By Col. Harsh Vardhan Singh

On War or Vom Kriege penned by Clausewitz and published after his death in 1832 is vade mecum[1] of every military practitioner of any worth. Colin Powell’s obsession with the book was the fulcrum on which the entire Powell Doctrine is premised [2]. Clausewitz is mentioned almost ubiquitously in all strategic studies and military literature and often in a very selective and cursory manner so that he is omnipresent but more often than not only in passing. The real Clausewitz is often lost in a mass of fleeting references, most of which are misleading or do not fully convey the complexity of his arguments. Most striking is the disproportion between the towering status of his name and how little he appears to have been read in any great depth. As is often the fate of great works, they are scavenged for ideas to lend gravitas to spuriously related arguments.

One classic example is the use or rather misuse of the Clausewitzian Trinity. For the uninitiated, Clausewitz has this obsession with triads and uses three-pointed references often during his entire dialectic of ideas ranging from Book 1 to Book 8 and more importantly a note he wrote to himself in 1827[3] which was for want of a better analogy a key that unlocks the nuances of the entire discourse. In this note towards the end of his life, Clausewitz drafted the prophetic statement that ‘If an early death should terminate my work, what I have written so far would, of course, only deserve to be called a shapeless mass of ideas. Being liable to endless misinterpretation it would be the target of much half-baked criticism. Therefore most crucially, Clausewitz must be studied in context; as Peter Paret notes: ‘every theory that outlasts its creator tends to be reinterpreted un-historically; Clausewitz’s writings have suffered the attendant distortions more than most.’[4] Still not having mustered the courage to read Clausewitz in its original form, but having read and re-read a few seminal works by other authors on him and his book have led me to the conclusion that Clausewitz wrote a book that like Sun Zi Bing Fa (Sun Tzu’s Art of War; as we know it) needs to be interpreted and contextualized in extant times. Clausewitz was not deluded about the reality of his subject, the war, and saw it as only a soldier could understand, ambiguous in its meaning and violent in its execution. In sum, war for Clausewitz was an emotionally and morally complex phenomenon, at once dreadful, necessary, and exhilarating.

To begin with, let me get the most popular exemplification of the trinity by Clausewitz out of the way and then talk of other triads in his books. In formulating the basic trinity, Clausewitz simply wanted to argue that war is made up of three central elements, or dominant tendencies. War, is ‘comprised of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity (three again), which are to be regarded as a blind natural force. These elements are variously condensed into short-hand versions such as ‘passion, chance, and politics’. Each tendency; passion, chance, and policy/politics of the trinity is (mainly) manifested in a corresponding subject within society: respectively, the people, the army, and the government.

Fig-1: Primary and Secondary Trinity[5]

In modern works, the trinity is frequently invoked to explain strategic behaviour and outcomes, such as in Rupert Smith’s seminal book; The Utility of Force. In comparing war to a chameleon Clausewitz is suggesting that war’s character, the ‘face of war’ – is in constant flux, even though its inner nature remains unchanged. That intrinsic nature relates to the three primary tendencies of the trinity. In this respect, war is ‘more than’ a chameleon because he goes on to explain how the three tendencies will constantly change in their relationship to one another. Nevertheless, taken together the three tendencies represent permanent (yet modulating) features of war. This relates to the character of war at a given moment. Its character (colour) may have changed but it is still by nature, war comprised of policy, chance, and passion. The linkage between the primary and secondary trinity was premised on each vector of the secondary trinity typifying one aspect of the primary, policy or politics is, of course, the government’s mandate which executes war as an extension of its policies. The people infuse passion into the activity of war and after all, warfare is a primordially human activity and thus the people. The final vector, of course, is the military which works on chance, and here comes the factor of leaders with intellect and coup d’œil. Clausewitz always believed that luck is an important aspect of Commander’s success and his prime example was Napoleon.[6]

Clausewitzian trinities are a strain that runs across the entire ambit of warfare and at every level of the conduct of this human endeavor. The defeat of 1871 to the Prussians enamored the French to Clausewitz and his best-known interpreter Georges Gilbert summarized Clausewitzian theory into another triad of laws.[7] From this triad emerged the key phrases of schwerpunkt, culmination point and Centre of Gravity emerged ( another three). This triad would then lead to the achievement of the three objectives of war[8], the three objectives couldn’t be separated from each other and hence are symbiotic to success. Maybe it is a lesson for our strategic planners who are looking for a monochromatic force centric or space centric strategy, even if it’s not the absolute war Clausewitz prophesied we are engaged in.

