This is possibly the most difficult post yet. How to make a fitting conclusion to this very exceptional work, a work that influences not only military historians, but strategic theorists, military officers, those involved in the training of strategic theorists and military officers . . . It would be difficult to come up with a book going on 200 years old which retains more influence today than it did 20 years after it was published, that continues to open up new vistas of thought, in this the most complex of all human interactions, that being war.
For instance it was only after the First World War that German scholars realized that On War contained a general theory of war, that is was able to theoretically conceptualize the phenomenon of war as a whole (“capable of embracing every conceivable form of war or strategy”, see especially Herbert Rosinski’s The German Army, 1939 & 1966, pp 110-11). That is the general theory is able to “capture” (that is in a theoretically adequate way) the nature of war’s moral elements which are timeless. Since that time – talking about the 1920s-30s here – many have attempted to duplicate or even replace Clausewitz, but none have been successful. I would argue that most have not even come close for the simple reason that they failed to understand his most fundamental accomplishment and the source of his continuing relevance: the general theory.
Why is the general theory so important? Because it provides us with a framework, a litmus test for all the various “art of war” versions (covering the type of warfare for the epoch in question) which would have to be more or less compatible with the larger framework of the general theory. For instance On War contains not only the general theory but also a theory of Napoleonic warfare, or the art of warfare for the early 19th Century. This was further developed by Helmut von Moltke in the 1860-80s who updated the art of war in the age of railroads and telegraph communication. Colmar von der Goltz, although pretty much forgot today, probably came up with a more applicable art of war for the early 20th Century than did Graf von Schlieffen, or any of their contemporaries. Schlieffen however appealed to prejudices of his Zeitgeist whereas Goltz did not, with Schlieffen’s followers in turn losing the connection between military aim and political purpose which led to military accomplishment followed by military and political disaster. Svechin’s Strategy picked up the pieces after the First World War and imo supplied the art of industrial war as it was fought up to and beyond 1945 (as in the Korean War for example). Notice that Bewegungskrieg (updated tactics of mobile warfare) and Ludwig Beck’s Truppenführung (German military doctrine developed in the 1930s) are both compatible within the Clausewitzian Svechin’s art of war. This would also indicate the level of strategic theory that the Germans lacked in World War II to very obvious effect. All these works are – as is strategic theory by its very nature – retrospective.
In addition to the general theory, we have of course Clausewitz’s influence on the development of first the Prussian and later German General Staff systems and the military staffs of all the armies which imitated them. This influence was exclusively posthumous which also explains how the staff officer/strategic theorist equipped with the general theory was replaced with the narrowly-trained general staff specialist who excelled at tactics, stumbled a bit at operations, never questioned military strategy, and refused to consider political purpose.
This blindness was commented on at the time by a thoughtful observer:
Nothing could be more dangerous than to follow sudden inspirations, however intelligent or brilliant they may appear, without pursuing them to the logical conclusions, or to indulge in wishful thinking, however sincere our purposes. We need officers capable of following systematically the path of logical argument to its conclusions, with disciplined intellect, strong enough in character and nerve to execute what the intellect dictates.
General Ludwig Beck, 1935
The two legacies – the general theory and the various arts of war within its framework and the general staff system – come together in the form of the strategist who forms military strategy with or without the help of strategic theory (if there is no art of war for the epoch in question, the strategist must in effect develop his own). At the same time the strategist is well advised to think in terms of the general theory since that provides the basis of strategic thought. Finally, militaries being what they are today require a corps of well-trained staff officers to operate. Beck’s warning should require no further explanation.
Which brings us to the more polemic part of this post. Clausewitz’s theory of war is very much a political theory of war so it goes without question that policy, politics and the character of governments waging war in the name of the nation state would fall within this commentary. What does a reading of Clausewitz indicate as to our basic strategic dilemma today?
Imo we have lost the thread of strategic thought, the connections between tactics and strategy, and military aim and political purpose. But that is only part of the problem. We have also lost the ability to question our own political motives as they are presented to us, to even comprehend the basic questions of politics. Such situations are often laid bare by failed wars . . .
