Clausewitz vs. The Scholar: Martin Van Creveld's Expanded Theory Of War
SUBJECT AREA History
Title: Clausewitz vs. the Scholar:
Martin Van Creveld's Expanded Theory Of War
Author: Major K. M. French, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: Many people view Martin van Creveld's views on the
nature of warfare in the twentieth century to be radical and
even heretical. Yet on close examination, his model on the
nature of warfare provides a useful framework for the
evaluation of non-conventional warfare.
Background: Carl von Clausewitz is widely accepted and re-
vered as the father of modern strategy. Yet he has not been
without critics. The most recent critic of the writings of
Clausewitz is Martin van Creveld, who makes his case in his
book, The Transformation of War and in a series of lectures
at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College,
Quantico, VA in 1991 and 1992. Van Creveld proposes a
nontrinitarian model for the analysis of war and argues that
Clausewitz's model of a trinitarian arrangement among the
people, army and government is no longer valid. This paper
examines van Creveld's thesis, explains his framework and
contrasts it to Clausewitz's conventional theory. Two cases
are examined which illustrate that Clausewitz's model does
not hold for all types of warfare. First, Medieval warfare
is shown to be totally outside of Clausewitz's theory.
Next, trends in warfare since 1945 are examined to
illustrate that forces are currently at work that are not
well explained by Clausewitz's strictly political framework.
Conclusion: While still valid for conventional warfare,
Clausewitz's trinitarian model does not satisfactorily ac-
count for all types of warfare, specifically most forms of
low intensity conflict and unconventional war common since
CLAUSEWITZ VS. THE SCHOLAR:
MARTIN VAN CREVELD'S EXPANDED THEORY OF WAR
Thesis Statement. Many people view Martin van Creveld's
views on the nature of warfare in the twentieth century to
be radical and even heretical. Yet on close examination,
his model on the nature of warfare provides a useful
framework for the evaluation of non-conventional warfare.
I. War Theories
2. Political Nature of Warfare
B. Van Creveld
1. Contrast to Clausewitz
2. Trinitarian Warfare
3. Five Basic Issues
4. Nontrinitarian War
II. Historical and Contemporary Analysis
A. Medieval Warfare
B. Golden Age of Clausewitz
1. Consolidation of State System
2. Dominance of State System
III. War Since 1945
A. Technology and Nontrinitarian War
B. Nuclear War
C. Current War
CLAUSEWITZ VS. THE SCHOLAR:
MARTIN VAN CREVELD'S EXPANDED THEORY OF WAR
Carl von Clausewitz, who first set his ideas down in
the 1820's while Superintendent of the Prussian Kriegs-
akademie, is probably the most revered and quoted military
theorist of this century. Yet, for all his popularity,
many people over the years have challenged the primacy and
validity of his positions. Over the ensuing decades, other
writers have come to disagree with, even disparage the work
of Clausewitz as naive, pretentious, even monstrous. One
of the recent assaults on the theories of the father of mod-
ern strategic thought has been engineered by the Israeli
military historian, Martin van Creveld. Van Creveld pre-
sents his case on Clausewitz in a work entitled The Trans-
formation of War. He has further advanced his thoughts
in this area in a series of lectures given at the U.S. Ma-
rine Corps Command and Staff College in 1991 and 1992.
Many people view van Creveld's propositions as radical,
even heretical. Compared to Clausewitz's turgid prose, van
Creveld makes for somewhat more exciting reading. His writ-
ing is clear and direct, and his approach is to load up the
pages with heaps of historical examples to drive home his
points. Never one to mince his words, his non-traditional
views are often at odds with conventional wisdom. The pur-
pose of this paper is to examine the main premises which van
Creveld advances about strategic thought and evaluate his
new model in contrast to traditional Clausewitzian thought.
The basis for this comparison shall start with an era
which Clausewitz chose to ignore, since according to him, it
had almost nothing to say about the nature of warfare as he
saw it being practiced. Yet, Medieval warfare, despite what
Clausewitz may have thought, provides an interesting coun-
terpoint on which to evaluate the theories which the Prus-
sian master advances. Then we shall turn to an examination
of modern trends in warfare in terms of Clausewitzian
thought and van Creveld's model. But first we will set the
stage with an introduction of the two theorists, beginning
War Theories -- Clausewitz
To acknowledge that Carl von Clausewitz occupies nearly
unequalled prominence in the galaxy of Western military
theorists is a position that is hardly controversial.
