Carl Von Clausewitz: Biography, Theory & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

Carl von Clausewitz is known as one of the most significant military strategists in history. His writings and theories on military doctrine set the groundwork for many nations' military structure and are still used today.

Clausewitz: The Man of the Plan

Carl von Clausewitz is known to many as one of the fathers of modern warfare. He was a Prussian war strategist who lived in the late 18th and early 19th century, whose work still holds sway in numerous military forces across several major countries, including the United States. Clausewitz was not immediately accepted by the behemoth American military, however, until well after the close of the Vietnam War. American military commanders, up until that point, saw Clausewitz as a strategist too mixed up in politics, an area traditionally avoided by the American military. However, after the very difficult and political Vietnam War, all services (Army, Navy, and Air Force) suddenly became more open to the Clausewitzian philosophy.

Overall, Clausewitz is seen as a deeply ingrained planner and creator of military doctrine. In fact, doctrine as a type of documentation and guide for military forces owes much to Clausewitz's approach as he established doctrine as the fundamental unit of understanding for military planners and strategists. Doctrine for our purposes is synonymous with best practices, or information that is prescriptive, but not directive. Clausewitz and the American military in particular appreciate this approach to doctrine as it leaves flexibility and choice on the table during strategy formulation. This approach to military planning is another reason Clausewitz is seen as a master of war strategy.

A portrait of Carl von Clausewitz in Prussian military regalia.
Young Clausewitz

Clausewitz: The Man Himself

The later life of Clausewitz and his war strategy genius are one small part of who he was. He was born into a military family and began his own military career at the age of 12 as a Lanco-Corporal, eventually reaching the rank of Major General in the Army. Clausewitz served in several prominent military campaigns, most notably as a commanding officer during the Battle of Waterloo during which Napoleon was defeated.

He was married to Countess Marie von Bruhl in 1810 and enjoyed a direct connection to German aristocracy as a result. Through these connections, Clausewitz was able to form important relationships and alliances which furthered his military career and allowed him access to people through whom he could influence military and political matters. However, Clausewitz was known as a naturally introverted person who was quiet and studious, lending him an air of dignity and intellectual prowess. He was not one to be caught up in scandal; he led a life and career that was regarded as solid and influential.

Clausewitzian Theory

Clausewitz's theory of war strategy is divided into three primary objectives: overcome the enemy's armed power, take possession of material and other sources of strength, and win public support.

The first objective is usually the primary force in the prosecution of war, as much of war in the past has been mostly concerned with attrition, or the depletion of the enemy's troops and equipment until they can no longer fight. While this method of warfighting doctrine was a powerful deterrent against enemy forces, it was also costly and often counter to the other objectives. If too many people were killed, public opinion could be swayed in favor of the oppressed force, and if too much equipment was destroyed, then it was of little or no use to the conquering force. Thus, destruction, depletion, and death had acceptable and unacceptable levels.

The second objective, taking control of resources and people, was not only a guiding measure of war prosecution, but a way to ensure future strength and control. By using conditional surrender and mercy, commanders were more able to garner support from the captured forces and muster those forces and their resources for future domination in politics and war.

Finally, through setting acceptable limits on destruction, depletion, and death, the conquering force could gain support not only from the former enemy forces, but from their own, less hawkish political and social powers. This practice of controlling information to support the image of the military is still used today and was used to great effect by allied forces following both world wars. Through humanitarian support and rebuilding, public support for the military can be raised to a very high level.

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