Once again, this has been a most interesting and compelling project to
research. From the plethora of information out there, I have tried to
choose those references that would be most reliable - military and
government sources and documents, educational and scholarly
Let?s first take a look at Clausewitz, the influential Prussian
soldier and strategic theorist. In his work, On War, he says:
?War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its
characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant
tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity--composed of
primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a
blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within
which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of
subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to
?The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the
second the commander and his army; the third the government. The
passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the
people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in
the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular
character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are
the business of government alone.
?These three tendencies are like three different codes of law,
deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to
one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an
arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to
such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War , eds./trans. Michael Howard and Peter
Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 89.
In a reprint of an article which first appeared in Parameters, the
journal of the U.S. Army War College, in 1995, we can find a detailed
analysis of the three component parts of the Clausewitzian Trinity.
This is an excerpt from the section entitled ?Another View?, but the
entire section is worth reading to gain an understanding of the three
categories of forces and how they are connected to the human players.
?Clausewitz's trinity is really made up of three categories of forces:
irrational forces (violent emotion, i.e., "primordial violence,
hatred, and enmity"); non-rational forces (i.e., forces not the
product of human thought or intent, such as "friction" and "the play
of chance and probability"); and rationality (war's subordination to
reason, "as an instrument of policy").
?Clausewitz then connects each of those forces "mainly" to one of
three sets of human actors: the people, the army, and the government:
?1. The people are paired mainly with irrational forces--the emotions
of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity (or, by implication, the
lack thereof--clearly, it is quite possible to fight and even win wars
about which one's people don't give a damn, especially if that is the
case on both sides.)
?2. The army (which refers, of course, to military forces in general)
and its commander are paired mainly with the non-rational forces of
friction, chance, and probability. Fighting organizations deal with
those factors under the creative guidance of the commander (and
creativity depends on something more than mere rationality, including,
hopefully, the divine spark of talent or genius).
?3. The government is paired mainly with the rational force of
calculation--policy is, ideally, driven by reason. This corresponds to
the famous argument that "war is an instrument of policy." Clausewitz
knew perfectly well, however, that this ideal of rational policy is
not always met: "That [policy] can err, subserve the ambitions,
private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor
there.... here we can only treat policy as representative of all
interests of the community."?
Reclaiming The Clausewitzian Trinity
by Edward J. Villacres and Christopher Bassford
So, very simply stated, the three categories of forces (violent
emotion, chance (the non-rational) and rational policy) are connected
to the three corresponding groups of human players (people, the army
and its commander, and the government) in a direct and interconnected
In real life (or real war) the lines are a bit more blurry. The army
and it?s generals are also members of the people. Political leaders
are also members of the people. In a democratic society, the people
play some role in determining policy, and so the line between people
and government blurs somewhat. Political leaders, while determining
the policy that makes up the rational, government segment of the
trinity, are often driven by personal interests and agendas, and make
policy decisions that are not solely rational or practical.
Battlefield events influence both the people and the government, while
popular and political factors, in turn, affect the performance of the
Clausewitz further suggests that there must be a balance between the
three elements of the trinity ?like an object suspended between three
magnets?. This metaphor serves to graphically illustrate the
relationship between the elements, and the reason for the dynamic,
unpredictable nature of war. In proper balance, no one magnet will
exert undue force upon the pendulum. Instead, it will be suspended
between the three, shifting if the strength of one magnet should
change in relation to the others.
The final section of the abovementioned article, entitled
?Conclusions? warns of the complexity of Clausewitz?s theory and goes
on to say:
?It would be a mistake, therefore, to approach the trinity concept as
a discrete, bite-sized nugget of wisdom that can somehow be extracted
from the larger work. The trinity establishes a dialectical
relationship between the dominant tendencies of war that are revealed
by analysis in the rest of the book; it combines the elements that
make war such a complex phenomenon. One can identify all of
Clausewitz's most profound insights with one or another element of the
trinity. The component dealing with violence and emotion (irrational
forces) relates directly to his discussion of moral forces in war and
the proposition that war is distinguished from other forms of human
interaction by its resort to organized violence. The component dealing
with chance and probability (non?rational forces) reflects his ideas
about the role of military genius and the creative spirit in dealing
with the fog and friction of war; operational ideas like the "center
of gravity" also relate to this aspect of the trinity. The component
dealing with war's subordination to policy (rational forces) relates
to his ideas about the relationship between ends and means, war as the
continuation of policy, and the dichotomy between "real war" (whether
limited or unlimited) and "absolute war." Thus we can see that, in
this one, briefly described concept, Clausewitz unified many of the
ideas he developed over thirty-plus years of studying the nature of
war: It represents his thinking at its most mature and sophisticated
However, for purposes of remaining within the scope of your question
and your project, some simplification is unavoidable.
