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Biography of Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz: War and the Role of Military Philosophy

Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is considered to be the father of war. His works can be considered as the corner stone for contemporary military theory. In this paper a biography is presented at first for a better understanding of his background and afterwards his basic ideas presented in his major work “On War” are presented. The significance and influence of these ideas nowadays is also examined under the scope of their presence in the military realm.

Carl Phillip Gottfried von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian soldier and intellectual. He came from a modest social background, and served as a practical field soldier where he gained extensive combat experience against the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon. Von Clausewitz also served as a staff officer with political and military responsibilities at the very center of the Prussian state, and worked as a prominent military educator. Clausewitz first entered combat as a cadet at the age of 13, rose to the rank of Major-General at 38, married into the high nobility, and socialized in the intellectual circles of Berlin. He is most widely recognized as the author of On War, now an influential work of military philosophy in the Western world. On War (Vom Kriege) has been translated into virtually every major language and continues to have an influence on modern strategists in many fields. This essay will describe Clausewitz’ biographical profile, and then relate the significance of military philosophy to understanding the relationship between politics and the military.(Clausewitz official website)

Biographical Background
Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz was born on 1 June 1780, near Magdeburg. Although the name had Polish origins, the family was German and patriotically Prussian. Despite their pretensions to nobility, however, the Clausewitzs were in fact of middle­class origins. The elder Clausewitz had obtained a commission in the army of Frederick the Great, but was forcibly retired during Frederick’s purge of non­noble officers after the Seven Years War (1756­63). On the basis of his sons’ achievements, the family’s nobility was finally confirmed by King Friedrich Wilhelm III in 1827 (Booker & Stone 1985, pages 30-31)
Clausewitz entered the Prussian army as a cadet at the age of twelve; he first saw combat at thirteen. After Prussia withdrew from the wars of the French Revolution in 1795, he spent five years in the more mundane routines of garrison duties. During this time he turned towards providing himself his own education. Expanding beyond strictly military subjects, Clausewitz developed a wide-ranging set of interests in art, science, and education. All of these interests were to have an impact on his later philosophical work. So successful were his self-educating efforts that in 1801 he was able to gain admission to the Institute for Young Officers in Berlin. There he came to the attention of the new director, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, a key figure in the Prussian state during the upheavals of the Napoleonic wars and Chief of the General Staff in 1806. Impressed by Clausewitz’s ability, Scharnhorst became a sponsor, mentor, and close friend.

Clausewitz graduated first in his class in 1803 and was rewarded with the position of military adjutant to the young Prince August, bringing him into close contact with the royal family.

Scharnhorst and other Prussian military reformers had deeply influenced most of Clausewitz’s basic historical, political, and military views. In general, their argument was that if the Prussian state wanted to survive it had to do the same that French Revolution had achieved whose astounding successes took place because it had tapped the energies of the French people. This would require radical social and political reforms in the Prussian state and army, both of which were blatant under the successors of Frederick the Great. Clausewitz’s works therefore reflect a strong impulse towards social and military reform.

After the devastating French victories over Austria and Russia in 1805, Prussia initiated the processes for a war in 1806. However the timing and the preparations of the Prussian mobilization were not sufficient, however and the nation’s moral was very low and with no motivation for such an aim. The Prussian forces were cracked down in humiliating defeats in the battles at Jena and Auerstadt. Clausewitz and Prince August were captured. In the peace settlement, Prussia lost half of its population and territory and became a French satellite.
When he returned from imprisonment in 1808, he joined with Scharnhorst and other members of the reform movement united all together for a restructure in the Prussian society and army in order to be prepared for an inevitable new war with the French. The King, however, was quite reluctant and more concerned with maintaining his position in the much­reduced Prussian state than heading for a nationalistic crusade. Clausewitz’s disillusionment reached a peak when Prussia, allied with France, agreed to provide an army corps to Napoleon to assist in the 1812 invasion of Russia. Along with many other officers, he resigned from the Prussian service and accepted a commission in the Russian army. He served during the Russian retreat from the French forces, however, Prussia’s change of sides led, after some delay, to his reinstatement as a colonel in the Prussian army. Clausewitz participated in many key events of the War of Liberation (1813-1814), and served as an aide to General August von Gneisenau, Field Marshal G.L. von Blücher’s chief of staff 1813-1815 and one of the principal leaders of Prussia’s military rebirth.

