WarningThis information has been archived for reference or research purposes.

Archived Content

Information identified as archived on the Web is for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. It has not been altered or updated after the date of archiving. Web pages that are archived on the Web are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats on the "Contact Us" page.

Views and Opinions

Carl von Clausewitz

Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource, NY

Carl von Clausewitz.

Letting Clausewitz Go: The Lesson the Canadian Army Must Learn From Afghanistan

by Andrew Godefroy

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

“Now Clausewitz, while his sacred writings deal with tactics in their humble place and proportion as he deals with all subjects pertaining to war, is no more to be called a tactician than an archbishop is to be called a deacon.  Nor is he to be called a mere great general or even a strategist; although when occupying the mundane position of Prussian Chief of Staff in the winter of 1830-31 he drew a plan, which in turn, as we shall see, drew some of us into Belgium.”

- Colonel A.T. Hunter, Canadian Defence Quarterly, April 1926

I find it disconcerting how every time I suggest to my fellow staff-trained army officers and war studies colleagues that it is time for the Canadian Army to let Clausewitz go, they give me this look like I just kicked their dog and stole their security blanket.  Nearly two decades of war in the Balkans and Southwest Asia have shown us repeatedly and quite plainly that no matter how hard one rubs this imposed Clausewitzian intellectual touchstone, there is, in reality, very little to be gained from trying to re-invent ourselves as 19th Century Prussian philosophers and general staff officers.  Still, to simply chastise the Canadian Army for clinging to the ‘square peg’ of Clausewitz, and trying to stuff his wisdom into the round holes that are our real-life strategic, operational, and tactical problems, would be somewhat unfair. For Canada, as a traditionally supporting actor in the Cold War era NATO and ABCA land force juggernaut, having Clausewitz jammed down our collective throats by our larger and more influential allies was largely unavoidable. Yet now, especially after the Canadian campaign in Afghanistan, where the Army has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to achieve success by its own example, the Army must learn to let this dated and increasingly obtuse European philosopher that was forced upon us go. It is time to refocus more upon its own indigenous and arguably much more relevant strategic, operational, and tactical agents of military change.

It remains difficult to judge which is worse – that too many army PowerPoint presentations still begin by telling us that the Cold War is over, or that despite this apparent revelation, we should, some two decades later, still myopically cling to the ideas of a man who so conveniently provided us with the military wisdom that might have allowed NATO to win a conventional defensive land war against the Soviet Army- dominated Warsaw Pact had the Cold War ‘turned hot.’ Apparently two decade-long missions, one officially ‘peacekeeping,’ and the other counterinsurgency (COIN), is still not enough to encourage some soldiers and instructors to return to Canada’s own military history and the thinkers that shaped it for over a century. Yet, even the briefest survey of our military past reveals a plethora of relevant examples and case studies worthy of more serious attention.

For example, one wonders why Malaya, Algeria, and now even Northern Ireland, are the preferred case studies for an army that had fought and defeated no less than four separate counterinsurgencies on its own soil, as well as one halfway around the world, by the beginning of the 20th Century.  Added to this is its remarkable accomplishment of stabilizing a region equal to or larger than most other countries in the world, all while combining ‘savvy’ politics with a sufficient conventional deterrent to ensure the integrity of its borders. And yet, the 1837-1838 rebellions and insurrection, the two-decade-long Fenian threat from roughly 1855 to 1875, the repeated insurrections in the Northwest between 1870 and 1885, as well as the massive counterinsurgency campaign in South Africa that involved Canadians from 1899 until roughly 1906, are all routinely and mysteriously disqualified from our professional education. Instead, we continue to make the same mistake our US allies made after Vietnam – instead of learning from the wars we have fought, we depend upon learning from the wars we would like to have fought.

Canada’s peacekeeping and stability operational history receives similarly sparse treatment in both our conceptual and doctrinal design, as well as in the curriculums of our command and staff colleges.  Instead of examining the lessons from the Canadian Army’s dramatic attempt to stabilize Imperial Russia at the end of the First World War, or from its impressive accomplishment in stabilizing the Netherlands at the end of the Second World War, our army officers are routinely fed a diet of RAND Corporation studies of US post-war efforts in Germany and Japan. Instead of studying our numerous peacetime military engagements in places like Ghana and Tanzania in the 1960s for lessons on civil-military security sector reform, we turn to endless American and British studies, some of which even their own armed forces have not bothered to study much further.

