Clausewitz on the Intelligence Process

Few people have ever really read Clausewitz masterpiece "On War," but a lot of people like to speak of him in a dismissive way.  He is often referred to as an advocate of the use of brute force involving mass conscripted armies, victory by attrition and many other concepts to which he was completely opposed.

In fact he was a humanist philosopher who had twenty years experience of war against Napoleon (the god of War).

He has left us this little chapter on what he called "Information in War" (intelligence).  The events of recent years and some of the remarks directed to this space indicate to me that we would all benefit by a close reading of his words here.

Pat Lang

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18 Responses to Clausewitz on the Intelligence Process

  1. ckrantz says:

    Included an enlightening section below. Seems to be very relevant today for both decisionmakers and regular people interested in news.
    Great part of the information obtained in War is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character. What is required of an officer is a certain power of discrimination, which only knowledge of men and things and good judgment can give. The law of probability must be his guide. This is not a trifling difficulty even in respect of the first plans, which can be formed in the chamber outside the real sphere of War, but it is enormously increased when in the thick of War itself one report follows hard upon the heels of another; it is then fortunate if these reports in contradicting each other show a certain balance of probability, and thus themselves call forth a scrutiny. It is much worse for the inexperienced when accident does not render him this service, but one report supports another, confirms it, magnifies it, finishes off the picture with fresh touches of colour, until necessity in urgent haste forces from us a resolution which will soon be discovered to be folly, all those reports having been lies, exaggerations, errors, &c. &c. In a few words, most reports are false, and the timidity of men acts as a multiplier of lies and untruths.

  2. McGee says:

    Nice and timely reminder on Clausewitz – read him in the original German years ago and had the same regard for him then that you do – reminded me of own (far distant) army intel days when we rated any new info we received thusly:
    #1) reliability of source (A thru F as I recall)
    #2) credibility of info (1 thru 6)
    Using these guidelines much of the intel that we went to war in Iraq on would have been rated D-3 (aluminum tubes) to F-6 (curveball) and for the most part filed and disregarded….

  3. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Yup. the old boy did know his stuff. Maybe we could start some sort of discussion on him in an open thread?
    Did we ever serve together?

  4. McGee says:

    Hi Colonel,
    Thanks for your kind note back. Don’t think we ever met – I was just a lowly 97B ducking beer mugs around Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern in the late 60’s – think you were in ‘Nam at the time. Got my discharge in country and spent four years at a university there studying 19th & 20th Century German history and of course Clausewitz played a significant role. Would have to read up a bit before attempting any informed comment at this stage, but always game for an excuse to revisit old studies…
    Best regards,
    John McGrath

  5. W. Patrick Lang says:

    There is nothing lowly about any soldier.
    I am groping with the idea of starting such a discussion here once I finish posting my novel.
    Maybe a chapter a week?

  6. john says:

    “One of the surest ways of forming good combinations in war would be to order movements only after obtaining perfect information of the enemy’s proceedings. In fact, how can any man say what he should do himself, if he is ignorant what his adversary is about? As it is unquestionably of the highest importance to gain this information, so it is a thing of the utmost difficulty, not to say impossibility; and this is one of the chief causes of the great difference between the theory and the practice of war” (“The Art of War,” Jomini, Pg 269).
    The ‘fog of war’ should not precede the war. Unevaluated intelligence is useless information for every action from the strategic decision to the tactical manuever. Good topic.

  7. Norbert Schulz says:

    It just came to me that the neocon’s flaw is not that their thinking is illogical – but that they start thinking with preoccupations in mind.
    They take for granted that say Iraq’s or Iran’s every move is expression if their identified hostility towards the U.S. and after that, consequently expect ulterior motives and deception. That might be good as a Team C approach, but for everyday use it’s a formula for paranoia and excess.
    My problem these days is my lack of access to good information.
    After the big disinfo/ agitprop spectacle of the ‘liberation’ of Iraq, neo-con and U.S. administration credibility is near zero, so I reflexively doubt and call into question whatever they say – which puts me in a very neo-connish position – even worse, it has worked disappointingly well.
    I find it very hard to keep my mind open for that there might be a threat from Iran, or that for a change the Bush crew does shoot straight.
    In regard of the NPT, I feel more sympathy for Iran over this issue as they, for now, do have the treaty on their side, the character of Ahmadinejad and the mad mullahs put aside.
    All the while I do see that Iran has both a need for nuclear energy, and incentives for building a nuke.
    I try as an antidote stuff like your analyses PL, or reports from guys like Jeffery Records or Anthony Cordesmann – because of the access you and these folks have to relevant information, and because of you being objective. It helps somewhat.

