On the military virtue of an army.

Military Virtue of an Army

This is distinguished from mere bravery, and still more from enthusiasm for the business of War. The first is certainly a necessary constituent part of it, but in the same way as bravery, which is a natural gift in some men, may arise in a soldier as a part of an Army from habit and custom, so with him it must also have a different direction from that which it has with others. It must lose that impulse to unbridled activity and exercise of force which is its characteristic in the individual, and submit itself to demands of a higher kind, to obedience, order, rule, and method. Enthusiasm for the profession gives life and greater fire to the military virtue of an Army, but does not necessarily constitute a part of it.

War is a special business, and however general its relations may be, and even if all the male population of a country, capable of bearing arms, exercise this calling, still it always continues to be different and separate from the other pursuits which occupy the life of man.—To be imbued with a sense of the spirit and nature of this business, to make use of, to rouse, to assimilate into the system the powers which should be active in it, to penetrate completely into the nature of the business with the understanding, through exercise to gain confidence and expertness in it, to be completely given up to it, to pass out of the man into the part which it is assigned to us to play in War, that is the military virtue of an Army in the individual.

However much pains may be taken to combine the soldier and the citizen in one and the same individual, whatever may be done to nationalise Wars, and however much we may imagine times have changed since the days of the old Condottieri, never will it be possible to do away with the individuality of the business; and if that cannot be done, then those who belong to it, as long as they belong to it, will always look upon themselves as a kind of guild, in the regulations, laws and customs in which the “Spirit of War” by preference finds its expression. And so it is in fact. Even with the most decided inclination to look at War from the highest point of view, it would be very wrong to look down upon this corporate spirit (esprit de corps) which may and should exist more or less in every Army. This corporate spirit forms the bond of union between the natural forces which are active in that which we have called military virtue. The crystals of military virtue have a greater affinity for the spirit of a corporate body than for anything else.

An Army which preserves its usual formations under the heaviest fire, which is never shaken by imaginary fears, and in the face of real danger disputes the ground inch by inch, which, proud in the feeling of its victories, never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence in its leaders, even under the depressing effects of defeat; an Army with all its physical powers, inured to privations and fatigue by exercise, like the muscles of an athlete; an Army which looks upon all its toils as the means to victory, not as a curse which hovers over its standards, and which is always reminded of its duties and virtues by the short catechism of one idea, namely the honour of its arms;—Such an Army is imbued with the true military spirit.

Soldiers may fight bravely like the Vendéans, and do great things like the Swiss, the Americans, or Spaniards, without displaying this military virtue. A Commander may also be successful at the head of standing Armies, like Eugene and Marlborough, without enjoying the benefit of its assistance; we must not, therefore, say that a successful War without it cannot be imagined; and we draw especial attention to that point, in order the more to individualise the conception which is here brought forward, that the idea may not dissolve into a generalisation and that it may not be thought that military virtue is in the end everything. It is not so. Military virtue in an Army is a definite moral power which may be supposed wanting, and the influence of which may therefore be estimated—like any instrument the power of which may be calculated.

Having thus characterised it, we proceed to consider what can be predicated of its influence, and what are the means of gaining its assistance.

Military virtue is for the parts, what the genius of the Commander is for the whole. The General can only guide the whole, not each separate part, and where he cannot guide the part, there military virtue must be its leader. A General is chosen by the reputation of his superior talents, the chief leaders of large masses after careful probation; but this probation diminishes as we descend the scale of rank, and in just the same measure we may reckon less and less upon individual talents; but what is wanting in this respect military virtue should supply. The natural qualities of a warlike people play just this part: bravery, aptitude, powers of endurance and enthusiasm.

These properties may therefore supply the place of military virtue, and vice versa, from which the following may be deduced:

1. Military virtue is a quality of standing Armies only, but they require it the most. In national risings its place is supplied by natural qualities, which develop themselves there more rapidly.

2. Standing Armies opposed to standing Armies, can more easily dispense with it, than a standing Army opposed to a national insurrection, for in that case, the troops are more scattered, and the divisions left more to themselves. But where an Army can be kept concentrated, the genius of the General takes a greater place, and supplies what is wanting in the spirit of the Army. Therefore generally military virtue becomes more necessary the more the theatre of operations and other circumstances make the War complicated, and cause the forces to be scattered.

