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  • Clausewitz, On War, Introductory Matter: Empiricism, Clarity of Expression, Patterns not Systems, Utility

    Posted by Chicago Boyz Archive on January 11th, 2009 (All posts by )

    I am happy to be reading On War again. I read excerpts in college, in Prof. Mearsheimer’s class “War and the Nation State”. I have only glanced at it in the years since. I have been carting this particular copy around from place to place for sixteen years. Why am I reading it?

    Samuel Johnson, whose temperament was anything but martial, astutely observed: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.” So it is with me, and many of us war-haunted males, who have always been fascinated by these matters, since childhood. With such people, with advancing age, a pretense if not the actuality, of emotional maturity develops. The ongoing fascination with martial matters takes the form of an often ardent, book-based, interest in military history and military affairs — while perhaps denying or downplaying the deep-rooted underpinnings of this fascination, which go to the foundations of the man’s personality.

    The more I read in these areas, the more it appears that there is a fair amount of intellectual and moral confusion, due to the corrupting zeitgeist which I will for shorthand simply refer to as political correctness. In this view, to caricature it, discussion of these matters is considered contemptible and childish and unserious in this politically correct and feministic era. These topics are jejune trivia-mongering about boys with their penis symbols running around with dangerous toys and going bang-bang, and sometimes causing actual people to get hurt. And the idea of patriotism or sacrifice for the common good, or genuine mortal dangers to be faced and destroyed, all these are mirages and false conscience or patriarchal or racist and hence immoral and not to be taken seriously. Better to change the subject, and make clear that this pernicious and outdated nonsense has no place in the discussion of decent and sensible people. Soldiers are fools or dupes or dullards who like to kill people. Middle class, educated people want nothing to do with them and want their children to have nothing to do with them. While the foregoing is a caricature, it is not a wildly inaccurate one. In such a worldview, there is no reason to read, think about, or know about Clausewitz.

    An older and wiser view was that there is a hierarchy of theoretical relevance in the study of history and current affairs. War, politics, law, followed by economics were the key studies because they pertained to the most important matters. In this view, as a matter of indisputable historical fact, armed force is more often than not the key determinant of whether peoples and communities, and their political and economic orders, will survive and persist or be killed and replaced by their competitors. The political and economic and legal and technical cultural foundations of any society or civilization in turn will determine whether that society or civilization can generate sufficient armed might to survive, and preserve itself over time. If it has such power, that society may conquer and impose itself on others, or compel their compliance with norms it has selected. This is generically “imperialism” and it has historically been the only way to create and sustain a zone of compelled peace and order necessary for economic development, trade and the higher accomplishments of civilization which are founded on a secure military and economic base. Obviously, this is how I see things, and I reject the other view I have lampooned above.

    Assuming I am right, if a person has an interest in preserving his own society, because it is good, or might be good someday, or even just because it is his own, then as a citizen he should be aware of matters pertaining to warfare in his day and age. And if he is charged with more responsibility that merely the franchise, or the bully pulpit of a bar stool speaking to other fellow citizens, so much the more should he have such knowledge.

    So, there is some good reason to know about matters pertaining to warfare, even for amateurs. And of course many of us are obsessed with these matters beyond any practical utility, but due solely to their inherent fascination. And these days, the materials to feed this insatiable intellectual curiosity are immensely greater than the time and energy available to consume them. Books are available with the click of a mouse, and a dent in the bank account, that used to be the subject of nearly hopeless, multi-year quests in used bookstores. Older books are full text online. Journals and blogs with up-to-the-minute information are a mouse click away. Finding others who share these interests, from all over the world, is easy now, and the conversations via email can become engrossing intellectual salons in themselves.

    And this avalanche of information begs in turn to be organized into something coherent, which will allow organized thought, about the past, how we got here, where we are now, and what might happen next, in the world of armed conflict, of politically motivated violence, warfare in all the hydra-faces it shows us, or keeps concealed.

    And as we look around for some organizing framework, some intellectual bins and buckets, at least, to sort all this material out, we look for a reliable guide, a respected instructor. And we keep seeing the same name come up: Clausewitz.

