Review Essay: Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Berlin, 1832)

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.

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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 together.

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 bloodless interventions."*5

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 not tolerate.

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 theory.

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.

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