Carl von Clausewitz

German-Prussian soldier and military theorist

Carl von Clausewitz (1 June 178016 November 1831) was a Prussian general and influential military theorist. He is most famous for his military treatise Vom Kriege, translated into English as On War.

War is very simple, but in War the simplest things become very difficult.


On War (1832)Edit

Full text online at Project Gutenberg

Book 1Edit

War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.
  • War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.
    • Ch. 1, ¶2
  • Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat the enemy without too much bloodshed, and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: War is such a dangerous business that mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst.
    • Ch. 1, Section 3, ¶1
  • To introduce into the philosophy of War itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity.
    • Ch. 1, Section 3, ¶3
    • Variant translation: To introduce into the philosophy of war a principle of moderation would be an absurdity.
      • As quoted in The Campaign of 1914 in France and Belgium‎ (1915) by George Herbert Perris, p. 56
  • War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds.
    • Ch. 1, Section 3, ¶8
    • Variant translation: War is an act of violence which in its application knows no bonds.
      • As quoted in The Campaign of 1914 in France and Belgium‎ (1915) by George Herbert Perris, p. 56
  • Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln
    • War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.
      We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means.
    • Ch. 1, Section 24, in the Princeton University Press translation (1976)
    • Variant translations:
    • War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.
    • 'War is merely the continuation of politics with other means.'
  • Determination in a single instance is an expression of courage; if it becomes characteristic, a mental habit. But here we are referring not to physical courage but to courage to accept responsibility, courage in the face of a moral danger. This has often been called courage d'esprit, because it is created by the intellect. That, however, does not make it an act of the intellect: it is an act of temperament. Intelligence alone is not courage; we often see that the most intelligent people are irresolute. Since in the rush of events a man is governed by feelings rather than by thought, the intellect needs to arouse the quality of courage, which then supports and sustains it in action.
    Looked at in this way, the role of determination is to limit the agonies of doubt and the perils of hesitation when the motives for action are inadequate.
    • Ch. 3
  • Strength of character does not consist solely in having powerful feelings, but in maintaining one’s balance in spite of them. Even with the violence of emotion, judgment and principle must still function like a ship’s compass, which records the slightest variations however rough the sea. (Original German: "Ein starkes Gemüt ist nicht ein solches, welches bloß starker Regungen fähig ist, sondern dasjenige, welches bei den stärksten Regungen im Gleichgewicht bleibt, so daß trotz den Stürmen in der Brust der Einsicht und Überzeugung wie der Nadel des Kompasses auf dem sturmbewegten Schiff das feinste Spiel gestattet ist.")
    • Ch. 3
  • Action in war is like movement in a resistant element. Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results.
  • The invention of gunpowder and the constant improvement of firearms are enough in themselves to show that the advance of civilization has done nothing practical to alter or deflect the impulse to destroy the enemy, which is central to the very idea of war.
  • The worst of all conditions in which a belligerent can find himself is to be utterly defenseless.
  • Men are always more inclined to pitch their estimate of the enemy's strength too high than too low, such is human nature.
  • ...only the element of chance is needed to make war a gamble, and that element is never absent.
  • the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.
  • Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.
  • With uncertainty in one scale, courage and self-confidence should be thrown into the other to correct the balance. The greater they are, the greater the margin that can be left for accidents.
  • ...the side that feels the lesser urge for peace will naturally get the better bargain.
  • Blind aggressiveness would destroy the attack itself, not the defense.
  • Our discussion has shown that while in war many different roads can lead to the goal, to the attainment of the political object, fighting is the only possible means.
  • Any complex activity, if it is to be carried on with any degree of virtuosity, calls for appropriate gifts of intellect and temperament. If they are outstanding and reveal themselves in exceptional achievements, their possessor is called a 'genius'.
  • If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.
  • ...the role of determination is to limit the agonies of doubt and the perils of hesitation when the motives for action are inadequate.
  • Of all the passions that inspire a man in a battle, none, we have to admit, is so powerful and so constant as the longing for honor and renown.
  • Obstinacy is a fault of temperament. Stubbornness and intolerance of contradiction result from a special kind of egotism, which elevates above everything else the pleasure of its autonomous intellect, to which others must bow.
  • ...self-reliance is the best defense against the pressures of the moment.
  • Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.

