It is only analytically that these attempts at theory can be called advances in the realm of truth; synthetically, in the rules and regulations they offer, they are absolutely useless. They aim at fixed values; but in war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities. They direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical quantities, whereas all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects. They consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites.
—Carl von Clausewitz1
Why do militaries train through maneuvers, wargames, and drills? Mainly because these methods formulate tactical prowess through repetition. Repetition develops aptitude for tactical prowess, allowing tacticians to respond naturally and reflexively to certain situations in combat. Realism makes this approach more valuable, so units often wear full battle-kit, use blank rounds and artillery simulators, and employ various other combat-mimicking methods to replicate the conditions of war. The resulting physical and intellectual authenticity allows units to function more effectively when they enter actual combat, hopefully, better prepared than their enemy counterparts.
While repetition, method, and routine are excellent for improving mechanical and tactical skills, they fall short of cultivating the emotional and psychological resilience necessary for decision-makers. The moral and mental weight of making decisions with life-and-death consequences can be debilitating, but because militaries live in the realm of training by repetition, historian Jon Sumida warns this strategic decision-making framework is “likely to be taken over by method and routine, with potentially disastrous results.”2 Training through conventional routine cannot replicate the complexity or psychological burden of many types of decisions in war—even at the level of the tactical rifleman, let alone the strategic commander. Only empathetic, imaginative design replicating command can develop moral and psychological endurance.
This was the opinion of Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, who saw considerable service during the Napoleonic Wars, after which he developed a novel method combining theory and historical-critical analysis to imbue inexperienced decision-makers with practice in grappling with the weight of consequence and improving psychological effectiveness. Clausewitz’s method is not obsolete, but the time has come to update it in view of modern technology. From virtual reality to artificial intelligence or haptic technology, there are several disruptive technologies capable of revitalizing the process of transferring experience from veterans to recruits. Exploiting new technology will increase the psychological strength and effectiveness of decision-makers at all levels.
The Essential Clausewitz
Clausewitz’s innovative method combines history and theory to study and develop critical decision-making experience. While he designed the system primarily for strategic decision-makers, employing the model at all levels of command can produce higher caliber leaders. Clausewitz wrote that, for soldiers without firsthand experience, “study of the past was the main stimulus to the development of understanding about the moral basis of human behavior in a real conflict as it was affected by a host of external as well as internal factors.”3 His hope was that educating inexperienced military-professionals on the moral dilemmas of command would help them recognize and appreciate their character and scope, improving their ingenuity and mental fortitude when challenged in actual combat. He believed this might be accomplished by encouraging novice commanders to imagine the psychological circumstances accompanying difficult decisions taken by previous commanders.
Because war is a human enterprise, a conflict between two living, thinking organisms, understanding the human component is integral to decision-making; psychological, physical, and emotional characteristics all influence the process. But Clausewitz noted that historians and analysts regularly fail “to include the use of force under conditions of danger, subject to constant interaction with an adversary, nor the efforts of spirit and courage to achieve a desired work.”4 He warns of the dangers of how neglecting nonphysical, psychological, and enemy actions oversimplifies historical analysis; the dynamism and complexities involved in war should not be simplified so easily. Analyzing historical cases in this manner fails “to take adequate account of the complexities involved” in war.5
He understood that warfare is immeasurable and unpredictable—nonlinear, an “unnoticeably small cause can be disproportionately amplified. . . . The precise knowledge needed to anticipate the effects of interaction is unattainable.”6 Therefore, those in command have to rely on judgement rooted in intuition, common sense, and experience. Statistical laws of probability alone will never suffice, because moral factors always enter into real war, and it is possible for the results of any given action to defy the odds. This is one of the most important facts that experience indeed provides.7
It is imperative not to wear “analytical blinders,” which result in misguided analysis.8 Theorists of war must not be persuaded into “formulating analytically deductive, prescriptive sets of doctrines that offer poor hope and worse guidance.”9 Rather, Clausewitz’s novel method for imbuing experience provides a way to comprehend and consider the linear and nonlinear consequences of war. It establishes an adequate framework based on critical analysis and historical examples, which “clarify everything, and also provide the best kind of proof. . . . Historical examples are, however, seldom used to such good effect. . . . [Their use] by theorists normally not only leaves the reader dissatisfied but even irritates his intelligence.”10
Clausewitz’s model calls for critical analysis to be intellectually rigorous and investigate historical cases about which extensive detail was known to avoid as much conjecture as possible. Sumida says:
[The] end product of the creation of that which was called for by theory and integration of it with what was known from history was, if not truth, something much closer to the truth than history alone. This constructed truth, moreover, was a thing that had to be felt as much as thought—it was addressed to the subconscious as well as conscious mind.11
This “Clausewitzian method” seeks to replicate actual experience as closely as possible. Method and routine in tactical training are essential, but the pseudo-realism of a scripted exercise will not present the decision-maker with “critically debilitating fear generated by genuine moral dilemma.”12 Clausewitz’s method succeeds in what drill, routine, wargaming, and the hypothetical cannot. Students of decision-making engaged in this form of analysis are not witnesses to past events, but are tasked to become virtual participants in both the moral and the physical events.13 Students must put themselves in the place of command and analyze the decisions that did or should have been made, feeling the psychological weights and pressure of actual events rather than artificial exercises. Proper critical analysis of historical events serves as the basis from which inexperienced leaders may garner and develop skills in decision-making.