  8. jonst says:

    Pl, and John, if you will, a question (actually a few) about “intelligence” and how to deal with its absence. “Intelligence” in this sense as in “intelligence gathering” or “intelligence analysis”.
    I understand PL that this neither the place, nor do you have the time, to go into any great depth on Shia-Sunni relations. Yet I have to say I was struck by yours and Larry Johnson’s assertion (which I have no doubts is accurate enough…as far as it goes) that there is active cooperation, in operations, between Al Qaeda and Iran. A series of questions arises out of this. At least for me:
    1. Are you implying that Iran and Al Qaeda are cooperating inside Iraq? This would seem astounding to me. (but not unprecedented. See numerous alliances in the Lebanon Civil War. Especially in the late 70s early 80s)
    2. What do we, you, mean—what SHOULD we mean—when we employ terms like Al Qaeda and Iran in the Iraqi context? Are we talking about the entire Iranian govt? Or are we only speaking about elements within, or controlled by, the The Revolutionary Council in 1979? Should we assume that the Pasdaran is one thing…but the regular military, the Artesh I believe, is something else, and the latter’s interests might not be exactly the same as the former’s interests?
    3. It seems, as I noted, astounding that the units who MAY HAVE blown up the Golden Dome have gained the cooperation, in country, of the Iranians. I know, I know, it may well have been ex-Iraqi military (although I suspect they might consider themselves present Iraqi military)..but Al Qaeda claimed responsibility on a web site that they have posted to, in an authoritative manner, in the past. To the extent that has any meaning.
    4. All this, as I pointed out above, is bringing flashbacks of Lebanon’s Civil War. I always wanted to create a huge chart, the kind the Jesuits used to employ, and perhaps still do, in their pedantic efforts. And then draw all the parties and players in the war with lines chronicling their shifting alliances. I pictured this huge board with crisscrossing (double crossing!) lines drawn everywhere and in every direction. A true example of Bellum omnium, contra omnes!
    My point to this long digression is, how the hell do we operate in an area like this? What is the governing principle from an intelligence perspective, as VC employs the term in his chapter you posted? The “impression of the senses” in this environment is simply utter chaos, I would argue. Meaning is not possible, except that is, unless one lurches, blindly, into it. And in this case “Firm reliance on self…”, the “self” in this case, as used in this essay means, I take it, “the Chief”; is how we got into this bloody and awful mess to begin with. I guess that’s my way of saying I sure hope Bush has not read this Chapter. I’m pretty confident there is little chance of that. Now, Cheney, on the other hand, I have my worries there.

  9. Curious says:

    It just came to me that the neocon’s flaw is not that their thinking is illogical – but that they start thinking with preoccupations in mind.
    Posted by: Norbert Schulz | 04 March 2006 at 12:05 PM
    The neocon didn’t know what al qaeda is. They think al qaeda is just bunch of afghanis peasants bent on blowing up stuff, instead of trans-national loose organisation capable of screwing up their Iraq plan.
    The neocon plan in Iraq is pretty clear. Remove Saddam and instal friendly dictator. (reduce Israel primary/biggest threat, and we get to control huge chunks of oil supply.)
    Hence all the ‘happy’ talk and the enormous pre invasion hubris. Seen on paper, we can take out Saddam in less then 5 days and instal our bastard… mission accomplished. easy.
    If I have to predict hwo this all will unfold.
    – Al qaeda will succesfully polarize Iraq society and create continuous ethnic clash. By next year they will control all country sides and smaller river cities. I’ll give it 2 year before we start losing control of Baghdad.
    – Iran and Syria will go in, They have to. The chaos in Iraq forces them to enter Iraq or the fight will reach their borders. They might as well start supporting the friendliest groups in Iraq. (while hurting Bush at the same time.)
    – We are going to run out of money in less than 3 years. Unless there is radical change in strategy and leadership, current budget is not sustainable. (another Katrina? another oil spike? an international monetary spike?) $60-90B a year with 6%+ deficit/GDP?

  10. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I said that Shia and Sunni zealot groups have cooperated against kuffar in various places and circumstances. I do not think the names of the groups are particularly important.
    As to how you conduct analyses in cultural contexts like this, you have to have the best brains available, not someone just sitting in the job.
    The analysts must know a great deal about goeography, history, religion, language, ethnography, politics, etc of the subject context. Based on that knowledge and a first class brain, this person will be able to “make an informed call (to quote Norbert). What you don’t need are political scientists or International relations people. They typically don’t know much.
    If an analyst fails to get it right, fire him. If the next one fails to get it right, fire him too. Eventually you will find people with talent for the work. I always did. I had A Teams, B Teams and C Teams. The ATeam people did the important work. the others did donkey work. People resent that, but their pain is not what is important. Correct analysis is what is important.
    Most people have no idea what intelligence analysis is because they want to think that an analyst’s opnion should not be a factor. Rubbish. If you want compilers of data or “builders of cases,” get a computer and a few graduate interns. you will save money.

  11. McGee says:

    Another victim of a Jesuit education? How about “omnia Babylonia in futurum in tres partes divisus velle”? I’m sure Colonel Lang will respond in detail, but I’d just add that I doubt that Clausewitz would have advised operating at all in a theater with such poor and unreliable intel. As regards your quite valid Lebanon comparison, even Reagan was bright enugh to get the Marines out of there….

  12. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I thought it was Gaul.
    Clausewitz would have done better and the officer corps crafted by him, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau always did do better.

