RE: Kelly, Justin and Mike Brennan. “Looking For The Hedgehog Idea,” Australian Army Journal, Volume VII, Number 1, pp.41-56; reprinted Small Wars Journal, 13 OCT 2010.

Christopher Bassford and William Owen

18 OCT-4 NOV 2010 (w/slight modifications in 2019)

Overall, the Kelly/Brennan article shows some genuine strategic and historical sophistication. It makes some good points on its broader subject (as well as some very arguable ones). In fact, as a discussion of modern strategic problems I rather like it. However, much of it is about neither Clausewitz nor hedgehogs. Exactly where it moves off of Clausewitz as a specific target is unclear—intentionally so, I suspect. This is problematic. The authors seem satisfied with that ambiguity, but we should not allow them to get away with it. :-)

Isaiah Berlin's hedgehog/fox framework is frequently discussed in relation to Clausewitz. [See, for just one instance, Colonel [USA] Richard M. Swain, "`The Hedgehog and the Fox': Jomini, Clausewitz, and History," Naval War College Review, Autumn 1990, pp.98-109.] To characterize Clausewitz as a hedgehog in this manner, however, is pretty absurd. Yes, if Clausewitz had understood only "one big idea," i.e., the conduct of warfare with the aim of disarming one's opponent in order to "render him politically or militarily impotent"—an idea he certainly explored and elucidated—he might qualify as a hedgehog. Though, to be honest, the value of such a sweeping generalization, beyond making a slick but misleading hook for a magazine article, escapes me. But Clausewitz also explored and elucidated many other very big ideas, including the notion of military operations aimed at very limited military and/or political objectives in which "destruction of the enemy's forces" was either unnecessary, counterproductive, or simply impossible to begin with. Neither of these ideas was original to Clausewitz. The pursuit of limited objectives characterized most of the military thought of the Enlightenment, and there were plenty of examples of the opposite approach that Napoleon so forcefully revived. Note that in the American Civil War, for instance, both Lee and Grant pursued the "Napoleonic battle of annihilation" even though there is no evidence whatsoever that either had ever heard of Clausewitz, much less read him. Jomini, too, was quite a fan of annihilative battles.

Rather, what makes Clausewitz's approach unique is that he understands both concepts AND the interrelationships between them; he deals with both "annihilation" and "exhaustion" (though these are Hans Delbrück's terms, not Clausewitz's, and both of Delbrück's categories imply very high stakes, which Clausewitz's approach did not necessarily require). Unfortunately, it seems that rather few of Clausewitz's readers are interested in grasping both poles of this concept, rather than just one or the other. If you go into On War looking for the one, it is easy to view his discussions of the other as simply noise. This happens on both sides, which is why Robert Osgood was able to characterize Clausewitz as "the preeminent military and political strategist of limited war in modern times." In turn, Liddell Hart always called him "the Apostle of Total War" even though Clausewitz did not use the term "total war" and even though Liddell Hart made these statements in articles he wrote on limited war using ideas lifted directly from Clausewitz. (Note that Clausewitz did not, in fact, use the term 'limited war'—rather, his concept concerns 'limited objectives,' and the difference is very important.

Part of the problem here is that Clausewitz's book is about the conduct of military operations in war. It is not about the other instruments that statesmen also employ in the course of politics, which does not cease simply because military operations are underway:

[W]ar is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace. How could it be otherwise? Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged? Is war not just another expression of their thoughts, another form of speech or writing? Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.
      If that is so, then war cannot be divorced from political life; and whenever this occurs in our thinking about war, the many links that connect the two elements are destroyed and we are left with something pointless and devoid of sense. (p.605 in the Howard/Paret Princeton edition of On War.)

Clausewitz was of course well aware of the economic aspects of war as well: during the Napoleonic wars the grand strategies of both Britain and France were fundamentally economic in nature—the British "Orders in Council" vs. the French "Continental System." Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia was in fact aimed at the limited political objective of forcing the Russian Empire to abide by the economic rules of the Continental System, though it was pursued via the ambitious military objective of rendering the Czar defenceless by smashing his armies in the field. The Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon were also ideological wars, and they became national wars as well. Clausewitz does not ignore these factors, since they do so much to shape what so many writers like to think of as the "purely military" battlefield: "war is only a branch of political activity … it is in no sense autonomous." But they are not his subject.

