Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America 1815–1945. By Christopher Bassford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 293 pages. $45.00.
Reviewed by Antulio J. Echevarria II, Assistant Professor, US Military Academy.
The following review appeared in Armed Forces & Society 22, No. 1, (Fall 1995): 131-33. It is displayed here with the permission of AFS.
To say that the works of Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) have been misrepresented over the years is of course to utter a truism. Since the early nineteenth century, military writers and theorists have used and abused Clausewitz's precepts to support key elements of their own doctrines. Likewise, historians, critics, and social and political scientists have extracted ideas from his many writings to justify their particular ideological position as well as to provoke and criticize the status quo. Indeed, the history of such distortions of Clausewitz even in the English-speaking world is a long one. Nonetheless, it is a saga worth telling. Dr. Christopher Bassford's book does an admirable job telling it, filling a gap, as he does so, in the historiography concerning Clausewitz's impact on Anglo-American military thought.
Any British or American military historian or student of Clausewitz will find much of interest in this study. It is solidly organized into four parts and twenty-two chapters, each well written and persuasively argued. Part I discusses the reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America from 1815, when his "Campaign of 1813" appeared in English, to 1873, the publication of the first complete English translation of Vom Kriege (On War). Part I argues that in England, at least, military writers paid a fair degree of attention to Clausewitz's works between 1835 and 1873, though this attention was eclectic and nearly devoid of any direct references to him. Part II deals with the period from 1874 to the eve of World War I, revealing that Britain's military leaders had been quite heavily exposed to Clausewitz's thought in the decades before the war. While military personalities like Lord Roberts, Douglas Haig, and Sir William Robertson cannot be considered true Clausewitzians, Bassford clearly proves that Jominian-style precepts did not reign sovereign over pre-World War I British military thinking. Part III focuses on the era of "total war"—1914-1945—marked, understandably, with hostility toward Germany and things German, Clausewitz included. It was during this period that the most significant distortions of Clausewitz's thought occurred. Part IV covers the period since 1945, discussing in particular the growing ubiquity of Clausewitzian ideas in Anglo-American military thought since the beginning of the Cold War. The final chapter of the book suggests that the reception of Clausewitz in Anglo-American armies became more widespread and more comprehensive as those institutions matured professionally.
While cautiously subtitled the "Reception of Clausewitz," this book actually addresses his influence, but from a unique perspective. Significantly, it approaches influence as a living process—not the pristine transmission of an idea or a set of concepts from one generation to the next, but the imperfect and ongoing interaction of individuals with the written word. "Influence is rather hard to define," so the author writes, and correctly; "one can be influenced by a book without agreeing with it, without reading it, or without even being aware of its existence" (p. 6). While resisting the temptation to see "Clausewitz behind every doctrinal bush" (p. 105), Bassford's lucid prose reveals how the "spirit of the age," and the inclinations, perspectives, and personal experiences of individuals like Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller affected their understanding and representation of Clausewitz.
Previous investigations into the matter of Clausewitz's influence have focused on tracing the correct understanding and application of his original thought. But misunderstanding and misuse also constitute valid forms of intellectual influence. For example, Renaissance thinkers and writers revived and applied the doctrines of classical philosophers to their own age. Although distorted, the ideas of Plato and Aristotle exercised a tremendous influence upon Renaissance intellectual society. Each historical generation appropriates, eclectically and syncreticly, the ideas of its predecessors and combines them with its own, creating new interpretations and applications in the process. Original thought itself owns but a fleeting existence in the history of ideas. Such certainly has been the case with Clausewitz's thought in English, as Bassford clearly illustrates.
Nor is the author himself immune to such presentist influences. His own explication of Clausewitz's conception of politics, for example, which Bassford partitions into rational, nonrational, and irrational factors, while not inaccurate, betrays a decidedly contemporary political-scientific framework of analysis—one which the nineteenth-century philosopher of war would not have had available to him. Clausewitz's definition of war as a "continuation of politics (Politik) by other means" is of course well known. But it is often wrongly interpreted to mean that war is merely an act of state policy, brought forth to acheive a political aim, a confusion Bassford rightly rejects. At least part of this misunderstanding stems from the ambiguity of the German term Politik, for it means both policy and politics. Politik as politics refers to the sum of a state's internal and external affairs—the strengths and weaknesses provided to a state by its geo-political position, its resources, alliances and treaties, its culture, the nature of its decision-making institutions, and the dynamic interplay between the "spirit of the age" and the personalities of its key policy makers. But—and this is one point Bassford does not mention—Clausewitz also referred to Politik as an historically causative force driving world events, creating variety and change in one historical era after another, and thus explaining war's various manifestations over time. In the long run, Dr. Bassford's anachronism amounts to a strength rather than a weakness, for it allows those readers equipped with a similar framework of analysis (as most are today) to understand that Clausewitz's conception of politics embraces more than mere policy.
Dr. Bassford also provides an excellent summary of other aspects of Clausewitz's thought (Chapter 2), but sagely warns that such encapsulations inevitably distort and the student who wishes to gain a clear understanding of the great military thinker "cannot escape" actually reading On War. Inevitably, the story of Clausewitz's reception in the English-speaking world is also the saga of its evolving military institutions and cultures. Bassford has captured a part of that evolution by using the reception of Clausewitz as a window into the "hearts and minds" of key actors in both the American and British military establishments. Clausewitz in English will inspire, provoke, and most importantly, clarify. Read it. Then, pull out your favorite copy of On War and try that recalcitrant chapter again.
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