Are the ideas of Clausewitz still relevant?

  • Uncategorized


War is a continuation of policy by additional means is a common viewattained from the writings of Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831).Despite the controversy arising from this aphorism, it suggests thatthe best way to define war is to look at its ulterior motives. Hegave various definitions of conflicts, for instance it is the use offorce to coerce the opponent to perform our wishes (Clausewitz,1976). Thus, he is credited to have introduced systematicphilosophical thinking in the western military perspective inimplications of effective policy, military instruction, andoperational planning. His ideologies were drawn from personalexperiences, his fight against Napoleon and historical research. Inthe modern days, the understanding of war has evolved however, themaxim and ideology of war have not changed. War has changed fromtraditional battle to what is described as new wars. Defined as thewar between different combination of states and non-state networks,it is a war based on identity politics rather than ideology.Technology, tactics, and conditions of war may have changed. However,Clausewitz does not regard that as the definition of war. Even thoughhe recognizes battlefield war, his ideologies relate better topre-war build up, the motive behind the war and actions taken duringthe war in other places other than the battlefield that aims atwinning the war. Therefore, this article seeks to understand themaxim and ideologies of Clausewitz determine the relevance and flawsof his maxim in modern times and identify his ideas in modern dayconflict.


Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz was born in Prussia, which ispresent day Germany. The military theorist joined the army at an ageof twelve and worked his way up to major general at the time of hisdeath. In his 31 years of war, he fought various battles includingNapoleonic wars from 1806-1815. He had a vast knowledge on combatbattle but emphasized on the theory of war. According to him, warcannot be quantified or reduced to map work, graphs, and geometry. Hebelieved war had a moral look and it had its political aspects.

In his final years 1816-1830, he wrote one of the most referencedbooks on theory and nature of war. His book “On War” has beenused to wage war over the years and has proven to be a masterpiece.Despite being misquoted over the years, the war book has beeninducted into the study of war, as one of the true great books isstill relevant despite its age. The main agenda of the masterpiece isthe theory of war and military strategy. Defined as one of the mostimportant treaties of war by Fleming (2014), it is very controversialand has a huge influence on war strategic thinking. It draws widereferences on Napoleon’s style of war. Even though Fredrick II ofPrussia figures prominently in the book, Napoleon dominates and isthe central figure. Napoleon is credited to have changed way ofwaging war by motivating the populace and thus gaining access to thefull resources of the state. This enabled Napoleon to wage war on alarger multitude and higher intensity. Apart from being aprofessional soldier, his educational background was solid. Thisenabled him to account for his experience in the frontlines of warwith Napoleon.

Clausewitz used these theoretical devices to formulate his notions.He necessitates that war must never serve any other purpose itshould act as a tool of politics in the first chapter of On Wars.Considered as the only complete chapter, it also contains the notionthat military objectives support ones political aims by either tryingto disarm the enemy and render her harmless or make the opponentpolitically or militarily ineffective (Clausewitz, 1976). He furthernotes that, on equal grounds, the course of war tends to favor theplayer with a stronger emotional and political motivation(Clausewitz, 1976). Through the critical view of the soldier, onenotices the theme of his writing was to represent the war in what itwas to others in the battlefield, planning department and otherinvolved sectors.

As Waldman (2009) notes, the central theoretical device was histrinity. This trinity majors on natural force, chance, andprobability. Waldman (2009) realize that the trinity is theapotheosis of his theorizing. The thinking device representsClausewitz’s way of understanding the nature of war. As Bassford(2003) notes, the treaties align Clausewitz’s ideas in singularmanner and illustrate his desire to understand the fundamental truthsof war. Alongside the trinity, the friction stood out in his book.Perceived as the general uncertainty of war, friction is the forcethat turns what seems easy to difficult (Bassford, 2003). Sun Tzuaffirms this notion on war as he notes that as water has no constantform, in war there are no constant conditions (Handel, 2005).

In the case of the Iraq war of early 21st century, the Clausewitzconcept of war can be noted in the pre-war build up. In this was thenatural force was manifested in the violent attacks on the US byAl-Qaeda based on hatred and enmity. This led to violent reactions onAl-Qaeda controlled regions in Iraq by the US troops. This aligns tothe tripartite concept of war by Clausewitz. Further, the secondelement of trinity is chance, as Waldman (2009) notes in the waragainst terrorism, the level of chance and ambiguity is high comparedto preceding inter-state conflicts. In this war, it is skirmishingagainst a tactic and a dispersed terror group rather than a definedstate (Waldman, 2009). The failures of the US government in the Iraqwar were based on technical impotency rather than ideologicalimpotency (Waldman, 2009). Thus, the failure of the war to acquire isobjective should not hinder the relevance of Clausewitz opinions.

