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 2, 2014 - Posted by | H100


  1. The role of the senior military leader in formulating national strategy is a two pronged approach. The first is to provide civilian leadership with an accurate estimate or overview of current standing armies of hostile or non-allied countries and their capabilities in relation to our own. The assessment of overmatch between armies will provide an accurate estimate across all spectrums of capability to provide a realistic comparison. This overview can assist our leadership in finding a direction in which to steer our military capability. The second part is to provide our civilian leadership with an accurate picture of our current capabilities in relation to the current operational environment. This would translate into how many fronts we can fight on at one time. This will allow a realistic expectations of our current military capabilities and provide a baseline in, which if expectations or requirements go beyond that assessment then our current military capability must be increased to meet that mission. Politics should have no influence in providing this assessment. However, as history has shown us over and over again, politics will always have their say.

    Comment by Ryan Edwards 17B | October 27, 2014

  2. I agree that our senior military leaders must understand the whole operational environment at the strategic and operational levels of war. One of the most important aspects they must understand is how the political “system” is shaping the operational environment. Without this understanding, they cannot develop a comprehensive strategy that is aligned with politics. However, this understanding does not mean that they need to take a partisan view. I completely disagree with the assertion that senior military leaders must have their own partisan view so that they can develop strategies at the strategic level. It is the job of senior military leaders to advise our political leaders and then develop military strategies that “nest” under this strategic direction. Our senior military leaders must maintain their non-partisanship in order for this advice to remain unbiased. If we allowed military leaders to advocate their partisan views, we would run the risk of the military no longer being subservient to political direction. Clausewitz is correct that war is an extension of politics by other means. However, the military must remain an instrument to our elected civilian leaders and not become a tool in and of itself. Senior military leaders must remain non-partisan or we risk the danger of military leadership directing strategic direction versus just implementing it.

    Comment by Eric Peterson, staff group 17B | November 7, 2014

  3. My understanding of what Clausewitz meant was that war is pursued because there is a political motive, a political objective, eg regime change etc. These decisions in democracy are left to the elected politicians, however it creates a difficult interface between political strategy (civilian) and military strategy. The result is usually civilians paying general.

    Comment by anniepani | July 20, 2015

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