The Decline of Strategic Theory

Seydlitz89 has contributed the attached critique (170KB PDF) of Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War.

Seydlitz89 is a former US military intelligence operations specialist and later ops officer (overt strategic Humint collection) who served in Berlin from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s in a civilian capacity. He lives in Portugal and works in education.

He provided this introduction:

I am besides being a convinced Clausewitzian, an admirer of John Boyd and his thought. Boyd, contrary to some who follow him, and has Chet Richards has pointed out, never rejected the basic premise that war is a continuation of politics by other means.

The subject of the actual connections and/or disconnections between John Boyd and Clausewitz will have to wait for a future paper.

As I’ve written, the essence of Boyd is the ability to “build snowmobiles,” creative syntheses drawing from a variety of domains in order to solve problems, particularly while under stress. If you’re at all familiar with On War, you know that Clausewitz also had this ability. It is important not to limit yourself to just what you find in one domain — Boyd would often caution against being a member of just the Sun Tzu school, for example — and it is in that spirit that DNI presents seydlitz89’s paper.

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Filed in Misc. | 13 responses so far

13 Responses to “The Decline of Strategic Theory”

  1. judasnooseon 29 Mar 2008 at 8:59 am 1

    The essay is very interesting, thanks.

  2. Mycophagiston 29 Mar 2008 at 8:32 pm 2

    I’m still thinking about it…

    But it seems to me that Clausewitz takes for granted the “entity” of the State (i.e. government) as an organism independent of people, despite lip service to the contrary. After all, In other parts of his book he demands that policy be left to the State; that the people are there to be used, to be fanned into a primitive hatred of the other. That they cannot be disregarded because they provide the human material of war. Indeed in other parts of his book Clausewitz argues that numbers are the most important factor in modern war. A point which modern 4GW war has shown to be obsolete.

    What would Clausewitz make of Iraq? Military decisions made, not so much by the state, but by primitive ideologues who have captured the State? Seydlitz89 seems to be papering over this reality.

    I’ll think about this. Unfortunate that I’ve never read van Crevelds book. My bad.


  3. maximilliangcon 31 Mar 2008 at 7:54 am 3

    Counterinsurgency 101.

    “Putting Lipstick on a Pig ”

    “According to William Polk – a former U.S. State Department official who has studied many examples of counterinsurgency warfare, some in the field – for the administration to adequately execute its “clear, hold, and build” strategy under existing counterinsurgency doctrine, it would have to increase American forces six-fold.”

    ” That is something the already exhausted U.S. military could not possibly do. In addition, Polk points out that two of the foremost authorities on guerrilla warfare, China’s Mao Zedong and North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, who defeated the United States in Vietnam, pointed out that holding an expanding amount of territory overstretches and weakens counterinsurgency forces and thus strengthens the insurgents.”

    Tune in next time, same channel, same time, for
    why Connie Rice is incompetent giving military advise
    to an incompetent President.

  4. Mycophagiston 31 Mar 2008 at 9:51 am 4

    I read Clausewitz a long time ago. But my impression is that his use of the term “people,” and my understanding of the meaning differ.

    People, to Clausewitz, are the raw human munitions to be hurled at the enemy. That modern wars are won by the side that can mobilize mass.

    The above is rather simplistic and Clausewitz would go apopoleptic by my focusing solely on this. :)

    But Seydlitz89 makes much if this trinity which includes the people and does so without definitions.

    The first step in any debate is to define your terms.


  5. simontmnon 31 Mar 2008 at 4:13 pm 5

    I’ve read both Clausewitz and Van Creveld, and for once I have to agree with Mycophagist above – Clausewitz very much sees war in terms of his classic people-government-army trinity, with defined roles in a way that I think was slightly anachronistic even for his own time – Clausewitzian typology fits perfectly to eg the War of Spanish Succession, and to some 20th century conflicts, notably WW1, but the French Revolutionary wars were motivated partly by a genuine popular fervour that I think was more than merely a tool of the French Revolutionary government.

  6. Dr_Vomacton 01 Apr 2008 at 1:21 pm 6

    Thank you for this critique, Seydlitz. I’ll not be so ready to take what van Creveld says about Clausewitz at face value after reading it. From the bits you’ve cited, Clausewitz appears to have been a more subtle thinker than I had supposed–but I had judged him mainly by what v.C. and others say about this generally acknowledged giant of martial philosophy, for (alas) I have never read Clausewitz.

    Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that v.C. is mistaken in most everything he says about Clausewitz: how important is this? To what extent does it refute or render dubious v.C.’s central claims?