For over a century and a half, his propositions, set forth
in the unfinished masterwork On War, have framed the debate
from which nearly all serious writings about war have pro-
Authors of every military work of lasting importance
seem unable to set pen to paper without at least a mention
of Clausewitz's name or the citation of at least one of his
many very quotable passages. Prevalence aside, most stu-
dents of strategy would agree with Peter Paret that On War
is by far the single most influential work on the subject
Over one hundred sixty years after the author's death,
On War is still studied in every major Western command and
staff college by those who wish to understand the nature of
war. In order to attain even a rudimentary level of compe-
tence in strategy, one must become at least familiar with
the basic postulates of Clausewitz. This fact alone could
be sufficient proof of his enduring and widespread influence
in the modern world of military thought.
Yet, the influence of On War lies much deeper than the
frequency with which it is quoted. The postulates of the
Clausewitzian model are basic, almost axiomatic to under-
standing modern warfare. So elemental are his observations,
if Clausewitz had not done it first, later theorists would
have found it necessary to identify the same issues in or-
der to even begin a discussion of war.
Certainly it is not possible to attempt to summarize a
work such as On War in a few short pages. For the purposes
of this analysis, that is not necessary. We are primarily
concerned here with what has become the foundation of nearly
all discussions of modern warfare. Namely, the political
nature of war. The central contribution which Clausewitz
made was his assertion that war is above all else, a politi-
It is important to understand why Clausewitz saw war as
primarily a political act. For this, we must look at the
nature of the world in which his thinking was influenced.
Before he was anything else, Clausewitz was a Prussian sol-
dier. He entered military service at the tender age of
twelve as an officer-candidate in Prussia under the great
Scharnhorst and died in uniform some thirty-nine years later
in 1831. During this time, Prussia suffered a series of
defeats at the hands of the most dynamic and powerful armies
that Europe had ever witnessed. As did many thinkers of his
era, Clausewitz set out to understand the nature of the
Napoleonic genius and to understand the lessons which the
revolution in warfare demonstrated to the world between 1793
and 1815. He had personally experienced Prussian defeat and
saw that governments needed to harness societies as well as
armies to conduct war on the same scale as Bonaparte.
As early as 1807, while still a war prisoner in France,
he came to believe that war was an instrument to be used by
governments in the conduct of foreign policy. By 1827,
Clausewitz had finished nearly all of On War at least in
draft form. In a progress note on his work, he tells us
what he believed to be the foundation of all thought on the
conduct of war. This is contained in perhaps the most quot-
ed passage in all his work. Namely, that "war is nothing
but the continuation of policy with other means." In
fact, his plans were to reinforce this point in a re-write
of Book Eight of On War which was intended to be a discus-
sion of the organization of war as a whole. Even in its
unfinished state, On War repeatedly emphasizes Clausewitz's
vision of the political nature of war and its necessary sub-
ordination to politics.
In a few brief paragraphs we have sketched the essen-
tial basis for warfare from Clausewitz's time to the
present. That is, war is a political activity conducted by
states, against other states as a rationally employed in-
strument of policy.
This brings us to the question of the continuing valid-
ity of On War. The theory is strongly biased in its narrow
applicability to the system of nation-states extant during
Clausewitz's time. Is the theory, therefore, general enough
to be useful in all cases found in our current experience?
For an answer to this let us turn now to one of the more
recent critics of the Clausewitzian model.
War Theories -- Van Creveld
Against the backdrop of the traditional Clausewitzian
model, authors have advanced alternate theories as to the
nature of war and the shape of future warfare. Beginning
with Baron Antoine Jomini, theorists have advanced opposing
views on the nature of war and strategy. More recently, in
1978, Ambassador Robert T. Underhill advanced the idea that
wars are no longer useful or rational in modernized societ-
ies. This he felt was due in large part to the huge cost
which modern societies would have to bear in order to toler-
ate warfare in their midst. Modern societies are so depen-
dent on the delicate infrastructure of electricity,
communications, and transportation that if war did break
out, the society itself would cease to exist. He predicted
that this trait would tend to force wars into the less de-
veloped corners of the world. To him, paradoxically, war
should be most common precisely where there is little worth
In 1990 Martin van Creveld picked up some of the
threads of Ambassador Underhill's ideas and proposed an al-
ternative view of warfare. In The Transformation of War,
Van Creveld defines the current strategic framework as a
trinitarian model by tracing its roots to the theories of
Clausewitz. Namely, he points to that passage which de-
scribes war as
. . . a paradoxical trinity -- composed of primordial
violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be re-
garded 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 sub-
ordination, as an instrument of policy, which
makes it subject to reason alone.