There is really no excuse for ostracizing our own army history in this manner.  Despite repeated attempts by our allies to portray Canadian military thinkers as bucolic interlopers in the traditionally European-dominated arena of published strategic thought, the Canadian Army has produced more than its fair share of insightful thinkers, some of whom wrote chillingly accurate analyses of the evolution of modern warfare. Take, for example, the antagonistic yet remarkably observant Lieutenant-Colonel George Taylor Denison III, who, in the 1870s, dared to challenge the British cavalry establishment with respect to the future of mounted warfare. Universally vilified by British cavalry officers for his provocative ideas, Denison’s book nevertheless won an international prize from the Czar of Russia, and was soon after translated into Russian, German, and even Japanese for adoption by those armies. This unexpected fame only further incensed the British cavalry establishment; yet, when Denison’s ideas were proven largely correct by the events of the Anglo-Boer Wars, his harshest critics went mysteriously silent. (Note: The First Anglo-Boer War, also known as the Transvaal War, was fought from December 1880 to March 1881.)

Canadian infantrymen engaging the Boers

James Cooper Mason/Library and Archives Canada/PA-181414

Canadian infantrymen engaging the Boers, 18 February 1900.

The Second Anglo-Boer War (October 1899-May 1902) produced other notable army thinkers. Among these was Lieutenant-Colonel Lawrence Buchan, whose assessment of the performance of Canadian infantry in South Africa would foreshadow our current army’s philosophy of building and sustaining a strategically relevant and tactically decisive force. Canada also routinely produced insightful and forward-thinking soldiers from its Royal Military College at Kingston. Graduates such as William Heneker, who wrote the seminal small wars analysis, Bush Warfare, or Charles Dobell, who went on to serve as a divisional commander in the Third Afghan War (1919), are but two examples of our own soldiers who should receive more detailed study for their ideas and writings.

Even Canada’s most famous general, Sir Arthur Currie, is often left aside in favour of more Clausewitzian-like characters such as Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, or the ever-popular Major-General Bert Hoffmeister. Currie resembled very little of the Clausewitzian ideal – he did not perceive himself to be a genius, he did not believe in single, war-winning, decisive battles, and he did not subscribe to ‘command-centric chance taking’ in lieu of solid mission analysis and planning. Nor did Currie subscribe to the Prussian philosopher’s notions of finding individual genius in a few of his subordinate commanders at the expense of stacking the Canadian Corps as deeply as possible with good commanders who routinely got the job done with minimal error. Currie perceived battle as anything but chance, subject to intangibles, and dependent upon success through intuition. He was a businessman, which meant he was a risk-taker, not a chance-taker, and he built his corps’ success upon the lessons gleaned from his previous battles, not upon an ahistorical philosophy. And Currie successfully fought against, and helped defeat, an army that ultimately failed in its attempt to carry out the attack on France that Clausewitz envisioned in his conclusion of On War.

Sir Arthur Currie

William Rider-Rider/Canada/Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003642

Sir Arthur Currie (mounted, facing left) and Canadian troops entering Germany, December 1918.

Thus given the Canadian Army’s own tremendous and rather obviously useful legacy in the study of war, one must ask plainly, and perhaps painfully, why was it abandoned so easily and replaced with so-called Clausewitzian wisdom? A cursory examination of the circumstances that led to the reintroduction of Clausewitz into Western military thinking, and, more specifically, Canadian Army concepts and doctrine, offers one explanation.

The Cold War defensive mindset that came to shape the US military for nearly three decades first appeared in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The US defensive national policy first suggested by Eisenhower came to fruition during this period, and the US Army’s emotional abandonment of the lessons learned from this conflict also encouraged it to discard much of its legacy for successfully fighting offensive wars, insurrections, and insurgencies. Postmodernism further encouraged the idea that history was passé, and the incoming generation of senior soldiers, wanting to forget the Vietnam experience, led the transition from a ‘lessons based’ to a ‘theoretically based’ approach in US Army conceptual and doctrinal design.  To do this successfully, they severed the link with the American military past, and, instead, turned to foreign examples, such as the Yom Kippur War and the Prussian military thinker Clausewitz to provide new wisdom and insight.

