July 30, 2023

Relevancy of Clausewitz' On War in the 21st Century

“War is an act of force to compel an enemy to do our will”, said by a great Prussian General and military theorist Carl Philip Gottfried Von Clausewitz 

Carl von Clausewitz:

“War is an act of force to compel an enemy to do our will”, said a great Prussian General and military theorist, Carl Philip Gottfried Von Clausewitz, who was born on June 1, 1780, in a noble family at Burg in the Prussian Kingdom.

His father was a lieutenant in the Prussian Army, but Clausewitz had the good luck to be a lieutenant, starting his career at only 12 years old. He served in the Prussian army during the Nepoleonic War and the Russian War, as well as in the French Revolution in 1789.

But Clausewitz gradually lost interest as an active combatant rather than a military specialist. At the very beginning of his scholarship, he found that the war was a structural conflict created for political ends.

Through some strong dictum, he clearly demonstrated that the nature of wars is one that is indeed political. He spent a huge amount of his time in the Royal Library and Theater of Prince Henry on military strategies and finding out the dynamics upon which these strategies largely depend.

Clausewitz was much influenced by Gerhard Scharnhorst’s ideologies during his graduation period at the Berlin War College. Being a realist, Scharhorst’s thought was based on the central concept of war: “power in politics and violence in war”. 

However, Clausewitz spent almost a decade writing eight great books on war strategy. Starting in 1827 until his death in 1837, he completed refining six out of his eight books and wrote the preface “On War”. And since publishing these books, he has been mentioned more than any other military theorist in the world of warfare.

Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War in Short:

In military warfare, Carl Von Clausewitz’s “Vom Kriege”, “On War,” has been regarded as the most significant single book on military strategy ever written, which was published in 1832.

His writing was so fundamental that those who influenced all the substances of military thinking of great strategists, including Antonio-Henry Jomini and Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, and also the American nuclear strategists, have been fans of “On War”.

Clausewitz’s “On War” is basically a collection of books. There are eight books on military warfare. In his first book “On the Nature of War,”, he defines the central nature and scope of war by saying, “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” and also sets the objective of war by saying, “War is nothing but a dual act of violence intended to achieve political ends”. 

“On the Theory of War” is his second book, where he first distinguishes between tactics and strategy by saying, “Tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat. Strategy is the theory of the use of combat for the object of the war.” He also emphasizes the unity of war and politics depending on logistics and effectiveness rather than moral dimensions.

In his third book, “Of Strategy in General,” he describes how strategy is so significant for political gain in war. He classifies strategies into five groups. He sets boldness, persistence, superiority in number, economics of forces, etc. as the preconditions for making strategy successful. He also rejects morality as a strategy.

Clausewitz returns to practical combat through his fourth book, “The Combat,” where he includes some characteristics of modern battle. He also generalizes and signifies the nature of combat. Book five is based on “Military Forces,” where he describes three important features of military forces: the theater of operations, the army, and the campaign.

He also generalizes the actions of the military. “Defence” is the name of his sixth book. He relates attack to defense in both tactics and strategy. He also characterizes strategic defense and classifies defense. In his following book, “The Attack,” he sets the objective of strategic attack and supports an offensive manner of attack.

And his final book is “War Plans”, where he defines absolute and real war and defines the military object of war.

Relevance of Clausewitz’s “On War”:  

“All wars are things of the same nature” is the Serman, which is fundamentally proclaimed as the essence of the whole of Carl von Clausewitz’s writings. He thought, during the publishing of his books, that people would forget his writings within two to three years, but that did not happen. Scholers finds two core reasons why the books are still relevant.

The first is his theoretical development of war, and the second is the superiority of his theorizing. In short, Clausewitz made us understand the nature and object of war, how it works, and why it works. Throughout the past two centuries, Clausiwitzian quotations have been given in military studies almost all over the world.

Though there are many critics of the relevance of Clausewitz’s theory of war, there has been a little effort to improve it. Among these trying books, U.S. Navy Real Admiral J.C. Wylie’s “Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control” was successful to some extent.