The first of these aspects mainly concerns the
people; the second the commander and his army; the
third the government. These three tendencies are
like different codes of law, deep rooted in their
subject and yet variable in their relationship to
one another. A theory which ignores any one 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. 
The passage is rarely quoted and less often seen in its en-
tirety. Yet, as Michael Howard noted, it sums up the es-
sence of Clausewitzian doctrine. It defines the
elements of war and assigns these elements to three actors
which interrelate in ever changing ways: the people, the
army, and the government.
So we find the essential requirements for the Clause-
witzian model. First we need a social system which recog-
nizes states. Then, the forces within the state that must
be managed are the trinity of people, army, and government.
Based on the primacy of these elements, van Creveld proposes
that a new term - trinitarian strategy, is appropriate
for what military thinkers have until now thought of as con-
ventional strategy. While he never really defines the term,
for our purposes it will be taken as that conflict which is
undertaken by sovereign states against other sovereign
states in order to further political interests.
Van Creveld sees much lacking in the comfortable as-
sumptions under lying the trinitarian approach to strategy.
Clausewitz limits his view of the history of warfare to that
system which emerged after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.
This treaty signalled the end of the post feudal era which
was dominated by the Thirty Years War. Since then wars had
been waged predominately by states against states. In fact,
since that time, common convention and an evolving body of
international law helped to solidify the notion that states
are the only entity morally and legally allowed to wage war.
Acts of violence by other entities tended to not be regarded
as wars at all, but rather as uprisings, rebellions, and
We will return to this theme in a later section, but
first we turn to a summary of van Creveld's nontrinitarian
model of war.
A New Analytical Framework
Van Creveld proposes a more general approach to under-
standing the nature of warfare. The approach centers around
five key issues which attempt to describe the critical fac-
tors inherent in war. The issues are meant to define the
nature of the conflict in terms of the principles involved.
The aim is to define war, as did Clausewitz, in non-
prescriptive terms. But van Creveld goes farther and also
seeks to describe it in a manner which is not dependent on
the existence of the system of sovereign states which
Clausewitz's trinitarian approach requires.
The first of the issues, by whom war is fought, seeks
to define the roles assumed by those who are involved in
making war. In modern conventional terms, the answer to
this question is that wars are fought by uniformed, well-
regulated armies under the direction of the state. But seen
through history, the role of states could be taken up by
various leagues, associations, city-states, religious or-
ders, and other entities, which throughout history, can and
have conducted war.
The second issue, what is war all about, identifies the
relationships among those who participate in war and those
who may be caught up in its currents. One must understand
jus in bello in order to gain a full understanding of how a
war is conducted and what its affects might be. Included in
the analysis are treatment of prisoners, civilians, the
types of weapons allowed, how one surrenders, and how the
societies involved draw the line between acts of war and
crimes or atrocities.
Next comes the question of how war is fought. This
question addresses the classic issues of modern military
strategy in terms of force creation and force
application. In truth, there is nothing new here. Van
Creveld addresses the question in terms of the classic
Clausewitzian problems of friction, chance and the skill of
the commander. He adds to this the task of creation of
force and how it is best applied. As did Clausewitz, he
emphasizes that distinctive aspect of conflict typified by
the interactive nature of combat between two intelligent,
The next issue to be addressed is what war is fought
for. To this Clausewitz would reply with the now famous
dictum, "War is a continuation of politics with an admixture
of other means." Perhaps no other line from On War is
quoted so often. Yet, the implicit assumption which lies
behind this declaration should be examined. It implies that
armies must be governed by states and be subservient to
their will. War becomes an instrument in the hands of the
state, a means to an end. As we shall discuss later, it may
be too restrictive to assume that war is always a means to
an end. A strong argument could be made that war can be an
end in itself. Van Creveld identifies conflicts such as
political wars, religious wars, and struggles for national
or ethnic existence which became much more than mere means
to an end. Put another way, it is possible for policy,
interests, and the definition of what is rational to change
over time and to differ among cultures. To understand the
nature of war, we must be sensitive to this possibility.
