From the archives – Clausewitz’ Remarkable Trinity

Clausewitz’s remarkable trinity consists of three elements necessary for war.  The relationship between these three elements, in Clausewitz’s words the “balance between these three tendencies,” gives rise to a theory, not only of war but of the strategic culture itself that allows for, informs, and contributes to war’s prosecution and success.

At the primary, or initial level of analysis, these three elements are the following:  1) primordial violence, hatred and enmity; 2) the intersection of play and probability; and 3) the subordination of war as an instrument of policy.   At a secondary level of analysis, Clausewitz attaches the following categories of force to these three elements:  1) blind natural force (irrational); 2) creative free spirit (non-rational); and 3) energy subordinate to reason (rational).   

At a third level of analysis, he assigns actors to the three elements.  Those actors include the people, the military organization (troops and commanders), and the government or political leadership (including diplomats).  The actors bring three characteristics or properties, i.e., passions that are to be kindled in war, the scope or the range in which probability and chance are played out, and the government’s or civilian leadership’s political aims for prosecuting the war.

At this level of analysis, one can envision a rough parallel to the Lykke three-legged stool demonstrating the elements of national strategy, placing the Clausewitzian trinity in its broadest context.

See attached chart

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Clausewitz refers to the “paradoxical trinity,” suggesting that the elements of which war is composed are somehow contradictory elements that should not really fit together. And yet they do, resulting in an overriding need to maintain balance between dominant tendencies, forces, actors, inherent elements, and strategies, all mutually opposing, yet all distinctly complementary, at all levels. 

Friction, according to Clausewitz, explains the factors that “distinguish real war from war on paper.” Such factors may include soldier fatigue, poorly executed logistics, unforeseen weather conditions, unanticipated danger posed by the enemy, and problems resulting from insufficient intelligence.  All these factors result in decreased performance on the battlefield, and all constitute Clausewitzian friction.  Villacres and Bassford suggest that friction, i.e., the fog of war, is most applicable to the second element of the Clausewitzian trinity, non-rational forces, or the interplay between chance and probability and played out by the military on the battlefield.

Clausewitz’s assertion that “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means,” is at the same time a definition, a demonstration, and a part of a dialectical construct.  As a definition, it establishes the relationship between military action and policy, i.e., policy drives strategy, and hence war fits within the overall continuum of policy formulation and implementation.  The statement demonstrates the third “leg” of the Clausewitzian trinity, i.e., subordination to and an instrument of policy, subject exclusively to reason and calculation.  Finally, the statement is an element of a dialectical construct, serving as the antithesis of the thesis statement that “war is nothing but a duel on a larger scale….an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”  The use of the clause “nothing but” in both cases further demonstrates Bassford’s claim that Clausewitz doesn’t really mean it, but is setting up the dialectical construct.  The synthesis, i.e., the working out of the contradictions between the two opposites, reconciles the duality within the Clausewitzian trinity, though it is a dynamic, not a static reconciliation.

Concluding, the remarkable trinity is a concept which evolves, an idea that grows through three stages to its completion, its perfection. It is a process, not a static design.  It flows like a liquid, or like musical notes from an instrument.  It is the interplay between chaos and probability and is unpredictable, inherently unstable, and in a permanent state of disequilibrium. 

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