However, in this writing, we will describe some core ideas, namely, the nature of war, the duality of war, the trinity, the geneius commander, the center of gravity, and fog and friction, which still have relevance in the 21st century. We can use the present “Global War On Terror” as our case study.

Understanding the nature of war:

In the beginning, Clausewitz describes that it is very important to understand both conflicting parties to identify what kind of war you are really engaging in. His two great dictums emphasize his definition of the nature of war.

“The first, supreme, and most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesmen and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is allien to its nature. 

“His thought about engaging in war is still valid on the War on Terror, though it was written almost two hundred years ago. Although the Bush Administration seemed to see it as a limited war, it has betrayed them by turning into more than a limited war.

Though they wanted to destroy the Taliban haven but engaged in total war when encountered by Sunni-led Al-Qaeda and the Saddam regime, the administration immediately felt compelled to hold on.

They understood that they were no longer in a good position because huge Sunni-led insurgents (so-called) would challenge them, who are not confined to a particular location but rather scattered. So they (the US Administration) went for a total war by invading Iraq in 2003.

The Second act says, “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” So when the Bush Administration successfully invaded Iraq and Afghanistan,  they wanted to continue their campaign widely by attacking global terrorism and uprooting their havens in accordance with this second sermon.

Therefore, they entered the Syrian, Yameen, and Libyan conflicts. So there might be no problems in identifying the Clausewitzian theory of the nature of war as relevant as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries. And even in the Cold War, the proxy wars were one kind of war waged to fulfill the political ends of two blocs through their military assistance.

The Duality of War

Carl Von Clausewitz, in his great book “On War,” describes first the concept of total war, wherein the conflicting states use their full resources for waging war. But this concept is more abstract than practical.

Following this absolute or total war, he formulates a new practical concept called limited war, wherein conflicted states use fewer resources to achieve their political aims. The object of limited war is to force or coerce others and achieve its political ends. In the “War On Terror,” the Bush Administration started this sort of war to fulfill its (US) foreign policy.

After invading Iraq, The USA was in a position where they didn’t know how to react to its current status or its future because Bush faced a huge confrontation from Baathist parties, Sunni or Shia extremists, and Al-Qaeda, who were very willing to take the Americans down and send them back.

In that position, the US captures another great dictum of Clausewitz: “If one side uses forces without compunction, undaterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.”

So the Bush Administration took the unlimited version of war to destroy the terrorists, but they were not yet successful in doing so. On January 1, 2007, the Bush Administration acknowledged their failure by saying, “Our past efforts to secure Bagdad failed for two principal reasons:

There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and
There were too many restrictions on the troops we did have… Through this public acknowledgement, Bush indirectly wanted his people’s support, as they did in the past during Vietnam.

Thus his fellow followed Clausewitzian terms like “maximum exertion of strength “. So Bush also sets Iran and Syria as his rough nations.

In the duality nature of war, Clausewitz states, “War may either be waged with the aim of completely defying the enemy in order to force him to concept any terms whatever, or 2. waged to acquire territory in order to retain the occupied land in peace negotiations.” The US administration followed the first term: not to capture the land but to change the Iraqi regime.

The Trinity of War

“Trinity” is one of the most significant works of Clausewitz and is the combination of three factors at play in war, namely,

Primordial violence, hatred, and enmity
Chance and probability, which exist in the creative spirit; and
Wars subordination as an instrument of policy makes them subjected to reason.

He connects these factors to people, the commander, and the government, respectively. According to “On War’s Trinity”, when people faced different ideas, they would engage in violence; the army commander would use this reaction vigorously during war; and the government must formulate policies in favor of both people and the military.

Regarding the topic “War on Terror, the Bush Administration should, first of all, make it clear to their people that they, the people of America, are in great trouble because of the external threats from those radical Islamists—Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The people then gave their support to invade Iraq and uproot terrorist havens. The commander and his army determined how dangerous the extremist Islamists are to the USA and its allies.

So dependent upon this military report and public support, the Bush Administration upheld a new foreign policy named “Pre-emptive Attack,” and the “Global War on Terror” was one of its policies.

