Review Essay: Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Berlin,
Reviewed by Christopher Bassford
This item was originally published in Defense Analysis,
June 1996. It is displayed here with the permission of the copyright holder,
Brassey's (UK) Ltd.
Return to The Clausewitz Homepage
LANDMARKS IN DEFENSE LITERATURE
Some books which have fallen within Defense Analysis's fields
of interest have paved the way for further studies, either because they
have opened up a new area for enquiry and research, or because they have
introduced new approaches and methodologies to existing areas. Other volumes
have had impact, but have, in their turn, owed an intellectual debt to
an earlier work. Again, there are many books and studies on defense which
have become forgotten or which were unappreciated at the time of their
publication, but which have immediate relevance to today's problems. This
section is designed to review books that fall within these categories
with a view to highlighting how and why they deserve serious attention.
Clausewitz's magnum opus, On War,
is unquestionably the most important single work ever written on the subject
of warfare. Despite its hoary publication date of 1832, On War recently enjoyed a good fifteen years in vogue (1976-1991). Nonetheless,
it is much more often quoted than read or understood. I will not make
the mistake here, however, of trying to summarize its contents. That is
an impossible task. Rather, I will try to convince the reader of its importance,
its relevance, and the dangers of letting someone else (including myself)
determine one's understanding of it.
Clausewitz's writings are of fundamental importance not only for their
actual content but because they have done so much to influence almost
all subsequent Western (and many nonWestern) military thinkers. Even Antoine-Henri
Jomini, often improperly understood as Clausewitz's "opposite," read On
War. His own Summary of the Art of War (1838) contains not
only several personal insults to Clausewitz but also a great many adaptations
of and adjustments to his arguments. The Marxist-Leninists carried
him off in their peculiar direction, navalists like Sir Julian Stafford
Corbett and the airpower theorists in others, and American nuclear strategists
in yet another. It is therefore hard to understand or appreciate the ways
in which modern thinkers diverge without an understanding of this central
influence. This is true, not despite, but because of the way in which
Clausewitz's original concepts have been denied, misunderstood, confused,
distorted, evolved, adopted, adapted, and mutated through varying historical
circumstances over the past 164 years. This represents not a weakness
of Clausewitzian theory but its fundamental, flexible, adaptable stength—if
also sometimes the willfulness or boneheadedness of its consumers.
Would-be readers of Clausewitz's tome unfortunately encounter a number
of significant barriers to its enjoyment. First, there is the prosaic
fact that many find it very difficult to read and comprehend. This is
not because its author was a poor writer, nor even because of the oftmentioned
and (in my own view) exaggerated fact that it is an unfinished draft.
Rather, On War is difficult because the subject it treats is difficult:
Nations, states, empires, whole civilizations have gone down in bloody
ruin because they failed to master it. A genuinely probing book about
it is thus predestined to be a tough read.
This inherent difficulty is compounded by On War's unfamiliar
style. The modern reader often expects a book with a one-paragraph
thesis statement followed by three hundred pages of easily skimmed-through
backup documentation. Unfortunately, one actually has to read (and think
about) Clausewitz in order to understand his points and the way they fit
Second, Clausewitz challenges our egos. Nobody can possibly be as penetrating
and brilliant as Clausewitz's acolytes endlessly proclaim him to be. Perhaps
more important, if he really is that brilliant, his ideas might overwhelm
our own and leave us somehow less autonomous than we like to imagine ourselves
to be. I would be puzzled by the frequency with which this concern is
confidentially expressed by colleagues and students if I had not occasionally
experienced it myself. Fortunately, Clausewitz is long dead and seldom
claims credit for whatever we produce using the Clausewitzian tools we
have appropriated. I find in practice that there is no problem integrating
these borrowed implements with the various odds and ends I have independently
accumulated over the years. The product, credit, and blame for the results
are very much my own.
Third, a great many readers lack the background to place Clausewitz into
his proper historical context. Thus they tend to accept without reflection
the common accusations that he was the "high priest of Napoleon," the
"apostle of total war," and the "unremitting proponent of offensive strategies."
This despite the fact that Clausewitz spent much of his career fervently
resisting Napoleon (even when it imperiled his own professional advancement),
was the author of the concept of "limited war," and devoted the largest
portion of his book to defense and the argument that it was inherently
the stronger form of war—not merely for tactical but for political and
psychological reasons as well.
