Clausewitz and you: Life strategy



It’s time to talk about tactics as opposed to strategy in life, because knowing the difference is crucial to achieving success, and avoiding disaster. And that, of course, is the topic of my book.

The person to know about in this matter (besides Hannibal and Scipio, of course) is Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian (and later Russian) officer on the losing side against Napoleon. He also witnessed Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia, which made a deep impression on him. Think of him as the equivalent of an adviser to Scipio or Fabius, the Romans on the losing side against my main character, Hannibal.

Clausewitz is without any doubt one of the great thinkers in world history, even though he is enigmatic and still confuses people to this day. The main reason for that is that he spent his career taking notes–hundreds and hundreds of pages worth–which he meant to consolidate into a coherent whole. But then he died of cholera, at the age of fifty-one. So his great treatise, Vom Kriege, “On War”, was not coherent. Even so, it is now considered the most profound work on strategy ever, thanks to the thoughtful analysis of people such as Kenneth Payne, Patrick Porter and David Betz at King’s College in London.

Let’s look at his most famous and controversial quote:

War is nothing but the continuation of politics (or policy) with other means.

Lots of mediocre minds have, over the years, worked themselves into a fury over the alleged cynicism of this quote, entirely missing its point and getting the meaning backward. Clausewitz was not saying that all politics is potentially like war, but that all war must remain subservient to political/policy objectives. This is subtle.

Elsewhere he had set up the basic tension in war: War can in theory be:

  1. absolute, or
  2. limited

In practice, all wars must be limited but simultaneously “want to” escalate. And here we get into Clausewitz’s wisdom:

Means vs ends

A tactical mind always and only wants to win the battle–whatever battle is being waged. (Remember Pyrrhus?) This is the mind that wants to escalate any war toward its absolute extreme. In future posts I will give some devastating examples of what this can lead to.

A strategic mind wants to win “the war” or, better yet, “the peace”! Battles are simply a means to an end. So it makes perfect sense to adjust your battle tactics not to the goal of victory but to the goal of achieving the kind of peace you ultimately want. This almost always introduces moderation and limitation into your tactics.

As with so many bits of profound wisdom, this is deceptively easy to shrug off. But consider how earth-shattering it was in its time. There was, for instance, a pompous strategist named Heinrich von Bülow, who defined tactics as “the science of military movement in the presence of the enemy,” whereas strategy was “the science of military movements beyond the range of cannon-shot of either side.” What banal and trivial drivel!

Now consider how earth-shattering Clausewitz’s insight can be for your own life: “The object of war,” he said, and I will add emphasis in bold:

as of all creative activity, is the employment of the available means for the predetermined end.

And here you see why I include Clausewitz in my pantheon of great thinkers: Simple, profound and specific, and yet expandable to other areas of life.

Have you ever “won” a fight with your lover only to feel that you’ve lost something far greater? “Won” a promotion only to feel that you’ve lost something? “Won” in a bout of office politics only to feel that you should not have entered battle to begin with?

Are you, in your life, confusing tactics with strategy, means with ends? You need some Clausewitz.

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17 thoughts on “Clausewitz and you: Life strategy

  1. Andreas – thanks for your kind comment, and kudos for your Clausewitz post. I look forward to reading more in your book.

    The big man can be tough going in parts — in the middle books of On War especially, and in his penchant for the dialectic and for trinities. But he is more readable than is often assumed, and as you suggest, he remains undoubtedly the most profound military theorist.

    Could I recommend to new readers a couple of companion books? Beatrice Heuser’s ‘Reading Clausewitz’ and Hew Strachan’s ‘Clausewitz’s On War’ are both first rate, and really helped me understand Clausewitz’s thinking.



    PS – I can’t take credit for the Faceless Bureaucrat’s blogging – he’s another member of the team, blogging incognito for mysterious reasons…

    • Thanks, Ken. I changed the link under your name to your WordPress blog. (Your very tasteful theme has no search bar: I was trying to find your posts about Clausewitz. Great pic, though! You may recall that this is my favorite Rembrandt.)

      Dialectic, trinities (ruler, population, army), “centers of gravity”, “culminating points” of offense and defense: much to ponder with Clausewitz. I try to make it easy in one chapter of my book.

      I haven’t read Heuser or Strachan, but will put them on my list. What do you think of your own (ie, King’s College’s) Michael Howard’s admirably short introduction?

    • Oh, and I forgot to ask (since you clearly studied the man much more than I have): What would you say his main contribution is? If your mom asked you to sum him up, what would you say? I tried to do that in this post, but probably trivialized him.

  2. Hi Andreas — Michael Howard’s book is great too, and his translation (co-authored with Peter Paret) is the standard.

    As for Clausewitz’s main contribution hmm… Well, I most often use the remarkable trinity with students – passion, chance, and reason: which, as you note, he associated loosely with the people, military and government respectively. Of those, I am most interested in passion, which addresses the relationship between societies and war.

