by Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres

This article appeared in Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, in Autumn, 1995. Copyright Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres. It is reproduced here with the permission of Parameters. (The original Parameters PDF is HERE.) LTC Edward Villacres (USA) was a Middle East Historian assigned to the Department of History faculty at West Point, later (2006) serving as a Counterterrorism Strategist with the Joint Staff Strategic Plans and Policy Directorate (J5). He is a veteran of operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Christopher Bassford is, among other things, editor of The Clausewitz Homepage. His more recent thoughts about Clausewitz's Trinity can be found in the working paper, "Tiptoe Through the Trinity, or The Strange Persistance of Trinitarian Warfare."


Cover Illustration


Another View

The Meaning for Military Analysis



See also Christopher Bassford, "Teaching the Clausewitzian Trinity," tips and tools for teaching the capstone concept of Clausewitzian theory. [This is probably pretty dated from the standpont of 2020. See Bassford, "Tiptoe Through the Trinity: The Strange Persistence of Trinitarian Warfare," a working paper that is updated regularly.

Bassford's latest attempt at an accurate translation of Clausewitz's "trinity" discussion is here.)

In a recent Parameters article, "US Military Doctrine and the Revolution in Military Affairs" (Autumn 1994), Dr. David  Jablonsky made frequent reference to the theories of Carl von Clausewitz in order to illustrate points about strategy and doctrine. Jablonsky's discussion of his central subject demonstrated his usual flair and insight. On one particular point, however, his use of Clausewitz touched an ambiguity that is becoming troublesome to many students of the Prussian philosopher of war.

The problem appears in Jablonsky's discussion of "what Clausewitz had referred to as the `remarkable trinity': the military, the government, and the people."*1 There is a serious discrepancy between this definition of the "remarkable trinity" and the definition given by Clausewitz himself in On War: Clausewitz defines the components of the trinity as (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; (2) the play of chance and probability; and (3) war's element of subordination to rational policy.*2 By no means originating with Jablonsky, this discrepancy appears frequently in recent analyses, both those that enlist Clausewitz's support and those which attack the Prussian philosopher of war as benighted, evil, or simply irrelevant. In fact, the "remarkable" or "paradoxical" trinity*3 is one of the Clausewitzian concepts most frequently cited in all of recent military literature. Since interpretations of Clausewitz are a source of such extensive controversy, it seems important to differentiate between what Clausewitz actually said and other concepts of a trinity that are derived from—but not the same as—the "remarkable trinity" defined in On War.*4

Definition of the trinity as "people, army, and government" seems to have originated in Harry Summers's important and influential study, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982). This version of Clausewitz's concept was derived from a secondary discussion in which Clausewitz developed a linkage between his "remarkable trinity" of war (violent emotion, chance, and rational policy) and the social trinity of people, army, and government. It appears in the introduction to Summers's book: "The task of the military theorist, Clausewitz said, is to develop a theory that maintains a balance among what he calls a trinity of war—the people, the government, and the Army."*5 That definition is repeated in On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War: "Particularly apt was Clausewitz's emphasis on the `remarkable trinity' of the people, the government, and the army as the essential basis for military operations."*6 Using this concept of the trinity throughout both books with great success, Colonel Summers made it a valuable analytical tool. It is nonetheless an alteration of the concept as it is expressed in On War. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to the concept in this form as the "Summersian Trinity." It provides a wonderful example of the way in which thinkers in every era have effectively adapted Clausewitz's ideas to the peculiarities of the times. Unfortunately, such adaptations tend to have a counterproductive side effect: When times change, people remember the adaptations and forget the original, fundamental truth to which Clausewitz himself had pointed. The result is that Clausewitz is periodically declared obsolete.

The "people, army, government" interpretation of the trinity has caught on among both proponents of Clausewitz and his critics. It has, for example, been enshrined in U.S. Army doctrine. On the less positive side, the "people, army, government" construct has been used by authors like Martin van Creveld and John Keegan to consign Clausewitz to irrelevance.*7 These writers like to claim that this essentially social paradigm is obsolete and so, therefore, is all of Clausewitzian theory. The state, in this view, is rapidly becoming irrelevant to warmaking, and distinctions between the "people" and the "army" are meaningless when wars are in fact fought not between states but between armed and irrevocably hostile populations. Thus future war, to use van Creveld's term, will be "non-trinitarian."


