A Chain of Linked Engagements

“If we do not learn to regard a war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next, but instead succumb to the idea that the capture of certain geographical points or the seizure of undefended provinces are of value in themselves, we are liable to regard them as windfall profits.”
— Carl von Clausewitz, On War

WITH THESE WORDS, Clausewitz advised the strategist and commander to keep in mind the importance of connections between events, as well as the total cost of achieving one’s goals. In analyzing great events, to be sure, nothing can or should happen in isolation. Everything should be part of a larger plan. The plan can change, of course, and that too is part of the process. The world is a dynamic place.

But do not miss the key point of the concept embedded in the paragraph by Clausewitz. It is one thing to say something along the lines of “Everything is connected to everything else.” Yes, of course, chaos theory posits the flapping wings of a butterfly leading to a tornado somewhere else in the world. But that kind of remark is just too broad, and is just glibness masquerading as profundity. Really, such a comment is almost meaningless, because it does not give you any guidance as to what to do next.

The trick of success, whether in war or in life (and certainly around the halls of Agora Financial, LLC), is to understand which important things are connected to what other equally or even more important things. If you are going to connect the dots, then make sure that you connect the important dots. Hence, there is the critical need to understand what you are observing, and this is the true import of the comment about a “chain of linked engagements.”

The Accumulation of Costs

In the quotation at the beginning of this article, Clausewitz was warning against focusing on just one, or perhaps a few, perceived and singular benefits. These benefits might be potential or real, but the decision-maker must keep in mind at all times the accumulation of costs involved in achieving those benefits.

“Never buy a stock unless you have some idea of when and under what circumstances you are going to sell it,” says Warren Buffett, a sort of modern Clausewitz of investing. What Buffett means is that even if the stock goes up in price, you still have to understand why you own it and decide whether to keep your money in play or take it off the table. And “Never send troops into combat unless you have a plan for getting them out,” said former Secretary of State Colin Powell back when he was the mere chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. That is, it is a lot easier to march into someone else’s country than it is to march out.

But back to our old friend Clausewitz, and his cautionary advice. Take another look at what Clausewitz wrote. Can you sense the element of utter disdain in his comment? Clausewitz was advising, and in essence admonishing, the strategist and commander not to “succumb to (an) idea.” Right away, by using the word “succumb,” the reader is on notice from Clausewitz that something might not be all that it appears at first glance. Don’t be one of those suckers who are born every minute, to use a phrase coined by P.T. Barnum. And what idea is that, exactly, to which you should not succumb? It is, “that the capture of certain geographical points or the seizure of undefended provinces are of value in themselves.”

Oh, really? “But is that not the point of war?” you ask. What could be better for the conduct of a war than one’s advancing army capturing “certain geographical points,” let alone seizing “undefended provinces”? It seems counterintuitive not to want to do so, because is this not the purpose of war? But Clausewitz was warning that the unschooled mind might incorrectly categorize these types of territorial gains as “windfall profits.” Is there something wrong with windfall profits? Whence comes Clausewitz with this approach?

The Influence of Napoleon

Remember, dear readers, that Clausewitz learned his lessons of war through fighting against a certain opponent by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. Clausewitz must have seen something in the strategy and operations of Napoleon, and the fight against him, which led to the caution toward seizing territory without maintaining a broader perspective. What geographical points, if not undefended provinces, did Napoleon capture that at first seemed to be “windfall profits,” but eventually proved to be the undoing the French commander? Let’s take a look at the Russian campaign, or more accurately, let’s look at Napoleon’s road to Moscow. Let’s think in terms of time, and space, and force.


In one section (Book IV, Chapter 12) of his great book On War, Clausewitz discusses Napoleon’s approach to Moscow during the invasion of 1812, and the critical battle of Borodino. Napoleon had invaded Russia in June 1812, and the Borodino battle was fought on Sept. 7, 1812 (Aug. 26 of the Julian calendar then in use in Russia). Borodino is considered the largest and bloodiest single-day battle of the Napoleonic Wars (something near 80,000 killed, and many more wounded), and it may well be the single bloodiest day of army-on-army battle in all of human history. Borodino was a French victory, to be sure, but also marked a pivotal point in Napoleon’s Russian campaign, because it was his last offensive battle in Russia. Afterward, Napoleon’s army was on the defensive, and then in retreat, and finally in headlong flight and rout.

Involving more than 250,000 troops, the battle pitted the French Grande Armée under Napoleon against the imperial Russian army of Alexander I (commanded by Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov) near the village of Borodino, west of the town of Mozhaysk. The fight ended with mixed tactical results, although the French captured the main positions on the battlefield. Strategic considerations of salvaging what remained of their formations led the Russians to withdraw.

“But this much is clear,” wrote Clausewitz:

“When Bonaparte passed the Niemen [i.e., when he invaded Russia]…his army…numbered 300,000 men, of whom now only 120,000 remained. [Bonaparte] might therefore well be apprehensive that he would not have enough left to march upon Moscow, the point on which everything seemed to depend. The victory which he had just gained [at Borodino] gave him nearly a certainty of taking that capital, for that the Russians would be in a condition to fight a second battle within eight days seemed in the highest degree improbable; and in Moscow, he hoped to find peace.

“No doubt the complete dispersion of the Russian army would have made this peace much more certain; but still the first consideration was to get to Moscow, that is, to get there with a force with which he should appear dictator over the capital, and through that over the empire and the government. The force which he brought with him to Moscow was no longer sufficient for that, as shown in the sequel, but it would have been still less so if, in scattering the Russian army, he had scattered his own at the same time.

