Clausewitz On War, Book 1: A First Impression

Like the burdened and somewhat unprepared straggler I heave myself into camp to join this esteemed group as it gathers around the campfire to discuss On War by Carl von Clausewitz. My fellow travelers have journeyed from many realms and share a common passion to study and discuss military strategy and its place in an ever complex world.

I am a late joiner to the legion of followers who have discovered Clausewitz and made him the focus of their martial studies. In that vein, I will offer my impressions of his work as I synthesize his observations on military strategy with my own limited experiences and in light of my chosen field of study, history.

As I look back to my first personal experience with war. I discovered that vein winds back over forty years to 1966 and Christmas Eve in Vietnam. I was pulling my first outpost duty shortly after arriving in country. The Christmas Truce had lulled everyone into a semi sense of security and as the night slowly oozed along as it does in such a climate, the stillness was broken by the whirring and crash of an incoming mortar round. All hell broke loose and in those first few seconds of that day of peace, I faced what Clausewitz discusses in chapter four, Danger in War. The firefight lasted for a short time, but as green tracers raced to try and intersect with my head, I felt that exhilarating moment that comes with recognition that one’s life is in jeopardy. As I read Clausewitz’s account of the experience of a novice to the battlefield, that night came flooding back into my memory.

Clausewitz’s chapter on danger is just over a page, but it holds all manner of meaning for me. The main focus was on the experience of an officer who observes the reactions and actions of his fellow officers from commanding general to a line infantry officers place. What struck me was that for the common soldier who must endure that shot and shell in stoic resolve to stand his ground til death or victory, the sole bond of brotherhood is held together by the fidelity offered by his captains from line to staff to guide him with their leadership and confidence.

Vietnam was a war fought by officers seeped in the theories of Clausewitz. I can not vouch that Westmoreland had Clausewitz on his bedside table or even referred to him. But from my prospective we went to Vietnam with an Army expecting to use one leg of Clausewitz’s trinity to defeat a weaker army with the club of overwhelming force only to find that lessons learned by the British in North America in 1780 would serve as a guide of what was to come. While we ignored public support and government involvement, the North Vietnamese used all three to keep the pressure on until our one legged table collapsed.

Turning back to comment on the fidelity of command, Clausewitz points to military genius, as a trait possessed by a few, that coincide within developed civilizations such as the Romans and the French. On this point Clausewitz is a product of his time and perhaps can be forgiven for overlooking such military geniuses as Genghis Khan, perhaps the most successful military commander of all time. Also there is the Greek general Empamodas of Thebes who defeated the Spartans and freed the Helots. We can not overlook Hannibal who outfought Rome, one of Clausewitz’s seats of military genius. And then there is Shaka leader of the Zulu who in the time of Clausewitz founded an empire with his military genius.

These few examples are not provided to denigrate Clausewitz; he was a product of his time. As much as Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, penned the words “all men are created equal”. Clausewitz deserves to have us look at his genius in observing his surroundings and taking up pen, to put to paper, those thoughts that would guide captains of war in the coming centuries. The inborn sense to keep one wits and remain an inquiring mind that uses the comprehensive approach, as Clausewitz notes in his final paragraph in chapter three, is something that remains a rare commodity among men. No amount of schooling can prepare a dullard for command, I am convinced this trait remains in ones genes.

3 thoughts on “Clausewitz On War, Book 1: A First Impression”

  1. Historyguy99, glad to have you by the campfire, and thanks for this post.

    “While we ignored public support and government involvement, the North Vietnamese used all three to keep the pressure on until our one legged table collapsed.”

    I might quibble here. In any war all three “legs” are necessarily committed. So, the Vietnamese, knowing they were weaker than the USA in conventional military power, waged a war directed at the OTHER two American legs: popular support and political will. So, those seem to have been the legs that gave way first. Still, all the elements are interactive, and the decay of the public support and political will had a degrading effect on the army, which in turn impaired its morale and hence its performance.

    Clausewitz’s short passage on “danger” that you refer to is indeed a brilliant piece of writing.

  2. I appreciate the kind works Lex.

    I agree with your observation that the Vietnamese sawed away at the other two American legs. My contention is that our own ability to protect those legs were impaired by ignoring some of Clausewitz lessons, as we concentrated on using overwhelming firepower to defeat an elusive enemy. We are seeing this same scenario being played out in Gaza today, where a weaker enemy goes after the hind legs (political and public support) to make the jaws let go.

  3. That was a great ref on Empamodas. And the personal tie-in to Vietnam is even better. Well done!

    A potent reminder, for most of us this roundtable is an academic exercise and an effort at self-improvement but for kids who have to go out in the field to fight for their country, it’s no joke if their leaders understand what the hell they are doing or not.

    I think there’s evidence that while some of our leaders do understand war and “policy” very well, many do not.

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