Clausewitz's contribution to the art of warfare is well established. In this treatise, On War (Clausewitz,1989), he set forth his various views on how modern warfare should be conducted. Although the treatise is not always easy to read or understand, the concepts contained therein remain applicable today. The criticisms of Clausewitz's approach are numerable and his views have been debated vigorously since they were first published. Yet, Clausewitz's theories retain their validity nearly two centuries after they were first proposed.
Before examining the validity of Clausewitz's theories it must be remembered that the era in which his theories were formalized is significantly different than the era in which the Korean War occurred. For example, Clausewitz never envisioned a weapon as powerful as an atomic bomb. The atomic bomb created methods of warfare radically different from those considered by Clausewitz and any analysis of his theories must be balanced against the use of atomic weaponry. Clausewitz also never had to consider the effect of modern air warfare. This factor is less altering than the atomic bomb but it still must be considered as significant. Finally, Clausewitz organized his theories in an era when politics and diplomacy were much different. Clausewitz developed his concept of warfare in a Europe that was still largely monarchial and not governed by the democratic form that is prevalent today. The change to democratic rule resulted in dramatic alterations in how decisions were made both politically and militarily. Such change was not contemplated by Clausewitz in formulating his theory.
Clausewitz did not look at war as if it took place in vacuum. He understood that politics remained a concern even once war started and war was just a tool used by politicians in their attempts to effectuate their diplomatic pursuits. War was, in Clausewitz's view, the politician's ultimate trump card.
Criticisms of Clausewitz's Viewpoints
One of the major criticisms of Clausewitz's theory is what some feel is his argument that war must be total. Clausewitz does claim that "the fighting force must destroyed, that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the fight" but this does not necessarily mean that the enemy's army must be physically destructed, but rather, that they must be placed in a position where they can no longer fight. This would be what Clausewitz defines as the culminating point of victory. It is when "The point in that case being not to improve the current military position, but to improve one's general prospects in the war and in the peace negotiations. In fact, Clausewitz actually argues that destroying one's enemy physically can damage the political objectives that caused the war.
Because wars are the function of political policies and goals, the goals of the war should be consistent with the same policies and goals. Clausewitz believed, therefore, that the stronger the relationship between a nation's military leaders and the government, the more effective the military leaders will be in ensuring that the military operations result in achieving the political goals. The ability of the military and political leaders to exchange their respective views on how the war should be conducted and what the objectives of the war are determine how closely their respective goals will be achieved.
The Korean War is an interesting conflict in terms of the application of Clausewitz's theory. The United States' position, both from a political and military perspective, was never clearly defined (Cohen,1990: 165-195). This brings into question the relevance of Clausewitz's theory. Americans had seen in the waning days of the Second World War that they had the means to completely annihilate an enemy through the use of the atomic bomb but that the old goals of defending and protecting a nation required the same methods of warfare that had been largely in existence since the days of the Roman Empire.
From the beginning of the Korean War until the final days when an armistice was ultimately signed the United States was never sure what its true mission was in Korea (Brodie, 1973: pp.57-112). Conflicts existed between the country's military leaders and its political leaders as to what the goals of the effort were to be and how the war was to be fought. This discrepancy was in direct conflict with Clausewitz's belief that the military and political leaders must agree with how and why a war is being waged. Based on Clausewitz's concept of war, the American effort in Korea was doomed from the very beginning.
This policy of containment was not popular among America's military leaders. Coming off the end of the Second World War the military wanted to take a much more aggressive approach to the conflict in Korea even to the extent of using atomic weapons (Memorandum of State, 1953). This was not meant to be and this became even clearer once China entered the conflict on behalf of the North Koreans. Once this occurred there was never a chance that the U.S. would adopt anything but a policy of containment. This is a position that Clausewitz would never have advocated.
Culmination Points in Attack and Victory
Clausewitz's theories of war were developed in a time when wars were not fought over political and ideological principles but were based on territorial and relationship issues. In war victory was determined by bringing your enemy to his knees. The Korean War, however, was an entire new form of war. Victory was determined by obtaining a political advantage and not through a clear military victory.
This difference in defining victory changes the parameters in considering the culmination points identified by Clausewitz. As the Korean War, with limited exceptions, was not a series of battles like past American war engagements, Clausewitz's theories surrounding attack strategies had little application. Deciding whether to go forward with the attack is no longer based on military strength considerations, but rather, based upon the political considerations involved. Military leaders must make war time decisions based upon what the political policies are and not based upon how to defeat the enemy militarily. In such types of warfare establishing defensive positions becomes more important. Forcing the opposition, however, to the point of culmination is important in that it forces him to the negotiating table. In Korea, the American strategy essentially forced the North Korean regime to the bargaining table for two years of negotiations.
The one glaring exception in the Korean War where Clausewitz's culmination point of attack theory was applied successfully was early in the War when the North Koreans drove deep into South Korea. General MacArthur, leader of the UN forces, realizing that the North Korean forces were overextended, conducted a surprise amphibious landing behind the North Korean lines. MacArthur's actions forced the North Koreans to withdraw behind the 38th parallel where they largely remained for the duration of the War.
Following MacArthur's actions, the United States' culmination point of victory changed substantially. Recognizing how closely they came to a possible total defeat and the fact that the Chinese had entered the War, American political leaders adopted a position of containment and never seriously considered obtaining a total victory. Victory from that point forward was to be determined on a political basis and not on a military basis.
America's True Policy in Korea
From a policy point-of-view, America's political leaders began the Korean War with the basic assumption that the Soviet Union was behind the disputes taking place in Korea and refused to believe that what was occurring was more simply a dispute between two confliction political philosophies represented by North and South Korea. North Korea was dominated politically by the Communists while South Korea was, theoretically at least, presumed to interested in establishing a democratic form of government. The United States was so convinced that the Soviet Union was behind the conflict that they failed to consider any other point-of-view. The U.S. goal was to control the growth of Communism and for most of the time that the U.S. forces were in Korea and other areas of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, this focus caused the American political leaders to operate with blinders on that did not allow them to see the whole picture.
Contributing to the fact that the United States' policy makers did not view the Korean conflict as a legitimate internal dispute among the Korean people was the fact that these same policy makers believed that the Korean conflict was a diversion by the Soviet Union. American leaders believed that the Soviet Union's true target was Europe and that eventually the Soviets would commence a military conquest directed toward Western Germany and France. In response, the United States built up its troops in Western Europe to levels equal to those present in Korea at the high of the conflict.
The military, meanwhile, were frustrated by the lack of commitment by the American political leaders to the war effort in Korea. The American military coming off their victory in Europe and Japan in the Second…