The Trinitarian Dilemma by Bill Buppert

The nation state marshals resources for war better than non-state entities through economies of scale and the ability to command and direct central planning efforts although it suffers a concomitant lack of agility and innovation due to the necessity of creating large bureaucracies to execute the formation of large armies and still Clausewitz’ Trinitarian notions are certainly relevant today.  Subject to misinterpretation by non-German speakers, his complex theory is just so because the notions are…complex.  Bassford and Villacres make the best summation I have found:

Clausewitz defines the components of the trinity as (1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity; (2) the play of chance and probability; and (3) war’s element of subordination to rational policy. [1]

As with so much multilingual literature in history, proper translation is key. The Trinitarian notion is much greater than the sum of its parts. The last clause is the operative measure of effectiveness in harnessing what van Creveld would call “fighting power.”

Like so much that we discover when divining the auguries in strategy and grand strategy, Clausewitz provided a solid basis from which interpretations could be rendered. The rationality of policy must be embraced through the parochial lens of the respective sides in a conflict. Risk and the assumption thereof is a major component of daring and combat calculus that when it fails may look irrational but had a rational intent to begin with.

I think that Schuurman and Echevarria are wrong in their assessment of Lind and van Creveld. The latter confreres posit generations of warfare and Echevarria especially fails to see that they are not distinct succeeding stages or a new mode of warfare but simply additional permutations outside of conventional warfare. Both Lind and Van Creveld will certainly acknowledge that irregular and non-state warfare practices are as old as mankind. The Vietnamese campaign against both the French and Americans clearly used both conventional and irregular means to fight a simultaneous war against invaders.

There is no doubt that a Trinitarian analysis can be useful in prosecuting the irregular wars and conflicts that pepper the planet but van Creveld and Lind are simply saying that additional factors are at play and bigger is not necessarily better. Echevarria is not all wrong, he makes a great point:

“It also means that one-sided, McNamaraesque formulae and facile, prescriptive theories like effects-based operations will always be around because the arrogance that underpins such thinking seeks to control the variable nature of war. Finally, it means that it is possible for war to have a changeable nature, and yet still be war.” [2]

But to lump Lind and van Creveld with the infamous McNamara is an unfair conflation at best.  They happen to be some of McNamara’s most severe critics. It would be fascinating to see how this disagreement would mature if both sides acknowledged that there are no lock-step successions of the generations of warfare they propose but a blending of the military mechanisms used when conditions and evolutions of conflict behave over time.

When van Creveld makes the point that “states were also in a position to take away as much as 85% of their citizens wealth for the purpose of making war” [3] he is certainly making the case that the Trinitarian concept is alive and well by rationally harnessing the material means to expand the warfare state or prepare for the prosecution of a conflict. Van Creveld makes the cogent point that Clausewitz may not have the full descriptive power that his acolytes claim. This is increasingly relevant as more and more non-state actors, both good and bad, take the world stage. In the end, I have no doubt Clausewitz is relevant to modern conflict but the emerging literature that approaches irregular warfare in a fashion that is more cognizant of the interdisciplinary factors that shape modern conflict such as Field Marshal Gerard Templer’s admonitions about the importance of political calculation in the prosecution of small wars and the lack of efficacy of high technology forces being stymied by relatively impoverished adversaries simply expands the framework. Van Creveld makes the observation that Clausewitz’ relevance as an explanatory device for both medieval conflict and the world after 1945 leaves some gaping questions for explanation that are not satisfied by the Prussian scholar.

To wit:

“While Clausewitz must surely not be totally disregarded in the last decade of the twentieth century, we must carefully examine the assumptions which underlie his model. These assumptions are the basis for the organization of our armed forces and the strategy with which we use military force. Quite simply, the record shows our forces fight best when they fight other armies. It should be clear that trinitarian assumptions are not universally valid, as demonstrated by our forces as they engage non-trinitarian opponents in counter-drug, counter-insurgency and counter- terror operations.” [4]  

The nation state is in for a rude awakening on the war front in the twenty-fist century. The non-state actors will ultimately prevail in the MIddle East and mountainous regions planet-wide that have always been “state-repellant.” Clausewitz doesn’t have all the answers but the explanatory framework is a good starting place to develop an understanding of the new frontiers ahead.

[1] Bassford, Christopher, & Villacres, Edward. “RECLAIMING THE CLAUSEWITZIAN TRINITY.” (accessed September 11, 2012)

[2] Clausewitz and “How Has War Changed?”. Contributors: Ii Antulio Echevarria – author, Colin Gray – author. Journal Title: Parameters. Volume: 35. Issue: 2. Publication Year: 2005. Page Number: 138+.

[3] van Creveld, Martin. “THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY Some Reflections on the Future of War.” dnipogo. (accessed September 11, 2012).

[4] French, K. “Clausewitz vs. The Scholar: Martin Van Creveld’s Expanded Theory Of War.”

2 thoughts on “The Trinitarian Dilemma by Bill Buppert”

  1. Hi Bill, I’m a big fan, and I like hearing you on the Freedom Feens and Bad Quaker. There is a question that I have been unable to answer for myself, and if anyone can help me, you can.

    I seem to recall reading about a theory that “revolutions” or attempts by the people to overthrow (and usually replace) the government can only be successful in those periods of time when the most advanced military technology available to the state is also available to the people. For example, the advanced Kentucky long rifle was available to farmers and soldiers during the American “Revolution.”

    I don’t know that I agree entirely with this theory, but I am interested in reading more about it and drawing parallels to the current cyber/crypto war that is being waged right now. Do you know who published this theory and where I can find more about it? I think I may have even read it on the wikipedia page for a historian or political philosopher, but it’s been a little while, and I can’t find it again.

    Thanks for your help. Keep up the good work.


    1. Hey Ryan,

      Thanks for the kind words and I am not aware of where that theory may be.

      Per technology, I do consider that a critical factor in historical naval warfare but not necessarily land conflict. The Afghan and Iraq conflicts should give pause to any observers that a military technological parity is necessary for defeat of a superior power. Land conflict tends to be a contest in operational doctrine harnessed to rational strategic frameworks that are resilient and adaptive. You’ll note it was different operational and tactical visions that led to some significant British defeats in the First American Revolution (1775-83) BUT the UK could not concentrate its effort because it was fighting a global conflict against France. The British Army was also wedded to the bayonet as the primary force to win battle and this would not change until 1898. The AmRevOne was something of an echoing residual of the French and Indian Wars. This is something the West does not have excepting the operationally superior auftragstraktik practices by the Germans for a century and a half ending with the War to Save Josef Stalin (1939-45).

      I do think that Fabius Maximus hits on some of these points here with a variety of links to explore: (Pay close attention to the comments)

      I highly recommend perusing this site for some possible rabbit-holes: or the excellent site here at zenpundit:

      Let’s make this a conversation and keep exploring.


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