shocking outrages; but by their origin, they are certainly to be counted amongst the noblest feelings which belong to human nature, and in war they are the vivifying principle which gives the enormous body a spirit. Although other feelings may be more general in their influence, and many of them—such as love of country, fanaticism, revenge, enthusiasm of every kind—may seem to stand higher, the thirst for honour and renown still remains indispensable. Those other feelings may rouse the great masses in general, and excite them more powerfully, but they do not give the leader a desire to will more than others, which is an essential requisite in his position, if he is to make himself distinguished in it. They do not, like a thirst for honour, make the military act specially the property of the leader, which he strives to turn to the best account; where he ploughs with toil, sows with care, that he may reap plentifully. It is through these aspirations we have been speaking of in commanders, from the highest to the lowest, this sort of energy, this spirit of emulation, these incentives, that the action of armies is chiefly animated and made successful. And now as to that which specially concerns the head of all, we ask, Has there ever been a great commander destitute of the love of honour, or is such a character even conceivable?
Firmness denotes the resistance of the will in relation to the force of a single blow, staunchness in relation to a continuance of blows. Close as is the analogy between the two, and often as the one is used in place of the other, still there is a notable difference between them which cannot be mistaken, inasmuch as firmness against a single powerful impression may have its root in the mere strength of a feeling, but staunchness must be supported rather by the understanding, for the greater the duration of an action the more systematic deliberation is connected with it, and from this staunchness partly derives its power.
If we now turn to strength of mind or soul, then the first question is, What are we to understand thereby?
Plainly it is not vehement expressions of feeling, nor easily excited passions, for that would be contrary to all the usage of language; but the power of listening to reason in the midst of the most intense excitement, in the storm of the most violent passions. Should this power depend on strength of understanding alone? We doubt it. The fact that there are men of the greatest intellect who cannot command themselves, certainly proves nothing to the contrary; for we might say that it perhaps requires an understanding of a powerful rather than of a comprehensive nature: but we believe we shall be nearer the truth if we assume that the power of submitting oneself to the control of the understanding, even in moments of the most violent excitement of the feelings, that power which we call self-command, has its root in the heart itself. It is, in point of fact, another feeling, which, in strong minds balances the excited passions without destroying them; and it is only through this equilibrium that the mastery of the understanding is secured. This counterpoise is nothing but a sense of the dignity of man, that noblest pride, that deeply-seated desire of the soul, always to act as a being endued with understanding and reason. We may, therefore, say that a strong mind is one which does not lose its balance even under the most violent excitement.
If we cast a glance at the variety to be observed in the human character in respect to feeling, we find, first, some people who have very little excitability, who are called phlegmatic or indolent.
Secondly, some very excitable, but whose feelings still never overstep certain limits, and who are therefore known as men full of feeling, but sober-minded.
Thirdly, those who are very easily roused, whose feelings blaze up quickly and violently like gunpowder, but do not last.
Fourthly, and lastly, those who cannot be moved by slight causes, and who generally are not to be roused suddenly, but only gradually; but whose feelings become very powerful, and are much more lasting. These are men with strong passions, lying deep and latent.
This difference of character lies, probably, close on the confines of the physical powers which move the human organism, and belongs to that amphibious organisation which we call the nervous system, which appears to be partly material, partly spiritual. With our weak philosophy, we shall not proceed further in this mysterious field. But it is important for us to spend a moment over the effects which these different natures have on action in war, and to see how far a great strength of mind is to be expected from them.
Indolent men cannot easily be thrown out of their equanimity; but we cannot certainly say there is strength of mind where there is a want of all manifestation of power. At the same time it is not to be denied that such men have a certain peculiar aptitude for war, on account of their constant equanimity. They often want the positive motive to action, impulse, and consequently activity, but they are not apt to throw things into disorder.
The peculiarity of the second class is, that they are easily excited to act on trifling grounds; but in great matters they are easily overwhelmed. Men of this kind show great activity in helping an unfortunate individual; but by the distress of a whole nation they are only inclined to despond, not roused to action.
Such people are not deficient in either activity or equanimity in war: but they will never accomplish anything great unless a great intellectual force furnishes the motive, and it is very seldom that a strong, independent mind is combined with such a character.
Excitable, inflammable feelings, are in themselves little suited for practical life, and therefore they are not very fit for war. They have certainly the advantage of strong impulses, but that cannot long sustain them. At the same time, if the excitability in such men takes the direction of courage, or a sense of honour; they may often be very useful in inferior positions in war, because the action in war over which commanders in inferior positions have control, is generally of shorter duration. Here one courageous resolution, one effervescence of the forces of the soul, will often suffice. A brave attack, a soul-stirring hurrah, is the work of a few moments; whilst a brave contest on the battle-field is the work of a day, and a campaign the work of a year.
