Why we should stop teaching Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz is one of the most profound military thinkers of all time. His famous book On War is our bible and he is a god among military strategists. But we should stop teaching Clausewitz in the U.S. military.

Carl von Clausewitz is one of the most profound military thinkers of all time. His famous book On War is our bible and he is a god among military strategists. But we should stop teaching Clausewitz in the U.S. military.

Most will view this discussion as blasphemy. How dare I advocate that we stop teaching the divine inspirations of Clausewitz. Sean McFate provides a similar discussion in his new book The New Rules of War: “A hagiography exists around the man, and his book On War is enshrined in Western militaries as a bible. When I teach this text to senior officers at the war college, the room grows silent with reverence. His ideas constitute the DNA of Western strategic thought.”

On War was published in 1832 and we continue to look to it for timeless principles of warfare, but why? As Ian T. Brown wrote in A New Conception of War, “We must move beyond the past.”

Brown went on to discuss how Air Force Col. John Boyd desired a new framework, “because he believed that the uncritical adoption of older mental models deliberately deprived one of new data that could be useful to one’s decisions and actions.”

Using Boyd’s opening remarks in “Patterns of Conflict” to further argue this point, Brown wrote, “For those people use Clausewitz as the lens filter to look at the problem, you’re going to make a horrible mistake.” Boyd continued, “Your thinking hasn’t proceeded beyond 1832, and a lot of things have happened since 1832.”

I am not insisting that Clausewitz does not provide valuable lessons. But by focusing on Clausewitz we miss important discussion that should be brought to military education. This leads me to the purpose of this article, for which I have two primary goals. First, to point out specific things which Clausewitz got wrong and reasons why we should stop teaching On War. Think of it like moving from a devotional reading of The Bible to a historical critical examination of it. Second, to identify what we should start teaching more of in all military education.

Let’s first look at what Clausewitz got wrong.

Strength on Strength

Russell Weigley, author of American Way of War, points out that Clausewitz’ leading principle of war was that of annihilation, which is more in line with attrition warfare where the goal is to wear down the enemy. This is an absolute waste.

Sun Tzu informs us that force is the fool’s way of war, and that battlefield victory was the mark of an inept general. Sun Tzu brilliantly informed us that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

The indirect approach is the ideal approach. Sean McFate illustrates this point in The New Rules of War. McFate points out that, “wit beats muscle.” Similar to Sun Tzu, he informs us that we should use the indirect approach.

We won every battle, but lost the war

Gen. William Westmoreland unintentionally, yet brilliantly summarized a huge error in reading too much Clausewitz, at a press conference in 1967: “Militarily, we succeeded in Vietnam. We won every engagement we were involved in out there.” Blinded by Clausewitz, Westmoreland remarked, “He [North Vietnam] has nothing to show for his investment.”

In On Strategy by Harry Summers, we are provided with a conversation between a U.S. colonel and a North Vietnamese colonel that, again, brilliantly, but unintentionally summarized this error: “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said the American colonel. The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

In addition, Michael Handel points out in Sun Tzu and Clausewitz: The Art of War and On War Compared, that, “despite Clausewitz’s recognition of the primacy of politics, his study of war is concerned primarily with that which occurs once hostilities have commenced. According to him, it is possible, even advisable, to distinguish between the preparatory, as opposed to combat and operations, phases of warfare.”

So, is it any surprise that we, the U.S. military, win nearly all tactical engagements, yet fail to win the actual war? Our devotion to Clausewitzian principles prevents us from seeing reality.

Conventional War

Another important point McFate discusses is that of conventional war.

“There is just one problem with conventional war: no one fights this way anymore,” he writes. “There is nothing conventional about it, because war has moved on. Despite this problem, conventional war remains our model, and this is why the West continues to lose against weaker enemies who do not fight according to our preferences. To win, we must ditch our traditional way of fighting, because it’s obsolete. It is neither timeless nor universal. On the contrary, conventional war has a beginning, middle, and end.”

He argues that Clausewitz is the father of conventional war, where Sun Tzu is the father of unconventional war: “Clausewitz curses chaos and the fog of war as barriers to victory; Sun Tzu creates chaos and weaponizes it for victory. Clausewitz believes cunning ruses are the weapon of the weak; for Sun Tzu they are the weapon of choice. Clausewitz thinks spies untrustworthy and intelligence reports unreliable; Sun Tzu finds them indispensable.”

So why did Clausewitz lead us down this path? Because it was the only kind of warfare he knew. But that does not mean we should still teach it today.

Center of Gravity Fallacy

A fallacy brought on by a devotional reading of Clausewitz is the center of gravity. I posed the following question in Clausewitz is Wrong: What happens when there is no center of gravity? Better yet, can the center of gravity exist in a location where nothing exists? The example I provided was that of a donut: Where is the center of gravity in a donut?

Furthermore, does God have a center of gravity? As William S. Lind and Marine Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele point out in the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook, when we examine intangible centers of gravity, “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.”

So, if we are not going to teach Clausewitz, then who or what should we teach? I argue that we should teach the following.

Never start a land war in Asia… unless you are Genghis Khan

One of the biggest disappointments during my time at the command general staff college (CGSC) was that we didn’t discuss Genghis Khan. That’s if you don’t include the best part about CGSC – The Red Team School.

The Mongol conquest of China should be required study for the U.S. military, especially if we are branding China as one of our opponents. We completely ignore the fact that the Mongols conquered the whole of China in 1279.

Timothy May wrote in Genghis Khan’s Secrets of Success that the Mongols possessed a highly developed and complex military structure. May remarked, “this provided them an edge in warfare over their opponents, but a key to Mongol success in war and conquest was the melding of traditional and still effective steppe tactics with new tactics and forms of warfare they encountered. Throughout the expansion of their empire, the Mongols remained pragmatic and open to incorporating new methods of waging war and adopting new weapons and tactics.”

