Notes On Leadership & Strategy from Clausewitz
Rex C. Mitchell, Ph.D.

** Clausewitz, Carl von On War. Edited/translated by Michael Howard & Peter Paret, Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1976 (rev.1984 with index)

It may seem strange for an organizational consultant today to be interested in a book on military strategy and war written by a Prussian army officer about 170 years ago; however, I find some of his basic ideas to have current professional relevance. A few selected notes from my reading are given here, after a brief biographical sketch of Clausewitz.


Clausewitz (1780-1831) entered the Prussian army at the age of 12 and managed to gain admission to the War College in Berlin in 1801. On the eve of Napoleon's invasion of Russia (1812) he, like other German patriots, entered Russian service where he distinguished himself and was partially responsible for the Russians' successful strategic retreat. He returned to Prussian service c.1815 and served as chief of staff of an army corps during the Waterloo campaign. In 1818 he became a general and was appointed administrative head of the War College. During the next 12 years, he used much of the leisure that this position provided in writing his historical studies and his major work on strategy On War (Vom Kriege). The book was published by his widow c.1832.


(p.5-6 Paret essay) Clausewitz drew three lasting tentative conclusions from his early war experiences:

  1. There is no single standard of excellence in war - no one system is right to the exclusion of all others
  2. It is a mistake to believe that war could be mastered by observing this or that set of rules
  3. War is a political phenomenon

(22 Paret) Dual nature of war, as C. formulated it in last years, expressed in two pairs of possibleconflicts, each defined according to the purpose involved:

  1. War waged with the aim of completely defeating the enemy, in order (1) to destroy him as a political organism, or (2) force him to accept any terms whatever
  2. Wars waged to acquire territory, in order (1) to retain the conquest, or (2) to bargain with the occupied land in the peace negotiations.

(28 Howard essay) Clausewitz presents this great theme with war as an instrument which could be used either to overthrow the enemy or to exact from him a limited concession.
...The 2nd of Clausewitz's. great themes is that war is simply the continuation of policy by other means

(69 Clausewitz, himself) War can be of two kinds, in the sense that either the objective is to overthrow the enemy - to render him politically helpless or militarily impotent, thus forcing him to sign whatever peace we please; or merely to occupy some of his frontier-districts so that we can annex them or use them for bargaining at the peace negotiations.
...point that must be made absolutely clear, namely that war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.

(28 Howard) Three elements in his theory: intrinsic violence of war; dominant role of rational policy in shaping and controlling it; and the all-important dimension of chance.

(33-4 Howard) C. was so admired in the German army primarily for (a) his achievement in turning strategic thought away from a mechanistic concern with geometrical relations to man and man's actions in the midst of all the uncertainties which are the proper element of war, & (b) his emphasis on the preeminence of moral forces in war

(44 Howard) cautions: "it must not be forgotten that Clausewitz was a soldier writing primarily for soldiers; that he looked forward to the continuation of war as something natural and inevitable..."

[Next few notes from essay by Bernard Brodie - to provide a guide to reading the book]

(642 re Book 1, Ch.1) the only chapter completed to the author's satisfaction. The object of war is (a) to impose our will on the enemy, to do which (b) we use the means of maximum available force, with (c) the aim of rendering him powerless. We thus note at the outset the distinction between military aim and political object.

(646 re 1:1) he reiterates that was is always an instrument of policy

(658-9 re 3:2-7) ...the glory always reaped by successful leaders in war has been a spontaneous recognition of the qualities that C. and other military writers have called "moral" - which, of course, in this sense has nothing to do with ethics.
"Boldness governed by superior intellect is the mark of a hero. This kind of boldness does not consist in defying the natural order of things and in crudely offending the laws of probability." ...he calls this quality "the first prerequisite of the great military leader." It is remarkable that he should have been able to pay such a quality he probably knew he did not possess.

(700 re 8:2) ...returns to distinction between "absolute war and real war," & presents a priceless axiom: "No one starts a war - or rather, no on his sense ought to do so - without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it." What could be simpler and more obvious - and yet so often disregarded!

(Brodie 703 re 8:3) ch. ends with the summation: "The aims a belligerent adopts, and the resources he employs, must be governed by the particular characteristics of his own position; but they will also conform to the spirit of the age and to its general character. Finally, they must always be governed by the general conclusions to be drawn from the nature of war itself."
(705-6 re 8:6) Absolutely inadmissible, he says, is the common notion that war suspends political intercourse between the contestants and replaces it with a wholly different condition... the logic of war is determined by the political aim, and acts of war merely replace the usual exchange of diplomatic notes... "Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, and not vice versa." The military point of view must always be subordinated to the political.


