A Clausewitz Homepage editorial comment

The following letter to the editor did not appear in the Letters to the Editor section of Parameters, owing to the good sense of editor Jack Madigan.

To the Editor, Parameters:

NEWS FLASH! The "wake" for Clausewitz—breathlessly announced by Dr. Steven Metz in the Winter 1994-95 Parameters—has been cancelled, owing to lack of a corpse. According to student-borne rumors, his article originated in the classroom on a day when the air-conditioning was out. Dr. Metz, having just been aroused from a typical political scientist's daydream, simply misconstrued someone's whispered advice to "stay awake for Clausewitz." The good general's many friends and well-wishers may relax, secure in the knowledge that their good buddy Chuck Clausewitz remains very much alive at the Army War College. And so, by the way, do "the historians," among whom Dr. Metz was laying him to rest.

Nonetheless, this false alarm raises some very real questions about what is happening to the study of classical military theory at one of the nation's premier military educational institutions. Dr. Metz seems to have adopted Martin van Creveld's delusions about the nature of the "state" in On War and John Keegan's ludicrously uninformed analysis of "absolute war." Although he criticizes Harry Summers, Metz makes the same misreading of the Clausewitzian "trinity" that both Summers and Summers' antagonist (van Creveld) do. The Tofflers' dismissal of Clausewitz is offhand, reflecting neither deep thought nor great conviction. It appears to be based on a reading of misleading secondary treatments, particularly those written by Basil Liddell Hart. There is, however, little in their very useful presentation that militates against the continued relevance of On War.

We would do well to remember that it was essentially the political sophistication of Clausewitz's ideas that brought On War to prominence in the US Army after Vietnam. Unfortunately, Metz's own understanding of what Clausewitz meant by "policy" and by "politics" appears to be very fuzzy. Regarding the continued relevance of the state, let us remember that any warfare in which the United States engages is going to be "state warfare" on at least one side: For the US Army to accept as given van Creveld's most extreme arguments about the state would be like buying a round-trip ticket to its own wake. There are in fact many weak states out there, but most of the successful low-intensity wars Metz cites have merely resulted in the replacement of such weak states by new and stronger states. In any case, Clausewitz's political analysis is easily adaptable to intrastate or "non-state" warfare.

Unfortunately, the political aspects of Clausewitz's approach have to an increasing extent been drowned out at military schools by protracted and enervating debates over minor operational concepts like the "center of gravity" and "culminating points," doctrinal ideas which hardly require any serious study of On War. Meanwhile, JSTARS and CNN have allegedly made obsolete all that stuff about battlefield uncertainty. The mental laziness occasioned by easy triumph in the Gulf War threatens to undo the tremendous accomplishments of the Army's post-Vietnam generation of leaders. The defeat of 17 million impoverished Arabs by a military machine designed to wage global war against the Soviet empire hardly offers a standard on which to base a comprehensive approach to warfare.

If we are truly looking for useful military-theoretical underpinnings, rather than simply for the latest craze, Clausewitz remains the fundamental source. As Metz correctly notes, there is virtually nothing in Keegan's book that is of any relevance for real-world policies, programs, or strategies. The Tofflers acknowledge that their vision of a "Third Wave" provides only an additional overlay—not a replacement—for the existing world; as Metz points out (exaggerating somewhat, I think), they say very little about the strategic, political, social, or psychological elements of war, precisely the areas in which Clausewitz excels. And the only writer Metz describes as truly grappling with the key new problems, Ralph Peters, is himself a fervent proponent for the study of Clausewitz.

Come on, Steve. Wake up and smell the Clausewitz. And read some history.

Dr. Christopher Bassford
US Army War College
January 1995

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