Clausewitz in the 21st Century

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Written by:
Phua Seng Yoong
Singapore Armed Forces, 2011

Question 1: Do the insights provided by Clausewitz who died 180 years ago – friction in war, the culmination of the attack, the roles of chance, uncertainty, and irrational elements in war, and the center of gravity – offer anything worthwhile for 21st Century strategists and war-fighters?

Introduction
The work of Carl von Clausewitz continues to bring about heated debate in the 21st Century. While many scholars see Clausewitz’s On War as an indispensible military thought in the modern times, others view it as an obsolete or morally repellent argument for unlimited, unrestrained and brutal warfare.[1] Notwithstanding the opposition of present times, this renowned work is considered incomplete and its lack of prescriptive contents has subjected it to interpretations and discourses. Facing this encumbrance, the study of On War has to go beyond textual analysis to an appreciation of the historical context which influenced the author’s thinking and the evolution of the book over time. Fortunately, with the enduring efforts of numerous historians, we now know that Clausewitz’s experiences in the Napoleonic Wars and his study in the age of Frederick the Great (and beyond) allowed him to create a unified, all encompassing theory of war.[2] To date, much literature has been written to attest to the relevance of Clausewitz’s theories in modern warfare and assert the timelessness of On War.[3] This paper examines the insights gained from the great studies on Clausewitz’s works and re-confirm the continued relevance of his theories by: (1) identifying the character of 21st Century warfare, followed by (2) an interpretation of Clausewitz’s theories and his underlying thinking, and finally (3) examining the relevance of the theories concerned and determine how they can be applied in the 21st Century.

The 21st Century Warfare
The character of warfare has evolved since the passing of Carl von Clausewitz 180 years ago. The likelihood of massive clashes between conventional forces seems to be diminishing and the world has seen the dawn of non-state actors challenging established states with asymmetric warfare[4] techniques. William Lind aptly chronicled the evolution of warfare in four generations, which began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. He described present day warfare as fourth-generation warfare (4GW) that is characterized by a universal crisis of legitimacy of the state, where militaries had to fight against threats that are transnational in nature and are very difficult to deal with.[5] The capabilities of these threat entities stem from the effects of globalisation that have enabled further, faster, deeper and cheaper means to reach around the world.[6] In addition to the physical reach, today’s information technology has also brought about various modern communication avenues that allow collaboration and ready access to information. Consequently, this also allowed rapid access to media pipelines enabling belligerents to exploit them to further their cause. These have bestowed transnational terrorist organisations such as Al-Qaeda, and the more sophisticated Hezbollah[7], with the abilities to acquire equipment, knowledge and instruments that rival those of the traditional state to wage wars. According to Lind, 4GW also brings together the relevance of mass firepower dominated by artillery in the second-generation warfare and manoeuvre concepts of third-generation warfare, making it more complex than ever before. Therefore, we can conclude at this point that 21st Century strategists and war-fighters have to contend with both conventional threats from traditional states and unconventional threats from non-state actors, both whom are capable of waging wars.

Intricacies of Clausewitz’s Work
To grasp how Clausewitz’s theories can be applied in 4GW, it is necessary to decipher the underlying thinking of the author’s work. Many of...
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