Book 2Edit

  • Architects and painters know precisely what they are about as long as they deal with material phenomena. … But when they come to the aesthetics of their work, when they aim at a particular effect on the mind or on the senses, the rules dissolve into nothing but vague ideas.
  • Modern wars are seldom fought without hatred between nations; this serves more or less as a substitute for hatred between individuals.
  • ...soldierly simplicity of character that has always represented the military at its best. In the higher ranks it is different. The higher a man is placed, the broader his point of view. Different interests and a wide variety of passions, good and bad, will arise on all sides. Envy and generosity, pride and humility, wrath and compassion - all may appear as effective forces in this great drama.
  • ...talent and genius operate outside the rules, and theory conflicts with practice.
  • The more physical the activity, the less the difficulties will be. The more the activity becomes intellectual and turns into motives which exercise a determining influence on the commander's will, the more the difficulties will increase.
  • Great things alone can make a great mind, and petty things will make a petty mind unless a man rejects them as completely alien.
  • Knowledge in war is very simple, being concerned with so few subjects, and only with their final results at that. But this does not make its application easy.
  • intellectual instinct which extracts the essence from the phenomena of life, as a bee sucks honey from a flower. In addition to study and reflections, life itself serves as a source.
  • Knowledge must be so absorbed into the mind that it ceases to exist in a separate, objective way.
  • is better to go on striking in the same direction than to move one's forces this way and that.
  • There are times when the utmost daring is the height of wisdom.
  • Thus it has come about that our theoretical and critical literature, instead of giving plain, straightforward arguments in which the author at least always knows what he is saying and the reader what he is reading, is crammed with jargon, ending at obscure crossroads where the author loses its readers. Sometimes these books are even worse: they are just hollow shells. The author himself no longer knows just what he is thinking and soothes himself with obscure ideas which would not satisfy him if expressed in plain speech.
  • Anyone who feels the urge to undertake such a task must dedicate himself for his labors as he would prepare for a pilgrimage to distant lands. He must spare no time or effort, fear no earthly power or rank, and rise above his own vanity or false modesty in order to tell, in accordance with the expression of the Code Napoléon, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
  • Essentally combat is an expression of hostile feelings. But in the large-scale combat that we call war hostile feelings often have become merely hostile intentions. At any rate, there are usually no hostile feelings between individuals. Yet such emotions can never be completely absent from war. Modern wars are seldom fought without hatred between nations; this serves as a more or less substitute for the hatred between individuals. Even when there is no natural hatred and no animosity to start with, the fighting itself will stir up hostile feelings: violence committed on superior orders will stir up the desire for revenge and retaliation against the perpetrator rather than against the powers that ordered the action. It is only human (or animal, if you like), but it is a fact.

Book 3Edit

  • A prince or general can best demonstrate his genius by managing a campaign exactly to suit his objectives and his resources, doing neither too much nor too little.
  • What we should admire is the acute fulfillment of the unspoken assumptions, the smooth harmony of the whole activity, which only become evident in the final success.
  • Where execution is dominant, as it is in the individual events of a war whether great or small, then intellectual factors are reduced to a minimum.
  • If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next, but instead succumb to the idea that the capture of certain geographical points or the seizure of undefended provinces are of value in themselves, we are liable to regard them as windfall profits. In so doing, and in ignoring the fact that they are links in a continuous chain of events, we also ignore the possibility that their possession may later lead to definite disadvantages.
  • war, the advantages and disadvantages of a single action could only be determined by the final balance.
  • The moral elements are among the most important in war. They constitute the spirit that permeates war as a whole, and at an early stage they establish a close affinity with the will that moves and leads a whole mass of force, practically merging with it, since the will is itself a moral quantity. Unfortunately they will not yield to academic wisdom. They cannot be classified or counted. They have to be seen or felt. … It is paltry philosophy if in the old-fashioned way one lays down rules and principles in total disregard of moral values. As soon as these appear one regards them as exceptions, which gives them a certain scientific status, and thus makes them into rules. Or again one may appeal to genius, which is above all rules; which amounts to admitting that rules are not only made for idiots, but are idiotic in themselves.
    • Ch 3 : Moral Factors, as translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.
  • The commander's talents are given greatest scope in rough hilly country. Mountains allow him too little real command over his scattered units and he is unable to control them all; in open country, control is a simple matter and does not test his ability to the fullest.
  • Boldness will be at a disadvantage only in an encounter with deliberate caution, which may be considered bold in its own right, and is certainly just as powerful and effective; but such cases are rare.
  • Timidity is the root of prudence in the majority of men.
  • Boldness governed by superior intellect is the mark of a hero.
  • man under pressure tends to give in to physical and intellectual weakness, only great strength of will can lead to the objective.
  • Beauty cannot be defined by abscissas and ordinates; neither are circles and ellipses created by their geometrical formulas.
  • If a segment of one's force is located where it is not sufficiently busy with the enemy, or if the troops are on the march - that is, idle - while the enemy is fighting, then these forces are being managed uneconomically. In this sense they are being wasted, which is even worse than using them inappropriately.
  • ...any move made in a state of tension will be of more important, and will have more results, than it would have made in a state of equilibrium. In times of maximum tension this importance will rise to an infinite degree.
  • The state of crisis is the real war; the equilibrium is nothing but its reflex.

