Carl von Clausewitz’s Ideas of War

Carl von Clausewitz’s Ideas of War

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Demonstrate why Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas are the most useful in understanding the US experience since 1945

The thinking of Karl von Clausewitz has been retained as fundamental by strategic studies. The ‘On War’ work by Clausewitz focuses on general aspects of the war which enables people to understand war as an enduring phenomenon. The conflicts after 1945 were nothing more than a demonstration that Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas and principles of war are still relevant today. Various wars since 1945 especially wars that the U.S engaged in demonstrates the relevance of Clausewitz’s ideas of war. The influence of the trinity of violence over the outcome of the war, the purpose of limited wars, and the persistence of friction are Clausewitz’ principles that were identified in post-World War II conflicts.

Clausewitz trinity is used as a remarkable tool in measuring the role and relationships between the leaders, the military and the society during war times, described as the connection between the government, army, and the people.  Clausewitz argued that the ability of a state to wage a war depends on the three factors[1]. The role of the government is to establish a political purpose. The army provides the means of realizing the political end. The people provide the will. The three must not be ignored for victory in war. For victory, Clausewitz argued that a balance among the three factors must be sought. There should be political leaders accountable and responsible for the prescribed policy, an army that is willing to execute the policy, and people who are willing to support the execution of the policy[2]. By understanding the Clausewitz trinity, we are able to understand some US experiences since 1945.

Looking at the Vietnam War through the Clausewitz’s trinity, one is able to understand why the US lost victory to Vietnam. Based on Clausewitz’s principle of Trinity, the US ignored some remarkable factors while going into the war which led to the loss of the battle. First, the U.S did not gain support from the American public. This was a sign of a peculiar relationship between people and the army. America failed to mobilize people’s will in support of the Vietnam War[3]. Second, the U.S failed in making proper policies[4]. The U.S decided to take on a limited War when Vietnam was prepared for total war. Instead of focusing on the coherent objective, the US assumed a strategic defensive posture. Additionally, the US focussed on its tactical offensives in the south against the guerrillas giving the enemy time to prepare better for the war. Eventually, the U.S, superpower, lost the victory to Vietnam.

The theory of limited wars is another war principle of Clausewitz. It assumes that an enemy will offer less opposition to smaller demands[5]. This idea is helpful in understanding some experiences of the US since 1945. In a limited war, the resources at disposal whether military, technological, industrial, human, or natural are not used fully.  According to Clausewitz, the purpose of limited wars is attracting less opposition from enemies by giving smaller demands. With the principle, we are able to understand some decisions and consequences that the U.S has experienced. America has severally engaged in limited wars for various reasons.  For example, America used limited war during the Korean War. Unlike in other wars, the U.S aim in this war was limited to protecting South Korea rather than total defeat of the enemy[6]. The approach was also used to prevent a third world war.

The US under the UN was responding to the North Korean smashing into South Korea during the Korean War. Based on the theory of limited wars, the war was limited because the ground fighting was limited to the Korean peninsula, the weapons were limited with the abstention of atomic abilities, the participating states were limited to two, and parties were willing to use limited force. America had a frustrating experience with the approach with over 55,000 troops losing lives during the conflicts. This is associated with limited support for the Korean War. According to Clausewitz limited war is only effective when both sides accept to limit means and objectives[7]. This explains why some of the limited wars have failed including the incident with the American troops during the Korean War. Additionally, during the Vietnam War, the US planned to use a limited War to control the spread of communism. However, Vietnam had a different objective leading to unlimited war.

            The third Clausewitz’ principle identified in post-World War II conflicts that there will be always fog and friction of war. The idea helps in understanding the US experience in different wars since 1945. Fog and fiction are among the prominent ideas of Clausewitz. Fog of war refers to uncertainty[8]. Clausewitz explained war as uncertainty realm. He argued that many factors on which war actions are based are wrapped in a fog.  On the other hand, friction refers to the force that separates war on paper from real war. The idea of fog and fiction acknowledges that war is always a subject to uncertainty and unexpected[9]. Clausewitz explained that in war there are some things that cannot be predicted or anticipated.

Ethnic conflicts and drawn-out wars after the successful use of technology during the Gulf war proved that friction and fog are enduring features of war. For example, Clausewitz idea of fog and friction of war occurred during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During the war, the US military forces used technologies that were previously unseen[10]. The US also had enough information about the whereabouts of the Iraqi units, they had spy satellites, human spies, and an effective command and control system. Friction and uncertainty rendered Iraq incapable of winning the war[11]. This enabled the US military to attain military victory. This war led to the idea of the use of sophisticated technology by states to solve any strategic or political problem. However, shortly after, drawn-out wars in Iraq, Afghanistan throughout the 1990s and protracted ethnic conflicts in the Balkans proved that fog and friction are enduring features of war[12]. The ethnic conflicts and drawn-out wars showed that excessive optimism in technology was dangerous and unnecessary.

In conclusion, it is clear that the influence of the trinity of violence over the outcome of the war, the purpose of limited wars, and the persistence of friction of war is a demonstration of today’s relevancy of Clausewitz’ principles and ideas of war. Clausewitz idea of trinity determines the success of any war. The three factors of Trinity must be balanced to win a battle. For a limited war to be effective, it is important that both sides agree on limiting objectives and means. Additionally, the persistence of friction of war witnessed today proves the relevance of Clausewitz’s ideas of war.

Bibliography

Colonel, Eric, ‘The relevance of Clausewitz’s On War to today’s conflicts’ Militaire      Spectator, 187 Number 7/8, 2018, 386-399.

Holden, Herbert, ‘The Continuing Relevance Of Clausewitz: Illustrated Yesterday And            Today With Application To The 1991 Persian Gulf War,’ Global Security, 2000. Available at https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1991/HHT.htm

Tubbs, James, ‘Allied Force and Clausewitz’s Theory of Limited War’ 2002, 1-15.

Waldman, Thomas, ‘War, Clausewitz, and the Trinity’ University of Warwick. Thesis, 2009,          1-411.

 Watts Barry, ‘Clausewitzian Friction and Future War’ McNair Paper, 68, 2004, 1-138.


[1] Eric, Colonel, ‘The relevance of Clausewitz’s On War to today’s conflicts’ Militaire Spectator, 187 Number 7/8, 2018:396.

[2] Colonel, ‘The relevance of Clausewitz’s On War to today’s conflicts’ 396.

[3] Thomas, Waldman, ‘War, Clausewitz, and the Trinity’ (University of Warwick. Thesis, 2009) 377.

[4] Waldman, ‘War, Clausewitz, and the Trinity,’ 377.

[5] James, Tubbs, ‘Allied Force and Clausewitz’s Theory of Limited War,’ 2002:2.

[6] Tubbs, ‘Allied Force and Clausewitz’s Theory of Limited War,’ 2.

[7] Tubbs, 3.

[8] Barry, Watts, ‘Clausewitzian Friction and Future War,’ (McNair Paper 68). 2004: 2

[9] Watts, ‘Clausewitzian Friction and Future War,’ 2.

[10] Herbert, Holden, ‘The Continuing Relevance Of Clausewitz: Illustrated Yesterday And Today With Application To The 1991 Persian Gulf War, Global Security, 2000.  https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1991/HHT.htm

[11] Holden, The Continuing Relevance of Clausewitz: Illustrated Yesterday and Today with Application To the 1991 Persian Gulf War, par7.

[12] Holden, par8.