The last question to be addressed and perhaps the most
critical is why war is fought. Van Creveld believes this
question must be considered at the most personal level.
That is, what is it that motivates a soldier to risk his
life? This question allows one to understand the sources
and motivators of an army's fighting spirit. The politician
and military leader must be very clear about just what it is
that motivates men to fight and understand very well what
can cause men not to fight. Similarly, one must look very
carefully at the factors that makes one's opponent fight.
History provides numerous examples of fighting spirit which
are totally alien to Western society. One need look only
as far as World War II to find examples of Japanese kamikaze
pilots and more recently to Khomeini's waves of Iranian
youth marching to heaven through Iraqi mine fields to see
examples of motivators totally foreign to Western practice.
Taken together, these questions overlap considerably
with many of the key points first delineated by Clausewitz
over one hundred sixty years ago. Yet, they offer a means
to probe deeper than the old master would have us, based
strictly on the content of On War.
Van Creveld's model readily accepts the existence of a
type of warfare which does not fit well into Clausewitz's
primarily political model. He proposes that if Clausewitz's
theory Is based on a three part system of people, army, and
government, then the appropriate term for this type of war-
fare is trinitarian warfare. It follows that anything which
does not fit this model is something else entirely, that is,
nontrinitarian warfare. 
If we examine the type of warfare included by Clause-
witz in his search for examples, we see that he relied pri-
marily on what was for him recent experience. In his
chapter, "On Historical Examples", he explains that less
recent historical examples should be avoided. He states
that conditions were so different in other times that ear-
lier wars have few practical lessons for us.
This is not to say that Clausewitz dismissed all an-
cient history as useless. He did consider certain lessons
from antiquity to be relevant. Yet his overwhelming reli-
ance was on what for him was recent experience: wars begin-
ning with the Wars of Austrian Succession (1740 - 1748) and
the Silesian Wars (1740 - 1745).
It is important to point out the implications of this
position. For Clausewitz, this meant his model would be
based on the system of nation states which were then in con-
trol of the European continent. Modern war, as he experi-
enced it, was waged on a huge scale by vast, expensive
armies. These armies were managed by a large and evolving
staff system of highly trained officers. It was probably
inconceivable to one who had witnessed first-hand the power
of the grande armee that real war could be waged by any oth-
er means. For the nearly three hundred years since the
Peace of Westphalia, this perspective was accurate for the
most dominant forms of war.
Yet, this point of view had a constraining effect when
it came to understanding the various other forms of warfare
which existed in other times, with other technologies, or
with other political arrangements. If Clausewitz was right
about warfare in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
because he drew the right lessons about the relationships
among people, army, and governments, then what happens if
the relationships are radically changed or even eliminated?
This is the essence of van Creveld's nontrinitarian war the-
ory: war may be conducted by entities other than states and
by means other than armies. To illustrate the concept we
will examine two cases. First, we will look at warfare in
medieval times to show that it is possible to have war under
radically different social and political conditions than
envisioned by Clausewitz's trinitarian model. Then we will
advance to the present to examine some trends in warfare
since 1945 which indicate that even now we may be living in
a period which does not lend itself well to examination
strictly within the trinitarian framework.
To understand why Clausewitz chose to base his theory
in recent experience, one need only look at what passed for
warfare prior to the modern era. Feudalism was finally re-
placed by a system of sovereign states which the Treaty of
Westphalia codified. Prior to this, the predominant form of
political organization was a chaotic blend of alliances be-
tween individuals and various religious allegiances typified
in the feudal systems of Europe.
We have the luxury of being able to take a longer view
of history and can look back at feudalism and recognize that
this was an intricate social and legal arrangement which
required a fluid and complex relationship of power among
the entities. Viewed in terms of Clausewitz's trinitarian
model, the discrete roles of people, army, and government
were very much different than those seen in his own day.