    Many writers refer to him, and many current ones seem determined to rebut or claim to have surpassed Clausewitz. But it is always Clausewitz who is “the guy to beat”. His sole challenger is Sun Tzu, at least in the last generation or so. But despite the current vogue for the Chinese sage, which I cannot vouch for, but will assume to be merited, Sun Tzu has not been so woven into the military mind and thought of the Western world nearly so deeply or for so long, as Clausewitz has. In a century, it may be different, but for now, the foremost military thinker of our civilization is and remains Clausewitz.

    This predominance is recognized, if sometimes resented, but is balanced by the claim that everyone talks about him, and many quote from him, but few actually ever read Clausewitz. Hence, the “Clausewitz” who is spoken of by his proponents as well as his detractors may only be a cardboard cutout, a bullet-point power point slide of sound bites, at best a Cliff Notes version of the man and his book.

    This blog was founded by people who went to college at the University of Chicago. Part of the ethos at the U of C was to read original documents, in translation if necessary, but to get as close to the historical sources as you could, to take these old books seriously, to accept as a rebuttable presumption that they became classics because they had some enduring insight to convey, to see for yourself what these people said, and what they claimed they were doing, and what they professed to believe. Hence, ChicagoBoyz is a good forum for a group of people who are doing just that with the “classic”, On War. We are letting Clausewitz speak for himself.

    There is only one way to find out whether Clausewitz still has anything of value to say, and if what he says is true, useful or illuminating: Read, or re-read, the book.

    That is what I asked all of our contributors to do. So, when we read any writer who says “no one actually reads Clausewitz” we can all say “well, I have.”

    I’m 2/3 done re-reading the book. I am ready to conclude that the book does have value today, now.

    Enough throat-clearing: On to the book itself. While the contributors were assigned to comment on the eight “books” composing On War, I have taken the liberty of starting “before the beginning”. I will note a few things I discerned in Clausewitz’s introductory matter. (pp. 61-71)

    The first question I asked myself was: What is this book? What is it for? Who is it for? What is the author trying to do? Clausewitz gives us some indication in the introductory material to the book. He tells us that what passed, in his day, as “systematic theories of war” were inadequate. As we will see later, he can be biting, even sarcastic, in his discussion of his contemporaries, whom he believes have concocted theories that may be elegant on paper, but are detached from the realities of actual warfare. So, one goal he had was to attack and rebut these other writers, including Jomini and Bulow, whose theories he found to be unusable and a waste of time.

    Clausewitz tells us that he does not offer in their place a comprehensive theory of war of his own, something which he says may not ultimately even be possible. Instead, he offers us the results of “[y]ears of thinking about war, much association with able men who knew war, and a good deal of personal experience with it … .” Based on these, he has developed “certain ideas and convictions” which he hopes are internally consistent, even if only “tentatively linked”. This is important. Clausewitz is an inductive thinker. He derives principles from the mass of experience and observation. He does not create a system and then go looking for facts to support it. More than that, he will not even bother trying to formulate an all-encompassing system where the best he can honestly derive from the lived truth of actual warfare is a series of linked observations, or more or less consistent patterns.

    Clausewitz also tells us that he started out hoping to write in a suggestive and aphoristic style, for knowledgeable readers, not a systematic outline, which would be more suitable for less knowledgeable readers. However, he says that in his drafting he drifted toward a more systematic presentation, going topic by topic. This dual nature shows up repeatedly in the book, where Clausewitz will sometimes “get off of his outline” and offer anecdotes or suggestive comments based on history or experience. (It also gets one thinking about what an “aphoristic” On War would have looked like — something like Sun Tzu, I think. One also wonders what Clausewitz would have made of Sun Tzu, if the book had come into his hands.)

    Clausewitz tells us further that a “point that must be made absolutely clear” is that “war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means“, his italics. He says that keeping this “firmly in mind” will “greatly facilitate the study of the subject and the whole will be made easier to analyze.” This phrase is one of his most famous, of course, and it shows that he is concerned with war as purposive action, as policy, not merely engaging in violence without aim or direction. He has come in for a variety of criticisms for this focus. Does this orientation in some way diminish his value as an analyst, because many irrational and non-purposive or counter-purposive actions do happen when men work violence on each other? I think not, and we will see what he makes of what we might call “non-instrumental violence” later in the book. But it may suffice to observe that the study of organized, instrumental violence is a large enough topic to keep us busy, and one with legitimate boundaries which justify taking it as a field of study in itself.