The aggressor marches into hostile territory; he drives the enemy back a little, but then begins to have doubts about risking a decisive battle. He halts and faces his opponent, acting as if he had made a conquest and was interested only in protecting it – in short, he behaves as if it were the enemy’s affair to seek a battle, as if he himself were ready to fight at any time, and so forth. All of these are mere pretexts, which a general uses to delude his army, his government, the world at large, and even himself. The truth of the matter is tht the enemy’s position has been found too strong. Here we are not talking of a case in which the aggressor fails to attack because a victory would be of no use to him, because his advance having run its course he does not have enough resiliency to start a new one. This would assume that a successful attack had already taken place and resulted in a genuine conquest; rather, we have in mind a case in which the aggressor gets bogged down in the middle of an intended conquest.
As that point the attack will wait for a favorable turn of events to exploit. There is as a rule no reason to expect such a favorable turn; the very fact that an attack had been intended implies that the immediate future promises no more than the present. It is therefore a fresh delusion. If, as is usual, the operation is a joint one timed to coincide with others, the other armies will then be blamed fro his failures. By way of excusing his inaction he will plead inadequate support and cooperation. He will talk of insuperable obstacles, and look for motives in the most intricately complicated circumstances. So he will fritter his strength away in doing nothing, or rather in doing too little to bring about anything but failure. Meanwhile the defender is gaining time – which is what he needs most. The season is getting late, and the whole offensive ends with the return of the invader to his winter quarters in his own theater of operations.
This tissue of falsehoods ends by passing into history in place of the obvious and simple truth: that failure was due to the fear of the enemy’s forces. When the critics begin to study a campaign of this sort they tend to get lost in argument and counterargument. No convincing answer will be found, because everything is guesswork and the critics never dig deep enough to find the truth.
That sort of fraudulence is not merely a matter of bad habit; its roots lie in the nature of the case. The counterweights that weaken the elemental force of war, and particularly the attack, are primarily located in the political relations and intentions of the government, which are concealed from the rest of the world, the people at home, the army, and in some cases even from the commander. For instance no one can and will admit that his decision to stop or to give up was motivated by the fear that his strength would run out, or that he might make new enemies or that his own allies might become too strong. That sort of thing is long kept confidential, possibly forever. Meanwhile, a plausible account must be circulated. The general is, therefore, urged, either for his own sake or the sake of the government, to spread a web of lies. This constantly recurring shadowboxing in the dialectics of war has, as theory, hardened into systems, which are of course, equally misleading. Only a theory that will follow the simple thread of internal cohesion as we have tried to make ours do, can get back to the essence of things.
If military history is read with this kind of skepticism, a vast amount of verbiage concerning attack and defense will collapse, and the simple conceptualization we have offered will automatically emerge. We believe that it is valid for the whole field of defense, and that only if we cling to it firmly can the welter of events be clearly understood and mastered.
On War, Book VI, Chapter 8.
The verbiage falls away, but we grasp at it all the more frantically since it is all we have, like shards of colored glass in a child’s kaleidescope, which forms subjective patterns, but only for a moment, until the toy is moved and the shards form something else. We have not only lost the general theory, but have lost the concept of this type of theory altogether. Instead we construct rigid, reified systems which lead to only increased confusion. Words have lost all meaning. “Democracy” means “domination” and “freedom” means “subjugation”, whereas “strategy” decays to simply “rhetoric”. Radicals wear the ill-fitting masks of “conservatives” and openly scrap our national ideals in the guise of “security”. Torture enters as a stalking horse for police state. A “long war” is fought with only a vague and hopelessly absolute (and thus unattainable) purpose, while limited and regional wars mired in narrow-interest are pumped up to global and “existentialist” proportions to ensure their saleability to an increasingly restive public that more and mores sees through the “web of lies”.
The collapse of strategic thought in not only the US, but the West is only part of a much larger process which encompasses not only intellectual, but legal/ethical and moral failure. We are in the midst of a revolution and we don’t even know it (refer to The Peloponnesian War, 3.82).
In closeing I would only say that I have enjoyed participating in this very worthwhile and timely discussion. I remain a convinced Clausewitzian in terms of strategic theory and a Southern small town conservative by political inclination. Having lived in Europe since 1984, first as a military intelligence officer in Berlin and later as a private businessman and finally educator in Portugal, I’ve seen how other systems work, both their strengths and weaknesses. Distance and isolation often provide clarity, or at least a different perspective, which I hope I have been able to state clearly.
I do recommend one article which I think particularly important, that being Hew Strachan’s Strategy and the Limitation of War which is available on the net.
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Strachan article available here.
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