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?

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October 18, 2013 - Posted by | H100

4 Comments »

  1. Janowitz is correct in his precept that, in a democracy, military leaders must not attach themselves to a specific political affiliation or advocate one party’s interests or strategies over the another. While we have already been exposed to varying degrees of this philosophy during Flag Officer briefings, my personal opinion is that is equally important for military officers to remain nonpartisan as it is for us to remain informed.

    I strongly believe that it is impossible for an informed citizen/Soldier/Sailor to have “no” opinion but it is possible and essential that their opinion remain private and not guide their planning to execute the nation’s will. I expect that the General Dempsey has personal opinions on Syria but that his discussions with chain of command are not bound to those opinions and are instead limited only to his recommendations for the best way to employ the military in execution of strategy… whatever it may be.

    If generals, admirals and senior leaders publicly backed or condemned the strategy or goals of a specific party, we could expect that military voting might be influenced and foreign nations might even expect (right or wrong) that if the military does not support a specific strategy, that they may not execute it (at least whole heartedly) and this would potentially weaken the strength or standing of the U.S. government. As the ability to influence foreign nations is a significant role of our elected and appointed officials, I would expect that this would also negatively affect domestic politics. I believe this is a black and white debate where on one extreme admirals and generals have at least the perception of neutrality and no impact on bias on domestic and foreign political influence while the other scenario could be as stark as the military leadership condemning one candidate and their strategies and thus undercutting the political influence and ability of the U.S. government to impact foreign policy and would be taken into account by the constituents when voting.

    Military leadership MUST remain nonpartisan, not only because it is the legal and ethical thing to do but because abandoning this principle would have wide-reaching effects and would be detrimental to national security. I do not think grave and dangerous would be an understatement to the effects a partisan military leadership would have on our country.

    Comment by LCDR Matt Krull | October 20, 2013

  2. General Officers are perhaps expected to remain partisan but that doesn’t eliminate human nature. It would be naive to believe that GOs are not influenced by their political leanings. Gen McCrystal and his fallout over President Obama’s leadership as he saw it is a prime example of politics playing a role in how our GOs may actually execute the demands placed upon them by a political party. Right or wrong, Gen McCrystal allowed his perceptions of Obama’s leadership capabilities sway both his behavior and decisions.

    I agree with Matt that we need to remain partisan in our outward expression but that doesn’t eliminate human nature and the freedom of choice to make decisions based upon your perceptions.

    Comment by Ray Crotts | November 7, 2013

  3. I agree with Jonawitz assertion on democratic theory for generals and admirals. This tradition of non-partisanship has not caused American military leadership to focus too much on the mechanics of making war. In fact, providing decision support to the CINC and other senior civilian leaders is the primary purpose of top generals and admirals. Personally, I feel the flag officers would be out of line if they provided options other than the military perspective. There are other subject matter experts on the whole of government team that can provide a perspective to the POTUS/Congress outside the defense viewpoint. When it comes to formulating national strategy, the expectation from defense leaders is to deliver options to implement the strategic end state regardless of the political party in charge. The Iraq war is a perfect illustration of Clausewitz’s concept of the relationship btw war and politics. The top military brass delivered decisive military options to carry out the Bush Administration objectives whether you agree with the civilian leaders rationale to engage Saddam Hussein and his forces or not. The current situation in Afghanistan really validates the accuracy of Clausewitz’s ideas especially the trinity. DoD essentially carries out the orders or strategic objectives of the State/civilian authorities which the people (American public) supported 100% given the linkage between Afghanistan, Taliban, September 11, potential terror threats and the idea of safe havens in that region. If the will of the people change resulting in an overwhelming negative outlook regarding American boots on the ground then the political appetite to continue the current strategy would adjust. A change to national policy would follow which would end military operation.

    Comment by Maj Charles Johnson | November 21, 2013

  4. I agree with Matt on this issue. Military leadership should remain nonpartisan, however, our human nature may play a factor in this as mentioned by Ray. Being a rational being, we can’t turn off our freedoms and choices. Therefore, human nature plays a role in trying to remain nonpartisan, and although military leaders should not voice their opinion or attach themselves to a specific particular party, subconsciously they are unable to do this. The subconscious sways their opinion to a particular political party and thus probably plays a role in their military decisions. I do not believe the tradition of non-partisanship has caused military leadership to focus on solely making war at the operational and tactical level because of the subconscious role of their political views. In theory, military leaders are expected to turn off the political view side of things and make decisions. But, let’s be realistic here, this is virtually impossible because of the way our brain works. As I already mentioned we are rational human beings who like to think, even if we don’t outwardly display our preferences in politics, our unconscious being makes us apply our view in politics to our decisions in a hidden manner.

    Comment by Yovana Cardenas, SG 17A | November 23, 2013


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