On War - title image

Carl von Clausewitz

[Table of Contents]

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.

Book Cover, ON WATERLOOOn Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow (, 2010). ISBN: 1453701508. This book is built around a new and complete translation of Clausewitz's study of the Waterloo campaign [Berlin: 1835], a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it. Clausewitz's Der Felzug von 1815 was written late in his life and its findings were never incorporated into On War, so most readers will find it new material.

Jolles translation, book coverBuy 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.

On War, Princeton ed.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.

Book coverDecoding 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.


A.— Influence of the Political Object on the Military Object


WE never find that a State joining in the cause of another State, takes it up with the same earnestness as its own. An auxiliary army of moderate strength is sent; if it is not successful, then the ally looks upon the affair as in a manner ended, and tries to get out of it on the cheapest terms possible.

In European politics it has been usual for States to pledge themselves to mutual assistance by an alliance offensive and defensive, not so far that the one takes part in the interests and quarrels of the other, but only so far as to promise one another beforehand the assistance of a fixed, generally very moderate, contingent of troops, without regard to the object of the war, or the scale on which it is about to be carried on by the principals. In a treaty of alliance of this kind, the ally does not look upon himself as engaged with the enemy in a war properly speaking, which should necessarily begin with a declaration of war, and end with a treaty of peace. Still, this idea also is nowhere fixed with any distinctness, and usage varies one way and another.

The thing would have a kind of consistency, and it would be less embarrassing to the theory of war if this promised contingent of ten, twenty, or thirty thousand men was handed over entirely to the state engaged in war, so that it could be used as required; it might then be regarded as a subsidised force. But the usual practice is widely different. Generally the auxiliary force has its own commander, who depends only on his own government, and to whom they prescribe an object such as best suits the shilly-shally measures they have in view.

But even if two States go to war with a third, they do not always both look in like measure upon this common enemy as one that they must destroy or be destroyed by themselves, the business is often settled like a commercial transaction; each, according to the amount of the risk he incurs or the advantage to be expected, takes shares in the concern to the extent of 30,000 or 40,000 men, and acts as if he could not lose more than the amount of his investment.

Not only is this the point of view taken when a State comes to the assistance of another in a cause in which it has in a manner, little concern, but even when both allies have a common and very considerable interest at stake, nothing can be done except under diplomatic reservation, and the contracting parties usually only agree to furnish a small stipulated contingent, in order to employ the rest of the forces according to the special ends to which policy may happen to lead them.

This way of regarding wars entered into by reason of alliances was quite general, and was only obliged to give place to the natural way in quite modern times, when the extremity of danger drove men's minds into the natural direction (as in the wars against Buonaparte), and when the most boundless power compelled them to it (as under Buonaparte). It was an abnormal thing, an anomaly, for war and peace are ideas which in their foundation can have no gradations; nevertheless it was no mere diplomatic offspring which the reason could look down upon, but deeply rooted in the natural limitedness and weakness of human nature.

Lastly, even in wars carried on without allies, the political cause of a war has a great influence on the method in which it is conducted.

If we only require from the enemy a small sacrifice, then we content ourselves with aiming at a small equivalent by the war, and we expect to attain that by moderate efforts. The enemy reasons in very much the same way. Now, if one or the other finds that he has erred in his reckoning—that in place of being slightly superior to the enemy, as he supposed, he is, if anything, rather weaker, still, at that moment, money and all other means, as well as sufficient moral impulse for greater exertions are very often deficient: in such a case he just does what is called "the best he can;" hopes better things in the future, although he has not the slightest foundation for such hope, and the war, in the mean time drags itself feebly along, like a body worn out with sickness.

Thus it comes to pass that the reciprocal action, the rivalry, the violence and impetuosity of war lose themselves in the stagnation of weak motives, and that both parties move with a certain kind of security in very circumscribed spheres.

If this influence of the political object is once permitted, as it then must be, there is no longer any limit, and we must be pleased to come down to such warfare as consists in a mere threatening of the enemy and in negotiating.

That the theory of war, if it is to be and to continue a philosophical study, finds itself here in a difficulty is clear. All that is essentially inherent in the conception of war seems to fly from it, and it is in danger of being left without any point of support. But the natural outlet soon shows itself. According as a modifying principle gains influence over the act of war, or rather, the weaker the motives to action become, the more the action will glide into a passive resistance, the less eventful it will become, and the less it will require guiding principles. All military art then changes itself into mere prudence, the principal object of which will be to prevent the trembling balance from suddenly turning to our disadvantage, and the half war from changing into a complete one.

