Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz is famously known to have given the concept of Centre of Gravity (COG) in his On War, until recently the Bible of war theory. There’s nary a military school that doesn’t talk about COG. Since at least 1986, the concept has been a mainstay of US military operations. And yet, everyone has grappled with the concept, trying to figure out what it actually means.
Reason: not only is the concept vague and abstract, as recent writings have determined, it is also a mistranslation of the term Clausewitz used — Schwerpunkt. But before we get down to what Clausewitz meant, let’s list, at the outset, at least two problems with On War. They are not new and have been identified before but it is important to recap them to position the argument here.
The first problem is about the authorship of On War. We know that Clausewitz died early, before he had the opportunity to put his notes and manuscripts together. What we have today is a collection of his notes and manuscripts compiled and edited by his widow, Marie von Clausewitz, with assistance from Clausewitz’ students and military colleagues. The three volumes that comprise On War from the 10 they collected and compiled were their interpretation of Clausewitz, who did not have the advantage of revising or editing that draft.
This is also made clear by a note Clausewitz wrote, calling his manuscripts “a mass of conceptions not brought into form…[and which are] open to endless misconceptions.” The quote, it must be said, is contained in Liddell Hart’s Strategy who wasn’t particularly enamoured of Clausewitzean thought. that said, this warning comes directly from Clausewitz and must inform any reading of On War.
But an even bigger problem, noted by several scholars of Clausewitz, both civilian and military, relates to translations from German. This, of course, is a general problem with translating any work where words can have several connotations and meanings. The term Centre of Gravity, in German, would be Gravitationspunkt. In fact, this is exactly the phrase used by the Austrian army to denote COG. Clausewitz, however, as we have noted above, used the term Schwerpunkt which, scholars have noted, should mean “weight of focus or point of effort”, a concept evidently different from COG which can be understood as a hub or the central source of power of the adversary.
This mistranslation has been one of the major problems informing the elusive understanding of COG. Military theorists and planners have been debating ad nauseam whether the COG denotes the strongest point of the adversary or his weakest. An additional problem is the fact, again well-known, that Clausewitz was theorising in and through the concepts of physics of his own time. The application of force and the drag were derived straight from mechanics. But the application of force on an inanimate object is very different from such application on an animate object which is not a single entity. Its reaction will be unknown and how it will morph once force has been applied on it are unknown variables.
To be fair to Clausewitz, he did realise that and hence his ‘fog of war’. Still, when we use COG as some central point of the adversary which, when struck, will yield favourable results, we make the mistake of assuming that (a) the adversary is a simple rather than complex object and (b) that if it unravels, it will necessarily collapse and could not regenerate.
Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King’s College London, put it thus: “First, countries, or indeed any political entities, or their armed forces, do not have COGs. As a metaphor, it encourages a search for some vital core that holds the enemy system together. If this core can be identified and successfully attacked, it is supposed that the enemy system will unravel. This assumes an interconnected and interdependent system, incapable of adaption and regeneration. Yet once some key element is removed, social organisations do not necessarily collapse. There may be a transformation, but this could be into something more robust and durable. Taking out the enemy regime, for example, may not result in something pliable and cooperative, but instead a new entity that is as unfriendly and less manageable.”
Freedman’s reference to “a new entity that is as unfriendly and less manageable” is a scenario we are witnessing unfolding in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, to name just the four recent examples. When the United States was planning to go into Iraq, I was at the prestigious Brookings Institution. The US planning was focused on defeating the Iraqi army. This, as I noted repeatedly at the time, was both correct and flawed. Correct, because the US-led allied offensive would surely take out the Iraqi army, as it did; flawed, because beyond that the US didn’t have a plan and Iraq — for several reasons — had the potential to transform into a far more dangerous entity, which it did and has.
The point is simple: Clausewitz was writing and observing in the early 19th century. The nature of war, its thrust, its manoeuvres, its outcomes were very different from the fast-changing nature of war in 21st century. For instance, how does one define the COG, or even Clausewitz’ original Schwerpunkt, and apply it to cyberwar with hackers wreaking havoc in virtual spaces and whose attacks have terrible physical consequences? How did the concept work in Vietnam, for instance, where the US military, despite winning the battles, lost the war? Or in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya? How do we apply the concept, whether in terms of COG or ‘point of effort’ to non-state, trans-national actors and groups that have shown remarkable, protean resilience at surviving the application of force, even when such application has been targeted and selective and has degraded their leadership?
As Freedman argues: “Force can have an instrumental value, even when it is not decisive in itself. There is always a need to understand enemy objectives and capabilities, but that does not always require working out how to impose a total collapse. Their forces might be deterred, denied, deflected, and displaced without being threatened with a terminal defeat.”
This refers us back to what Sun Tzu said in The Art of War: “In general, the method for employing the military is this: Preserving the enemy’s state capital is best, destroying their state capital second-best. Preserving their army is best, destroying their army second-best. Preserving their battalions is best, destroying their battalions second-best…Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.”
There are lessons in this for us, both in relation to state actors as well as the non-state actors we are fighting. Dealing with state actors, as Sun Tzu makes clear, is not just a function of military power but creation of synergy by harnessing all elements of national power. Ditto for NSAs. They morph and draw their strength from society. That is where one has to deal with the idea. In that sense, the COG or Schwerpunkt (point of effort) becomes an idea more than something physical which can be dominated through the use of force alone. In other words, the point of effort must be to translate the use of force into utility of force.
Clausewitz is useful, very useful indeed. But only if he is read with some of the caveats we have discussed above. For this, within the military, we need thinking officers at all levels, officers who can challenge institutional wisdom and get rewarded for that, instead of being sidelined.