The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H106: Clausewitz and American Military Tradition

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 wars  in Iraq and Afghanistan 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 4, 2016 - Posted by | H100, Uncategorized | , , ,


  1. The Global War on Terror, specifically our actions in Afghanistan, clearly depict the correlation between Government, People, and the Military. Following the events on 9/11, the passion of the people was focused heavily on retaliation. We were able to push policy through the use of the military in order to achieve that retaliation on Al Qaeda, who were (we believed at the time) was spread throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. Following the initial outset of this conflict, it was clearly visible to see the additional governmental efforts of nation-building and support through direct advising and political efforts.

    Comment by Pete Farese | October 4, 2016

  2. The Commander and Chief of our armed forces is a civilian politician. This communicates something essential about the roles of the military and political leaders: namely, it appears that civilian politicians want the lead role in articulating and formulating national strategy that the military is tasked with implementing. Because the structure designates the military as an instrument of national power (and strategy) to be ultimately plied by civilian leaders, the chief competency of military leaders should be the mechanics of warfare and providing recommendations of how to accomplish the strategy laid out my civilian leaders.

    The problem to be is not that military leaders have shirked their responsibilities in understanding strategic warfare, but rather that civilian leaders have encroached and usurped the military’s role in articulating how to achieve national strategy. Gen (R) Shinseki comes to mind as an example of a military leader who was punished for doing his job: explaining to civilian leaders how their strategy ends did not match the means required. Today’s civilian leaders seem more willing to “stack the deck” with senior military leaders who will not offer resistance to their ideas of how to accomplish national strategy, a clear overstepping of the military/civilian relationship. This is where the imbalance and impropriety lies.

    Comment by Scott | October 6, 2016

  3. Clausewitz said that war is based on policies and politics. When the argument is made that military commanders must remain apolitical, this is easier said than done because everyone by their nature has a set of core beliefs. This does not relieve us of our responsibility to carry out the orders of the political seniors that we serve under. The proposals that military commanders make will ultimately serve a certain outcome, at best it will be a 50% chance as to whether it is an outcome that they happen to agree with. Situations can and do arise that strike against our leaders core beliefs, when those situations arise, it becomes a test of moral courage to carry out an order that you disagree with. However, those leaders always have the option to resign rather than to carry out those orders, and in some cases this can change the calculus of those issuing the orders.

    This goes to Pete’s comment above – it’s easy to have a bunch of yes men surrounding you, but you might think twice when someone would rather resign than carry out your order. Hopefully it at least gives you pause and you reconsider.

    Comment by Justin Reddick | October 7, 2016

  4. Correction – Scott’s comment

    Comment by Justin Reddick | October 7, 2016

  5. That is really one of the best small articles that I have ever read. From my opinion the US tradition of non-partisanship caused American military leadership to focus too much on the mechanics of making war at the operational and tactical level. and that is really a great thing, which enables the US military to be successful. The role of the senior military leader in formulating the national strategy is really huge and they are the key player in this process as they are responsible for linking between the political and military circle, and from my opinion, they are very successful at doing that. I think that leader can not completely avoid being politically partisan if the different political parties disagree on strategy but they always mitigate the risk of being partisan to one of the party.
    The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has illustrated Clausewitz’s concept of the relationship between war and politics and approve it because the army was the political tool that the US used it apply its politic under the definition of the war against the terrorism. I think the war in Afghanistan was reasonable and it adds for that concept but was not the same in Iraq.
    Clausewitz’s ideas, especially the trinity, have influenced our understanding of the current situation in Afghanistan because it linked the three circle together and the triangle was almost perfect between the people, government , and the military. But after that, the triangle got deviated and the relation between the people and government got farther and on the other hand, the relation between the army and the government got shorter.

    Comment by mohamedmillataryleader | November 3, 2016

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