The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Clausewitz and the American Military Profession

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 23, 2010 - Posted by | H100, leadership, Professional Military Education | , , , , , , , ,


  1. GEN Petraeus quoted in news article dtd 14 AUG 10:

    ___“What the president very much wants from me, and what we talked about in the Oval Office, is the responsibility of a military commander on the ground to provide his best professional military advice, leave the politics to him,” Petraeus tells Gregory. “Certainly I am aware of the context within which I offer that advice, but that just informs the advice, it doesn’t drive it. The situation on the ground drives it.” ___

    Partisan neutrality is not the same as apolitical, and hence does not and should not limit military leaders to offer “probabilities” (military advice) in the context of its relationship to policy and the people.

    Since there is always an interplay among the variables of the trinity, one may conclude that advice offered about a single variable in isolation is, by definition, bad advice. I think the above quote illustrates that GEN Petraeus understands this.

    Comment by MAJ Trent Lythgoe | September 25, 2010

  2. Why I believe it to be true that military leaders should focus on how to achieve the military objective, one can not exclude the fact that all military objectives are tied to the Political objectives as outlined in the National Security Strategy. Therefore, military professionals must continue to assess the impact their tactical decisions will have upon achieving political objectives. It is clear that the current administration has chosen their military leader to execute and achieve their military and political objectives. Based on recent events in Afghanistan with the firing of GEN McCrystal, I believe this illustrates the fact that non-partisan politics and the military achieving political objectives do not mix. That is why we often observe a regime change in the military when a new administration is elected into office.

    Clausewitz’s idea of the trinity is supported by the current lack of support by the American people for the war in Afghanistan. This has had a negative influence on the motivation of US Troops. The ability of the enemy to out wait the US and their passion for achieving victory has strengthened their resolve to stay the course, which will ultimately result in their favor.

    Comment by MAJ James Lucowitz 17 A | September 26, 2010

  3. The idea that the military leaders need to remain neutral and allow political decisions to remain in our political leaders is a good one. So then what should our senior military leaders do at the Strategic Level? I think that first, military leaders are supposed to present options to the political leadership. I can imagine a discussion in the Situation Room at the White House occurring with the NSC. As the political leaders start to formulate possible plans, the military leaders should present options, capabilities and potential costs involved with certain actions. The decisions are up to the political leadership.

    The next thing that our military leaders should do is support the political decision and work very hard to enable that political decision to succeed. The number one problem that I see failure at is the military’s ability to produce an IO campaign that sells what we do. We have seen over that last decade how important the world’s perception is on this country’s political ability to gain world support. Military leaders have a responsibility to not only support the political will in the operations, but also in the way we present that operation to the world.

    Finally, as we have learned in classes lately, the solutions today need to be joint, multinational and interagency. This takes a lot of planning and coordination. Military leaders at the Strategic level must set the conditions for the success at the operational and tactical level with this combined concept in mind. Failure at the strategic level may lead to failure at the other two levels.

    So in conclusion, our focus needs to be on providing information to the decision makers up front, support the decision with an outstanding IO campaign and ensure that the solution incorporates a combined approach as appropriate. The result if all of this occurs at the Strategic Level is hopefully the recipe of success.

    Comment by MAJ David Price 17D | September 28, 2010

  4. I concur with Trent Lythgoe and David Price. I don’t believe that remaining politically neutral precludes having a keen understanding of politics. I also agree that our military leaders’ role is to advise the President, SECDEF, etc. regarding the military options that will support the current national strategy.

    I think that the majority of senior military leaders would not have gotten where they are today without a thorough understanding of politics. Those who forget the importance of their neutrality are bound to be reminded, however. In addition to the current example of General McChrystal that James Lucowitz cited above, President Truman relieved General MacArthur during the Korean War for publicly criticizing his strategy.

    Comment by Rachel Wienke, 17D | September 29, 2010

  5. Rachel provides a great example of why we should learn history in her comparison of GEN McChrystal and GEN MacArthur.

    I do not believe the tradition of non-partisanship has caused military leadership to focus too much on the mechanics of wartime operations and tactics. Our doctrine goes to great lengths outlining the responsibilities of our COCOM Commanders and senior leaders. The doctrine does not restrict military leaders from having a political view point. Military leaders need to have an understanding of how politics can impact their operations and tactics and use it to their advantage.

    Article 88 is the law that all American Armed Forces need to know. It mandates that all uniformed service members and retired members receiving retirment checks refrain from speaking against the President of the United States our Commander in Chief.

    Our COCOM Commander and senior leaders need to make good decisions and provide their guidance to the President and the SECDEF for a final decision. Once the final decision is made it is then our job to execute the decision.

    It looks poorly on our armed services when we take sides against the President because he was elected by the majority of the citizens our profession defends. This could put our war efforts at risk.

    Comment by MAJ Tanya Seymore | October 2, 2010

  6. The three legs of Clausewitz’s trinity – passion of the people, government policy, and military probability help to make sense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After several years of conflict in these nations and headline news reports of the latest IED attack and resulting Soldier death, the passion of the American people has dwindled and support for the war has decreased significantly. So much so that in 2008, the people elected new national leaders committed to bringing the wars to an end. Unfortunately, our enemies understand the lack of popular support for these wars and the unwillingness to sustain casualties. Americans are more concerned about the economy and view the wars as endless money pits. So despite having a high military probability of success, the passion of the people (or lack of passion) is determining the future of America’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Comment by MAJ Tim Brower, 17C | November 7, 2010

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