Clausewitz, On War: Finis

Of what worth is the unfinished scribblings of an out of favor subject of the feeblest autocracy in the whole Concert of Europe, a middling officer who was lightly regarded in his own time and lightly regarded by most of his immediate successors?

Everything and nothing.

Clausewitz stands alone, the only epochal thinker on war. He is the Newton and Darwin of war, all in one, but he lacks successors. Where he went, no one has followed or passed him by. He said let their be light and there was light, but of a peculiarly refracted sort. Even the most incisive of Clausewitz’s Prussian students, the elder Moltke, missed the whole war is the continuation of political intercourse by other means thing and insisted upon political outcomes that derived from purely military considerations. When war broke out, the politicians should take some time off and let the soldiers run things. Once they have achieved victory, then the politicians can take the hand off and run with the ball. Moltke, tired of Bismarck’s interference in what he saw as his domain, insisted on Alsace-Lorraine as a military buffer against the Third Republic and ended up waving a permanent red flag in front of the Gallic bull.

Clausewitz is also a parochial figure of his own time, with his own country to defend, his own axe to grind, his own issues, and his own petty grievances. Two stars shine in his firmament: Frederick II and Buonaparte. While Clausewitz often strikes observers as a worshipper of Buonaparte, to whom Clausewitz refers as the “God of War”, I would peg him as a devotee of the Frederican cult. Given Clausewitz’s strong bias towards defense (compare Books VI and VII), his numerous references to Frederick’s exploits during the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years’ War, and his belief that war was the continuation of political intercourse with the addition of other means, his large though not uncritical admiration for Old Fritz becomes clear. Frederick represented the ultimate subordination of war to the political: Frederick’s mind put his political interests ahead of his military pursuits. Policy and strategy, since one thought followed another, were in perfect agreement. Frederick was the ultimate practitioner of the strategic defensive: he knew his limits and adhered to them with an iron will. Clausewitz, like many contemporary Prussians, was looking for a system that would produce a Frederick when it could only produce a succession of second-class Frederick Williams. His commander-in-chief participating in cabinet meetings was the best analogue he could find to the absence.

This Clausewitz also had fights to start with otherwise forgotten figures like von Bulow and more influential thinkers like Jomini. Jomini’s cut-and-paste military how to manuals must have made Clausewitz foam at the mouth. Here was the Tony Robbins of military self-help, with his impressive gigs as aide-de-camp to Marshal Ney, personal adviser to Buonaparte, and various positions as a commanding general in French and Russian service. Jomini was a trite axiom spewing military entrepreneur, selling his How to Win a War in 10 steps to the highest bidder. As a Swiss patriot (who never returned to Switzerland), he was a citizen of the world. Contrast this with war nerd Carl von Clausewitz. Though appreciated by such giants of the German army as Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and happily married (far above his station) to Countess Marie von Bruhl, Clausewitz was out of favor with king and court and spent most of the postwar era in a prestigious but empty and responsibility free position as head of the War Academy. Clausewitz yearned to be a man of affairs like Jomini but he didn’t have a sound-bite personality (or writing style) so he was passed over for men whose names are now long forgotten. So he had to settle for a try at posthumous immortality instead. Curiously, despite a ill-timed death, he is now the most important Prussian of the early nineteenth century, his insight rivaled only by Blucher’s hatred of Buonaparte as the Prussian personality trait that most shaped the world we live in.

So there are two Clausewitzes (or Clausewitzi?): There is the universal Clausewitz, the Clausewitz that tells us that war is the continuation of politics by other means, the Clausewitz that explains why defense is the stronger form of war, the Clausewitz of friction, the culminating point of victory, the remarkable trinity, the Clausewitz of Book I and VIII. Then there is the historical Clausewitz, the Clausewitz that abhors cordon warfare, that hides behind fortresses, that hates encirclement and surprise, that lived in a world little different from 100 years before, a world that ran at the speed of a good horse, where states were unchallenged, battles could be fought within eyesight of the commanding general, and disease carried off most of the casualties, the Clausewitz of Book VI. The historical Clausewitz was more appreciated by his immediate successors. They loved the “Mahdi of Mass”. It is only in our own time that the universal Clausewitz has emerged.

The universal Clausewitz can be the Clausewitz of his supporters, who argue that he created a treasure for all time, or his detractors, who see only a relic of the past when states were states and attrition was attrition. It is my hope that the universal Clausewitz will emerge triumphant. Clausewitzian war is fought by all human communities, not by states alone. Clausewitz was more than the prophet of the decisive battle who shouted, “If it doesn’t attrit, you must acquit”. Clausewitz will remain relevant for all time, or at least until the killer robots take over.

I’d like to thank all of the participants in this roundtable. I’ve received many a new insight and many a new addition to my personal reading list. Re-reading Clausewitz has opened new lines of inquiry and thought. The old dog will have a few new tricks in him yet.

4 thoughts on “Clausewitz, On War: Finis”

  1. “Clausewitz yearned to be a man of affairs like Jomini but he didn’t have a sound-bite personality (or writing style) so he was passed over for men whose names are now long forgotten.” Perhaps “passed over” is an overstatement here? I just read The Age of German Liberation, 1795-1815 (1905) by Friedrich Meinecke. A quick read, and good background for Clausewitz’s life and career and the political and cultural milieu that he came out of. Meinicke shows Clausewitz as a respected and recognized player in the reform movement. Of course, they were all driven out of power, after 1915. Scharnhorst was dead, and Gniesenau and Claustwitz were both pushed aside. Only then did he push for “posthumous immortality” in the form of the book. Of course, if he had finished and published the book, it may have been part of a bid for a restoration of the military reformers to positions of actual authority. Whether that was the plan, or if there was a plan, may be disclosed by Clausewitz’s collected papers, or in a biography that draws on his correspondence and memoranda. But I just don’t know the answer.

  2. “…after 1915” — should be “after 1815”, of course.

    It is amazing that a figure as influential as Clausewitz on Anglospheric militiary thought has not had every last scrap translated by now.

    Priorities are out of whack, gentlemen. Far, far out of whack.

  3. “Jomini’s cut-and-paste military how to manuals must have made Clausewitz foam at the mouth. Here was the Tony Robbins of military self-help”

    Best one-liner of the roundtable. :)

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