The Theories of Von Clausewitz and Understanding of Warfare

There have been multiple attempts to understand the nature of armed conflicts and study the topic of war and warfare from the philosophical viewpoint. To express his understanding of war as a socio-cultural phenomenon, Carl von Clausewitz, a prominent specialist in military theory and practice, formulated the concepts of the trinity and the center of gravity in his famous work titled On War. In the past, the theories informed people’s perspectives on warfare by stressing the role of the human factor in armed hostilities, explaining success at war with attention to the sources of power, and influencing the development of new military tactics.

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The theory of the center of gravity proposed by von Clausewitz expanded society’s understanding of factors that influence an ability to win. According to the theorist, this term can be defined as something that provides a will to act and strength and originates from the basic or “dominant” characteristics of a belligerent party.1

Therefore, to hold a victory, it is critical for a warring party to properly define and attack its enemy’s fundamental source of power. The theory was used to analyze particular armed conflicts and warfare mistakes, as well as develop recommendations linked to strategic decisions. For instance, Von Clausewitz interpreted the events of the French Revolution, the French Invasion of Russia, and the Battle of Elchingen to prove that the causes of victories and defeats were not always plain to see.2 In addition to physical resources, the properties of which increase or remove a military advantage, he proved the existence of “moral factors, the hub of all power and movement.”3

The theorist’s center of gravity improved people’s knowledge of warfare by explaining a variety of such “centers’ and linking them to the classification of conflicts. The army, according to the author’s analysis, was the principal source of power for famous rulers of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, such as Charles XII of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf, and Frederick the Great, but it was not the universal rule.4

The theory helped society to gain new practically relevant knowledge by drawing links between particular centers of gravity and the types of armed conflicts. For instance, capturing the capital was a viable solution in case of domestic strife, whereas to suppress popular uprisings, it was reasonable to focus on attacks “on the personalities of the leaders and public opinion.”5 As for the latter, it is much easier to implement this knowledge today due to the development of modern means of communication and the resulting new opportunities for defamation and manipulation.

Although von Clausewitz’ theory of the center of gravity was not the main prerequisite to the emergence of strategic bombing and offensive aviation, there were links between his ideas and the mentioned military innovations. The belligerent party, the theorist claims, can have “various centers of gravity” that are sometimes “reduced to one,” and destroying their means of embarking on the path to victory.6

At the core of strategic bombing lies an opportunity to prevent the enemy from using its essential resources (people, buildings, equipment, etc.) by organizing focused attacks from the air. As an example, the Luftwaffe, the strongest airforce in the world during the period of World War II, was among the first forces to organize successful strategic attacks to destroy its enemies’ morale.7 In 1933, the Third Reich discussed the creation of a strategic bombing capability to use terror bombing techniques against enemies’ capitals or attack their key industrial areas, thus “producing moral collapse” and destroying national cohesion.8 Therefore, basically, strategic bombing involves defining the enemy’s critical sources of power and moral support and eliminating them by means of using airpower.

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As a concept, the center of gravity also influenced prominent military leaders’ understanding of air offensives and their strategic advantages. For example, Hans von Seeckt, who was a German colonel-general from 1920 to 1926, argued for the creation of independent air forces with reference to the center of gravity.9 To him, any nation had its own centers of gravity, and the very emergence of offensive aviation could place those sources of strength in jeopardy.10 Based on that, the theory made some contributions to the development of inhuman but effective air warfare techniques in the twentieth century.

