Overcoming A Clausewitz-Centric Mindset In Nontraditional Wars – Analysis


By G.L. Lamborn

(FPRI) — Standing in the heat at Gia Lam airfield in Spring 1975, respected author and military theorist Colonel Harry Summers was puzzled. Despite ten years of US support, the deployment of nearly 500,000 US soldiers and Marines, the provision of heavy weaponry and helicopters, and the expenditure of an estimated one trillion dollars, the Saigon government had collapsed in defeat. Summers turned to his North Vietnamese counterpart, Colonel Tu, and stated “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Colonel Tu thought about that for a minute, then replied: “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”

Colonel Summers might have phrased his bewilderment in this way: “How is it that you won the war when we consistently defeated you on the battlefield?” The thoughtful Colonel Tu probably would have replied: “You fought only the enemy you could see, but not the enemy that you could not see. You fought the wrong war.”

Lessons Not Learned

Following Prussia’s crushing defeat at Jena-Auerstedt in October 1806, Carl von Clausewitz became a prisoner of the French at the Chateau de Coppet. There he had ample time to reflect on Napoleon’s political and military victories. Clausewitz studied the factors contributing to Napoleon’s triumphs, such as strategic surprise, rapid forward movement, flanking of enemy forces, and speed of concentration. He also noted the connection between battle and political results, perhaps his most profound observation.

Upon his release from captivity after the Peace of Tilsit, Clausewitz returned to Prussia and worked with King Friedrich Wilhelm and others to reform the Prussian army and state. 

Months later in July 1808 at Baylen, Spanish insurgents, including thousands of angry civilians, wiped out a French regular force of 20,000 under General Pierre Dupont. France’s invasion of Spain unleashed powerful political forces—early signs of nationalism and ethno-centrism, which were to flower later in the nineteenth century and shape a new form of war, popular insurgency—the “war of the people.”

Clausewitz served both the Russian Czar and King of Prussia in the War of Liberation, which drove Napoleon out of Germany (and ultimately out of France). After Clausewitz’s death, his observations on the Napoleonic campaigns were canonized as Vom Kriege by his widow, Countess von Brühl, and serve to this day as guidance for regular forces.

The lesson of Baylen took much longer to digest. No one at the time bothered to analyze, much less canonize, the forces at work in popular insurgency. Joachim Murat, overall French commander in Spain, thought Baylen to be little more than a riot. He completely missed the significance of the Spanish popular uprising: both its immediate consequences and certainly its historical implications. Perhaps it may be said that the French grasped the watershed lesson of Baylen only 150 years later at Dien Bien Phu. 

The Clausewitzian Paradigm

Many US military professionals think of war, as did Clausewitz, as a clash of regular military forces between nation-states, with the winner dictating terms of peace. Indeed, Clausewitz’s paradigm held true in the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and both World Wars. His volume, On War, is sacrosanct in Western military academies and war colleges.

Yet the defeats in Vietnam and Afghanistan caused military theorists to raise questions about “what went wrong” in each situation. How could overwhelming firepower, numerical strength, financial power, and advanced technology fail to defeat enemies lacking airpower, heavy artillery, armor, superior logistics, and technology? 

As in previous wars, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan the US military faithfully applied Clausewitzian theory. The full weight of US firepower—from the air as well as the ground—was brought to bear. Yet, after years of attempting to apply firepower and high technology to these insurgencies, the end result was defeat despite trillions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost, and the resulting overthrow of the regimes in Saigon and Kabul the United States tried to protect. Clausewitz had somehow failed us.

Perhaps the failure was in America’s fundamental misunderstanding that “nontraditional wars” do not lend themselves to Clausewitzian solutions. The insurgencies in Vietnam and Afghanistan posed very different problems requiring approaches that Clausewitz had never considered. Clausewitz knew only of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon in its “guerra de guerrillas” to which he devotes one chapter of On War. (Clausewitz viewed the Spanish insurgency against Napoleon’s brother King Joseph as useful only if guided by regular forces—essentially an adjunct of conventional operations.) Clausewitz could not foresee the late-nineteenth century rise of ideology, nationalism, and social revolution—the modern forces that shape insurgent warfare. 

