Just can't get away from Clausewitz....

One of the many reasons I enjoy the blog Small Wars Journal is the provocative and at times really maddening articles they have.  All thoughtful of course, and no more than an article posted this week on one of my favorite topics, Carl von Clausewitz.

Clausewitz has evoked some REALLY strong responses lately from military, strategy, and political pundits, some of which have been covered and commented on by yours truly.  From polemics about Clausewitz and the US Army in Iraq to discussions about the famous "trinity" and the "center of gravity" to the applicability of Clausewitz to fighting terrorism, there is always someone with an opinion about the use, misuse and continued relevance of Clausewitz to the 21st century security environment.

However, these week's article goes beyond the mere arguments about this point or that to say that On War as a whole is as useless as turkey bacon or veggie burgers.  The title minces no words, and let's you know what kinda ride you're in for...

The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz 

So, if that doesn't get a Clausewitzian fired up, never fear, the author spends almost 12 pages commenting on why On War is best suited as a door stop. Now, to be fair, I have to agree with the author that studying On War as a cook book or a doctrine manual is a fool's errand, but I certainly wouldn't consider Clausewitz irrelevant to the study of war and strategy any more than studying Plato or Socrates is irrelevant to the study of philosophy.

I would consider On War to be part memoir, part history, and part philosophy, all wrapped up in what the author rightly considers is Clausewitz' attempt to come to terms with the huge disruption to European society, and especially Prussia wrought by Napoleon. Clearly the Napoleonic era of total, revolutionary war had a profound effect on all the soldiers involved and Clausewitz was taking a stab at trying to understand these changes and how they affected his beloved Prussia.

Rather than conduct a pointless argument over the fine points of the author's overwrought desire to consign Clausewitz to the dustbin of history, I would like to quote the man himself, who describe why he wrote this magnum opus...the bold and italic passages are mine.

At this point our historical survey can end. Our purpose was not to assign, in passing, a handful of principles of warfare to each period. We wanted to show how every age had its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions. Each period, therefore, would have held to its own theory of war, even if the urge had always and universally existed to work things out on scientific principles. It follows that the events of every age must judged in the light of its own peculiarities. One cannot, therefore, understand and appreciate the commanders of the past until one has placed oneself in the situation of their times, not so much by a painstaking study of all its details as by an accurate appreciation of its major determining features…. 
But war, though conditioned by the particular characteristics of states and their armed forces, must contain some more general—indeed, a universal—element with which every theorist ought above all to be concerned.

The age in which this postulate, this universally valid element, was at its strongest was the most recent one, when war attained the absolute in violence. But it is no more likely that war will always be so monumental in character than that ample scope it has come to enjoy will again be severely restricted. A theory, then, that dealt exclusively with absolute war would either have to ignore any case in which the nature of war had been deformed by outside influence, or else it would have to dismiss them all as misconstrued. (On War, pg. 592-594)

So it would appear that Carl was very aware that the methods of waging war had changed and would like to continue to change dramatically, however, he asked if there weren't some factors about war, politics, and the state that were unchanging and would allow leaders, especially battlefield leaders a framework to consider their particular situation in light of history.

THIS is not an inconsequential process or desire! Think about the last 10 years...the US, Israel, our NATO allies and other conventional forces have bought into the argument that drones, sensors, and precision guided missiles are the end all, be all, do all for 21st century warfare. 

But what Clausewitz and numerous other big thinkers about war continue to state is that war is a HUMAN endeavor and humans are infinitely clever, adaptable, and often willing to WIN at war no matter what the cost. Human psychology can not be reduced to the cold equations, no matter how hard we want to try. A military truism that we often over look in our "net-centric" enthusiasm is that the enemy gets a vote in how conflict turns out. I think this is the bottom link think of Clausewitz, which will make his tome relevant for a long time to come. 

So I will continue to grapple with the infinite understandings and multiple interpretations of On War and will be happy to continue using it as a benchmark, along with my other pals Sun Tzu, Jomini, Frederick the Great, Vegetius, and even Xenophon to the writings of today.  After all, we still read Plato and Homer, yes?