The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz
Wm. J. Olson
Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.
The study of war, or peace, remains relevant. But does the study of On War? Is it any more useful than reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a nice read, for those so inclined, but hardly useful to analytical insight. Given all the ink spilled for and against Clausewitz in the last 170 odd years, intensifying since Vietnam in this country, and more generally with the publication of the seminal translation of Vom Kriege by Michael Howard and Peter Paret in 1976, one might be excused for concluding that there is a great deal less here than meets the eye.
As generally presented--based largely on the contentions of Michael Howard and Peter Paret and a generation of scholars that they have influenced, including such acolytes as Harry Summers--On War is argued to be the most serious study, perhaps the only serious study, of war; not as a series of battles or maneuvers to battle, or a set of axioms to inform doctrine and instruction with mathematical certainty on the principles of war, but a deeply philosophical and theoretical introspection on the nature of war itself as a distinctive and distinguishable human activity. In this sense, it is not a hypothesis but a full-blown theory.
What shortcomings it is reputed to have as an overall theory--for an older generation like Martin van Creveld or John Keegan, to a newer crop of critics like Mary Kaldor and the 'new war' crowd--are generally dismissed as the result of the fact that Clausewitz died before he could complete an in-depth revision of his masterwork based on his evolving thinking, which a close enough reading of the existing text reveals at various points his true vision to put to rest any doubts about the seminal nature of his work. Thus his obscurity on certain points is a defense against doubt on any point.
In some hands, this sort of argumentation on Clausewitz's behalf has the smell of incense about it and the feel of liturgical mysteries revealed by an inner light known only to true initiates who know how to derive meaning where others only find muddle. Clausewitz as prophet. The result is in some cases, particularly in military circles, Clausewitz taught as a catechism. For the moment, I leave aside comment on some of his best points, many of which are fairly banal--war is politics by other means, the fog of war, friction--and commonplace, that is true but not uniquely so. Instead I suggest the following summary of ways to interpret the text that relieve it of some of its burden as sacred mystery.
In essence, there are several ways to understand On War and Clausewitz's contribution:
--it is a theory of war itself, war as war, and is, therefore, equally valid in describing the phenomenon of war and violence both forward and backward in time, for all time. Universal and continuingly relevant.
--it is a theory of war based on the major evolution of war with Napoleon and the wars of organized states, that is, it is to be read forward to cover all wars since the changes resulting from the French Revolution and the emergence of strong nation-states. It is not just a product of its time and place but is not useful for 'pre-history'--that is BN, Before Napoleon.
--it is a theory of war based on the nation-state model, thus it covers only one category of possible conflicts, its notions of friction and politics, etc., being features of human activity in general. It is limited but useful on this narrow front.
--it is a theory so vague and flexible as to describe anything and thus describes nothing except what the beholder most wants to behold.
The current state of literature on Clausewitz and his insights, or lack thereof, argues all of these points of view, making one wonder if there is more than one Clausewitz and if so, which one is definitive. Or is any? Whether for or against, it seems that the starting point to lend credibility to any argument is to invoke His Name and some orphaned quotes, or cite their absence, to ‘prove’ the argument. Clausewitz’s relevance does not reside in whether what he has to say is true but that it is useful. Thus articles on Clausewitz and the revolution in military affairs; on peacekeeping; on counterinsurgency; or insurgency; or terrorism; or logistics; or information war; or space war; or future war. Articles on things Clausewitz did not write about but should have or meant to, such as Just War or naval warfare or economic and other non-military warfighting. Air Power? Or articles demonstrating that Clausewitz has nothing to say about ‘new war’. Or what he had to say on any war but the wars of Napoleon and the Prussian response are of no continuing use beyond historical interest. Or arguments that, if he had lived to finish his great work, he would have said this or that supporting whatever argument this or that wish to make. Or, Clausewitz was the evil genius of total war in all its brutality, he endorsing German militarism and thus implicated in war guilt for WWI and WWII. Clausewitz seems perplexed by this scholarly fog of interpretation. Like some modern version of What’s My Line, will the real Clausewitz please stand up.
The military, at least the US military, on the other hand, does not seem so troubled. He is taught in most war colleges and staff colleges as virtually holy writ, endowing his argument that war is politics by other means with a special significance. His appearance figures prominently in the current strategic lexicon with words or phrases like the Trinity, friction, fog of war, uncertainty, center of gravity, and the culminating point of battle. Clausewitz appears most supportive of what Russell Weigley and others have called the ‘American Way of War’: the notion that war has its own logic, its own grammar, and once politics and politicians have invoked war—implying the failure of politics—these should stand aside to let the professionals fight to success and thus restore circumstances to politicians and politics. And this fighting, based on its own rules, must be given a freehand or else it will fail or muddle up success, which must be fought on time-honored principles of war, which Clausewitz’s writ suggests are eternal and necessary. All things that Clausewitz strongly argues the opposite of. Again, one is tempted to conclude that there is more than one Clausewitz, or, at least, he wrote two, perhaps three of four, different books for different audiences.
