Student Paper

January 2010 / Emerging Scholars

The Nonlinearity of Cultural Tradition:
Baron Carl von Clausewitz, the First Vector of the On War Fractal X
by Jeannie Carlisle Volckmann

Jeannie Carlisle VolckmannFew would disagree that On War by Barron Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), is the most influential book ever written on military philosophy in the Western world. Its popularity has not waned since the nineteenth century, the proof of which is On War remains on the US Army Chief of Staff’s professional reading list to this day. (1) Clausewitz indicates in chapter one that his claims, although superficially simple, will become complex and non-linear in nature. By the end of the chapter it is evident that Clausewitz’s claim is that war is the unfolding and collision of the complexities presented by physical and geographical constraints, charged with the psychological, intellectual and emotional strengths and weaknesses of individuals and the collective, and saturated in the unpredictability of weather, illness, and “the fog of war.” It is Clausewitz’s recognition, particularly in chapter one, of the complexities of war that connects his theories so closely with the modern mathematical theory of chaos. (2) As historian Alan D. Beyerchen astutely observes, Clausewitz “understands that seeking exact analytical solutions does not fit the nonlinear reality of the problems posed by war, and hence that our ability to predict the course and outcome of any given conflict is severely limited.” (3) Was Clausewitz a visionary, a prophet, or seer? How was this nineteenth century warrior able to articulate mathematical concepts so complex they required twentieth century computers to calculate? An interdisciplinary understanding that synthesizes Hans-Georg Gadamer’s understanding “that the meaningfulness of transmitted texts is determined by the tradition as a whole” with critic Umberto Eco’s notion that the writer’s perspective trumps that of the reader, intentio operis, could help to reveal the basis of Clausewitz’s futurist tendency to write about the nonlinearity of warfare.

Seventeenth century notions best expressed by Isaac Newton, are still nestled deeply into the psyches of twenty-first century military strategists. The order and predictability of linear systems, input equals a proportional output, is understandably comfortable. Linear systems comply with rules. As Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Gyllensporre has noted, “By defining space and times as absolute and explaining the universe with a “majestic clockwork” metaphor…Newton made people understand its Newtonian model, planners identified optimal solutions by subdividing problems into manageable subproblems and applying appropriate tools.” (4) The “orderly and predictable nature” of Newtonian linearity is comforting to the human psyche. However, Gyllensporre is quick to point out that, “Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and Werner Heisenber’s uncertainty principle expose flaws in Newton’s paradigm early in the 20th century. Today we know that Newton’s laws do not completely explain how nature behaves. Yet, in military decision making…we remain committed to Newton’s majestic clockwork.” (5) The nonlinearity of Carl Clausewitz’s theories is no doubt one reason many of his well-ordered and systematized seventeenth century contemporaries preferred Baron Henri de Jomini’s straight forward, mathematically inspired, The Art of War over On War. (6)

The interdisciplinary character of hermeneutics seems to be the best vantage point from which to view Clausewitz’s folding, undulating notions of warfare. Michael Crotty’s statement that “history does not belong to us; we belong to history” is a succinct expression of Gadamer’s reliance on history as the underpinning of all correct analysis. (7) Humans are “thoroughly historical” creatures and as such are indivisible from tradition and the language that transmits the tradition embedded in people. Gadamer envisions a linguistic ‘horizon’ of understanding; where past and present converge as two poles. One pole represents the object studied, the other represents the present of the individual engaged in the study of the object. It might be more useful to look into the nonlinear notions of Clausewitz using a nonlinear approach, represented by the symbol of a fractal ‘X’ instead of Gadamer’s horizon or even Heidegger’s classic ‘hermeneutical circle.’ The fractal ‘X’ can be thought of as consisting of dozens of points along two vectors, the intersection of which is ‘cultural tradition.’ One point of the X is Clausewitz studying warfare. A second point opposite Clausewitz is war itself as the object of Clausewitz’s interest; each point is situated in the context of its history. These two points create the fist vector. The second vector of the X is the interpreter of Clausewitz’s work, On War, standing in the present, with the, object, the author Clausewitz, serving as the other point. The ‘self-similarity’ of the characteristics found in culture allows the ‘cultural tradition’ category to be conceived as itself, fractal and nonlinear in nature.

clausewitz model

Clausewitz cannot get to his subject without first going through his ‘tradition’, nor can the interpreter of On War approach the object without first crossing the border of his or her own traditions, as well as the tradition of Clausewitz. Information is constantly entering the pattern from the many points along the way. Any understanding the interpreter reaches necessarily contains not simply the interpreter’s cultural tradition, but also that of Clausewitz. Analyzing the first vector, Clausewitz and his understanding of warfare, is the starting point for understanding the meaning of On War.

Clausewitz’s concept of warfare was established by virtue of birth into his cultural tradition. Gadamer sees one’s history as “the whole” universe of meaning, and in that light, the northern German, middle-class “universe” Clausewitz was born to informed his understanding of his own hermeneutical process. Clausewitz’s immediate ancestors appreciated the intellectual, scholarly life that serving Lutheran ministers offered them. His grandfather rose to the ranks of university professor of theology and published several works of Biblical commentary. Although two of his brothers pursued professions in the clergy, Clausewitz wanted to improve his social standing and chose the Prussian army as the route to achieve his goal. His journey began at 12 years of age as a cadet in the army military academy. In 1794, at the tender age of 13, he experienced combat for the first time. (8) According to Clausewitz historian and biographer, Peter Paret, this move on Clausewitz’s part to break with his family professional tradition was a notion that ranged freely through eighteenth century northern Germany. (9) It is in this act that we see Clausewitz interact with and react to his historical and social tradition. The cultural tradition of the Teutonic knight mythology of the past along with the newly minted middle-class mythology of access to the aristocracy through noble actions nudged him away from the church and into the army. It is within this background that Clausewitz becomes the first point on the X.