Although Clausewitz and his ‘operational art’ does not make a formal appearance in US Army doctrine until the publication of the 1986 edition of FM100-5, his seed is firmly planted within US Army, and, by default, within NATO thinking during the 1970s.  Influential and high-ranking US Army officers further developed this link at the time through publication of several studies praising the Prussian war machine. For example, Colonel T.N. Dupuy’s, A Genius for War: The German Army and the General Staff, 1807-1945, published in 1977, did not seem overly concerned that Germany’s supposed genius and adherence to Clausewitzian ideals had resulted in devastating losses during both world wars. 

Perhaps unfortunately for Canada’s army, Clausewitz was invading the American and NATO mindset at a time when it was facing its own conceptual and doctrinal demons. By the mid-1970s, the last of the army’s war veterans were disappearing from the ranks, leaving a new generation to struggle with the challenge of writing postmodern concepts and doctrine for a very new ‘post-atomic’ army. The recent unification of the Canadian Forces also forced the army to abandon much of its tradition and history, and these two breaks with the army’s intellectual past, combined with its supporting role in NATO’s Central Army Group (CENTAG), meant that tried and true frameworks and formulas were forfeited, despite their manifest long-term success. The US Army was moving forward, which meant that the rest of the NATO land forces were moving forward with it.

Thus, by the mid-1970s, the Canadian Army’s long-standing philosophical foundation was gone, and its tradition of offensive and expeditionary fighting capability in support of national interests was replaced by a more subtle ‘saliency through participation’ model. Although reasonably effective at meeting political and foreign policy goals, the institution paid a heavier intellectual price for choosing mediocrity and mimicry over indigenous excellence.

As the US Army later discovered, re-inventing the Canadian Army as 19th Century Prussians was perhaps the worst way to resolve the post-Unification crisis, but our subordinate position role in both ABCA and CENTAG left the army with little choice but to follow America’s land force intellectual lead. Both the geography and context of the army’s roles and missions in the 1970s and 1980s ensured that whatever drove the US Army’s intellectual development would inevitably, to some extent, shape our own. After all, our senior officers regularly attended US staff and war colleges, and our combat developers maintained a close working relationship with our American and British allies.  Added to this deadly mix was the revelation that land forces had slid into a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) at some point in the 1980s, although the exact nature of this revolution was, and still is, difficult to define. Nevertheless, the ahistorical and unempirical understanding of warfare, devoid of relevant data gleaned from our past experiences and sustained by a rediscovered Clausewitzian philosophy, shaped Canadian Army thinking well into the mid-1990s.

It is understandable to some extent why senior officers in the Canadian Army were so lulled into Clausewitzian hero-worship. The Prussian model, with its inherent focus upon tradition, discipline, and tactical innovation, was attractive to an army struggling to maintain its very military identity in the ‘single service single uniform’ post-Unification era. Also, rationalist, scientific, engineering, and empirical approaches to land warfare tended to be unpopular among soldiers who preferred Clausewitz’s romantic explanations of war as a series of intangibles – the genius of leadership, the role of chance, the will and discipline of armies, and the moods of kings and emperors. The fact that nearly all of Canada’s wars clearly showed that it was more often not genius but the collective efforts of good command, taking not chances but calculated risk and effectively causing enemy attrition, seemed to matter little among those narrowly focused upon the ‘tactical front end’ of combat. At this end, Prussian militarism and philosophy was pre-eminent, and, therefore, at times, it seemed this was all that mattered.

Major-General Bert Hoffmeister

Lieut. Strathy E.E. Smith/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-204155

Major-General Bert Hoffmeister near Castrocielo, Italy, 23 May 1944.

