Clausewitz and Absolute War

During WWII, what German center of gravity did the U.S. attack? What Japanese center(s) of gravity did the U.S. attack? Where those centers of gravity obvious at the beginning of the war or did their identification develop over time? Were they correct?

In his book, "On War," Karl von Clausewitz defines the center of gravity as " ... the hub of all power and movement, on which all depends."

During WWII, the U.S. fought a two-front war; one in Western Europe and one in the Pacific. For the purpose of this essay, Germany will be identified as the enemy in the former theater and Japan pertaining to the latter. The U.S. attacked the center of gravity (COG), belonging to the Axis powers, dictated by the strategic and tactical abilities and limitations of the U.S.

Whether the correct German or Japanese COG was identified is difficult to gauge. When considering U.S. involvement throughout the war, comparing the levels of 1941 to those of 1945, the determination of the enemy COG did undergo a metamorphosis that was dictated by U.S. political objectives. Rainbow 5, the 1940 U.S. plan that anticipated war, allied with the U.K., against Germany, Italy, or both, applied a defensive strategy in the Pacific until Allied victory was secured in Europe.

With this in mind, Clausewitz's definition of limited aims may be more appropriate, for the time being, on the American conduct of war. Clausewitz suggests that limited aims apply when circumstances do not allow for the destruction of the enemy. Thus, offensive war with limited aims is a particular kind of limited war. In his discussion on plans that lead to the total defeat of the enemy, Clausewitz's two principles include the concentration of force and speed.

In order to destroy Germany, the Arcadia Conference in December of 1941 indicates that the U.S. understood the eventual requirement to invade Europe via the Mediterranean, Middle East, or Western Europe. To land allied forces in Europe represents the epitome of Clausewitz's basic concept behind channeling all available means for the destruction of the enemy - his center of gravity. Therefore, it would be safe to say that the U.S. did recognize the German center of gravity well before it was actually able to attack it directly. Instead, lesser centers were engaged. Some of these included the 1942 Operation Torch that focused on control of the Mediterranean by landing in North Africa and attacking Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Deutsche Afrika Korps (DAK), and later landing at Anzio in 1944 in Operation Anvil.

An important COG target to the Allied strategic bombing campaign were German economic centers that were bombed with no remorse. The Oil Plan, conceived by General Spaatz, was specifically aimed at attacking the oil industry of Germany that would later force many German vehicles to be abandoned out of sheer lack of fuel. With Allied air supremacy, everything from railroads, factories, fuel dumps, and cities were strategically bombed. Surprisingly though, German manufacturing rates were the highest in every category that included tanks, artillery, aircraft, and submarines in 1944. Of similar interest are the Japanese COGs that the U.S. attacked in the Pacific.

After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the forced emergence of the aircraft carrier as the capital ship, the U.S. attacked appropriate Japanese COGs that developed in a similar way to their European counterpart, albeit politically considered as the secondary theater of war. Keeping in mind the before mentioned Allied war plans, the U.S. went from limited aims to absolute war in the Pacific. This argument is based on examples that illustrate the various COGs attacked and the amount of force applied.

In 1941, the control of the Pacific rested in the hands of combined carrier- and land-based air forces. Eugene M. Emme provides a short and accurate observation that describes the U.S.' condition prior to the break out of war:

"In the fall of 1941, the Navy air arm, like the Army Air Forces, was not yet prepared or deployed for a global war in Europe or Asia. The naval battles to come in the Pacific would be fought most often in the air where surface fleets never saw one another."

Here, Emme confirms the Allied need to adopt a strategy of limited aims which Clausewitz considered to be a defensive war that

" ... includes minor offensive operations ... can take the form of raids or diversions, perhaps the capture of some fortress or other ... So while Imperial Japan was swallowing up more and more of the Pacific theater, utilizing the air-sea and ground assault, the United States fought a defensive battle of attrition, learning valuable lessons that would, eventually, put the U.S. on the offensive and bring the tactics of air power to a higher and more effective level."

This opinion is confirmed by the former IJN commander, Mitsuo Fuchida, who says:

"While Japan enjoyed initial success at the expense of the United States, the latter profited by the bitter experiences of the early months and marshaled its forces, adapting what it had and developed what it had not, to win the war in the Pacific."

A perfect example of Clausewitz's limited aims was part of Operation Cartwheel, the reduction of Rabaul and destruction of Truk by U.S. carrier raids; considered as the Japanese hub of all power (COG) in the Pacific. Another U.S. attack on a Japanese COG that can be as assimilated with limited aims was the assassination of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. As C-in-C of the Combined Japanese Fleet, Yamamoto was eliminated (shot down over Bougainville on 18 April 1943) in the best interests of America. As was the case in Europe, the U.S. advanced through the Pacific towards the mainland of Nippon, the juggernaut (COG) that would eventually be obliterated.

In August of 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima followed by another that hit Nagasaki three days later. These two attacks are no longer limited aims, but rather absolute war at its best. The highest level of political importance was placed on the number of American lives atomic power would save that warranted the total annihilation of Japan, who was unwilling to submit.

The total destruction of Germany and Japan did not save lives in the long run. By removing their presence in their geographic areas, in both cases, communist expansionism flourished. Korea and Vietnam cost the U.S. more lives than could have been forecasted as a result of disrupting the balance of power in the Far East. Maybe the A-Bomb was not such a good thing after all. Did the U.S. hold back in Desert Storm as not to disrupt a balance of power? Would the total destruction of Iraq presented further problems down the road with Iran, Egypt, or Israel?

The enemy centers of gravity that the U.S. engaged in Europe and the Pacific theaters of war were identified early in the war. Although by Clausewitz's standards the U.S. pursued limited aims (alternative COGs), the U.S. graduated from their initial "limited" conduct of war to one of absolute war. Based on this essay, is there any reason to consider the possibility that the Korean War was not our first limited war?

1. Consulted was Carl von Clausewitz, On War, (New Jersey, 1984), p. 703.
2. Derived from the exceptional work of the general editor, "Rainbow Plans" in I. C. B. Dear and M. R. D. Foot, ed., The Oxford Companion to World War II, (Oxford, GB 1995), p. 928.
3. Book eight, chapter five, in Clausewitz, On War, 601-02; 617.
4. Michael Howard, "The Grand Alliance," The Oxford Companion to World War II, 494-98.
5. Russel F. Weigley, Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-45, (Bloomington, IN 1981), pp. 378-80; Richard Overy, "Statistics," The Oxford Companion to World War II, p. 1060.
6. This section is based on Eugene E. Emme's book "The American Dimension," eds., Alfred F. Hurley and Robert C. Ehrhart, Air Power and Warfare. This study, although short in length, is broad and covers a good deal of general air force information concerning a time period between 1903-1941.
7. Clausewitz, On War, 614. He goes on to say that defensive war is inherent to the idea of waiting. This is exactly what the U.S. did, buying time. The smaller offensives acted to wear down the enemy until we were ready to deliver bigger blows.
8. Consulted was the exceptional view that ranks as the best from the Japanese viewpoint and found in Mitsuo Fuchida and Masatake Okumiya, Midway: The Battle That Doomed Japan, eds., Clark H. Kawakami and Roger Pineau, Annapolis, MD: 1955), 241.
9. ed., The Oxford Companion to World War II, 1292.
10. Ibid., 530; 773.

Copyright 2002 Stenger Historica