Chapter 9. The Western Approach to Strategy

Marcus Guest
8 min readNov 3, 2021

The long arc of western politico-economic supremacy has made the western model the one that nations striving to modernise emulate. Western nations reached supremacy when they eclipsed the economic power of the previously dominant eastern nations of China and India in the mid 19th century (see fig. 15). The innovation that first propelled this ascendancy was Arkwright’s mill (England, 1771) starting the ‘Industrial Revolution’. It was followed by successive technological revolutions that the West dominated: From the ‘Rocket’ steam engine (England, 1829) ushering in the age of ‘Steam and Railways’ to the Carnegie Bessemer steel plant in (USA, 1875) launching the age of ‘Steel, Electricity and Heavy Engineering’[⁠1]. From Ford’s moving assembly line (USA, 1910) heralding the ‘Age of Oil’ to the invention of microprogramming by Maurice Wilkes (England, 1951) triggering the age of ‘Information and Telecommunications’. Western technological superiority throughout these ages enabled it to colonise every inhabitable continent on Earth and led to the rise of the economic and military colossus of the USA, which bestrides the world today.

Fig. 15: Global GDP from 1AD to the financial crisis of 2008

Yet the roots of western dominance can also be traced back to their panicked response to the events of the early 19th century that had shocked all of Europe. As in the East, war was also to shape the western approach to strategy. Until the French revolution orthodox thinking had considered war to be a chaotic but natural force that, ultimately, could be controlled. With sufficient “hard, quantifiable data” it was believed, the conduct of war would eventually be reduced to “a branch of the natural sciences, a rational activity from which the play of chance and uncertainty [could be] entirely eliminated”.[⁠2] This would mean that the many inconveniences of war — like too much bloodshed — could be calculated away, making it a civilised alternative for resolving disputes for whenever the tricky game of diplomacy broke down. But the rise of Napoleon and the extreme violence unleashed by the Napoleonic wars destroyed these hopes of an orderly and gentlemanly pursuit of war and sent Europe’s eminent thinkers in an entirely new direction.

The “Fascinating Trinity”

Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) was a Prussian officer with first-hand experience of how modern warfare “had broken loose in all its elemental fury”.[⁠3] He had fought against the French at Borodino — the largest and bloodiest battle of all the Napoleonic wars — a day of carnage and confusion that defied mathematical calculation. Clausewitz dedicated his life to trying to explain it complexities. One of his major contributions to a new theoretical understanding of war was his “fascinating Trinity” (wunderliche dreifaltigkeit) describing the three interacting forces which were driving modern warfare:

  1. Emotion (primordial violence, hatred and enmity) a blind, irrational but natural force
  2. Reason (rational aims) the subordination of emotion into calculated policies
  3. Chance (the play of probability) where the creative spirit is free to roam.

Fig. 16: Clausewitz’s ‘Fascinating Trinity’

Each point of the Trinity exerts a magnetic pull creating a ‘centre of gravity’ for every belligerent. For example, the ‘centre of gravity’ for one belligerent may lean more towards the passion of its people clamouring for a particular course of action; while another belligerent’s ‘centre of gravity’ may lean towards the rational policies of its government determined to achieve maximalist political gains. Each ‘centre of gravity’ is the belligerent’s source of strength — its primal driving force — but also its potential weak spot. It was at this point that Clausewitz advised one to launch an attack, for the surest way to defeat an enemy was bringing overwhelming force to bear against their main source of strength and destroying it.

Clausewitz was clear what the “true aim of warfare” was — “to impose our will on the enemy [and] to secure that object we must render the enemy powerless”.[⁠4] Therefore, “the ideal strategy, he indicated, was to identify the enemy’s centre of gravity and then to direct all one’s energies against it; and if the centre of gravity proved to be the opposing army, so much the better”.[5] Domination of this kind required a mighty military machine with the latest weapons technology, sound tactics, troops with iron discipline, impeccably managed logistics and effective channels of communication to command and control activities. Although Clausewitz argued that this military machine should be subordinate to the government — so aims could be pursued with rational policies — he also argued that, once a government had decided to unleash their military machine, it should be mobilised to its fullest extent and deployed with maximum force. For Clausewitz there could be no half measures — war must be ‘absolute’.

Friction

Although Clausewitz argued that a military machine was necessary for delivering total victory he also knew, from first-hand experience, that “everything in war [may be] very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult … [because] countless minor incidents — the kind you can never really foresee — combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal⁠”.[6] He called this accumulation of unpredictable incidences a misfiring weapon, troops taking a wrong turn, unseasonably heavy rain bogging down a cavalry charge in mud — that prevent one from achieving one’s aims friction. It was friction that made war a non-linear, multi-dimensional phenomenon that defied analysis or predictions made ahead of time far from the battlefield.