Insurgency—revolutionary warfare—is separate from Clausewitz’s conception of war. A Prussian officer, Clausewitz’s views were formed during his struggle against Napoleon’s infantry and cavalry. Perhaps America’s triumph in World War II fighting a conventional war against enemies from advanced industrialized countries blinded it to nontraditional warfare against opponents of vastly different cultures and political beliefs. With the exception of the first Gulf War and defeat of Ba’athist Iraq, America’s wars since the Korean armistice of 1953 have pitted us against nontraditional opponents.

Insurgencies—which the United States attempted to counter at great cost in Vietnam and Afghanistan—do not lend themselves to Clausewitzian analysis. I make the following point in Arms of Little Value: “If we are to conduct effective counterinsurgency we must first understand insurgency. The US people  apparently do not. This is especially ironic as the United States of America won its independence from Great Britain by means of a ten-year-long insurgency aided and abetted by outsiders.” (Clausewitz viewed the Spanish insurgency against Napoleon’s brother King Joseph as useful only if guided by regular forces—essentially an adjunct of conventional operations.)

Clausewitz makes clear that war is an extension of policy and not a thing apart from policy. Noting that war is an instrument of policy, Clausewitz stated: “It is, of course, well known that the only source of war is politics.”

Clausewitz, however, was speaking only of international politics—the clash of interests, values, and political-economic forces between rival states that induce those countries to come to blows. His views are drawn from the extension of French power throughout much of Europe during Napoleon’s time. Napoleon’s policy was to expand France’s direct rule as an empire, and spread the ideals of the French Revolution throughout Europe. Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and other states, motivated by their own state interests, attempted to carry out policies sharply conflicting with those of Napoleonic France. The means chosen by both sides to resolve the clash of interests (policy) was war by means of regular armies using the conventional weapons of the era.

By contrast, insurgency aims at the steady erosion from within a vulnerable government by its own disaffected population. Hence, the only Clausewitzian concept that applies to nontraditional conflict is the truth that war results from politics and is an extension of politics “with additional means.” The existing (threatened) regime certainly wishes to preserve itself. And those citizens having a stake in the existing regime naturally have an interest in retaining their property, social position, and political power. 

The insurgents’ policy is to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with a government of their own choosing, perhaps also deposing (or even eliminating) the current ruling class. In most cases, victorious insurgents become leaders of the new government. 

Thus, war certainly results from the clash of interests—in other words, politics. But the internal war that follows from conflicting policies is very different from that which characterizes state-on-state war. It is a war primarily of political and psychological influence, often using nontraditional means such as strikes, boycotts, sabotage, assassination, political mobilization, and even terror—supported when needed by armed elements.

Anatomy of Modern Insurgencies

Modern insurgencies differ from Clausewitz’s concept of war in at least three major ways. First, insurgency is an internal war. It is not fought between nations, the way Clausewitz and most other Western conventional thinkers conceive of war. Rather, it is fought by a part of the people against the established regime in their own country—one that many perceive as illegitimate and perhaps corrupt and repressive. Insurgencies can only take place under certain dysfunctional political-social conditions and can only be understood in terms of the insurgents’ Cause and the people who support that Cause.

In Vietnam, the insurgents’ goals were reunification (motivated by nationalism) and the expulsion of intruding foreigners—in many ways, a continuation of the French Indochina War. In Afghanistan, a reactionary version of Islam coupled with the majority Pashtun population’s ingrained anti-foreign views fueled the Taliban’s ultimate victory.

Second, because certain dysfunctional conditions exist causing widespread disaffection, insurgents offer policies aimed at rectifying the “contradictions” which gave rise to the disaffection. This defines the political goals of conflict—the cause—and leads to popular insurrection. While it is quite true that some insurgent movements use regular, uniformed elements alongside peasant guerrillas in civilian clothes, what sets insurgencies apart from conventional wars is constant proselytizing, recruiting, organizing, and mobilizing. 

Third, an insurgency is armed politics—political warfare. Indeed, this is its key element. Because the heart of any insurgency is its political basis, the chief weapons are political mobilization, propaganda, subversion, intelligence and counterintelligence, passive resistance, sabotage, and time. Heavy weaponry and large conventional infantry units contribute very little and may, in fact, be counterproductive. 

In conventional wars, civilians are considered noncombatants and generally are irrelevant to the struggle between regular forces. Noncombatants may complicate operations, but the people basically sit and watch as bystanders and await the outcome. No attempt is made to proselytize, organize, or mobilize the people.

But in insurgencies, the people are the political object of the war and are involved in every military or political activity—hence, Mao Zedong’s term “people’s war.”

“People’s war,” however, is much more than “guerrilla warfare.” Many military professionals often equate the two. Indeed, guerrilla units are organized from a “base of popular support.” Members of this “mass base” might be farmers, tradesmen, teachers, laborers, and artisans—all enlisted in support of a cause. Although guerrilla warfare can play an important role in the process of insurgency, it is merely one tool of many in the insurgents’ toolbox. The historical record makes clear that in revolutionary warfare insurgent groups may employ acts of terrorism, sabotage, subversion, economic warfare, and even infiltration of the regime. 

In all cases, however, insurgent movements use sophisticated propaganda and political warfare aimed at building popular support for their movement while undercutting support for the despised regime. Given a politically vulnerable regime, this almost invisible activity is the true centerpiece of insurgency.

Insurgency stands Clausewitz on his head in that its centerpiece is the political and psychological mobilization of the nation’s civilians and the undermining of the nation’s government. Insurgents aim at gaining control of the countryside and its people. The destruction of the country’s armed forces is achieved through the disintegration of an unpopular government rather than by the army’s defeat in battle. Bernard Fall observed that insurgents do not necessarily outfight a government—they out-administer it. 

Indeed, until near the end of a protracted war, the insurgent force prefers to avoid combat unless conditions are overwhelmingly favorable. The master of insurgent warfare, Mao, made clear that guerrilla units are dispersed to mobilize the people politically and brought together only to exploit an opportunity. Guerrillas are creatures of offense and must never attempt to fight defensive battles from fixed positions. 

The political, economic, and perhaps spiritual exhaustion of the existing regime merely paves the way for the dramatic photo-op of tanks crashing through presidential gates as in Saigon, or the mob scene at the Kabul airport in August 2021. The war was already over long before this dramatic end. The governments had ceased to govern.

If insurgency is “non-Clausewitzian” warfare, it must be fought using nontraditional means by both sides. On War must be set reverently on the bookshelf and guidance sought elsewhere. The chief weapons in this nontraditional form of conflict are political mobilization and intelligence operations rather than employment of armor, artillery, and air power. Central to political mobilization is persuasive propaganda and psychological warfare—vital military skills that even now the Pentagon is deemphasizing.

It is striking to think that in Vietnam and again in Afghanistan two totally different “wars” were being fought simultaneously by the opposing forces. The United States tried to fight Clausewitzian wars with only a thin veneer of propaganda (grudgingly) painted on—and virtually no political warfare worthy of the name. Meanwhile, the insurgents used a diametrically opposite approach: they were heavy on Viet Cong  political indoctrination in Vietnam and religious zeal in the case of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Each nontraditional opponent propounded its cause to the people and succeeded in recruiting a mass base.

British General Sir Frank Kitson made the following observation based on his service in Kenya, Malaya, and Northern Ireland: “Insurgents start with nothing but a cause and grow to strength while the counter-insurgents start with everything but a cause and gradually decline in strength to the point of weakness.”

In the 1980s there was much talk at the Pentagon about “Information Warfare” or, for those of a dovish persuasion, “Information Operations.” Unfortunately, as is often the case with definitions, the term “Information Operations”—though appearing in numerous reports and PowerPoint briefings—meant different things to different people. Since the term could not be precisely defined it could not be clearly understood. And if “IO” could not be understood, then it could not be put into effective practice in the field. It is arguable that the Defense Department never took “IO” seriously and that its lukewarm support contributed to its lack of effectiveness.

Perhaps the term “psychological operations” is now considered archaic; it appears to have fallen into disuse. Also, the concept of “political warfare,” to say nothing of the word “propaganda,” felt unworthy of a “chivalrous” US military force. Attempts to work around distasteful terms resulted in: public information, public relations, public affairs, “effects,” advertising, political action, media relations, and so on. Some definitions overlap; some activities are better defined than others. Most terms are useful only in PowerPoint briefings.

It’s All About Politics

Let’s leave the semantic battle aside. Even if we were to arrive at some conclusion, all we would have achieved is to create yet another “definition.” Rather, we should ask ourselves what it is that we hope to achieve through our deeds and spoken and written words, and how we intend to get to our goal from where we are now.

The key to nontraditional warfare lies in organizing and mobilizing the civilian populace. This is how Zedong phrased his approach in May 1938:

What does political mobilization mean? First, it means telling the army and the people about the political aim of the war. It is necessary for every soldier and civilian to see why the war must be fought and how it concerns him … Secondly, it is not enough merely to explain the aim to them; the steps and policies for its attainment must also be given, that is, there must be a political programme … Without a clear-cut, concrete political programme it is impossible to mobilize all the armed forces and the whole people to carry the war against Japan through to the end. Thirdly, how should we mobilize them? By word of mouth, by leaflets and bulletins, by newspapers, books and pamphlets, through plays and films, through schools, through the mass organizations, and through our cadres … Fourthly, to mobilize once is not enough; political mobilization for the War of Resistance must be continuous. Our job is not to recite our political programme to the people, for nobody will listen to such recitations; we must link the political mobilization for the war with developments in the war and with the life of the soldiers and the people, and make it a continuous movement. This is a matter of immense importance on which our victory in the war primarily depends.

Here, then, is the core of nontraditional warfare, the element that turns Clausewitz upside down. It is political mobilization—the organization of the entire populace toward specific political objectives.

What matters in politics, commercial activities, and nontraditional warfare, is to influence groups and individuals in ways that lead to a specified, desired result—the goal. Put more directly, we want someone to do something that meaningfully aids our cause, or conversely, to cease doing things hindering our cause. In an election, we work to influence voters to vote for our candidate. In commerce, we want consumers to buy our product. In war, we want “our side” to defeat its enemies. But note that in all cases, we want someone to do something. Not merely to know something.

“Influence” is one of those relatively rare words that is both a noun and an active verb. Influence can describe a state of affairs, such as “China’s influence over North Korea.” But of greater interest to us as practitioners is its use as an active verb. We say, “we must influence the people to act.” It is here that “influence” acquires its motive power. We want something to happen, something to take place. And we have the means to achieve that end.

By contrast, “information” is a noun only. You cannot say, “we must information them to act.” Information exists, yes. But information is passive. By itself, information has no power. Rather, information is like a large reservoir from which electric power can be produced only if that water can be made to run through a turbine. Unless information can be made to do something, operationally it is useless.

Let us therefore talk of “influence” for the remainder of this paper. Simply put, our goal is to motivate someone to do something (or, conversely, cause them to cease doing something we consider harmful). We gain little by merely informing a person of something.

Dictionary definitions of influence give us a glimpse into what “influence” is all about:

  1. A power affecting a person, thing, or course of events, especially without direct or apparent effort; 
  2. Power to sway or affect based on prestige, wealth, ability, or position. 

Here we see the potential for motivating someone to actually do  something. The central element is not merely the passive provision of “information.” Instead, it is the ability to induce, persuade, compel, provoke, bring about, cause, or even cajole a specific action. The “results” we seek by motivating others always should have an active verb such as: create, produce, act, decide, buy, vote, attack, defend, participate, build, and so on.

We are ultimately seeking active participants, not passive spectators. Political warfare seeks action. Action is muscle power applied to achieve some purpose.

The outcome of an insurgency is decided by whichever side—the regime or the insurgent movement—the people ultimately choose to support. If that is so, it then follows that it is vital for each side not merely to inform people of things, but to recruit the people as their active supporters and motivate them to achieve a stated purpose. The provision of information, therefore, is merely a contributory part of the process. It is by no means the whole process. Insurgent groups rarely lose sight of the need to recruit supporters while cutting away loyalty to the target regime. This absolute need, however, appears to be a blind spot for vulnerable regimes and for their US backers.

Consider a political campaign: An insurgency is not far removed from such. What matters most in a political campaign is the strategy followed and the effectiveness of the candidate’s organization. Yes, issues matter. Indeed, the campaign staff constantly touts the great cause toward which the people will be mobilized. And the cause needs to be clear, popular, and compelling. But that by itself is not enough.

Ultimately what will carry the day will be the effectiveness of the county and precinct organization. This is especially true if the contest is between two equally attractive candidates with similar platforms. As Mao states, mobilization is achieved through tireless efforts by cadres conducting seminars, distributing literature, giving plays and concerts, and in a dozen other ways. Nowhere does Mao mention aerial bombardment or the use of armor and artillery. 

Effective local work by volunteers knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, making phone calls, and arranging a candidate’s personal visits and appearances at public rallies, will spell the margin between victory for one side and defeat for the other. The Platform (ie. the information) has its place. For insurgents, it is the Cause. But it is the organization and a viable strategy that turns a passive reservoir of voters into electric power at the polls. 

So now, we return to the subject of “what is influence?” At the end of the day, “influence” may be thought of as the ability to mobilize people and, once mobilized, regularly motivate them to take specified actions. It is the ability to induce broad masses of people to rally behind an idea or a leader and convince each and every person that he or she is personally responsible for the outcome—victory or defeat hinges on the combined effort of every member of the group. This is the “mass base” noted earlier.

The task of political leadership is therefore to inspire others with great hope or a grand vision and then carry the people forward to victory despite a sea of troubles. Everyone must be involved. Everyone has a stake in the outcome. “If the people are for you, you cannot lose. If the people are against you, you cannot win.”

A cause or vision—the clear goal toward which all the people are striving—is a political purpose, something worth fighting for. In the late 1940s, when Soviet Communism threatened Western Europe, Jean Monnet, the father of modern Europe, noted: “People will only fight for what is inside them and what they believe, and we must give them something to believe.” Before the people of any country can be mobilized, they must first be given some idea so important to believe that they are willing if necessary to give their lives for its realization. That is the core of political warfare—the means of influence.

Two recent examples of successful counterinsurgencies that made good use of political mobilization using appropriate slogans coupled with genuine political reforms are the Omani defeat of Communist-backed Dhofari rebels and the British-Malay defeat of the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA). In the case of Oman, a new sultan took the throne in 1970 and immediately instituted reforms that increased the popularity of the Sultanate while taking away much of the rebels’ appeal. The slogan formulated by the British and Omanis was “Islam is our way, Freedom is our aim.” 

In the case of Malaya, from 1953 the British had been preparing the colony for eventual independence under a responsible Malay government. There the slogan was “Merdeka” (Freedom) and it was given credence by the widely publicized steps toward independence which was granted in 1957. The MRLA had no credible program or goal to offer.

In both cases, it is important to understand that the slogans used were not empty phrases, but shorthand for real, attainable political reforms that the people knew were underway and which they supported. In each struggle, the people were involved directly and ultimately they chose to support the government.

Slogans are often iconic phrases used as the shorthand for propaganda campaigns. Slogans such as “Remember the Alamo” and “Land, Peace, Bread” were used to mobilize support for revolutionary political movements. In the first example, the slogan mobilized Texas settlers to fight Santa Anna’s Mexican army in an insurgency to win freedom from Mexican rule. In the latter case, the Bolsheviks used their slogan to attract support from landless peasants, war-weary Russians, and masses of hungry people.