From these truths the only lesson to be derived is this, that if an Army is deficient in this quality, every endeavour should be made to simplify the operations of the War as much as possible, or to introduce double efficiency in the organisation of the Army in some other respect, and not to expect from the mere name of a standing Army, that which only the veritable thing itself can give.

The military virtue of an Army is, therefore, one of the most important moral powers in War, and where it is wanting, we either see its place supplied by one of the others, such as the great superiority of generalship or popular enthusiasm, or we find the results not commensurate with the exertions made.—How much that is great, this spirit, this sterling worth of an army, this refining of ore into the polished metal, has already done, we see in the history of the Macedonians under Alexander, the Roman legions under Cesar, the Spanish infantry under Alexander Farnese, the Swedes under Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII, the Prussians under Frederick the Great, and the French under Buonaparte. We must purposely shut our eyes against all historical proof, if we do not admit, that the astonishing successes of these Generals and their greatness in situations of extreme difficulty, were only possible with Armies possessing this virtue.

This spirit can only be generated from two sources, and only by these two conjointly; the first is a succession of campaigns and great victories; the other is, an activity of the Army carried sometimes to the highest pitch. Only by these, does the soldier learn to know his powers. The more a General is in the habit of demanding from his troops, the surer he will be that his demands will be answered. The soldier is as proud of overcoming toil, as he is of surmounting danger. Therefore it is only in the soil of incessant activity and exertion that the germ will thrive, but also only in the sunshine of victory. Once it becomes a strong tree, it will stand against the fiercest storms of misfortune and defeat, and even against the indolent inactivity of peace, at least for a time. It can therefore only be created in War, and under great Generals, but no doubt it may last at least for several generations, even under Generals of moderate capacity, and through considerable periods of peace.

With this generous and noble spirit of union in a line of veteran troops, covered with scars and thoroughly inured to War, we must not compare the self-esteem and vanity of a standing Army,(*) held together merely by the glue of service-regulations and a drill book; a certain plodding earnestness and strict discipline may keep up military virtue for a long time, but can never create it; these things therefore have a certain value, but must not be over-rated. Order, smartness, good will, also a certain degree of pride and high feeling, are qualities of an Army formed in time of peace which are to be prized, but cannot stand alone. The whole retains the whole, and as with glass too quickly cooled, a single crack breaks the whole mass. Above all, the highest spirit in the world changes only too easily at the first check into depression, and one might say into a kind of rhodomontade of alarm, the French sauve que peut.—Such an Army can only achieve something through its leader, never by itself. It must be led with double caution, until by degrees, in victory and hardships, the strength grows into the full armour. Beware then of confusing the SPIRIT of an Army with its temper.”

(*) Clausewitz is, of course, thinking of the long-service standing armies of his own youth. Not of the short-service standing armies of to-day (EDITOR).

On War, by General Carl von Clausewitz (gutenberg.org)

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25 Responses to On the military virtue of an army.

  1. Whitewall says:

    Tannenberg, East Prussia 1914. The Russian steamroller that failed.

  2. Leith says:

    Clausewitz certainly had a talent for eloquence, or what today we mistakenly call wordsmithing. Or perhaps it was Colonel Graham’s translation that put the intensity in the text?

    How anyone can say that CvC is too obscure or unreadable is beyond me. Perhaps it was the early sections on the nature and theory of war that turned some readers off?

    • Pat Lang says:

      Who is Colonel Graham? On War is written in heavy Kraut dialectic philosophy style. Most people re not smart enough to read it or understand it. I have always read the Paret translation. Of course, I had the advantage of studying with Michael Handel at the Army War College.

    • TTG says:


      I certainly don’t find Clausewitz obscure nor do I find it unreadable. But I do find it difficult to read. It reminds me of the writings of Max Weber. As a student of anthropology, I read a lot of Weber and always found him just as difficult to read. Still, they both wrote with great specificity and, if one puts in the effort, with great revelation.