War’s complexity and unpredictability means, “no other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance”[⁠7] — the final point of Clausewitz’s ‘fascinating trinity’. Yet chance was a force that remained problematical for Clausewitz. In his (unfinished) masterpiece ‘On War’ he provided no definition of chance beyond it being an uncontrollable external force causing a fog of war (Nebel des Krieges) to descend on proceedings: “Three quarters of the … action in war is … wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty⁠”[8] he argued, meaning “guesswork and luck come to play a great part”. Cutting through this fog required a new type of leader, one with “a sensitive and discriminating judgment … a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth”.[⁠9] War required genius.

Genius

In Clausewitz’s time genius was “a much used and abused term” so he “tried to strip [it] of the myths that had accumulated around it⁠”.[10] In this he was influenced by the new ideas of the time, predominantly from the British philosophers Berkeley and Hume. They reasoned that man, far from being a passive accumulator of knowledge, was a dynamic creator who could mould a better world. Clausewitz therefore rejected the concept of genius as a ‘God-given gift’, preferring instead to see it as a “very highly developed mental aptitude for a particular occupation”.[⁠11] The right aptitude (or natural ability) in the military domain meant possessing two key capabilities — intuition and determination — and it was these that distinguished a military genius from a ordinary commander.

Friction on a battlefield can derail a “well-oiled” military machine, which “begins to resist” guidance from its commander. At this point, a lesser commander may start to question himself, which increases the anxiety of those around him and can quickly lead to a loss of morale. But a military genius uses his intuition — or what the French called coup d’oeil — to pierce the fog of war, ‘take in everything in an instant’ and see what needs to be done next. He then displays determination — a “tremendous willpower to overcome this resistance”to fortify the “ebbing of moral and physical strength” of those around him who have “entrusted him with their thoughts and feelings, hopes and fears”.[⁠12] Thus with intuition and determination does a military genius shape events on the battlefield.

Clausewitz’s work became the foremost authority for the Prussian army of the 19th century, whose stunning victories in the wars of German unification (1866, 1870) seemed to prove the value of his insights. This forced the rest of Europe to come to terms with Clausewitz’s theories and an age of competing military machines was born: “Strong discipline, good weapons, appropriate elementary tactics, good march dispositions, railways, practical supply arrangements and communications [would now] determine everything in war⁠”.[13] But, as friction meant that “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces”[⁠14] victory would also ultimately depend on the elusive ingredient of genius.

Ironically perhaps, considering he opposed him on the battlefield, Clausewitz’s work ennobled Napoleon as the personification of the modern strategic genius that western leaders now sought to emulate. A generation of leaders emerged who tried to emulate the ‘genius of Napoleon’ — using intuition to identify the enemy’s ‘decisive point’ and a determination to show an iron “resolution to concentrate everything available against it, stripping forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives [as] this had been the secret of Bonaparte’s success”.[15] This imitation of genius would, of course, lead Europe to disaster in the Great War that broke out in 1914.

Conclusion

The West’s centuries long dominance on the world stage has partly been built on an approach to strategy that owes much to Clausewitz’s theories of war: the accumulation of massive power (mainly through the development of advanced technological capabilities) wielded in pursuit of total victory by dominating the enemy and imposing your will on them. But it was Clausewitz’s recognition that friction ‘distinguishes real war from war on paper’ that has arguably had the most lasting impact.

In the absence of certainty — due to the ‘fog of war’ — troops can become “apprehensive if not actually physically frightened”[⁠16] on the battlefield. In such conditions ‘logical calculations’ matter less than the “vital but incalculable factor of morale”.[⁠17] Therefore, to deliver victory, commanders must quickly identify the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’ and launch a ‘decisive battle’ against it to bring about the total collapse of their enemy’s morale before the morale of their own troops collapses. The western approach to strategy therefore became based on building a fearsome fighting machine directed by a commander’s superior intuition at the right place whilst, at the same time, preventing a collapse in morale of his own forces by cultivating an image of genius people that could believe in and rally around long enough for his determination to deliver victory.

1 Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. The dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. Carlota Perez (2002)

2 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p13

3 On War, book 8, chapter 3

4 On War, book 1, chapter 1

5 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p40

6 On War, book 1, chapter 7

7 On War, book 1 chapter 1

8 On War, book 1, chapter 3

9 On War, book 1 chapter 1

10 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p27

11 On War, book 1, chapter 3

12 On War, book 1, chapter 3

13 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p62

14 As Helmuth von Moltke — a disciple of Clausewitz and Chief of the German General Staff — later famously declared

15 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p42

16 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p26

17 Clausewitz. A very short introduction. Michael Howard 2002 p27

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Marcus Guest

Govern the state by being straightforward; And wage war by being crafty. — Laozi, Tao Te Ching marcus@powermaps.net PowerMaps.net