    But his thoughts on luck, chance, and the fog of war are also important. Until recently, the US military employed an overly deterministic concept, called the Effects Based Approach, which did not reflect sufficiently on the complexities of human interactions in war. Much social science writing has suffered from the same tendency. Clausewitz’s emphasis on chance is a worthwhile reminder of the need for greater modesty.



  3. It is a shame our political leaders have lost this simple wisdom and are engaging in wars without having a clear and reachable goal. Just as it was folly to engage in a “war to end all wars” one cannot hope to win a war against “terror” or “drugs”.

    My home state of Israel lost two wars recently (Lebanon and Gaza) that were “emotional responses” to attacks on the nation, but due to a lack of any political strategy and overall plan any military gains were lost leading to the reverse outcome Israel had hoped for.

    • The whole issue of an Iranian bomb now poses a fascinating strategy/tactics question for Israel. I wonder what Clausewitz would say about that…

  4. Mr. Payne (or perhaps Andreas)- Your final sentence caught my attention. Are you saying that because of the complexities of human interaction, in war and also in daily work/play/thought, that more modesty is needed overall?

    Or are you saying that more modesty is needed in the researching and then the writing about these topics?

    Again, I am reminded of the opening lines in Stringfellow Barr’s essay on the beauty of dialectic in which he observes that we should try to control the I think that… urge and do more listening and questioning.

    A, did Diogenes say we have two ears and one mouth for a reason?

    • Great quote by Diogenes that I was not aware of.

      Regarding the ‘modesty’ Ken was talking about: I think he meant, here at least, the way Clausewitz wrote about war and strategy. He was a great theorist but also, remember, taking actual notes as he was observing the real, messy business of war up close. The slaughter at Borodino, the disastrous crossing of the Berezina, etc. He seemed in awe of this sheer, overwhelming complexity of reality–chance–and that comes through in his writing. By contrast, a lot of other writers (ahem) sometimes get a bit too cocky while trying to develop their “big idea”.

  5. Long term strategic goals are of course important so that one doesn’t win the battle and lose the war. but some confrontations or challenges leave the actor little choice. I hate to use a morbid example, but it serves to make the point. A deep tissue sacrcoma in the lower leg can’t be reasoned with, or appeased, or listened to. There is no summit, mediation, or retreat that will have any chance of meeting the challenge. The only options are 1) to do nothing (and accept the 100% certainty of early death , or 2) bring out the big guns and take the leg off above the knee. Certainly, like war, no one likes it, but there may not be a choice.

    I agree that the long term strategic goal (life), should in the forefront in chosing a strategy in my example. If the removal of the leg will only buy a month or two, then maybe doing nothing is a better tactical decision. Of course, questions to the soldier (the doctor) about the chance of achieving strategic goals is really really important.

    Good evening everyone,


    • Ah, but the case of a deep-tissue sacroma (of which I’ve never heard before) does not actually pose a Clausewitzian dilemma between strategy and tactics: There is a clear and mortal danger and you and your surgeon are playing defense, all or nothing. Since Joe, above, brought up Israel’s two recent wars, we might compare the sacroma situation to Israel’s first war, just after independence: If everyone attacks you, you’re going to fight back to keep existing. Tactics and strategy are easy to align.

      Things get more complicated when it’s not a sacroma that’s been diagnosed (and most diagnoses are not that). I’m going to give a few examples in subsequent posts.

  6. A:

    Well put. If one assumes, arguendo, that a state has a nuclear device, the ability to deliver it and the stated intention to do so, is this the kind of mortal danger where Clausewitz would see a close alignment of strategy and tactics? Do you think that Clausewitz under such circumstances would expect the defender to initiate a preemptive action (like taking the leg off)? If in fact Iran has or will have a nuclear device soon and the ability to deliver it, it could be that Israel is faced with a Hobson’s Choice. Not a preferred choice, but just the only choice or, no choice at all depending on one’s perspective.

    This post stimulates worthwhile thinking on the N. Korea problem too. Aside from proliferation, the immediate threat doesn’t seem as clear as in the case of Iran. Given the uncertainty of what Kim Jong Il might do in response to a surgical military strike (land invasion of the south) there seems to be a greater space between the long term strategy and the short term tactical options than in Israel’s situation. Although, the Japanese might look at this problem differently.

    Thanks for the introduction to Clausewitz!


  7. Hi Cheri – I was suggesting that modesty is required in research and writing about war and other human phenomena – whether of military doctrine, or in social ‘sciences’ like International Relations. Sometimes we are too ready to make oversimplifications about cause and effect, or to derive generalizable explanations and predictions.

    Clifford Geertz made the point very eloquently in his classic book ‘The interpretation of cultures’ — in his view, we should seek undertanding over explanation.

    Of course, you’ve got to have theory, otherwise you get lost in relativism and historicism. But you can have too much of a good thing! Clausewitz himself sought a general theory of war, but wrote too about the difficulty of separating the particular from the general. In fact, his most enduring insights came after his acknowledgement, late in life, that not all war would be Napoleonic. He then started redrafting On War over again, but died having only completed the first book and revised a little more.

    Meanwhile, I am greatly enjoying the tactics/strategy discussion here.



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