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March 12, 2007

Updating Defense Jargon: Center of Gravity
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

It's time for progressive thinkers to jump into the fray of redefining the lexicon of defense. I'm going to throw out jargon here from time to time in an attempt to do this. Center of Gravity is my first try.

Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote last Saturday:

"When geo-strategic military front lines are non-existent, as in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq, mass no longer equals victory. The great military thinker Carl von Clausewitz's notion of "decisive battles" as the "center of gravity" of war is simply irrelevant to conflicts that have no visible "center of gravity." and besides that, "Victory" cannot bring peace, simply because there will always be a war after the war."

I have a slightly different take. I do think the concept is still useful, if only as a concept. Even though people on the ground in warzones don't use this jargon, here, too. It's still important to jump into the fray of updating what it means. Center of Gravity is a good example. It has progressive implications, if framed for today's world.

Every military seeks to identify both ours and our enemies sources of power, then protect ours and destroy theirs. During WWII, an identified Center of Gravity would have been a munitions factory and its destruction through bombing a high priority. Today’s definition of CoG is constantly evolving. It includes both culture and society and also how they change over time. In fighting terrorism, for example, the enemy CoG is the network of supporters worldwide who view Bin Laden more sympathetically than they view Americans. In this context, "victory" over the enemy CoG means ending support for terrorists by offering persuasive alternatives . The military takes seriously the effects of others’ perceptions of the USA and understands the importance of legitimacy—or leading by example. Check out the Combined Joint Task Force in the Horn of Africa.

The Bush Administration has repeatedly ignored the importance of legitimacy, hence missing the Center of Gravity repeatedly for the past five years. In contrast, General Petraeus, the recently appointed Commander in Iraq, seems to get it comprehensively.


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Donald Rumsfeld thought that the 'center of gravity' in the current wars was closer to home.

"The good news is that most Americans, though understandably influenced by what they see and read, have good inner gyroscopes. They have good center of gravity. So, I'm confident that over time they will evaluate and reflect on what is happening in this struggle and come to wise conclusions about it."

"I mean, the center of gravity of this war is not in Iraq or in Afghanistan. It is really in the United States, and it's in the capitals of the countries around the world where the people are free and they recognize that we're in a struggle against violent extremists."

"We wouldn't have the country we have today if the American people didn't have a good center of gravity and the ability to understand what's truly important, and then to persevere. And that's been our whole history."

Good heavens, let's NOT go back to re-defining, re-purposing, or re-gifting CLAUSEWITZ. By all means, re-read him, now that Peter PARET got the right texts together after a century of fake CLAUSEWITZ.

But, I do not see why progressives can not pick up from John BOYD with Martin VAN CREVELT, Gabriel KOLKO, Bill LIND, Dennis KUCINICH and my friend "Fabius Maximus", say, discussion of the relative merits of "Distributed Ops" versus "Fourth Generation Warfare", comparing and contrasting the LIND manual and the PETREUS manual, and so on.

I really think that the concept of Physical, Mental, and Moral planes is the place to discuss legitimacy.

"Center of Gravity" was never that useful in its original context and it is misleadingly obsolete today.

So, puh leeze!

The authors above can be found at Defense and the National Interest:

When quoting or interpreting Clausewitz, it is helpful if one has actually read his book. Ben-Ami's advanced a pretty sad strawman in this case. Clausewitz didn't argue that a decisive battle was the center of gravity of war; he's pretty clear in stating that it varies depending on the war. From Book Eight, Chapter Four:

"For Alexander, Gustavus Adolphus, Charles XII, and Frederick the Great, the center of gravity was their army. If the army had been destroyed, they would all have gone down in history as failures. In countries subject to domestic strife, the center of gravity is generally the capital. In small countries that rely on large ones, it is usually the army of their protector. Among alliances, it lies in the community of interest, and in popular uprisings it is the personalities of the leaders and public opinion."

A more serious discussion of the concept can be found in the following piece:

"Reining in" the Center of Gravity Concept

Behrman is right. The currency of anything Clausewitzian is tin amongst the most "progressive" military thinkers. For laymen, reading John Keegan is a start (not because he's simplistic, but because his prose is accessible). Then follow onto the bibliography Behrman provides.

Clausewitz has been eclipsed, and most serious discussion about military force projection today will mention him before moving on to the other thinkers Behrman mentions.

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