A Clausewitzian Read: The Proper Balance

Mackubin T. Owens

March 1, 2003

Even those who haven’t had the opportunity to read On War by the Prussian “philosopher of war,” Carl von Clausewitz, know that he said: “war is the continuation of politics (or policy) by other means.” He was pointing out that while war in theory might have “a logic of its own” that drives it toward the unlimited application of violence on both sides, war in reality is limited by political objectives. War is not an end in itself but a means to achieving a set of political goals.

Some have misread Clausewitz to mean that civilian authorities should set the goals, then step out of the way to permit the military to determine the strategic and operational steps necessary to achieve those goals. But the interaction of political goals and military means permeates the conduct of war at all levels. Circumstances change and as they do, the means employed must be modified to reflect those changes.

The proper Clausewitzian view of war and politics seems to be guiding the execution of the war against Iraq. Despite the claim by Ari Fleischer, the president’s spokesman the other day that the president was leaving the operational details of the war to the military, the actual conduct of the war indicates a far greater guiding civilian hand than Mr. Fleischer’s comments would suggest. The war plan and its execution so far reflect a remarkable sensitivity to political goals.

As bits and pieces of what the United States might do, especially with regard to the use of air power, were leaked over the past few months, anonymous military sources criticized it for diluting the shock power of a massive air campaign. They were especially critical of apparent decisions not to target Iraqi transportation infrastructure, such as bridges and roads, and other such critical infrastructure targets such as electrical grids. Much was made of the fact that planners had chosen not to use a weapon that is capable of rapidly and easily shutting down the production of electrical power and its distribution to Iraq’s major cities. Everyone agreed that civilians should not be targeted, but, asked the critics, how could there be “shock and awe” without knocking out infrastructure targets?

The fact is that the improved accuracy of weapons has enabled the coalition to launch an air assault against Iraq unprecedented in scope and magnitude, while avoiding not only civilian casualties but also damage to the infrastructure upon which civilians depend. Television viewers Friday night (in Iraq) observed buildings housing political, intelligence, and military assets in Baghdad being obliterated by air and cruise missile strikes while the lights of the city remained on.

It seems clear that the coalition has determined that any military benefit derived from attacking the same bridges and highways that were struck in 1991 is outweighed by political considerations. The United States and its allies have gone out of their way to convey to the Iraqi people that they are not the targets of this campaign, that this is not a war of conquest but one of liberation. Iraqi civilians might find this hard to believe if they were huddling around kerosene lamps at night and finding it impossible to get from one place to another because key bridges had been knocked out. As events so far seem to indicate, a campaign of shock and awe is possible even as we keep an eye on the requirements for a favorable post-war outcome.

In a news conference on Friday, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld properly took issue with some reporters who had compared the air campaign in Iraq with earlier massive air assaults. In World War II, area bombing was necessary to gain any assurance that industrial targets were destroyed. In addition, civilians were seen as legitimate targets because of their potential contribution to the war effort. Improved technology meant a reduction in collateral casualties in Vietnam. The accuracy and effectiveness of today’s precision weapons were adumbrated during Desert Storm. But there have been vast improvements in target acquisition and the accuracy of weapons since then.

In contrast to the first Gulf War, this campaign seems to be guided by a sound approach to war termination. A successful postwar structure in Iraq requires that the military instrument be applied in a focused manner and that civilian authorities should adjust the means when necessary. This may be a violation of what Elliott Cohen has called “normal civil-military relations,” but as he demonstrates in Supreme Command, this is exactly what the greatest democratic war leaders did, e.g. Lincoln and Churchill. From the president down through the military, planners and implementers seem to recognize that the conduct of the war cannot be separated from the goals of the war. Clausewitz would approve.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.