Posted by Lexington Green on March 21st, 2009 (All posts by Lexington Green)
There is a huge amount of secondary material about On War. Many books, often by very competent scholars, and an enormous number of articles, all offer us shortcuts into Clausewitz’s thought.
I decided to read none of it. I did not care very much, for now, about Clausewitz scholarship, and I did not care if I replowed already well-plowed ground. To the extent I got any “new” insight from On War, it was inevitably something that is “old” in terms of the voluminous critical writing. Someone else certainly thought of it first.
But, for me, the point was not to engage in some kind of academic exercise. I am not an academic, I do not have academic colleagues, I do not publish scholarship about military matters, I do not have classes either as a teacher or student. I have no need to be “up to date” or “cutting edge” about Clausewitz.
Instead, I am simply an amateur who is a lifelong student of military history and military affairs, and a citizen who prefers to have some understanding of the world and the threats our country faces, and how we might deal with those threats.
From that humble standpoint, I decided that the best thing to do with Clausewitz was trust the verdict of history, that On War has ongoing value, and respect the effort he made to write it, and his widow made to put his draft in order, so that we could have it to read.
The best way to do that was to simply read it all, front to back, and see what I found in there.
Therefore, it did not matter to me that others had already thought of everything worth saying about On War before me.
What mattered was to engage with Clausewitz’s mind, and to reach my own conclusions.
The problem I have these days is that work and family commitments make it very hard to read anything in a focused and careful way. Time and energy are scarce. This makes a long and demanding book like On War almost beyond my capacity to read in a serious way.
The blog roundtable was, for me, a way to impose discipline on myself. By committing to read the book over a specified period, and to concentrate sufficiently to write about it, and to engage with others who were doing so at the same time, I was able to read the book and focus on it and extract some value from the experience, as haphazard as it was at times. I would tell my family, “you have to leave me alone for a while. I am going to write about Clausewitz!” (The children found this puzzling, but my wife is used these occasional episodes.) What I wrote for the blog was more a means to help me digest the book than a fully coherent set of posts for the reader. If anyone found any of them worth reading, I am glad to hear it.
While I was reading On War I always had two or three other books going at the same time, as usual, mostly military history. It was interesting that On War was already causing me to read and understand other books on military affairs with — I believe — a superior level of critical thinking and insight.
Clausewitz is the kind of teacher who causes you to think better merely by following along with what he is trying to teach you.
Of course, to say it this way is to speak of “Clausewitz” as if he exists as a disembodied presence, who has or had an intention that somehow is still running its course nearly two centuries after his death.
As a Roman Catholic, I do literally believe that Clausewitz, like everyone, is an immortal soul, and I prayed for him from time to time as I read the book. I hope he made it to Heaven. I want to get there myself, and I want to meet him.
But on the more mundane level, can we infer that Clausewitz meant to speak to us, in this inconceivably different world of today? Is he really speaking to us? Or are we listening in to a conversation between General Clausewitz and his brother officers of his own era, a conversation that has points of interest, but is over now, a conversation fading into the past?
I think he did mean to speak to us. He was serious when he told us that he was trying to penetrate to the bedrock of war, the actual nature of war, to absolute war, an unattainable apex toward which actual events gravitated, to other permanent and commonly recurring features, of which this or that historical contingency is only a particular manifestation.
He believed he had, in some places, hit bedrock. I think he was right about that. There is no reason to think that these findings would not be permanent, would not remain applicable, so long as the most basic things about human beings living in organized societies remained true.
So he meant to speak to us today, and into the future, and his reasons for presuming to do so were sound.
I am going to forego a bullet-point list of “lessons learned” at this point. As I sketched one out, it promised to be far too long, beyond what I have the time to write.
Like any truly great book, reading On War once is not enough. If you had asked me halfway through Book VI if I would ever read it again, I would have said “no way”.
Having finished it all, I now feel compelled to say, “I have to read it again”. Maybe not every word the second time. And certainly not right away. Good heavens, no. I need to digest it, and read a lot of other things.
But probably within ten years, God willing, I will be pounding on General Clausewitz’s door, and demanding that he take me through this material one more time. He will roll his eyes, shake his head, but then put on his cloak and riding boots and bicorn hat, and ride with me, and perhaps with some companions, over the same ground, and try beat into my head some of what he has to offer. I will do my best, as I did this time.
I must express my sincere gratitude to all of my companions on this roundtable. Many of the posts, and comments, and offline discussions, were very astute and helpful. Each contributor brought a distinct personality and intellectual style to their writing, which lit up varying facets of the book that I might have missed, or which I would not have thought of in quite the same way. It is like we have gone on a staff ride together with Clausewitz. I only regret that we cannot all come in from the field together, hang up our rain-dampened cloaks, stamp the mud from our boots, and have a round of drinks before the fire. Cyberspace is wonderful, and allows companionship across space in ways that we would not want to live without. But it will always fall short in some important aspects.
Last and most importantly, thank you to Gen. Carl von Clausewitz, late of the Prussian Army, soldier and scholar, man of physical, moral and intellectual courage, who believed that the primal violence of war had to be harnessed and channeled and directed by political and military leaders, toward reasonable and achievable ends, to bring about a better peace when the cannon at last fall silent, who generously left to posterity the priceless treasure trove of his hard-won wisdom.