Clausewitz, On War, Book I.: A Man of His Time or for All Times?

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.

9 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War, Book I.: A Man of His Time or for All Times?”

  1. I’m not sure why people persist in claiming that (a) Clausewitz claimed to have developed a universal theory of war and (b) that this is nonsense because there are many forms of warfare that do not fall into the “war is an instrument of policy” characterization. If I remember correctly, this is the guts of John Keegan’s argument in “A History of Warfare”. I don’t believe that a close reading of the book, and allowing for the idiosyncratic way in which concepts are sometimes couched, bears this out.

    My reading of Book 1 is that Clausewitz was writing for European professional soldiers, students of war and politicians of the early 19th century. He wrote about the forms of war that they were familiar with. In particular he sought to explain the nature of the revolutionary form of war-fighting that the French armies and Bonaparte had unleashed.

    Clausewitz may have believed that this form of war was the pinnacle of combat. He may have considered that war as practiced by non-European peoples were lesser forms of war, or not war at all. But it’s difficult to see how one can read into Clausewitz a claim to having developed a universal explanation for war that holds for all time and all places, unless one takes some of his phrases too literally. Clausewitz uses plenty of examples to illustrate his arguments – if he had considered that his ideas on war applied to non-European peoples, then he probably would have sought to back that up with evidence.

    Still, many people do misinterpret Clausewitz, as you rightly point out, Mark. There is much in “On War” that is relevant to modern times, and much that isn’t, and it’s up to each generation to sift things for themselves.

  2. OK, I’ll bite. Disagree of course.

    First, I would say that those supporting your argument would probably reject the possibility of developing any sort of social theory at all. Essentially social science is a waste of time because the social entities we are dealing with are simply too complex to be dealt with in any but a case by case historical approach which relies on the historian to intuitively understand the subject in question. So “I don’t need to bother with theory, I’ll just read history” (a very American attitude I’ve found) . . . Mathematical perfection is not possible in this type of theory, rather what is required is “adequacy” in terms of “modelling” the system as a whole.

    Second, the greatest and the second greatest error (imo) people make in reading Book 1 Chapter 1 should always be kept in mind. First placing arbitrary relationships between the elements, giving one dominance over the others, for instance “war is the continuation of policy by other means” as defining what war is while disregarding the other two “irrational” elements. Also Section 3, that is mistaking the social conditions and relations between the political communities which lead to war for war itself.

    Third, failing to realize that Clausewitz’s general theory can operate with other compatible social theory/strategic theory concepts (Weber, Morgenthau, Svechin) which actually allows the general theory to be built upon, allows for the development of additional theory (as in complex/structural realism).

    Fourth, a too limited definition of politics . . . I use Max Weber’s.

    I can add more, but Mother’s calling . . . got to go.

  3. Hi Kotare,

    I think your description is is exactly right:

    “Clausewitz was writing for European professional soldiers, students of war and politicians of the early 19th century. He wrote about the forms of war that they were familiar with. In particular he sought to explain the nature of the revolutionary form of war-fighting that the French armies and Bonaparte had unleashed.

    He also has a theory of war which can be used as a yardstick to analyze conflicts but my ding against universalist claims was more a caveat against some of his followers than against Clausewitz. I agree that his primary concern was the European context and On War has wider resonance wherever a reasonably state-like apparatus makes war

  4. Hi seydlitz89

    Speaking only for myself, my view of the social sciences and their theories – when properly done with valid and reliable methodology – is that theories are cognitive tools that are analogous to lenses. They can focus, magnify or reach a different level of perception of a phenomena. Generally, in elucidating meaning, these theoretical approaches reify and fractionate but occasionally they construct simplified models of complex meta-systems. Useful.

    This can be a very powerful approach when done by a scholar who understands how to correctly collect and analyze data and that good social science complements and enriches historical case studies. Done badly, social science research will be about as valid as astrology.

  5. “I agree that his primary concern was the European context and On War has wider resonance wherever a reasonably state-like apparatus makes war.”

    He trying to be more general than that. I will look in the book, and find out where he says so. He was trying to do a lot of things, but one of them was to generate a general theory of war. The European context of his own times was in effect a massive case study, and it certainly was the one of most interest to his most likely audience. He he does talk, here and there, about all kinds of other conflicts. The farther into the book you go, the more you see of these other sorts of examples.

    Also, remember: He never published it. He never finished it. Also, the part he considered to be finished was the most general and theoretical part.

    I do not think it is arguable that Clausewitz has presented a general theory of war. Or, if theory is the wrong word, a general set of observations and tendencies pertaining to war.

    The question then is: Does this material have utility now? Does it provide a framework for looking at war now?

    A corollary to that: Does anyone have a framework with more utility?

    Restated: If not Clausewitz’s framework, whose?

    My answers: Yes, no, nobody so far.

  6. “He was trying to do a lot of things, but one of them was to generate a general theory of war.”

    No. I’m wrong. All I meant was; He was not writing something he considered limited to his own era and continent. He was making general and generalizable observations, but not formulating a general theory.

    I need to be careful how I say this.

  7. Hi Lex,

    Well, I think we have to, with the “policy” aspect, consider the “silent evidence”, to borrow Taleb’s phrase.

    “Policy” as Clausewitz is using the term is a product of a complex society. We have had complex societies only since circa 10,000 BC (and I am being generous with that outlier)with the onset of the Agricultural Revolution and permanent settlement with the take off point for riparine civilizations being circa 4000-3000 BC.

    This means that the vast majority of conflicts that have risen to the level of “war” are unrecorded and unknown and the data set that Clausewitz had at his disposal in the early 19th century was an exceedingly small -and largely unrepresentative – portion of the entire picture of the warfare ( which in another light, makes his acheivement more impressive). Even in classical antiquity with the advent of writing, the historical record that remains is very sketchy. Cultures effect how people think and reason and vastly different cultures produced different epistemologies than that of European rationalism. We have a small fraction of what the ancients recorded and of what they recorded, insert the usual bias of the winner.

    What we do know however from anthropology is that most tribal societies do not conceive of war more in the manner of Western states until at least they reach a certain scale ( ex- Algonquin Confederation, Kamaehamaeha’s unification of Hawaii). Then we start to see something that resembles Clausewitz’s rational “policy” and what we would call politics emerging.

    I agree with you that Clausewitz’s theory of war has “legs” – it works beyond his own time and place but I think that saying that there’s some limits to what we can call “policy” is likewise reasonable.

  8. JosephFouche:

    Bassford’s website is a treasure trove.

    I plan to look at much of it in detail, or rather I hope to do so, at some point.

    But, for now, I am heeding Prof. Bassford’s express direction, and doing what one must do, at least at first, which is actually READ THE BOOK.

    Which, as you know, takes a certain amount of time and concentration!

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