The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H106 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 14, 2015 - Posted by | H100 | , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. The inherent non-partisanship of the American armed services requires military leaders to stand apart from politics at tactical, operational, and strategic levels. The American governmental structure demands non-partisanship and directly scopes the military’s role within national strategy formulation. Rather than seeing Iraq as a failure in military strategic guidance, I see the operation as effectively educating political figures on the inherent limitations of military capabilities. Ideally the war showed policy-makers the negative consequences and human elements of conflict in order to limit the future application of military power. This proof of the military’s limitations should be manifest for all politicians in order to deter future conflict unless if absolutely necessary.
    The Iraq War illustrated Clausewitz’s concept of the relationship between war and politics as a natural consequence of the relationship between government, the military, and the passion of the people related to conflict. America desired an outcome in Iraq. As such, in a fashion after Clausewitz’s teachings, America applied war in order to use violence to force the enemy to acquiesce to American will. The underlying concept was that neither side would wage a total Clausewitzian War but instead a limited scope conflict resulting in a change of will by the weaker side.
    Learning from the Iraq War through Clausewitz’s philosophy, the situation in Afghanistan is somewhat problematic. According to Clausewitz, all pieces of the trinity (policy, probability, and people) should somewhat align from both the American and Afghani triangles to create effective change. Unfortunately, the situation in Afghanistan is extremely complex. There are more than two triangles in play if international, Taliban, NGO, ISIS, and numerous other entities are factored in. If there is one thing that the Iraq War should impart to the Afghanistan conflict from Clausewitz’s perspective, it is that war is complex and at times ambiguous. The relationship between government, military, and people becomes estranged and highly complex.

    Comment by Matt Wunderlich, SG 19A | October 14, 2015

  2. The military is an instrument of policy. This suggests that the military must serve the party in power to implement its policies and programs. This requires military commanders to be professional, as they are required to execute the mission, even if they do not agree with the decision. This is also a fundamental characteristic of a democracy – people choose their leaders and the military serves the people by supporting the leaders chosen by the people. This requires the military to be non-partisan. While it is inevitable that individuals will have personal opinions on political issues, being non-partisan implies that decisions made in the military should not bias one political party over another.

    The danger of mixing the military with politics can be seen in many countries around the world. This could lead to the military taking control of the government through a coup, often with negative outcomes for the country. It affects individual rights and freedom as well as the economy of the country.

    Comment by Luke Goh, SG 19B | October 15, 2015

  3. Luke, I find your comment “the military must serve the part in power” a little problematic. I agree that military leaders are an extension of the government and therefore must obey legal orders often despite personal feelings; therefore, it is a requirement that the military as a whole be non-partisan. However, I believe that Soldiers have a responsibility to be citizens. Individuals should not avoid forming an opinion on national politics. I understand that there is danger is a Soldier feeling so strongly about their position that it interferes with their ability to follow orders, but I think there is too much danger when Soldiers just ignore their civic responsibilities. It is the job of Generals, who should be educated and mature, to advise our political leaders on military capabilities and their opinion on policy. Generals and Admirals are supposed to be the experts on war; not just how to wage it, but why to wage it.
    I think Clausewitz has it right that military leaders have to have an expert understanding of politics. How can Generals and Admirals develop the ways and means if they do not understand the ends. America, and perhaps all democracies, get it wrong when they allow none experts (politicians) to dictate the way war will be conducted. Military leaders should be allowed to develop war plans proportional to the politics involved. At most, political leaders should just choose from a menu of war plan options presented by the military experts. I believe that is where the US strayed from Clausewitz’s concept during the conduct of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Comment by Laura Proffit, SG 19C | November 2, 2015

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