Victory and Defeat According to Clausewitz

            In the aftermath of war there is usually one side that emerges victorious while the other raises the white flag of surrender. When the commander of the triumphant side can discern the fluttering piece of white cloth then it is time to meet the leader of the vanquished army in order to discuss the terms of their surrender. Yet there are times when the declaration of victory can be made prematurely and there are also times when the outnumbered and outgunned enemy refuses to give in and accept defeat. Thus military strategist should therefore aim to secure the defeat of the enemy and never the achievement of victory.

Victory and Defeat

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            In war there should only be two possible outcomes – victory and defeat. Victory for the army that was able to rout the enemy or able to destroy key military infrastructures as well as the successful decimation of the opposing forces. The one who is on the receiving end of the brutal assault will have no choice but to surrender. If the overwhelmed army refuses to give up then the leader will risk mutiny or rebellion from his troops because everyone is well aware of the fact that if they will not surrender they can be massacred or worse their land can be destroyed to the point that it would be impossible to support life after the end of the conflict.

            Victory on the other hand can have dual characteristics. The first one was outlined in the preceding discussion, which is the successful execution of strategy so that the opposing army will be forced to accept defeat and therefore forced to surrender. The second characteristic of victory is the attainment of strategic goals and this is where the problem of discerning victory and defeat become very much evident. In other words a military commander can be so brilliant and able to plan and execute the perfect strategy, achieving his military goals in the process and yet unable to break the enemy’s resolve.

            There can be many different reasons why victory is possible in the mind of the military commander whereas the soldier on the opposing side of the conflict will continue to fight. One possible reason is that the commander had miscalculated what was required to attain victory. For instance the capture of an island or a mountain can be considered as a decisive victory and yet the commander may be unaware that the enemy has one more ace up his sleeve so to speak and therefore will continue to fight. Another related idea is to have an idea of victory based on faulty intelligence reports.

For instance a general may have been a victim of misinformation and thinking that he had already killed or capture half of the strength of the opposing army he will prematurely declare victory. The only problem of course is that he had the wrong estimates. Instead of planning to defeat 5,000 enemy soldiers, he actually had to contend with 12, 000. This significant difference in numbers will easily force a general to celebrate early. This is a good example of the difference between claiming victory and totally defeating the enemy.

One military historian was able to put it succinctly when describing the importance of accurate and reliable information when it comes to strategic decision making, “…in the absence of an intelligent analysis of the conduct of war … decision making at the strategic level was likely to be taken over by method and routine, with potentially disastrous results.”[1] This is going beyond the mere possession of reliable intelligence.[2] Sumida was actually saying that aside from information the strategist should not be fooled into thinking that was can be measured and calculated as if it is one giant chess game.[3] War is like shifting sand it changes by the minute and the commander who is not quick in assessing and reassessing strategy will fail.[4]

The second possible reason why a commander can be forced to prematurely declare victory can be due to his underestimation of enemy resolve. A good illustration can be a boxing match between two fierce competitors. Each fighter has a basic idea of what is required to win. The first one was trained to box and to win on points. A prizefighter who is used to competing in the amateurs may develop this kind of mindset. On the other hand the other fighter was more desperate and for him there will be no tomorrow if he fails to deliver. So while his face was turned to a bloody pulp he will not surrender until he gets knocked down and never to give up.

In a real world setting the U.S. Armed Forces had their baptism of fire when they fought with guerilla fighters in Vietnam.[5] It is common knowledge that the U.S. military was defeated in that war. Coming from impressive wins in two World Wars as well as the Korean War this defeat was an embarrassing failure coming from a world superpower. But the lesson of Vietnam was crystal clear the guerilla fighters adopted a much more different standard than what conventional fighters are used to.[6] They were counting the number of casualties and they were not concern as to the number of military infrastructure that was destroyed, all they cared about is the need to force the enemy to leave.

It can therefore be argued that victory can only be achieved if the military commander has all the pertinent details regarding the conflict as well as a correct overview of what is the war all about and what is needed to defeat the enemy.[7] On the other hand true victory does not come from the victor or any third party that acts as a referee; true victor is only assured if one side of the conflict will readily admit defeat and ready to accept whatever conditions that would be given by the victor on the other side of the conflict.

Clausewitz Legacy

The idea that victory could not be certain unless the conqueror is assured of total victory and the vanquished acknowledges total defeat is not new.[8] In the modern era one of the best articulators of this kind of military precept is Carl von Clausewitz a Prussian military tactician. His concepts regarding the art and science of warfare is still an important part of modern warfare. A military school will not be complete without having copies of Clausewitz military books on strategies and warfare.In order to understand the deeper meaning of victory and defeat in military parlance there is a need to first understand Clausewitz and then compare his ideas to other strategist to get an overview of modern warfare.[9]

In the introduction to a translated work Col. F. N. Maude made a fitting tribute to Carl Von Clausewitz, a tribute that would have made the former Prussian General satisfied that his legacy lives many years after his demise and he wrote:

The Germans interpret their new national colours –black, red, and white – by saying ‘Durch Nacht und Blut zur licht.’ (‘Through night and blood to light’), and no work yet written conveys to the thinker a clearer conception of all that the red streak in their flag stands for than this deep and philosophical analysis of ‘War’ by Clausewitz.[10]

Needless to say Clausewitz was born in a time when warfare was as necessary as the basic commodities needed to survive on this planet. In the post-World War II era the political and economic conditions favored the creation of an agency like the United Nations. There were still major conflicts even after the UN was established but this time there is an international organization that can act as a mediator between two nations and before all hell will break loose the UN will attempt to exhaust all diplomatic means to diffuse tension and to avert war. But before the creation of the UN each nation is on its own. War can only be averted by treaties, alliances and common interests.

