On War – BOOK 3 • CHAPTER 5 “The Military Virtue of an Army” Clausewitz


("Heads up gentlemen!  Those are bullets not turds.")

Someone wrote yesterday to express the belief that the capability of the SAA must have greatly declined over the past years.  He said he believed thaton the basis of the SAA's long experience of war in their homeland against a cruel medieval collection of fanatics who give no quarter and ask none.  And now the SAA faces a huge national army heavily equipped  and commanded at the political level by a scoundrel who has no shame and who has largely destroyed the republican qualities instilled into the Turks by the father of their country Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  

It is an error to believe that the quality or strength of an army necessarily declines in a long war.  In fact the opposite is often true as experience, the great teacher, instructs in ways that training courses never can. Leadership improves as the incompetent and cowardly depart.  The pride of the soldiers in their units grows as they come to think of themselves as members of brotherhoods for whom only the ultimate end can mark a limit of their fellow feeling.  If there is added to that a substantial recruitment of new men who can be brought into that brotherhood and first rate equipment replacements of the sort the Russians provide, there is no reason that what Clausewitz calls military virtue should not steadily grow.  pl


"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 of which the spirits of war fix themselves by preference. 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 every thing. 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 and wars, 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, what only the veritable thing 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 wars 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 is, 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." 


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2 Responses to On War – BOOK 3 • CHAPTER 5 “The Military Virtue of an Army” Clausewitz

  1. Barbara Ann says:

    A great and very relevant Clausewitz passage Colonel. Syria is becoming a nation of war heroes and the SAA will benefit from its hard-won military virtue for many years to come.
    The effects of the Syrian war on NATO’s second largest army are likely to be altogether different. Using your military in a doomed project of imperial expansion seems to me a pretty good way to undermine its integrity.

  2. Fred says:

    Contrast the SAA’s continuing experience of victory after victory with the IDF ground forces’ most recent achievements or Obama’s great publicity for Bowe Bergdahl.

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