Announcing the Clausewitz Roundtable Book

Clausewitz RT cover

We are proud to announce the publication of the Clausewitz Roundtable in book form. This book is an edited version of an online discussion on the Chicago Boyz blog in the Fall of 2009.

It is said that everyone quotes Clausewitz, but no one reads him. The participants in this Roundtable refuted that assertion. We read On War, all of it, and commented on each chapter of the book.

Reading On War with a like-minded group, committed to taking Clausewitz seriously, in his own words, without relying on secondary sources, was an intellectual adventure. The discussion was lively, thoughtful and insightful.

If you are interested in Clausewitz, and the ongoing value of Clausewitz’s classic book, the Clausewitz Roundtable will be of interest to you. It is now published in electronic format, and is modestly priced at $2.99.

If you buy the book and like it, please leave a positive review on the Amazon page.

If you read and liked the original Clausewitz Roundtable, you could in all fairness leave a review on the Amazon page based on that as well.

Clausewitz, On War: A Clausewitzian Revival?


“…we say that there is only one result that counts: final victory“.
– Carl von Clausewitz

On War is a classic of military strategy and perhaps the greatest work ever produced on the nature of war. Clausewitz’s genuine rivals are very few – Sun Tzu and Thucydides come to mind but these comparisons, though equally great in stature, are also at best inexact. How important is Carl von Clausewitz? In the words of the arch-Clausewitzian Professor Chris Bassford:

Clausewitz is the theoretical cornerstone of all the US military’s mid- and senior level PME (Professional Military Education) schools and all US military doctrine. I can say that fairly authoritatively, since I teach at the National War College and have tought at the USMC Command & Staff College and the Army War College, and have also been a US Army soldier (field artillery) and a USMC and Joint Staff doctrine writer

Yet at the same time, Clausewitz is often forgotten, as by the Kaiser’s Grossgeneralstab on the eve of the Great War or by America’s four star grandees at MACV when JFK believed in “flexible response” and LBJ in “escalation”. Then, painfully, after national hubris or martial incompetence brings some great historical debacle, Clausewitz is remembered again, sometimes to be blamed or to be offered up as a savior and the dog-eared copies of On War are taken from the shelf and dusted off.

I think we are living in such a time.

This roundtable has been a delight. Not only did it force me, someone who was not particularly in tune with Clausewitz to give On War a second and more serious reading but the other participants who have posted here or discussed CvC further via email have been enlightening and in some cases, caused me to reconsider prior opinions. For that I thank all of you.

America needs more military strategists and more statesmen who understand how to think strategically. It is a shame that On War and other classics are not required reading in the universities that produce the American elite and it is daunting to consider that we regularly elect politicians to posts of high responsibility who never managed to get through key texts like The Republic or On War. If you couldn’t stare down the ghosts of Plato or Clausewitz from the comfort of your dorm room how will you look a Putin or Ahmadinejad in the eye? How can you steer the ship of state when you do not know the fundamentals of navigation?

Therefore, despite my partiality for Sun Tzu and my unapologetic admiration for John Boyd, I hope more people elect to pick up On War and wrestle with the author until they understand his unsparing but subtle philosophy of war. America can only benefit from a Clausewitzian revival.

Clausewitz, “On War” Book VI: The Shadow of the East

Book VI of On War is about von Clausewitz’s assertion of the pivotal role of defense in war. And so it is. To me however, the passages were echoes of Napoleon’s folly of invading Russia, vast and terrible, and the enduring lessons that von Clausewitz managed to distill from the frozen wasteland of the endless steppe. “The People’s War” rose in Spain against King Joseph Bonaparte and French occupation; led by juntas, the campesinos fought French soldiers with merciless savagery but it was waging war in Russia that had reduced Napoleon Bonaparte from a European Emperor, down again to a mere upstart Corsican general. A parvenu brigand on a continental scale.

No wonder Carl von Clausewitz was in awe of defense.

“If defense is the stronger form of war, yet has a negative object, it follows that it should be used only so long as weakness compels, and be abandoned as soon as we are strong enough to to pursue a positive object. When one has used defensive measures successfully, a more favorable balance of strength is usually created; thus the natural course in war is to begin defensively and end in attacking”

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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.

