I heard the name Carl von Clausewitz many times during my education and career, but I only started to look into his writings a few years ago. The impetus for that was hearing “War is the continuation of policy by other means” and its variants a few too many times in a few too many contexts. I thought I had a use for it myself in something I was writing, but I wanted to find out what Clausewitz meant by it before I used it.
The poles of meaning attributed to that simple sentence seemed to be, on the one hand,
Politicians might do damn near anything. Make flamethrowers available in the US Congress, and they’ll probably use them.
And on the other,
War is a means to attaining a politically-defined result.
What I wanted to say was closer to the second. I found a compendium of quotes from his work in the Web, with some commentary attached was pleased to find that I was in line with Clausewitz’s meaning, at least as far as I could tell from that limited selection of quotes.
In his Note of 10 July 1827, included in the front matter of the edition of On War that we are using, Clausewitz tells us how important this precept is (as Lex noted earlier):
If this [“war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means”] is firmly kept in mind throughout it will greatly facilitate the study of the subject and the whole will be easier to analyze.
And indeed it is present throughout the book.
I think that we should learn this if there is nothing else we learn from “On War.” Its consideration seems to be absent from recent wars.
Additionally, I suggest that it implies a spectrum of activity, from normal interactions with friendly countries, through the wide span of negotiations, to war itself. I will return to this implication as we go through the book. From what I have read so far, Clausewitz implies this spectrum, but does not describe it explicitly.
And, as Clausewitz suggested, I intend to keep coming back to that basic idea.