?...the U.S. civilian and military leadership underestimated the
will, determination, and capabilities of its enemy, the North
Vietnamese. "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of
yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win." The
preceding statement by Ho Chi Minh reveals the determination and
resolve of the North Vietnamese to do whatever necessary to resist
foreign occupation which over the centuries has included the Chinese,
the Japanese, the French, and the United States.?
Vietnam: Lessons Learned
by Major Clarence Mariney,USMC
The above work is worth reading in it?s entirety in that, while the
writing is entirely focused on Vietnam, a reader cannot help but
notice compelling similarities to the situation in which our country
finds itself today.
The abovementioned document speaks of the ?strong collective identity?
of the Vietnamese, forged throughout 2000 years of resisting foreign
oppression. The conflict with the U.S was seen as merely an extension
or continuation of this struggle. It was the default state, and the
people were solidly united in their will and purpose. They shared a
single language, cultural traditions and an ?image of heroic
resistance to foreign rule?.
? The essential reality of the struggle was that the North Vietnamese
imbued with an almost fanatical sense of dedication to a reunified
Vietnam, saw the war against the United States as the continuation of
two thousand years of resistance to Chinese and later French rule.
They were prepared to accept limitless casualties to attain their
objective. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the Communist commander, discounted
the life of thousands of human beings. He spoke of fighting ten,
fifteen, twenty, fifty years, regardless of cost, until "final
Further on in the article is a chilling quotation attributed to
Patrick J. McGarvey, an analyst for the CIA. In 1969 Mr. McGarvey
?...no price was too high for Giap as long as he could deplete
American forces, since he measured the situation not by his
casualties, but by "the traffic in homebound American coffins.??
The article makes the point that, ?The ability to accept the
casualties which the U.S. war of attrition imposed was central to the
success of North Vietnamese strategy.? This strategy of attrition set
up a test of wills that the U.S could not endure.
?While operational and tactical excellence is important to battlefield
victories, superior strategy wins wars. The United States had two
vulnerabilities in Vietnam. First, it lacked a strategy appropriate to
the war at hand. Second, Washington hitched its prestige and power to
an ineffectual Saigon regime.
?After suffering defeat in the Battle of the Ia Drang, where superior
American firepower and mobility prevailed, the North Vietnamese and
their southern cohorts, the Viet Cong, adopted a strategy of
attrition. North Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen Giap correctly posited
that when American losses reached 50,000 killed, Washington would give
up. Giap's most abundant resource to pursue this strategy was
manpower. In a war of attrition, Giap was willing to lose 500,000
soldiers to kill 50,000 Americans. Giap, a student of the nineteenth
century Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, understood
that war is as Clausewitz stated in his 1832 book, On War, an act of
force to compel the enemy to do your will.?
Saigon to Baghdad: Reasoning by Historical Analogy
by Dr. Earl Tilford
Grove City College
?Harry Summers in his definitive work, On Strategy, argues
persuasively that ". . . our failure in Vietnam grew out of a lack of
appreciation of military theory and military strategy and especially
the relationship between military strategy and national policy," i.e.,
Clausewitz's trinity. In other words, we did not understand our enemy,
lacked clear strategic direction, and failed to strike him at his
"center of gravity."?
Possible Nature of the Next "Small War" or "Low Intensity Conflict"
(LIC) in Which the United States Is Likely to Become Embroiled
by Colonel John Osgood, Retired (c) 1993
You should be aware, though probably not surprised, that military
analysts do not always agree on the interpretation of Clausewitz?s
Trinity. The following is from an article which appeared in
Parameters, the journal of the U.S. Army War College, in the Autumn of
?Definition of the trinity as "people, army, and government" seems to
have originated in Harry Summers's important and influential study, On
Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982). This version
of Clausewitz's concept was derived from a secondary discussion in
which Clausewitz developed a linkage between his "remarkable trinity"
of war (violent emotion, chance, and rational policy) and the social
trinity of people, army, and government. It appears in the
introduction to Summers's book: "The task of the military theorist,
Clausewitz said, is to develop a theory that maintains a balance among
what he calls a trinity of war--the people, the government, and the
Army."*5 That definition is repeated in On Strategy II: A Critical
Analysis of the Gulf War : "Particularly apt was Clausewitz's emphasis
on the `remarkable trinity' of the people, the government, and the
army as the essential basis for military operations."*6 Using this
concept of the trinity throughout both books with great success,
Colonel Summers made it a valuable analytical tool. It is nonetheless
an alteration of the concept as it is expressed in On War . Perhaps it
would be more accurate to refer to the concept in this form as the
"Summersian Trinity." It provides a wonderful example of the way in
which thinkers in every era have effectively adapted Clausewitz's
ideas to the peculiarities of the times. Unfortunately, such
adaptations tend to have a counterproductive side effect: When times
change, people remember the adaptations and forget the original,
fundamental truth to which Clausewitz himself had pointed. The result
is that Clausewitz is periodically declared obsolete.?
Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity
by Christopher Bassford and Edward J. Villacres
The footnotes *5 and *6 above refer to:
5. Harry G. Summers, Jr., On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the
Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982), pp. 26-27.
6. Harry G. Summers, Jr. On Strategy II: A Critical Analysis of the
Gulf War (New York: Dell, 1992), p. 11.
I did a little further research on Colonel Harry Summers, and learned
that his credentials are substantial. He was a strategic research
analyst and instructor in strategy at the Army War College. He was a
veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam wars. He holds a master's
degree in military arts and science and has served as an instructor in
strategy at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, as a
political-military staff officer on the Army General Staff, and as a
strategic analyst for three successive Army Chiefs of Staff. He has
written numerous articles on military strategy in professional
military journals as well as national newspapers and magazines. His
book, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Presidio
Press, 1982), won the Furniss Award as the best new book on national
security affairs and was used by the Army, Naval, and Air War Colleges
as a student text.
Probably the most succinct encapsulation of the U.S. strategy (or lack
thereof) I found comes from a document entitled, ?The Trouble with
Strategy: Bridging Policy and Operations?, by Professor Richard K.
Betts, who is the Leo A. Shifrin professor of war and peace studies at
Columbia University. Professor Betts says:
?The United States could in theory have pursued a strategy that would
have won in Vietnam. It could have sent a million troops, invaded and
occupied the North, imprisoned or killed the communist cadre in the
North and the South and all who sympathized with them, and destroyed
every uncooperative village to, as Tacitus put it, make a desert and
call it peace. But such an effective strategy was never considered by
any but a few fanatics because the price was unacceptable. As it was,
American strategy worked as long as the United States was willing to
stay at war; it just did not offer a way to peace without defeat.?
The Trouble with Strategy: Bridging Policy and Operations
by Richard K. Betts
An early (1965) analysis of the U.S strategy draws heavily on
Clausewitzian theory in general, and the trinity in particular. It
talks about the importance of viewing the trinity not only from the
perspective of a U.S. point of view, but also from the point of view
of the opponent, and taking this into consideration in the formulation
of a strategy. Specifically, the section dealing with North Vietnam
analyzes their strategy and objectives in relation to Clausewitz?s
trinity. Here is an excerpt from this document as regards U.S.
?If the United States does not review its policies and develop a
workable military strategy based on a clear sense of the situation,
then we are heading for a long, protracted struggle in South Vietnam.
I have made these conclusions based on the following three main
reasons: 1) We do not fully understand the forces that are at work in
this conflict, 2) We are engaging in a defensive strategy devoid of a
clear end state, and 3) We have not properly tied the U.S. political
goals to our military strategy. The U.S. is at war and we must
remember that, ?The political object is the goal, war is the means of
reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their
Analysis of U.S. Strategy in Vietnam, July 1965
The quote contained at the end of the above excerpt is referenced as
being from: Clausewitz, ?On War?, p. 87.
The document referenced above goes on to include an explanation of the
trinity, and a warning that we cannot view the trinity through an
?The real key to understanding the true nature of the war is to view
this trinity through the prism of the opponent, then arrive at a
strategy that considers both views. We must understand three main
trinities at work here in 1965: communist North Vietnam, non-communist
South Vietnam, and the United States.?
Below I have summarized the analysis of the trinity in this document
from the points of view of North Vietnam and the United States.
In analyzing the trinity as regards North Vietnam, we see:
--?total commitment to reunification from an authoritarian
--They viewed the war as an internal struggle, and their plan was
based on using ?indigenous forces operating in the south, along with
potentially massive military support from the North, when required, to
achieve unification?. (Government/Policy & Army/Chance)
--the government garnered public support by overwhelming their
internal opposition through intimidation and by capitalizing on the
historical hatred of the people for foreigners. (People/Violent
Emotion and Hatred)
--they had control of the media and the knowledge that the Vietnamese
mindset would enable the people to endure the hardships of a
protracted war. (People/Violent Emotion)
The United States analysis would include
--primary goal of stopping communist expansion and preventing takeover
of South Vietnam. (Government/Policy)
--lack of public support when U.S. citizens perceive no direct threat.
(People/Violent Emotion - or actually, lack of Violent Emotion, which
was part of the problem)
--U.S government was ambiguous in defining goals, perhaps deliberately
in view of lack of support. (Government/Policy but determined by
People and their lack of Violent Emotion)
The above referenced document expands on these points, and is worth
reading in its entirety to get an overall feel for the forces at work
and how they relate to Clausewitz?s Trinity.
NORTH VIETNAMESE OBJECTIVES
I found a number of sources that indicate that the focus of the North
Vietnamese objective was extremely well defined, and centered on
driving the foreigners out of the country, and the reunification of
North and South Vietnam.
