Introduction for theory”, Clausewitz introduces us to the concept



“Der Krieg ist
also nicht nur ein wahres Chamäleon…”

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     – Carl
von Clausewitz (1832)



Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz is a
Prussian general and military thinking born on June 1ST 1780 in the
town of Burg in Prussia. His work Vom Kriege (1832; On War) has become
one of the most respected studies on military strategy and has served as a lens
through which military practitioners have used to analyze war in, his work
remains incomplete. Almost two centuries later his findings still dominate
military curriculums and Vom kreige is considered the leading manuscript
in understanding the nature of war.

His theory on the paradoxical trinity where
he proposes the three dominant elements to the nature of war (passion, chance and
reason) is one of his most debated by contemporary scholars trying to adapt Clausewitz
framework to 21st century warfare.

This paper will detail his paradoxical trinity
and attempt to apply it and if needed; alter it to fit the ever changing post-modern
nature of war. It will account for two arguments frequently proposed by
scholars trying to either prove or refute Clausewitz’s trinity as a relevant
model for the modern battlefield. The first one will look at the emergence of
non-state actors to the forefront of 21st century conflicts and if the
triangle can be altered to encompass these agents not seen as nations-states. The
second argument will look at the rise of the media and technological advances in
the advent of the information age and where this fits in Clausewitz’s triangle.

This paper’s will serve as evidence for
the relevance of Carl von Clausewitz’s theory on the paradoxical trinity in
regards to contemporary warfare.





On the consequence of theory


In his “on
war”, at the end of book 1 chapter one, headed “the consequences for theory”, Clausewitz introduces us to the
concept of the paradoxical trinity; arguably his most influential and
cornerstone of Clausewitzian thought. Scholars have placed deep emphasis on the
trinity as a way of understanding the rest of Clausewitz’s incomplete work,
given that book 1 chapter 1 was the only work completed at the time of his
untimely death.

“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its
characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant
tendencies always make war remarkable trinity-composed of primordial violence,
hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the
play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to
roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which
makes it subject to reason alone.”1

Clausewitz is
here outlining the three elements of what he thought to be the nature of war. Primordial
violence, hatred and enmity in this case being a driving factor or motive to
commit bloodshed. Physically violent acts on the other hand can be a cause of
any tendency as shown previously in the chapter 1. He claims that he states
that physical or military violence “are often unaccompanied by any sort of
hostile feelings”. (on war, find it). This “primordial violence” however
is not the reason behind the choice of war. It is important to note that
Clausewitz regarded it as a blind natural force and is very different from


Subordination to reason,
instrument of policy.



fig1. the
paradoxical trinity





Clausewitz then
gives us physical examples of the meta-physical elements he proposes to be the
nature of war.  

“The first of these three aspects mainly
concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the
government. The passions that are to be 
kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which
the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and
chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but
the political aims are the business of government alone.”2

This second trinity (people, army,
government) respectively; largely become the focus of modern scholars when
attempting to refute Clausewitz’s theory, or military practitioners trying to
put the theory into practice.



Fig 2. The secondary (material) trinity





three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their
subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that
ignores anyone of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them
would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it
would be totally useless.”3 

Clausewitz’s trinity is an attempt to
identify universal truths about the phenomenon of war even as he emphasized its
ever-changing and unpredictable nature by equating his theory to an object
suspended between 3 magnets, a pendulum, once set swinging among three centers
of attraction, behaves in a nonlinear manner-it never establishes a repeating
pattern. Hence war is a phenomenon that, depending on conditions, can actually
take on radically different forms, the basic sources of change in those
conditions lie in the elements of his “trinity.”

The relevancy of the trinity in 21st century warfare


Non-state war:

warfare has been mainly non-state warfare or state Vs non-state conflicts. This
is a focal point to scholars perusing to prove the irrelevance Clauswitzian’s
trinity in modern warfare. Clausewitz definition of war as an instrument of
policy cannot comprise of the ranging asymmetric threats in the 21st
century. Terrorists, non-government militias, cartel gangs, pirates and rebels
being among many non-state actors that do not fit under policy’s umbrella which
the nation-state actor seems to be the only able to do so. Some scholars
therefore seem to view Clausewitz’s view as encaged by 18-19th
century nationalistic fervor during the zenith of the Westphalian state system;
they conclude that his trinity must therefore be irrelevant outside the context
of state-on-state conflict.