    Clausewitz, concludes his introduction by again noting that an overarching theory of war appears to be impossible. He then refers to the great commanders of history, and tells us that they possessed “genius” and acted on “instinct”, rather than applying any set theory. The implication is that, while lessons can and must be learned from them, no theory in any strict sense, can be derived from studying, for example, Frederick or Napoleon — his two main exemplars throughout the book. Nonetheless, he chose to persevere with his book because “clear ideas” on military matters do “have some practical value”. He also notes that the human mind has a “thirst for clarity”, which he hopes to at least partially achieve by setting out systematically what can be accurately known. Further, while any “scientific” theory of the art of war is apparently not possible, nonetheless, there is a “whole range” of correct propositions that can be made, based on consistent practical experience. One such example is that “defense is the stronger form of fighting”. He will discuss each of these propositions in the book as he goes on.

    Clausewitz presents himself as a writer who is humble before the challenges presented by his subject. He has been forced to conclude that war cannot be wholly understood and mastered intellectually. Yet it can still be better understood, even in limited fashion, by means of clearly spoken ideas based on actual experience, which can have practical value to those who employ war as an instrument of policy, or prosecute that war.

    The lesson I derive from rereading these first few pages, before the substance of the book has even begun, is that modern writers and thinkers could benefit from Clausewitz’s intellectual approach, in several ways, almost without regard to the substance of his teaching.

    First, Clausewitz should be emulated in his empiricism and rejection of any “theory” which is not rooted in and verified by experience of actual events as they actually occur. His thinking and writing is saturated by personal observation and military history.

    Second, Clausewitz recognizes that an overarching “scientific” summation of war is not achievable, and that anything that purported to be such a “system” would be either false, or only trivially true, and hence useless or harmful, and should be avoided.

    Third, Clausewitz also recognizes that creating and fostering clarity of terms and clarity of ideas is an important goal which has practical value. The reverse, left unsaid, is that unclear or vague or muddy terminology or ideas will be useless or even pernicious. I note in this regard that Clausewitz does not make up acronyms, neologisms or cook up his own idiosyncratic terminology. Instead he mostly employs plain speech, using words in their ordinary sense, with the occasional arresting metaphor. His personality comes through as a result, and the writing, even in translation, is lively. There are passages which are dense or technical, but Clausewitz is never unclear.

    Fourth, even if an overarching theory is not possible, nonetheless, strong and consistent patterns do emerge. These should be noted and understood and recognized, as refined metal out of the ore of experience. It is not necessary to go farther and try to impose some abstract coherence upon the totality of observations. The accuracy and the utility — to soldiers and policy makers — of the lessons derived from experience are the point, not their theoretical elegance. There need never be “one killer slide”.

    Fifth, these insights are to be used in the service of policy. War as it actually occurs, is to be understood and articulated as clearly as possible, based on observed patterns, so that it can be waged with rational goals in mind, and with some hope of their attainment.

    These themes will recur throughout the book.

    [My post on the actual first assignment, on Book I, will be up soon.]


    18 Responses to “Clausewitz, On War, Introductory Matter: Empiricism, Clarity of Expression, Patterns not Systems, Utility”

    1. zenpundit Says:

      Superb introduction for this roundtable, Lex. And I’ll thank you again for initiating this entire enterprise in the spirit of reading serious books firsthand, “The Chicago Way” (in the sense of Leo Strauss rather than Rod Blagojevich)

      “Does this orientation in some way diminish his value as an analyst, because many irrational and non-purposive or counter-purposive actions do happen when men work violence on each other? I think not, and we will see what he makes of what we might call “non-instrumental violence” later in the book. But it may suffice to observe that the study of organized, instrumental violence is a large enough topic to keep us busy, and one with legitimate boundaries which justify taking it as a field of study in itself.”

      Well put. I think there are clear boundaries regarding “instrumental violence” whether we are talking the Westphalian nation-state or the ancien regime or the classical ancient world vs. the kinds of atavistic violence of say, the ritualistic and religiously motivated battlefield tactics of warfare of the Aztecs. They are not the same to my mind and the dissimilarities between the two do much to explain the supreme triumph of Cortez and Spanish arms over a vast empire

      Other members of the roundtable will probably disagree with me but that’s what will make this discussion worthwhile and interesting. In any event, you are correct, even with clearly defined borders, instrumental violence is a very large field of study.

      Great post.