Even given this focus, Clausewitz is perfectly well aware that there are many objectives in war other than the destruction of the enemy's forces. For example, "If such operations are possible it is obvious that they can greatly improve our prospects and that they can form a much shorter route to the goal than the destruction of the opposing armies." (pp.93-94.) Such comments are not afterthoughts or asides; they are central to his argument.

I really do not know why otherwise sensible people like to misread and misrepresent Clausewitz in this manner. It does not really bother me that the practice is so shallow; my expectations are not, after all, very high. But it does bother me that it's so unproductive. The conduct of war varies dramatically in accordance with the political context. We (should) know that. And Clausewitz definitely did know that and say that. What, beyond making oneself appear an innovator, is the value of pretending otherwise?

Chris Bassford
18 OCT 2010

From: William Owen
Sent: Tuesday, November 02, 2010 3:46 AM
To: Bassford, Chris
Subject: Clausewitz Hedgehog

Dear Professor Bassford:

I work with Adam Stahl on Infinity Journal and I am also active in a lot of military thought debate in and around the ABCAN world.

On the academic side, I occasionally speak at Reading University, thanks to Colin Gray and Simon Anglim.

I count myself as an adherent to Clausewitz. I tend to reject new ideas and concepts unless I can find their reasoning supported in Clausewitzian thinking, because, IMO, Clausewitz is useful and practical—and must be presented as such.

Based on that, I find your criticism of Kelly and Brennan a bit problematic. Unless I am much mistaken, Clausewitz was a strong proponent of theory having to serve practice. The theory is useless unless it can be applied right now, in the real world.

That being the case, how can an article (such as Justin Kelly's) that seeks to advocate the position that military force should be directed against military force—for policy aims—be as wrong, simplistic or as counter-productive as you seem to suggest?

Amongst soldiers, there is not much of an intellectual debate between "annihilation and exhaustion." You are usually doing both and both require the use of force. It's like "killing versus suppression." As long as you are doing one well, you are generally set for success.

Military force is not a subtle instrument and it has to be applied in VERY simple ways. Warfare is a nail that comes in different sizes, and we just have to pick the right hammer—big or small.

If we were all to gravitate to the Talmudic dissection of Clausewitz, and a "purity of the text" school of study, I suspect we would all be undermining the very purpose to which the Prussian master wrote. We risk ending up with the study of Clausewitz becoming like "art appreciation."

Knowing Justin Kelly as I do, I do know that he is aiming his paper at the "Doing good deeds" folks who think military force can be used for social engineering and "nation building"—most/some of whom are strongly anti-Clausewitz! and blame Clausewitz for most of the current military's woes.

Kelly isn't aiming to be a noted Clausewitz scholar. He is trying to get military organisations (the ADF) to focus on using military force in simple and understandable ways which best serve the political aim. That falls into the "Hedgehog category" where I come from.

....but many, many thanks for all your excellent work on—a site I will continue to recommend to the weak-minded and confused soldiers who seem not to want to kill the enemy!


Wilf Owen

On 3 NOV 2010 20:27, "Bassford, Chris" wrote:


Thanks for the kind words re The Clausewitz Homepage. Given that its mission is the defense, explication, and promulgation of Clausewitz and his ideas, I hope you'll understand the narrow focus of my comments.

