Clausewitz: Dead at Last?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 679, Hoover Institution Archives
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 679, Hoover Institution Archives

At a recent meeting of the senior officers of one of the services, an academic expert on terrorism—one of the fashionable topics in Washington these days—announced that in the modern world Clausewitz was irrelevant because he had nothing to say about ISIS or the various other nasty malignancies bothering the international landscape. Unfortunately, silly ideas from the past seem to have a way of reinventing themselves, as something entirely new and packed with brilliant insights into the future. That such arguments came from an instructor at one of the institutions of professional military education is not surprising, given the quality of faculty at such institutions, but it suggests how dangerously out of tune they are with reality or for that matter what Clausewitz describes.

We have, of course, heard this all before. In the 1950s, the appearance of nuclear weapons supposedly rendered Clausewitz’s ideas passé. In the 1990s, we saw the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announce that the dawn of the computer age and its attendant technological capabilities would render concepts such as friction irrelevant to an American military of the twenty-first century, given intelligence capabilities that would allow American observers to see and understand everything that was occurring in an area 200 miles by 200 miles. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan would seem to have put paid to such bizarre ideas, at least until time has washed the memories of the experiences of those wars out of the officer corps.

It is worth examining the implications of the idea that Clausewitz will no longer be relevant in the wars of the twenty-first century. The most obvious is that future wars will not involve conflicts between nations. Nice idea, and if true, the result would be a surprisingly peaceful century. But such an assumption has to posit that nation states like Russia and China no longer represent a military threat, a rather dubious assumption to say the least. In the 1990s a number of political scientists came up with the idea that the modern state was beginning to dissolve under the umbrella of the gobalized world. But the events of the past twenty years have pretty much ended such nonsense. What the presentists missed was the fact that the modern state has mutated over the past centuries to reflect changes in the social and political order, and what they were seeing were changes reflecting the movement from the industrialized age to the information age.

But then, perhaps our terrorism expert was only referring to organizations like ISIS which since they aren’t states renders Clausewitz’s idea that “war is a continuation of political activity by other means” no longer relevant.1 But that mean that ISIS has no political aims—an assumption which would deny its efforts to create a caliphate, a political conception, if there ever were one.

Perhaps, our expert means to suggest that our technological capabilities are going to replace conventional approaches to the conduct of war with something entirely new. But the realities of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have more than disposed of those tired, worn-out, idle hopes of the 1990s. And so we are left with the harsh fact that if Clausewitz is no longer relevant, then what is?


[1] 1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Peter Paret and Michael Howard, trans. and eds.) (Princeton, 1976), p. 87.