In these circumstances, one might be forgiven for concluding that Clausewitz did not really exist but is a figment of necessity, conjured up to prove any and all points currently in or out of fashion. Clausewitz as a committee-designed camel. Or Clausewitz has something useful to feed any appetite. On War as smorgasbord. Or that given this contradictory array that Clausewitz is irrelevant to any discussion of war and peace since any source that can lend aid and comfort to such a range of arguments really argues nothing worthwhile at all. Clausewitz as fashion statement.
My purpose in what follows is not to show that Clausewitz’s argument, whatever that turns out to be, or the many interpretations of it about a theory of war are right or wrong on this point or that, but to dispute the approach of theorizing as such at its source. The project itself is mistaken and everything that starts from the premise goes awry of necessity. Clausewitz himself invites much of this. He wrote with two purposes in mind: One to inform his German colleagues in a how-to-do manual the things that were needed to reform the Prussian military to face the challenge of Napoleon and the style of warfare that he and the French Revolution made. This necessitated a change in thinking as much as in organization, maneuver, troop management, and such like. And two, as part of the encouragement to break out of an older, now failed model for fighting, he invited his colleagues to think metaphysically, philosophically about the nature of war itself and its deeply troubling and at points contradictory nature, which any purely historical account or set of rote ‘principles’ of war simply could not encompass. The first approach generally appeals to military men, the second to scholars. On War is both deceptively practical and obscurely metaphorical.
In following this purpose to a conclusion, I will borrow a leaf from Clausewitz and employ a dialectic argument, thesis, antithesis, synthesis, making the strongest case to start for Clausewitz’s irrelevance and then showing, not his relevance but the failure of any argument to prove this point, the synthesis being, but that’s to get ahead of the tale.
Into the Labyrinth
Carl Phillip Gottfried, or was it Gottlieb, von Clausewitz—even his name has some uncertainty—existed, at least once Napoleon, the werewolf of Europe, the God of War, was truly exiled, in the shadowy borderlands between the world of ideas and the world of men of action. As a patriot and loyal Prussian he was committed to his monarch, the institution of the army, and the Prussian state. As such, as a soldier, all things being equal, he might have expected to live out his life in the dynastic wars based on the model of Frederick the Great and the wars of the 18th century. Limited in intent and scale. Comfortable in circumstances and settled principles. But the French Revolution changed the political landscape of Europe and Napoleon transformed war, sweeping comfort and principle aside on a scale of activity not seen again until WWI. In the process, that process humiliated the Prussian army and almost destroyed the Prussian state, events that summoned Clausewitz, the man of action, to think most seriously about what had happened, why, and what needed to be done to understand what had happened and why, and how to respond.
The man of action became a man of ideas of necessity. In the former case, he grew up in a discipline, trained and prepared in an established order with long traditions. In the latter, he was self-taught, and much of his reading and thinking are characteristic of the autodidact, extensive but free of the discipline of a discipline, particularly of the formulas and forms of philosophy and science and history, which pervade his thinking and writing. In one field he was a professional. In the others a gifted amateur. It was the amateur who struggled with how to talk to the professional about how to respond to a world changed forever. The former realized that the forms and formulas that once applied no longer held. Yet, how to think about the changes? How to present them to persuade? How, indeed, to do that most difficult of things, combine ideas into practice that both make sense while not betraying the need to act. In this, Clausewitz was never entirely settle or satisfied in his own mind and it is a confusion, or a sense of antinomy, that never leaves him or his writing. But he tries.
There is, perhaps, no better indicator of this tension than the fact that his chief modern translators, Howard and Paret, find it necessary to provide a guide to understanding Clausewitz to introduce their elegant rendering of his ideas, or that they close their edition with a guide to reading Clausewitz by Bernard Brodie, by itself an interesting choice. As Paret notes in a footnote to his guide, referring you to his larger study, Clausewitz and the State, for even further elucidation, “Any interpretation of the genesis of Clausewitz’s thought on war must rest not only on his military theory and history but also on his extensive writings on such subjects as education, politics, the theory of art, and on his correspondence.” (p. 5, fn. 2).
