Beatrice Heuser, Reading Clausewitz

(Pimlico, 2002). ISBN 0-7126-6484-X. £12.50, 238 pages.

by Christopher Bassford

This review originally appeared in RUSI Journal, February 2003, vol.148, no.1, pp.97-99. Copyright Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies Feb 2003. Posted to The Clausewitz Homepage by permission.

In 1991, after resounding Western victories in the Cold War and Kuwait, and possibly in anticipation of an 'end of history,' much of the military-intellectual world seemed poised to relegate the classical military theorist Carl von Clausewitz to the historical dustbin. Unfortunately, history proved to be an on-going, complex, and rather nasty process—one result being a renewed interest in Clausewitz and his unsurpassed (if still unsatisfying) exploration of the phenomenon of war, On War (Vom Kriege, 1832). At least five substantial books focusing on Clausewitz have appeared in English since 2000. Beatrice Heuser is professor of strategic studies at Kings College, London. In this useful synthesis she summarizes much of the recent scholarship on the context, intent, and reception of Clausewitz's ideas on war, politics, and strategy.

Heuser's objective is to furnish readers with a more-or-less complete overview of Clausewitz, his principal ideas, their difficulties and enduring worth. She provides generally good advice on 'how to read Clausewitz' and tells much of the enlightening—if often unedifying—story of how others have read or misread him.

German version, with Amazon link.cover illustration with linkI was personally a bit piqued by the back-cover copy saying that this 'is the first book not only on how to read Clausewitz, but also on how others have read him.' I thought I had done at least the latter for British and American writers in my own Clausewitz in English (Oxford, 1994). Werner Hahlweg offered good coverage of Clausewitz's worldwide reception in his lengthy 1980 introduction to the nineteenth century German addition, and others have covered pieces of the story. But Heuser has done a good job of integrating and extending previous work on the subject. The sections on Lenin and Mao are particularly interesting. She correctly notes that 'Clausewitz's contribution to the understanding of the guerrilla is widely underestimated.'

The book is aimed 'primarily at students ... who want to understand the essence of what Clausewitz had to tell us, without having to read all the secondary literature'—or, one gathers, the originals. This prompts a word of caution. Readers certainly need some guide to On War's complexities and pitfalls. But too many people read only summaries, looking for simple, discrete nuggets to apply or condemn. The real value of reading Clausewitz—as of any truly great thinker—is the stimulation of sustained contact with a powerful mind. He shows us a process of strategic and historical thinking that must be experienced first-hand to be useful. Whether he is 'right' or 'wrong' on any specific issue, or whether that issue is particularly relevant today, is often simply beside the point.

To be sure, Heuser's book falls only partly into the unfortunate tradition of the Staff-College crammer. Still, one cannot help but wonder if it does not therefore drop into an awkward crevice—too sophisticated for the young military student or general audience, yet too derivative to have any impact on the scholarly debate.

My biggest concern about the book reflects its greatest strengths. Informed writers on Clausewitz have become intensely aware of the potentially confusing evolutionary vestigia embedded in On War. In general, this is a healthy development, but it can be taken too far. For example, Heuser notes correctly that the purpose and definition of Clausewitz's 'absolute war' concept underwent a distinct evolution: the term is used in significantly varying ways in sections written at different times. The pervasive confusion it inspires, however, does not derive from contradictions between Clausewitz's careful delineation in Book One (the only book he considered to be finished) and older conceptions expressed in later books composed years earlier. Rather, it stems from blinkered reading of Book One itself. Heuser compounds this confusion by constantly contrasting the 'idealistic' Clausewitz behind the abstract notion of absolute war with the 'realistic' Clausewitz who focused on the puzzling forms in which war actually occurs—as if these two incarnations lived in separate eras and appear in different sections of On War. In fact, of course, Clausewitz toggled constantly, purposefully, and usually quite clearly between the two modes. She further confuses the issue by treating 'absolute war' and `limited war' as if they were two ends of a spectrum, when in fact they are quite separate: Absolute war is a thought experiment—a 'logical fantasy' (Clausewitz's own description of it). It contrasts, not with limited war, but with 'real war', i.e., war as it appears in the concrete world within which actual strategists operate. Here, we see a spectrum running from wars of limited objective to wars of unlimited political and/or military aim. Heuser herself clearly understands these issues, and in fact provides an excellent critique of weaknesses in Clausewitz's treatment. The reader new to them will likely flounder.

Many criticisms of Clausewitz boil down to accusations that he was no more able than any of the rest of us to encapsulate all of reality in a single, pithy phrase. His work survives as a living influence because his approach, overall, comes closer to capturing the complex truth about war than any writer since. Almost by definition, therefore, any monograph focusing on his legacy is an ambitious scholarly undertaking. Heuser has taken on this task with both energy and pluck.

Christopher Bassford
National War College, USA


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