Herberg-borthe and Strachan (2008) argue that this thought towardswar is not only a product of its time and but also valid in themodern day context. In contrast, the war on terror is a good exampleof new war that is not accounted for in the clausewitzian thoughtsince it is a war between a state and a tactic terrorism. A goodexample is the Somalia government and allies’ war against terroristgroup Al-Shabab. This is a war waged on religious ideologies ratherthan policy. Oldemeinen (2012) notes that the relevance of theclausewitzian thought is undermined new wars especially the war onterror. Ideally, he supplements that the Clausewitzain understandingis becoming obsolete and can no longer establish a framework ofcomprehending the conduct of war.

Echevarria (1996) argues that the clausewitzian concept of warremains valid. He sets his basis not only on the apotheosis ofClausewitz but also on his general concepts and methods. In addition,he affirms that Clausewitz was a combat analyst who comprehended thateach era has its distinctive brand of warfare (Clausewitz, 1976).Although often termed as controversial, Owens (2003) supports thisstance. Owens (2003) states that he approached On War from amethodological perspective, based on how Clausewitz formulated histheory rather than his particular implications. Through thisviewpoint, he establishes that an excellent theory should bedescriptive, predictive, and prescriptive. Thus, the theory should beable to describe the subject matter, create a room for the learner topredict the future by examining the present, and prescribe the wayforward (Oldemeinen, 2012).

As discussed above, the trinity was used by Clausewitz to elaborateon his understanding of war. Miller (2012) debates that theclausewitzian way of thinking engaging the conduct of war has notlost its relevance in paradoxical trinity. This trinity transversesall types of wars. New wars may fail to indulge secondary trinityparties but the motive behind the war is it on terror, guerrilla waror the trinity (miller, 2012) can explain civil war. Thus, therelevance of the trinity bypasses the time factor as it has proven soin the last 200 years of its existence. This provides the assurancethat even though his theory does not account for new wars, it doesoffer a helping hand in understanding new wars. The technicality ofnew wars aside, war the factors of war vary but the effectsreciprocate.

As Fleming (2014) notes, a theorist is defined by his ideas thoughtsrather than methodology. Thus, Clausewitz is defined by his take onthe conduct of war. His ideas drew motivation and reference from histimes thus, various sections of his opinions are more limited to histime and old war. In on War, he describes that one should maximizethe enemy casualties and not be deterred by the number of victims onan own side (Clausewitz, 1976). He further emphasizes that defeatingan enemy without numerous casualties is a misleading notion(Clausewitz, 1976). In the modern day, an ideal conflict victory isachieved without bloodshed. States are trying to limit the number ofwars and their severity because of their economic, emotional, andphysical effect. International laws have taken Sun Tzu (1998)Ideology to subdue the enemy without bloodshed is ultimateexcellence. Thus, international laws advocated by globally recognizedinstitutions such as the United Nations, have illegalized waractivities, and recommended non-military means to achieve politicalsupremacy. In turn, this minimizes conflicts hence reducingcasualties.

The evolution of war has isolated the need for decisive victory.Clausewitz argues that victory in a war is achieved when the enemy isnot able to seek revenge. Even though he recognized that the outcomeof war is not always final as the enemy may recover and strive toretain their pride, he notes that when the enemy military unable torevenge, peace can be achieved. However, new wars are not based on adecisive victory. When a war is conducted against a terror group suchas ISIS, it cannot be waged on one front. Such groups have a web ofextensive and varying terror cells. Thus, seeking decisive victory inthis war only ignites anger and resentment from the populace thusbreeding sympathy, donations, and more numbers.

Ideally, using excessive force only alienates and propagates thesegroups to the world population, which in turn makes them support thegroup. This is widely seen by the ISIS terror group who has gainedfollowers by propagating propaganda, especially on civilian deathsduring drone attacks. Further illustration is derived from the LibyanCivil War of 2011. During this war, the Libyan government tried tosuppress rebel groups by the use of high force, i.e., gas attacks,the bombing of villages that allegedly supported the rebels, anddiscriminating clans that were perceived to support the rebels. Thiswas a direct implementation of Clausewitz ideology in the new war.However, it failed miserably as it only attracted national andinternational attention not to the intention of the rebels but theundertakings of the government. Apparently, sympathizers of the rebelgroups may have failed to align to the ideology of the rebel front,but they shared the same objective removing the government. Theinternational community tried to advocate for a peaceful resolutionof the conflict, but it lacked the cooperation of the government.Eventually, NATO forces organized airstrikes alongside the rebelfront, and the US government allegedly funded the activities of therebel front. The result was a government less Libya, which was resultof implementing Clausewitz ideas in modern day conflict.