In other words, On War is not a stand alone project, one must come to understand the man in his larger mental landscape for his ideas to make the sense one expects. In this sense, then, Clausewitz does not present a stand alone theory, in the way that one can grasp the Theory of General Relativity without knowing the details of Einstein’s mental development. It is a subtle transformation easily missed this shift from theory to biography. But there is a deeper issue. In trying to shape his thinking, Clausewitz turns from experience to trying to find a methodology for how to interpret that experience. He turns to philosophy, and internal evidence suggests that his source is Plato. It is also clear that he relies heavily for some of his thinking on Machiavelli—the role of politics and of chance—and to a lesser extent on ideas drawn from the emerging science of thermodynamics and electromagnetism as grasped by early 19th century science—particularly on the notion of friction.
Clausewitz’s basic approach is to employ the dialectical method, perhaps made current in his time by the works of Hegel. But the practice is traceable to Socrates, at least the Socrates as presented in Plato’s dialogues. In describing Socrates’ methodology, and Plato’s interpretation of it, here is what one authority writes, in language strikingly familiar to what is often said about Clausewitz’s own writing and approach:
As the dialogues progress…Socrates—pressing hard his demands for logical coherence and meaningful definitions, criticizing all the presumed certainties of human belief—begins to move forward to a new level of philosophical argument. After having investigated every current system of thought…[he] concluded that all of them lacked sound critical method. To clarify his own approach, he decided to concern himself not with facts but with statements about facts. These propositions he would analyze by treating each as a hypothesis, deducing its consequences, and thereby judging its value.
As Richard Tarnas, who wrote this on early Greek thought notes further:
Socrates put forth his own fundamental postulate to serve as that ultimate foundation for knowledge and moral standards: When something is good or beautiful, it is so because that thing partakes of an archetypal essence…that is absolute and perfect, that exists on a timeless level that transcends its passing particular manifestations, and that is ultimately accessible only to the intellect, not to the senses. Such universals have a real nature beyond mere human convention or opinion, and an independent existence beyond the phenomenon they inform. The human mind can discover and know these timeless universals, through the supreme discipline of philosophy.
From this evolution, Plato derives his views of ideal forms, that any given manifestation of objects, say a chair, is merely a concrete representation of an ideal reality beyond everyday contingency; or, similarly, of an idea itself, which has reality beyond human experience, that is exists independently. While no trained philosopher, Clausewitz was widely read in the field for his day and his whole approach and methodology clearly breathed deeply the atmosphere of the dialectic and of ideal forms. Thus, as he approached how to think about war, he employs the dialectic method to present a thesis, demolish it with an antithesis in order to arrive at a synthesis that draws ever closer to an ideal reality beyond mere contingency. War, then considered as war, war in itself, is an ideal type but no specific example is more than a manifestation of the ideal. In Clausewitz’s view, Napoleon’s style of warfare comes the closest to the absolute, the ideal type. So considered it is the epitome, but it by no means subsumes all variations of the type, does not require that all approximate its full features. Grasping this point, or failing to, accounts for much of the conceptual confusion that accompanies interpretations of his ideas and meaning. But Clausewitz also inherits, or invites, a further set of problems with this approach, that not only trouble him and his thinking but all those who try to fathom his journey.
In the first instance, the dialectic method is restless, its goal is by opposing thesis and antithesis to arrive at a satisfying synthesis. But, provided one has recognized the right elements and reached the necessary denouement, no certainty, this can easily become a new thesis requiring a challenging opposition and resolution and so on. It’s fairly clear that Clausewitz faced this problem, which in part accounts for the constant sense, often commented upon, of unfinished thoughts and ideas in need of revision. Evolution in thinking becomes endemic, an essential character of the approach. But this invites confusion for others, especially if they are not well versed in the niceties of the Socratic method or lazy in dipping a toe into the dialectic tidal pool. Quite often, casual readers or those with an agenda stop with that part of what should be a point-counterpoint discussion on just those points that are most satisfying to their own particular interest, missing the critical shifts and juxtapositions. It also presents confusion for the author, who must decide where to stop, if he can, and then face endless subsequent criticism for failing to include this or that or for stopping short; or must find himself on an endless treadmill, which is also a prime target for critics.
Viewed casually, dialectic also appears to argue contradictory points, if one stops short of the synthesis argument, or disagrees with it. Taken in isolation, any argument that appears self-contradictory is unsettling in logic. Taken with insouciance, it is possible to miss the true intent, not realized without the attention to the fullness of exposition. In either case, this is rich ground for misreading and misinterpretation, which is amply demonstrated by the current state of Clausewitz viewing. This leaves aside the more basic problem of whether the original approach, regardless of intent, is valid, reaches the right surmises on the evidence, and is rightly interpreted by the original interpreter. There is a cottage industry in philosophy that presumes to point out what the master really meant and how he needs to be understood or corrected. No philosopher or metaphysician can escape the indiscretions of his readers and followers; or, unless one assumes infallibility in the original, his own misapprehensions.
