The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Clausewitz, Politics and the American Military

Clausewitz is famous for his comment that war is an extension of politics by other means.  This is not the definition of war, but rather the context within which war takes place.  That is, war takes place and is only understandable within the context of politics.  By extension then, to be able to effectively plan, supervise, and conduct war a senior military leader must, in addition to his expertise regarding military matters, also be expert at understanding politics.

The sticking point here, is that the professional American military officer is taught to avoid politics.  Expert on American military professionalism, Morris Janowitz, stated:

Under democratic theory, the “above politics” formula requires that, in domestic politics, generals and admirals do not attach themselves to political parties or overtly display partisanship.  Furthermore, military men are civil servants, so that elected leaders are assured of the military’s partisan neutrality.

In practice, with only isolated exceptions, regulations and traditions have worked to enforce an essential absence of political partisanship.

Has this tradition of non-partisanship caused American military leadership to focus too much on the mechanics of making war at the operational and tactical level?   What is the role of the senior military leader in formulating national strategy and can that leader avoid being politically partisan if the different political parties disagree on strategy?

How has the war in Iraq illustrated Clausewitz’s concept of the relationship between war and politics?

How do Clausewitz’s ideas, including the important idea of the trinity,  influence our understanding of the current situation in Afghanistan?

September 24, 2009 - Posted by | Current Events, H100 | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. There is a debate taking place at the moment in the UK, and I imagine here in the US, as to whether there is a necessity for the ‘operational’ level of war: does it serve a purpose or does it just get in the way of achieving strategic ends by tactical means? I don’t want to get involved in this specific debate on this blog however I do believe it has some relevance to the question of politicization of our military generals. Personally I believe that there is a requirement for an operational level – it allows our senior leaders to apply their experience and knowledge to the problems of translating strategic ends to tactical ways and means. Frankly I am more comfortable with the idea of a general determining tactical effort to achieve strategic effect than I am a young lieutenant.

    I also believe that senior military leadership should remain apolitical. Of course there is a requirement for generals to understand politics and be engaged with our political leadership however generals do not need to be expert in politics in order “to effectively plan, organize and conduct a war”. Rather our political masters need to fully understand their role in effectively identifying and articulating clear objectives from which the military can effectively plan. It is the job of the politicians, not generals, to formulate national strategy, generals and the army then implement that strategy and advise as to whether the strategy is achievable.

    Comment by Major Sam Cates | September 27, 2009

  2. Early last week, I noticed a magazine stuck in my box. I was going to throw it away, but I noticed it mentioned Clausewitz. Out of curiosity, I read the article and one statement intrigued me. “The belief that reading Clausewitz-like eating spinach-is good for you whether you like it or not.”
    So, is this what we are doing? My answer is yes. While some topics/issues are no longer applicable, the general theory and professional development are helpful. It is almost like reading Keegan or Sun Tzu. Their ideas may not have direct effect, but there are a lot of nice to know stuff. Also, we can learn from Clausewitz’s experience. We can reference his experience and make improvements or adjustments. This is the reason why we read and analyze history. If nothing else, we can talk intelligently when Clausewitz is mentioned during a class or gathering (especially, around Mr. DeMarco).

    Comment by J Lee, 17B | September 28, 2009

  3. J. Lee, I agree with your spinach analogy. However, I feel it is important to not downplay learning “nice to know stuff”. The phrase implies that the “stuff” being read or learned is not beneficial or important. The very act of reading and retaining the “stuff” demonstrates that it was important to the reader on some level. Otherwise, the reader would not have made any effort to “know” or remember it. When reading Clausewitz, one should read with the intent that everything is beneficial, regardless of whether or not the material is dated. Reading with this intent will allow a reader to not only learn what to do, but also what not to do…basically, learning from another’s successes or mistakes. The process, in turn, allows one to use what they have learned in order to influence their understanding of a situation. For example, Clausewitz’s paradoxical Trinity identifies that in order to be successful in war, policies (government), passion (people), and probability (army) need to be in synch. When they are not in synch, there is less chance of winning. Once Clausewitz’s trinity is understood, it can then be used to influence one’s understanding of a given situation. For example, understanding the trinity can help explain the difficulties the U.S. is having in Afghanistan. The U.S. passion (people) originally supported the idea of entering Afghanistan in 2001. However, sense of obtaining victory or the probability of obtaining victory has been waning due to the political constraints and opposition, the length of the war, and the unclear end state. As probability and passion becomes out of synch, the chances of victory lessen. Therefore, it is important to understand how historical readings, even “nice to know stuff”, can influence one’s understanding of current situation.