The problem with the Clausewitz approach for modern leaders is that the depth of critical analysis called for can require intensive research, which is very time-consuming—unrealistic in today’s readiness-obsessed military. Clausewitz, however, never had access to immersive, dynamic simulations.
Putting students inside difficult, controlled scenarios based on historical events will accomplish the goal Clausewitz envisaged, if participants can feel the moral and psychological weight of command under stressful circumstance and analyze their performance afterward to receive the full benefit of experience transfer. Today’s enhancements in audio, virtual reality, haptic feedback, and computing can be used to generate this weight and modernize his decision-making framework.
The fidelity of high-quality audio can bring one as close as possible to experiencing something in person. It is integral to human development, and it provides a significant degree of intimacy and realism to transferring experience. Audio can trigger powerful and specific psychological responses, one of the reasons for training with blanks and artillery simulators—to capture the same response so soldiers can learn to take cover or respond with fire depending on the situation. Human auditory response is extremely powerful; those with PTSD can undergo an episode initiated by auditory stimulation alone. All this means is sound can be used to help impart the moral and psychological weight of a studied experience, just as underscoring amplifies the psychological effect of a movie scene.
Virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) can add a compelling visual component to the experience. Visible elements galvanize the imagination, bringing to life what Clausewitz could only mentally conjure. High-quality graphics could make scenarios incredibly realistic, bringing students highly detailed scenarios, making the imaginative come to life, and enhancing the psychological realism for the transfer of experience.
At present, most military VR simulators are tools for repetition. They serve the same purpose as drill and maneuver and, so, fail to support the psychological and emotional aspect of Clausewitz’s theory. But this technology is fast becoming widespread and is readily accessible—Walmart, for example, uses it to determine the effectiveness of mid-level managers and their decision-making capabilities.14 It has more potential than as a mere tool for repetition and drill.
Haptic technology provides physical sensation, which may be equally as powerful as audio because of how integral the sensation of feeling is to the human psyche. Cold, heat, constriction, or other physical sensation stress the mind in unimaginable ways. Even simplistic systems designed to target taste and smell can provide a great deal of stress on cognitive ability—not to mention a heightened degree of realism. Controlling or managing the physical senses can produce certain pressures on the will to continue with a situation, or to flee in terror.
Enhancements in computing—its speed and capability—has facilitated new methods for improving analytical processes. Artificial intelligence, empirical algorithmics, and cognitive computing work by spotting patterns in massive data sets and seek performance improvements based on feedback or the results of previous analyses. They may augment and reveal patterns or limitation not apparent to an individual analyst.
The computing and simulation technologies here have the potential to enhance decision-making skills as well as augment critical analysis. Tomorrow’s leaders will have experienced technology from the youngest of ages, reaching fluency with it that will be integral to their psyche, thereby fostering a technological environment will be more apt for transferring experience.
A Lasting Advantage
Clausewitz wrote On War to create a framework that could underpin military theory and guide commanders in their self-education.15 As the tools of war evolve, the best techniques remain historical, offering indications “only of what is possible, not of what is necessary, in the future.”16 History never repeats, and historical examples do not reveal what is required. Rather, history offers the opportunity to increase individual capability through experience and provides knowledge of what is possible. By studying the actual moral positions of historical commanders, students involve themselves in an imaginative narrative that demands empathy with those who experienced the weight of command.
Leaders must garner intuition and experience through proper application of historical study to make sound decisions; applying a tactical mindset at a strategic level will result in poor decision-making. The practice of individual study history is difficult in today’s fast-paced peacetime military. But its essence is timeless and essential for creating capable leaders. Disruptive simulation technologies will not be a catholicon for establishing and transferring experience, but they could allow more leaders to improve their decision-making proficiency. Nothing will replace true experience, but neglecting to enhance it through study—and simulation—of history is detrimental to battle-readiness at all levels.
1. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 136.
2. Jon Tetsuro Sumida, “The Relationship of History and Theory in On War: The Clausewitzian Ideal and Its Implications,” Journal of Military History 65, no. 2 (April 2001): 333–34; see also, Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2008).
3. Clausewitz, On War, 142–43.
4. Clausewitz, 133.
5. Clausewitz, 134.
6. Clausewitz, 80.
7. Clausewitz, 79.
8. Clausewitz, 86.
10. Clausewitz, 170.
11. Sumida, 346.
12. Clausewitz, 122.
13. Sumida, 346.
14. Peter Holley, “Walmart has added virtual reality to its assessment of an employee’s potential,” The Washington Post, 12 July 2019.
15. Clausewitz, 141.
16. Alan Beyerchen, “Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War,” International Security, 17, no. 3 (Winter, 1992–93): 87.