It would certainly help explain why the general criticism leveled at Canadian commanders, especially during the Second World War, continues, and it continues to be derived largely from authors educated in the Clausewitzian school, and therefore prone to applying its standards. It could also explain why staff college battlefield tours visiting Canadian battlefields across the globe continue to focus more upon the ‘brilliance’ of German tactics, and present our own ideas as being somehow misguided and dull. It makes one wonder how the Canadian Army ever managed to win anything, since Clausewitz apparently ‘had it right’ all along. Are we so blinded by Prussian uniforms and élan that we are forced to refer to our own innovation as, as one historian once put it, “…not glamourous but effective”? It is almost as if we are somehow disappointed that the Canadian Army did not need a handful of ‘larger than life’ geniuses to achieve success and victory on the battlefield.

Many have argued that Clausewitz taught NATO armies to deny the existence of patterns in warfare, and, therefore, we collectively still spend very little time, if any, looking for these patterns. The army certainly does not invest a great amount of time examining those case studies right under its nose – one cannot help but wonder how the selective study of Clausewitzian wisdom is of more benefit to us than the study of Canadian thinkers such as George Taylor Denison III, William Heneker, Lawrence Buchan, Arthur Currie, E.L.M Burns, and A.J.P. Bailey, to name but a few. Or how the study of select insurgencies, such as the ever-popular Malaya campaign, are more useful to the Canadian Army than the study of its own counterinsurgency, counter-insurrection, and stability campaigns along the Niagara frontier and out on the Prairies. Suggest to others that we already know a thing or two about stability operations, given our experiences in Russia at the end of the First World War and in the Netherlands at the end of the Second World War, and you will likely be greeted with a bovine stare.  It is the same stare one is greeted with when one asks the question: Why only study the successes like Malaya, if we are likely to learn more from our past mistakes? Why are we afraid to study, for example, the Mau Mau Rebellion instead?

The Canadian Army cannot allow itself to be dominated by romantic, Prussian-influenced ‘commander-centric’ operational art at the expense of embracing a wide range of military arts and science as the conceptual and doctrinal means of solving our military problems. Intuition and intangibles alone cannot form the basis of formulas and frameworks for success.  Our ongoing challenges with respect to defeating the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’ while implementing the sometimes-nebulous comprehensive approach to operations keeps reminding us of this reality. History must be studied and data collected with respect to what worked, and what did not, and why.

The tendency to disregard the lessons of our own history until very recently frustrated other efforts to intellectually and doctrinally prepare the army for the post-Cold War era. Perhaps nowhere was this disregard more visible than in the fact that despite nearly two decades of operations in the Balkans, neither DND nor the army has yet to complete a single official history of this complex campaign. Yet, it was in this war that the senior officers and NCOs of today learned about the true brutal and confusing nature of ‘war amongst the people.’ Therefore, why does the Canadian Army choose to pay so little attention to this particular event and its lessons?

It may be that the Canadian Army has very much ignored its Balkan experience for the same reasons US Generals Starry and Dupuis did everything possible to forget Vietnam. Counterinsurgency offered few decisive battles, even less opportunities for honour and glory, and, certainly, no massive mechanized infantry-tank battles that were the hallmark of the Normandy and Northwest Europe campaigns. Also, too often, the requirement for military genius during the Vietnam era was needed much more in Washington D.C. than it was in Saigon, and the soldiers on the ground were routinely frustrated by the obtuse and seemingly absent-minded direction emanating from the politicians at home. To use a currently popular Canadian catch phrase, the Vietnam era and its immediate aftermath constituted the US Army’s own “decade of darkness.” This would certainly explain the desire to employ the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, rather than America’s own wars, as the model and framework for building the 1980s-era US ‘Army of Excellence.’ Why America would forsake its own offensive traditions to emulate a Prussian model that repeatedly failed to win any of Germany’s wars in the 20th Century; however, is a question that historians are still trying to answer.

Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns

Lieut. C.E. Nye/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-171701

Lieutenant-General E.L.M. Burns.

The psychological challenge that counterinsurgency presents to military thinkers should never be underestimated. As one highly experienced British major-general recently said to me during a discussion on doctrine, “…professional soldiers tend to approach COIN with distaste, and if Afghanistan is the shape of things to come, then it is a road that few ‘self-respecting’ soldiers frankly wish to take.”  After Vietnam, it was ‘pushed’ by the US Army, and therefore generally accepted by NATO armies, that general-purpose forces would never again engage in counterinsurgency. And again, the study of Clausewitz provided some justification for conventional forces to ignore this type of warfare. Rather than conclude that the Prussian philosopher had missed something by devoting only five pages of his 660-page magnum opus to ‘the People in Arms,’ soldiers and scholars used this oversight as proof that the true solution to winning wars was manoeuvre and decisive, war-winning battle.