B.— War is an Instrument of Policy

HAVING made the requisite examination on both sides of that state of antagonism in which the nature of war stands with relation to other interests of men individually and of the bond of society, in order not to neglect any of the opposing elements,—an antagonism which is founded in our own nature, and which, therefore, no philosophy can unravel,—we shall now look for that unity into which, in practical life, these antagonistic elements combine themselves by partly neutralising each other. We should have brought forward this unity at the very commencement, if it had not been necessary to bring out this contradiction very plainly, and also to look at the different elements separately. Now, this unity is the conception that war is only a part of political intercourse, therefore by no means an independent thing in itself.

We know, certainly, that war is only called forth through the political intercourse of Governments and nations; but in general it is supposed that such intercourse is broken off by war, and that a totally different state of things ensues, subject to no laws but its own.

We maintain, on the contrary: that war is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with a mixture of other means. We say, mixed with other means, in order thereby to maintain at the same time that this political intercourse does not cease by the war itself, is not changed into something quite different, but that, in its essence, it continues to exist, whatever may be the form of the means which it uses, and that the chief lines on which the events of the war progress, and to which they are attached, are only the general features of policy which run all through the war until peace takes place. And how can we conceive it to be otherwise? Does the cessation of diplomatic notes stop the political relations between different nations and Governments? Is not war merely another kind of writing and language for political thoughts? It has certainly a grammar of its own, but its logic is not peculiar to itself.

Accordingly, war can never be separated from political intercourse, and if, in the consideration of the matter, this is done in any way, all the threads of the different relations are, to a certain extent, broken, and we have before us a senseless thing without an object.

This kind of idea would be indispensable even if war was perfect war, the perfectly unbridled element of hostility, for all the circumstances on which it rests, and which determine its leading features, viz., our own power, the enemy's power, allies on both sides, the characteristics of the people and their Governments respectively, etc., as enumerated in the first chapter of the first book,—are they not of a political nature, and are they not so intimately connected with the whole political intercourse that it is impossible to separate them?—But this view is doubly indispensable if we reflect that real war is no such consistent effort tending to an extreme, as it should be according to the abstract idea, but a half and half thing, a contradiction in itself; that, as such, it cannot follow its own laws, but must be looked upon as a part of another whole,—and this whole is policy.

Policy in making use of war avoids all those rigorous conclusions which proceed from its nature; it troubles itself little about final possibilities, confining its attention to immediate probabilities. If much uncertainty in the whole action ensues therefrom, if it thereby becomes a sort of game, the policy of each cabinet places its confidence in the belief that in this game it will surpass its neighbour in skill and sharpsightedness.

Thus policy makes out of the all-overpowering element of war a mere instrument, changes the tremendous battle-sword, which should be lifted with both hands and the whole power of the body to strike once for all, into a light handy weapon, which is even sometimes nothing more than a rapier to exchange thrusts and feints and parries.

Thus the contradictions in which man, naturally timid, becomes involved by war, may be solved, if we choose to accept this as a solution.

If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form.

In this way of viewing the subject, therefore, we need not shut out of sight the absolute form of war, we rather keep it continually in view in the back ground.

Only through this kind of view, war recovers unity; only by it can we see all wars as things of one kind; and it is only through it that the judgment can obtain the true and perfect basis and point of view from which great plans may be traced out and determined upon.

It is true the political element does not sink deep into the details of war, Vedettes are not planted, patrols do not make their rounds from political considerations, but small as is its influence in this respect, it is great in the formation of a plan for a whole war, or a campaign, and often even for a battle.

For this reason we were in no hurry to establish this view at the commencement. While engaged with particulars, it would have given us little help; and, on the other hand, would have distracted our attention to a certain extent; in the plan of a war or campaign it is indispensable.

There is, upon the whole, nothing more important in life than to find out the right point of view from which things should be looked at and judged of, and then to keep to that point; for we can only apprehend the mass of events in their unity from one standpoint; and it is only the keeping to one point of view that guards us from inconsistency.

If, therefore, in drawing up a plan of a war it is not allowable to have a two-fold or three-fold point of view, from which things may be looked at, now with the eye of a soldier, then with that of an administrator, and then again with that of a politician, etc., then the next question is, whether policy is necessarily paramount, and everything else subordinate to it.