?Colonel Summers displays a keen mastery of the theoretical aspects of
war and their relationship to the American experience as he attempts
to place the Army's Vietnam experience in its proper context. His
analysis spans the gamut from our earliest experiences as a new nation
to the Korean War and the great debates of the '50s concerning the
role of military force in the atomic age. Particularly revealing is
his discussion of the American view of war as it evolved in the
post-World War II period and the corresponding changes in Army
doctrine prior to our involvement in Vietnam. Colonel Summers
demonstrates that, prior to our entry into the war, the Army lost its
focus on the relationship between military strategy and national
policy--the objective. Conversely, North Vietnam steadfastly pursued
one objective, the total conquest of South Vietnam by either force or
subversion or both. Meanwhile, the United States experienced extreme
difficulty articulating a comprehensive termination strategy. Colonel
Summers concludes that we pursued a strategy of graduated response
which gave the initiative to North Vietnam and placed the United
States and South Vietnam on the strategic defensive throughout the
Strategic Choice, National Will, and the Vietnam Experience
Colonel Kenneth J. Alnwick
Henry Kissinger once said that governments were only able to handle
one major issue at a time. While North Vietnam was solely focused on
capturing South Vietnam, the US government had many other concerns,
which never allowed it to focus all of its attention and resources on
?North Vietnam was able to extract such a price for American
withdrawal because, having fought the Japanese, the French, and now
the world's leading power, the Communist regime had demonstrated its
commitment to finishing what it saw as an anticolonial revolution.
Focused on that goal, the North could ignore all other considerations,
but the United States had to be conscious of its relations with its
allies, China, the Soviet Union, and with intramural concerns (doves
versus hawks, Republican versus Democrats). In such a scenario, defeat
The Innocents Abroad: Presidents and Foreign Policy
(Apologies for the long link. This is a cached page, and the long link
is the only way to access the original article)
?In the Vietnam War, for example, the North Viet-namese essentially
had one objective, the unification of Vietnam under their control. As
you look at the United States' objectives, we had some twenty-one
various political objectives, some of which directly contradicted one
another. They were so unclear that ten years after the war is over, we
are still arguing among ourselves as to their exact nature. Analyzed
in view of this first principle of war alone, it is no wonder that
Vietnam policies came to grief, for if we had no clear picture of
precisely where we were going, common sense would tell us that it
would (and did) ultimately prove impossible to determine how to get
Strategic Principles For U.S. Policy in Central America
Harry G. Summers, Jr.
?The party's political ethos, which had once seemed to embody the
traditional Vietnamese spirit of resistance to foreigners and which
had known great success when the country was overwhelmingly dominated
by war and the issues of national liberation and reunification ,
appeared to have changed after the fall of the Republic of Vietnam
(South Vietnam) in the spring of 1975 and the reunification of Vietnam
in 1976. This ethos had been at the core of the VCP's rise to power
during the struggles for independence and unification.?
Vietnam: Government and Politics
Finally, while researching this question, I came across an interesting
tie-in between this and your Peloponnesian War question. I present it
here for your interest.
?The continuing relevance of Thucydides is captured by the story of
how the Peloponnesian War came to be studied at my institution, the
Naval War College. In 1972, Admiral Stansfield Turner became the
President of the War College and immediately set out to reinvigorate
academic rigor at the institution. One of the problems he confronted
was how to teach about certain manifestations of the Cold War,
especially Vietnam. The wounds inflicted by Vietnam on the
officer-students were too fresh. Students were not able to discuss the
war dispassionately. The result was a rancor that undermined the
comity necessary for scholarly work.
?To this end, Adm. Turner introduced the Peloponnesian War into the
syllabus of the War College?s Strategy and Policy course. It made a
great deal of sense in light of the fact that the confrontation
between the United States and the Soviet Union greatly resembled that
between Athens and Sparta. Students could now use Athens? Sicilian
Campaign as a surrogate for Vietnam. Although Vietnam is far enough
removed in time that it can now be discussed directly, the great war
between Athens and Sparta remains the archetypal case study for
students at Newport.?
The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan
Reviewed by Mackubin Thomas Owens
Some of the references above include documents that are in the PDF
format, and will require Adobe Acrobat to open. If you do not have a
copy, it may be downloaded free of charge here:
What I have gathered here should enable you to complete your work, but
should you have any questions on any of the above, please do not
hesitate to ask.
Best of luck to you, syracuse, in this most interesting project.
"north vietnamese strategy"
clausewitz trinity ~vietnam
"north vietnam" OR "north vietnamese" ~objective
"north vietnam's objective" OR "north vietnamese objective"
"north vietnam's objectives" OR "north vietnamese objectives"
strategy "policy objectives" Vietnam OR Vietnamese