Why Common Theories of War Are Ultimately Flawed

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "On War" by Carl von Clausewitz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do any theories of war actually reflect the reality of the phenomenon? Is it possible to predict the course of a war in principle?

According to Carl von Clausewitz, common theories of war fail to provide an accurate model of real war. He identifies three key shortcomings that tend to undermine their accuracy. He admits that these factors are difficult for a theory to predict and clarifies his discourse on war is not intended to provide a comprehensive model.

Here are three reasons why military theories are ultimately flawed, according to Clausewitz.

1. War Doesn’t Take Place in a Vacuum 

War is a political tool, so the political motives behind any given war will shape the events of the war. Thus, a theory cannot model war accurately if it treats it as a self-contained phenomenon, independent of the cause or purpose of the war.

2. War Is Human 

Psychological resources like the motivation, resolve, and emotional strength of an army play an even more significant role in winning battles than physical resources like the number of soldiers and the supply of ammunition. 

Furthermore, war is intensely personal for those involved: Even if the war was started for the purpose of advancing an impersonal political cause, once the soldiers have seen a few of their friends killed in action, they inevitably come to hate the enemy at a personal level. Thus, a theory cannot accurately model war if it treats soldiers and commanders as impersonal or perfectly rational beings.

3. War Involves Uncertainty 

In a real war, you never have complete information about your enemy’s strength, position, or plans, and the information you have is usually wrong. It may be outdated or distorted by human biases of the people who gathered or relayed the information. In particular, people tend to over-report bad news and under-report good news, so your enemy is often a lot weaker than the latest intel indicates. 

When you command an army, even the actions of your own troops are subject to a measure of uncertainty because your orders can be misinterpreted as they’re passed down the chain of command. Then there’s always an element of luck involved in carrying them out. Any number of unpredictable factors beyond your control can affect the success or speed of your operations: Maybe some of your gun carriages get stuck in the mud and that delays getting your artillery into position. Maybe a fog bank rolls in, and you can’t see important landmarks that you were using to plot the course of a march. Maybe there’s an outbreak of sickness in your camp. 

Thus, a theory that assumes both sides have perfect information and can predict each other’s actions and maneuvers, or even their own, with reasonable precision cannot provide an accurate model of war.

Evaluating The Art of War Against Clausewitz’s Three Factors

Clausewitz generally doesn’t actually call out the theories of war that he disagrees with by name, but since Sun Tzu’s The Art of War has influenced many military theorists, let’s evaluate The Art of War against Clausewitz’s three factors.

Politics: Sun Tzu doesn’t really discuss the interplay between politics and war, and, as we said before, he advises military commanders to disregard political policy if necessary in order to adapt to battlefield conditions. This arguably sets a precedent for viewing war in isolation from politics. Clausewitz argues that this precedent is unwarranted because war isn’t isolated from politics—it’s driven by politics.

Human Factors: Like Clausewitz, Sun Tzu emphasizes the significance of psychological issues in war. And, more so than Clausewitz, Sun Tzu provides guidance on how to read your enemy’s mental state and manipulate your enemy to gain a psychological advantage. For example, he advises feigning weakness in the face of a strong enemy to lure them into complacency. He also says that if enemy sentries signal each other more often than usual or necessary during the night watch, it means they’re afraid—they’re contacting each other for moral support. 

Uncertainty: Sun Tzu doesn’t take complete information for granted, but he does seem to think it’s possible and indeed crucial to a successful war effort. This is because, in his view, good strategy is what wins the war, and you need thorough knowledge of your enemy to develop a good strategy. He discusses espionage at length because spies provide you with information about your enemy. He notes that, to motivate faithful service, you should reward spies who provide you with good information and kill spies who provide you with faulty information. 

Sun Tzu focuses on getting the best information possible so that you can predict your enemy’s behavior as accurately as possible, and he doesn’t address the inherent limitations on your ability to know or predict anything with precision. As such, Clausewitz would probably say that Sun Tzu’s writings provide, at best, an ideal of intelligence to strive for, but not a complete model of real-life warfare.
Why Common Theories of War Are Ultimately Flawed

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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