Clausewitz’s Analysis Resonates to This Day

Clausewitz’s Analysis Resonates to This Day

A recently translated text by Clausewitz coincidentally describes an eighteenth-century Russian war in Ukraine and Crimea, which can impart lessons for contemporary students of strategy.

History Lessons

For all of the failings of the Russian war in 1736–1739, historians disagree about the war’s legacy. My own mentor, Christopher Duffy, focused on the heavy losses incurred for little gains in this war. In contrast, the leading scholar of this war, Brian L. Davies, has concerningly noted that the Russian army learned much from the failures of the initial campaigns and modernized their doctrines during wartime, overcoming their logistical problems. For Davies, this was a war where Russians could take heavy losses, rebuild their forces, and remain dangerous in the post-war environment.

Clausewitz’s short treatise on a seemingly obscure conflict in eighteenth-century Russian history imparts lessons for strategists today. First, even in ages that focus on the rules of engagement and laws of war, enemy forces might target civilians in order to distract their opponents and shape the situation to their advantage. Second, logistical problems can hinder a force more than enemy action. Third, the center of gravity may not be military casualties; heavy enemy losses do not always equate victory. Fourth, creating a situation where your home territory is defended from attack enables withdrawal, reconstitution, and redeployment.

Like Clausewitz at the turn of the nineteenth century, we should be willing to listen to the lessons of wars that might initially seem foreign or quaint. 

Alexander S. Burns is a visiting assistant professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, studying the American Continental army’s connection to European militaries. His edited volume, The Changing Face of Old Regime Warfare: Essays in Honour of Christopher Duffy, was published in 2022. You can follow him @KKriegeBlog.

Image: Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg/The David Rumsey Map Collection​.