On War - title image

Carl von Clausewitz

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NOTE: This version of Carl von Clausewitz's On War is the long-obsolete J.J. Graham translation of Clausewitz's Vom Kriege (1832) published in London in 1873. The 1976/84 Howard/Paret version is the  standard translation today; for the most accurate text one should always consult the 1943 Jolles translation. Consider the more modern versions and other relevant books shown below.

Book Cover, ON WATERLOOOn Waterloo: Clausewitz, Wellington, and the Campaign of 1815. Ed./trans. Christopher Bassford, Daniel Moran, and Gregory W. Pedlow (, 2010). ISBN: 1453701508. This book is built around a new and complete translation of Clausewitz's study of the Waterloo campaign [Berlin: 1835], which is a strategic analysis of the entire campaign (not just the Battle of Waterloo), and the Duke of Wellington's detailed 1842 response to it.

Jolles translation, book coverBuy the best translation—recommended for serious readers. The Book of War (The Modern Library, February 2000). ISBN: 0375754776. Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu's Art of War in one volume. The translation of Clausewitz's On War is the 1943 version done by German literary scholar O.J. Matthijs Jolles at the University of Chicago during World War II—not today's standard translation, but certainly the most accurate.

On War, Princeton ed.Buy the standard English translation of Clausewitz's On War, by Michael Howard and Peter Paret  (Princeton University Press, 1976/84). ISBN: 0691018545 (paperback). Kindle edition. This quite readable translation appeared at the close of the Vietnam War and—principally for marketing and copyright reasons—has become the modern standard.

Book coverVanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (Oxford University Press, 2015), ISBN: 0190225432. A rich biography of Countess Marie von Clausewitz that also sheds enormous light on the life, ideas, influences upon, and character of the great military thinker himself.


Mutual Action and Reaction of Attack and Defence


WE shall now consider attack and defence separately, as far as they can be separated from each other. We commence with the defensive for the following reasons:—It is certainly very natural and necessary to base the rules for the defence upon those of the offensive, and vicè versâ; but one of the two must still have a third point of departure, if the whole chain of ideas is to have a beginning, that is, to be possible. The first question concerns this point.

If we reflect upon the commencement of war philosophically, the conception of war properly does not originate with the offensive, as that form has for its absolute object, not so much fighting as the taking possession of something. The idea of war arises first by the defensive, for that form has the battle for its direct object, as warding off and fighting plainly are one and the same. The warding off is directed entirely against the attack; therefore supposes it, necessarily; but the attack is not directed against the warding off; it is directed upon something else—the taking possession; consequently does not presuppose the warding off. It lies, therefore, in the nature of things, that the party who first brings the element of war into action, the party from whose point of view two opposite parties are first conceived, also establishes the first laws of war, and that party is the defender. We are not speaking of any individual case; we are only dealing with a general, an abstract case, which theory imagines in order to determine the course it is to take.

By this we now know where to look for this fixed point, outside and independent of the reciprocal effect of attack and defence, and that it is in the defensive.

If this is a logical consequence, the defensive must have motives of action, even when as yet he knows nothing of the intentions of the offensive; and these motives of action must determine the organisation of the means of fighting. On the other hand, as long as the offensive knows nothing of the plans of his adversary, there are no motives of action for him, no grounds for the application of his military means. He can do nothing more than take these means along with him, that is, take possession by means of his army. And thus it is also in point of fact; for to carry about the apparatus of war is not to use it; and the offensive who takes such things with him, on the quite general supposition that he may require to use them, and who, instead of taking possession of a country by official functionaries and proclamations, does so with an army, has not as yet committed, properly speaking, any act of warfare; but the defensive who both collects his apparatus of war, and disposes of it with a view to fighting, is the first to exercise an act which really accords with the conception of war.

The second question is now: what is theoretically the nature of the motives which must arise in the mind of the defensive first, before the attack itself is thought of? Plainly the advance made with a view to taking possession, which we have imagined extraneous to the war, but which is the foundation of the opening chapter. The defence is to oppose this advance; therefore in idea we must connect this advance with the land (country); and thus arise the first most general measures of the defensive. When these are once established, then upon them the application of the offensive is founded, and from a consideration of the means which the offensive then applies, new principles again of defence are derived. Now here is the reciprocal effect which theory can follow in its inquiry, as long as it finds the fresh results which are produced are worth examination.

This little analysis was necessary in order to give more clearness and stability to what follows, such as it is; it is not made for the field of battle, neither is it for the generals of the future; it is only for the army of theorists, who have made a great deal too light of the subject hitherto.


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