May concluded, “Finally, due to their extensive planning, the Mongols were better informed about their opponents than most medieval armies. The outcome was that for more than 150 years of conquest from Asia to Europe they suffered no serious defeats.”

Mongol military tactics should be required study. We should even strive to create algorithms for drones and swarming tactics that mimic Mongol tactics. In essence, instead of looking to the wisdom of Clausewitz, let’s look to the wisdom of Genghis Khan.

Shadow War

Moreover, we should also require military education to discuss more of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the Thirty-Six Stratagems. Where Clausewitz clearly preferred pitting strength on strength, Sun Tzu, if fighting was the only option, preferred the indirect approach. He also advocated for heavy reliance on intelligence, deception, surprise, and the use of psychological means.

Clausewitz considered intelligence to be less than reliable. An opposing view is the Thirty-Six Stratagems. This is a Chinese text with a series of stratagems focusing on psychological warfare and deception. In my opinion, these texts match reality much closer than does On War.

McFate discusses the concept of the shadow war in his new book. He says, “In shadow war, subversion is the strategy and plausible deniability the tactic. Rather than fight the forces of durable disorder, shadow wars harness them by creating chaos and using it. In other words, the essence of shadow war is to keep the enemy guessing.”

McFate continues, “The Thirty-Six Stratagems offer some ideas on how to achieve this, and in all of them, cleverness wins over brutality. The shadow warrior is skilled in attack if the enemy does not know what to defend, and an expert in defense if the enemy does not know what to attack.”


Another intriguing idea offered by McFate is his discussion of legionnaires. He argues how we, the U.S. military, should use legionnaires to replace military contractors. He argues that legionnaires would be held accountable for their actions under military law and that paying for the legion would be easy.

To this last point, McFate remarks, “It would replace private military contractors and take their budget. In 2010, during the Iraq War, The Pentagon appropriated $366 billion for contracts – that’s five times the United Kingdom’s entire defense budget.” McFate continues, “The legion would serve the US government first, with no shareholders to please. Additional funds could come out of the defense budget by cutting one F-35.”

John Boyd and Maneuver Warfare

The best military handbook I have ever read is without a doubt the Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William S. Lind. As Marine Col. John C. Studt (Ret.) remarked in the foreword of Lind’s book, “It is pure intellectual innovation.”

Lind points out that the word “maneuver” means Boyd Cycling the enemy faster through however many OODA (Observe – Orient – Decide – Act) Loops it takes until the enemy loses cohesion. Col. John Boyd is the father of maneuver warfare and (in my opinion) the greatest military theorist of all time.

If we were to follow the ideas outlined in this handbook, we could then create a military education program centered on teaching “how” to think, instead of teaching “what” to think. Lind describes education as the following: education develops the ability to put immediate situations into a larger context built of history, philosophy, and an understanding of the nature of man. Inherent in education is the ability to think logically, to approach problem-solving methodically, but without a predetermined set of solutions.

Lind argued that we should teach students to make quick decisions through a coherent, logical thought process while under pressure. We should stress that there are no right answers, which he backs up with a quote from Gen. F. W. von Mellenthin, a 1937 graduate of the German War College:

“A student was never told his decision was wrong. He was criticized for only two things: failure to make a timely decision, and inability to give a logical, coherent explanation for his decision. But if he made either of these errors, he was criticized severely.”

Real Mission Command

If we read and follow the ideas outlined in Lind’s handbook, we could actually conduct real Mission Command. We could finally move past our love of Command and Control (while attempting to call it Mission Command).

Lind proposes using the following three mental filters or reference points to help guide our thoughts:

1. Mission-type Orders. The key is decentralization, which is essential for the OODA Loop. Provides the subordinate commander with the “what” or the mission; leaving the “how” to accomplish the “what” to the subordinate. The commander’s intent (boundaries) is a long-term contract and the “what”. The mission is the short-term contract and the “how”.

2. Schwerpunkt (Focus of Effort). The Schwerpunkt or focus of effort is where the commander believes he or she can achieve a decisive decision. This is the focus enabling a force to direct its power to one purpose. Lind posits that it is the medium through which the contracts of the intent and the mission are realized. It pulls together the efforts of all the subordinates and guides them toward the goal — toward the desired output of the commander.

3. Surface and Gaps. The last filter is where you should place your Schwerpunkt. Lind defines the third filter as:

Surface (enemy strengths). Think of the “surface” as a line of enemy defenses. As Lind points out, we should strive to avoid the “surface” and place our strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses.

Gaps. A “gap” is a hole in the “surface” or line. We should strive to place our Schwerpunkt opposite a gap, not a surface. Commander’s should seek to find or create gaps, then exploit them.

If we continue to read and preach Clausewitz as a god, while refusing to question his divine words, then we will continue to throw away the lives of U.S. troops. As McFate points out regarding the inheritors of Clausewitz’s legacy, “They could think only in terms of force and attrition.”

And if we continue to follow the scripture found in On War, we will continue to lose. Instead of finding a new and relevant way to wage war, doubters will continue to dig their heels in and refuse to change course.

Clausewitz is no different than the South Park character Captain Hindsight, where the priests of the Clausewitzian Church arrive at the scene explaining what should have happened to prevent something, instead of resolving the actual situation. My critics will point out that, if we would only have listened to Clausewitz or understood what he meant, then we would have won.

As Bruce Fleming discusses in Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us From Future Mistakes?, “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.”

The “Mad Major” Jamie Schwandt, USAR, is a logistics officer and has served as an operations officer, planner and commander. Schwandt is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Red Team Member, and holds a doctorate from Kansas State University. This article represents his own personal views, which are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army.

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