That policy unites in itself, and reconciles all the interests of internal administrations, even those of humanity, and whatever else are rational subjects of consideration, is presupposed, for it is nothing in itself, except a mere representative and exponent of all these interests towards other States. That policy may take a false direction, and may promote unfairly the ambitious ends, the private interests, the vanity of rulers, does not concern us here; for, under no circumstances can the art of war be regarded as its preceptor, and we can only look at policy here as the representative of the interests generally of the whole community.

The only question, therefore, is, whether in framing plans for a war the political point of view should give way to the purely military (if such a point is conceivable), that is to say, should disappear altogether, or subordinate itself to it, or whether the political is to remain the ruling point of view, and the military to be considered subordinate to it.

That the political point of view should end completely when war begins, is only conceivable in contests which are wars of life and death, from pure hatred: as wars are in reality, they are as we before said, only the expressions or manifestations of policy itself. The subordination of the political point of view to the military would be contrary to common sense, for policy has declared the war; it is the intelligent faculty, war only the instrument, and not the reverse. The subordination of the military point of view to the political is, therefore, the only thing which is possible.

If we reflect on the nature of real war, and call to mind what has been said in the third chapter of this book, that every war should be viewed above all things according to the probability of its character, and its leading features as they are to be deduced from the political forces and proportions, and that often—indeed we may safely affirm, in our days, almost always—war is to be regarded as an organic whole, from which the single branches are not to be separated, in which therefore every individual activity flows into the whole, and also has its origin in the idea of this whole, then it becomes certain and palpable to us that the superior stand-point for the conduct of the war, from which its leading lines must proceed, can be no other than that of policy.

From this point of view the plans come, as it were, out of a cast; the apprehension of them and the judgment upon them become easier and more natural, our convictions respecting them gain in force, motives are more satisfying, and history more intelligible.

At all events, from this point of view, there is no longer in the nature of things a necessary conflict between the political and military interests, and where it appears it is therefore to be regarded as imperfect knowledge only. That policy makes demands on the war which it cannot respond to, would be contrary to the supposition that it knows the instrument which it is going to use, therefore, contrary to a natural and indispensable supposition. But if it judges correctly of the march of military events, it is entirely its affair, and can be its only to determine what are the events and what the direction of events most favourable to the ultimate and great end of the war.

In one word, the art of war in its highest point of view is policy, but, no doubt, a policy which fights battles, instead of writing notes.

According to this view, to leave a great military enterprise, or the plan for one, to a purely military judgment and decision, is a distinction which cannot be allowed, and is even prejudicial; indeed, it is an irrational proceeding to consult professional soldiers on the plan of a war, that they may give a purely military opinion upon what the cabinet should do; but still more absurd is the demand of Theorists that a statement of the available means of war should be laid before the general, that he may draw out a purely military plan for the war or for a campaign, in accordance with those means. Experience in general also teaches us that notwithstanding the multifarious branches and scientific character of military art in the present day, still the leading outlines of a war are always determined by the cabinet, that is, if we would use technical language, by a political not a military functionary.

This is perfectly natural. None of the principal plans which are required for a war can be made without an insight into the political relations; and, in reality, when people speak, as they often do, of the prejudicial influence of policy on the conduct of a war, they say in reality something very different to what they intend. It is not this influence but the policy itself which should be found fault with. If policy is right, that is, if it succeeds in hitting the object, then it can only act on the war in its sense, with advantage also; and if this influence of policy causes a divergence from the object, the cause is only to be looked for in a mistaken policy.

It is only when policy promises itself a wrong effect from certain military means and measures, an effect opposed to their nature, that it can exercise a prejudicial effect on war by the course it prescribes. Just as a person in a language with which he is not conversant sometimes says what he does not intend, so policy, when intending right, may often order things which do not tally with its own views.

This has happened times without end, and it shows that a certain knowledge of the nature of war is essential to the management of political commerce.

But before going further, we must guard ourselves against a false interpretation of which this is very susceptible. We are far from holding the opinion that a war minister, smothered in official papers, a scientific engineer, or even a soldier who has been well tried in the field, would, any of them, necessarily make the best minister of State where the sovereign does not act for himself; or in other words, we do not mean to say that this acquaintance with the nature of war is the principal qualification for a war minister; elevation, superiority of mind, strength of character, these are the principal qualifications which he must possess; a knowledge of war may be supplied in one way or the other. France was never worse advised in its military and political affairs than by the two Brothers Belleisle and the Duke of Choiseul, although all three were good soldiers.