Clausewitz’s second problem, or our problem with him, lies in that most scary of terms, ‘epistemology’, which might be called the problem of definitions but deals with a fundamental conundrum: how we know what we know; or how can we reliably know what we know; or can we reliably know what we know; or we cannot reliably know. That brief summary traces the evolution of a core problem in modern thought to the post-modern conclusion, all testifying not only to an evolution in thinking but to a crisis in philosophy itself.
The problem for any approach to a 19th century thinker relying on ideal forms is that this whole approach has been debunked, drained of meaning. There are no ideal forms, Plato notwithstanding. It’s pure metaphysical nonsense. Charming, seductive, wrong. Thus, Clausewitz’s whole approach is based on extrapolating from his particular interests and is grounded in and on nothing. It cannot be demonstrated. There is no ideal type of war that war seeks to represent. One can discuss war, although even here there are major definitional problems, but no single type or variety of war is representative of some idealized, ethereal war. One can believe or one can be a non-believer, either position is justifiable in that there is no way to prove, beyond one’s own sense of satisfaction, the underlying contention. At times, one is almost persuaded that Clausewitz himself grasped this quandary, questioning his own best understandings.
Thus on these terms, on Clausewitz’s own ground, he simply fails to make the case because there is no case to be made. It is lovely to look at and lovely to hold, but it has no substance beyond what the viewer brings to the case. Any argument is possible and all are equally valid or meaningless. On its most essential elements, On War is irrelevant. Clausewitz disappears into his own fog. Or does he?
The Proof is in the Putting
Part, perhaps the best part, of the ‘relevance’ of Clausewitz lies in the uses to which he is put by advocates and adversaries. Surely, someone who has occasioned so much ink, so many careers, so much controversy has to have had something to say that is more than interesting or entertaining. Clearly he invites comment and controversy. That cannot be all bad. What he actually says—which most admit is either obscure because he wrote philosophically or because he did not live long enough to revise what he said to be clear on what he meant—is not as important as the interpretation to which he is put in support of an argument (pro) or to debunk (con) one, whether he actually said anything of the kind. Unfortunately this has been true almost from the publication of On War by his widow, that is, it emerged and continues to emerge from its own obscurity to serve a cause.
This happened very early on in the original German. If Raymond Aron is to be believed on the matter, some of his army successors, sure of what Clausewitz meant to say, or sure that if he had lived he would have changed his mind, actually falsified the text in the second and subsequent editions of On War to conform to their own sense of things on the role of politics in war. Or Michael Howard who noted that on the question of the superiority of the defense over the offense—an offense to military thinking—his German admirers, believing he would have changed his views to coincide with theirs, reinterpreted his meaning on the subject, wholly changing the thrust of his argument. Clausewitz certainly succeeded in his intention of influencing his colleagues but not in the way he might have preferred.
No where is this clearer, perhaps, than in his whole treatment of war and politics. Clausewitz’s most famous and most ambiguous statement, most used and misused, is his observation, quoted variously, as war is policy by other means, or war is politics by other means—which actually are very different things; statements that are used interchangeably, either by Clausewitz or as a virtue of translation. That statement might be regarded as a truism, or an axiom. As either it is not provable on its own terms. It can be stated but not demonstrated. Leaving aside, for the present, that this statement leads to a regression of just what is meant by ‘politics’—taking this to be what Clausewitz meant—relying on anything in On War to elucidate the meaning of this is to sup on pretty thin gruel.
One is tempted to say, well then, war is a means of politics and is therefore an instrumentality not a separate phenomenon and the prior study, the proper study, should be on politics itself rather than on its derivatives. But this Clausewitz does not do, or do in any detail. He says this, obscurely, in a few places, and proceeds to spend most of his 500 pages talking about fighting. This may be one reason that he is popular in War Colleges and Staff schools. One can pay lip service to that troublesome and squishy subject, politics, and then get to the meat of the matter, fighting, separating chaff from wheat. Or one can do what lots of analysts, most civilians, do and that is to abstract the ‘good’ bits of Clausewitz—usually Book One, Chapters, 1,2, and 8, Book Two, and Book Eight—and use these to highlight how Clausewitz should be read, separating wheat from chaff. Beatrice Heuser has conveniently done this now in book form, an abridged version that removes all that warfighting stuff. Even so, war and not politics seems to be the point of departure.
