Maneuver Self Study Program

Why this Topic Matters

Clausewitz identifies "danger, physical exertion, intelligence and friction as the elements that coalesce to form the atmosphere of war, and turn it into a medium that impedes activity."[9] This general friction makes military forces less effective in combat and his prescription is experience.[10] The U.S. Army's officer and NCO leaders have acquired considerable wartime experience since September 11th, 2001. This experience is unquestionably beneficial as the Army prepares for future conflicts and these leaders assume responsibilities at the operational and strategic levels. Those who know the hazards, confusion and complexity of war firsthand are more likely to effectively visualize, describe and direct their units towards mission success. However, leaders must place their experiences within the context of a broad understanding of war and warfare. Doing so will prevent them from assuming that experience in one conflict will necessarily translate into success in the next.

Furthermore, maneuver leaders should consider how their experiences in both conflict and peacetime training relate to the broad range of future contingencies. Consider, for example, how the 1991 Persian Gulf War informed our operational success early in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but was unhelpful in identifying and dealing with the problem of insurgency. Similarly, our approach to counterinsurgency in Iraq did not transfer directly to Afghanistan later in that war. Looking forward, how certain are we that targeted counterterrorist operations, uncoupled from other operations, can deliver our strategic objectives? Studying the nature of war and the character of warfare will help you place your experiences in context and develop your own understanding of the changes and the continuities of war.

Nature and Character of War and Warfare

"War is more than a mere chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity – composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity… ; of the play of chance and probability… ; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone."[1]

– Carl von Clausewitz in On War

War has an enduring nature that demonstrates four continuities: a political dimension, a human dimension, the existence of uncertainty and that it is a contest of wills.[2] Clausewitz, author of the most comprehensive theory of war, provided a description of war's enduring nature in the opening chapter of On War. He observed that all wars involve passion, often lying with the hostile feelings of the people, otherwise states would avoid war altogether by simply comparing their relative strengths in "a kind of war by algebra."[3] He emphasized wars' uncertainty, stating that war often "[resembles] a game of cards."[4] Finally, war is always a matter of policy, as "The political object…will thus determine both the military objective…and the amount of effort it requires," which is a rational process of directing hostile intent normally left to government.[5] While these continuities are present in all wars, every war exists within social, political and historical contexts, giving each war much of its unique character (e.g. levels of intensity, objectives, interactions with the enemy, etc.).[6]

Conversely, warfare has a constantly changing character. Although simply "the means by which war has to be fought," the influence of context is again paramount.[7] Technology has a significant influence on warfare, but other influences like doctrine and military organization are also important. Changes in the character of warfare may occur slowly over generations or quite rapidly. Additionally, these changes clearly affect the tactical art of employing units and weapons and, to a lesser extent, the operational art of linking military objectives to achieve strategic ones. Both continuities in the nature of war and the changes in the character of warfare influence strategy. The greater influence on strategy, as Clausewitz observes, comes from the nature and character of war because the "most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish…the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature."[8]

How to Approach this Topic

Fully studying the nature of war and the character of warfare requires historical and theoretical study. Historical provides exposure to the continuities and changes in war and warfare. First, study in width. To observe how warfare has developed over a long historical period. Next, study in depth. Study campaigns, and explore them thoroughly, consulting original sources and apply various theories and interdisciplinary approaches. "This is important," observed Sir Michael Howard, because as the "tidy outline dissolves," we catch a glimpse of the confusion and horror of real experience." And lastly study in context. Wars and warfare must be understood in context of their social, cultural, economic, human, moral, political, and psychological contexts because "the roots of victory and defeat have to be sought far from the battlefield."

Next, the study of classical theory will help mature your understanding of the continuities of war. A great place to begin is with Clausewitz's On War. Eisenhower read this treatise fully three times through, showing that it is simultaneously important and difficult to grasp.[11] Clausewitz formulated his theory by comparing dualisms, usually with contradictions between abstract and material concepts, resulting in ideas like the paradoxical trinity.[12] Following his logic normally requires using secondary works as guides. Christopher Bassford's essay "Clausewitz and his Works," particularly the section "On War," serves as a quick primer, while Peter Paret's introductory essay in his edited volume of On War provides more depth. The benefit of On War is greatest in the whole rather than its parts, but with regard to this subject, Book One is essential while Books Two and Eight are highly relevant.[13] After understanding his theory, begin exploring some of his individual themes and the distinctions between war and warfare through the articles presented below. To develop additional breadth beyond Clausewitz, read Bassford's "Jomini and Clausewitz: Their Interaction", Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Michael Handel's Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought. Though simpler to read than Clausewitz, Sun Tzu's work is equally susceptible to reduction. Handel's book and his essay "Sun Tzu and Clausewitz: The Art of War and On War Compared" provide useful comparisons of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu.

Finally, doctrine is less a guide to this subject than it is an opportunity for exercising critical thought about it. Doctrine traditionally prescribes how the Army expects to fight, so it usually relates to warfare, tactics and operations. The Marine Corps's MDCP 1-1 is an exception, as it aims to teach strategic thought directly, but as with Clausewitz it is more descriptive than prescriptive. Doctrine seeks to anticipate and account for future changes in warfare, so it is appropriate to critically evaluate recent doctrine in light of recent experiences. Compare, for example, how suitable FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency was for operations in Iraq versus Afghanistan, then consider its applicability for future conflicts. Finally, ADPs 1-0 and 3-0, the Army's two capstone documents, consider the probable range of future land operations through a variety of possible contexts for the next war. The maneuver leader should always critically evaluate doctrine, but when the doctrine is untested the best approach is to consider it through a developed understanding of the nature of war and the character of warfare.

[1]Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, ind. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 89.

[2]H.R. McMaster, "The Geopolitical Lessons of the Iraq War" (Comments, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, March 21, 2013).

[3]Ibid., 76.

[4]Ibid., 86.

[5]Ibid., 81.

[6]Ibid., 88.

[7]Ibid., 85.

[8]Clausewitz, On War, 88.

[9]Ibid., 122.

[10]Ibid., 122-123.

[11]Matheny, 53.

[12]Antulio Echevarria, Clausewitz and Contemporary War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 21.



  1. How do the Army's recent experiences demonstrate the difficulty of accounting for the continuities of war: the political dimension, the human dimension, uncertainty and that war is a contest of wills?
  2. What are some recent changes in warfare and how have they affected the military art at the tactical and operational levels?
  3. Consider the most probable scenarios for the Army in future conflict. How different are the potential social, political, cultural and technological contexts we might face?
  4. How well do recent doctrinal revisions consider the nature and character of war, and the changing character of warfare?
Nature and Character of War and Warfare Discussion Linkedin Page