Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Clausewitz, Mars, and Murphy

In 1831, a Prussian Major-General died at the age of 51 having never commanded an army or even a battlefield during his military service. However, his legacy would be his lifelong effort to examine and even dissect that phenomena that defined his life – war itself. Carl von Clausewitz had served Prussia and briefly Russia through the wars with first revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, studying both these and earlier wars seeking to fully understand war and warfare. The fruits of this effort were written, edited, and re-written throughout his life and would be published after his death by his widow as “Vom Krieg” or “On War.”

Over the fifty-odd years that I have studied military history, war, and warfare, I didn’t actually get around to reading Clausewitz for about half that time. This was actually a good thing since the Michael Howard/Peter Peret translation wasn’t published until 1976 and for my money this is the English-language version you want to use - unless you actually read German and can think like a 19th Century German philosopher.

When I first began to read “On War” during my time in the Naval War College’s Command and Staff Course, was the realization that Clausewitz recognized just how much of a gamble war was and remains. I would summarize his approach very much as, “Okay, guys, going to war is really, really not a good idea primarily because of the infinite number of things that can and will go wrong – and it never, ever comes out the way you expect it to. However, that said and if you are still absolutely determined to go to war – here’s how it works.” It’s almost as if Clausewitz believed that the real name of the God of War wasn’t Mars but rather Murphy.

“On War” has been mined by many people for epigrams and quotes, which were all too often taken out of context in hopes of overawing critics of whatever hobbyhorse was being advocated, much as people borrow from the Bible to prop up a weak argument. But like its subject, “On War” is a complex work whose true value and meaning come from the interactions between the various ideas – just as war is truly defined by the sum total of the interactions between its numerous elements. Despite such abuses, some of the work’s ideas are of particularly relevance as the United States and some friends and allies begin air (and possibly other) military operations over Libya.

The first thought that comes to mind is that starting a war is a lot easier than ending it, something pretty clearly on many peoples’ minds and reflected in much of the public commentary. The corollary second thought is that no war ever ends the way you expected it to when it started and this is true of just about every war I have studied. There are several reasons for this; in particular there is what Clausewitz called friction. Friction is Clausewitz’s label for the innumerable little things that will go wrong when you try to translate a military plan into reality – think of the old children’s rhyme “for want of a nail” and you get a glimmer of the idea. Also, you can try to move any large number of people around and get them to do what you want them to do when and where you want to do it. All of the little problems, questions, confusions, etc. that keep it from happening constitute “friction.”

Clausewitz was also aware of the problem often referred to as “mission creep” in the ongoing discussions on Libya. He knew from experience the reality that a country would go to war with a certain goal in mind – perhaps to seize a city or a province, recapture a city or province lost in the last war, punish a rival ruler or country by destroying all or part of its territory or its armed forces, or just old fashioned raid, loot, and pillage the enemy countryside for a while. This happens because most of the people deciding about whether or not to go to war are politicians – who may at best take the advice of the people who will be doing the fighting, but at least as often do not.

The most important contribution that the generals make in their explanation to the politicians is to set before them the all important relationship between ends and means; “If you give me this much military force, I can do this; if you give me this much more military force, I can do that.” As we have seen in recent years, political leaders who ignore such advice, almost always regret it.

Once the war has begun it either goes better than expected or worse. Either way, this raises a new challenge to the politicians,

– if the war is going worse or is not achieving the goals originally set out for it the politicians must decide whether to settle for less than victory or increase the military forces committed to the war,

– and with the required increase in military forces they will consider whether not the greater forces involved also entails setting out a new and larger goal;

- if the war is going better than expected, there is always the temptation to set out a new and bigger goal to replace the original one and “cash in” on the success. However, seeking an expanded, larger goal may in turn spark increased resistance from an enemy who now can expect to lose more than was originally at risk.

So the politicians (in the Middle East, in Washington, London, Bonn, Rome, Paris, etc) declare that Gadhafi must not be allowed to fly his aircraft over Libya. The generals use a mix of bombers and missiles to destroy the Libyan radars and command and control centers for its air defenses so that their planes may now fly unencumbered and unchallenged as they keep pro-Gadhafi aircraft on the ground. And then the politicians declare, "That’s not what we meant!" Sometimes, you have to believe that the generals all wish they had decided to be professional athletes or street musicians instead of generals.


Mobius Trip said...

“It’s almost as if Clausewitz believed that the real name of the God of War wasn’t Mars but rather Murphy.”

Excellent! The sister of Mars is Eris, and she is attributed similar features as Murphy: discord. But, there is “good” Eris and “bad” Eris. I take the good one to be the habitual disposition, or harmony, one acquires when they have experienced enough of the bad one, discord.

“...just as war is truly defined by the sum total of the interactions between its numerous elements.”

A potential harmony that has been orchestrated?

Is “friction” quantifiable? Perhaps this is the answer: “The most important contribution that the generals make in their explanation to the politicians is to set before them the all important relationship between ends and means...”

Leo Crane said...


My name is Leo Crane. I am currently doing a project for school on military philosophy. I am wondering if you could suggest military philosophers besides Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. I have already read them and need to expand. Thank you.

Robert A Mosher said...

Leo - Baron Jomini would be good, though he is a bit dated since he wrote more specifically about Napoleon and his period while Clausewitz was thinking about war as a more universal phenomena. Machiavelli's book on war is also interesting and about equally dated. Of the more modern, Liddell Hart is probably the most useful and accessible (though he also has been known both the gild the lily in his claims of himself and to recast his earlier writings to exhibit a bit more presience than he could really claim). JFC Fuller's writings on war (versus history) are also useful for modern warfare. I also like Edward Luttwak's writings on strategy though I don't always agree with him.