The alternative way to define the composition of this "remarkable trinity" is to use the relevant passage in On War itself:

28. The Consequences for Theory

War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity—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.

The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.*8

Let us analyze this quotation in detail.

In arguing that war is more than a chameleon (an animal that merely changes color to match its surroundings, but otherwise remains identical), Clausewitz is saying that war is a phenomenon that, depending on conditions, can actually take on radically different forms. The basic sources of changes in those conditions lie in the elements of his "trinity."

Far from comprising "the people, the army, and the government," Clausewitz's trinity is really made up of three categories of forces: irrational forces (violent emotion, i.e., "primordial violence, hatred, and enmity"); non-rational forces (i.e., forces not the product of human thought or intent, such as "friction" and "the play of chance and probability"); and rationality (war's subordination to reason, "as an instrument of policy").*9

Clausewitz then connects each of those forces "mainly" to one of three sets of human actors: the people, the army, and the government:

1. The people are paired mainly with irrational forces—the emotions of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity (or, by implication, the lack thereof—clearly, it is quite possible to fight and even win wars about which one's people don't give a damn, especially if that is the case on both sides.)

2. The army (which refers, of course, to military forces in general) and its commander are paired mainly with the non-rational forces of friction, chance, and probability. Fighting organizations deal with those factors under the creative guidance of the commander (and creativity depends on something more than mere rationality, including, hopefully, the divine spark of talent or genius).

3. The government is paired mainly with the rational force of calculation—policy is, ideally, driven by reason. This corresponds to the famous argument that "war is an instrument of policy." Clausewitz knew perfectly well, however, that this ideal of rational policy is not always met: "That [policy] can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor there.... here we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community."*10

We stress the word "mainly"*11 because it is clear that each of the three categories that constitute the actual trinity affects all of these human actors to some quite variable extent. The army's officers and men and the political leaders are also, to varying degrees in different societies, members of "the people." In democratic societies, at least, the people are expected to play a role in rational decision making, whereas political leaders are as often driven by personal needs as by rational calculation of their societies' practical requirements. Events on the army's battlefields have a tremendous influence both on the people and on the political leadership, while popular and political factors, in turn, affect the army's performance.

Supertek LinkThus, when Clausewitz speaks of war as a "total phenomenon," he is not talking about war in the abstract ("absolute war"), nor about war "in theory." He is talking about real war, war as we actually experience it, and he is describing just why it is that war is so dynamic, so unpredictable, so kaleidoscopic in its appearance. The concluding simile in our excerpt from On War is a nearly exact analogy: Clausewitz is saying that theory must be, as war is, "like an object suspended among three magnets." He is referring to the observed scientific fact that such a pendulum, once set swinging among three centers of attraction, behaves in a nonlinear manner—it never establishes a repeating pattern. As it enters a phase of its arc in which it is more strongly affected by one force than the others, it gains a momentum which carries it on into zones where the other forces can begin to exert their powers more strongly. The actual path of the suspended object is never determined by one force alone but by the interaction between them, which is forever and unavoidably shifting.

The trinity also provides us with clues as to what Clausewitz meant by his famous phrase, "war is a continuation [fortsetzung] of politics by other means." This oft-quoted sentence contains two very different messages because of the dual meaning of the German word he used: Politik. That one word encompasses the two quite different English words "policy" and "politics." The policy aspects he discusses are those connected with the trinity's element of rational calculation. Politics, on the other hand, encompasses the whole trinity: Politics is a struggle for power between opposing forces—political events and outcomes are rarely if ever the product of any single actor's conscious intentions. Politics, as any intelligent watcher of the evening news soon realizes, is a chaotic process involving competing personalities (whose individual actions may indeed have a rational basis), chance and friction, and popular emotion. (Is the candidate's most brilliant speech blown off the airwaves by a natural disaster in the countryside? Will his embarrassing slip of the tongue get picked up by the evening news? Can a widespread "throw-the-bums out" mentality engulf even the most responsible politician?) The "remarkable trinity" is, in fact, Clausewitz's description of the psychological environment of politics, of which "war is a continuation." The only element of this political trinity that makes it unique to war is that the emotions discussed are those that might incline people to violence, whereas politics in general will involve the full range of human feelings. Thus Clausewitz tells us that the conscious conduct of war (strategy, etc.) should be a continuation of rational calculation and policy, but also that war inevitably originates and exists within the chaotic, unpredictable realm of politics.

