How have the theories of Carl von Clausewitz influenced the birth of combined arms warfare?

In his seminal work, On War, Prussian theorist, Carl Von Clausewitz, contends that war is a paradoxical trinity embedded within three pillars. The trinity is a uniquely powerful framework for understanding the phenomenon of war. It focuses on the central underlying forces of war and its interactions. This essay examines Carl von Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity of people, military, and politics showing its link to the birth of combined arms warfare.

Paradoxical Trinity

The three pillars of the paradoxical trinity consist; primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded 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 subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.[1]. The first of these three aspects mainly concern the people and hypothesizes that passions that are to blaze up in war must already be inherent in the people. War is motivated through the intensity of emotion within the people thus the irrational forces such as violent emotions act as a motive. Clausewitz viewed the civilian populace as a powerful force if it could be leveraged in support of the war effort such as Napoleon’s failure to defeat Russia in 1812.  Also, in Prussia during the 1870s, the German population considered military service to be highly prestigious and indoctrinated society into the idea of confidence in the military.

The second doctrine involves the commander and his army. According to Clausewitz, the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army[2]. The doctrine consists of non-rational forces that are forces that are not the product of human thought, such as friction and the play of chance and probability. The main purpose of soldiers in armies is to train to fight wars thus there is an inherent desire for the soldier to perform their tasks in battle. However, the goals of the army must always be in furtherance of, and subservient to, the political goal of the state. As a result, it is this impulse that must be restrained. Armies must deal with uncertainty in any conflict and Clausewitz explained that commanders should look for options to best minimize uncertainty and leverage it to their advantage.

War is not linear thus is bound to unpredictability and randomness. Events may happen by chance but it is the responsibility of leaders to act and make informed decisions. Random occurrences are mitigated by the experience of commanders. This is developed through the talent and creative guidance of the commanders who adapt and react to such non-linear probabilities. An example of attempts to regulate the passions of the professional soldier is the rules of engagement. Rules of engagement describe the circumstances and limitations under which soldiers engage with other forces. The overall effect of rules of engagement is to keep the military subservient to the civilian government and advising the parameters of operations.

The third doctrine concerns the government and how politics plays a central role in warfare. Clausewitz suggests that war is not an end unto itself, but instead, a means to achieve political objectives[3]. The political aims are the role of government thus the policy decision to go to war is made exclusively by the government. The doctrine describes the rationality of warfare that is war’s subordination to reason. According to Clausewitz, war is a continuation of politics by other means. The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation of their purpose[4]. Therefore, the government should treat the policy as representative of all interests of the community. By aligning the political interests of the war with the people, governments achieve public backing thus continue advancements of military equipment and acquiring funding for the project.

Amplification of Tensions in War

War can amplify unavoidable tensions through the unpredictability of outcomes caused by factors such as friction. According to Clausewitz, friction is the combined effects of danger that create countless unexpected problems that wear down the effectiveness and threaten mission success. Danger and physical exertion both impact individuals’ abilities to think and act effectively. Intelligence is a fundamental source of general friction as it forms the basis for all actions in war. Friction leads to change in the strategic plans relative to warfare and its consequences are felt by the army personnel in terms of flaring emotions.

The army is made up of individual soldiers who retain their potential for unforeseen events thus the remedy for the friction is experienced in warfare. This experience is unquestionably beneficial as the army prepares for future conflicts and these leaders assume responsibilities at the operational and strategic levels. Commanders who have experienced the dangers and complexity of war are more likely to improve the efficacy of their units towards mission success. To ensure success, improved training techniques, better education, and selection criteria should be adopted to reduce human fallibility during the war and to curb the effects of tension caused by unpredictability in war[5]. Commanders should consider their experiences within the context of a broad understanding of warfare as this discourages the assumptions where strategies in one conflict will lead to success in another. This was the case in the U.S military where the success of Operation Iraqi Freedom experience was unhelpful in fighting insurgency in Afghanistan.

Political Climate Influence on War

General friction such as a change in political climates and the cost of war can lead to uncertainty in times of war. Clausewitz captures the impact of general friction on the war in his statement, everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult[6]. The government’s failure to have a united policy leads to disconnection with the general populace and the army. Internal and external political differences limit the influence of combined warfare due to varying interests of the three trinities. The cost of war is borne by the people thus most resources are used for war purposes. With the exponential rise of wartime expenses, the populace’s emotions get out of hand leading to revolts. War is entwined with policy thus determines the military scope and the effort required. Political contention leads to change in policy thus affecting military coordination.


Limitations of the Paradoxical Trinity

Clausewitz’s influence on combined arms warfare is apparent, however, the paradoxical trinity failed to take into account the constantly changing character of warfare regarding ethical considerations, non-governmental entities, and economic considerations. Technological improvements have altered the aspect of the conduct of warfare. Technology has greatly influenced modern warfare in terms of precision and assessing risks. Clausewitz limited his theory on three doctrines but didn’t fathom the technological advancements in the contemporary world.  Clausewitz was adamant that all wars were the same but today technology has enhanced precision in weapons and the invention of non-lethal weapons that reduce violence and the deployment of advanced information technologies reduce the extent of uncertainty[7]. The analysis of Clausewitz’s logic of war was that it involved governments who pursued political advancements. However, the war also exists in non-governmental entities where the goal is not to further policies. Wars have plagued man since time beginning and were mostly based on religious affiliations rather than political ideologies. Clausewitz also failed to consider the differences between economies. Large economies were strategically placed to win wars due to the sheer military power against smaller economies.


Clausewitz’s influence on modern combined warfare is easily recognized when analyzing his paradoxical trinity of people, military, and politics. Wars are fought by people thus the use of the paradoxical trinity in the contemporary world limits the passions of the three doctrines. Clausewitz’s trinity has led to the development of legal discipline which is a reflection of the development of modern-day law of war. The legal constructs include the charter of the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and rules of engagement in battle.




Carl, Von Clausewitz. “On War, ed. & trans, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton.” (1984): 195.

Thomas, Waldman. War, Clausewitz, and the Trinity. Routledge, 2016.

Victor Davis, Hanson. The western way of war: Infantry battle in classical Greece. Univ of California Press, 2009.

[1] von Clausewitz, Carl. “On War, ed. & trans, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton.” (1984): 195.


[2] Ibid.,40

[3] Ibid.,56

[4] Ibid., 76

[5] Hanson, Victor Davis. The western way of war: Infantry battle in classical Greece. Univ of California Press, 2009.


[6] Carl, On War, 121

[7] Waldman, Thomas. War, Clausewitz, and the Trinity. Routledge, 2016.


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