    It seems to me that though v.C. makes assertions of a philosophical nature about Clausewitz, these assertions are not really central to v.C’s central theses. It might have been best if he had never mentioned the old Prussian. In truth, v.C. is not, in my estimation really a philosopher; he has no appreciation or regard for the fine abstract distinctions that you so competently analyze.

    Really, v. C. is, first and foremost, a brilliantly intuitive observer who has the ability to convey his insights in clear and compelling prose. While you do an excellent job of dissecting v.C’s philosophical infelicities, I do not actually recognize any of his actual views in your article. For example, you say, “By divorcing politics/policy from war, political goals no longer need be questioned, the actual political purpose of a war started can be later ignored…Theoretical absurdities such as a “war against terrorism”, that is a war against a method, become as good a goal as any.” But where does v.C. say anything like this?

    I look forward to your critique of v.C’s “decline of the state”…especially because I can’t imagine how one might proceed to deny that this is happening.

  7. seydlitz89on 02 Apr 2008 at 4:44 pm 7

    Thank you gentlemen for the responses so far. I would point out that the essay was written in order to clear away many of the misconceptions concerning Clausewitz for the readers of this blog.

    I think I’ve dealt with those fairly well, and think it time that the followers of this school of strategic theory – let’s refer to it as 4GW – now deal with Clausewitzian theory on its own terms. Of course if you disagree with my conclusions/interpretation I’m sure Dr. Richards would be more than happy to allow you to publish your own source-based analysis developing your own views. . . It is only a question of time, ability and effort.

    Dr. Vomact-

    It is a pleasure.

    I think you will find the second part much to your liking, but do not be misinformed as to my intent, the thesis I hope to attack is the “dying state” thesis, not that of a “declining state”, or for that matter of a “rising state”.

    Also I would simply ask you why Clausewitz would have been brought up in TTW at all, but in order to give legitimacy to what otherwise was clearly a very subjective political view. I follow Clausewitz because he is imo the best strategic theorist, not because I believe him to be some sort of prophet. The whole attitude towards the relationship between theory and (military) history enters into here as well.

    As to your quote from my essay, the connection with van Creveld, as I mention, is his linking politics with the state, thus with end of the state, we also have an end of politics. He’s throwing so much overboard with that, and the unintended consequences. . . we see all around us, the negative influence of this work on strategic theory and the shambles we have today, which is clearly no fault of Clausewitz I may add. Rather Clausewitz offers the way forward, out of this confusion.

    I not expecting to prove causality here, but the link for me is clear. You recall of course what Max Weber said about ideas?

  8. Dr_Vomacton 02 Apr 2008 at 5:58 pm 8


    I wouldn’t be so cynical as to suggest that van Creveld brought Clausewitz into The Transformation of War merely to “give legitimacy” to his views. I do think vC honestly attributes a certain “traditional” view of warfare—a view intimately tied to wars as fought by European type states—to Clausewitz, and therefore feels that he’s obliged to disagree with Clausewitz. I don’t think vC is actually under such an obligation, and as I said, would have been better off to leave Clausewitz out of the discussion in TTW.

    Ah yes, the relationship of theory to history…on certain days, I’d be willing to argue that philosophical theories have never had a whit of influence on history. Then someone would probably mention Marxism, or Martin Luther, and I’d have to argue that faith is not theory, and get into all sorts of difficulty. So I won’t go there today.

  9. Mycophagiston 03 Apr 2008 at 1:49 pm 9

    I must say, I got two central points from reading Clausewitz…

    1. Mass is everything in modern war. The side that can mobilise the greatest numbers has gone a long way toward inevitable victory.

    “An unbiased examination of military history leads to the conviction that the superiority in numbers becomes every day more decisive.”

    “The principle of assembling the greatest possible numbers may therefore be regarded as more important than ever.”

    2. Battle is the key to war. And is the first goal of a commander – To bring you’re opponent to combat, and trash them.
    “We have only one means in war – the battle.”



  10. seydlitz89on 03 Apr 2008 at 5:52 pm 10


    From my essay, pp 6-7:

    “The general theory of war, as opposed to Clausewitz’s art of Napoleonic warfare, is meant to act as a theoretical system of interlocking dynamic concepts which can be used to describe (not prescribe) all wars, which are the basic elements that the social activity of organized human violence between or within political communities we call war all have in common. The art of Napoleonic warfare, or the art of warfare of Clausewitz‘s time would have only limited applicability today. Clausewitz expects that each epoch will have its own art of war, whereas the general theory will remain as an element linking the various epochs. It is an attempt to construct a theoretical framework of the nature of war itself. Part of the complexity of On War is that these two types of theories, these different goals as it where, are present throughout the work.”

