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Clausewitz's Timeless Trinity: A Framework for Modern War

Clausewitz’s Timeless Trinity: A Framework for Modern War by Colin M. Fleming. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2013, 218 pp.

With the rise in prominence and lethality of nonstate war, many people have called into question the continued relevance of Carl von Clausewitz to modern war theory. They do so because his trinity of the people, military, and government is best applied in state models but meets with more difficulty when one considers most of the recent nonstate and ethnically or religiously based conflicts like those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or even Libya. Clausewitz's Timeless Trinity attempts to reestablish the applicability of the trinity by focusing on his true trinity of passion, chance, and reason. More importantly, it elevates the importance of reason based on Clausewitz's best known dictum that "war is a continuation of politics" (On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976], 7). The fact that the book validates its assertions by comparing the theory analysis to the conflicts of the former Yugoslavia (1991-95) makes it unique and enjoyable.

The first one-third of the text reads like an homage to Clausewitz, providing a thorough review of its two principal concepts--namely, the trinitarian idea and the argument regarding politics. Author Colin Fleming points out the inherent contradiction between the continuation of politics and the trinity, which treats politics/reason as only one of three roughly equal elements of war. Following this basic explanation, he thoroughly reviews the leading authors on this subject and their theories, leaving the reader feeling properly indoctrinated and able to form an opinion and evaluate the empirical examples that are the basis for the rest of the book. Fleming comes to the reasonable conclusion that politics take primacy and must be properly linked to the strategy of war if one wishes to attain victory; he also acknowledges that the Clausewitzian trinity properly describes the nature and conduct of war, which will directly influence politics but must remain subservient to it. From here, the book proceeds with an analysis of the Yugoslavia wars to prove its assertion empirically.

The remainder offers solid analysis of the wars but seems repetitive and narrowly focused on its examples rather than concentrating on a broad-reaching evaluation of a complex and multilayered conflict. Chapter 3, "Hostility," adequately supports the view that, at their heart, the Yugoslavia conflicts were less about ethnic hatred than about the politics of power and national gain. It also recognizes the vital importance of passion in a conflict and how it can not only be harnessed to inspire a group to victory but also grow out of control and produce unintended consequences. In chapter 4, " 'Chance and Uncertainty,' " Fleming addresses the uncertain, complex nature of the conflict, the ability of the three sides to leverage those circumstances to their best advantage, and the ways they were used against them. However, the book lacks any discussion of how chance, as a concept of random events or disproportionate response, changed the nature of the conflicts and forced unpredictable outcomes or reversals of fortune. The final chapter, "Policy," expertly demonstrates the primacy of politics on conflict and the complex interaction of policy as it influences and is influenced by the conduct of war. This chapter will prove helpful to any military commander who bemoans the government's constantly shifting political goals that seem to characterize modern war. Sadly, it concentrates exclusively on the mostly state entities involved in the conflicts (Croatia, Serbia, and the Bosnian Muslims). The chapter ignores the multitude of nonstate actors that don't fall into traditional definitions of politics but have been key elements in the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. This omission leaves unfulfilled the empirical proof that Clausewitz remains applicable to the nonstate, ideology-based conflicts of the last decade.

Overall, Clausewitz's Timeless Trinity offers a scholarly and well-thought-out interpretation of Clausewitz that would benefit any creator or executor of national military strategy or operations. By looking at the older and less controversial conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Fleming gives the reader a dispassionate and poignant empirical example of the primacy of politics in all wars while equally displaying the effect of each element of the trinity. Although this analysis did not necessarily prove the relevance of Clausewitz to non-state-dominated conflicts, I heartily encourage the author to expand his writings on this topic by using the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or possibly Syria as the empirical case.

Lt Col John S. Meiter, USAF
Norfolk Naval Support Activity, Virginia

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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