As I said in my very first line, the Kelly/Brennan article "shows some genuine strategic and historical sophistication. It makes some good points on its broader subject (as well as some very arguable ones). In fact, as a discussion of modern strategic problems I rather like it." I wasn't simply being polite—I really do like it, though I need to think about its main arguments some more before I can fully evaluate them. So I don't believe that I'm arguing that Kelly/Brennan are dunderheads. Nor am I doing "art appreciation" or saying anything remotely critical of the idea that theory must serve practice—the reason I'm interested in Clausewitzian theory is that it is so profoundly practical and realistic. My criticism is focused on—and entirely limited to—the misrepresentation of Clausewitz's argument that is contained in the following line:

"to [Clausewitz], the best that was possible was the destruction of the enemy’s powers of resistance carried out in a way that convinced the enemy’s people that submission was their best option."

That was most certainly not Clausewitz's position (though it was Moltke's). In fact, it's a contradiction in itself: If you have truly destroyed the enemy's powers of resistance, you need not convince his people of anything and they have no alternative to submission other than ineffectual suicide. (That would be a very exceptional situation, but it happens.) But more generally, Clausewitz understood and discussed in great detail the complex interaction among political objectives, military objectives, battlefield capabilities, and political costs and calculations. The "best" solution would always be dependent on the real-world context. There could be no general "best" solution—other than in the "logical fantasy" of "ideal" or "absolute" war,* which was never intended as a description of reality. "Ideal war" refers to a philosophical abstraction—it does not mean "real good war."

[* Written in 2010: This, by the way, is an error on my part. "Absolute war' and 'ideal war' are not equivalents—they differ in important ways It is pretty clear that Clausewitz intended to impose the latter construct on the whole of Vom Kriege, which would have required the deletion of the muddled 'absolute war' construct that appears only in the older sections of Book VIII. See discussion at]

You are quite right, of course, that "amongst soldiers, there is not much of an intellectual debate between 'annihilation' and 'exhaustion.'" But, assuming we are talking here about thinking soldiers (and, by the way, I have been a soldier), there should be. The main reason they don't think about it is because they confuse 'annihilation' and 'exhaustion' as methods with 'annihilation' and 'exhaustion' as objectives. And they often confuse exhaustion and annihilation as being the same damned thing—i.e., if the enemy is truly "exhausted," that means he's got nothing (nihil) left. But that is not the distinction we're talking about. 'Exhaustion' refers to wearing down the opponent's will to pursue an optional objective—but people don't get tired of surviving and seldom consider survival an optional goal. (While al Qaida uses suicide as a tactical method, notice that AQ's leaders work very hard at staying alive and their goal is the survival of their twisted version of Islam.) So the Americans exhausted Great Britain's will to crush the American Revolution but never had any idea or possibility of annihilating Britain's ability to defend itself from other opponents. Similarly, the North Vietnamese exhausted the American will to defend South Vietnam. They then annihilated the ARVN (military objective), thereby permitting the complete conquest and absorption of the southern state (political objective). The US attempted to exhaust North Vietnam's will to pursue a goal that the North saw as a survival issue (and, accordingly, failed). American leaders were never willing to expend the resources—moral, political, and physical—necessary to overcome the North Vietnamese capacity to continue the struggle.

BTW, Clausewitz's definitions are important: "The fighting forces must be destroyed: that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight. Whenever we use the phrase ‘destruction of the enemy's forces’ this alone is what we mean." (p.90 in the Howard/Paret Princeton edition of On War).

On the ground, the soldier's objective in tactical battle is almost always the destruction of the force confronting him, but that's not at all the same thing as strategic annihilation. (However, as an artilleryman, if I was given the tactical mission of suppression I would very probably pick different ordnance than if I was given the mission of destruction.) You need to peel apart objective and method. One may achieve strategic annihilation through a campaign of battlefield attrition—e.g., the Union sought to annihilate (mil.obj) the Confederate Army in the American Civil War, thus freeing the USA to completely absorb (pol.obj.) the Confederacy. But the Union armies achieved this via a grinding campaign of attrition that cost the North a worse-than-1:1 casualty exchange ratio. On the other hand, you may accomplish the enemy's strategic exhaustion (i.e., make him so tired of pursuing his objectives that he's willing to accept the accomplishment of your own—which have to be 'limited' objectives, because no state gets tired of existing) through a series of battles that result in battlefield (i.e., tactical) annihilation of the particular enemy forces involved. If your objectives are limited and your enemy can survive the acceptance of defeat, he can concede the issue before his potential for self-defense is eliminated (and you, in turn, will accept a negotiated end to hostilities that leaves your opponent still in existence). Indeed, you can even accomplish limited political objectives via strategic annihilation—i.e., render the enemy completely defenseless, ask him for his autograph, and then go home, leaving him alive and able to pick up the pieces. There are many examples of all these options/combos in the real world, e.g., US pol/mil objectives in the Mexican War. But strategic annihilation in pursuit of limited political objectives against a capable and determined opponent is generally a very expensive way to proceed, and in many cases it would be an utterly unrealistic objective.