This approach is most typical of what might be called the Howard/Paret School of Clausewitz Studies, in collaboration with Bernard Brodie. Certainly their translation and interpretation is the most successful embassy for how to read and understand Clausewitz, his role, meaning, and legacy. Howard and company, at least early on, successfully challenged earlier interpretations of Clausewitz, including those of Howard’s own mentor, Basil Liddell Hart. In this reinvention, Clausewitz is cleared of war guilt—that is the charge that WWI was the result of the German General Staff’s militarism, based on an understanding of Clausewitz, an argument advanced by Western analysts, such as Liddell Hart, following the war. A view challenged as patently wrongheaded. Such a reinterpretation freed subsequent students of the shadow of war crimes that haunted Clausewitz and that made serious consideration of his ideas troublesome in the West, particularly following WWII.
While certainly interesting and attractive, just why von Moltke’s reading—the most commonly singled out offender—of Clausewitz was wrong and Liddell Hart’s take from this is regrettable, remains a pertinent question. Von Moltke, after all, was a German, in the same military tradition as Clausewitz, did not have to rely on translations, was a product of the general staff that Clausewitz and his mentor, Gneisenau, were instrumental in creating, and was a student of Clausewitz’s works and ideas. The counter argument, centering on the distinction between war and politics, the subordination of the one to the other, is based on the argument that von Moltke and other Germans missed Clausewitz’s point, standing his argument on its head. There is merit in this view and it is persuasively argued by Howard and Paret. But if, as they and many others have argued, Clausewitz’s views remained incomplete, evolutionary, and open to interpretation, there is no necessary reason to side with their version of the story, apart from their success in making this view part of the current repertoire of the way to read Clausewitz. Everything is reduced to language games.
On the question of war and politics, it is useful to recall that Clausewitz’s understanding of the matter was not necessarily a modern one, or similar to even contemporary ideas in a state less militarized than Prussia. Thus, even accepting Clausewitz at face value on the role of politics, his experience of it was different than any of his most recent interpreters, was based on a state that owed its existence to an army, and who’s efforts were bent on defeating that most political of generals, Napoleon, himself not necessarily a role model for understanding the relationship between politics and war in a democratic society.
If, as Howard et. al. argue, Clausewitz’s thinking was evolving, then we cannot be sure of his final conclusions or even if he would have reached such finality in his thinking. The work was unfinished at this death because it was unfinished in his mind. It is somewhat premature to consider any statement as definitive. What has become definitive is what was left unfinished and must be completed by others. As with Mahler’s 10th Symphony, which remained unfinished at this death and which has been ‘completed’ by others, however brilliant the interpretation, however sympathetic, it remains the product of hacks or geniuses other than the original. It remains unfinished, a thought incomplete.
Thus, on this, one of the most salient points in On War, there is ambiguity and reason to question the utility, the relevance, of studying Clausewitz, particularly in the almost sacramental way his ideas are treated in US military circles, particularly in a democratic state.
The Lesser Included Case(s)
The Howard/Paret interpretation has not gone unchallenged. No less figures than Martin van Creveld and John Keegan have mounted attacks on Clausewitz and on the interpretation that his views are universal in nature in respect to a study of war itself, (van Creveld, The Transformation of War (NY: Free Press, 1991) or on the question of freeing Clausewitz from war guilt, or at least reopening the argument by challenging the view that war in Clausewitzian terms is politics by other means (Keegan, A History of Warfare (NY: Knopf, 1993). These views, in turn have been trashed, by no less a figure than Christopher Bassford, among numerous others (“John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz: A Polemic”, War in History 1 (November, 1994), pp. 319-336.) The mainline of the argument against is that the likes of Keegan and van Creveld have been guilty of misreading Clausewitz or of selectively shopping in the text to arrive at their particular take. But, as noted above, even these defenders are generous in noting, when not responding to would-be critics, that Clausewitz is obscure on many points and invites interpretation. A resort to the original is not necessarily any guarantee of a definitive answer. Thus, defenders and critics can exchange pot shots to no real result. Analytic trench warfare.