    2. William F. Owen Says:

      Good post.

      I particularly like the five point summation at the end. It all generally true and useful, especially as I believe that “systems thinking” has no place in war and a very limited use in warfare. Patterns appears to be a extremely useful way to think, and the association with Boyd’s “Patterns in Conflict” is not lost on me.

      In addition, clarity of thought is also exhibited by clarity of writing. This is where Clausewitz excels and the majority of modern writers fail.

      The one quibble I would have is the mention of Sun-Tzu. Sun-Tzu wrote a “On Strategy” not On War. They are two entirely separate subjects. CvC is essential reading for a modern officer. Sun-Tzu, very much less so. If you do want to Tzu, then get the R.L. Wing translation.

    3. ART Says:

      Mr. Green,

      Your comments are raising the bar on the participants. Your final comment that your Book 1 post is coming soon made it worse.

      I have to comment the correct translation of Sun Tsu’s work. Commonly, it is translated as Sun Tsu’s “Art of War”. The Chinese is “Sun Zi Bingfa” or literally “Sun Tsu’s Soldier’s Method”. “Art of War” sounds much better than “Soldier’s Method”. I have read a little bit of it. My impression is its content is very instructive, but profound (really).

    4. deichmans Says:


      Great start to the Roundtable!

      I am looking forward to the catharsis of putting thoughts to ‘blog, and seeing what others have to say about Karl von. There is no doubt that Clausewitz is very relevant today — not only due to his profound influence on the military organizations that followed, but also his insights into the nature of humankind in the midst of profound struggles. Quite a contrast to Jomini!

      vr/ shane

    5. historyguy99 Says:


      Clausewitz would be proud!

      If this roundtable were a battle, your introductory post represents a splendid opening volley that serves to momentarily silence those who find Clausewitz irrelevent, leaving them stunned and seeking cover. They may return to the firing line, but not before searching about for something to counter your forceful words.

    6. Sean Meade Says:

      brings up Zen’s perennial concern about elites and class and soldiers coming from lower socio-economic families.

      i, too, am dogged by doubt that i didn’t serve. but i keep convincing myself my personality would have been a horrible match with the military. plus, i was an unreconstructed liberal pacifist then ;-)

      So, when we read any writer who says “no one actually reads Clausewitz” we can all say “well, I have.”

      better, you can ask ‘have you read C?’ ;-)

      all of this reading of primary texts and usefulness to modern thinkers is a tacit criticism of postmodern literary theory. C’s logical approach is worth studying (legitimate parts of the postmodern critique notwithstanding).

      Clausewitz does not make up acronyms, neologisms or cook up his own idiosyncratic terminology.

      hmm. we associate with someone who does this quite a bit ;-)

      There need never be “one killer slide”.

      dude. you better watch it! ;-)

    7. Lexington Green Says:

      Sean, if a certain unnamed someone ONLY had one killer slide, I’d be worried. Also, if someone is going to cook up their own vocabulary they had better be otherwise clear. I think that is what our unnamed someone usually does. I am actually aiming more at the XGW complex of ideas and writing. But, let the arrow strike where it will. I will take up these issues more as we go. I do not have expertise in strategy and military affairs. But I do write for a living and if I fail to persuade the reader my kids don’t eat. So I do know something about that.

    8. Stephen Pampinella Says:


      Great intro, look forward to reading more.

      Sean: “all of this reading of primary texts and usefulness to modern thinkers is a tacit criticism of postmodern literary theory. C’s logical approach is worth studying (legitimate parts of the postmodern critique notwithstanding).”

      This is true, and Clausewitz’s emphasis on rationality is paralleled by the dominance of rational choice in political science during the 80s and 90s, although critiques have emerged from postmodern critical and literary theories that focus on culture and discourse. Nonetheless, the debate between rationality and relativism should not be understood as an ongoing and neverending debate, like realists and liberals, science and history, and positivism and postpositvism. Rationality and culture can in fact be considered complementary, as has been argued by Alex Wendt and James Fearon. If this is true in political science, then it also should be true for military theory, meaning that there must be a theoretical way to reconcile Clausewitz and his postmodern counterparts, either Boyd or Sun Tzu.

