And now...some Clausewtiz

Clausewitz, like bacon, is something that never ceases to amaze me.  How can I compare salty strips of pork to one of history's greatest military minds you say?  Okay, the comparison is a stretch, but to this Grouchy Historian, there is nothing better than READING Clausewitz while EATING bacon....hmmmmm.

More importantly, Clausewitz continues to fascinate not merely yours truly, but anyone who wants to grapple with the philosophical issues of war, statecraft and the relationship between the "trinity" of Clausewitz:  reason, emotion and chance.

So, how does one read Clausewitz?  Much like one explores a deep cave...carefully, slowly, and hopefully with a flashlight.  SO, on to some really great flash lights, as it were.

In order to understand Clausewitz, one must read On War, his magnum opus.  And then, read it again.  And then, read it again with a highlighter.  Yes, that is repetitious, and yes, I did it on purpose.  I had to read On War three times before I really began to see what Clausewitz was trying to impart in his sometimes laborious 19th century writing style.  Is this a cookbook on warfare?  Hardly.  Much of the book does read like a primer for 19th century dynastic warfare and I don't think anyone needs to figure out how to move cavalry across a river these days...although there was that whole Afghanistan horseback Special Forces thing, but the early chapters offer timeless food for thought for someone trying to understand WAR as opposed to fighting WARS.

I vigorously recommend this translation of On War by Peter Paret.  Paret is one of the leading Clausewitz scholars today and his volume is not only acknowledged as the best translation available, it has excellent supplementary essays and other material as well.

Another volume I highly recommend as a companion is On Clausewitz, a small volume that dissects the major points of On War and provides a sort of Cliffs Notes for the major themes of the work.  And, of course, it uses the Paret volume as the basis for its footnotes, so they go together well.  Between these two volumes, the novice reader can begin to dive into the richness of Clausewitz' theories and begin to digest the timeless themes of On War.

What's fascinating to yours truly is the continued debate within the American military of the themes and issues raised by Clausewitz nearly 200 years ago.  In spite of dramatic changes in technology, tactics and even world politics, the ideas and theories put forth by our Prussian have never been supplanted or replaced, only debated, refined and improved.  A significant debate continues among strategists and military officers about the continuing validity of Clausewitz’ theories regarding warfare, a problem that is amplified not only by the very esoteric and philosophical style of On War, but thoughts and discussions within the book in which Clausewitz seems to contradict himself.  The evolving nature of warfare, terrorism, and state-less conflict would seem to make the volume written about dynastic warfare obsolete....and yet....not so fast.  Although there are indeed some criticisms that can be made, they are not complete or focused.

These criticisms are focused on four of Clausewitz’ major themes:  the notion of limited versus unlimited warfare; the strategic trinity; the center of gravity concept; and the discussion of the ‘People’s War’.  As each of these themes is synthesized and examined, examples will be used from current American military operations in Iraq to demonstrate that although war has changed its ways and means significantly from the Napoleonic era of On War, the enduring nature of war as a political and very human activity remains the same. 

Nearly all of Clausewitz’ modern critics misunderstand the basic purpose of his work, which was not to write a drill manual for combat, but a sophisticated work for thinking about warfare at the strategic level- “This point of view will admit the feasibility of a satisfactory theory of war—one that will be of real service and will never conflict with reality.  It only needs intelligent treatment to make it conform to action, and to end the absurd difference between theory and practice that unreasonable theories has so often evoked.”1

Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 142.