Fig-2: Clausewitzian Theory of War Fighting & Objectives

Clausewitz was besotted with Napoleonic Grand Army and its offensive maneuvers but he saw redemption for Prussia in a defensive battle. In books 6 and 7 he infers that a defensive was a stronger form of warfare wherein maintaining the territorial integrity of a nation galvanized people more but had a negative aim while offensive was the weaker form of warfare with a positive aim. In Book 1, Chapter1 paragraph 14, defensive architecture can end hostilities with other two aspects of warfare:-

          (a)     Fear leading to indecision.

          (b)     Imperfect intelligence.

          (c)     Greater strength of the defender.

The physical manifestation of warfare to tactical engagements was again mentioned in a trinity which many other tacticians and proponents of operational art have also done; time, space, and relative strength. These three led to the enemy’s defeat and the result of this defeat was visible in another triad wherein the enemy gave up his own plan as the final determinant effect.

Within many of these Trinitarian military axioms, Clausewitz describes the nonlinear nature of war. His description and understanding of the social dynamics of war give complex meaning to the interaction of various social elements in war, characterizing it as a complex adaptive system. Political and military leaders and policymakers should be mindful of the nonlinear nature of the social interactions in war. In doing so, they will be more prepared and adaptable to unpredicted yet material developments throughout a conflict. The trinities essentially present a picture of the war from the perspective of one actor, one ‘side’, perhaps even an alliance in war. Thus, in order to gain a complete perspective of war we have to visualize what we might term a ‘clash of trinities’; essentially the idea being that we need to bring together the separate trinities of each belligerent and analyse their interaction. As Paret states, Clausewitz believed that ‘war was an activity in which each aspect influences and is influenced by others, and this interrelationship extended to the social and political matrix of war.’[9]

The question that should arise while reading Clausewitz’s description of the trinities regards the extent to which they shape the outcome of modern-day conflict we are presently engaged in be it the localized standoff in Eastern Ladakh or the perpetual state of sub-conventional conflict we are engaged in on the Western Borders. Of course, the most obvious answer is, “It depends.” While this answer is true, it is not helpful. However, if we understand what Clausewitz defines as these trinities and the tendencies that make it a complex adaptive system as a framework, we can understand how initial conditions affect the interactions. Efforts to identify the conditions under which events occur is often a frustrating endeavor. The violence on 15 Jun 2020 at Glawan River took everybody by surprise because maybe we did not recognize the conditions that led to the events. Many other conflicts have destabilized entire regions unexpectedly. In 1914, a series of seemingly unrelated events inadvertently sent European powers spiraling to war. David Earnest writes: The spiral theory of inadvertent war provides one of the most compelling arguments about emergent phenomena in world politics: micro-decisions produced macro behaviors that none of the political actors desired. One cannot simply reduce the war to preferences of the Tsar, Kaiser, emperor, or a President Xi or PM Modi in the present context.[10] The trinities, in their basic form, potentially mis-convey the enormous complexity of ideas and concepts that it rests upon. To paraphrase Clausewitz: everything in the theory of war is very simple, but the simplest thing is incredibly complex. It would be very easy to fall into the trap of believing that these trinities offer a useful short-cut to an advanced understanding of war. Had Clausewitz lived until today no doubt he would still be redrafting On War, and perhaps he would have made a hopeless research student, unable to ever accept his work as finally complete.



[1] Vade mecum is Latin for go with me (it derives from the Latin verb vadere, meaning “to go.”) In English, “vade mecum” has been used (since at least 1629) of manuals or guidebooks sufficiently compact to be carried in a deep pocket. accessed on 29 Nov 2020.

[2] Hew Strachan, Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War, A Biography, Atlantic Books, London, 2007, pg 04.

[3] Ibid pg 72.

[4] Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 8.

[5] Thomas Waldman, War, Clausewitz, and the Trinity, Department of Politics and International Studies University of Warwick June 2009, SIS_Waldman_2009.pdf , pg 20, accessed on 27 Nov 2020.

[6] Strachan, ibid pg 149.

[7] Ibid pg 14

[8] Ibid, pg 172.

[9] Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pg. 189.

[10] David C. Earnest, Massively Parallel Globalization: Explorations in Self-Organization and World Politics (Albany: SUNY Press, 2015), pg 03.