      Perhaps the secret is to bite it off in small bits. Reading this one passage was painless and enlightening, even though I’ve managed to come by most of these points through OJT over the years.

  3. JK/AR says:

    Excellent link Whitewall to which, if I may, I would contribute this:


    And excerpting from Colonel Lang’s provided exposition and, having some question as regards our own present state of such matters I would then pose a question.

    “An Army which preserves its usual formations under the heaviest fire, which is never shaken by imaginary fears, and in the face of real danger disputes the ground inch by inch, which, proud in the feeling of its victories, never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence in its leaders, even under the depressing effects of …

    … Wokeness.”

    I would ask comment of All, TTG, Leith, Fred, &c and to include, et al?

    • Leith says:

      You lost me JK. I’m not woke myself.

      But I do think that paragraph of CvC does NOT apply to Putin’s army. And isn’t Putin said to be anti-woke? Or whatever the antonym of wokeness is.

      • Pat Lang says:

        leith et al

        The RA is the exact opposite of what CvC describes.

      • JK/AR says:


        A communication from some Senators to General Milley:


        General Milley’s response:




        I’m not, or, at least I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly “Woke” myself either nor would I say that I even comprehend anywhere near what the Wokesters themselves say what being Woke is, precisely.

        In women’s sports for example (yes I realize “Olympics level women’s beach volleyball” hasn’t, as yet, got the seeming ‘diversity & equity’ treatment college swimming teams for instance definitely have:


        But Leith – as I understand it “Miss” Thomas is a manifestation of the ‘Woke’ doctrine) But that’s “just too damn bad” because, as you and I would say – “Gee, I myself am not Woke and really I don’t even know what the heck ‘Woke’ even is … So, Fine by me?”

        Leith? And I find myself just generally curious – You ever set aside an hour or so to watch Women’s Beach Volleyball? And if Leith you ever did (for whatever reason, the sheer “athleticism” has always been my go-to explanation for why I like when Brazil competes against the Australians) What Leith was the attraction/enthusiasm for that?

        Wrong Answer will surely Leith get you in trouble with the ‘Woke’ crowd.

        Leith. I don’t know myself what all this ‘Woke’ business is exactly so it’s difficult for me to explain to you [all] its manifestations – perhaps Deap can jump in here – but from just the little bit I’ve come to be aware of I’ve concluded, from what I’ve seen,

        It [Woke] is counter-productive to the very idea of discipline.

        • Leith says:

          JK –

          Extremes of any sort are poison to discipline. But you’ve known that long before the woke awoke..

          BTW I’m a big fan of beach volleyball. And I’ll tune into the LPGA on the golf channel in a heartbeat faster than I’d watch McIroy or Michelson. Maybe I’m still sleeping.

    • Fred says:


      I’m hardly one to comment on Napoleon, but I would say this campaign is not over. The Russian performance has been abysmal as noted by many, Ukraine’s military performance has improved markedly over these many months, and the economic aspects of this war are barely mentioned.

    • cobo says:

      A young coworker at university asked me what I thought of woke. I described it as, “yeah, woke to their programming.” That’s what it is, but it isn’t some fringe Kool-Aid cult. It is a demonic hypnotism infecting western societies and being promoted ubiquitously by leadership in all “corporate” fields: education, media, large “businesses” (as opposed to the ideal of the corporate entity and its leadership as employed in the above article) and politics. It began as “political correctness” entering the universities in the 1980s. It is a conspiracy promoted on societies at the highest levels. It is the UN Agenda. It is the WEF Agenda. It is a poison and an infection running throughout the human body. Putin and other dedicated opposition like TC are not the force rising against it. They are complicit in the deceit.

    • TTG says:


      All depends on the meaning you ascribe to the word wokeness. I read it as awareness. In the military sense, it’s an awareness of the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses as well as one’s own strengths and weaknesses. It’s an awareness of the terrain, the minute folds in the ground that can provide cover, the soil trafficability and so many other factors. It’s an awareness of the the population, both friendly and unfriendly, on the battlefield. This is all wokeness and it contributes to an effective army as much as all those things in tyhe rest of your quote.

