Should we still read Carl von Clausewitz?
I am by training, a historian and that education leads me, when I am reading great books like On War, to ask fundamental questions about them as I read – “Is Clausewitz the last, best and final word on the nature of War?” or ” How far did Clausewitz see and where was he blind?”. Such training also inclines me to pay closer attention to the cultural and historical context in which seminal works emerged.
Should American officers today be leading troops or planning campaigns without having had the benefit of the lessons Clausewitz can teach? Supposedly, Moltke the Younger and his generation of officers on the Grossgeneralstab disdained to read Clausewitz(1) but given the results of the Great War, it is reasonable to assume that they and Imperial Germany might have profited from the exercise.
It is is difficult not to be impressed with the brilliance of Clausewitz’s insights as I read Book I. His disciplined yet speculative mind was not constrained by the Newtonian paradigm that governed the 19th century’s increasingly deterministic understanding of nature; nor did he become intoxicated by the mythic Romanticism that pervaded European elite culture and abandon the rigor that can be found on every page of On War. There is ample evidence to be found in Book I. of Clausewitz surpassing his times to grasp concepts and truths that do not emerge in other fields for decades or more than a century.
Yet there are also passages that show the rootedness of the worldview of a European military officer who survived the cataclysm of the Napoleonic wars. I finished Book I. firmly convinced of Clausewitz’s genuine greatness as a philosopher but remain unconvinced that that he has discovered the eternal nature of war in all it’s varied manifestations – I am also deeply skeptical that such a thing could even be possible.
Before I try to bury Clausewitz on that score, allow me first to praise him. In his lonely and self-critical reflections on war, Carl von Clausewitz saw far. Intellectually, the man was a giant.
A few examples:
On “The Maximum Exertion of Strength”
“….Assuming that you arrive in this way at a reasonably accurate estimate of the enemy’s powers of resistance, you can adjust your own efforts accordingly; that is, you can either increase them until they surpass the enemy’s….But the enemy will do the same; competition will again result and, in pure theory, it must again force you to both extremes.”
This is the “Darwinian Ratchet” with Charles Darwin shouldering a rifle and field pack – decades before Origin of the Species.
On “War is never an Isolated Act”
“….Each side can therefore gauge the other to a large extent by what he is and does, instead of judging him by what he, strictly speaking, ought to be or do”
Clausewitz is discussing here the principle of “,Countervailing Power“, which does not appear in Economics until the early 1950’s with John Kenneth Galbraith’s American Capitalism.
Another modern subject that is present throughout Book I., though there are other members of this roundtable who are better qualified to discuss it than I am, is Clausewitz’s intuitive grasp of complexity in his discussion of the interrelationships between the variables involved in war and their capacity for dynamic variance and feedback loops. While Clausewitz rightly ridicules the idea of reducing war to “algebra”, that he argued that war consists of relational elements which influence one another at times with ” the slightest nuances” and “uncertainty” would be difficult to dispute.
I am however troubled by the absolutist assertion that Clausewitz makes that war “…. is always an instrument of policy” [ emphasis in original]. This statement is wrong or at least is more true in some cultural and historical epochs than others – unless we are to define “policy” in some new way that permits it to possess a universal scope that covers most human activities in all cultures throughout history. Most likely, given his military experience, Clausewitz was thinking of war between Europeans or non-European civilizations of Asia Minor and not warfare carried out by, say, the Ibo or the Sioux.
Clausewitz explicitly and sensibly linked “policy” with the “state” which we can reasonably say could encompass the various kinds of organized, “civilized” governments from the Greek polis to Chinese dynasties to early modern European bureaucratic nation-states:
“If the state is thought of as a person and policy is the product of its brain, then among the contingencies for which the state must be prepared is a war in which every element calls for a policy to be eclipsed by violence”
Such a contingency is alien to some cultural worldviews. The voraciously bloodthirsty, religiously oriented Aztecs could not conceive of “policy” in the Clausewitzian sense even when the Spanish under Cortez inflicted repeated catastrophic defeats and desecration of their holiest shrines upon them, invaded their capital, humiliated their semi-divine Emperor and freed their tributary slaves. The Aztecs did not lack courage or a warlike tradition – just the cultural requirements for carrying out war as Clausewitz envisioned it in theory or from personal observation.
Clausewitz writes a little – very little – in Book I. of war made by “savage” and “semicivilized” peoples, except generally to remark upon their inferiority compared to great civilizations. In the latter instance we might infer he meant the Turks, Persians and Arabs and in the former case, perhaps the barbarians of antiquity or the tribes of North America or Subsaharan Africa. However we do not know for certain because Clausewitz does not say whom he meant. Writing two centuries earlier, Montesquieu had more specific citations of the customs of distant lands in The Spirit of the Laws than Clausewitz does in On War.
Clausewitz’s pure, abstract theory of war that he adroitly balances against the modern practice of war cannot substitute for actual knowledge of how war was made by semicivilized or savage peoples. It may be, that Clausewitz had such knowledge but I see no evidence for it in the text. It seems more likely to me that Clausewitz was drawing there from reading of classical antiquity but even there we should be cautious. The Greeks certainly made war from “policy” as Clausewitz articulated the concept but with powerful governing considerations that are absent in Clausewitz’s day.
The Spartans, for example, were called “the craftsmen of war” but this was not meant in regard to their prowess in battle, as historian Paul Cartledge explained:
“Again, when Xenophon described the Spartans as ‘craftsmen of war’ he was referring specifically to military manifestations of their religious zeal, such as animal sacrifices performed on crossing a river frontier or even the battlefield as battle was about to be joined. The Spartans were particularly keen on such military divination. If the signs (of a acrificed animal’s entrails) were not ‘right’, then even an imperatively necessary military action might be delayed, aborted or avoided altogether”(2)
That is not war from “policy” or even, strictly speaking, “chance”, is it ?
None of this is to argue that Carl von Clausewitz should not be regarded as a genius or even as the most important philosopher of war in the last 1000 years. No, it means that we have to be careful with attributing an eternal transcendence to a State-centric work written during a particular epoch, European modernity. Many of the concepts in On War apply well to wars far outside the historical framework in which Clausewitz fought, thought and wrote his magnum opus but we should also test Clausewitz’s philosophical prescriptions against what records exist.
We should still read Clausewitz.
1. Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, Alvin Bernstein (Holger). 1994. The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War. Cambridge University Press. 251-252.
2. Paul Cartledge. 2004. The Spartans. Vintage Books. 176.