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Clausewitz on War

The passages below are free German-English to readable-English ‘translations’ meant to clarify Clausewitz for the general reader. They are based on material in A Short Guide to Clausewitz on War, edited by R. L. Leonard (1967).


War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale. If we would conceive as a unit the countless duels making up a War, we should think of two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to overthrow his adversary, and render him incapable of further resistance. War is therefore an act of violence meant to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.

Utmost use of force

Philanthropists may easily imagine there is a method of disarming and overcoming an enemy without great bloodshed, and that this is properly the Art of War. This is a serious mistake. In such a dangerous business as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst. Who uses least force dies: that is how things stand, and it is foolish to avert one’s eyes from this fact because the horrors of War are repugnant.

War and politics

War is not merely a political act but also a political instrument — a continuation of politics by other means. The political view is the object, War is the means, and in our understanding the means must always include the object.

Defense and attack

Although defense may be considered a “negative” means in contrast to a “positive” attack, it would be wrong to suppose that defense precludes the destruction of the enemy’s military force, or recommends a bloodless solution. Very many Generals have fallen into this error and been ruined by it.

War and character

War entails physical exertion and suffering. In order not to be overcome, strength of body and mind is required, which produces endurance and stoicism. With these a man is ready for War; and they are also the qualities generally found among wild and half-civilized tribes.

Going further, we find the importance of intellectual factors. War is the province of uncertainty: three quarters of those things upon which action in War must be calculated are more or less hidden in clouds of uncertainty. A fine and penetrating mind is required to search out the truth and make decisive judgments.

War and chance

War is likewise the domain of chance. From the uncertainty of all intelligence and suppositions, and the continual play of chance, the actor in War constantly finds his expectations betrayed. If this renders his plan worthless, then a new one must be found. But the needed information may be lacking, while circumstances press for immediate decision — allowing no time to look for fresh data, no time for mature consideration.

At the front

Let us accompany the novice to the battlefield. As we approach, the thunder of cannon is soon followed by the howling of shot. Balls begin to strike the ground close to us, before and behind. We hasten to the hill where the General stands with his Staff. Here the crash of cannon balls and the bursting of shells make the seriousness of life and death felt to the young imagination.

Adding to all this, the sight of the maimed and fallen strikes the beating heart with pity… Indeed, a young soldier must be very extraordinary if he is not to find quick decisions difficult to make. It is true that habit soon blunts such impressions; in half an hour we begin to be more or less indifferent to whatever is going on around us: but it is a situation where most ordinary men never achieve complete coolness and mental elasticity.

War and information

Much of the information obtained in War is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is doubtful. What an officer needs are powers of discrimination — discrimination which only knowledge of men and things and good judgment can give.

The law of probability must be his guide… It is all the worse for an inexperienced officer when one communiqué follows and supports another, confirms it, magnifies and colors it, though before long all these reports are found to be lies, exaggerations, errors…

In brief, most reports are false, and the timidity of men acts as a multiplier of lies and untruths. As a general rule, everyone is more inclined to believe the bad than the good. Now the Chief must stand like a rock against which the sea breaks furiously in vain. The role is not easy; he who is not by nature of a buoyant disposition, or trained by experience in War, must force himself to hope rather than to fear. Only then will he preserve his balance.

Decisive battles: bloody but necessary

The battle is the bloodiest solution. True, its effect is often more a killing of the enemy’s courage than of the enemy’s soldiers, but blood is always its price and slaughter its character — and from this a humane General sometimes recoils with horror. Yet only great victories in battle have led to lasting success in War.

Let us not hear of Generals who conquer without bloodshed. If a bloody slaughter is a horrible sight, then that is a ground for paying more respect to War, but not for making the sword we wear blunter and blunter by degrees from feelings of humanity, until someone steps in with one that is sharp and lops off the arm from our body.

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