There is also a more modern assault, although based on ideas not without their own history, that argues Clausewitz of the Gaps. That is, his views are not universal on war because he fails to consider ‘new war’, for example, a position most influentially developed by Mary Kaldor. This view, in turn has been challenged by Errol Henderson and J. David Singer, among others (“’New Wars and Rumors of ‘NewWar’”, International Relations, Vol. 28, No. 2 (2002), pp. 165-190). There is no easy summary of this growing field of criticism. In essence, this line of argument challenges the universal nature of Clausewitz’s views on war, noting a variety of exceptions or omissions that purport to reduce his claims or make them time bound to his particular circumstances. These are the ‘Clausewitz Didn’ts’; He didn’t address ethnic conflict; he didn’t deal with insurgency; he didn’t touch on peace; he didn’t address Just War; he didn’t pay sufficient attention to economics; he didn’t deal with the changes and challenges of technology on war; he didn’t deal with non-state or sub-state war; he didn’t deal with maritime conflict; he didn’t write about what most interests me. Thus, one cannot rely on his views to help in conceptualizing these areas or categories, especially in a globalized world of non-state actors and war that is no longer characterized by the type of state-on-state conflict that Clausewitz witnessed and wrote about. If this growing criticism bears weight, highlighting various omissions and limitations to Clausewitz’s claims on our attention, then his relevance is seriously in doubt, apart from inertia or the cut and thrust of academic controversy.
Of course, there is a responding literature that challenges each of these points, which might be called the “He Did Too School”, purporting to show, by reference to various points in the text—but few actual sustained arguments—that he discussed all these issues, or they are implied if one understood the true nature of the deeper argument. Or, as M. L. R. Smith argues, since there is no real definition of things like low intensity conflict or guerrilla warfare this indicates that these are not real areas of consideration. They do not exist, war does, and these are merely lesser included cases. Clausewitz discusses real war and so is still relevant and untouched by his critics. This, however, merely, shifts ground without actually dealing with the question. War, after all, is hardly a well-defined term, at least there is no generally accepted definition, the Correlates of War project notwithstanding. No one would be encouraged to conclude, therefore, that war does not exist.
All of this brouhaha is most interesting and occasionally illuminating. But the question raised here does not go to the various arguments but to the fact that there are various arguments. Given how Clausewitz is currently employed, in military colleges, as virtual holy writ, the existence of so many points and counterpoints, peopled by schoolyard taunts of ‘no he didn’t’ and ‘yes he did’, without the hope of a synthesis that goes to point--does Clausewitz successfully make his case—the issue of relevance raises its ugly head. This is a debate about interpretations not about Clausewitz, who appears as an enigma and therefore a foil for virtually any argument one might care to make. If the true value of On War does not lie in its ability to actually discuss war but lies in the uses to which it can be put, then it pays to look at how it is used.
The Summers of Our Discontent
While On War was not completely unknown in US military circles, it was little considered before Vietnam, which, considering Clausewitz’s eventual elevation to being the seminal writer on understanding war as war is interesting by itself. From relative obscurity to being the sine quo non for how to think about war fighting in such a relatively short time is awe inspiring. How did so many, for so long, especially military experts, miss this most, perhaps the most, important work on war ever written?
It is one of those interesting coincidences, in the development of the current interest in Clausewitz, that the publication of the definitive modern translation appeared in 1976 just as the US military, stunned by the experience of Vietnam, was looking for ways to interpret what had happened. In some ways paralleling Clausewitz’s own intellectual crisis following Jena-Auerstadt, the US military, particularly the Army, was looking for a way to come to grips with perceived defeat and humiliation in Vietnam. Enter Colonel Harry Summers and the discovery of Clausewitz.
Col. Summers found in reading Clausewitz the answer: the politicians, ignorant of the nature of war as war, had committed the folly of engaging in Vietnam without understanding the nature of war and the role that the military needed to play. Sent to the US Army War College to develop these ideas, Summers produced what was and remains the definitive US military interpretation of Clausewitz and through that medium its understanding of politics and war, their proper relationship. On Strategy, Summers’ reinterpretation of Clausewitz and Vietnam, is the summum bonum, the beau ideal on how the military thinks about itself and wants to be understood by others, that is politicians so that they will never again misuse the military instrument as they did in Vietnam. Summers, convinced that the United States mistakenly fought a guerrilla-like war in Vietnam rather than recognizing it was a real war, as defined by Clausewitz, proceeded to deploy Clausewitz quotes like artillery barrages and paratroop assault brigades. War, by its nature, could not be limited. Limited war was anathema.
