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The concept of absolute war was a philosophical construct developed by the military theorist General Carl von Clausewitz and features in the first half of the first chapter of his book On War. After this, Clausewitz explains that absolute war is practically impossible because it is not directed by political motives and morality, and thus he names war with these additional moderating influences as real war.

In his explanation of absolute war Clausewitz defined war as "an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will". However, war itself does not contain inherent moral or political aspects. Rather, such conditions (for instance, the laws of armed conflict) are placed on war by those who fight it, and exist because the intelligence of the civilised nations involved exercises greater influence on their methods of fighting war than does their instinctive hostility (that is, the passion of hatred).

Absolute war therefore, can be seen to be an act of violence without compromise in which states fight to war's natural extremes; it is a war without the 'grafted' political and moral moderations. In On War, Clausewitz explains what makes up absolute war:


The three Reciprocal Actions


An utmost use of force

Clausewitz states that " follows that he who uses force unsparingly, without reference to bloodshed involved, must obtain a superiority if his adversary uses less vigour in [the] application [of force]". Therefore, war in its most natural manner would involve each state continually reciprocating each other's use of force (plus some) to maintain a superiority, until both were using violence to its utmost extent. This is the first reciprocal action, and leads to the first extreme of war.

The aim is to disarm the enemy

Clausewitz stated that the purpose of war is to make our opponent comply with our will. However, one's opponent will obviously not do that unless complying to that will becomes the least oppressive of its available options. Therefore, in order to achieve the end goal of war (making the enemy comply with your will), a state must place its adversary in a position that is more oppressive to it than compliance. Furthermore, that position cannot be temporary (or at least must not appear to be temporary), because then it is likely that one's enemy will simply 'ride out the storm' in the prospect of being in a better position at a later stage. Any change in this position would be a change for the worse, and so in order to best achieve this position a state must disarm its enemy (forcing it into a position from which it cannot resist).

Furthermore, as war involves two (or more) hostile states, this principle applies to both, and so it becomes the second reciprocal action, whereby both try to impose such a position on the other.

An utmost exertion of powers

Here Clausewitz states that if a state wishes to defeat its enemy it must proportion its efforts to the enemy's power to resist. According to Clausewitz, the use of power involves two factors. The first is the strength of available means, which may be measured somewhat as it depends on numbers (although not entirely). The second factor is the strength of the will which can not be specifically measured (only estimated) as it is intangible.

Once a state has gained an approximation of the enemy's strength of resistance it can review its own means and adjust them upwards accordingly in an effort to gain the advantage. As the enemy will also be doing this, it too becomes reciprocal (the third reciprocal action), creating a third push towards an extreme.

Confusion with Total War

The recognition of total war since World War I has created a degree of confusion for many, who fail to understand the differences between it and the concept of absolute war, often using the terms interchangeably.

Total war is essentially a war in which the home front (that is, a state's political system, society and economy) is mobilised to a massive degree for the continuation and expansion of the war effort. It is characterised by civilian infrastructure and civilians themselves becoming highly involved in war as part of the military's logistical support system.

Absolute war on the other hand, is war that reaches its natural extremes (as mentioned above) when it is free from the moderating effects that are imposed on it by politics and society. As wars cannot run themselves, and require politics and society to exist, Clausewitz held absolute war to be impossible, as it could not avoid these influences.

See also


  • Clausewitz, C.V. On War, Penguin Classics, 1968


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