Martin van Creveld
made clear his thought that future war will be non-Trinitarian given that the
line separating the “people” and the “army” has been severely blurred with
conflicts now being fought between “armed and irrevocably hostile population”
(bassford, reclaiming trinity) . This doesn’t however mean that there is no
framework to the conflict, only that it is masked behind the fog of modern
warfare’s complexity.

Bassford, well aware
of the emphasis of non-state wars to Clausewitz’s relevance maintains that “the
notion that Clausewitzian theory applies only to warfare among well-defied
Weberian states underlies most contemporary critiques of Clausewitz and most
discussions of his Trinitarian concept”4

It was well known historically that wars
among non-state agents were extremely common. In regards to the GWOT (Global War
on Terror), military practitioners are faced with the task of applying the
clauswitzian trinity to an ever-morphing stateless enemy? (ISIS, AL-QAEDA,

To do that we must
determine what the element substituting (policy) as the provider of reason for the
non-state agents and where their ideas stem, providing a way to analyze 21st
century warfare and its subsequent nature hence as well as affirming the
trinity’s relevance. It is without a doubt that such groups
use war as a “continuation of policy by other means “, but policy being
reserved to nation-states, is inapplicable in this case. This new
element must comprise of the sources of these actors ideas just as policy is to
nation states. It is always thought that innate beliefs stem from: religion,
culture, ideology.

When looking through history’s lens at
the Global War on Terror, many make the mistake of beginning at September 11th
2001; which in in the eyes of radical Islamists, was a culmination of a 1400
year old struggle between what they call a western Judeo-Christian alliance and
Islam. One need only a brief look at the history of war to see that religion
has arguably been the cause for many wars. That is not the case however when
look at the more recent past. In the case of the Great War and WWII, religion has
had no significance in regards to policy and was only minutely significant at
the individual level. That paired with the fact that We have also seen
coalitions comprised of actors with differing religious beliefs all fighting
together for a common goal, this makes religion not the suitable replacement
element to policy.

John keegan maintains
that Clausewitz was “Deeply rooted he
was in his own past, the past of the professional officer class of a
centralized European state. Had his mind been furnished with just one extra
intellectual dimension – and it was already a very sophisticated mind indeed –
he might have been able to perceive that war embraces much more than politics:
that it is always an expression of culture, often a determinant of cultural
forms, in some societies the culture itself” (Keegan, A History of
Warfare, 12.)

A modern society
however tends to be comprised of several cultures. And moreover, culture is
created through centuries and usually transcends time. And in some cases even
though some policies seem to be incompatible with culture can influence a
society’s belief system given certain conditions, such as the rise of Nazi
Germany, given that Germany never did have a fascist culture. It seems
therefore that culture also seems to fall short of fitting into the modern
triad of elements.

Which leaves us with ideology, mirrian-Webster
defines it as a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an
individual group, or culture and the integrated assertions, theories, and aims
that constitute a sociopolitical program. Therefore it serves as the inception
of ideas that propel a group or society.

The above analysis shows that by
replacing the term “policy” with the more general concept of “ideology” in
Clausewitz’s Trinity, it can be updated to modern use as used as a way for
theorizing on warfare in ranging from state-to-state and encompassing non-state
and irregular warfare.

The analysis above argues that Clausewitz
originated in his ideology from nationalism which served as his source of


Fig 3. The modern









Technology, media and war


Handel’s fourth dimension:

Michael Handel in (Master of War) argues
that a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the nature of war
should incorporate a fourth a dominant tendency. A “material, economic, and
technological dimension” (Handel, masters of war, p109). He asserts
that technological advances and developments have added an important
qualitative dimension to modern warfare.

It is difficult to argue with Handel’s
argument. JFC FULLER has gone so far as to say that if the right tools or
weapons are discovered, victory 99% assured. Strategy and command along with
courage and organization in his opinion do not match to a high superiority of
weapons. But the outcome of the Vietnam War will show that to be incorrect.
Adding the technological dimension to the triangle puts the material
environment on an equal footing, making it part of wars dominant tendencies and
in essence “squaring the triangle”.

