“On War”, what is it good for?

By | November 25, 2014

on war by carl von clausewitz

I was very wrong about On War, by Carl von Clausewitz.

I had hoped for and expected a romp through Napoleonic warfare and tactics, with descriptions of formations, armament and maneuvers.

What I got instead was a carefully considered discussion of what war is (or at least was) and what it means for the people and countries involved.

This book was written in early 1800s, and describes some key theories of war and its relationship with politics and people. Although the language is showing its age to the point of being difficult to grasp at times, this book is now regarded as one of the most important such works of its period.

I wonder if it can offer anything to the peacetime scientist…

Lessons of my own

The appreciation Clausewitz has of the human nature and involvement of war is striking. With his perception of war as an ultimate organisational and human struggle, I couldn’t resist trying to tease out a few lessons of my own.

1. Friction

Activity in war is movement in a resistant medium.

Friction to von Clausewitz is the resistance to every operation, on- and off- the battlefield, during war: the slow ponder of a marching column, losses to disease and illness, indecision of generals and officers, the time delay of runners and messengers and so on.

I’m sure we can all relate to this feeling of opposition to movement and momentum in a task or project. We can see a clear path forward, but it just seems that at everystage the is a hindering and confounding influence. This is friction.

Unfortunately von Clausewitz doesn’t really offer much in the way of advice for how to actually deal with friction other than

A general must be aware of it that he may overcome it, where that is possible, and that he may not expect a degree of precision in results which is impossible on account of this very friction

Or in other words, know that you will encounter friction so do not be surprised or overwhelmed by it.

2. On the strategic use of victory

The beneficial effect of the smallest successes is incredible.

This sentiment reminds me of those in these guides to young scientists, on the importance of building up from manageable beginnings and gaining confidence and momentum with each small success.

Wars, as Clausewitz explains elsewhere are built up of thousands of individual human struggles, which sum to a battle, to a compaign and the whole war itself. At each level the value of small victories to the interested parties is palpable.

Maintain your own morale by allowing and planning for small victories, which will build up to victory across a wide front.

3. The focussing of forces

The first principle is to concentrate [your forces] as much as possible.

This again echoes the guidance given elsewhere on the importance of specialisation and expertise, and of not assuming mastery subjects beyond our capability.

To overcome a problem we must concentrate our efforts, not spread ourselves too thinly and become a diffuse effort accross many fronts. Identify the key targets and focus our resources on those.