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Clausewitz, On War: Some Final Comments

There is a huge amount of secondary material about On War. Many books, often by very competent scholars, and an enormous number of articles, all offer us shortcuts into Clausewitz’s thought.

I decided to read none of it. I did not care very much, for now, about Clausewitz scholarship, and I did not care if I replowed already well-plowed ground. To the extent I got any “new” insight from On War, it was inevitably something that is “old” in terms of the voluminous critical writing. Someone else certainly thought of it first.

But, for me, the point was not to engage in some kind of academic exercise. I am not an academic, I do not have academic colleagues, I do not publish scholarship about military matters, I do not have classes either as a teacher or student. I have no need to be “up to date” or “cutting edge” about Clausewitz.

Instead, I am simply an amateur who is a lifelong student of military history and military affairs, and a citizen who prefers to have some understanding of the world and the threats our country faces, and how we might deal with those threats.

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Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII: Politics Can Be Murder

The Division of Power

The German word politik, as used by Clausewitz, can mean both politics and policy. The two words were used interchangeably by Michael Howard and Peter Paret in translating On War depending upon how they interpreted Clausewitz’s meaning in a particular passage. This can serve to remind us that both policy and politics play a role in launching and waging war. While much of On War deals with policy, the rational planning of how to use x resources to achieve y goals, much of Book VIII deals with politics. What is politics? James Burnham ponders this in The Machiavellians:

What are we talking about when we talk politics? Many, to judge by what they write, seem to think we are talking about man’s search for the ideally good society, or his mutual organization for the maximum social welfare, or his natural aspiration for peace and harmony, or something equally removed from the world as it is and has been. Machiavelli understood politics as primarily the study of the struggles for power among men. By so marking its field, we are assured that there is being discussed something that exists, not something spun out of idealist’s dreams, or nightmares. If our interest is in man as he is on this earth, so far as we can learn from the facts of history and experience, we must conclude that he has no natural aspiration for peace or harmony, he does not form states in order to achieve an ideally good society, nor does he accept mutual organization is to secure the maximum social welfare. But men, and groups of men, do, by various means, struggle among themselves for relative increases in power and privilege. In the course of these struggles and as part of them, governments are established and overthrown, laws passed and violated, wars fought and won and lost. A definition is arbitrary, true enough, but Machiavelli’s implied definition of the field of politics as the struggle for power is at least insurance against nonsense.

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Clausewitz, On War, Book VII: Counting Coup

Book VII can be summarized as, “Offense is hard. Defense is strong. Culminating point of victory. Move along.” DEFENSE! DEFENSE! Clausewitz cheers. Offense. offense. Clausewitz grudgingly mutters. I lost count of the number of times Clausewitz says, in effect, “I could say something really insightful about offense here but I already said it about defense in Book VI. Go re-read Book VI. Now.” Take this bronx cheer for example:

It is thus defense itself that weakens attack. Far from this being idle sophistry, we consider it to be the greatest disadvantage of the attack that one is eventually left in a most awkward defensive position.

That’s right. The most damning thing about offense is that it’s poor defense. Turns the old adage about the best defense being a good offense on its head. If we follow John Sumida’s argument, this is the main thesis of On War: defense rules; offense is lame.

However, there are a few interesting nuggets here and there in the otherwise sparse landscape of Book VII. The one that stuck was Clausewitz’s discussion of waging offense for “the sake of trophies, or possibly simply of honor, and at times merely to satisfy a general’s ambition”:

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Clausewitz “On War”: Final Thoughts

This is the first time I have read Clausewitz. The experience has changed and expanded my understanding of conflict and warfare. I am certain it will influence the remainder of my academic and professional career.

As a Marine NCO, I was at the lowest possible layer of leadership that Clausewitz discusses. The majority of the decisions I was expected to make were operational, and therefore tactical. I was given instruction in the strategic realm only as an overview, and was expected to be concerned with the how, and not worry about the why. Hindsight, combined with insight gained from Clausewitz allows me to broaden the view and (in some cases anyway) see the strategic value in the tasks that a young Corporal grumbled over.