Clausewitz was not only a product of his time he is also a student of military warfare. His idea when it comes to victory and defeat can be understood by looking at his core principles and one can have a glimpse of what he meant by first analyzing how he viewed war. Clausewitz did not beat around the bush when asked to define warfare and he wrote, “We shall not enter into any of the abstruse definitions of War used by publicists […] War therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.”[11] He his statements by saying, “War is nothing but a duel on an extensive scale […] Each strives by physical force to compel the other to submit to his will: each endeavours to throw his adversary, and thus render him incapable of further resistance.”[12] One has to force the issue until the bitter end.

Based on Clausewitz idea of what constitutes warfare, there is no way that a commander can talk his way out of battle. There is limited place for diplomacy in combat. Diplomatic talk should be performed before a war but once international conflict was declared, all non-combatants must step out of the way. The only people that should be permitted to join the fray are those that have no qualms in using deadly force. Clausewitz’ truthful assessment of warfare was further expounded by Col. Maude when he remarked that war is, “…the exercise of force for the attainment of a political object, unrestrained by any law save that of expediency…”[13] This can only be achieved if there is a singleness of purpose and the commitment to win the war at all cost.

If indeed war can be likened to two competitors locked in mortal combat then there is no logic in giving one’s opponent to rise up once again and given the chance to strike back. In other words it is imperative to beat the adversary into submission. It is only through this commitment of total victory that one can force the enemy to accept defeat. Clausewitz was able to explain it much better when warned against the ambivalence that oftentimes enter the heart of warriors and their leaders:

…the errors which proceed from the a spirit of benevolence are the worst […] it follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to the bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigour in its application. The former then dictates the law to the latter, and both proceed to extremities to which the only limitations are those imposed by the amount of counteracting force on each side.[14]

A person who loves the idea of warfare could not help but admire Clauewitz. If one has the propensity for violence there is no question that Clausewitz’s ideas should be made into the standard field manual for modern warfare. Yet there are many people who abhor the idea of war. The recent debacle in the Iraq War was one of the main reasons why former American President George W. Bush was very unpopular when he left the White House. In the 21st century no one should expect to see Clausewitz’s ideas celebrated in mass media. This is especially true when it comes to his belief in the use of “utmost force”. There are many pacifists in this world find Clausewitz ideas excessively violent and destructive.

One of the best examples of the aversion to bloodshed can be found in the book entitled, Toward an American Way of War. In this document one can see the propensity of Americans to be overly generous with its enemies a behaviour that Clausewitz would have opposed if he is part of the U.S. war machine. The author pointed out that there is a high degree of confusion with the way America fights its foes:

Unfortunately, it was never clear who had responsibility for crafting and nurturing the American way of war – those who directed it toward some political end, or those who developed the operational doctrine and did the fighting. The American tradition of preserving civilian authority over military command seemed only to exacerbate the problem by encouraging power and diplomacy to occupy separate spheres.[15]

There are many who tried to reinterpret Clausewitz theory and adjust it to fit the American way of fighting wars. They say that the Prussian general discussed the idea of war being an extension of politics. Echevarria said that nothing can be further from the truth and he challenged this idea by quoting another Admiral J.C. Wylie who asserted that, “…war may indeed be an extension of politics – meaning the perpetual struggle for power – but it was not really the continuation of policy.”[16] It is not simply about politics especially when a nation was attacked unprovoked just like in the case of Pearl Harbor in 1942. In this type of situations politicians must stay out of the way and let the professionals do their job.

Echevarria added that many made the mistake when they argued that Clausewitz can sometimes be interpreted as someone who leaned towards the use of diplomacy. This could not be aligned with Clausewitz’s previous pronouncement and furthermore, “…the very fact that was has broken out usually means that one policy has collapsed…”[17] When war is declared the gloves are taken off and it is time to inflict punishment or move fast to avert disaster – compromise or surrender to the overwhelming force of a conquering army.