To begin, the concept of a sovereign state does not
really apply to the feudal period. Holdings of feudal lords
were non-contiguous, small, and usually independent areas of
real estate administered as private holdings. War could
be waged by any man of honor who had the desire and the
means. In fact, the intricate web of feudal obligations,
duties, and rights gave rise to many disputes which natu-
rally resorted to violence since there was no higher author-
ity to which one could turn except God's judgement.
In such a system, the fief holder was himself the govern-
ment, if indeed, the term government applies at all to this
arrangement. Battle was a matter of social order. In
fact, the chivalric code held as a central tenet the belief
that war was a positive, ennobling experience. The
catch was that it applied only to those worthy of the law.
War and its glories were an affair only for the elite.
Peasants and serfs fell outside the realm of its protection
and were subject to the brutal exigencies of pillage and
As for armies, according to Michael Howard, the only
fighting man of any consequence, the only miles who counted,
was the knight. Yet the knight was a special soldier.
He required a variety of mounts, attendants, grooms, weap-
ons, and of course, armor. The only way to provide for this
extremely expensive weapon system was to grant the knight a
fief and require in return a certain number of days service
in return. By granting a fief, the lord obtained an obliga-
tion of military service from the knight. At the same time,
this arrangement also conferred a particular social status.
The knight, who was also the army, also got to be the gov-
ernment within his fiefdom. As such, he could wage war if
he deemed it necessary. The arrangement illustrates the
murky distinction between armies and governments, since in
this case, army and government were the same.
The last element of the Clausewitzian trinity, the peo-
ple, is very difficult to define in feudal terms. In one
sense, the people seem not to exist. If one considers serfs
or peasants, then indeed they did not enter into the equa-
tion at all, since they were technically possessions, not
people. In later Medieval periods, there is evidence in
England of using the commoners as a tax base with which to
finance wars. One scholar surmises that by 1337 there may
have been some popular knowledge of the on-going war with
France, but beyond that few details were probably known to
the average English commoner.[l9] The people were required
to contribute little or nothing of note to war and certainly
not to politics, since it was the ruling class who did the
fighting, not the serfs.
All this serves to illustrate two points. First, it is
likely Clausewitz purposefully dismissed the Middle Ages as
irrelevant since they were so different from the current
political state of affairs. Secon, if Clausewitz dismissed
this period from his consideration, how are we to evaluate
his theory of war if it is not broad enough to properly de-
scribe the relationships found within it? This is the crux
of the argument that van Creveld advances. Namely, the
trinitarian form of warfare which has been ascendant since
at least the Treaty of Westphalia is by no means the only
form which warfare can assume. Any theory which either in-
adequately describes or dismisses altogether different sys-
tems such as feudalism ignores a major portion of the
history of warfare.
The Golden Age of Clausewitz
There can be little doubt that for at least a century
and a half after his death, the trinitarian model upon which
Clausewitz based his theory of war was truly the most preva-
lent form of warfare. Since before the French revolution
to World War II the dominant form of international
institution was the state. Aided by advancements in indus-
try and technology, the state came of age. When deemed
necessary by the government, it sent its armies to war, in
order to fight other armies sent by other states. The
armies were comprised of huge segments of the population
mobilized according to plans drawn up and supervised by
ever increasingly sophisticated professional staffs.
The brief treatment here is by no means meant to imply
that little of interest went on in the development of war-
fare until 1945. This was hardly the case, as the period in
question witnessed some of the most sweeping changes in the
manner and scale with which war was waged. Still, despite
all the changes in technology and tactics, war remained es-
sentially the same as it was since Clausewitz's time. The
nature of the relationships among the people, army, and gov-
ernment were refined and clarified, but remained, in es-
sence, unchanged. Had Clausewitz lived to witness the great
wars fought during the one hundred and twenty years after
his death, he would have easily been able to recognize the
general form and manner of their conduct since things were
so similar to the strategy of his own day. In effect, the
entire period was an affirmation of the basic notions which
the Prussian scholar-warrior originally set down. States
pursued their interests in relation to other states;
armies fought against other armies; and the people were
mobilized with increasing efficiency to fill out the ranks
and provide material and moral support on the home front.