The greatest single source of antagonism to Clausewitz derives, ironically,
from the bestknown line in his book: the statement that "War is merely
the continuation of policy"—or "politics"—"by other means." While generally
given a great deal of lip-service, Clausewitz's seemingly obvious
point is widely misunderstood. This happens not because he did not explain
it well but because most of its quoters have never read his explanation.
In its usual interpretation, this famous line provokes alarm and opposition
based essentially on two different but related—and thoroughly correct—objections.
First, reasonable men with genuine ethical concerns are alarmed by the
apparent implication that rational policy makers, when unable to achieve
rational policy goals by peaceful means, should as a matter of routine
then resort to violence. Experienced politicians and soldiers, on the
other hand, who know full well that the environment of war is dangerous,
chaotic, and unpredictable, object that war is hardly the convenient "instrument
of policy" that so many writers clearly mean to imply when drawing on
this phrase from Clausewitz.
In fact, this seemingly simple proposition contains two very different
messages because of the dual meaning of the German word he used: Politik.
That one word encompasses the two quite different English words "policy"
and "politics." We use the word "policy" to describe a rational process:
the conscious interrelating of unilateral ends, ways, and means. "Politics," on the
other hand, is a struggle for power among opposing forces. Politics
belongs to the domain of man's social existence, rather than to the realms
of art or science: It is fundamentally interactive in character. Political
events and outcomes are thus rarely if ever the product of any single
actor's conscious intentions. Politics is a chaotic process involving
competing personalities and groups (whose individual actions may indeed
have a rational basis), chance and friction, and popular emotion. Thus
Clausewitz tells us that the conscious conduct of war (strategy, etc.)
should be a continuation of rational calculation and policy, but also
that war inevitably originates and exists within the chaotic, unpredictable
realm of politics. Clausewitz does not prescribe a resort to war in pursuit
of otherwise unrealizable policies; he merely points out that war is what
happens when political conflict reaches an emotional level that leads
to organized violence.
The great value of On War is that it integrates a vast range of
military concerns (political, strategic, operational, tactical, analytical,
historical, and pedagogical) within this fundamental socio-political
framework. No other coherent body of theory comes close to successfully
interrelating such a wide range of considerations, and none is so flexible
in adapting to political and historical change. Otherwise, we would not
still be arguing about it.
Even since the watershed year of 1991, there have been many positive
and useful treatments of Clausewitz published. Perhaps most notable among
these has been Alan Beyerchen's brilliant exposition of Clausewitz in
the light of modern non-linear mathematical theory.*1 However, intellectual fashions being only slightly less fickle than hemlines,
Clausewitz's ideas have lately hit a patch of hard times. The end of the
Cold War and, simultaneously, the apparent resurrection of American military
prowess in the Gulf War, have provided a convenient pretext on which the
Prussian philosopher's current rivals can proclaim him obsolete.
This is something of a ritual for each new generation of military-theoretical
entrepreneurs. Jomini pronounced Clausewitz dead on arrival and kept repeating
the obituary for the next thirty-five years. Basil Liddell Hart drove
numerous—if not, alas, golden—stakes through the monster's heart after
World War One. Both the conventional disasters of World War Two and the
dawn of the Atomic Age prompted new sets of tearless mourners. Since 1991,
writers like Martin van Creveld, John Keegan, and Edward Luttwak have
suggested that readers look elsewhere (i.e., to themselves) for truly
up-to-date military profundity. The reasons behind such suggestions
include a great number of purely tangential and idiosyncratic matters
like the nationality of the writer (and any consequent prejudices against
Germans like Clausewitz) and the way he or she personally deals with the
various other barriers to appreciating Clausewitz listed above.
The reason why readers tend to accept claims of Clausewitz's passing
at such historical turning points, however, is the same in each case.
This acceptance owes more to Clausewitz's proponents than to his critics.
In each of Clausewitz's periods of acclaim—post-Franco-Prussian
War, post-Boer War, post-Vietnam War—the philosopher's admirers
have thoroughly tied his ideas to the spirit of their own times. Pre-World
War One writers like F.N. Maude, On War's 1908 English editor,
linked him firmly to their own social Darwinism. Cold Warriors embedded
him in their nuclear exchange scenarios. The post-Vietnam writer Harry
Summers cleverly derived a rigid social trinity of "people, army, and
government," quite valuable in itself and especially at the time, from
Clausewitz's very different trinitarian formulation.*2 Since most people, including most national security professionals, know
Clausewitz only through secondary or tertiary treatments, it is therefore
pretty easy to convince them that he is passé when the spirit of
the age changes.
