Clausewitz’s Remarkable Trinity Today

Clausewitzian[1] concepts, although interlinked vary while many of them are very controversial. Perhaps the most controversial one is the “Remarkable/Paradoxical Trinity”. As Clausewitz himself puts it, the “paradoxical trinity” is “composed of primordial violence, hatred and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone”.[2] He then wrote that the above “three aspects”, concern “mainly” (emphasis added) “the people”, the commander and his army” and the “government”, respectively.[3]

The latter simplification was used by Harry Summers in his two books, “On Strategy”, about the Vietnam War[4] and the First Gulf War[5] as a framework for strategic analysis. Other authors such as Mary Kaldor and John Keegan argued that the nature of warfare has changed and that the Trinitarian analysis is therefore, nowadays, irrelevant.[6] Specifically they argue that there is not anymore a separation between the society and the military as well as that wars are being fought by non-state actors, and therefore actors without governments.

With Summers’ analysis as a starting point, the Clausewitzian Trinity has gradually become oversimplified and has unfortunately come to be misunderstood. Even though Summers’ book and its utility of the Trinity has been very helpful in the strategic analysis of the Vietnam and the Gulf War, it has at the same time established a narrow understanding of the Trinity thus leading many authors and scholars to its misinterpretation and negligence of its relevance in today’s strategic analysis.

As said above, the Trinity, through the “government, military, people” logic, has been oversimplified. It is obvious that Clausewitz’s initial explanation was much more complicated and included more than the simplified model of “Summers’ Trinity”. It is very important to be noted that Clausewitz, in describing war and its relation with the Trinity, referred to chameleon, an animal that adapts to its environment but remains nonetheless the same.[7] Furthermore, the “spirit” of the Trinity is also about the complex social and psychological dynamics of war as well as other Clausewitzian notions like “friction”[8] and “genius”.[9]

In this light, Kaldor, Keegan and like-minded authors are mistaken when they explain contemporary – mainly intrastate – wars using the simplified “government, military, people” Trinity, thus being led to its irrelevance. Insurgency movements, terrorist groups/networks, or any other kind of combatant non-state group (e.g. ethnic or religious) still has all three elements of the Clausewitzian Trinity: some kind of leadership (government), combatants (military), and definitely popular support (the people). In addition, we should not forget that many of these groups are fighting to establish a state of their own. They may be unconventional, non-state, actors but they have everything they need to build a functioning state and that is what they are fighting for. Such examples could be seen in the Balkans where many ethnic groups fought (some of them still fighting) for a state of their own, while a good example of a non-state actor with clear military and leadership administration is the Hezbollah organization in Lebanon.

Conclusively, it is clear that Clausewitz and especially his “Remarkable Trinity” remains relevant even today. That is because the Trinity, as one of Clausewitz’s concepts, reflects its author’s deep knowledge and understanding of the individual and social dynamics, as well as the complexities of the political and military realities, which go beyond simplified interpretive models.

[1] Clausewitz (1780-1831) has been one of the most influential theorists of war, strategy, and beyond. For more information about his life and his work see
[2] Clausewitz v. C., On War, Howard, M. and Paret, P. (trans.), Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1976/1984, p.89.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Summers, G. H., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis on the Vietnam War, Presidio Press, Novato, CA, 1982/1995.
[5] Summers, G. H., On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis on the Gulf War, Dell, 1992.
[6] See for example Kaldor, M., New & Old Wars, Polity Press, 2006, p.15-25; and Keegan, J., A History of Warfare, Hutchinson, London, 1993.
[7] Clausewitz, p.89.
[8] Clausewitz, p.119-121.

[9] Ibid., p.100-112.

Zenonas Tziarras, “Clausewitz’s Remarkable Trinity Today”, The GW Post (, 09/11/2011. 


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