Effects of Technology Since 1945
The Clausewitzian trinity had things pretty well in
hand for more than a century. But the end of World War II
brought with it changes that call into question the adequacy
of a model for warfare and strategy so firmly rooted in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first of these
changes is a rapid and nearly incomprehensible acceleration
in the rate of technological change. This change was cou-
pled with a somewhat more subtle yet equally significant
drop in the effectiveness of conventional forces against a
growing non-conventional threat.
A characteristic of Clausewitz's approach was his deci-
sion to ignore the impact of technology on his basic theory.
Most likely, he did this not out of ignorance or dislike of
technology. He cites gunpowder as a factor worthy of his-
torical analysis and recognized the impact of technology on
tactics. He probably chose to leave technology out
since it would not be one of the unchanging factors which
would govern the conduct of war and so would not fit well
into a long enduring theory on its nature.
Yet at the end of World War II, the singular applica-
tion of nuclear technology which precipitated the capitula-
tion of the country of Japan, wrought a change to strategy
and the nature of military power which defies neat inclusion
in the long established trinitarian model.
All at once, states had the ability to wage war on a
sudden and massive scale that in effect eliminated the need
for two legs of the trinitarian model. In a war of atomic
weapons, sure to be swift and devastating (for both sides,
if one is to believe most nuclear strategists), there is no
real need for armies at all. In addition, the object of the
war, rather than being as Clausewitz would have seen it, the
destruction of the enemy's armed forces, became the destruc-
tion of the enemy's ability to retaliate in kind and the
destruction of his major population centers, government in-
stitutions, and industrial complexes. If war were to become
so swift and devastating1 the third leg of the trinity, the
will of the people, becomes irrelevant, since the conflict
requires no long-term popular commitment to wage success-
fully. And so for the first time in centuries a change oc-
curred in the basic framework identified by Clausewitz.
Armies and the people began to lose significance, albeit in
the context of a unique type of warfare, the strategic nu-
Less devastating examples of technology can be found in
the advances in the electronics and computing fields.
Breakthroughs here allow the miniaturization of weapons
technology to the point where hand-held anti-aircraft mis-
siles pose a significant threat to jet aircraft streaking
over a battlefield at speeds in excess of four hundred miles
per hour. Sophistication of explosives and detonator tech-
nology allow the construction of small yet powerful
remotely-controlled bombs. These examples are illustrative
of the means available to nearly anyone with the money or
connections to obtain them. In fact they have been used by
organizations as unsophisticated as the mujahidin in Afghan-
istan and the various militia groups in Lebanon.
Advances in technology have impaired the ability of
conventional armies to locate and destroy the enemy they are
to fight. Technology has enabled sophisticated weapons,
which till now were too complex, expensive, and unwieldy to
be used by any but highly trained armies, to be employed by
militias and rebels. This has served to put military power
in the hands of entities other than the armies controlled
exclusively by states. In many, if not most, conflicts
since 1945, the enemy has looked very much like the local
civilians. For example, the British experience in Cyprus
in 1951 found the garrison there involved in a conflict
with a local resistance well armed with large amounts of
explosives who were from the religious and professional
ranks. The experience was much the same in other post-
colonial struggles, to include Vietnam. Armies increasingly
had to deal with opponents which were hard to track down and
Van Creveld argues that a related problem is becoming
visible. That is, that technologically sophisticated armies
are not effective against primitive, unsophisticated, or
irregular forces. Sarkesian stated as much in 1985, noting
that the Clausewitzian emphasis on enemy armed forces is
likely to be ineffective in low-intensity-operations.
Citing the record of failure of the modern armies of the
world in places such as Kenya (1952), Vietnam (1954 to
1973), and Afghanistan (1979-1989), van Creveld argues that
technological sophistication is actually an impediment to
fighting a non-conventional force.(24] While this may be
so, certain types of technology are extremely useful to
non-conventional forces fighting a dispersed, hit-and-run
type of war against a massed conventional force. Ironi-
cally, technology seems to hinder the conventional force
while it also aids the nontrinitarian force. The implica-
tion is that conventional forces are at a distinct disadvan-
tage when facing nontrinitarian foes.
Michael Carver's survey of wars since 1945 seem to bear
out the premise of the ineffectiveness of conventional
against non-conventional forces. It also confirms the prev-
alence of nontrinitarian war. He analyzed some sixteen ma-
for conflicts which had a major impact on great Britain.