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Clausewitz, “On War,” Returning To That Business About the Continuation of Policy

Clausewitz says

war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means.

He also says that this is the central point of On War. But what does he mean by it? Is it a precept? An observation? A recommendation for a successful war?

In Clausewitz’s time, the objective was usually control of territory, incorporating it into one’s own country or to be used as a bargaining chip. That object is not unknown today, but perceptions play a part that was inconceivable in Clausewitz’s time.

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Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Concluding Remarks

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.

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Clausewitz, “On War”, Book 8: stating the bleedingly obvious

Clausewitz was not afraid to state the bleedingly obvious. In Book 8 of On War, he wrote that war’s most dangerous feature is “its tendency toward the extreme, and of the whole chain of unknown possibilities which would follow”.

“Well of course,” you might exclaim. “Everyone knows that!”

But do we really “know that”? Like a vicious dog that slips its lead and savages a young child, war results in chaos, carnage and unanticipated consequences which can be felt decades, even centuries, later. In large part, 20th century history was about war “untrammelled by any conventional restraints, broken loose in all its elemental fury”.

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Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VI: The People, They Have Arms

People in Arms
People With Arms

Clausewitz served a dynasty renowned for enlightened manpower management (“Dogs! Do you want to live forever?”) and cutting edge political agitation (My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfied us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.”). However, this passage from On War may have given even the avant-garde Hohenzollerns pause:

The system of requisitioning, and the enormous growth of armies resulting from it and from universal conscription, the employment of militia – all of those run in the same direction when viewed from the standpoint of the older, narrower military system and that also leads to the calling out of the home guard and arming the people.

The innovations first mentioned were the natural, inevitable consequences of the breaking down of barriers. They added so immensely to the strength of the side that first employed them that the opponent was carried along and had to follow suite. That will also hold true of the people’s war. Any nation that uses it intelligently will, as a rule, gain some superiority over those who disdain its use…


By its very nature, such scattered resistance will not lend itself to major actions, closely compressed in time and space. It’s effect is like that of the process of evaporation: it depends upon how much surface is exposed. The greater the surface and the area of contact between it and the enemy forces, the thinner the later have to spread, the greater the effect of the general uprising. Like smoldering embers, it consumes the basic foundations of the enemy forces. Since it needs to time to be effective, a state of tension will develop while the two elements interact. This tension will either gradually relax, if the insurgency is suppressed in some places and slowly burns itself out in others, or else it will build up to a crisis: a general conflagration closes in on the enemy, driving him out of the country before he is faced with total destruction…To be realistic, one must therefore think of a general insurrection within the framework of a war conducted by the regular army, and coordinated in one all-encompassing plan.

Clausewitz’s temerity, remarkable for an era where Prussia danced to the tune of the Concert of Europe, was echoed by Thomas Jefferson, a minor Clausewitz contemporary who was the political leader of the reactionary agrarian Republicans in the peripheral United States of America:

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Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VII, Chapters 5 and 22, The Culminating Point of the Attack/Victory and the Uses of Strategic Theory

There are strategic attacks which have led directly to peace, but these are the minority.  Most of them only lead up the point where their remaining strength is just enough to maintain a defense and wait for peace.  Beyond that point the scale turns and the reaction follows with a force that is usually much stronger than that of the original attack.  Since the object of the attack is possession of the enemy’s territory, it follows that the advance will continue until the attacker’s superiority is exhausted; it is this that drives the offensive on towards its goal and can easily drive it further.  If we remember how many factors contribute to an equation of forces, we will understand how difficult it is in some cases to determine which side has the upper hand.  Often it is entirely a matter of the imagination.

Chapter 5

It is not possible in every war for the victor to overthrow his enemy completely.  Often even victory has a culminating point.  this has been ampy demonstrated bz experience.  Because the matter is particularly important in military theory and forms the keystone for most plans of campaign, and because its surface is distorted by apparent  contradictions, like the dazzling effect of brilliant colors, we shall examine it more closely and seek out its inner logic.

