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War And The Center of Gravity

Submitted By Edward Garibay 4141654 MILS521 C001 Spr 11

Submitted to the Department of History and Military Studies August 28, 2011

“Finding and attacking the most critical point in the enemy’s position is [a] problem that inevitably occupies every strategist.”1 This concept, known as the center of gravity, is one of the most integral to understand if victory is to be won, but the debate rests in where exactly this critical point lies. Many military theorists put forth a hierarchy of importance relevant to their own time and situation. Carl von Clausewitz states the center of gravity lies in the opposing army, while Sun Tzu claims it lies in attacking the enemy’s strategy, but the fact remains that there is no set location of the center of gravity. Its location, like so many other relative things in war, depends strictly on the situation. No two wars are exactly the same, and so no two centers of gravity are either. Clausewitz appears to reference the subject on a clearly operational level, whereas Sun Tzu seems to address the subject on a more strategic level. But where do the lines blur? Is there simply one center of gravity or are there many? The radical disagreement between these theorists, but yet such common success in the utilization of these strategies suggests some sort of common underlying theme, and that theme is critical situational analysis. Before we can even begin to delve into any critical analysis of others we must conduct one of our own and ask the question ‘what exactly is the center of gravity?’ The term, originally coined by the ever-elusive Clausewitz, is described as a sort of linchpin characteristic of the entire conflict. “One must keep the dominant characteristics of both belligerents in mind. Out of these characteristics a certain center of gravity develops, the hub of all power and 

Handel, Michael I. Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought (Third, Revised and Expanded Edition). Portland, OR: International Specialized Book Services, 2001: 53.

movement, on which everything depends. That is the point against which all of our energies should be directed.”2 Simply put, it is the keystone to victory. It is the one block that determines success or failure. It is the practice of treating the illness and not simply the symptoms. The problem though, is this is far easier said than done. In order to find the center of gravity, one must sift through the infinite chaos and complexities of war to find the one simple element that will either make or break a nation. The center of gravity is the most basic principle in any given war. It is the simplest and most important of things, “but the simplest thing is difficult.”3 A simple task of winning the favor of a population is not as easy as giving a simple command, and it be equally difficult to determine if such an order is even absolutely necessary. Perhaps there is an alternate and more efficient path to success. Perhaps victory can be achieved in a more efficient manner some other way, or perhaps there is another issue underlying the ostensible problem that is the true center of gravity to attack. The ability to find such a center is akin to mathematics and finding the lowest common denominator between two fractions. The problem must be separated and simplified until it is at its purest and most basic form. There can be no possibility or doubt of an alternative. But unlike mathematics, the center of gravity deals in abstracts. There cannot, in actuality, be any true certainty in our course of action. “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”4 

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Translated by Michael Howard, Peter Parot. Princeton,New Jersey: Princton University Press. 1976. Kindle Edition: Location 11556. Location 2411.
Ibid: Location 2065.

War deals with the primal and illogical nature of man and therefore cannot find such conclusion as with mathematics. All we can simply do is think critically about the nature of the war we are fighting. The dominant characteristics of all participants must be considered in order to shape a full conclusion about the true nature of the conflict. “One will never understand war until one examines it in the relational context of opposing forces.”5 All too often, the strategist will hold a degree of introversion and only look towards one’s own situation for victory. Their inclination is to find the quickest, most efficient path to victory and to choose whatever that may be as the center of gravity. The problem with this frame of thinking is it often leads to an idealistic belief about war – that all will go according to plan. Just like an inexperienced chess player, this particular strain of thought hopes the enemy is ignorant to their own situation, when in actuality any series of simple countermoves would provide them an adequate defense. In either situation, an imperative to victory is the realization that “war is not waged against an abstract enemy, but against a real one who must always be kept in mind.”6 It might be said then that the enemy is the center of the center, the hub of all power the center of gravity revolves around. This is not to say the enemy is the center of gravity in war, which has been suggested by many theorists including Clausewitz and Henri Jomini, but merely that the enemy gives direction to the center of gravity much like the Sun gives direction to the Earth. But the enemy only gives direction to the center of gravity integral to our victory. When we speak of the means to prevent our own defeat, that center of gravity is directed 

Epstein, Robert M. Napoleon's Last Victory and the Emergence of Modern War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995: 176. Carl von. On War: Location 3180.