In 1818, Clausewitz was promoted to general and became administrative head of the General War College in Berlin but had nothing to do with actual instruction at the school. During this time, he wrote the notes that would eventually form his collected works. Clausewitz returned to active duty with the army in 1830, when he was appointed commander of a group of artillery brigades stationed in eastern Prussia. When revolutions in Paris and Poland seemed to suggest a new general European war, he was appointed chief of staff to Field Marshal Gneisenau and the Army of Observation sent to the Polish border.
Clausevitz died on 16 November 1831 at the age of fifty-one. The cause of his death was cholera which was transmitted to him while he was organizing a sanitary camp in the east , where he remained for that purpose after the aversion of war.

On War His writings (On War represents only three of the ten volumes of his collected works)
provide important first-person, historical, and analytical commentaries on key events of the dramatic Napoleonic era. Unlike many other great books, however, the ideas Clausewitz proposed have never been fully absorbed into the mainstream of historical texts. This is due partly to the depth and difficulty of the original work and to the unusual “dialectical character” of Clausewitz’s approach (Cimbala 1992, pages 1-12). Nevertheless, it remains required reading in America’s intermediate-level and senior military schools, as well as in many civilian strategic studies programs and, increasingly, in business schools.
Clausewitz’s aim was not to provide the reader with any solid and ever lasting answers nor prescribe solutions. He understood the concept that his future readers would face a strategic world unpredictably different in many aspects from his own. His objective is to help the reader develop his or her own strategic judgment in order to deal with the continuously changing strategic environment. It is this pedagogical quality of his writing that renders the works remarkable.

The principal importance of Clausewitz’s approach to strategic theory is its realism. This is not “realism” in the sense of cynicism about politics and brute power. Instead, there is realism in the way it describes the complicated and uncertain manner in which real-world events unfold, “taking into account both the frailties of human nature and the complexity of the physical and psychological world” (Booker & Stone 1985, page 31).

The ideas posed by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) have come to deeply influence American military writing theoretical, and historical Since the close of the Vietnam War. On War, first published in 1832, was adopted as a key text at the Naval War College in 1976, the Air War College in 1978, the Army War College in 1981. It has always been central at the U.S. Army’s School for Advanced Military Studies at Leavenworth (founded in 1983). The U.S. Marine Corps’s brilliant little philosophical field manual FMFM 1: Warfighting (1989) is essentially a distillation of On War, and the Marine Corps Doctrinal Publications (1993) are equally reflect?ve of Clausewitz’s basic concepts (Bassford 1994, 154-157).

The sudden acceptability of Clausewitz in the wake of Vietnam is not difficult to account for, because Clausewitz seriously struggled with the sort of dilemma that American military leaders faced in the result of their defeat (Bassford 1994, pages 157-158). In what had come to be called in “political war,” the political and military components of the American war effort merged significantly. While it was difficult for the American military to criticize elected civilian leaders, it was just as difficult to take the blame for Vietnam upon themselves. Clausewitz’s analysis proved highly relevant:

The more powerful and inspiring the motives for war,… the more closely will the military aims and the political objects of war coincide, and the more military and less political will war appear to be. On the other hand, the less intense the motives, the less will the military element’s natural tendency to violence coincide with political directives. As a result, war will be driven further from its natural course, the political object will be more and more at variance with the aim of ideal war, and the conflict will seem increasingly political in character. (Bassford 1994, page 54)

American soldiers denied to accompany with the idea that they have lost in the battlefield arena but they tended to admit that that the policy was badly formed and communicated with the result of them being in the place of not understanding their role in actually making it. By clarifying the interplay among the armed forces, government, and people, and by clearly describing the two sides of the civil-military relationship, Clausewitz offered a way out of this dilemma and into the future (Bassford 1994, pages 159-160).