There are many examples wherein one can find different usage of the terms victory and defeat. It was mentioned earlier that there are times when a commander will declare victory even if true victory was not achieved. One of the best example is the Battle of Iwo Jima wherein the overall commander declared that Japan had no longer any influence in the battle scarred island of Iwo Jima situated a relatively short distance away from Tokyo. While the leaders had a false sense of triumph the soldiers in the battlefield had no delusions whatsoever that the war was over. The soldiers need not have access to sophisticated intelligence they only need to know that the Japanese were still firing back at them.[18]

The error was due to faulty intelligence reports. They had no idea as to the exact capabilities of the Japanese who were prepared for an incoming invasion. The soldiers knew very well that if Iwo Jima will fall then the American will have a very easy time in conquering the Japanese heartland. The Americans were not fully aware as to the exact number of Japanese soldiers hidden in the said area.[19] Moreover, the Americans had no clear understanding of the tunneling capabilities of the Japanese Imperial Army.

Before D-Day the U.S. combined forces pounded the island with carpet bombings and pulverized the area with incessant shelling from Navy guns but they had no idea that the Japanese were buried like rats and practically safe from all the firepower leveled against them. There was even one soldier who was worried that perhaps there will be no more Japanese left for him to kill.[20] He was wrong of course and it was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of U.S. Armed force. The battle of Iwo Jima claimed the lives of thousands of U.S. Marines.

The American forces were not only aware of the capability of the Japanese to resist a long drawn siege they also had no idea that the Japanese were ready to die for their cause. In other words they underestimated their resolve. Looking at the destruction of the island as well as the number of soldiers that were killed it was logical to declare victory. The American generals were probably assured that they have superior forces and superior firepower. But they did not know that many are still alive below ground. The fighting must be done not above ground but a few feet below sea level.

The same problem was encountered in Vietnam. The American forces had a wrong idea as to the requirements for victory. They thought that Vietnam is similar to World War II where superior forces and superior firepower will dictate victory. It was their first taste of the bitterness of guerilla warfare and they were unprepared for it to say the least. There was no coherent plan and no clear objectives. On the other hand the Viet Cong warriors had a crystal clear idea as to what will it take to win and it is to resist till the end until the Americans would leave.

Victory should not be declared by the supposed victor but it must come from the vanquished. The defeated foe must come out from hiding and declare their unconditional surrender. War is not a pleasant activity. It must be averted at all cost and yet if war is imminent and there is no other course but to fight then Clausewitz was correct when he said that there must be no half measures. Everything must be done to achieve victory and this means that to inflict punishment and to use every resource in ones disposal to force the enemy to submit.


Chen, Peter. Battle of Iwo Jima. Accessed 29 March 2009. Available from

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. (J. J. Graham, Trans.) New York: Penguin Books, Ltd.,1982.

(Original Work Published 1892).

Clausewitz, Carl von. Principles of War. (H.W. Gatzke, Trans.) New York: Dover, 2003.

Collins, John. Military Geography for Professionals and the Public. Washington, D.C.:

National Defense University, 1998.

Echevarria, A. Toward An American Way of War. Washington, D.C.: Stategic Studies

Institute, 2004.

Greene, Joseph. The Essential Clausewitz: Selections from On War. New York: Dover, 2003.

Gowen, Timothy. A Proposal to Rethink the Way We Develop National Military Strategy:

More Science, Less Art. PA: U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, 2005.

Gray, Collins. Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of

History. New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002.

Lonsdale, David. The Nature of War in the Information Age: Clausewitzian Future. New

York: Frank Cass, 2004.

Paret, Peter & Daniel Moran. Carl von Clausewitz: Two Letters on Strategy.

Washington, D.C.: Diane Publishing, 1992.

Sumida, J. (1989). The Relationship of History and Theory in On War. Retrieved February

12, 2007 from the World Wide Web:


[1] Sumida, J. (1989). The Relationship of History and Theory in On War. Retrieved February 12,

2007 from the World Wide Web:


[2] Gray, Collins. Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History.

New York: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002.

[3] Collins, John. Military Geography for Professionals and the Public. (Washington, D.C.: National

Defense University, 1998), p. 280.

[4] Lonsdale, David. The Nature of War in the Information Age: Clausewitzian Future. (New York:

Frank Cass, 2004), p. 66.

[5] Gowen, Timothy. A Proposal to Rethink the Way We Develop National Military Strategy: More

Science, Less Art. (PA: U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, 2005), p.1.

[6] Lonsdale, p. 66.
[7] Clausewitz, Carl von. Principles of War. (H.W. Gatzke, Trans.) [New York: Dover, 2003], p. 12.

[8] Paret, Peter & Daniel Moran. Carl von Clausewitz: Two Letters on Strategy.

(Washington, D.C.: Diane Publishing, 1992), p. 51.

[9] Gowen, p.3.

[10] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. (J. J. Graham, Trans.) [New York: Penguin Books, Ltd.,1982.

(Original Work Published 1892)], p. 83.

[11] Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. , p. 101.

[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid, p. 83.
[14] Ibid, p. 102.

[15] Echevarria, A. Toward An American Way of War. (Washington, D.C.: Stategic Studies

Institute, 2004), p. 11-12.

[16] Ibid. p. 11.
[17] Ibid, p. 12.
[18] Chen, Peter. Battle of Iwo Jima. Accessed 29 March 2009. Available from

[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.

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