Unfortunately, this process exposes us to the inevitable myopia of writers
who make their livings day-to-day selling their latest insights
into the latest developments. Martin van Creveld has taken one fragment
of the great mosaic of human warmaking, the Palestinian Intifada, and
blown it up to fill the entire view-screen. This is allegedly "non-trinitarian"—i.e.,
nonClausewitzian*3—warfare, and thus all of our existing
military institutions and theories are dinosaurs. John Keegan makes the
truly remarkable statement that the wars in the former Yugoslavia are
"apolitical," thus proving that Clausewitz is irrelevant.*4 Ed Luttwak has returned from the wilderness inhabited by those pundits
who thoroughly mispredicted the outcome of the Gulf War. He tells us that
we must return to the pre-Clausewitzian era and "emulate the casualty-avoiding
methods of eighteenth-century warfare and thus conduct armed yet virtually
Actually, it is unfair to lump either van Creveld or Luttwak with John
Keegan. Each of the former writers has a fundamental appreciation for
Clausewitz, just as Liddell Hart did. In 1986, van Creveld wrote an introductory
chapter entitled "The Eternal Clausewitz" for a book of essays on the
topic,*6 and Luttwak states even today that "the teachings
of Clausewitz remain unsurpassed." They simply share with Liddell Hart
the conviction that soldiers and the general public are likely to be misled
into error by the master, simply because, being soldiers and the general
public, they are not very bright. Therefore, they need to be gently steered
away from On War and spoon-fed history and strategic theory
suitably dumbed-down and manipulated—like Luttwak's dubious arguments
about returning to an eighteenth-century style of warfare. Marlborough
and Frederick the Great would have been more than a bit surprised by Luttwak's
description of war in their era. The "bloodless" issue aside, however,
opposing eighteenth-century European armies were, in terms of arms, tactics,
and organization, virtually identical, whereas Luttwak's basic argument
is that we should use our asymmetrically superior technology to prevail.
And just because a conflict's scope is small and casualties few does not
make it "limited war." In American interventions like those in Grenada,
Panama, or Somalia, the aim has usually been a sweeping political transformation,
not the acquisition of bits of territory à la Silesia. They thus
reflect, in Clausewitzian terms, "unlimited" strategies and require decisive
action, not the "partial, circumscribed, and often slow results" that
Luttwak calls for and which the American public—often quite justifiably—will
For Keegan, on the other hand, Clausewitz was just another bloody-minded
German bastard bent on conquest.*7 Keegan's work serves
well to demonstrate, through the power of negative example, how important
it is to grasp the historical context within which Clausewitz lived, acted,
and wrote. Clausewitz represented not the conqueror Napoleon, but an alliance
of independent states resisting conquest. Otherwise, it would be hard
to account either for Clausewitz's argument that defense is the stronger
form of war or for his relevance to the modern West. To buy Keegan's attack
on Clausewitz we would have to accept a definition of "politics" as a
thoroughly rational and philanthropic pursuit.
We will surely see yet another revival of Clausewitz when the content-free
alternative theories offered by his current detractors result in another
military-political trainwreck. Therefore, we may as well get on with
the unavoidable process of adapting Clausewitz's truly fundamental concepts
to the new era—even knowing as we do so that we are thus setting the
stage for the next wave of debunkers.
1. Alan D. Beyerchen, "Chance
and Complexity in the Real World: Clausewitz on the Nonlinear Nature of
War," International Security, Winter 1992/1993.
2. See Edward Villacres and Christopher
Bassford, "Reclaiming the Clausewitzian
Trinity," Parameters, Autumn 1995.
3. Ibid. Creveld has badly misread
Clausewitz on the nature of the "remarkable trinity" so central to Clausewitzian
4. Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Knopf, 1993), 58, 381.
5. Edward N. Luttwak, "Toward Post-Heroic
Warfare," Foreign Affairs, May/June 1995.
6. Martin van Creveld, "The Eternal Clausewitz," Clausewitz and Modern Strategy, ed. Michael I. Handel (London:
Frank Cass, 1986).
7. On Keegan, see my article, "John
Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz," War
in History, November 1994.
Back to The Clausewitz Homepage