Of these, twelve involved opponents who did not wear uni-
forms, attend staff colleges, or fight in ways similar to
the West. To put it another way, the wars were nontrinitar-
ian, in that they seldom manifested all three or
Clausewitz's elements of people, army, and government. It
should be pointed out that of the twelve nontrinitarian con-
flicts, eleven ended in victory for the non-conventional
If we examine the most current wars, we will find a
similar trend. Of the major conflicts in 1991, twenty-five
out of twenty-eight involved at least one belligerent who
could not be typified as either a state or an army
proper. The situation was similar in 1990 with twenty-
three conflicts of twenty-eight being non-conventional.
In each of these wars, at least one of the belligerents did
not represent a state, have a trained regular army or neces-
sarily rely on the support or interest of the populace.
Laffin's survey of conflicts is not restricted to dis-
tant third-world rebellions and bush wars. He includes in
current wars the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, Peruvian
coca wars, and ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, to name a few
that are quite close to, if not within, the Western devel-
oped world. These conflicts are prime examples of the na-
ture of nontrinitarian war as described by van Creveld.
They are violent, protracted, involve fighters not necessar-
ily related to a state, and routinely involve civilians.
Quite simply, they are all very messy affairs, difficult
to either mediate or understand in conventional terms.
What are the Implications for Strategy?
I hope to have shown that far from being the first and
last word on the nature of warfare, Clausewitz's trinitarian
model offers only a portion of what is required in order to
understand the range of conflicts now in existence.
Van Creveld is the most recent and perhaps most elo-
quent in a long line of those who doubt the applicability of
Clausewitz's underlying assumption of the primacy of the
state and the central role played by the army in modern war-
fare. Others have held similar positions. Writers such as
Michael Howard, Bernard Brodie, and Richard Simpkin have
voiced their concern over the inability of organized forces
to overcome nontrinitarian opponents. All the authors
point to the growing specter of the lack of utility, even
helplessness, of conventional armed forces against low-
intensity threats. Van Creveld provides us with a more gen-
eral framework for understanding nontrinitarian types of war
which do not fit neatly into Clausewitz's model. Moreover,
this nontrinitarian type of warfare, far from being a his-
torical curiosity from the dusty medieval past, is alive
and well in the present. It is thriving in many parts of
the world today, albeit with higher concentrations in the
second and third worlds.
Conventional warfare is certainly far from dead as the
recent Gulf War demonstrated. Yet, despite the dramatic
U.S. led victory against Iraqi forces in a vintage World War
II mechanized battle, there is scant evidence of future op-
portunities to employ heavy conventional forces outside the
Korean peninsula. In a recent Parameters article, Dan Bolg-
er expressed perhaps the proper perspective on the U.S. led
victory in the desert. He noted that while the Gulf War was
going on, U.S. Marines evacuated civilians from civil-war
torn Liberia, an American helicopter crew was shot from the
sky by Salvadoran guerillas, and U.S. installations in the
Phillipines remained under increased security precautions
to counter threats of civil unrest and provocations by com-
munist guerillas. His list did not include the on-
going military commitment to the counter-narcotics
campaign, three additional humanitarian operations, and an
evacuation from Somalia. All this underscores the vast
range of threats facing modern forces. Since 1945, our
forces have only occasionally had to fight a mid to high-
intensity war while attempting to maintain the capability to
be effective in the far more prevalent low intensity con-
While Clausewitz must surely not be totally disregarded
in the last decade of the twentieth century, we must care-
fully examine the assumptions which underlie his model.
These assumptions are the basis for the organization of our
armed forces and the strategy with which we use military
force. Quite simply, the record shows our forces fight best
when they fight other armies. It should be clear that trin-
itarian assumptions are not universally valid, as demon-
strated by our forces as they engage nontrinitarian
opponents in counter-drug, counter-insurgency and counter-
terror operations. We must accept the possibility that our
forces and strategy do not adequately protect our security
in light of the nature of warfare as it is now evolving.
Only by refusing to fight war as it once was, can we defend
our country in future wars which are likely to look quite
different from anything Clausewitz might have imagined.
1. Among modern writers who took exception to Clausewitz's
theories were J.F.C. Fuller and Richard Simpkin. See bibliography
2. Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The
Free Press, 1991).
