The Great Masters of Strategy and Modern Warfare

The significant changes that have occurred in warfare at the operational and tactical level in the first decade of the 21st century have created an intense debate about changes to warfare at the strategic level.  This debate has been most passionate over the role of the great classical thinkers on war, particularly Karl von Clausewitz and his opus On War. A particular group of defense analysts, strategic thinkers, and professional soldiers question whether warfare has evolved at the strategic level into something so radically different that a new strategic paradigm is in order.  Competing analysts and scholars believe that the eternal nature of war at the strategic and grand strategy levels remains fundamentally unchanged, in spite of new actors and means of waging war.

In fact, a careful reading of both arguments reveals that Clausewitz’ two major themes on war—the relationship between war and politics and the interaction of his “strategic trinity” relationship remain just as valid today as they did in 1832, if studied and applied with a careful understanding and context within a proper historical and strategic setting.

The most misunderstood, but relevant, discussion Clausewitz raised in his work was the issue of “friction” and uncertainty in war.  For Clausewitz friction in war took two forms, tactical and strategic, both of which remain germane for conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries.  At the strategic level, Clausewitz noted that wars often veer in unexpected directions, often driven by the emotion side of his strategic triad, and not always controlled by the rational portion.  A primary example is the carnage of the Western Front in World War I, where the cost in treasure and manpower after 1914 quickly and completely overcame any possible negotiated settlement to the war, turning the conflict into a grinding attrition war that eventually killed millions and destroyed three of Europe’s oldest dynasties.  According to Clausewitz countries often go to war without a clear understanding of how to balance the ways and means the people, government, and military are willing to expend to achieve military and political ends.  This strategic friction of starting a war without clear and achievable goals is described as one of the worst mistakes a country can make, and numerous analysts have invoked Clausewitizian thought to condemn the American invasion of Iraq as a military operation begun without clear end goals or a desired and achievable political end state.

The more important aspect of Clausewitz’ thinking on friction is the understanding that warfare is fought between two thinking, evolving and adapting opponents.  In Clausewitz thinking it is the height of folly to assume your opponent will do what you expect them or stand idly while being attacked.   The maxim is true at both the strategic and tactical level.  The most recent conflict in Lebanon show how Israel underestimated Hezbollah’s willingness and capabilities to engage in prolonged firefights at the tactical level while completely changing the conflict at the strategic level by bombarding Israeli towns with rockets and missiles.  The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) never did provide an effective counter to their new opponents, expecting Hezbollah to crumple under the weight of Israeli firepower and tactical ability as previous Arab armies had done.  The U.S. also encountered this phenomenon during the initial states of Operation Iraqi Freedom when American tank columns did not face Iraqi armored units but groups of irregular fighters in civilian clothes fighting from pickup trucks.  Although U.S. combat units decimated these forces, follow-on logistical and maintenance units were much more vulnerable and considerable combat strength had to be diverted to protect supply lines.

Although warfare has changed a great deal through technology, culture and a new media dominated environment, the nature of war is eternal.  The attempt by “new war” theorists to discredit the classic strategic thinkers, particularly Clausewitz, falls short of the mark.  Although the realm of nation-state warfare is certainly in flux, the lessons on the political relationship of war and diplomacy combined with the strategic triad and the role of friction and uncertainty described in On War remains viable today.  Understanding Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Jomini, and even Thucydides in the context of their times and circumstances continues to offer relevant insights to soldiers and politicians attempting to understand the unforgiving complexities of war.