With the Cold War still raging, the need was to recall that the focus for the use of the military needed to be on combat arms and an understanding of how to fight the Soviets, or other similarly organized military powers, relying on those time-honored principles of war honed from long experience of fighting real wars and endorsed by no less an authority on war than Clausewitz. All other combat situations were lesser included cases that a well-trained, and properly employed military could deal with on the margins, if only politicians would get it right and understand their job. Summers pioneered with Colonel David Glantz, also at the US Army War College, a series of conferences on defending the Fulda Gap—key to the defense of Germany from Warsaw Pact invasion—and bringing in a host of surviving WWII Wehrmacht former generals and senior officers, in the spirit of Clausewitz, to talk about the operational art of war and the real use of the military. With the rehabilitation of Clausewitz by Howard and Paret, Howard also a perennial guest at these conferences, it was possible to drive Clausewitz’s point home about the meaning of war as politics by other means, and to summon rehabilitated Wehrmacht officers to speak eloquently on those issues dear to the Army’s heart, major combat operations in a real war.
What is interesting about On Strategy, for all it invokes the great man, is how little it actually quotes him. Instead, Clausewitz is used to make Summers’ argument about how to understand Clausewitz, without actually letting him get in the way. The key to understanding his dictum goes something like this: politicians and military leaders need to know the nature of war; second, politicians and military officials need to know the nature of the instrument to be used—the military; third, politicians and the military need to learn how not to use that instrument in ways contrary to the nature of war or of the instrument. In Summers’ view all these points were violated in Vietnam. As Summers notes, “By analyzing the Vietnam war against a source (Clausewitz) untainted by today’s bias, we should arrive at a better understanding of the deficiencies in military theory that led to our problems there, and the changes necessary for the future.” [p7]
Summers, denying any ‘stab-in-the-back scenario, then proceeds to present Clausewitz’s famous trinitarian breakdown of the components of real war: people; government; army, and argues from there that politicians and their civilian advisors failed to understand this essential reality, committing the US to war in Vietnam without popular support. In the first place, by not declaring war outright, the people were never truly engaged in supporting the war, and critics, without a declaration, felt free to undermine what support there was, endangering that further key element, the mystical bond between the people and its army. Failure followed. One of the primary reasons for this was because civilian analysts sold policy makers on the idea of limited war, mistaking the real nature of the situation in Vietnam for counterinsurgency. Summers’ main thrust is that there is no such thing as limited war, there cannot be, and any attempt to conduct one is an illusion born of ignorance—an ignorance wholly the province of civilian strategists and political leaders who do not grasp what war means, its essence.
The unwritten message is that only the military understands war and Clausewitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means. As Summers reminds his readers, ‘As limited-war theorists had prescribed, the U.S. was sending signals to the enemy. Unfortuantely the signal was that the U.S. was not serious about waging war. But the North Vietnamese were playing by the old rules, where the object of war is victory. And those old rules proved decisive.’ (xiv). Clausewitz’s long, subtle, and often obscure text is deployed, in name, repeatedly to make this point.
Ironically, Summers quotes Bernard Brodie, from his contribution to the Howard/Paret volume, as support for the importance of Clausewitz.. Brodie was one of the individuals most involved in developing and arguing for the concept of limited war, which was as he and others saw it essential in a nuclear environment. Indeed, one of the reasons Brodie was deeply involved in the Howard/Paret volume and the reinvention of Clausewitz was to underscore the argument that war is politics by other means; and since the political situation in a nuclear age, and the core the US policy of containment was predicated on preventing WWIII, policy required limited war. Brodie and Summers cover the same textual turf and arrive at startling different conclusions.
Summers also takes on civilian analysts, such as Richard Betts or Leslie Gelb, who said there was confusion in US official circles and elsewhere over the meaning of strategy. Summers dismisses this silly notion by pointing out that the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dictionary of Military and Associate Terms provided the official definition, thus there was ignorance not confusion, as if the JCS definition was the last word on the subject. (p4). Finally, to demonstrate the failure of political leadership and civilian analysts to understand war as war, he devotes the last half of the book to marching through the Principles of War as developed by the Army, using these to harry them from the field. By ignoring these basic principles in detail, the US failed in Vietnam inevitably. This, of course, completely ignores Clausewitz’s repeated arguments against such rote prescriptions. It is more Jomini than Clausewitz. Clausewitz haunts the text but he is merely an apparition with no real role except to scare the unwary.
The problem is, Summers’ take on how to read Clausewitz, on why Clausewitz should be studied, moved by degrees into US War Colleges and Staff Colleges as the accepted vision. It not only explained why and how politicians had failed the military in Vietnam, it offered a return to a discussion of conventional war, the real definition of ‘real’ war, and conformed to the American Way of War, the idea ingrained in military circles that when war started, the politicians should step aside until fighting produced victory and the conditions for a return of politics were thusly achieved. Interestingly, this interpretation finds its way ultimately into policy, in the so-called Weinberger Doctrine, which promises, essentially, that the United States will not engage in future wars that the military does not want to fight, that is thinks are not real wars.
