The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

H105: Clausewitz and the 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

September 24, 2018 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I am going to write my reaction to H105 class down in this blog comment.
    Since the class, I have been having a question, “Is the idea of the trinity from Clausewitz able to be applied to this irregular warfare and counter-insurgency operations of today?”
    He presented passion of people, policy of government, and probability of army as the well known paradoxical trinity to describe the nature of a war by dialectic methodology that compare the limited war to the absolute war. But, the time when he has presented the concept was a very important period in history because the concepts of “nation and government” had been robustly established during the time. But, now we are facing lot of non-state actors such as ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and FARC, etc. They are not the government that Clausewitz has depicted as a government. And, the army that he has described in his book is different from the actors above.
    So, the same considerations in his book are equally applicable to the armed conflicts today.
    From my perspective, I agree with the opinion that Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity has been still appropriate to today’s armed conflicts. But, I want to know others’ opinion about this question.

    Comment by kwon.moon | September 29, 2018

  2. I think the tradition of non-partisanship has not caused American military leadership to focus too much on the mechanics of wat at the operational and tactical knowledge. I have no personal or direct experience to justify this belief, all my experience over the last 18 years has been at the operational and tactical level. I believe the role of the senior military leader, strategic level, in formulating national strategy is to advise our senior governmental leaders that for the most part have no military experience to lean on. I absolutely believe our senior military leaders can avoid being politically partisan when political parties disagree on military strategy.

    The wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan draw a direct correlation to Clausewitz’s concept of the relationship between war and politics. This relationship truly started with our involvement in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, when maybe we should have done much more than liberate Kuwait from Saddam and Iraq. Then faced with the aftermath of 9/11, our actions regarding both the diplomatic and military as instruments of national power played even more into the concept of the relationship between war and politics.

    I do believe Clausewitz’s ideas still influence our understanding of the current situation and how we perceive the future of combat operations. Our current adaptation and recognition to large-scale combat operations is a great example of this influence on how we understand the operational environment.

    Comment by Aaron S. Griffin | September 30, 2018

  3. The military has traditionally struggled with non-partisanship throughout its history. This relationship exists to prevent the military from possessing too much national power as we see in the history of the Roman Empire. Senior military leaders much serve as advisors at the strategic level to provide our national leaders with military options. Leaders can maintain their non-partisanship even if political parties disagree on strategy. We have seen this in recent years such as Donald Rumsfeld decreasing the amount of troops to be used in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is not the first time in our history this has occurred. General McClellan made the same argument for more troops to Abraham Lincoln who denied his request. Elected officials are representatives of the people and the national will. Military leaders must advise our officials on our current capabilities, but only serve as a tool of national power.

    Clausewitz’s concept of the trinity is absolutely relevant in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clausewitz indicates that any nation should understand why it intends to go to war. In On War he state’s, “War is the continuation of policy by other means”. This refers to our means of national power consisting of diplomatic, informational, military, and economic means. The use of military power indicates that all other forms of national power has failed. The reason to go to war should stem from the violence, hatred, and enmity of the people. Following 9/11, the people of the United States had an intense desire to go to war with the terrorists responsible for coordinating the attacks. The government decided to declare war on terrorism and the military was responsible for achieving the nation’s strategic objectives. However, invading Iraq in 2003 diminished the people’s will to fight as it did not bring the same level of passion as fighting those directly responsible for planning 9/11. As Clausewitz indicates, the will of the people determines the national means to wage war.

    Comment by Andrew Lincoln | October 1, 2018

  4. Our senior military leaders should be non-political, and I think it is just fine that they are leaders who were promoted on their merit and competence in the tactical and operational levels. In addition, they should understand how to utilize all the instruments of national power, as well as world politics, so they can communicate intelligently and effectively with the senior policymakers to provide options for sound policy decision-making.

    Our republic, that is, we the people elect a new administration or reinstate an administration every four years. As a republic, we have honored the transition of power between parties for over 200 years, whether we like it or not. The constitutional transition of powers is a time-honored tradition that makes our country great. Senior military leaders will be serving during the transition of political power from one party to another. The military leaders provide administrations, who may have varying policies agendas/strategies of a previous administration, with a variety of military capabilities and options to ensure the national strategic interests are achieved. I think the way it has been handled at the senior military level is fine, which has led to a stable America for many years.

    Comment by Shannon Gorman | October 1, 2018

  5. I believe the military does an excellent job at staying nonpartisan while still understanding the relationship between political objects and strategy. I think the military just has a hard time with laying out options with strategic level potential consequences. I think the Army goes through great lengths to limit adverse effects of tactics on strategic objectives. They do this through policies, ROW and other restrictive measures. However, Clausewitz tells us that there is no way to truly know how a war will turn out, and that is our issue in Afghanistan and Iraqi.

    Comment by Taron Epps | October 21, 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: