The Absolute War

In order to understand why absolute war does not occur in reality, the ‘absolute war’ should be defined in the first place. It should be underlined that ‘absolute war’ differs from ‘total war’. Total war involved the total subordination of politics to the war effort, an idea Clausewitz emphatically rejected, and the assumption that total victory or total defeat were the only options. Total war involved no suspension of the effects of time and space, on the other hand Clausewitz’s concept of the absolute did.[1] The word absolute refers to purity and extremes in that sense.

Before explaining Clausewitz’s conception of absolute war, his military as well as intellectual and historical background should be kept in mind. The context of Clausewitz’s ideas which covers the transition from the enlightenment to the German movement that was hostile to it should be recognized. In Berlin Institute for Young Officers, he learnt that the theory had to be concrete and circumstantial, encompass that formed the reality, and be closely linked to historical experience.[2] He was also influenced by the theoretical ideal that has to reflect the relationship between the parts of war and the whole, and be necessarily grounded in the nature of things. The primacy of the major battle, aided by a massive concentration of forces and aggressive conduct, and aiming at the total overthrow of the enemy reflected the impact of the Napoleonic experience.[3] In 1827, while composing On War, Clausewitz’s line of thought underwent a radical change of direction. He transformed but did not abandon his old military outlook, and developed completely new theoretical devices. The origins and nature of Clausewitz’s new theoretical framework have remained a mystery, and as a result the exact nature of the transformation in his thought has not been entirely clear. This explains why Clausewitz’s ideas could be interpreted so differently by successive generations.[4]

Clausewitz wanted to do more than merely writing for next generations, or Prussian army, he wanted to search for the ‘absolute’, the very nature, or the “regulative idea” of things.[5] He put emphasis on the role of the theory that it is its duty to give the place to the absolute form of war and to use that form as a general point of direction, it had to reflect the relationship between the parts of war and the whole, and to be found in the nature of things. He regarded “absolute war” as “ideal” in the philosophical sense, as a “regulative idea” which gives “unity” and “objectivity” to diverse phenomena, “an idea like that of perfect beauty in art which may never be attained but constantly approximated.”[6]

According to Clausewitz, the definition of war is: “War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”[7] After defining, he then deductively argued from this definition to essential features to conclude how one should behave to realize its will. Therefore, from the definition, it can be understood that the violence, or physical force is the means, and the compulsory compliance of the adversary to our will is the ultimate end. To this end, the violence is pushed to its utmost bounds, since one side dictates law to its adversary, there occurs a kind of reciprocal action, leading to an extreme, which is “first reciprocal action” [8]. To compel the enemy to our will, the enemy must be placed in a situation so that he would sacrifice which is demanded. This situation can be disarming the enemy, threatening him with it, or overthrow of him. As long as the enemy is not defeated, there is always possibility that he may dictate to the other side. Therefore, it is the “second reciprocal action” leading to second extreme.[9] If one wants to defeat the adversary, he must proportionate his efforts to the other’s powers of resistance by increasing the means as much as possible, however the adversary would do the same and meet him in a new mutual enhancement, therefore there would occur the “third reciprocal action” leading to the third extreme.[10]

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The ‘absolute war’ can also be understood as “a war, in which all available force is concentrated into a single, instantaneous blow.”[11] From this logic, it can be argued that there can be no middle ground between the state of peace and the absolute war, the two extremes where force remains wholly unused or wholly and immediately used in order to make the adversary defenceless. However, in reality, the conduct of war engages “the incremental use of force”.[12] The discrepancy between the absolute and real wars is due to the two basic factors. Firstly, the real war is dictated by the time and space. Actual military means are spatially distributed; therefore they can be employed in some period of time, but not instantaneously. Also, the real war is affected by the “friction”, which refers to the obstacles to the efficient usage of force that the real world imposes, and it is caused by the chance, and uncertainty, physical exertion and danger.[13]

Moreover, for constraining the absoluteness of war, Clausewitz introduced the effect of politics on wars. According to him, all characteristics of war are influenced by politics, and this influence is not part of the nature of war. On the contrary, the influence of politics is an external force which works against the true essence of war, harnesses it to its needs, and modifies the imperatives which it imposes in the process.[14] It is due to the fact that when the political influence on the war is admitted, one may be willing to wage minimal are closely linked to the character and scope of the political objectives. These wars may consist threatening the enemy, with negotiations held in reserve.[15] Therefore, the politics convert the destructive element of war into a mere instrument, in other words, the conception that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means.”[16]

To introduce the Trinitarian nature of war, Clausewitz, first of all, wrote that warfare was a complex combination of passion, chance and reason. War is partly a matter of great passion, of hatred, danger, exertion. To the extent that war was an extension of politics, it was a rational, purposive activity aimed at altering the behaviour of an opponent. War, according to Clausewitz, was also the realm of chance. This combination makes war a ‘paradoxical trinity’. [17] In short, war is composed of three elements: first, primitive violence, hatred, and hostility, which should be regarded as a blind natural force; second, the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and third, its subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.[18] The relations among these elements are fluid and tense. As warfare moves towards its absolute nature, the passion increases and the rational direction of war becomes more problematic. As the violence becomes more complete, untramelled, and absolute -since the pure concept requires, war would drive policy out of office and it would rule by the laws of its own nature. As the goals of war expand and the stakes increase, warfare would tend to move towards to the absolute form. This tendency towards absolute war would increase the tensions between the constitutive elements of the trinity, threatening to displace reason.[19] However, by arguing that the war is the extension of politics, Clausewitz asserted the rational direction of war as a whole. Similarly, as long as war is a political activity, it is fought for a purpose. It is neither the result of unreasoning passion, nor the result of mistakes.

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Besides, to explain the fact that although politics is artificial element to the nature of war, the real war may still come close to the absolute war. From Clausewitz’s writings, it can be understood that state policy determines the main lines along which war is to move. This is the correct order of things, since the policy does not demand anything against the nature of war. If the political tensions carry very powerful character, and if adequate material means are given, the political aim may disappear behind, or rather coincide with, the military aim of disarming the enemy. In such case, real war approaches to absolute war. [20] He argued that this type of warfare would appear again and again in the age of nationalism.[21] On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean Clausewitz argued in favour of the absolute war, but rather he supported limited war. His conception of war became more durable, and more sophisticated after seeing Napoleon’s defeats at Russia in 1812, at Leipzig in 1813 and finally at Waterloo in June 1815. This conception became regarded as a political act, and as an act which is and should be limited.[22]

To argue in favour of why limited wars happen in reality, Liddell Hart raised Clausewitz’s conception of ‘absolute war’ to “the level of an infallible religious dogma”.[23] In this critic, it may be argued that Hart did not carefully read Clausewitz, however at this point I would only like to give Hart’s point of view on war. Hart’s definition of strategy was designed to reemphasize the subordination of the conduct of war to political objective. He believed that since Napoleon, the definition of strategy had expanded to the point where it was controlled completely by the military, the situation which created the dominance of the “false” objective.[24] Therefore, he redefined strategy as “the distribution and transmission of military means to fulfil the needs of policy” making it more clearly dependent upon political decisions while leaving its execution in the hands of the military.[25] Since the objective of war is to change the enemy’s will, Hart concluded that the strategy should not accept seeking decision in battle as a guiding principle, the situation in which the enemy’s power of resistance is likely to be greatest, but it should be attacking to the vulnerable points in the enemy’s armour where defeat would destroy his moral and physical capacity to resist. In other word, it is “a strategy of paralysation thorough dislocation rather than annihilation thorough attrition.”[26]