by our own nature. “Invincibility depends on oneself; the enemy’s vulnerability on him.”7 We now come to the reverse of he equation – one also cannot form strategy without regard for their own safety, because the actions of a berserker can do more harm than good. Therefore, the strategist must find what is most fundamental to their survival, and more importantly, what is most fundamental to their survival in relation to the enemy. “Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”8 In both cases, we see the enemy must be considered, but we now reach the question of whether or not these centers of gravity are in fact the same thing. While at times they may be the same, many times they are not, and therefore should be considered as independents first. Most of the time, when they are considered the same, the center of gravity is on the destruction of the opposition’s army. In such a case, the destruction of the enemy brings victory, and the failure to do so brings defeat, but even in this case, as in all war, “the result is never final.”9 Unfortunately, war is not always that simple. “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”10 The inevitable intermixing of politics in war creates conflicting goals that go beyond the destruction of the enemy. The acquisition of our goal may be dependent on something completely different than our opponents. For instance, in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, it can be argued that Napoleon wished to control Europe, while the rest of Europe wished for peace and sovereignty. 

Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Translated by Lionel Giles. 1910. (accessed July 30, 2011). 8
Clausewitz, 10

Carl von. On War: Location 1591.
 Location 727.

While this is an oversimplification, it exemplifies two distinct centers of gravity – the offensive and defensive. In order to gain ultimate success, Napoleon had to gain the support of those he conquered and hoped to rule, and in order to prevent ultimate defeat, Napoleon had to secure his own life and command. To confuse the matter even further, these offensive and defensive centers of gravity were strictly on the strategic level. Of the three different levels of war: strategic, operational, and tactical; it can be argued each has its own center of gravity. Essentially, the strategic level creates the grand objective and means to achieve it; the operational digests that information in relation to an area of operation and translates it into physical tasks to complete by the tactical level; and the tactical level completes these. The tactical level is subordinate to the operational level, and the operational level to the strategic, so it may appear that since this entire hierarchy seems to push the flow of war towards the ultimate goal of the strategic level that the strategic level must be where the center of gravity lies, but this is not necessarily true. Although the strategic level holds the key to ultimate victory, we see the center of gravity begin to shift into the lower levels as we attempt to simplify it to its purest form. If we try to simplify a strategic goal, such as, gaining the support of a population, we begin to run into a multitude of different answers for each operational area. The same happens from the operational to the tactical level; as we begin to simplify a goal we arrive at a variety of different tasks and goals to be achieved at the tactical level. The blurring and confusion of the center of gravity between level to level leads decision makers to mistake one for the other and often times causes them to overstep their bounds. Strategic leaders begin to dip their hands into the tactical level and true

objectives can become lost. In modern times, this has become an all too common practice, and sadly it leads to war conducted in the wrong manner. Delegation and specialization is a necessity to efficiency, and that simply cannot happen when one level tries to micro-manage another and determine its center of gravity. One person (or small group of people) cannot hope to control all the aspects of a war efficiently. That’s the reason why war has evolved from the feudal ages of kings controlling an entire army, and why Napoleon was so successful in his campaigns. Napoleon empowered his subordinates and allowed them to control their area of operation, while he ultimately controlled the overall picture. And so, each level of war must be allowed to form its own center of gravity to minimize the cloud of confusion shrouding war. If this does not happen, one level might confuse its center of gravity for another, much like the confusion during the Vietnam Conflict. The strategic leaders confused the operational goal of controlling the insurgency in the south with the overall strategic goal of preventing the spread of communism, and therefore neglected the North Vietnamese Army. The difficulty in this endeavor is that there are no clear lines between each level of war even though they are often ostensibly defined to have them. The problem then becomes how to definitively find the center of gravity for each level without crossing into another. Where is the line drawn between the one and the other, and does a line even need to be drawn; can the center of gravity be the same for multiple levels of war? Obviously, the subordinate centers of gravity aim to achieve the goals of the superior, but at times they need not be all that different. The manner in which to separate these centers of gravity is, again, critical situational analysis.

The imperative for success in war has always been a firm understanding of the situation at hand. While it seems like an obvious enough piece of advice many leaders still fail to look at their own situation in context. Too often, old adages are turned into ironclad truths and are never appreciated for what they are really meant to say. “Those people, however, who ‘never rise above the anecdote’…and digging only as deep as suits them, never get down to the general factors that govern the matter.”11 The center of gravity will always be different in every war and on every level of war, even if it is only in the smallest of facets. It is the smallest of details that often hold the key between victory and defeat, mediocrity and greatness. “Theory then becomes a guide to anyone who wants to learn about war from books”12 and it is the true military genius that can find the variance from theory to reality, and can weed out the true center of gravity. Only critical situational analysis can do this, but there can be no definitive process to achieve this. Perhaps all theory is obsolescent – simple lessons learned from centers of gravity never to be repeated – but it illuminates the necessity for critical thought so that sometimes the arrow can hit its mark and the true center or centers of gravity can be found.

Ibid: Location 7182.
Ibid: Location 2789.

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