    Comment by John Palazzolo SG 17A | September 28, 2009

  4. The spinach analogy is great! I’ll carry that one step further and say that spinach is good for you; however, if you overcook spinach it loses its nutritional value. I think the same could be said with Clausewitz; if he is not studied within historical context or over analyzed the value is lost. In response to the question of how the war in Iraq illustrates Clausewitz’s concept of the relationship between war and politics, I would say that the Iraq war is a great example of this. Clausewitz asserts that war is a continuation of politics by other means. The US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 came after diplomatic avenues and peace initiatives failed. Our leadership elected to use the instrument of war to achieve the desired objectives in Iraq.

    Comment by Maj Chad Weddell | September 28, 2009

  5. Interesting comments by all previous bloggers. I wanted to make a comment on our relationships with politicians. Clausewitz says that war is an extension of politics. It is incumbent upon us to execute our politician’s directives. However, several things strike me as odd when you look at cases where the trained warfighter (generals), are discouraged from providing input to the decision of whether or not to go to war. The example I will cite is when Colin Powel, in an impromptu meeting with members of the National Security Council, spoke up and there was a chill in the room by the civilian leadership. This is a problem! I submit to you that great leaders surround themselves with great men because they cannot possible know it all or see it all. Military leaders read Clausewitz and understand the application of his philosophies. Civilian leaders likely do not. So why then are they so quick to disregard the advice of the military man available to advise them? This is a knowable known. Political leaders should know how important the insight of the military leaders can be to their decisions on war. How many times, historically, have political leaders ignored or disregarded their general’s advice? Furthermore, at what cost?

    Comment by Maj Bjorn "SWEDE" Johnson | September 29, 2009

  6. I would agree with Major Cates that military leaders need to have an understanding of politics, yet not necessarily be experts in it to implement national military strategy. As we have heard repeatedly, war is an extension of politics, but they should be separated in their application. As Sam alluded to, the politicians should decide what the national end state of a conflict should be, and if military action is necessary, then allow the military leaders to formulate the military strategy to meet those ends. It seems, from my perspective, that the political side is not taking into account what the military strategists (Generals) are telling them is the best way to achieve their end objectives. Instead of listening to what the General’s plan is, if they don’t like it, they find someone to replace them who will do what the politicians want. On that same token, the military arm of the trinity needs to be willing to try to implement the political strategy to the best of their ability. It should obviously be a give and take relationship from both sides to reach an agreement on the way ahead for the greater good of the nation and the people. Therefore, politicians need not be experts at warfare, and generals need not be experts at politics.

    Comment by Maj Scott "Spyder" Walker | September 29, 2009

  7. The mechanics of making operation and tactical war as a result of the nonpartisan requirement of our senior military leaders is a good thing. It keeps those leaders focusing on what they are supposed to do…working to win our nation’s wars. They will have opinions of a partisan nature (who wouldn’t) but staying the course within their lane is what they are paid to do. Overtly representing partisan stances could detract from their real mission towards the national interests. I am not saying it does not happen rather arguing that the concept is sound in providing boundaries and structure.

    Comment by MAJ Rich Massengale SG 17B | September 30, 2009

  8. Lots of guys blog about this subject but you said really true words.

    Comment by uphoffboich | December 12, 2009

  9. Clausewitz said war is just one branch of political activity, a “simple instrument of policy.” While Clausewitz wrote On War in a different time, he still understood there is more to warfare than combat; diplomacy, information, and economic instruments must have the same consideration as the military when planning for war. Clausewitz believed the political viewpoint should have primacy in war planning, and that it would be “dangerous” to allow military officers to exert influence in politics.
    In modern times we face a body of political leadership that has less and less actual military experience than in the past. While military officers should remain apolitical, the military has certain responsibilities to the State, including providing advice to civilian leaders on military matters. We see tension in civil-military relations when military leadership believes they are misunderstood or even ignored by civilian policymakers. The military still has a responsibility to execute the orders of our civilian leadership, regardless of those tensions.
    Maybe military experience should be a requirement for those seeking national legislative and executive political positions? But maybe that is just my slanted perspective as a military officer. If war really is just an instrument of policy, it does not have a unique position over diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions, etc. The military is one more means to an end; and even Clausewitz would agree that the end is not war, but an enduring peace.

    Comment by MAJ Patty McPhillips | December 16, 2009

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