As such, Clausewitz’s ideas underlie some of the most influential statements of the military “lessons learned” from the Vietnam debacle, including Colonel Harry Summers’s “On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War” and the “Weinberger doctrine,” first expressed by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in 1984 (Bassford 1994, 160-162).

On War was not intended to provide a practical guide to commanders in the field. There are considerable misunderstandings about Clausewitz’ theory because of this misconception.

To Clausewitz, war (as opposed to strategy or tactics) was neither an art nor a science. He argued that the object of science is knowledge and certainty, while the object of art is creative ability. Clausewitz saw tactics as more scientific in character, and strategy as something of an art.

War, neither exclusive science or art, thus, is a form of “social intercourse” (Booker & Stone 1985, page 55 ). Clausewitz occasionally compared it to commerce or litigation, but more usually to politics. War is permeated by “intelligent forces.” War is also “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” but it is never unilateral. He compares it to a wrestling match – -a contest between independent wills, where skill and creativity are no more important than personality, chance, emotion, and the various dynamics that characterize any human interaction. “When Clausewitz wrote that war may have a grammar of its own, but not its own logic, he meant that the logic of war, like politics, is the logic of social intercourse, not that of art or science. “ (Bassford 1994, page 58)

War and Policy
According to Clausewitz, if war is to be an extension or tool of policy, then military leaders must be subordinate to political leaders and strategy must be subordinate to policy. The military instrument must be subordinated to the political leadership, but political leaders must understand its nature and limitations. Politicians must not attempt to use the instrument of war to achieve purposes for which it is unsuited. “It is the responsibility of military leaders to ensure that the political leadership understands the character and limitations of the military instrument.” One of the most important requirements of strategy in Clausewitz’s view is that the leadership correctly “establish … the kind of war on which they are embarking.” (Booker and Stone 1985, page 62) This is often understood to mean that leaders should rationally decide the kind of war that will be undertaken. In fact, the nature of any given war is beyond rational control: it is inherent in the situation and in the “spirit of the age.” This is most evident in the French Revolution, and as well in Vietnam.

Clausewitz’s ambition was to bridge the gap between theory and practice. However it can be conceived as very practical by the intellectual, too complex and vague by a politician and very theoretical in the battlefield by a soldier. The gap between theory and practice thus represents a dichotomy between the values and perceptions of scholars and soldiers. The f?rst where never g?ven the chance to be in the battlefield and the latter probably never went through complex research analysis on paper.

By the same token, Vietnam veterans tend to see it as a textbook on what went wrong in their war. This points to the significance of this work, wherein Clausewitz insisted that personal experience was essential to any understanding of the phenomena of war.
Personal experience is very important.. On War gave shape to the most important formulations of the final “lessons learned” from the Vietnam experience, as expressed in the Weinberger Doctrine (Bassford 1994, pages 172-175). Clausewitz’s theory cannot be interpreted from only one point of view but it should be appointed to each occasion separately according to the goals to be achieved. A great flexibility in interpretation and application of the theory is a fact which leaves a great gap in the concepts and which leaves the reader or the policy maker or the soldier responsible for the conclusions reached. Finally, as Clausewitz observes, “We see, therefore, that war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” (Clausewitz). To win at war we must have unity between our government, our people, and our military and we must also exercise every other caution to insure that our efforts are sufficient to accomplish the goal. These efforts include not only such primary military strategies as insuring adequate numbers of troops but also insuring that we truly understand our enemy and its capabilities.

Bassford Christofer, 1994, “Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America”,New York: Oxford University Press.

Booker Christine and Stone Norman, 1985 , “Clausewitz: Philosopher of War”, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice­Hall.

Carl Von Clausewitz, Official Website, “Frequently asked Questions”, (accessed on 10 April 2010)

Carl von Clausewitz, “On War”, (accesed on 20 May 2010)

Cimbala J. Stephen, 1992, “Clausewitz and Escalation: Classical Perspective on Nuclear Strategy” London Frank Cass.