Handel states “Clausewitz omission of the
material dimensions of war is thus a major weakness in his theory”.  P.109

Handel attacks the traditional German
“romantic” emphasis on the moral dimensions of war and the will of the people,
viewing German thought in both World War as essentially Clauswitzian which may
explain Germany’s defeat due to the inefficiently managed war economy and
overestimation of their military might as well as the little attention payed to
the allied material and economic strength and the fourth dimension in general.









Fig 1. The paradoxical trinity                                                                                                            fig 4. Handel’s square


Clausewitz trinity is based on
meta-physical tendencies (irrationality/passion, non-rational/chance,
rational/reason).  Many scholars (including
Handel) have been stuck with the thought that those only relate to the (people,
army, government) as shown above by his inclusion of the latter elements
(people, army, government) in his new square and his disregard of the original
elements. Handel’s criticism of Clausewitz’s omission of the material aspects
is not helped by his own omission of the immaterial (meta-physical) aspects
which the trinity is in fact based on.


Further alteration of the shape

We seem to be living in an information
age and with a lot of importance currently placed on the concept of media and
information in relation to warfare, but that does that call for us to alter the
shape in order to encompass such phenomena? Or does it fall under the material
dimension earlier described by Handel? 
If the shape is to be altered, what new element should be added? In our
time, military publications and curriculums, field manuals and doctrinal
writings highlight the importance of information on the modern battlefield. The
concept of information, its control, dominance and management is a known and
embraced field within the military. It seems then that the evidence suggest
towards altering the triangle in this manner.

In order to enter media into clauswitz’s
triad, we must first define it in a way that is broader than the common mediums
we know of (TV, RADIO and NEWS). To fulfill a true definition in the 21st
century it must encapsulate the role of the internet and social media.

The definition needed would be:

“a collective term for the public and/or private entities, persons and
organizations that communicate messages, stories or events to a broader/larger
population with the intent to influence other public and/or private entities,
persons and organizations” (major Eric PDF).

This definition will make it possible to
elevate Media as an element which shares the value and has equal power within
the triangle to the other elements of Clausewitz’s trinity just as we
considered Handel’s material dimension’s importance among the three elements.

The original elements of government,
people and military with the addition of media and industry (Handel’s material dimension)
produces a pentagon shape. This accounts for the influences of the material and
informational aspects initially left out of the trinity by Clausewitz. The original
tendencies of chance, passion and reason still however remain within this new











Fig 4. Clausewitz’s model adapted to the 21st century nature
of war.




Scholars have long tried to
prove Clausewitz’s irrelevance in contemporary warfare. It is this papers
finding that after close examination of the war on terror for the case of
non-state actors, and after looking at the concept of media and its influence
on the war, it can be said that the paradoxical trinity, after a little
alteration such as replacing policy with ideology in regards to
the case of non-state conflicts; and by adding additional elements to the
original trinity to account for material element of economic power and industry
and the necessary element of media, the trinity can provide a useful way of
analyzing war in today’s age. For weather scholars choose to agree with the
alteration of the triangle shape or not, it can still be said that Clausewitz original
theory based on meta-physical elements (passion,chance,reason) still stands
when looking at any conflict.
















Masters of war , handel , p.109-111

Reclaiming clausewitzian trinity p9-19

Clausewitz on war p30-31

Martin van creveled transformation of war

Clausewitz timeless trinity

Trinity whole trinity and nothing but trinity

Strange persistence of Trinitarian war p45.54

Relevancy of Clausewitz on the war on terror

Clausewitz trinity DOA PDF

Harry summer on strategy

Clausewitz and modern strategy p59-62 Handel

Handel, Michael I. Who is Afraid of Carl
von Clausewitz? 6th Edition. Naval War College. (1997):, (accessed 3 May 2011)

Bassford, Christopher. “Teaching the
Clausewitzian Trinity.” The Clausewitz Homepage. (2007):
(accessed 3 May 2011)

Adapting Clausewitz to the Information
Age: How Traditional News Media and Social Networking are Combining to Expand
the Triangle



3 Clausewiitzz on war vol 1 chapter 1

Bassford strange persistence p.45-54