The point remains that a slogan is merely hot air unless it relates directly and obviously to political goals familiar to the people affected. An empty slogan is hypocrisy on parade.

It is important to always remember that influence is an active verb, and its goal must always be action. 

To close our examination of conventional versus nontraditional warfare, we would do well to consider the comparative “footprints” of conventional versus nontraditional wars. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the United States deployed tens of thousands of US servicemembers in combat and logistical units. This factor had a major impact on local political, economic, and social conditions in both countries. Clausewitzian theory suggested that powerful forces should prove decisive in each war. Yet the warping of local conditions actually created a backlash socially and politically with the effect of aiding the insurgents.

By comparison, the US advisory effort in El Salvador—with just fifty-five advisors—had almost no economic or social impact. However, by teaching, training, and working collegially to assist the Salvadorans in achieving necessary reforms, US involvement was effective in blunting the FMLN insurgency. The Salvadorans themselves carried the burden.

Likewise, the advisors who assisted the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001 left a very small footprint on Afghan society. The advisors provided intelligence, air cover, and some supplies to the Northern Alliance, but otherwise left Afghan forces free to deal with the Taliban in their own way. As is well known, the Taliban regime quickly collapsed—overthrown with popular support—and offered to capitulate. Only when this political road that might have ended the war was closed, and masses of US regular troops were brought in, did the nature of the Afghan war fundamentally change. The introduction of 130,000 foreign troops unintentionally aided the Taliban in its bid to regain power in Afghanistan.

The last word belongs to Clausewitz. In Book I, chapter one, Clausewitz states

The first, the supreme, the most far reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that means (i.e., the political aim) the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive.

Conventional forces operating under Clausewitzian principles are certainly appropriate in conflicts such as the Russo-Ukrainian War or against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Republican Guard. But Carl himself would agree that his theory applies only with caveats when the issue is a “war of national liberation”—an insurgency.

The problem, therefore, is using the appropriate set of theoretical tools for a particular job. Clausewitz’s advice is appropriate where it applies, but policymakers and military officers should not mistake one form of war for another or attempt to turn a nontraditional war into “something that is alien to its nature.” We are best advised to apply the right theoretical tools in the right way to the right task at hand.

Last Reflections on Dien Bien Phu

In the twenty-first century, military theorists rarely mention Dien Bien Phu, and the Battle of Baylen is completely ignored. And yet, in their way, these two battles are as important to understanding nontraditional warfare as are Waterloo or Gettysburg to understanding the conventional model. As noted in the foregoing thesis, what makes nontraditional conflicts distinctive from conventional wars is not only the means used in each struggle but their root causes and political consequences. 

As we’ve seen, insurgencies are fought by part of the people against an established regime considered illegitimate by many, such as King Joseph in Spain, or a French governor general in Indochina. The political goal of the “guerrillas” during the Peninsular War and that of the Vietminh in French Indochina was the same: overthrow of the existing regime and establishment (or re-establishment) of a government of the rebels’ own choosing.

Clausewitz’s recognition of the centrality of politics to warfare is universal. But in revolutionary warfare, as opposed to conflict between nation states, heavy weaponry, conventional infantry units, swift flanking maneuvers or even command of the air and sea count for little. Since the heart of any insurgency is its political basis, the chief weapons are political and psychological influence operations, propaganda, political mobilization of the people, strikes and boycotts, sabotage, assassination, and even terror, supported only when necessary by armed elements. Insurgency is “armed politics.”

To close, it is possible that in the future US policymakers and senior military officers might confront nontraditional challenges, especially in the Global South. If the United States becomes involved, it is to be hoped that it has learned from past mistakes, chosen the correct model of warfare, and applied methods appropriate for the task. 

Clausewitz would expect nothing less.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the author: G.L. Lamborn, a retired Central Intelligence Agency and Army Reserve officer, took part in nontraditional wars in Asia, Africa, and Latin America from 1967 to 2013. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Chinese studies from the University of Washington.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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