    9. Lexington Green Says:

      Stephen, Clausewitz emphasized the primacy of rationality in political decisionmaking, but I think he was this as a goal, not as a given. It is easy to get it wrong. It is all too easy to unleash primal forces of hatred that can burn out of control. It is commonplace to have the supposedly “rational” political goals that led to the initiation of war becoming altered and possibly warped under the heat and stress of war.

      So, the intersection of rational decision making with culture and with emotion are both inherent in Clausewitz, at least as I am understanding him.

    10. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

      I do think Clausewitz was a rationalist, but at the same time he recognized the limits of that rationality. CvC understood that the second a foe takes the field, uncertainty pervades, and the rules that hold rationality extend only as far as your span of control. Beyond that is a singularity that cannot be spanned except by victory, defeat, or armistice.

      Is he a Rationalist? Yes, but only in the same way that Jesus was a Jew, or that Martin Luther was a Catholic.

    11. DRT Says:

      Well written. The “personal” introduction was insightful and right on the mark. Throughout the ages war has been a fact of life, even if that is unpopular with PC idealism. Warriors pop up on the Left (Russian Revolution, Spanish civil war) and Right (same examples other sides).

      Men are hardwired to consider violence. To what degree do women think about it? Does Clausewitz discuss this?

      Feels like I should get a copy.

    12. Sean Meade Says:

      hey, i helped spur a discussion! maybe i’ll make the acknowledgments ;-)

    13. Lexington Green Says:

      Sean, get the book and get in on this thing.

      If you ask me nice I’ll let you join late.

    14. Sean Meade Says:

      good idea, but i have to pass. thanks, Lex :-)

    15. Lexington Green Says:

      Roger that.

      Keep being a productive backbencher, and I will get you into the acknowledgments.

    16. DRT Says:

      Re: Zen’s perennial concern about elites and class and soldiers coming from lower socio-economic families.

      i, too, am dogged by doubt that i didn’t serve. but i keep convincing myself my personality would have been a horrible match with the military. plus, i was an unreconstructed liberal pacifist then ;-)

      My comments:

      I have not read Zen’s previous writing but can easily supply examples to illustrate. Anyone reading military history will be struck by descriptions of quality of spirit based on identity, shared values, professionalism, idealism, etc. It has happened many times in history that a kingdom, country, nation, tribe, etc has depended on some other group (ally, subject people, mercenaries, etc) to do the acutal fighting. Sometimes this works well. In other circumstances it has led to disaster, not least because people who have killed are less likely to compliantly accept their post conflict status (time for a pay raise/we can rule better than you, etc). LG will no doubt find passage of von Clausewitz that are relevant to this suject.

      When I entered university ROTC was considered something for stupid losers to do. I changed my ideas later. As for personal guilt, I feel little. The negative attitudes of the US at the time were due to Vietnam. Morevover, better educated Americans who drove the intellectual content of the anti-War effort could not make the connection between stopping Communism in South East Asia with their (comfortatble) lives in the US. One can debate the reasons for this.

      When I learned almost 10 years ago that the US awards citizenship in return for service in the US military, I was shocked. I have read justifications of this in the historical record (e.g., Civil War recruited among freshly arrived immigrants). I remain unconvinced.

      Currently I am living in a Nordic country. Sweden lacks money for its armed forces. It has been reduced to “voluntary conscription”. Every male must serve but it is impossible to admit them all. (In some exercises soldiers ran off landing craft and shouted “ra-ta-ta-ta-ta, I shot you you’re dead” because there is no ammunition. The armed forces must deny entry to conscripts, while at the same time jailing those who refuse to register in political protest. The official desire is to increase the number of women, while denying neo-Nazis and other off-color people from serving. Most of the work that the army has has shifted from defense of Sweden to EU/UN international assignments.

      Finland has not and will not go this direction. Who would prevail in war games between Finland and Sweden today?

    17. Kirk Parker Says:

      because many irrational and non-purposive or counter-purposive actions do happen when men work violence on each other

      True enough, but just as true if you end the sentence at ‘work’–i.e. this is just part of the human condition.

    18. Lexington Green` Says:

      Kirk: True enough, but we happen to be talking about warfare.

      Further, while plenty of “irrational and non-purposive or counter-purposive actions” happen in the workplace, the stress and danger and aroused emotions of war and violence make such behaviors more likely and more severe in their impact — meaning people get killed who might not otherwise. Compared to that, other human affairs appear to be much more orderly and reasonable.