  13. jonst says:

    LOL…only one year, at Fordham. You got my point. Its chaos. You want to operate in chaos,fine, so long as you do so understanding you are flying blind. The problem with getting the “best brains” to do this stuff is the “best brains” are usually smart enough to see that not only is their advice NOT welcomed, they will be punished for offering it. This was Kevin Phillips point (theory) in American Dynasty. Bush rebelled against the “New England elite”, where he came from and who he was, by purposefully ‘dumbing’ himself down. He has a total distain for anything academic. It’s a rather problematic concept for an intelligence unit to grasp I imagine.

  14. Norbert Schulz says:

    The neo-con didn’t know what al qaeda is … The neo-con plan in Iraq is pretty clear. Remove Saddam and instal friendly dictator.
    Yep. I see them as the last vanguard of the cold warriors. They view everything through the cold war prism. Non state actors don’t fit in. They focus on ‘rogue states’ in their GWOT not because they are easier to hit, they are not THAT dumb, but instead because they have difficulty grasping that there are non-state-actors with non-state-coals. They don’t fit in their grandiose geostrategical concept of benevolent U.S. hegemony over the benighted rest of the world’s nations.
    They didn’t recognise, and some probably still don’t, that after the end of the cold war the U.S did not so much win, but that the rest of the world was slow in realising the changes and to change accordingly. Everybody took U.S. dominance for granted. Iraq demonstrated that this perception was incorrect. What we now see is IMO the painful and late re-adjustment of the world to these realities, power vacuums that falsely appeared to be covered by U.S. influence are to be filled.
    Their view on the Israeli problem, as expressed in ‘A clean break’, reflects that. In the Middle East they always found their state-actor. Hezbollah can be seen a proxy of Iran, militia B is a proxy of Syria, militia C is a proxy for Israel, etc. The Taliban were in their eyes a U.S. and perhaps Pakistani proxy against Russia and that’s about it. They probably even see Al Quaeda as a proxy of Saudi Arabia. Thus their enthusiasm for the plan to reshape the middle East by simply (good one) regime changing all state actors, and – abracadabra – all the evil non state actors disappear because their patrons are gone. Sounds like Private Baldrick (from Black Adder in WW I) to me: ‘I have a cunning plan ….’
    In that sense, they do fight the last war, with ferocity. And their utter ignorance of the Middle East is by them seen as a strength and not as a weakness (moral clarity – that is, uncorrupted by any understanding those dreaded ‘Arabists’ have). Well, I hope Iraq teached them (but I doubt it).
    “Cynic: A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom amongst the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eye to improve his vision.”, (Ambrose Bierce)
    The neo-cons are in fact Scythians.

  15. john says:

    You asked: Pl, and John, if you will, a question (actually a few) about “intelligence” and how to deal with its absence. “Intelligence” in this sense as in “intelligence gathering” or “intelligence analysis”.
    The good Colonel’s response was right on the money as usual, although, I did grimace when I read the part about A, B, and C teams. The Army tends to prostitute the diligent and reward the inept—if you let it get away with it. Intelligence is ‘intelligence gathering’ and ‘intelligence analysis’ and processing and disseminating and evaluating and, importantly, responding to the information requirements of the people making the decisions. And that is the bottom line, providing accurate information, knowns and unknowns, so someone can make an informed decision and have some idea of the potential consequences. The absence of intelligence poses a couple of problems beyond not knowing, irrespective of the reason—no assets, capability, or priority ( a matter of the allocation of resources and national will). Decision makers want information and not excuses, and the combination of ego and/or subtle or blatant pressure may tempt the information provider into overstating the available intelligence. This is where the Colonel would step in, make the correction, and fire the guy. Effective leadership is crucial in avoiding both pitfalls. I think that is the point that Clausewitz and Jomini make. The man or woman making the decision occupy a lonely position and must be able to balance the theoretical/ideological and the realistic/practical considerations when setting events in motion.
    Having said all of that, the old adage comes to mind: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Except the koolaid. From the press reports over the past several years, I can only surmise that our national leadership engaged in selective hearing and wishful thinking. As for the neocons, some smart fellows populate that group. I think we have just seen the tip of that iceberg—a grave absence of intelligence.

  16. W. Patrick Lang says:

    Civil service rules did not allow me to actually fire people most of the time, so “firing” meant moving people to jobs where they would not do much damage. pl

  17. john says:

    I stand corrected. Civil service–can’t fire them, can’t make them work. Promote them to the level of their competence (up and out), or just move them.
    I have recollections of the difficulties involved in ‘firing someone’.

  18. jonst says:

    Thank you, and PL, for you thoughtful…and helpful, insights. I must, respectfully, take issue with you John, on one point you noted. You wrote: “From the press reports over the past several years, I can only surmise that our national leadership engaged in selective hearing and wishful thinking.” That glosses over their maliciousness, greed, and corruption. It makes it appear, at least to this observer, as if they were dummies. Instead of the corporate criminals they are: pushing an ideological, and financial, agenda that they brought with them long before they ever saw or heard any intelligence briefings.
    Just may take of course.

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