However, Clausewitz noted that it is vital to define the kind of warone is about to wage (Clausewitz, 1976). He emphasizes oncomprehending the broad cause, passion, and intent of conflict. Thisideology is relevant within the limits of present-day conflict. AsOldemeinen (2012) notes that present-day conflict, is a result ofpresent day problems and has similarities with old war as it aims atmaking the enemy powerless. As Clausewitz affirms hostile feelingsand hostile intentions fuel conflict, the war on terror has two sidesof the coin. The US government is determined to make terror groupspowerless in their own backwards and the US. However, terror groupssuch as the al-Qaeda have the mission of eliminating the influence ofthe US in Middle East and interference in Islamic affairs. Theprimary goal of each party can be summarized to making the enemypowerless within specific borders. This affirms to Clausewitz generalidea that hostile motives and intentions necessitate conflict. Thisnotion is based on the Revolution and Napoleon era wars and may beapplicable in the fight against terror (Oldemeinen, 2012). Itenlightens more on the applicability of some of his underlyingintentions in present day conflict. This affirms the relevance of hisnotions despite the variation of time and context over time.

In a deep analysis of Carl von Clausewitz prominent aphorism war ispurely a continuance of politics by other means one notes itsunderlying significance. Other than the common assumption thatfighting is a course of action for political aims, it implies thatconflict is not a simple proceed of policy. It is politicalinstrument used to achieve opinionated support (Clausewitz, 1976). Inthe thesis, Clausewitz continuously uses the German word “politik.”As Echevarria (2007) expounds, the word can be used to mean eitherpolitics or policy. Angling in on policy, it is not only state policybut also the policy of each party. Ideally, this will imply thatnon-state parties such as terror groups can wage war based on thepropagation of their system. These groups use combat as a continuanceof their course of action. In turn, this implies that the notion ofClausewitz is right and well applicable to the war on terror. Thiscritical assessment shows that the ideologies and concepts ofClausewitz require through examination to accurately interpret them.

The second reason for war as stated by Clausewitz is to disarm theenemy. He denotes that the objective of conflict is to neutralizeenemy weapons and to do so one needs to use military strength andmight (Clausewitz, 1976). One of the first wars of the 21st centurywas waged after the 9/11 attack. The occurrence of the attacknecessitated a reaction from the then administration. The decision bythe US administration to confront terrorism can be aligned to theClausewitzian approach. Instead of carrying out a profile basedcriminal investigation and seeking legal actions against offenders,the administration called for war. Ideally, a war disposes ofmilitary and financial powers to the government. Thus, theadministration has the might to disarm the enemy by flexing itsmilitary muscle directly. This is a direct implementation of theClausewitz thinking spectrum. Besides, Clausewitz (1976) emphasizethat the success of war lies on support from the populace. Bylabeling it the war on terror, the government gained dedicatedsupport from the masses, which replicates to moral support to themilitary. Thus, the fighting front is aware of the support at home.This aligns with opinion Clausewitz refers to as Moral Factors.

Technological development has changed adversely in the 21st century.Two centuries ago, war was on the battlefield and propaganda could becontrolled. Despite the fact that modern warfare still lies in thebattlefield, the techniques have changed rapidly. For instance, theuse of drones has changed the approach of war. Modern technology hasenabled the use of devices that monitor individuals, gatherinformation, and run errands with necessarily both parties beingpresent. Modern warfare favors the well equipped and financed ratherthan the physical number. Clausewitz’s concept was based ontraditional war thus in a modern world fails to address technologicalmight. This is a setback of this theory of war.


In the 21st century, analysts can argue that the type of war haschanged. However, keen observers will note that the concept of war ismore or less the same. The conditions of war have rapidly changed,but Clausewitz accounts for that in his theory of the uncertainty ofwar. Deep analysis of his concepts shows that the Clausewitzianthoughts are relevant in modern day warfare. Even though his ideashave failed in several cases of modern warfare such as the Libyancivil war of 2011, it is appropriate to understand that they offer abase of information needed for war. The concepts should be areference guide to in-depth analysis and considerations. However,they may fail to be effective if implemented literally. Hence, yes,the ideas of Clausewitz are still relevant in present-day conflict.


Bassford, C (2003) Interpreting the Legacy of Clausewitz, Retrievedon 27/03/17

Clausewitz, C. V. (1976) On War. Ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret,Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUP, Print.

Echevarria, A. J. (2007) War, Politics, and RMA – The Legacy ofClausewitz, Retrieved on 27/03/17

Fleming, B. (2014) Can Reading Clausewitz saves us from FutureMistakes? Retrieved on 27/03/17

Owens, M. T. (2003) The Main Thing – We Could All Use a LittleClausewitz Lesson, Retrieved on 28/03/17

Strachan, H. &amp Herberg-Rothe, A. (2008) Introduction, Clausewitzin the Twenty-first Century, Oxford.

Waldman, T. (2010) Shadows of Uncertainty’: Clausewitz’s TimelessAnalysis of Chance in War, Defense Studies vol 10, pg no. 336-68.

Oldemeinen, M. (2012) Is Clausewitzian Thought Timeless, as Some HaveClaimed? Retrieved on 27/03/17