The trinity metaphor, as given here, therefore serves to sum up much of Clausewitz's approach to war. In itself, however, Clausewitz's description of the interaction between the elements of the trinity leaves out the fact, strongly emphasized elsewhere in On War, that war is always an interaction between opposing groups. That is, this trinity exists on all sides of any conflict, thus further complicating the picture.

An approach to theory which denies or minimizes the role of any of these forces or the interaction between them is, therefore, by definition wrong. The soldier who expects the events of war to unfold in any other way—particularly in a rational, orderly way—is doomed to be surprised, disappointed, and frustrated as events keep forever spinning off on unpredictable trajectories.


Interpreting the meandering course of any real-world war as the product of a trinity of forces (emotion, chance, and rationality) is altogether different from discussing a trinity of actors (people, army, and government). The concept of the "remarkable trinity" is a basis for the practical political-military analysis of particular wars, not a description of the social structures—which may alter over time—that support war. There is, of course, a significant analytical benefit to be gained by noting the relationship between the people, army, and government—ignoring any of these elements or distorting their relationship will undermine any society's war effort—but this version of the trinity is derived from an illustration of Clausewitz's key concept, not the concept itself.

Therefore, the positive use of the "people, army, government" construct is valid and useful when it is employed by a Clausewitzian proponent like Harry Summers, but it by no means explores all of the important implications of the trinitarian concept. When, on the other hand, writers such as Martin van Creveld or John Keegan use the "people, army, government" construct in attempts to define and thus to marginalize Clausewitzian theory, the result is neither valid nor useful.*12

The latter point is true whether or not one accepts arguments that the state is becoming an irrelevant factor in modern war. There are, in fact, many arguments to be made in defense of the Summersian approach. In any conflict organized enough to be called war, there will be some kind of leadership organization, some group of fighters, some kind of population base—if not people, army, and government per se, then people, army, and government analogs. Regarding the alleged death of the state, a much stronger argument can be made that the Western-style "nation state" is in fact in the ascendancy world-wide: A great many of the conflicts we are seeing are in fact the struggles of ethnic nations to establish their own states on the ruins of the more traditional imperial states. (Writers like van Creveld and Keegan frequently confuse the terms "state" and "nation-state," two non-contiguous concepts.) This is clearly the case in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. The establishment of an independent Eritrea and a proto-Palestine offers rather different examples. There are in fact many weak states out there, but most of the successful low-intensity wars van Creveld cites have merely resulted in the replacement of such weak states by new and stronger states, and almost all of the warfare going on at present is between states and/or state-wannabees. As for the drug-war variant, note that Colombia effectively destroyed the Medellin Cartel when it ceased to be merely a criminal organization and sought to vie with the state for primacy. And let us remember that any warfare in which the United States engages is going to be "state warfare" on at least one side.

Further, Clausewitz's ideas are not nearly so time- and culture-bound as van Creveld and Keegan imply. The states of Clausewitz's era bore very little resemblance to either the United States or the two Vietnams of the 1960s, and yet the relevance of On War to their conflict is very clear; indeed, it was that conflict which brought Clausewitz to the fore in American military circles.

We can, however, quite easily disregard the whole issue of the state and simply analyze military-political events in terms of Clausewitz's original trinity of emotion, chance, and policy (or our reformulation of it: irrational, non-rational, and rational factors). Take for example the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. John Keegan claims that this is an entirely "apolitical" war, driven exclusively by irrational ethnic hatreds and fought by peoples, not armies.*13 Thus only one leg of Clausewitz's trinity is operative (the people if we accept the "people, army, government" paradigm; violent emotion if we take Clausewitz's own construction). But this is clearly nonsense. The Bosnian War is being fought by very conventional armies pursuing rational if extremely brutal political policies. These policies are aimed at the creation of new, independent, ethnic-based political entities—in other words, "nation-states," which Yugoslavia was not.*14