Book 5Edit

  • All war presupposes human weakness and seeks to exploit it.

Book 6Edit

  • What is the object of defense? To preserve. To preserve is easier than to acquire.
    • Ch. 1
  • Every suspension of offensive action, either from erroneous views, from fear or from indolence, is in favor of the side acting defensively.
    • Ch. 1
  • If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, it follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to pursue a positive object.
    • Ch. 1
  • But if the assailant, without troubling himself about the existence of the Army awaiting his attack in a defensive position, advances with his main body by another line in pursuit of his object, then he 'passes by the position,' and if he can do this with impunity, and really does it, he will immediately enforce the abandonment of the position, consequently put an end to its usefulness.
    • Ch. 1
  • Surprise becomes effective when we suddenly face the enemy at one point with far more troops than he expected. This type of numerical superiority is quite distinct from numerical superiority in general: it is the most powerful medium in the art of war.
    • Ch. 1
  • Phillipsburg was the name of one of those badly drawn fortresses resembling a fool with his nose too close to the wall.
    • Ch. 2
  • The Conqueror is always a lover of peace: he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.
    • Ch. 2
  • A conqueror is always a lover of peace (as Bonaparte always asserted of himself); he would like to make his entry into our state unopposed; in order to prevent this, we must choose war, and therefore also make preparations, that is in other words, it is just the weak, or that side which must defend itself, which should be always armed in order not to be taken by surprise; so it is willed by the art of war. (Original German: "Der Eroberer ist immer friedliebend (wie Bonaparte auch stets behauptet hat), er zöge ganz gern ruhig in unseren Staat ein; damit er dies aber nicht könne, darum müssen wir den Krieg wollen und also auch vorbereiten, d. h. mit anderen Worten: es sollen gerade die Schwachen, der Verteidigung Unterworfenen, immer gerüstet sein und nicht überfallen werden; so will es die Kriegskunst.")
    • Ch. 5
  • A general who allows himself to be decisively defeated in an extended mountain position deserves to be court-martialled.
    • Ch. 11
  • ...only a fraction of book learning will seep into practical life anyhow; and the more foolish the theory, the less of it.
    • Ch. 17

Quotes about ClausewitzEdit

  • We all know the dictum of Clausewitz, one of the most famous writers on the philosophy and history of war, which says: “War is a continuation of policy by other means.” This dictum comes from a writer who reviewed the history of wars and drew philosophic lessons from it shortly after the period of the Napoleonic wars. This writer, whose basic views are now undoubtedly familiar to every thinking person, nearly eighty years ago challenged the ignorant man-in-the-street conception of war as being a thing apart from the policies of the governments and classes concerned, as being a simple attack that disturbs the peace, and is then followed by restoration of the peace thus disturbed…
    • Vladimir Lenin, 'War and Revolution: A Lecture Delivered May 14 (27), 1917', Pravda No. 93 (23 April 1929)
      • Известно изречение одного из самых знаменитых писателей по философии войн и по истории войн — Клаузевица, которое гласит: «Война есть продолжение политики иными средствами». Это изречение принадлежит писателю, который обозревал историю войн и выводил философские уроки из этой истории — вскоре после эпохи наполеоновских войн. Этот писатель, основные мысли которого сделались в настоящее время безусловным приобретением всякого мыслящего человека, уже около 80 лет тому назад боролся против обывательского и невежественного предрассудка, будто бы войну можно выделить из политики соответственных правительств, соответственных классов, будто бы войну когда-нибудь можно рассматривать как простое нападение, нарушающее мир, и затем восстановление этого нарушенного мира.
  • [T]he rascal has a ‘common sense’ bordering on wit.

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