      • cobo says:


        It is not. It is a branded psychosis being institutionalized. What you refer to is an awareness of the psywar underway, with no relationship to military matters. It is mind war, and it isn’t related to the research done at SRI. Perhaps these days it is being referred to as “awake,” as opposed to “woke.”

        • cobo says:

          I should also include that “Woke” is self-destructive, as one can never be woke enough. It feeds on its own as it demands ever more shrill, more extreme professions of “virtue” to its belief structure that is ever tightening in its scope of toleration. It is a cult phenomena, every detail of the then current philosophy must be adhered to, without the slightest doubt or disbelief. It covers every possible element of the insanity that is running rampant, today.

      • JK/AR says:

        Hmm TTG,

        I’m thinking our current [1935 or so] comments likely overlapped in the moderation process. Admitting I haven’t a clue. However your mentioning

        ” … the minute folds in the ground that can provide cover … ”

        Combined with my just now moderated and published mention of ‘Miss’ Lia Thomas (the NCAA “wimmens” swimmer) impels me to the pharmacy in pursuit of some ipecac.

        <Your mileage TTG may vary.

        • Leith says:

          JK –

          Thomas was a Texas gender-bender wasn’t he/she? You should write to the governor down there and complain about the lax morals in his state.

        • TTG says:


          Our comments passed like ships in the night.

          The hoopla around the swimmer Lia Thomas reminds me of all the howling about various East German female Olympic athletes. The focus there was hormones, steroids or something. I found those East Germans amusing, except for Katerina Witt. She was hot in a very Teutonic way. At any rate, I doubt there’s enough transgender athletes to make much of a difference. I won’t lose ant sleep over it, but I wouldn’t mind seeing another Katerina Witt.

          Woke is a pretty flexible term. What is the opposite of woke? Clueless? Oblivious? Ignorant or even willfully ignorant? I would say weekly gay pride parades is clearly excessive. The best treatment of woke gone amuck was the South Park episode entitled “The Death Camp of Tolerance.” It was about the whole town going all in on their wokeness which was preventing Mr. Garrison from getting his gay ass fired so he can sue for a chunk of money. He kept pushing the envelope, but the townspeople kept upping their tolerance. Finally he screams out in exasperation, “tolerating something does not mean that you have to like it”. It was a very informative episode with a great message. The adventures of Mr. Lemmiwinks, a subplot, is also very entertaining. It’s Bevis and Butthead level humor, so i thoroughly enjoyed it.


          But back to woke. I read of some up in arms over class trips to the Holocaust Museum or African-American Museum or being taught about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and slavery. Now teaching that slavery and oppression are all there is to our history is clearly destructive to this nation. I feel suppressing those aspects of our history is equally destructive. In 8th grade, we delved fairly deeply into slavery and its part in our Civil War. That’s not unusual for a New England grammar school. But we also delved deeply into conditions in northern mills and mines which approached slavery. You remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons?” That was part of our curriculum. Kids can be taught a lot more than just the most extreme aspects of the 1619 Project or the Lost Cause. Concentrating on either one at the exclusion of the other is destructive.

          • cobo says:

            I think Yuri Bezmenov’s lectures about how to destroy a civilization are absolutely pertinent to “Woke.” He lists the stages for societal breakdown:
            1. Demoralization (crisis of traditional institutions)
            2. Destabilization (opposition and conflict)
            3. Stabilization (current phase Woke – nuts)
            4. Crisis (societal collapse – interjection/power/savior – unelected – Civil War or Invasion)
            5. Normalization (when the Woke and the weird have served their purpose)


  4. Pat Lang says:

    You don’t want my opinion?

    • JK/AR says:

      Actually Sir, yours most of all.

      Stipulating that I’ve read, and tried to absorb, most of what you’ve presented for our benefit whenever you’ve skirted near that issue. Though it’s possible – especially as I very likely missed some of what you may have had to say as, except for those very few times I commented on SST to the point at which I began commenting/asking questions on this your current site – I was not, from the beginning, a daily reader here until my first comment here.

      Your “takes” Sir, I always am appreciative of.

  5. morongobill says:

    Washington was noted during the French Indian War for using the flat of his sword on men who broke and ran, he did this from horseback.

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