An Annotated Guide to Tactics: Carl von Clausewitz’s Theory of Combat

  • Published

An Annotated Guide to Tactics: Carl von Clausewitz’s Theory of Combat edited by Olivia A. Garard. Marine Corps University Press, 2021, 241 pp. 

Many readers interested in strategy probably cut their teeth on Carl von Clausewitz's magisterial book On War. It is also likely that further investigation into his remaining corpus is considered of little value to students of strategy.

Marine Corps University Professor Olivia Garard seeks to derail that train of thought by bringing back to life a little-known or appreciated treatise on tactics written by Clausewitz that is an insightful contribution to military theory in its own right. Although there is no definitive date of publication for Guide to Tactics, Clausewitz likely wrote it at the Berlin War Academy (Kuiegsschule) sometime between 1808–12, preceding the publication of On War following Clausewitz’s death in 1831.

Although most of Guide to Tactics is Clausewitz’s theory of combat, the book includes a concise foreword by Major General Julian D. Alford and an illuminating preface by Professor B. A. Friedman. Also, the editor’s contribution, “Unlocking Guide to Tactics,” provides an invaluable scholarly introduction to Clausewitz's text, referencing many well-known experts on Clausewitz, including Raymond Aron, Peter Paret, Hew Strachan, Chistopher Bassford, Azar Gat, and many others. Garard includes additional annotations throughout the text that provide clarification and context to the passages and a helpful “Guide to Clausewitz and Selected Further Reading” at the end of the book that expounds upon several key Clausewitzian themes and provides additional references to explore. 

As Friedman pointed out in his preface, tactics are the means to achieving the ends of strategy. Therefore, strategic scholars must also understand the possibilities inherent in combat to fully appreciate the potential for potential strategic ways and ends. Whereas On War was a theory of the enduring nature of war using combat to further policy, Guide to Tactics is a theory of combat to achieve strategic aims. Neither book is prescriptive, and as Clausewitz cautioned in On War, they are guides for educational reflection, not battlefield use.

Clausewitz was also heavily influenced by the writing style of eighteenth-century philosopher Baron de Montesquieu, so Guide to Tactics contains some “aphoristic kernels of thought” meant for those familiar with the subject rather than a parenthetical narrative that the general public could understand. As Garard mentions in her introduction, these “kernels of thought” became the basis for many concepts later found in On War. There are 604 total kernels, and although the entire book is read easily in a few hours, each kernel demands further reflection and study.

Clausewitz students will delight in discovering concepts from Guide to Tactics found later in On War, such as (1) his emphasis on psychological and moral forces over material factors alone; (2) the roles of genius, character, and will of the commander; (3) the concepts of polarity and reciprocity in the collision between opposing forces; (4) the imperative for unified effort; defense as a stronger form of warfare but only as a temporary measure leading back to the offense; (5) the uncertain nature of combat and war; and several others. “Kernel” 472 intriguingly may be the basis for Clausewitz's controversial metaphor, the center of gravity, found in On War:

“If we can determine the situation and relation of that part that dominates and will carry the whole along with it in its fate, we have by that means also discovered the part of the whole against which the forces intended to fight the real struggle must be directed.” Clausewitz also recognized the need for mission-command type orders: “every plan which enters too much into the detail of the course of the combat is therefore faulty and ruinous, for detail does not depend merely on general grounds, but on other particulars which it is impossible to know beforehand.”

Of great value is Clausewitz’s theory of victory. Victory is the goal of combat, and strategy uses victory to attain the desired peace. Although he characterized victory as “the retirement of the enemy from the field of battle”; more importantly, the moral force of victory is to bend the enemy’s will to friendly designs. This characterization leads to understanding the principles that underlie combat, such as hostility or enmity that should be subordinate to reason but often overwhelms rational calculation. It was undoubtedly at his root of thinking about the “wonderous trinity” found in On War.

It is also clear that Clausewitz championed the modern conceptualization of combined arms warfare with his “two modes of fighting—close combat and fire combat.” One is a “destructive act,” the other a “decisive act.” Close combat represents maneuver, and fire combat represents fires supporting maneuver. As Garard explains, fire combat is destructive but does not provide the certainty of victory. Close combat, or the ability to close with and destroy the enemy, makes it the decisive mode of combat: “the decision is that event which produces in one of the Generals a resolution to quit the field.” Of interest to planners is Clausewitz’s timeless wisdom that events-based criteria establishing conditions for decisive action is superior to operating according to a specified time. 

For anyone interested in strategy, tactics, or Clausewitz, this book is a valuable addition to your library. If you are like the reviewer, you will find yourself highlighting text and writing marginal notes for later study. If you are a casual reader of strategy or tactics and have never read On War, this book may be a challenge, for Clausewitz wrote it with an informed readership in mind. The only minor criticism I can offer for any future editions is to expand the annotations section; those provided by Garard were useful for understanding historical context and current doctrinal applications. More would be appreciated.

Nonetheless, Garard and the Marine Corps University have greatly served the strategic and tactical communities with this publication.

Lieutenant Colonel Kurt P. VanderSteen, USA, Reserve

"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."