One of the most important ideas in war is the concept of the Trinity. The Trinity consists of three elements: the rational, the irrational, and non-rational and their interactions. The psychological and environmental factors create the non-linear and unpredictable effects of war.

Clausewitz described war “like an object suspended among three magnets.” This kind of pendulum is non-linear – it never repeats the same pattern. No one element dominates over the other although they may vary in proportion. The forces interact and blend together creating chaos.

Clausewitz believes that each element is most strongly associated with each branch of society: the government, the public, and the military. The government engages in war on the basis of rational decisions. The military fights through friction and non-rational elements that blur the ability to make rational decisions. The public is overtaken by emotional elements, such as hatred, fear, and despair rendering rational argument impossible.

But the Trinity affects all aspects of society, and is certainly not a ‘trinity’ of government/army/people. Parameters has an article reviving the original idea of the trinity from its critics.

This is how Clausewitz introduces the trinity:

War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.

The first of these three aspects mainly concerns the people; the second the commander and his army; the third the government. The passions that are to be kindled in war must already be inherent in the people; the scope which the play of courage and talent will enjoy in the realm of probability and chance depends on the particular character of the commander and the army; but the political aims are the business of government alone.

These three tendencies are like three different codes of law, deep-rooted in their subject and yet variable in their relationship to one another. A theory that ignores any one of them or seeks to fix an arbitrary relationship between them would conflict with reality to such an extent that for this reason alone it would be totally useless.

Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.

To break it down:
(1) primordial violence, hatred, and enmity
(2) the play of chance and probability
(3) war’s element of subordination to rational policy.

War, we must remember, is not an abstract conflict between “states.” States are a meta-agent made up of a body of individuals. Individuals act on local information and interests and self-organize to form states and more complex forms of behavior. They adapt and evolve. The state of the USA is not a unitary rational actor, but a self-organized cluster of 300 million agents, all of whom handle the elements of the trinity separately.

The Rational Element
Rationalism is bounded by limited information, limited time, and competition with other rational actors. It’s important to remember that rational decision is not unilateral. The general idea is that every individual and state will try to rationally maximize their benefits. This could mean they want to maximize their absolute wealth and power or they want a relative advantage over rivals.

War is a result of distribution problems and conflicts of interest. No two individuals can have exactly coinciding interests because of their different situations and needs. As their interests diverge, they are less able to reconcile the differences.

Individuals and States rationally attempt to resolve these conflicts through politics, and war is an aspect of these politics.

Due to competition with other rational individuals, even under conditions of perfect information such as chess, a individual’s rational plan will not provide the exact results he desired.

The Non-Rational Element

Clausewitz noted three major points about war: it is not an isolated act, it is not decided at once, and the results are not final.

These factors prevent war from being a fully rational activity. It has no real starting or end point, nor is it a series of simple causes and effects. Non-rational elements primarily include non-human factors which create uncertainty and friction.

Friction and uncertainty are components of non-rational elements.

Environmental effects were once attributed to divine intervention. This effect has been so powerful that it marginalizes the entire concept of human warfare. Natural disasters often kill more than major battles. Indeed, Sailors through history have been rightly more afraid of the ocean and weather than they have been of enemy fleets. Likewise, disease decimated entire armies and navies throughout history, often causing half the casualties of war.

These non-rational elements may have deterministic qualities, but since we have such little understanding of them, they should be considered random variables.

The Irrational Element

The irrational element consists of the emotional and psychological aspects of war. This includes emotions such as fear, hatred, aggression, hysteria, as well as irrational beliefs such as religious fanaticism.

Irrational elements must be joined with rational elements in decision making. Irrationality can make a decision-maker act riskier or more cautiously than a pure reason would dictate. Soldiers, politicians, and citizens are all effected by psychological factors which we barely understand.

Morale factors are more important than material factors. Fear limits the actions of the soldier and makes him too cautious to complete a rationally necessary mission. Discipline and order helps overcome this irrationality. Armies are rarely ever destroyed in material terms. They are routed when soldiers panic and break order and run away.

The public is the most distant from the rational decisions of the state, the rational strategies of military leaders, and the non-rational effects of friction. There is a fundamental lack of knowledge of reality, so they are more easily overtaken by irrational emotions. The public’s emotions are easily inflamed and easily driven to dispair.

The public falsely attributes non-rational effects to government and military leaders, as they misunderstand the war. Propaganda can exploit this effect either way. The public may even turn to despair at the oddest of moments and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


The Trinity describes the nature of warfare better than any other analytic framework. Theory must conform to reality, without excepting any evidence. Theories which assumes pure rationality or pure irrationality will fail to explain the many unintended causes and consequences of war. The Trinity explains these forces, even if it makes no predictions.