Victory normally results from the superiority of one side; from a greater aggregate of physical and psychological strength.  This superiority is certainly augmented by the victory, otherwise it would not be so coveted or command so high a price.  That is an automatic consequence of victory itself.  Its effects exert a similar influence, but only up to a point.  That point may be reached quickly – at times so quickly that the total consequences of a victorious battle may not be limited to an increase in psychological superiority alone.

Chapter 22

This concept of the “culminating point” was later developed by Aleksandre Svechin in his Strategy which is imo the best development of the theory behind operational art we have.  As to the actual use of the concept it has much to do with whether the military aim is following a strategy of destruction or one of attrition.  The example of the Korean War (1950-53) offers an interesting subject of analysis in this regard.

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Clausewitz, “On War,” How To Read the Book

On War is two centuries old, its author admitting that it is unfinished. It is a difficult book to read. Some sections are long and detailed, others are concise summaries, and yet others have the look of notes to be expanded.

Being two centuries old, On War treats the war of the early eighteenth century and the technologies then in use. We’ve come a long way since then: no more carefully formed-up marches into cannon fire. No more elaborate uniforms for battle. We can see through the dark of night and launch missiles that find their targets largely on their own.

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Clausewitz, “On War” Book VIII: War and Political Leadership

Clausewitz’ theory culminates in the eighth book, on “War Plans”. While it is clear by the absence of chapters that Clausewitz had more to tell us, he does a great job of bringing everything full circle in order to demonstrate the application of the information in the other books. Clausewitz manages to pull all of the previous discussions together to demonstrate applied strategy, complete with supporting examples from recent history at the time of his writing. In my mind, however, the most valuable chapters of the book are those in which Clausewitz expands on his ideas about war’s relation to the Government, particularly section B of chapter 6.

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Clausewitz Roundtable: Extended Schedule

The original schedule for the Roundtable called for final submissions by the contributors this week.

However, based on communications I have received, I am granting one more week to contributors to place on the blog whatever they may still wish to post.

While all good things must end, they do not all have to end as originally scheduled.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Book VIII, Chapter 5, “Serious Risk”

The condition for defeating an enemy presupposes great physical or moral superiority or else an extremely enterprising spirit, an inclination for serious risk.  When neither of these is present, the object of military activity can only be one of two kinds: seizing a small or larger piece of enemy territory, or holding one’s own until things take a better turn.  The latter is normally the aim of a defensive war. . .

The possibility that a military objective can be modified is one we have treated hitherto as deriving only from domestic arguments [Book VI Ch 8], and we have considered the nature of the political aim only to the extent that it has or does not have an active content.  From the point of view of war itself, no other ingredient of policy is relevant at all.  Still, as we argued in the second chapter of Book I (purpose and means in war), the nature of the political aim, the scale of the demands put forward by either side, and the total political situation of one’s own side, are all factors that in practice must decisively influence the conduct of war.

This post links this concept of “serious risk” with “surprise”, which is one of the keys to success in the tactical/operational attack, but then highlights the overall importance of the political purpose to which the military aim is subordinate.

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Clausewitz, “On War”, Book VIII: War Plans are Simplicity Itself!

Book VIII deals with war plans. It was one of the parts of On War that was in a nearly finished state when Clausewitz died. After transiting the vast lumber rooms of Book VI and Book VII, which have many good things amidst the clutter, the relatively finished nature of Book VIII is a relief and a pleasure.

In the introduction, in Chapter 1, Clausewitz tells us that the vast array of factors that must be considered in preparing a plan for war seem, in the hands of great generals, to be “extremely simple” and their decision-making appears to be “uncomplicated” and “off-hand”. This is an illusion. The men of talent in command of armies are really considering these factors, but not in a “dreary” and pedantic way, but by the interior assimilation of experience and learning that leads to swift and decisive coup d’oeil.

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Clausewitz, On War, Coda: A Strategist for All Seasons

If Sun Tzu is the Tao of War, then Carl von Clausewitz is its Te. Where Sun Tzu gave birth to generalship and strategy, Clausewitz gave military strategy shape and power. Where Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is Zen-like in its brevity, Clausewitz’s On War is profound in both its breadth and its depth – elucidating a far deeper understanding of the nuance of “genius” and strategy.

