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 22, 2011 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , ,


  1. Clausewitz’s idea on the trinity influences our understanding of the current situation in Afghanistan because it encourages us to balance our objectives (policy), military strategy (probability), and political will (passion). In other words, our objective is to build Afghan capacity to assume responsibility for security by 2014 through a military strategy to conduct Counterinsurgency as a member of ISAF because our political will to fight is limited.

    Comment by MAJ Hobbs | September 23, 2011

  2. I believe that our senior military leaders must provide realistic military options to our nation’s strategy based upon our military’s capabilities and our government’s instructions / desired ends. Additionally, I believe that it is OK, heck it should be encouraged, for our senior military leaders to disagree, behind closed doors, with our civilian counterparts if they have differences of opinion on national strategy. Our leaders have different backgrounds / expertise / training / education and we must share our opinions in order to get our counterparts to view the issue(s) at hand through a different point of view before making a decision that will impact other nations.

    Expressing a different point of view should be encouraged, not denounced as being politically partisan. If we can’t disagree and voice our opinions than we will not have to many original approaches to our nation’s future problems.

    Comment by MAJ Chris Moore, 17A | September 24, 2011

  3. Clausewitz and what is perhaps his most famous quote has proven to be accurate, especially when examining the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, war was necessary to achieve the goals that were unattainable by only diplomatic or poltical means. Regarding Janowitz’s comment, I have to disagree on several levels. Military officers are linked closely to the ways, means, and ends of politics but should not be involved in the process itself. However, I believe that this nonpartisanship ideal is only superficial. One only has to examine Napoleon, Eisenhower, or Powell to see how politics and war are interrelated. Especially as officers advance in rank, the lines between politics and the military are blurred. Senior military leaders have often been consulted by political leaders on matters involving policy and it would be unreasonable to think that political bias does not effect their advice on some level or that these experiences are not leveraged into political office after the officer retires.

    Comment by Matthew Wilder, 17D | September 25, 2011

  4. The war in Iraq illustrates the relationship between war and politics, and that war can never really be free of politics. Our political leaders viewed the actions of the regime in power in Iraq in 2003 as a threat to our national interests. The inability of the Iraqi regime to allow UN inspectors to search for WMDs was seen as a threat (and likely an act of war) and we responded with military force. We removed that regime and then started an even deeper inter-weaving of war and politics. We transitioned from a more conventional war to the COIN fight, and we (the warfighters) had to take measures to ensure that Iraqi political primacy were considered in all of our operations. I would submit that politics is always related to strategic levels of the military, but in the case of Iraq as we saw above, can be linked into the operational and tactical levels of combat.

    In terms of senior military leaders, their actions once decisions are made must remain bipartisan. That said I believe it is their responsibility to inform political leaders based off their military perspectives the impacts combat actions will have on the overall political end state. They should disagree with political leaders when their disagreement is sound and based on their experience, but it should be done in private planning rooms and not in public. Senior military leaders should be in place because of their ability to see the impacts of military action on political agendas, otherwise they are just yes men. However, once the decisions have been made, it is their time to do the best with what they have and should avoid showing any political sway one way or another. It is the responsibility of the political leaders to accept responsibility for their decisions and not let the military leaders take the fall for their decisions.

    Comment by MAJ Chittenden SG17A | September 26, 2011

  5. 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? No! Our military leaders at the operational and tactical levels may not be participatory in our domestic politics (out of tradition), but they are extremely savvy in terms of politics and war making. These leaders maintain a pulse on domestic, international, and host nation politics out of necessity. Our domestic politics (political will and public opinion) are one of many drivers/considerations as to how we fight at the tactical and operational levels. These leaders attempt to enable a successful “Strategic Specialist” at the tactical level through planning and understanding all aspects of PMESII-PT (domestic and host nation). Additionally, these leaders are further enabled by the Political Advisor (POLAD) provided by the Department of State. The POLAD provides the military leader with political expertise in terms of the host-nation system and that of our domestic system. In short, our tactical and operational leaders maintain a non-partisan approach with domestic politics, but that does not mean they are oblivious or disregard politics as a driver of their operations.

    Comment by MAJ Blue Huber 17B | September 27, 2011

  6. According to Clausewitz, war is just one option of many. It is described as being “a simple instrument of policy.” I believe Clausewitz understood instruments such as DIME; diplomacy, information, military and economics. He also believed that having a political viewpoint was absolutely necessary in planning and fighting in wars. It is important that politicians are given leverage with the assistance of senior military leaders in order to make informed decisions concerning the use of military force.

    Clausewitz’s ideas on trinity influences our understanding of the current situation in Afghanistan because it encourages DIME. All of which require a certain amount of balance in order to be effective.

    Comment by MAJ LaShaunda Jackson 17A | September 28, 2011

  7. I agree with MAJ Jackson. Clausewitz’s trinity is an outstanding piece of work that gives you a shell to place tenets in. Since he has a political frame in his trinity I believe he opens the door for politicians to see the picture from a Soldier’s view. This view will allow them to truly support the Commander on the ground with the assets they need to be effective.

    Comment by MAJ Carl Mason, 17A | September 30, 2011

  8. Clausewitz was a professional soldier who was involved in numerous military campaigns, but he is famous primarily as a military theorist interested in the examination of war. He wrote a careful, systematic, philosophical examination of war in all its aspects, as he saw it and taught it. Again, Clausewitz’s l9th century theories stand the test of time and are applicable today despite our high-technology equipment, modern communications, and sophisticated weapons systems If modern day strategists understand both the complexity and simplicity of the paradoxical trinity theory, they will possess a vital “all-purpose tool” in their grand strategy tool box The key to making Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity theory applicable to war and war preparation is to understand his theory delineates a set of principles designed as a starting point in planning and waging war, rather than as a “how-to” or descriptive manual. His theory was used for planning both the Iraq and Afghanistan war.

    Comment by Wayne | October 7, 2011

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