By: Danilo delle Fave, Javier Olaechea and Marco Verrocchio.

Carl von Clausewitz was born at Burg, in Prussia on the 1st of June 1780. His family had Polish origins and belonged to the Prussian middle-class. Aged twelve, in 1792 he entered the Prussian army as standard-bearer. He received his baptism by fire during the siege of Mainz in 1793, but he showed to be more interested in war, theory, and strategy. 

He started reading Frederick the Great’s “General Principles of War” and moved on to studying Machiavelli, Montecuccoli and other military strategy theorists. Clausewitz lived in a culturally successful period for European and German philosophy, so his thought was influenced by his contemporary philosophers such as Kant, Fichte, Schiller, and Hegel. During the war with France, he was present at the battle of Auerstaedt. After being held prisoner in Paris for a year, he was convinced of the need to reform the army and to apply new strategies. 

Once back in Prussia, Clausewitz joined General Gerhard von Scharnhorst in the attempt to reform the Army. Together they introduced conscription and limited the privileges of the nobility in the army, to create a more meritocratic military. Clausewitz also proposed the idea of “People in Arms”, a reserve force to defend the country on the side-lines. In 1810, Clausewitz married Maria von Brhul, a woman of noble origins close to the Court. When in 1812, Prussia (under the pressure of Napoleon) sided with France against Russia, Clausewitz and other officers joined the Tsarist troops.

He believed that the most dangerous enemy was Napoleon rather than Russia and soon he became an officer of tsarist-Prussian troops, fighting also at Borodino. In 1813, He played a key role in convincing General Yorck to sign the armistice of Tauroggen. Until the end of Napoleon, Clausewitz fought in the greatest battles in Western Europe such as the Battle of the Nations and Ligny. The period between 1818 and his death (occurred in 1831) was one of the more prosperous times for his studies. Clausewitz’s masterpiece, Vom Kriege (On War), was published in 1832, one year after his death. It was published thanks to the will of his wife Maria von Brhul, who also contributed to writing the introduction of the book. One (if not the only one) case of a woman who wrote an introduction to a classic of war strategy. 

 Why is Carl Von Clausewitz so important for our time? 

Carl von Clausewitz’s works have been studied extensively for 150 years by dedicated scholars and Clausewitz is acknowledged as one of the few great writers on war. Many aspects of his ideas and concepts have received much attention in recent years and continue to remain relevant and are often used in today’s doctrines and for civil-military educational processes. The most important theoretical aspects of war and strategy expounded by Clausewitz, some of which are enduring contributions to contemporary thought and still relevant to today’s strategists.

The first is "War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means" and the second is " War is not a mere act of policy, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means". The third is “War is an act of force to compel out enemy to do our will”. In addition to these quotes, Clausewitz is important to our time for the meaning of war, but also for his purpose, and suggest to task to follow to reach our goals on the field, which are still used nowadays:

  • First Task: planning for a war requires identifying the enemy's center of gravity and if possible, trace them back to a single one; (examples: enemy's army, capital or allies)
  • Second Task: To ensure that the main forces to be used to attack that point are concentrated for a main offensive.

Insights and Lessons for our Times: 

  • Delimitation of the final objectives: a war is not started, or rationally it should not be done, without the definition of its political and geo strategic aim, in the short term, and its ultimate goal, in the long run. In short, a total war that includes the civilian element and seeks unconditional surrender (World War II) is not the same as a limited war whose objective is to restore a previous situation (Las Malvinas).
  • Active defence: defence cannot be conceived without offensive reactions. Apparently, the defender has the advantage, but mere defence is incompatible with victory. If defence is ever necessary, it should be seen as a step prior to counterattack.
  • Operational flexibility: when two armies engage in combat, there are always elements who emerge unexpectedly, or that behave differently than planned (the so-called “friction”). The battlefield is dynamic, the military commander must know how to adapt to the circumstances. In addition, having a strategic reserve allows dealing with unforeseen situations.
  • Troop’s morale: The morale of the troop must be taken care of; it is a determining factor. A well-equipped army, immune to disinformation strategies through specific training, fights better and performs better under stress.
  • Limits of the action: every commander must know the limit of the army’s strength, in order to avoid losing what they have gained on the battlefield. This operational limit has to be clear at the time of planning.
  • Intelligence analysis: every decision maker must obtain intelligence reports in order to make decision at the strategic level in the right direction otherwise the decision making is likely to be taken over by method and routine, with potentially disastrous results

Since the end of the Cold War and the revamping of unconventional warfare, Clausewitz’s work has renewed significance for scholars and academics. However, even during the Cold War, it continued to be a milestone for several leaders and decision-makers. Roosevelt, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung and Hitler were among the important readers of Clausewitz. For instance, Lenin enlarged the concept of war as policy with other means to explain the conflict of the social classes. 

Today, the lucid approach of Clausewitz to war can be a useful help in understanding how to deal with asymmetrical threats in different fields.  The recent defeat in Afghanistan shows how it can be possible to win battles but lose the war. Clausewitz draws from his age concepts still used today: moral hazard, guerrilla, the importance of the human factor, etc. and therefore, On War remains even today, a benchmark for military and strategic thought.