“Bonaparte was thoroughly alive to all this, and in our eyes, he stands completely justified. But on that account, this case is still not to be reckoned amongst those in which, through the general relations, the general is interdicted from following up his victory, for there never was in his case any question of mere pursuit. The victory was decided at four o’clock in the afternoon, but the Russians still occupied the greater part of the field of battle; they were not yet disposed to give up the ground, and if the attack had been renewed, they would still have offered a most determined resistance, which would have undoubtedly ended in their complete defeat, but would have cost the conqueror much further bloodshed. We must therefore reckon the Battle of Borodino as amongst battles…that were never completely fought out…At Borodino, the conqueror preferred to content himself with a half victory, not because the decision appeared doubtful, but because a total victory would have cost him more than he was able to pay.”

“A total victory would have cost him more than he was able to pay,” states Clausewitz of Napoleon at Borodino. And this is the key to understanding what we were reviewing earlier, Clausewitz’s caution against capturing geography, or “undefended provinces,” simply for their own sake. Yes, Napoleon seized the field at Borodino. This required time and force, to seize a particular space west of the ultimate objective of Moscow. But to pursue the retreating Russians, the French commander would have risked dividing his forces, dispersing and distributing his energies, wasting his time and resources, or committing other cardinal martial sins that violate the fundamental tenets of strategy and warfare. So Napoleon ended the fight with half a victory, but with his focus intact and aimed at Moscow. After Borodino, Napoleon continued to march east.

Back to the Chain of Linked Engagements

This is as good a place as any to return to Clausewitz’s comment at the beginning of this article, about “war, and the separate campaigns of which it is composed, as a chain of linked engagements each leading to the next.”

Consider again the story of Napoleon in Russia. Bonaparte crossed the Niemen River, said Clausewitz, with 300,000 troops. (Other historians put the number closer to 700,000, including allied forces from Germany and Austria, as well as a multitude of camp followers and other units from as far away as Portugal.) But after three months of hard marching and fighting, each road trek and each skirmish being one in the “chain of linked engagements,” Napoleon had but 120,000 left. This was, to be sure, a formidable force. It was also but a hollowed-out shell of the initial vanguard, and there were few forces that Napoleon could consider, let alone call upon, as his reserve. He was deep in the opponent’s territory, “surrounded,” as it were, in a sea of humanity that was, to say the least, not French.

And what was the prize that Napoleon sought, beyond the martial glory to be gained upon the grounds of Borodino? Moscow, of course (although the capital of Russia was St. Petersburg), and French control over the empire and government of Russia, if such could be gained. Thus, as the fighting ebbed on Sept. 7, 1812, Napoleon may have known that Borodino was destined to be a famous victory. But he also would have known that there were going to be many more links in what Clausewitz would come to call that chain of engagements. Napoleon had won his battle, but certainly not his war.

And what did Napoleon see as he finally approached Moscow, with supplies running low and the winter winds beginning to nip at the exposed skin of his fast-depleting forces? He saw smoke, rising from the embers of a burning city. And rising with that smoke, into the crisp sky above, were the vapors and ashes of Napoleon’s dreams and strategy. For all that had gone right during the march into Russia, now everything was about to go wrong.

Simple, but Difficult

“Everything in war is very simple,” wrote Clausewitz. “But the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction…This tremendous friction…is everywhere in contact with chance, and brings about effects that cannot be measured, just because they are largely due to chance…Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes.”

And knowing this, it is easy to understand that the more things that go on in a war, and certainly the longer that the war lasts as those things occur, the greater are the odds that the simple, but difficult, things will accumulate, if not compound. As these difficult things add up, the greater are the odds that the friction of war will build up and spark another conflagration, often as not in the most unexpected form and location. And finally, with the passage of time comes an increase in the odds that enough “unique episodes” will occur to take on a life of their own and cause even the most brilliant commander to lose control of events.

Retreat From Russia

Napoleon retreated from Russia along the same Smolensk Road along which he had advanced. But this time, on the march out, all of the valuable goods along the way had been stripped bare. The horses of the French army ran out of forage and starved, or they were simply eaten by hungry soldiers. The French abandoned their wagons. Russian soldiers and partisans picked off the members of Napoleon’s army in attacks both large and small. And Russia’s ally, the fierce “General Winter,” sent his forces blowing down from the north to do their grim work against the weakened French.

By the time Napoleon crossed the Polish border in December 1812, he had lost 98% of his forces and essentially all of his equipment. Between June and December of 1812, the chain of linked engagements had led to disaster. What the naval defeat at Trafalgar had been to French sea power in 1805 the Russian campaign and calamity was to French power ashore in 1812.

“War is the realm of uncertainty,” wrote Clausewitz many years later. And “War is the realm of chance,” he stated on another page of his great book. When he wrote these words, Clausewitz must have had foremost in his mind the image of Napoleon retreating in the snow from an irreversible folly.

Yes, dear readers and friends, I am sure you know that Napoleon survived his Russian invasion and retreat. And you may even know that Napoleon promptly raised another army of 400,000 in 1813 with which to invade Germany in another great campaign. But the disastrous Russian campaign had a profound strategic consequence, far transcending the immediate and calamitous military losses.

The Russian defeat revealed to the world that neither Napoleon nor the combat arms of France were invincible. And this ultimately was Napoleon’s downfall, through other and future links in the endless chain of engagements.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King
December 19, 2006