Let us look at Clausewitz's trinity as it has manifested itself in Serbia. The break-up of Yugoslavia was driven by the needs of politicians like Slobodan Milosevic to find a new basis of legitimacy for their continuance in power. With Marxism dead, there was not much to turn to except ethnic identification, a violent emotion always latent in the Balkan peoples. Milosevic very sensibly—rationally—grabbed that powerful handle. This was a very successful approach for Milosevic in Serbia itself. He sustained it as long as he could do so profitably. Emotions got out of hand, however, and the pendulum moved into the irrational zone. When Bosnian Serb atrocities and intransigence provoked the international community into actions which genuinely threatened his political future, Milosevic's government altered its policies. Cut off from Serbian governmental support, the Bosnian Serb army became in essence an independent force; the pendulum was now in the zone of military chance, probability, and talent. The army's unexpectedly successful response to a Muslim counteroffensive, without Milosevic's guidance or assistance, put its leaders (Radovan Karadzik and Ratko Mladic) in the driver's seat. The pendulum will no doubt drift further before this article gets into print.

The Bosnian War has come to involve a huge number of players. Some of them are states, many are non- or sub-state actors, others are supranational organizations. Trying to describe each player as a unit made up of "people, army, and government" would be a very dubious enterprise. No matter how we tally up the players, however, the forces of Clausewitz's original trinity are clearly at work, and in exactly the dynamic manner he described.

Herein lies the great value of the "trinitarian" approach to war. Exclusively rational models cannot account for the willingness of peoples to plunge their societies into the nightmarish chaos of war. One-dimensional "cultural" explanations like Keegan's miss the dynamic impact of calculating (if often stupid or self-centered) leaders. Technological models (and most discussions of "future war," RMA, etc., are heavily if not exclusively technology-driven) cannot describe the real wars which we have already experienced in the post-Cold War era. The courses of these wars have in fact been driven, not by technology (which remains essentially a tool), but by the complex interplay among opposing sets of popular emotions, military skills, and political calculations.

Political-military analysis, which should precede any attempt to make strategy, has to be based on the real, if messy (or, more properly, nonlinear), factors that Clausewitz describes.


Many readers find Clausewitzian theory to be frustratingly complex. The standard which Clausewitz set for satisfactory theory is, however, difficult to argue with: that it not conflict with reality. A theory that accurately depicts the complexities of war is thus necessarily complex (which is not to say that every complex theory is necessarily correct). It is also important to note that Clausewitz saw his theory as a basis for study, not as doctrine.

Despite the oft-noted fact that On War is an unfinished work, the ideas Clausewitz expressed in it are remarkably well integrated. If we pick up and follow any one major thread of his argument, we will eventually find it firmly connected to each of the other key ideas. It would be a mistake, therefore, to approach the trinity concept as a discrete, bite-sized nugget of wisdom that can somehow be extracted from the larger work. The trinity establishes a dialectical relationship between the dominant tendencies of war that are revealed by analysis in the rest of the book; it combines the elements that make war such a complex phenomenon. One can identify all of Clausewitz's most profound insights with one or another element of the trinity. The component dealing with violence and emotion (irrational forces) relates directly to his discussion of moral forces in war and the proposition that war is distinguished from other forms of human interaction by its resort to organized violence. The component dealing with chance and probability (non­rational forces) reflects his ideas about the role of military genius and the creative spirit in dealing with the fog and friction of war; operational ideas like the "center of gravity"*15 also relate to this aspect of the trinity. The component dealing with war's subordination to policy (rational forces) relates to his ideas about the relationship between ends and means, war as the continuation of policy, and the dichotomy between "real war" (whether limited or unlimited) and "absolute war." Thus we can see that, in this one, briefly described concept, Clausewitz unified many of the ideas he developed over thirty-plus years of studying the nature of war: It represents his thinking at its most mature and sophisticated level. Clausewitz subtitled the section where he introduces the concept as "The Consequences for Theory," and it is the last section of Chapter One, Book One, the only part of the book Clausewitz considered finished (and probably the last part he wrote before he died). The trinity is therefore best understood as the theoretical capstone of Clausewitz's entire work. A thoughtful reading of the relevant passage in On War, combined with a willingness to integrate the points made there with the rest of the philosopher's argument, will make this clear. It is the trinity's capacity to encompass so much of the nature of war, and so much of Clausewitzian theory, that makes it such a valuable, if complex, analytical tool.