It is from this perspective that Clausewitz attempts to understand and explain warfare. Clausewitz, standing within his family’s socioeconomic framework, an effect of the wider German cultural pressure on the present, pushes toward his object, war, which itself is deeply embedded in the larger historical and mythological tradition of the collective German consciousness. Along the way, his ‘present’ continues to inform and reinforce his understanding of the historical traditions of his past. Clausewitz first saw his military career begin as a pre-pubescent cadet of twelve, serving in the Rhine campaigns of 1793 and 1794. (10) Captured in 1806 while fighting Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Jena, Clausewitz served a year as a prisoner of war. After defeating the Prussian princes in 1807, Napoleon took control of the Prussian territories. The Prussian defeat by Napoleon grew more humiliating when, along with the defeated Austrians, Napoleon insisted the Prussians join him in his campaign against Russia. Clausewitz saw the Prussians capitulation as both timid and selfish, neither characteristic honored by the Teutonic martial tradition in which he was engulfed. (11)In 1812, Clausewitz, refusing to serve his former enemy’s commands, resigned his Prussian commission, entered into Russian service, and took up arms against his prince and former comrades. After several crushing defeats, acting as part of coalition forces, the army in which Clausewitz served took Paris and forced Napoleon to abdicate resulting in his exile to the island of Elba. These, and the other experiences as a career military officer, congeal to become the point opposite Clausewitz on the hermeneutical X. It is within the context of his personal history Clausewitz begins to write On War.

“We propose to consider first the single elements of our subject, then each branch or part, and, last of all, the whole, in all its relations—therefore to advance from the simple to the complex.” Clausewitz introductory statement also contains the rationality required for building his argument on the mental and emotional foundation of his audience, military commanders. His inductive reasoning “from the simple to the complex” captures the nonlinear familiarity to which his audience is accustomed and prepares the reader to follow a straightforward cause and effect process. Clausewitz uses a series of metaphors and analogies to help the reader toward a solid understanding to the question of what is war. “War is like…a duel,” penned Clausewitz, something that would resonate with every eighteenth century man of honor. “We shall keep to the element of the thing itself, to a duel. War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale.” (12) The constructs of physical courage and gladiatorial manliness conjured by the image of the duel were common enough occurrences in Clausewitz’s world. In the same paragraph, he declares, “If we would conceive as a unit the countless number of duels which make up a war, we shall do so best by supposing to ourselves two wrestlers. Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: his first object is to throw his adversary, and thus to render him incapable of further resistance.” With these images set in the reader’s mind, Clausewitz introduces the “purpose” of war wielding the same authority and unambiguous language he uses to define war. War’s purpose, Clausewitz reveals, is to disarm the enemy through violent means. “War therefore is an act of violence to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” (13) Yet it is here that the nonlinearity of his thinking begins to emerge. Clausewitz historian Alan Beyerchen remarks on the ‘wrestler’ metaphor. “The contest [war] is not the presence or actions of each opponent added together. It is the dynamic set of patterns made in the space between and around the contestants. This may not be immediately evident if we think of a duel with swords or with pistols. But it is obvious in a match between two wrestlers: the bodily positions and contortions that emerge in wrestling are often impossible to achieve without the counterforce and counterweight of an opponent.” (14)

Now that war has been defined, Clausewitz speaks to its aim: to disarm the enemy. As Clausewitz explores disarming the enemy, he exposes his readers to an array of seeming inconsistencies, apparent contradictions, paradoxes, and enigmas as his definition of war unfolds, contracts, and expands. The sheer volume of competing ideas lead some Clausewitz scholars to suggest On War should not be read in the sequence that it is written. United States Naval War College professor of strategy, Michael I. Handel, writes one should begin On War with chapter two and then read the first chapter. Regardless of what order chapter one is read, it must be read, in its various permutations, multiple times for its real value to manifest. The purposeful reader is intellectually bound to contemplate, consider, and confront the theories that have guided the philosophy of Western warfare for almost two hundred years. Clausewitz takes the reader as promised, from the simple to the complex. Embracing the nonlinear complexities of Clausewitz would allow military planners “to cope with unprecedented complexity, uncertainties, and tempos” of future battlefield environments, Strategist Lieutenant Colonel Dennis Gyllensporre describes. Strategy that is more effective will abbreviate combat, diminish causalities, mitigate destruction, and thereby conserve precious lives and valuable resources.

End Notes

  1. “US Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List.” Sublist 3 For Field-Grade Officers, CW4-CW5, and Senior NCOs.
  2. Alan Beyerchen, . “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War” International Security, 17:3 (Winter, 1992), pp. 59-90. <>
  3. Ibid.
  4. Dennis Gyllensporre, “Decision Navigation:Coping with 21-Century Challenges in Tacticle Decision Making” Military Review. Sept-Oct., 2003, 20.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Christopher Bassford,. “Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction.”
  7. Michael Crotty, 104.
  8. Bassford, Christopher.
  9. Peter Paret. “Education, Politics, and War in the Life of Clausewitz.” Journal of the History of Ideas. 396.
  10. Ibid.397.
  11. Ibid. 406.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Alan Beyerchen. “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War.”


About the Author

Jeannie Carlisle Volckmann is a General Education instructor at Collins College in Phoenix, Arizona where she teaches Cultural Diversity and Ethics. She is completing her PhD at Union Institute and University in Ethical and Creative Leadership. She is also an intern with theIntegral Leadership Review for 2009-2010.

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