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?

October 12, 2012 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , ,


  1. I think that the tradition of non-partisanship creates a disincentive to weigh in on the political aspects of war, thus directing leader’s efforts towards the tactical and operational. In part, however, it seems that some of this phenomenon stems from the fact that the military principally focuses on strategic execution rather than strategy development. Where their guidance is required, it seems that it focuses on what the military can do versus what it should do. The very senior military leaders make a difficult transition. Their advice should be non-partisan in that it should reflect the strategy that balances the capabilities of the military and the anticipated second and third order effects. Should different political parties disagree on strategy, it is incumbent on senior military leaders to provide their professional advice without judgement of the value of political aspects of that strategy.

    Former CSA GEN Shinseki serves as a good example of this approach. When his professional opinion differed from the politics of the administration, he gave an opinion that reflected his best military advice, even though it did not jive with the administration. This could be considered partisan, but I would disagree. I contend that rather than actually being partisan, it was perceived that way. Senior leaders take a risk when they offer an opinion that could be perceived as aligned with a political party. Assuming that risk is essential when it serves to inform political leaders and prevent execution of a strategy that may not be adequately considered.

    Comment by Kenneth Mortimer, 11A | October 16, 2012

  2. Most leaders today respect Clausewitz theory, not only because this emphasis theory came from a notable heroic military leader, but because this theory has shown itself in truth as time evolve. From the American Revolutionary War to Operation Enduring Freedom, and all wars in between are tied and connected to politics which to me is in respect to money. Does this decision in question provide the most advantageous gain? However when dealing from a human race consciousness, I believe it is important that military leaders advise outside of the political / economic bubble, but only advise for the betterment of mankind. This to me depicts partisanship.

    Comment by Dee MOSBY | January 11, 2013

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