To reduce the original trinitarian concept to an allegedly obsolete social paradigm of "people, army, and government," as Clausewitz's recent critics have done, is not merely an oversimplification and a distortion of its meaning: It is fundamentally missing the point of this great body of military theory. It would be a tragic mistake to accept the consequences of that error. Our military educators' often annoying fixation on Clausewitz's work has brought a much-needed professional sophistication to the thinking of America's military institutions in the generation since Vietnam, and there is nothing better on the horizon.*16


1. David Jablonsky, "US Military Doctrine and the Revolution in Military Affairs," Parameters, Autumn 1994, pp. 18-36. Jablonsky also uses the trinity, very effectively but in much the same manner, as the basis for the whole 59-page introduction to his book, Churchill and Hitler: Essays on the Political-Military Direction of Total War (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1994).

2. Admittedly, this distinction does not contradict the main thrust of Jablonsky's article about the "Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA)," but our intent here is to clarify the source of the concept that Jablonsky attributed to Clausewitz and invoked to put the RMA into a societal context.

3. Translations of the original German phrase, wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit, differ significantly: remarkable, paradoxical, strange. "Marvelous" or "fascinating" might best capture Clausewitz's meaning.

4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds./trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

5. Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982), pp. 26-27.

6. Harry G. Summers, Jr. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the Gulf War (New York: Dell, 1992), p. 11.

7. See Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991); John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Knopf, 1993). See also Steven Metz, "A Wake for Clausewitz: Toward a Philosophy of 21st-Century Warfare," Parameters, Winter 1994-95, pp. 126-132.

8. Clausewitz, On War, p. 89.

9. This breakdown of Clausewitz's trinity into "rational, non-rational, and irrational forces" appeals to us because it seems to represent a symmetrical and all-inclusive approach to reality. It is also, at least potentially, a distortion of Clausewitz's argument. Concerning this specific approach, West Point professor Tony Echevarria says "[Bassford's] own interpretation of Clausewitz's understanding of the relationship between war and politics ..., while accurate, betrays a decidedly contemporary political-scientific framework of analysis—one which the nineteenth century philosopher of war would not have had available to him." Antulio J. Echevarria, draft review of Clausewitz in English submitted to Armed Forces and Society.

10. Clausewitz, On War, p. 606.

11. It reads "mehr ... zugewendet" in the original German.

12. But then, neither van Creveld nor Keegan are really interested in advertising (or, in Keegan's case, even in comprehending) the actual character of Clausewitz's ideas. Van Creveld, who in 1986 authored an article entitled "The Eternal Clausewitz," in Michael Handel, ed., Clausewitz and Modern Strategy (London: Frank Cass, 1986), pp.35-50, has come to regard Clausewitz as a competitor whose influence has to be diminished; the depth of his actual understanding of On War varies greatly. Keegan's problems with Clausewitz are explored in Christopher Bassford's article "John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz," War in History, November 1994, pp.319-336.

13. Keegan, Warfare, p. 58.

14. There was, however, some reason to hope that a Yugoslav nationality could be created in the future, much as a French nationality was created in the later Middle Ages.

15. The concept of an operational or strategic "center of gravity" is in essence a probabilistic tool to reduce the inevitable complexities and swirling uncertainties of war to a manageable level. Maintaining our focus on a small number of key factors (preferably just one) does not reduce the "fog of war," it simply makes it less distracting. Identifying those factors, as anyone who has tried it soon learns, is a creative rather than a purely rational process.

16. Certainly not in Keegan's or van Creveld's work, nor even in the very useful writings of Alvin and Heidi Toffler. That fact stands out even in a recent attempt to substitute those writers for Clausewitz and to bury the Prussian philosopher: Steven Metz, "A Wake for Clausewitz," Parameters, Winter 1994-95, pp.126-132. As Metz correctly notes, there is virtually nothing in Keegan's book that is of any relevance for real-world policies, programs, or strategies. The Tofflers acknowledge that their vision of a "Third Wave" provides only an additional overlay—not a replacement—for the existing world; Metz points out (not entirely accurately) that they say very little about the strategic, political, social, or psychological elements of war, precisely the areas in which Clausewitz excels. In fact, the only writer that Metz describes as truly grappling with the key new problems of war, Ralph Peters, is himself a fervent proponent for the study of Clausewitz.


Return to top