Clausewitz Is Wrong

Dr. Jamie Schwandt
Jan 26 · 6 min read
Illustration pulled from Great A’Tuin, the Giant Star Turtle (Chelys galactica), carrying four giant elephants and the Discworld on her back. Image via fyterrypratchett

Clausewitz is wrong. In the U.S. military, a statement like this is both blasphemy and heresy. It’s blasphemy to call Clausewitz irrelevant and it’s heresy to say he “was” or “is” wrong. I will leave it up to you to determine which one.

Carl von Clausewitz book On War is one of the most influential books ever written and is preached across the world in military education. I will admit, I do enjoy the discussion provided in On War. It offers immense value to strategic and abstract thinkers. However, there are fundamental errors in Clausewitz theory.

Center of gravity analysis

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In On War, Clausewitz discusses center of gravity. You may recognize this as a term from physics. It is a point from which the weight of a body or system may be considered to act.

We have formally adopted center of gravity (CoG) in the military. In fact, we define it in Joint Publication (JP) 1–02 as the source of power that provides moral or physical strength, freedom of action, or will to act. We view it as the enemy source of strength or power. Once identified, we know exactly where to attack. Or do we? In Three Approaches to Center of Gravity Analysis: The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, two fundamental problems with CoG analysis are discussed: 1) It is hard to identify; and 2) Different approaches produce different results.

From my perspective, CoG analysis adds more fog than it removes. CoG analysis is backwards. For example, examine Eliyahu Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (TOC) methodology. This is a way to identify the most important constraint standing in your way of achieving your goal. It’s like identifying the weakest link in a chain. Once identified, you focus your efforts on strengthening the link.

Looking at this from a military perspective. The strongest link in the chain would be the military interpretation of the CoG. However, why would you attack the strongest link? I would think about this differently and chip away at the weakest links first; thus, leaving the CoG as the only remaining link — if, in fact, a CoG exists.

Karate vs MMA

Clausewitz describes center of gravity via a wrestling match. If your goal is to knock down your opponent, then I can see where the CoG analysis makes sense as it is the single point on an object where all weight is assumed to be located. Therefore, if you attack that location, then he or she will fall.

Yet, our goal is not to simply knock the person down but to eliminate them. So, let’s say we knock the person down. Then what? You would have to identify a new CoG as the distribution of mass might shift as the center of gravity will shift toward the direction of greater mass. Or what if your opponent wants you to go to the ground?

This is like using Karate to fight in an MMA contest. Where one is a stand-up fight and the other seeks to take you to the ground. Using Karate is like a rigid object, where the CoG is easy to identify. However, MMA is more like a piece of clay, where the CoG changes along with its shape.

Where is the center of gravity of a donut?

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Can the center of gravity exist in a location where nothing exists? The answer is yes. So, where is the center of gravity of a donut? It is in a location where nothing exists… the center of the donut hole. So, how would you perform CoG analysis for a donut? Better yet, what is the CoG in cyber warfare or for a non-state actor? This is like the CoG for a donut.

In all reality, the CoG for both might just be nonexistent. If China were to conduct digital attacks (for which they have), how would you identify their CoG? If Syria were to provide Hezbollah chemical weapons to attack Israel, what would be the CoG? Would it be the Syrian regime? Or would you have to trace it back even further? If Israel were to retaliate and they identify the CoG as something different than ours… then what? What happens if we identify the CoG in Syria and Israel attacks Iran?

Does God have a center of gravity?

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William S. Lind and LTCOL Gregory A. Thiele, USMC offer an interesting discussion in the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, where opponents in 4GW often have strategic centers of gravity that are intangible. They provide the Soviet failure in Afghanistan as an example,

“The Soviet Army, which focused on operational art, could not operationalize a conflict where the enemy’s strategic center of gravity was God. This was not very capable, despite its vast technological superiority over the Afghan mujahideen.”

Clausewitz is always right… in hindsight

Those who preach Clausewitz are like the South Park character Captain Hindsight. They always arrive at the scene explaining what should have happened to prevent something, instead of resolving the actual situation.

I thought about this after reading an article by Bruce Fleming. In Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes? Fleming posits,

“Much post-Vietnam theory is like Weinberger’s in invoking Clausewitz as the patron philosopher of decisive, well-supported, and purposeful action. Usually it tries to show us in hindsight what went wrong, and how paying attention to Clausewitz could have steered us right from the start. The problem is that what counts as decisive action for one viewer may count as a colossal misreading of the situation for another. Those who disagreed with the Administration invoked Clausewitz as well.”

Fleming was not intending to make this (my) argument, yet he does. Let’s look at a couple more comments provided in Fleming’s discussion,

“This is the reason why evoking Clausewitz at every turn is both so satisfying and ultimately so pointless. When war turns out according to his timeless theories, Clausewitz told us to expect it. When it turns out otherwise, Clausewitz told us to expect that too.”

Fleming points to an analysis offered by Bernard Brodie. Brodie asks a good question, one in which points to the fact that Clausewitz will never escape the hindsight bias. Fleming says of Brodie,

“Brodie is more confident in his reading of Clausewitz. According to him, Clausewitz is offering a statement in the form of ‘should’ rather than ‘is.’ War should be the continuation of policy, but all too often is not. All we have to do is pay attention to Clausewitz to save ourselves a lot of trouble.”

I offer two final thoughts. Either On War provides the perfect guide for any opponent of the U.S.; by simply reading it, they will have an understanding of how we conduct warfare. Or we have learned from our mistakes and have started reading more of Sun Tzu; thus, practicing the art of deception.

Dr. Jamie Schwandt

Written by

Dr. Schwandt (Ed.D.) is an American author, L6S master black belt, and red teamer.

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