Clausewitz “On War”, Book 1: such a dangerous business

Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak recently said that “war is not a picnic”. He should know. Barak was a distinguished commander in the Israeli army, fighting in the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Unlike Barak, most Western politicians and their officials have not served in the armed forces, let alone fought in a war. Israel, with its history of conflict and conscription, is arguably the sole exception. Yet politicians are the people who decide whether a country goes to war and for what reasons. If they haven’t seen war at first hand, then at least they should be under no illusions about what it involves.

Perhaps they should read Clausewitz and On War? Clausewitz saw long periods of active service during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of the late 18th and early 19th century. He experienced the brutality of war at first hand in numerous campaigns, including Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, when he fought under the Russian flag. In Book 1, Clausewitz strives to convey what war is like, based on his war experience and a close reading of military history.

His language is plain, hard and uncompromising. “War is such a dangerous business”, he writes. It is a duel, a gamble, saturated with danger and destruction, hardship and hazard, chance and uncertainty. It is a situation where much is at stake, and where things can go badly wrong very quickly.

This is the atmosphere of war, and it is enduring. It is not for those of faint heart, weak mind and languid temperament. The lesson for the politician is that one should think hard before deciding to go to war. But once the decision is made, the commitment must be total. There is no place for moderation in war, Clausewitz wrote. You can’t afford to be a nice guy when you are confronted by a determined foe.

For this reason, Book 1 of On War should be required reading for all politicians and officials charged with national security decision-making. It should also form part of the curriculum of undergraduate politics, history, commerce and law courses, where budding politicians are often found. Those who decide to send men and women to war must first understand that war, being “such a dangerous business”, requires clear thinking about objectives, strategy and risks.

8 thoughts on “Clausewitz “On War”, Book 1: such a dangerous business”

  1. Kotare-

    Great thoughts! I couldn’t agree more.

    One of the vices of On War is that it is simple, but difficult reading, and consequently, the only people who spend time reading it are:

    1) Military Professionals (only a few of them. Most don’t pick read it)
    2) Fake military professionals who’s job it is to sit in a think tank somewhere until the political winds shift, at which point they move into defense policy making.
    3) Chicago Boyz

    The implications of this are great in a democracy, because it means that many of the important questions that ought to be brought up when deciding on whether to go to war are never discussed.

    In the past safeguards were in place to prevent these deficiencies from becoming too glaring. Generations ago the political class of the democracy was schooled by way of their secondary educations in the history of warmaking. Military History was common, and it was an admired discipline. This is not true today. Also, in the past it was quite common for the American political class to serve, adding depth to their intellectual understanding of war.

    Today we substitute a solid CV of military knowledge & experience for “the ability to run a national campaign,” and other nonsense.

    Is there a way to fix this in the future? I don’t think so. The education systems today are not amenable to change, and the politics of democratic countries do not look favorably on military service in their politicians.

    The only school that can possibly fix this is the school of reality. If we were to become so unfortunate that we would be engulfed in a war so large that it would be impossible to ignore its effects, then perhaps we would feel obligated to elect people who have served honorably, and know the business of warcraft. But that is a grim future indeed, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

  2. Sort of an Fyi, There is a great new, short, book out on reading Clausewitz, a corrective if you will. My review of it does not come out until this summer in Joint Forces Quarterly (if ever) but here is the citation: Jon T. Sumida_Deconding Clausewitz (KU University Press, 2008).

    From my review on the issue of education (and Sumida also weighs in on the utility of Clausewitz for non-specialists):

    “I have been introducing and teaching On War to field grade officers since 2000.
    Sumida’s book, and the re-reading of Clausewitz I have done as a result, has made me revise my views and will almost certainly cause me to revise my presentation. I recommend to my students to continue to read Clausewitz and engage his ideas on a regular basis. Sumida articulates coherently why we should develop such habits, especially for those who are military professionals. On War should not be confined to war and staff colleges—it needs to be fundamental reading for any leader who aspires to high political office. I have always believed that On War deserves as broad and educated a readership as possible. The same holds true for Sumida’s insightful and practical book—both for Clausewitz veterans and those who have not yet discovered its hidden treasures.”

    as to the categories above, I guess I fit into the first one, although I would add a fourth that is distinct from the think tank weenies.
    John T. Kuehn, Ph.D.
    Commander USN (retired)
    Associate Professor of Military History
    US Army Command and General Staff College

  3. Nat – Thanks for your comment, and phew! good to see that we finally agree on something.

    Re: “Generations ago the political class of the democracy was schooled by way of their secondary educations in the history of warmaking.”

    Couldn’t agree more. When I think of all the important books of politics, philosophy, classics and history that I wasn’t exposed to at school and university, it makes me weep.

    John – thanks for your comment and the reference. I’ll look forward to reading your review when it comes out.

    Re. “I have always believed that On War deserves as broad and educated a readership as possible.” Agree – one of the things I want to cover in these posts is highlighting the relevance of On War not just to the military readers that Nat writes about, but to politicians, public servants, students, businesspeople etc.

  4. Excellent points, Kotare! The proportion of U.S. citizens (and U.S. legislators) with personal military experience has eroded alarmingly in the past sixty years. Like Macchiavelli wrote in _The Prince_, “There is no effort more essential to a Prince than the nature and conduct of war.”

  5. > For this reason, Book 1 of On War should be required reading for all politicians and officials charged with national security decision-making.

    While there are many politicians of some intelligence (although most of those are self-serving charlatans, so that’s scant support), one wonders how many are capable of reading Clausewitz and getting A-1 clue.

    Certainly there are exceptions — Cheney obviously learned from Boyd and the Fighter Mafia, which is why the Gulf War, and Operation Desert went as well as they did (the initial conception for ODS was a certain-to-result in substantial casualties “charging rhinocerous” attack. Cheney made sure that was not the way it went down).

    But most politicos are either far too stupid to read something like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu or Boyd and come away with more than a “that’s nice”, or they’ll come away with better techniques to use in their own political battles.

    I think what really should be the case is we shouldn’t have politicians who don’t read Clausewitz, etc., and not Get It.

    How we arrange for that has not yet been settled to any reliable, secure fashion in the 20-odd millenia of human social collectives. While you can certainly manage this with dictatorship, that method has its own security/control problems.

  6. BHL Hart’s “Strategy” is pretty good if a little disjointed. It grew by accretion. Nice historical overview with modern (WW1 & WW2) application.

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