Owing to the rapid movement of their feelings, it is doubly difficult for men of this description to preserve the equilibrium of the mind; therefore they frequently lose head, and that is the worst phase in their nature as respects the conduct of war. But it would be contrary to experience to maintain that very excitable spirits can never preserve a steady equilibrium, that is, to say that they cannot do so even under the strongest excitement. Why should they not have the sentiment of self-respect, for, as a rule, they are men of a noble nature? This feeling is seldom wanting in them, but it has not time to produce an effect. After an outburst they suffer most from a feeling of inward humiliation. If through education, self-observance, and experience of life, they have learned, sooner or later, the means of being on their guard, so that at the moment of powerful excitement they are conscious, betimes, of the counteracting force within their own breasts, then even such men may have great strength of mind.
Lastly, those who are difficult to move, but on that account susceptible of very deep feelings; men who stand in the same relation to the preceding as red heat to a flame are the best adapted by means of their Titanic strength to roll away the enormous masses, by which we may figuratively represent the difficulties which beset command in war. The effect of their feelings is like the movement of a great body, slower, but more irresistible.
Although such men are not so likely to be suddenly surprised by their feelings and carried away, so as to be afterwards ashamed of themselves like the preceding, still it would be contrary to experience to believe that they can never lose their equanimity, or be overcome by blind passion; on the contrary, this must always happen whenever the noble pride of self-control is wanting or as often as it has not sufficient weight. We see examples of this most frequently in men of noble minds belonging to savage nations, where the low degree of mental cultivation favours always the dominance of the passions. But even amongst the most civilised classes in civilised states, life is full of examples of this kind—of men carried away by the violence of their passions, like the poacher of old chained to the stag in the forest.
We, therefore, say once more a strong mind is not one that is merely susceptible of strong excitement, but one which can maintain its serenity under the most powerful excitement; so that, in spite of the storm in the breast, the perception and judgment can act with perfect freedom, like the needle of the compass in the storm-tossed ship.
By the term strength of character, or simply character, is denoted tenacity of conviction, let it be the result of our own or of others' views, and whether they are principles, opinions, momentary inspirations, or any kind of emanations of the understanding; but this kind of firmness certainly cannot manifest itself if the views themselves are subject to frequent change. This frequent change need not be the consequence of external influences; it may proceed from the continuous activity of our own mind, in which case it indicates a characteristic unsteadiness of mind. Evidently we should not say of a man who changes his views every moment, however much the motives of change may originate with himself, that he has character. Only those men therefore can be said to have this quality whose conviction is very constant, either because it is deeply rooted and clear in itself, little liable to alteration, or because, as in the case of indolent men, there is a want of mental activity, and therefore a want of motives to change; or lastly, because an explicit act of the will, derived from an imperative maxim of the understanding, refuses any change of opinion up to a certain point.
Now in war, owing to the many and powerful impressions to which the mind is exposed, and, in the uncertainty of all knowledge and of all science, more things occur to distract a man from the road he has entered upon, to make him doubt himself and others, than in any other human activity.
The harrowing sight of danger and suffering easily leads to the feelings gaining ascendancy over the conviction of the understanding; and in the twilight which surrounds everything, a deep clear view is so difficult, that a change of opinion is more conceivable and more pardonable. It is, at all times, only conjecture or guesses at truth which we have to act upon. This is why differences of opinion are nowhere so great as in war, and the stream of impressions acting counter to one's own convictions never ceases to flow. Even the greatest impassibility of mind is hardly proof against them, because the impressions are powerful in their nature, and always act at the same time upon the feelings.
When the discernment is clear and deep, none but general principles and views of action from a high standpoint can be the result; and on these principles the opinion in each particular case immediately under consideration lies, as it were, at anchor. But to keep to these results of bygone reflection in opposition to the stream of opinions and phenomena which the present brings with it is just the difficulty. Between the particular case and the principle there is often a wide space which cannot always be traversed on a visible chain of conclusions, and where a certain faith in self is necessary, and a certain amount of scepticism is serviceable. Here often nothing else will help us but an imperative maxim which, independent of reflection, at once controls it: that maxim is, in all doubtful cases to adhere to the first opinion, and not to give it up until a clear conviction forces us to do so. We must firmly believe in the superior authority of well-tried maxims, and under the dazzling influence of momentary events not forget that their value is of an inferior stamp. By this preference which in doubtful cases we give to first convictions, by adherence to the same our actions acquire that stability and consistency which make up what is called character.
It is easy to see how essential a well-balanced mind is to strength of character; therefore, men of strong minds generally have a great deal of character.
Force of character leads us to a spurious variety of it—obstinacy.
It is often very difficult in concrete cases to say where the one ends and the other begins; on the other hand, it does not seem difficult to determine the difference in idea.
Obstinacy is no fault of the understanding; we use the term as denoting a resistance against our better judgment, and it would be inconsistent to charge that to the understanding, as the understanding is the power of judgment. Obstinacy is a fault of the feelings or heart. This inflexibility of will, this impatie