Indeed, much of Clausewitz’s On War is a philosophical attempt in the Kantian style to resolve the “…dialectical contradiction between the unlimited violence of battle and the very limited political objectives of monarchical war.” Populations and governance, the very things that we are supposedly fighting for in Afghanistan, is all but absent from the Clausewitzian calculus. Instead, his preference was for decisive, war-ending battles of annihilation – a strategy neither politically acceptable nor operationally useful to modern western democratic governments and armies seeking to wage protracted counterinsurgencies, focused upon attrition of the enemy, while subjugating the population to a new form of Western-style governance.

Nowhere is this revelation more evident than in the repeated messages of the commanders returning from Afghanistan. With commendable intellectual frankness and honesty, our generals have admitted their frustration with the comprehensive approach model, their seeming inability to effectively apply Clausewitzian ‘operational art’ to RC South, and the difficulties inherent in identifying and defeating the ever-morphing ‘centres of gravity.’ Yet, one could argue there is no shame in being challenged by an adversary who, if he has an ‘OODA loop’ at all, it is likely one so large that there is really no strategic or operational imperative to race to get inside it. There is also no shame in being frustrated with the demands of trying to create a campaign plan in the Clausewitzian style that must also include an exit strategy. Clausewitz never gave much thought to what would happen after the Prussians had taken Paris. His great advice for post-conflict counterinsurgency – what we would today identify as stability operations – was: “Where the population is concentrated in villages, the most restless communities can be garrisoned, or even looted and burned down as punishment…” Not very useful advice for today’s commanders, to say the least.

Yom Kippur War

Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis/0000333305-021

An Egyptian SAM 6 missile and an Israeli Centurion tank ~ Yom Kippur War, 1 October 1973.

If Afghanistan has taught the army anything, it is that the romantic Prussian military philosophy that dominated the Canadian Army’s conceptual and doctrinal thinking for the last three decades is not the single solution to all problems as advertised.  Neither is there much value in ‘cherry-picking’ foreign examples of foreign insurgencies fought by our allies, where luck and contextual circumstance, combined with Clausewitzian model characters, resulted in the kind of victory we would like to achieve.  The army must never make the same mistake that the US Army made in abandoning Vietnam for the Yom Kippur War. Neither should we abandon the innovative spirit of soldiers like Denison, Heneker, Currie, and Burns for the likes of Clausewitz yet again.

As a figure for study, Clausewitz should not be completely ‘kicked to the curb.’  His writings, as well as those of his contemporaries, influenced some of the greatest military leaders of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and, for this reason alone, professional soldiers must continue to understand and assess his ideas. But the analysis and appreciation of On War does not have to include its wholesale incorporation, especially at the expense of more relevant ideas and concepts far more germane to our present circumstances.

As the distinguished historian Hew Strachan noted in his biography of Clausewitz’s writings, “…those who have simplified On War have done a great disservice, not just because they have been selective and self-serving in their judgments, but also because they have lost the richness of a text whose range continues to astonish.  The most important task is to return to what he wrote himself, and to put it in the context of his own times, not ours.” If readers draw anything at all from this article, it should be this point.

The Canadian Army’s conceptual and doctrinal designers are already looking beyond Afghanistan, but everything they produce must be informed and shaped by this campaign. If the army wishes to avoid further ‘decades of darkness,’ then it must forgo the temptation to ignore its own history or succumb to the good-intentioned but misguided influences of its allies. Letting Clausewitz go, and relying upon our own ingenuity and legacy, is the one great lesson the Canadian Army must learn from Afghanistan.

CMJ Logo

Major Andrew B. Godefroy, CD, PhD, is a soldier and scholar, noted for his work in strategic studies, innovation, biography, and military history. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Army Journal, and he oversees projects primarily associated with capability development in the Canadian Armys Directorate of Land Concepts and Designs.

Top of Page