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Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), after a lithograph by W. Wach.

Clausewitz: War, Strategy and Victory – A Reflection on Brigadier-General Carignan’s Article, Volume 17, Number 2

by Bill Bentley

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“For as long as humankind engages in war, Clausewitz must rule” – Colin S. Gray (Modern Strategy, the Strategy Bridge, Perspectives on Strategy, Strategy and Defence Planning, The Future of Strategy)

Brigadier-General Jennie Carignan has written a thoughtful, and, indeed, heartfelt piece on the relationship between fighting, tactics, strategy, and the concept of (strategic) victory. In her review of past theorists and practitioners, she mentions Sun Tzu, Jomini, J.F.C. Fuller ,and Carl von Clausewitz. She goes on to argue that Clausewitz is responsible for the ‘tacticization’ of strategy, and that for this great master theorist of war, combat is first and foremost an end in itself. This is profoundly misleading. In fact, a deep reading and understanding of Clausewitz’s thought provides an ideal framework for the dialogue she wants to have, and it actually supports her thesis.

To begin, as she points out, Clausewitz states that “…war is simply a continuation of political intercourse with the admixture of other means. We deliberately use the phrase ‘with the admixture of other means’ because we want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essence, that intercourse continues irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress and to which they are restricted are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace”1

Clausewitz returns to this point many times in the course of On War, so the thread that ties his theory together from the shortest fire fight to the ultimate peace is established. Thus, “…the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose. The more modest your political aim, the less importance you attach to it and the less reluctantly you will abandon it if you must. The political object—the original motive for war—will thus determine the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.” Victory, therefore, is a function of the degree to which the political goal has been achieved.

Clausewitz is acutely aware of the escalatory tendencies inherent in waging war, and the need for policy-makers to factor in carefully the military means at their disposal. “That however, does not imply that the political aim is a tyrant. It must adapt itself to its chosen means, a process that can radically change it; yet the political aim remains the first consideration. Policy then will permeate all military operations and in so far as their violent nature will admit it, it will have a continuous influence on them.” Most military strategists and practicing soldiers (generals and admirals) fail to appreciate Clausewitz’s insistence that policy reigns - war has its own grammar, but not its own logic. Therefore, “…policy of course will not extend its influence to operational details. Political considerations do not determine the posing of guards or the employment of patrols. But they are the more influential in the planning of war, of the campaign, and often even the battle.”

Below the level of policy (politics), Clausewitz divides the conduct of warfare into two elements – tactics and strategy. “According to our classification tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement: strategy, the use of the engagement for the (political) object of the war. Each of the elements which become distinct in the course of fighting is named an engagement.” Now, Clausewitz was very familiar with, and emphatically opposed to, those theorist and practitioners of the 18th Century and early-19th Century who relied upon geometry and campaigns of maneuver designed to avoid battles. These included Antoine Jomini and von Bülow, and especially Saxe. Saxe famously wrote: “I do not favour battles. I am sure a good general can make war all his life and not be compelled to fight one.”2

Clausewitz’s study of the wars of Frederick the Great, and especially those of Napoleon, convinced him that modern war, by its very nature, required fighting. “Since in the engagement everything is concentrated on the destruction of the enemy or rather of his armed forces, which is inherent in its very concept, it follows that the destruction of the enemy’s forces is always the means by which the purpose of the engagement is achieved. The complete or partial destruction of the enemy must be regarded as the object of the engagement.”

Clausewitz then makes his leap of genius when he turns to the concept of strategy; a concept that has profound implications for a proper understanding of war, policy, and peace. “The original means of strategy is victory – that is, tactical success; its ends in the final analysis are those objects which will lead directly to peace. IN STRATEGY THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS VICTORY. Part of strategic success lies in timely preparation for a tactical victory; the greater the strategic success, the greater likelihood of a victorious engagement. The rest of strategic success lies in the exploitation of a victory won.” Tactics are action, strategy is thinking. As Colin Gray tells us: “Strategy is virtual behavior. It has no material existence. Strategy is an abstraction, though it is vastly more difficult to illustrate visually than are other vital abstractions like love or fear. Furthermore, because strategy is uniquely difficult among the levels of war few indeed are the people able to shine in the role. Their number can be increased by education, though not by training, and not at all reliably by the experience of command and planning at warfare’s operational and tactical levels.”3

Clausewitz had concluded that: “War can be two kinds, in the sense that either the objective is to overthrow the enemy – to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent thus forcing him to sign whatever peace we please; or merely occupy some of his frontier districts so that we can annex them or use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations.” This fundamental distinction led Clausewitz to distinguish explicitly between two kinds of strategy depending upon whether the war in question was unlimited, due to political motivation (Second World War), or limited (Korea). These two types of strategy were later dubbed the strategy of annihilation and the bi-polar strategy by the late 19th Century German military historian Hans Delbruck. In the former, decisive battles are sought to achieve the ultimate goal—unconditional surrender and an imposed peace. In the latter, the war is conducted on two poles, the battle pole and the non-battle pole, to achieve limited objectives. On the battle pole are Clausewitzian engagements. On the non-battle pole, opponents engage in simultaneous diplomacy, economic and other sanctions, more-or-less extended pauses, peacekeeping, information operations, and what Thomas Schelling called coercive diplomacy. History tells us that the first kind of war, and hence, the strategy of annihilation, is a much rarer phenomenon than the second, prosecuted through a bi-polar strategy. Clearly the issue of assessing the utility of military force is far more complex when engaged in a bi-polar strategy. In either case, nonetheless, we must return to the Clausewitzian conclusion that victory is a component of the logic of war, and not its grammar; that is, it is a political conclusion.

General Carignan’s thought process leads us directly to Clausewitz’s considerations concerning limited war and conflict and the bi-polar strategy without, unfortunately, foreclosing on the less likely but far more dangerous alternative, especially in the nuclear era. Her analysis should lead the CAF in its professional development processes to a much more serious and extended study of Clausewitz in detail.

Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Bill Bentley, MSM, CD, Ph.D, is currently the Senior Staff Officer Professional Concepts at MILPERSGEN Headquarters in Kingston, Ontario.


  1. All direct quotes from Clausewitz are drawn from the Michael Howard and Peter Paret edition of On War.
  2. Quoted in C. Nolan, The Allure of Battle (London: Oxford University Press, 2017) p 142.
  3. Colin S. Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (London: Oxford University Press, 2010) p 204.