(75-77 C. Bk.1:Ch.1) War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale... War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will. ...Force - i.e., physical force, for moral force has no existence save as expressed in the state and the law - is thus the means of war; to impose our will on the enemy is its object. To secure that object we must render the enemy powerless; and that, in theory, is the true aim of warfare.
...The maximum use of force is in no way incompatible with the simultaneous use of the intellect...
...Two different motives make men fight one another: hostile feelings and hostile intentions. the latter... is the universal element
...power of resistance can be expressed as the product of two inseparable factors, viz, the total means at his disposal and the strength of his will. (The latter) can only be gauged approximately by the strength of the motive animating it.

(77 Three cases of interaction and "extreme" we meet with):

  1. War is an act of force, and there is no logical limit to the application of that force. Each side compels its opponent to follow suit; a reciprocal action is started which must lead, in theory, to extremes.
  2. So long as I have not overthrown my opponent I am bound to fear he may overthrow me. Thus I am not in control; he dictates to me as much as I dictate to him.
  3. Competition (in exertion of strength) will again result and, in pure theory, it must again force you both to extremes.

(80-81 C. 1:1, section 9) Lastly, even the ultimate outcome of a war is not always to be regarded as final. The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.

...(as the law of extremes) begins to lose its force and as this determination wanes, the political aim will reassert itself... the political object, which was the original motive, must become an essential factor in the equation. The smaller the penalty you demand from your opponent, the less you can expect him to try and deny it to you; the smaller the effort he makes, the less you need to make yourself. Moreover, the more modest your own political aim, the less importance you attach to it and the less reluctantly you will abandon it if you must. ...The political object - the original motive for the war - will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires. ...a military objective that matches the political object in scale will, if the latter is reduced, be reduced in proportion; this will be all the more so as the political object increases its predominance.

(85-88 1:1) If we now consider briefly the subjective nature of war - the means by which war has to be fought - it will look more than ever like a gamble. danger courage ...there is an interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad that weaves its way throughout the length and breadth of the tapestry. In the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.
...War is no pastime; it is no mere joy in daring and winning, no place for irresponsible enthusiasts. It is a serious means to a serious end, and all its colorful resemblance to a game of change, all the vicissitudes of passion, courage, imagination, and enthusiasm it includes are merely its special characteristics. (86)
...war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means. ...The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.
First... it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous but always as an instrument of policy; otherwise the entire history of war would contradict us... Second, this way of looking at it will show us how wars must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situations which give rise to them. (88)

(101 1:3) Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one's own conscience. ...Courage in face of personal danger is also of two kinds. It may be indifference to danger, which could be due to the individual's constitution, or to his holding life cheap, or to habit. In any case, it must be regarded as a permanent conditions. Alternatively, courage may result from such positive motives as ambition, patriotism, or enthusiasms of any kind. In that case courage is a feeling, an emotion, not a permanent state. ...the first is the more dependable ...the other will often achieve more. There is more reliability in the first kind, more boldness in the second. The first leaves the mind calmer; the second tends to stimulate, but it can also blind. The highest kind of courage is a compound of both.

(101-108 re various desirable characteristics in a leader):

  • (101) If we pursue the demands that war makes on those who practice it, we come to the region dominated by the powers of intellect. War is the realm of uncertainty. ...A sensitive anddiscriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.
  • (102) Two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead. The first of these qualities is described by the French term, coup d'oeil; the second is determination.
  • (103) a related subject: presence of mind. (104)...Four elements make up the climate of war: danger, exertion, uncertainty, and chance. If we consider them together, it becomes evident how much fortitude of mind and character are needed to make progress in these impeding elements with safety and success. According to circumstance, reporters and historians of war use such terms as energy, firmness, staunchness, emotional balance, and strength of character. These products of a heroic nature could almost be treated as one and the same force - strength of will - which adjusts itself to circumstances: but though closely linked, they are not identical.
  • (105) Energy in action varies in proportion to the strength of its motive... great strength, is not easily produced where there is no emotion.
  • Staunchness indicates the will's resistance to a single blow; endurance refers to prolonged resistance.
  • (105) ...turn to strength of mind or of character ...self-control - the gift of keeping calm even under the greatest stress ...a strong character is one that will not be unbalanced by the most powerful emotions. (but not stolid or phlegmatic)
  • (106) also need a very powerful intellect to provide the needed stimulus.
  • (107) Strength of character does not consist solely in having powerful feelings, but in maintaining one's balance in spite of them. Even with the violence of emotion, judgment and principle must still function like a ship's compass, which records the slightest variations however rough the sea. ...firmness of character ...whose views are stable and constant
  • (108) ...provide a comprehensive guide to action. ...principle is in all doubtful cases to stick to one's first opinion and to refuse to change unless forced to do so by a clear conviction. [**This point should not be used to justify inflexibility and closing off to new information - RCM]