The theory of the trinity proposed by Carl von Clausewitz is another idea that added to society’s knowledge of warfare by making it more human-centered. Clausewitzian trinity explains war as a combination of three factors, including violence and hatred, also referred to as a “blind natural force,” “the play of chance and probability,” and subordination as a political instrument..11 In a simplified way, the idea implies that military conflicts do not exist without people, the government, and the armed forces, and von Clausewitz used it to describe relationships between the aspects of conflicts as they were during the period of Napoleonic wars.12

The idea of trinity offered by von Clausewitz revolutionized his peers’ approach to understanding war by shifting the focus from military forces to more complex relationships between the three interested parties, especially people. Before his successful attempt to provide a concise description of processes behind any war, prominent theorists of the nineteenth and previous centuries failed to recognize war as a “human-centric activity,” which limited their understanding of warfare.13 Therefore, the trinity theory, especially its component linked to people, led to the recognition of new factors in warfare.

By placing people, along with authorities and military organizations, in the center of attention, von Clausewitz started the tradition of emphasizing the human element in warfare, thus encouraging military leaders to develop new priorities. For instance, in his discussion of human nature in the work titled On Warfare, he encourages strategists to take the human factor into account, “find room for courage, boldness, even foolhardiness,” and understand war as a game and people as the players.14

The new tradition focuses on the human factor influencing the philosophical views of some strategists of the twentieth century. For instance, Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the leaders of the Viet Minh Coalition founded in 1941, regarded human beings as an underestimated and decisive factor in war.15 Despite its seeming outdatedness, there are multiple correlations between the trinity model and modern countries’ strategies for the development of naval power.16 The way that the trinity theory changed particular approaches to the prosecution of war used before 1945 is not perfectly clear as the idea is to explain the phenomenon of war instead of offering practical recommendations.

To sum it up, the theories proposed by Carl von Clausewitz in the nineteenth century informed people’s understanding of warfare. The theory of the center of gravity shed light on the key sources of power helping great military leaders of the past to win and explained connections between such sources and the types of conflicts. It also found reflection in military strategies, including strategic bombing, whereas the trinity theory helped to make the perspective on warfare more human-centered. Even though the theories were formulated with reference to the incidents of the long ago, military professionals can still apply the main points to today’s realia in some instances.


Guzmán, Carlos, Óscar Barrionuevo, and Teresa Guarda. “The Validity and Influence of Clausewitz’s Trinity on the Development of Naval Power.” In Developments and Advances in Defense and Security: Proceedings of the Multidisciplinary International Conference of Research Applied to Defense and Security (MICRADS 2018), edited by Alvaro Rocha and Teresa Guarda, 222-234. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.

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Murray, Williamson. “Strategic Bombing: The British, American, and German Experiences.” In Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, edited by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett, 96-143. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Parker, Geoffrey. “The Gunpowder Revolution 1300-1500.” In The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare: The Triumph of the West (Cambridge Illustrated Histories), edited by Geoffrey Parker, 106-120. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. 9th ed. Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Waldman, Thomas. War, Clausewitz and the Trinity. New York: Routledge, 2016.


  1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 9th ed., ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 595.
  2. von Clausewitz, On War, 595.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Geoffrey Parker, “The Gunpowder Revolution 1300-1500,” In The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare: The Triumph of the West (Cambridge Illustrated Histories), ed. Geoffrey Parker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 115.
  5. von Clausewitz, On War, 596.
  6. Ibid., 618.
  7. Williamson Murray, “Strategic Bombing: The British, American, and German Experiences,” in Military Innovation in the Interwar Period, ed. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 128.
  8. Murray, “Strategic Bombing,” 129.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. von Clausewitz, On War, 89.
  12. Carlos Guzmán, Óscar Barrionuevo, and Teresa Guarda, “The Validity and Influence of Clausewitz’s Trinity on the Development of Naval Power,” In Developments and Advances in Defense and Security: Proceedings of the Multidisciplinary International Conference of Research Applied to Defense and Security (MICRADS 2018), ed. Alvaro Rocha and Teresa Guarda (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018), 228.
  13. Thomas Waldman, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity (New York: Routledge, 2016), 8.
  14. von Clausewitz, On War, 86.
  15. Waldman, War, Clausewitz, 8.
  16. Guzmán, Barrionuevo, and Guarda, “The Validity and Influence,” 232.
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