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(and war).


I have many opinions. This is a place to organize them. Here are several authors and texts I expect to be important for the Strategy and War course, and my summary and opinions on them.


The most important thing about Clausewitz is his insight that we go to war for some reason. We're not just wrecking up the place for fun, there is some underlying purpose; we should tailor our place-wrecking to achieving the real purpose. The second most important thing about Clausewitz is that he wrote in German, and understanding what he says is a matter of picking the right translation. No, really; there is a plausible explanation that the reason WWI was so horrible was that all the Brits had bad translations of Clausewitz (you can see it in the reading from Liddell-Hart's interwar remarks from the JMO seminar). Pick a good translation, it makes a huge difference. I highly recommend the Everyman's Library version, which has some good essays as front matter and is typeset in a way that makes reading it uniquely easier (it also looks snazzy). Stay away from the Penguin Classics version. Far, far away.

Carl von Clausewitz was a staff officer opposing Napoleon for most of his life. During that time, he wrote up a series of notes for a grand unified theory of war, and organized them into eight books, though his notes say that only the first was anything like ready for publication (and Book 1 is head and shoulders above the rest). After his death, all of these books were published together as vom Kriege (traditionally translated “On War”).

Books One and Two are most worth reading, and are also perhaps the best summary of US strategic thinking for he past hundred years. When reading them, be cautious of pulling ideas out of conflict. Clausewitz wrote in self-contained blocks which are a few paragraphs long. Each block is internally consistent but is only part of the picture. If you read a block in isolation (“victory lies in bringing the maximum force to the decisive point”), you will be badly misled. Book three is also good, but it's less profound after that.

Some key points and concepts:

  • “War is politics by other means” — The use of force grows from political ends, pursues political objectives, and ultimately has political outcomes. Clausewitz doesn't attach any particular moral weight to this; it's more like advice that a belligerent ought not to raze territory it would like to annex.
  • Center Of Gravity — This is Clausewitz' term for the most important thing to a side. In US strategic use, it means the something like “the most important supporting element for a given side,” and usually refers to a location. The original use is directly stealing from physics' center of mass, where force causes acceleration only if applied to this center.
  • There is no science of war — Strategy can't be taught, you have to rely on finding geniuses and turning everything over to them. That sounds harsh, but no-one has yet disproved it. The easy contrast is Jomini, whose Art of War claims there are a few simple rules and victory goes to the one who best follows them. Then Jomini spent the next few hundred pages failing to explain what those rules might be. See also Mahain and Boyd.
  • Friction — War is hard, and it gets harder and harder to keep doing it. Eventually, an army or a country will just be done with fighting. US strategy labels that “culmination”; I don't recall what Clausewitz calls it.
  • Intelligence — Since strategy relies on genius, geniuses need to have carefully curated information presented to them to act on.
  • Superior numbers are the ultimate decider (but not like you think) — Ultimately, whoever applies more force to the center of gravity gets to choose what happens. Clausewitz measured “force” in troop strength, so numerical superiority wins. But not some abstract superiority, it has to be troops that actually show up, and it only matters relative to the other side. So at Thermopylae, it didn't matter that Xerxes had more troops in the abstract; he couldn't actually bring them to bear. Also morale effects or terrain might make different people count more or less (which I think is why we use the phrase “force multiplier”). Ultimately, this works out to be somewhat tautological, but it actually is an important point.


Jomini is primarily interesting for having dominated strategic thinking for the latter half of the 19th century. He had a fairly impressive military career, and apparently served in various places throughout Europe. Unfortunately, Jomini the writer wasn't a strategist; he was a taxonomist. He described all the ways he could think of that an engagement might go, and established a set of terms describing them. But ultimately, there's no there there. It's as though he named every animal he had seen, and called it Art of Biology.

Jomini still influences strategy today: we identify internal and external lines of operation and engagement, then completely ignore them, because they have no implication! Much of the vocabulary for how we talk about operational maneuver is drawn from Jomini though, and its precision is sometimes useful.




Sun Tzu