Many of Clausewitz’s ideas endure to this day: “center of gravity”, “culminating points”, etc. What is more striking is that his best ideas are also applicable – perhaps even more applicable – in the realm of “soft” power. While the attritionist in Clausewitz would not have approved of the logic of “The Surge”, he most certainly would understand its political (vice military) imperative.

I first encountered Clausewitz in 1992 as a young scientist at the Navy’s “Naval Ocean System Center”, while enrolled in the U.S. Naval War College’s Non-Resident Seminar program at the 32nd Street Naval Station. RADM(ret) Jack Shaw was my professor for “Joint Maritime Operations”, and led us on a “deep dive” into On War.

But I did not appreciate Clausewitz then as much as I do today, thanks to the courtesy of Lexington Green and the ChicagoBoyz – as well as the enormously insightful writings from my colleagues in this Roundtable. I can say unequivocally that this has been an intellectual adventure of the highest regard, and I am humbled to have been invited to be a passenger. I hope you, too, have enjoyed the ride.

Clausewitz “On War” Book VII: Principles of Attack

To me, book seven feels the most unfinished of all of Clausewitz’ writings. It is true that in discussing other ideas in other books, Clausewitz has already given us several points that might be contained in seven. Even so, more than the rest of the series, this book has the feel of an outline or draft to built on later.

Even though this may be the case, Clausewitz gives us the fundamentals of strategic attack. Essentially, Clausewitz tells us, seize and hold the initiative, assault through the enemy using fire and maneuver, and don’t over-extend. Also, choose objectives appropriately, and be mindful of the terrain. Of course, Clausewitz goes into some detail on each of these points, and where the overall theme is similar to ideas in early works, Clausewitz explains to us the nuances regarding application in the attack. Again, while some of the fine details have changed do to the progress of time and advances in technology, the overall ideas are still sound.

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Clausewitz, On War, Book IV: The Efficiency of Killing


Nathan Bedford Forrest, an unlettered but practiced dealer in the market for human flesh, came to the study of war as an intelligent layman. He started as a private and rose to lieutenant general. Everything he learned about the art of war he learned on the job. This lack of formal military training freed him from some of the worst Jominian excesses of the Old Army’s officer corps (future president James Garfield, another general without professional military training, once observed “I declare that if this union goes down in blood and ruin, let it’s obituary read, “Died of West Point.”). Forrest summed up his hard-won knowledge in two memorable action hero catchphrases:

  • The secret of victory was “get there first with the most men”


  • “War is about fighting and fighting is about killing”

Killing is the essence of war as Book IV Clausewitz saw it. This made Book IV Clausewitz more popular with his immediate successors than Book I Clausewitz, who spouted (old school) liberal nonsense like “war is the continuation of policy by other means” which sounded suspiciously like chaining the unrivaled genius of Ludendorff and his many chins to the petty whims of Kaiser Bill, Bethmann-Hollweg, and all those commie Social Democrats in the Reichstag. But, with Book IV Clausewitz, here was a writer any red blooded Prussian with an iron backbone could respect. Seek out the decisive battle. Collide head to head with the enemy. Kill more of his men than he kills of yours. Drive him before you in relentless pursuit until victory falls into your righteous iron fist. Here was a prophet of war that any warrior would appreciate. You’ve never read Book IV until you’ve read it in the original Klingon.

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Clausewitz “On War”, Book VI: Defense, in Depth

Book VI, the longest book in On War, is entitled “Defense”. It is also the one which is most closely tied to the specific military practices of Clausewitz’s day. Hence, it contains the most material which has become outdated, and is usually skipped over by people who study and teach from On War in our era.

I decided to read it anyway. There is, in fact, a lot of valuable material in Book VI.

The chapter shows the amount of intense, hard thought that Clausewitz applied to the various types of defensive warfare, which must have been derived from both personal experience, discussion with other soldiers, and reading. In its day, portions of it could probably have been used as a manual for commanders who were going to be fighting on the strategic defensive, and for their opponents who were going to have to dislodge and defeat them. That function no longer pertains, due to greatly changed conditions. Therefore, much of Book VI can at best be suggestive in its relation to current practice.

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