3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. and ed. Michael Howard
and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976), p. 87.
4. Peter Paret, ed., Makers of Modern Strategy, (Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 213.
5. Ibid, p. 192.
6. Clausewitz, p. 87.
7. John J. McIntyre, ed., The Future of Conflict, (Washington, D.C.:
National Defense University Press, 1979), p. 11.
8. Clausewitz, p. 89.
9. Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1984), p. 4.
10. Dennis M. Drew and Donald M. Snow, Making Strategy, (Maxwell
Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1988), p. 81.
11. Clausewitz, p. 87.
12. Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, p. 49. Van Creveld
has been known to coin new phrases which eventually enter common use.
The most notable example is the term directed telescope, introduced to
explain a command and control technique used by Napoleon to directly
get information from the field.
13. Clausewitz, p. 173.
14. Clausewitz, p. 179.
15. Martin van Creveld, "Late Medieval Warfare: Politics, Society,
Economics, and Organization", USMC Command and Staff College, Oppenheimer Chair of Warfighting Strategy Lecture, 17 Sept. 1991.
16. Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1976), p. 6.
17. John Barnie, War in Medieval English Society (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1974), p. 70.
18. Howard, p. 2.
19. Barnie, p. 32.
20. Clausewitz, p. 170.
21. Many U.S. policy concerns since 1945 have revolved around
the issue of escalation of conventional war into tactical nuclear war
and then to strategic nuclear war. The most notable example of
this is the Cuban Missile crisis, where a limited threat quickly
escalated into a strategic threat.
22. Michael Carver, War Since 1945 (New York, NY: G.P.
Putnam's Sons, 1981), pp. 45-47.
23. David J. Dean, ed., Low Intensity Conflict and Modern
Technology (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press,
1986), p. 19.
24. van Creveld, p. 22.
25. John Laffin, The World in Conflict 1991 (Oxford: Brassey's,
26. John Laffin, The World in Conflict 1990 (Oxford: Brassey's,
27. Richard Simpkin, Race to the Swift (London: Brassey's
Defence Publishers, 1985), p. 284.
28. Daniel Bolger, "The Ghosts of Omdurman," parameters,
XXI, No. 3 (Autumn 1991), 28-39.
29. For the record, Operation Eastern Exit evacuated over 300
U.S. diplomats, including Soviet diplomats, from Somalia. Operation
Fiery Vigil evacuated over 17,000 U.S. and Philippine nationals from
the area devastated by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Operation
Provide Comfort aided thousands of beleaguered Kurdish refugees
in both Turkey and Iraq, under conditions just below the threshold of
combat. Operation Sea Angel aided in excess of 140,000 Bangladeshis
in the wake of the devastating flood which struck that country. All these
operations took place within six months of Operations Desert Shield
Barnie, John. War in Medieval Society. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, l974.
Bolger, Daniel. "The Ghosts of Omdurman." Parameters, XXI
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Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Ed. M. Howard and P. Paret.
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Creveld, Martin van. The Transformation of War. New York:
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Dean, David. Low Intensity Conflict and Modern Technology.
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Drew, Dennis, and Donald M. Snow. Making Strategy: An
Introduction to National Security Processes and Problems.
Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press, 1988.
Fuller, J.F.C. The Conduct of War. Westport, CN: Greenwood
Garden, Timothy. The Technology Trap: Science and the
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Howard, Michael. The Causes of Wars. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
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---., War in European History. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Laffin, John. The World in Conflict 1991: Contemporary Warfare
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---. The World in Conflict 1990: Contemporary Warfare Described
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---. The World in Conflict 1989: Contemporary Warfare Described
and Analysed. London: Brassey's, 1989.
Levy, Jack. War in the Modern Great Power System, 1495-1975.
Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983.
McElwee, William. The Art of War: Waterloo to Mons.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1974.
Midliarsky, Manus. On War. New York: The Free Press, 1975.
Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy: From Machiavelli to
the Nuclear Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation
and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1988.
Shephard, John. "On War: Is Clausewitz Still Relevant?".
Parameters, XX (Sept. 1990), 85-99.
Simpkin, Richard. Race to the Swift: Thoughts on Twenty-First
Century Warfare. London: Brassey's Defence Publishers, 1985.
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