Moreover, Hart also criticized Clausewitz’s argument that locates overthrow of the enemy as the aim of the war. Hart argued that the complete overthrow of the adversary’s forces and the occupation of the opponent’s territory may be necessary to his success, but it is not compulsory to one’s achievement. The object is fulfilled if the enemy can be convinced that he cannot conquer.[27] In order to illustrate this logic, the nuclear age and the deterrence theory – based on the assumption that when one state does cost-benefit analysis before engaging to any aggression, and in this case since one state owns nuclear capability, it would deter other states from creating or getting involved to aggression, can be used.[28] The nuclear weapons and limited war are incompatible with each other since an unlimited war with nuclear weapons would mean mutually suicide. Therefore, the states need to establish adequate forces to defend themselves. Hart criticized the common assumption that the world faces a choice between the extremes of total war and total peace, but he urged a more limited approach to war.[29] Therefore, it can be understood that if wars are likely to occur, the limitation of their destructiveness is in every state’s interest.

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Similarly, although it is always irrational to fight nuclear war, and it may not be irrational to “risk” nuclear war, “not all wars are nuclear wars”, even in the nuclear age.[30] Nor nuclear war is instrument of policy, neither are nuclear weapons. These nuclear weapons are to be used only to prevent wars, not to fight wars. The purpose of the development of the doctrine of limited war in the 1950s was to restore policy control over the use of violence.[31] From these arguments, it can be understood that states may sometimes choose limited war, in order not to start or create possibility of engagement to any nuclear wars, but to keep their power over the use of force. It can be therefore further argued that while engaging to wars, states keep their political aims limited, so that they can keep their weapons conventional and limited. For instance, in 1950, during the Korean War, the US General MacArthur was in favour of nuclear weapons against North Korea. However, American policy makers decided on diplomatic and political utility in nuclear weapons rather than military utility.[32] Therefore, when the US intervened in Korea, it used conventional and limited military means to defend the South Korea. Meanwhile, when the allied powers came at the border of Yalu River, China got involved to the conflict to support North Korea. These two states, namely the US and China fought with limited scope and conventional weapons, therefore this example shows that states sometimes prefer to keep their force limited due to the political influence.

Apart from these, the bargaining theory which assumes the wars with bargained settlements developed by Alastair Smith and Allan C. Stam approaches to Clausewitz’s limited wars, or wars in reality. Since the bargaining theory is in realm of game theory, I will not speak of it in details. However, since one of the key feature of the theory is much more related to Clausewitz’s limited wars, I will use it as an instance as an illustration. One of the features of the model is that as nations fight battles and capture forts from each other, both nations learn common information about the nature of warfare between them. As long as more and more information is revealed, the beliefs of nations converge. Therefore, wars are fought until either one side decisively defeats the other or until beliefs of each side unite sufficiently so that they can agree to a settlement.[33]


  • Gat, Azar. 1989. The Origins of Military Thought: From Enlightenment to Clausewitz. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Earle, Edward Mead. 1973. Makers of Modern Strategy. Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • Howard, Michael. 1983. Clausewitz. New York: Oxford University Press
  1. Bassford,, 8 July 2008
  2. Gat, 1989, p.167
  3. Gat, p.199
  4. Gat, p.199
  5. Edward Earle, p.94
  6. Edward Earle, p.103
  7. Clausewitz, p.101
  8. Clausewitz, p.103
  9. Clausewitz, p.104
  10. Clausewitz, p.105
  11. Stone, p.31
  12. Stone, p.32
  13. Stone, p.32
  14. Gat, p.221
  15. Howard, p.39
  16. Clausewitz, p.119
  17. Roxborough, p.625
  18. Roxborough, p.625
  19. Roxborough, p.626
  20. Earle, p. 106
  21. Earle, p.106
  22. Cornish, p. 217
  23. Larson, p.70
  24. Larson, p.71
  25. Larson, p.71
  26. Larson, p.71
  27. Larson, p.72
  28. Kibaroglu, p.4
  29. Larson, p.72
  30. Moody, p.419
  31. Moody, p.429
  32. Dingman, p.56
  33. Smith and Stam, p.787
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