Relevance of Karl Von Clausewitz’s idea on War

Published 15 Feb 2017

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Karl Von Clausewitz was a Prussian soldier, military theorist and philosopher who is best remembered for his notable book on military strategies ‘On War’, published in 1832, a year after his death. Clausewitz was a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte and participated in almost all the major Napoleonic war to the Battle of Waterloo where Prussian army under Clausewitz played an important part in eventual defeat of Napoleon (Clausewitz and Jolles, 1950, xxiii). From his long experience in wars and battles Clausewitz developed a practical philosophy of War, which can be better understood as a collection of recommended actions and policies that should be adopted in war, with the motto of not only winning the war but using it effectually in the longer run for the stability and strength of the state.

The thoughts, insights and practical working philosophy of Clausewitz heavily influenced later German national policies and acted as guiding principles for aggressive and ruthless actions and initial success of Germany in the Second World War (Clausewitz and Jolles, 1950, xxv). With the invention of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles many theorists labeled Clausewitz obsolete in the new paradigm of warfare. However, the relevance of the doctrine of Clausewitz is evident it served as foundation of US action in Gulf war and the continuing war against terrorism, proving the timelessness of the Cluasewitz’s ideas on war.

Clausewitz’s idea on war

One of the most famous statements of Clausewitz, that war is a mere continuation of policy of state by other means (Clausewitz and Jolles, 1950, xxv, 16) has successfully withstood the test of times and changing nature of conflict. It is still heralded as the beacon for policy and strategy guideline in functioning of governments and even business world. But the reason why Clausewitz work continues to hold importance is that he viewed conflict and war in terms of interest of nation-states, thus identifying their role in protection and support of an organizational entity (Beyerchen). Indeed, strategists consider the work of Clausewitz to be of such immense and broad character that it is possible to take almost any position and justification under its framework.

Clausewitz developed his analysis after carefully scrutinizing Napoleonic wars, his success and the consequences in the larger context of state, people and society. Clausewitz studied wars as an extension of state policies and from a perspective that recognized political participation of citizens in determining the outcome of a war. But beginning with his practical approach towards war, it is necessary to see what Clausewitz himself says about war.

Clausewitz defines war as ‘an act of force to compel our adversary to do our will” (Clausewitz and Jolles, 1950, 3). Clausewitz further states that the artistic and philanthropist impressions of conducting war without much blood shed and casualty is a mistaken belief and war must be conducted with one’s full strength and capacity thereby not allowing the adversary any mileage or else, as Clausewitz points out, the adversary would use the same ruthless force to its own advantage (Ibid).

There are claims by many later age historians and war theorists that Clausewitz’s views are typical of 19th century warfare, and lack relevance in the modern technical age of warfare, conducted with help of satellite and laser guided missiles and stealth bombers. However a reading of Clausewitz suggests that he did not merely defined strategies to be followed by army and political rule in the time of war or in the manner that the war is conducted. Rather he worked on evolving a thought process that made strategy in war a human science (Reid, 2003). Clausewitz also laid emphasis on strategy where military-strategic thought forms an important part in the event of contest. Clausewitz’s emphasis and understanding of strategy have withstood even the complex nature of conflict as presented during the cold war and through development of sophisticated technologies and an increasingly networked society (Reid, 2003).

In an increasingly complex and networked society based more and more technological foundation, the utility of Clausewitz’s ideas on philosophy of war still applies, retaining its appropriateness in the network-centric management of warfare (Reid, 2003). Clausewitz’s representation of war as a ‘remarkable trinity’ consisting of sentiments of people, rational policies of the nation-state, and the combination of unforeseeable and fortuitous events in battle ground also holds true in the various conflicts in past half century.

As a theorist of war, Clausewitz proclaimed that war is a non linear phenomenon. It does not proceed or occur in isolation, rather it takes place as a part of complex system involving politics and military action where every act in the war establishes set of new policies (Beyerchen). On this front the course of war, in the opinion of Clausewitz, is completely unpredictable and depends on a number of unrelated factors that may turn the events in most unforeseeable directions (Beyerchen).

Relevance of Clausewitz’s idea on war

The relevance of Clausewitz’s theories in the present time are due to the fact unlike other military strategists who either concentrated merely on conduct of warfare, or mere philosophies of war,, his theories are built around war with social, political, psychological and emotional elements. Some of the major ideas of Clausewitz (1950) that still hold military, strategic and political importance are

The requirement on part of civilian and political leaders to understand the scope and purpose of war before embarking upon one. Failure to do so has often resulted in defeat in the battlefield, as evinced by Vietnam war.

War and politics cannot exist without each other and for the success of war it must reflect political considerations.

Fog and Friction play crucial role in making a war inherent unpredictable. Fog refers to uncertainty in weather conditions that can turn even the best prepared plans to ruin, while friction refers to events that marks different between real war and paper war. A classic example of fog is the D-day assault on 6th June, 1945 at Normandy Beach when sudden reversal of weather condition had caused Allied forces to suffer heavy initial casualties.

Center of Gravity is the point suggested by Clausewitz where principle thrust and effort should be directed in the war to achieve decisive advantages over the adversary

Culmination point of attack and victory define the way a attacker and defender behave in extreme situations. The culmination point of attack occurs when the attacker is exhausted and holds no more stamina to move forward, while the culmination point of victory is the point where a country takes last great stand, refusing to further defeats and losses.

Diversion to draw enemy forces away from the main target.

Moral elements are important in boosting the confidence of soldiers along with giving them a cause to fight the war.

It is surprising to note that despite the fact the Clausewitz developed these theories in a time when armies fought on horseback, using short range muskets and unwieldy guns, they are still applicable today and the terms used by him, with appropriate translation have permanently entered the military jargon.


  • Clausewitz von, K, translated by Jolles, MOJ, 1950, ,On War, Infantry Journal Press, Washington Dc, 1950.
  • Beyerchen, AD, Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Importance of Imagery.
  • Reid, J, 2003, Foucault on Clausewitz: Conceptualizing the Relationship between War and Power. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. Volume: 28. Issue: 1.:
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