The truth is that Clausewitz was neither a hedgehog nor a fox as per Berlin's schema. He understood many big, important ideas and he understood how they interrelate. I guess you could conflate all of the elements of Clausewitz's vision into "one big idea," though I have never seen that accomplished in print and certainly cannot do it myself. But in that case, well, the whole universe is one big idea. If you want to support the argument that "the best that is possible is the destruction of the enemy’s powers of resistance," which is a perfectly good argument in some specific cases but is utterly false as a "general truth," well, go ahead with my blessing. But if you're going to blame the idiocy on Clausewitz, please forgive me for speaking up.

Is that responsive to your concerns, or have I misunderstood your point?


From: William Owen
Sent: Thursday, November 04, 2010 3:17 AM
To: Bassford, Chris
Subject: Re: Clausewitz Hedgehog


Thank you for an excellent and very well explained response. This is demonstrative of the understanding/reasoning that draws me to Clausewitz.

A.) Kelly and Brennan. Justin Kelly was Dave Kilcullen’s boss. I knew Dave back in the day. He’s not a Clausewitzian. Justin’s intent—as far as I read it—is to get modern armies to focus their efforts on the enemy, and not Avant-garde post modern ideas like “Influence Operations” or other equally dubious conceptions as to the use of force. I feel reasonably confident in saying this as Justin and I correspond a good deal.

B.) I NOW understand your misgivings with the statement concerned. My own feeling is that if you seek to inflict harm on the enemy's forces, you will rarely be doing anything wrong—given that you are trying either to exhaust and/or annihilate. Inflicting casualties on the enemy serves both possible purposes. It just depends on how much effort you want to expend and risk you want to take in the service of the policy. That is the point I took from Kelly’s article, though I may be seeing things that are not there.

—Yes, as a gunner you would want to select different fuse settings and rates of fire for essentially two different reasons. I have a small debate with Jim Storr about suppression at the sub-unit level which revolves around the same essential argument—my point being that killing creates suppression and Jim’s subtle distinction that specific actions can suppress rather than kill. Neither is right nor wrong, but the arguments create a deeper level of understanding. To boys on the ground, it does seem an entirely semantic argument, when seeking to kill the enemy will deliver everything you want—if it is done well.

C.) "Art Appreciation." That was perhaps unfair of me, but Colin Gray and I recently had a very long conversation about “getting beyond Clausewitz.” The point we seemed to agree on was that a lot of very useful points can be made without referring to Clausewitz. We should seek to prove Clausewitz’s observations were/are right, without justifying them by saying “Clausewitz” as though this confers immutable veracity. So once the case has been made, we might merely add that this was what Clausewitz meant when he said, “X, Y, Z.” My concern (and Colin’s) is to strive for practical and useful understanding—and I think you and I seem to agree on this as well. Counter-insurgency would not be in the shameful mess it is IF some of its adherents had bothered to really understand the ideas Clausewitz expounded.

Many thanks for your time on this. I really appreciate it.


Wilf Owen

Chris Bassford replies:


Hi Wilf:


Well, with great regret I must say I cannot find anything to disagree with in your last post. I too get very tired of hearing the constant references to Clausewitz that serve no positive purpose. For that matter, sometimes I just get sick of hearing about Clausewitz, period. (But I get over it.) I do have other interests.


Thanks for sparking such a useful exchange.




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