(111-112 1:3) To bring a war, or one of its campaigns, to a successful close requires a thorough grasp of national policy. On that level strategy and policy coalesce: the commander-in-chief is simultaneously a statesman. ..a commander-in-chief must also be a statesman, but he must not cease to be a general. On the one hand, he is aware of the entire political situation; on the other, he knows exactly how much he can achieve with the means at his disposal.

(127-8) Essentially war is fighting... Fighting... is a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter. Naturally moral strength must not be excluded, for psychological forces exert a decisive influence on the elements involved in war.
...tactics teaches the use of armed forces in the engagement; strategy, the use of engagements for the object of the war.

(137-140) The major characteristics of military activity:

  1. Moral forces and the effects they produce
  2. Must expect positive reactions
  3. Uncertainty of all information

(156) Three different intellectual activities contained in the critical approach.

  1. Discovery and interpretation of equivocal facts (historical research)
  2. Tracing of effects back to their causes (critical analysis)
  3. Investigation and evaluation of means employed (criticism proper)
    ...The deduction of effect from cause is often blocked by some insuperable extrinsic obstacle: the true causes may be quite unknown. Nowhere in life is this so common as in war, where the facts are seldom fully known and the underlying motives even less so.

(171) Four points of view in use of historical examples:

  1. Used as an explanation of an idea
  2. Serve to show the application of an idea
  3. To support a statement, to prove the possibility of some effect
  4. Detailed presentation of a historical event or combination of several events to deduce a doctrine

(177-9) Strategy is the use of the engagement for the purpose of the war... Everything in strategy is very simple, but that does not mean that everything is very easy... e.g., campaign that Frederick the Great fought in 1760, a masterpiece...

(186, see also 184) The principal moral elements are: skill of the commander, experience and courage of the troops, and their patriotic spirit.

(202) The term "cunning" implies secret purpose. It contrasts with the straight-forward, simple, direct approach much as wit contrasts with direct proof. Consequently, it has nothing in common with methods of persuasion, of self-interest, or of force, but a great deal with deceit, which also conceals its purpose. It is itself a form of deceit, when it is completed; yet not deceit in the ordinary sense of the word, since no outright breach of faith of involved. The use of a trick or stratagem permits the intended victim to make his own mistakes, which, combined in a single result, suddenly change the nature of the situation before his very eyes. It might be said, that, as wit juggles with ideas and beliefs, so cunning juggles with actions.
...At first glance, it seems not unjust that the term "strategy" should be derived from "cunning"... Yet, however much one longs to see opposing generals vie with one another in craft, cleverness, and cunning, the fact remains that these qualities do not figure prominently in the history of war. Rarely do they stand out amid the welter of events and circumstances.
....Strategy is exclusively concerned with engagements and with the directions relating to them. Unlike other areas of life it is not concerned with actions that consist only of words, such as statements, declarations, and so forth. But words, being cheap, are the most common means of creating false impressions. Analogous things in war - plans and orders issued for appearances only, false reports designed to confuse the enemy, etc. - have as a rule so little strategic value that they are used only if a ready-made opportunity presents itself.

(209) The rule is: all forces intended and available for a strategic purpose should be applied simultaneously; their employment will be the more effective the more everything can be concentrated a single action at a single moment.

(605) Up to now we have considered the incompatibility between war and every other human interest, individual or social... Now we must seek out the unity into which these contradictory elements combine in real life, which they do by partly neutralizing one another. ...This unity lies in the concept that war is only a branch of political activity, that it is no sense autonomous.
...It is, of course, well-known that the only source of war is politics - the intercourse of governments and peoples, but it is apt to be assumed that war suspends that intercourse and replaces it by a wholly different condition, ruled by no law but its own.
...We maintain, on the contrary, that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.

(606) In making use of war, policy evades all rigorous conclusions proceeding from the nature of war, bothers little about ultimate possibilities, and concerns itself only with immediate probabilities. Although this introduces a high degree of uncertainty into the whole business, turning it into a kind of game, each government is confident that it can outdo its opponent in skill and acumen.

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Last modified July 5, 1998 Copyright 1997, 1998 Rex Mitchell