23 Jan 2009

Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1, §7 War is Never an Isolated Act

by Corry Shores
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Clausewitz, On War

Book I "On the Nature of War"

Chapter I "What is War?"

§7 War is Never an Isolated Act

Previously Clausewitz claimed that there were three conditions required for war to play-out in reality as it would in our abstract conception of it. The first was that the war must be an isolated act. Clausewitz will now explain why this is never so.

If our opponent were an abstraction, then we could expect him to act according to whatever is ideally best for him, and to do so without changing plans the next day. However, he is a real person. Our wills supposedly have nothing to do with objective things. Nonetheless, that does not make them abstractions. Someone's will indicates how he will behave in the future. So in that sense it seems abstract. However, one's will is based on the material conditions happening in the present.

Also, wars occur through a series of events. They do not "spring up quite suddenly," and they do not "spread to the full in a moment."

Because people are not abstractions, they need not be expected to act as though they never made mistakes in their decision-making. For, the course of a war unfolds through a largely unpredictable process with so many complexities of interwoven contingencies that no real person can possibly know exactly what to do next.

If men were perfect, then the abstract principles of war would manifest in their purity when actualizing in reality. However, the imperfection of mankind serves as a modifying principle to these more basic abstract principles.

Original text from the translation:


With regard to the first point, neither of the two opponents is an abstract person to the other, not even as regards that factor in the sum of resistance which does not depend on objective things, viz., the Will. This Will is not an entirely unknown quantity; it indicates what it will be to-morrow by what it is to-day. War does not spring up quite suddenly, it does not spread to the full in a moment; each of the two opponents can, therefore, form an opinion of the other, in a great measure, from what he is and what he does, instead of judging of him according to what he, strictly speaking, should be or should do. But, now, man with his incomplete organisation is always below the line of absolute perfection, and thus these deficiencies, having an influence on both sides, become a modifying principle.

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War, Vol.1. Transl. J.J. Graham.
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