    Most of the confusion imo has to do with this – Clausewitz is dealing with different types of theory – but also with the simple attitude most Americans (I’m American and I assume you are too) have towards theory. We see theory as instructions on how to do something, but that is not how Clausewitz sees theory, rather he sees it as a way of thinking, a method of organizing information and thought. He rejects dogmatic approaches. Much of what people read in Clausewitz they see as him prescribing, but in almost all cases he is not, rather he is describing a complex interaction over time between two opposing sides, first from one perspective and then from another . . .

  11. Mycophagiston 03 Apr 2008 at 7:30 pm 11

    seydlitz89 Wrote:

    From my essay, pp 6-7…”

    I’m handicapped here by not having read van Crevald. My bad. But I have read Clausewitz, even if almost forty years ago…

    “Pity the warrior who is contented to crawl about in the beggerdom of rules!”

    seydlitz89 Wrote:
    Clausewitz expects that each epoch will have its own art of war, whereas the general theory will remain as an element linking the various epochs. It is an attempt to construct a theoretical framework of the nature of war itself. Part of the complexity of On War is that these two types of theories, these different goals as it were, are present throughout the work.”

    Yes, quite, absolutely – But he takes his theory and runs with it, creating axioms for the future; i.e. Mass, and battle, as key and critical. And the underlying assumption that what the public thought hardly mattered as long as they could be motivated by the STATE.

    We on this board are juxtoposing “mass” and “battle” with other possibilities, are we not?

    Will we ever discuss Jommini, his great contemporary, even if we’ve heard of him, for precisely the reason you name – He was writing a guide to the “next” Napoleonic war,” whereas Clausewitz was writing On war itself. Even so, weren’t his theories based on what he could forsee?

    We live in “interesting times” do we not? :)


  12. seydlitz89on 04 Apr 2008 at 5:12 am 12


    “Yes, quite, absolutely – But he takes his theory and runs with it, creating axioms for the future; i.e. Mass, and battle, as key and critical.”

    Once again, read my paper. Where do these come up in the general theory? Whatever principles exist, exist in a rich contextual field which requires the entire system to maintain its dynamic quality. Also the connection between theory and praxis is very close (most of what Clausewitz wrote was military history, some of it concerning campaigns which he himself had participated in). As to On War, it’s a complex read which requires an open mind and time to contemplate and discuss, since the intend is to once again teach a way of thought, not a way of doing.

    It’s amazing how many have internalized a simplified view of van Creveld’s TTW positions (highly questionable as my paper points out) without even being aware of it, and in most cases with little actual knowledge of Clausewitz or even desire to find out what he has to say. Dr. Vomact has pointed this out rather well. I’ll be dealing with the connection between theory and practice in Clausewitz in part 2.

    As to Jomini, be my guest, but if not reading Clausewitz concerning classic strategic theory, I would prefer Svechin, or Mao, both of whom highly influenced by Clausewitz. Which brings up another important point, by rejecting Clausewitz totally – all so often due to ignorance – people at the same time reject that great body of Clausewitzian thought which has been produced since Clausewitz, or attempt to deny any connection.

    Imo, the best strategic theorist writing today is probably Herfried Münkler who builds on a Clausewitzian foundation.

  13. Mycophagiston 04 Apr 2008 at 11:06 am 13

    seydlitz89 wrote:

    “As to Jomini, be my guest, but if not reading Clausewitz concerning classic strategic theory, I would prefer Svechin, or Mao, both of whom highly influenced by Clausewitz.”

    I believe you misunderstood the reference. Jomini was the great preceptor of the 19th century, and he too wrote for the future. But we don’t remember him for the simply reason that he never got past the rifled musket in his preparations for the “next” war. Whereas Clausewitz was writing theory for the very concept and meaning of war.

    Interestingly enough, I came upon a link which gives some of your AND my arguments on this subject. I suspect you’ll find it interesting.

    But the above article was written in 1986 and none of the authors predictions have come true.

    NB. Darwin is known for formulating the theory of evolution. And his “theory” remains true to this day. But all of the mechanics of his theory have been so modified as to confuse some into believing that he was “wrong.” He was not wrong, he was a pioneer.

    And Clausewitz? Some things that he simply took for granted need the same modification that Darwin recieved. Some theorists that Clausewitz ignored (like Saxe or Guibert) should be reevaluated. None of those who take Darwins mechanics apart are attacking the Theory of Evolution.

    Thanks for the discussion and the paper – All food for thought. I look forward to Part II