Von Clausewitz on Why America Can’t Win Wars

Carl Von Clausewitz is one of the most famous military strategists of all time. His ideas are still taught in military academies to this day. Von Clausewitz spent almost his entire life at war, from 13 years old fighting in the Rhine Campaigns through the Prussian invasion of France during the French Revolution, through the Napoleonic wars, studied at the War College in Berlin, the Jena campaign (where he became a prisoner of war with his prince), the Waterloo campaign, then he died of cholera preparing for a possible new crisis on the Prussian border with Poland. His knowledge and theories were based on a lifetime of actual combat and military operations experience fighting some of the most brilliant generals in human history such as Napoleon Bonaparte, often at a severe disadvantage in terms of number of troops. His ideas are clearly thought out and well defended.

My thoughts are in bold, Von Clausewitz’s quotes are in plain text.

“Destruction of the enemy forces is the overriding principle of war, and, so far as the positive action is concerned, the principal way to achieve our objective. 2. Such destruction of forces can usually be accomplished only by fighting. 3. Only major engagements involving all forces lead to major success. 4. The greatest successes are obtained where all engagements coalesce into one great battle. 5. Only in a great battle does the commander in chief control operations in person; it is only natural that he should prefer to entrust the direction of the battle to himself. These facts lead to a dual law whose principles support each other: destruction of the enemy’s forces is generally accomplished by means of great battles and their results; and the primary object of great battles must be the destruction of the enemy’s forces.

Battle is the bloodiest solution. While it should not simply be considered as mutual murder – its effect, as we shall see in the next chapter, is rather a killing of the enemy’s spirit than of his men – it is always true that the character of battle, like its name, is slaughter, and its price is blood. As a human being the commander will recoil from it.

War cannot be fought with half measures. 

But the human spirit recoils even more from the idea of a decision brought about by a single blow. Here all action is compressed into a single point in time and space. Under these conditions a man may dimly feel that his powers cannot be developed and brought to bear in so short a period, that much would be gained if he could have more time even if there is no reason to suppose that this would work in his favor. All this is sheer illusion, yet not to be dismissed on that account. The very weakness that assails anyone who has to make an important decision may affect even  more strongly a military commander who is called upon to decide a matter of such far-reaching consequences by a single blow. That is why governments and commanders have always tried to find ways of avoiding a decisive battle and of reaching their goal by other means or of quietly abandoning it. Historians and theorists have taken great pains, when describing such campaigns and conflicts, to point out that other means not only served the purpose as well as a battle was never fought, but were indeed evidence of higher skill. That line of thought had brought us almost to the point of regarding, in the economy of war, battle as a kind of evil brought about by mistake – a morbid manifestation to which an orthodox, correctly managed war should never have to resort. Laurels were to be reserved for those generals who knew how to conduct a war without bloodshed; and it was to be the specific purpose of the theory of war to teach this kind of warfare. Recent history has scattered such nonsense to the winds. Still, one cannot be certain that it will not recur here or there for shorter or longer periods, betray those responsible into mistakes which because they cater to weakness, cater to human nature. It is quite possible that at some time in teh future, Bonaparte’s campaigns and battles will be considered brutalities, almost blunders, while the old-fashioned dress sword of antiquated and desiccated manners and institutions will be relied upon and praised. If the theory can point out the dangers of this attitude, he will have provided an essential service to those who care to listen. We hope we may be able to do this for those in our beloved country who occupy positions of influence; serving them as guides and calling on them to subject these matters to profound study. Our conviction that only a great battle can produce a major decision is founded not on an abstract concept of war alone, but also on experience. Since time began, only great victories have paved the way for great results; certainly for the attacking side, and to some degree also for the defense. The surrender at Ulm was a unique event, which would not have happened even to Bonaparte if he had not been willing to shed blood. It must in fact be looked upon as the aftermath of the victories that he had won in earlier campaigns. All fortunate generals, and not only the bold, the daring, and the stubborn, seek to crown their achievements by risking everything in decisive battles. Their answer to this transcendental question, then, should be enough for us.

America’s policy in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, then Iraq again and now in helping Ukraine fight Russia has been to try to fight without bloodshed, without any American deaths, and without even enemy combatants dying. Von Clausewitz clearly explains from hard experience that this will be a losing policy, and America has indeed lost every war. 

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed. The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later, someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.

America brought a far superior military backed by an economy orders of magnitude larger into the Afghanistan war. But foolish rules of engagement designed by politicians to avoid ugly bloodshed ultimately brought defeat. Today, like before the war began, the Taliban rules Afghanistan with an iron fist. 

If it is necessary to fight in a war, it is necessary to win. Bloodshed, and a lot of it, is the price to pay. We should be very cautious about getting into a war to start, but once we are in it, we need to fight to win. That means being willing to see many of our soldiers die, and being willing to kill all of the enemy if necessary.

I would also suggest that the lack of military commitment by America extends to a lack of political commitment; after initial victories in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should have made a full political commitment to those nations forever into the future. They should have been made territories like Puerto Rico and the people their been given the option to become citizens either by paying taxes or serving in the military (this was Rome’s method for unifying the known world). The assets of the territory could have been auctioned off with the proceeds placed in a trust for the people of that territory and the building of their infrastructure. Think of how much better off all the girls in Afghanistan and Iraq would be now if they were going to nice schools paid for when Exxon and Shell purchased the oil fields at auction… and how the evil dictators of OPEC would not have control of world energy prices.

Right now, Western nations including the United States are at war with Russia in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine and the United States reneged on our promise to defend them made two decades ago when Ukraine voluntarily gave up it’s nuclear weapons. The people of Ukraine are fighting with enormous courage and ingenuity against the most evil and ruthless dictator of our time, but the West refuses to give them the weapons to actually win the war. These half measures ultimately will lead to Ukraine being defeated. Putin is a bully and will keep making threats of every sort and the West and America must not give in to these or free nations will continue to fall one by one. We also must not give in to the urge to avoid bloodshed… to win a war, you cannot limit your armed forces.

Right now, dictators in North Korea, China, and Iran are seeing that nuclear threats are the way to go – the West will not fight you if you make threats. This is a very bad precedent to set and will lead to nightmares in the coming years. It would be far better to utterly smash Russia’s military and be ready to respond to any use of nuclear weapons with an overwhelming nuclear response. Perhaps we should even be prepared to use a nuclear first strike to disable Putin’s nuclear capabilities. Doing anything less than this guarantees that every dictatorship will seek nukes in the future and that every dictatorship will threaten to use their nukes if not given what they want.

The West today faces true evil – Putin and Xi Jinping are running concentration camps, torturing hundreds of people to death, and is murdering women and children throughout Ukraine, Hong Kong, and China and Russia themselves. Taking half measures will result in dictators taking over the world by picking off one free country at a time.

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Joel Gross

Joel Gross is the CEO of Coalition Technologies.

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