If war is to harmonise entirely with the political views and policy, to accommodate itself to the means available for war, there is only one alternative to be recommended when the statesman and soldier are not combined in one person, which is, to make the chief commander a member of the cabinet, that he may take part in its councils and decisions on important occasions. But then again, this is only possible when the cabinet, that is the government itself, is near the theatre of war, so that things can be settled without a serious waste of time.

This is what the Emperor of Austria did in 1809, and the allied sovereigns in 1813, 1814, 1815, and the arrangement proved completely satisfactory.

The influence of any military man except the General-in Chief in the cabinet, is extremely dangerous; it very seldom leads to able vigorous action. The example of France in 1793, 1794, 1795, when Carnot, while residing in Paris, managed the conduct of the war, is to be avoided, as a system of terror is not at the command of any but a revolutionary government.

We shall now conclude with some reflections derived from history.

In the last decennary of the past century, when that remarkable change in the art of war in Europe took place by which the best armies found that a part of their method of war had become utterly unserviceable, and events were brought about of a magnitude far beyond what any one had any previous conception of, it certainly appeared that a false calculation of everything was to be laid to the charge of the art of war. It was plain that while confined by habit within a narrow circle of conceptions, she had been surprised by the force of a new state of relations, lying, no doubt, outside that circle, but still not outside the nature of things.

Those observers who took the most comprehensive view, ascribed the circumstance to the general influence which policy had exercised for centuries on the art of war, and undoubtedly to its very great disadvantage, and by which it had sunk into a half-measure, often into mere sham fighting. They were right as to fact, but they were wrong in attributing it to something accidental, or which might have been avoided.

Others thought that everything was to be explained by the momentary influence of the particular policy of Austria, Prussia, England, etc., with regard to their own interests respectively.

But is it true that the real surprise by which men's minds were seized, was confined to the conduct of war, and did not rather relate to policy itself? That is, as we should say: did the ill success proceed from the influence of policy on the war, or from a wrong policy itself?

The prodigious effects of the French revolution abroad were evidently brought about much less through new methods and views introduced by the French in the conduct of war than through the changes which it wrought in state-craft and civil administration, in the character of governments, in the condition of the people, etc. That other governments took a mistaken view of all these things; that they endeavoured, with their ordinary means, to hold their own against forces of a novel kind, and overwhelming in strength; all that was a blunder in policy.

Would it have been possible to perceive and mend this error by a scheme for the war from a purely military point of view? Impossible. For if there had been, even in reality, a philosophical strategist, who merely from the nature of the hostile elements, had foreseen all the consequences, and prophesied remote possibilities, still it would have been purely impossible to have turned such wisdom to account.

If policy had risen to a just appreciation of the forces which had sprung up in France, and of the new relations in the political state of Europe, it might have foreseen the consequences, which must follow in respect to the great features of war, and it was only in this way that it could arrive at a correct view of the extent of the means required as well as of the best use to make of those means.

We may therefore say, that the twenty years' victories of the revolution are chiefly to be ascribed to the erroneous policy of the governments by which it was opposed.

It is true these errors first displayed themselves in the war, and the events of the war completely disappointed the expectations which policy entertained. But this did not take place because policy neglected to consult its military advisers. That art of war in which the politician of the day could believe, namely, that derived from the reality of war at that time, that which belonged to the policy of the day, that familiar instrument which policy had hitherto used— that art of war, I say, was naturally involved in the error of policy, and therefore could not teach it anything better. It is true that war itself underwent important alterations both in its nature and forms, which brought it nearer to its absolute form; but these changes were not brought about because the French Government had, to a certain extent, delivered itself from the leading-strings of policy; they arose from an altered policy, produced by the French Revolution, not only in France, but over the rest of Europe as well. This policy had called forth other means and other powers, by which it became possible to conduct war with a degree of energy which could not have been thought of otherwise.

Therefore, the actual changes in the art of war are a consequence of alterations in policy; and, so far from being an argument for the possible separation of the two, they are, on the contrary, very strong evidence of the intimacy of their connexion.

Therefore, once more: war is an instrument of policy; it must necessarily bear its character, it must measure with its scale: the conduct of war, in its great features, is therefore policy itself, which takes up the sword in place of the pen, but does not on that account cease to think according to its own laws.


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