For the implementation of his concept of Trinity,” he further says that one element (people) may play a more important role than that of others. This means the US administration must consider that this war is the passion of radical Islamists.

And they (the US) have understood that it cannot be done unless there is a reduction of these believers. But it was too late to get that. And the US triangle has become foolish according to Clausewitz’s dictum, “Each side must be carefully balanced.”

The Center of Gravity

The term “Center of Gravity is used almost 40 times, which discloses its great importance to the nature of war. Clausewitz pays much attention to large battles by saying, “The major battle is therefore to be regarded as concentrated war, as the center of gravity of the entire conflict.”

But in terms of Clausewitzian center of gravity, the US made a mistake by making policy for winning the war rather than winning the hearts and minds of general people or radical Muslims through Islamic scriptures. If the US would adopt the policy of destroying the Taliban and Al-Qaeda by terming them the enemies of Islam who are betraying the mass Muslim people through invalid interpretation of the scripture,

But on the other hand, this radical Islamist group took the case and used it as a weapon against the West, including the USA. Though today the USA tries to dissuade those radical Islamists in Iraq through their renown soft power, namely, security cooperation, education and health facilities, humanitarian aid, and economic assistance, it may not be as successful as it was in the past, according to Clausewitz.

The Genius of the Commander

Of Course, there is the evolution of art in negotiation and the operation of commanders. Today’s commanders are mere capable of solving geopolitical perplexities not only with inter-state actors but also with many non-state actors, including transnational terrorist organizations. Now the art of war for a commander is global, not internal.

In the perspective of the genius of the commander, Carl Von Clausewitz says, “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. 

“By assessing this dictum, the US army is getting skilled over local language and making communication with local mass Sunni Muslims.” Clausewitz also emphasizes rejecting any moral or emotional attitudes rather than holding a rational judgment of the problem, and a negotiator must understand what is going on in the mind of the opponent.

The Bush Administration found them lacking or failing in these particular points and corrected the miscalculations.

Further, Clausewitz coined the term “Coup doeil,” which means a greater degree of genius, which is an intuition ability of commanders. A good commander must be a better negotiator. He or she must recognize the posture of the opponent.

And a negotiator must be humble and intelligent during their appearance after the war. Because defeated enemies will try to recover it unless you treat with them. The Bush Administration missed it at the very beginning, and the present insurgency is the consequence of their failure.

Fog & Friction in War:

“Friction”, the concept, is termed by Clausewitz as an additional concept that is also important to understand the nature of war. According to Clausewitz, “the conduct of war resembles the workings of an intricate machine with tremendous friction, so that combinations that are easily planned on paper can be executed only with great effort.”

Friction is “the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.” Friction can be found in both tactics and strategies. It also asserts that waging a war is different and that strategy can be modified or replaced depending on the context.

Clausewitz describes in his third book, “The Strategy,” the contextual use of strategy. He further argued that the most critical or difficult situation for the commander comes when they are faced with the tyranny of friction.

For example, when the US troops were attacked using guerilla tactics by Iraqi insurgents, they had to modify their strategy depending on the present context. This idea of friction is still trying to be overcome by US strategies.


Examining the War on Terror through the text of Clausewitz, the modern military finds a lot of realistic and practical guidance from the classical work “On War”. 

Though there is some ambiguity in his theory of war, through double-reading, you can find the relevance of Clausewitzian writings in the 21st century. The Bush Administration’s War on Terror is a major example of its contemporary relevance. Now the US has revised it and got many important clues that might have been beneficial in the beginning.

Carl Von Clausewitz was a great and unique personality, both as a scholar and a soldier. We can finish the essay by using his famous words: “No one starts a war, or ought to, without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”


On War, pp. 88-89


On War, p. 75

President’s Address to the Nation, www.whitehouse.gov, January 10, 2007

On War, p. 77

On War, p. 97

On War, p. 89

On War, p. 80

On War, p. 258


On War, p. 121

On War, p. 579

IR Insights

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