Alan Beyerchen, "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War," International Security , 17:3 (Winter, 1992), pp. 59-90. The full article is HERE.

©1993 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is reproduced here with the permission of the MIT Press. 


Despite the frequent invocations of his name in recent years, especially during the Gulf War, there is something deeply perplexing about the work of Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831). In particular, his unfinished magnum opus On War seems to offer a theory of war, at the same time that it perversely denies many of the fundamental preconditions of theory as such -simplification, generalization and prediction, among others. The book continues to draw the attention of both soldiers and theorists of war, although soldiers often find the ideas of Clausewitz too philosophical to appear practical, while analysts usually find his thoughts too empirical to seem elegant. Members of both groups sense that there is too much truth in what he writes to ignore him. Yet, as the historian Hans Rothfels has bluntly put it, Clausewitz is an author "more quoted than actually read." Lofty but pragmatic, by a theorist who repudiated conventional meanings of theory, On War endures as a compelling and enigmatic classic.

Just what is the difficulty with Clausewitz that makes his work so significant yet so difficult to assimilate? On War's admirers have sensed that it grapples with war's complexity more realistically than perhaps any other work. Its difficulty, however, has prompted different explanations even among Clausewitz partisans. Raymond Aron has spoken for those who believe that the incomplete and unpolished nature of On War is the primary source of misunderstanding: as Clausewitz repeatedly revises his treatise, he comes to a deeper understanding of his own ideas, but before his untimely death he brings his fully developed insights to bear only upon the final revision of Chapter 1 of Book One.

A second approach to the question is exemplified by Peter Paret's stress on the changing interpretation of any significant author over time. Clausewitz's writings have suffered more distortions than most, Paret has suggested, because abstracting this body of work from its times does violence to its insistence on unifying the universal with the historical particular. Thus for Paret the literature on Clausewitz has been "fragmented and contradictory in its findings" because of our lack of historical consciousness.

A third route to explaining the difficulties encountered in coping with On War has been typified by Michael Handel, for whom the issue is not so much changes in our interpolations as changes in warfare itself. Those aspects of On War that deal with human nature, uncertainty, politics and rational calculation "will remain eternally valid," he contended. "In all other respects technology has permeated and irreversibly changed every aspect of warfare." For Handel, the essential problem in understanding Clausewitz lies in our confrontation with a reality qualitatively different from his.

Each of these approaches has merit, yet none satisfies completely. I offer a revision of our perception of Clausewitz and his work by suggesting that Clausewitz displays an intuition concerning war that we can better comprehend with terms and concepts newly available to us: On War is suffused with the understanding that every war is inherently a nonlinear phenomenon, the conduct of which changes its character in ways that cannot be analytically predicted. I am not arguing that reference to a few of today's "nonlinear science" concepts would help us clarify confusion in Clausewitz's thinking. My suggestion is more radical: in a profoundly unconfused way, he understands that seeking exact analytical solutions does not fit the nonlinear reality of the problems posed by war, and hence that our ability to predict the course and outcome of any given conflict is severely limited.

The correctness of Clausewitz's perception has both kept his work relevant and made it less accessible, for war's analytically unpredictable nature is extremely discomfiting to those searching for a predictive theory. An approach through nonlinearity does not make other reasons for difficulty in understanding On War evaporate. It does, however, provide new access to the realistic core of Clausewitz's insights and offers a correlation of the representations of chance and complexity that characterize his work. Furthermore, it may help us to remove some unsettling blind spots that have prevented us from seeing crucial implications of his work. 

The main body of the article contains the following sections:

What is "Nonlinearity"?

Is War Nonlinear for Clausewitz?

How Does Nonlinearity Manifest Itself in ON WAR? Unpredictability from Interaction Unpredictability from Friction Unpredictability from Chance

The Role of Linearity


If Beyerchen's discussion of nonlinearity intrigues you, you can pursue the topic by visiting the homepage of the Santa Fe Institute , a major center for the study of Complexity.

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