This evolution in military thinking and in using Clausewitz to leverage it, turns the discussion of the role of war as an instrument of policy on its head. It reverses the meaning and makes politics an extension of war, at least to the extent that it argues that as long as fighting is underway the role of politics is to sustain the military effort to victory so that politics can resume its role.
It takes some elegant juggling to derive this notion from reading Clausewitz. He does make it somewhat easier in that his discussion is not coherently developed on war and politics, spread throughout his text, and thus permits interpretation, as his contemporaries did and as Summers has presented him. Once again, however, Clausewitz is irrelevant. It matters little what he might have meant, how he can be used is what counts.
Whether the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan will change this view, where insurgency and counterinsurgency are the wars du jour, or whether, once liquidated, there will be a return to real war, remains to be seen. The signs of this trend are there. Clausewitz will be along for the ride.
On the Importance of Being Irrelevant
Based on the foregoing, one ought to conclude that Clausewitz and On War, are largely irrelevant on their own terms, but have value for their uses. To be irrelevant on such a scale, for so long, in so many hands is a stunning achievement. As Oscar Wilde said, “Illusion is the first of all pleasures.” How beguiling to have one’s reputation and influence be based on so much misreading, misunderstanding, controversy. I don’t care what they say about me as long as they spell my name correctly. We can all aspire to such neglect.
One is tempted to leave well enough alone, to let Clausewitz bask in his deserved irrelevance for fear that any attempt to retrieve him from it will only damage his reputation. But never being willing to leave well enough alone, I offer a few observations in order to break the spell.
Much of what Clausewitz wrote is based on his experience, Prussia’s experience, of war as defined by Napoleon. It is reactive, reflecting a rude awakening that brought into question old verities and certainties. As such, it harbors both a sense of shock and awe, of an unwelcome admiration (of Napoleon) grounded in how to understand what had happened and how to respond to it, recognizing there was no return to what went before. This sense compelled Clausewitz to think and to write, to exorcise demons, to restore a sense of balance, even if upon new principles; and to try to find a methodology that would permit both understanding and action.
No one, perhaps, who has not lost everything of meaning, had his country humbled in war then humiliated in peace, watched every principle one thought one knew turned upside down, and then be caught up in the greatest events of an age can fully understand what moved Clausewitz to write, to think before he wrote, to scour the intellectual landscape for some way to return sense and meaning to a world lost and much in need of rescue. Since he was not a novelist he could not, as Tolstoy, find relief in fiction. He was a military man and he wrote with that in mind, but grasped that there was nothing in his past that could now comprehend what had happened much less craft a response for the future. It required a staggering act of imagination and an abiding love to transcend his experience and that of his country. This, if for no other reason, ought to counsel against trying to treat On War as an orchard from which one picks only the choice bits, leaving the dross in the field. On War is not a handbook or a playground.
Unfortunately for Clausewitz, the realities that make much of his work relevant, to him and his contemporaries—a study of the new way of war—is lost in an age that perfected this particular form of endeavor and has turned much of Clausewitz’s reality into a curiosity shop of bits and pieces. No less unfortunate, his masterwork fails on the two substantive grounds that remain of interest to later explorers and formed so much of his effort to comprehend his world. On War, for all its metaphysical and philosophical highwire acts, does not have a safety net, and the attempt falls to the ground. Nor does the work do much better on its other undertaking: it fails as theory, not just in the sense of theory in the hard sciences but even as one in the squishier terms of the so-called social sciences. It is a brilliant failure, which is why so many have labored so hard to try to rescue the work and Clausewitz from it, but it is still a failure. One does not have to journey for long or far in all the literature, both that of admirers and detractors, to realize this or why. Only Clausewitz’s irrelevance saves him from insignificance.
Given the industrial-strength nature of Clausewitz studies today, no doubt he will remain irrelevant, spawning articles, PhD dissertations, learned conferences, career-enhancing books, and endless discussion, or is that discourse. Through it all Clausewitz will remain irrelevant, either because what he said, or what he meant but did not quite say, is obscure enough to invite endless, irresolvable wrangling; or because he will be useful as unread, to be deployed as a foil for some favored position. No hope in asking people to leave off these efforts and try to discover relevance in Clausewitz.
His real relevance does not lie in how he can be used, operationalized, codified, mummified but in his insistence that what was involved in his own time and vital for all who follow was the need to grasp the significance of war as a very human phenomenon requiring serious, constant attention to understand. On its own terms and in relation to all else, from which it cannot be separated without doing violence to the subject and to understanding.
While not always explicit in On War, Clausewitz was not ignorant of the wars, their nature, before Napoleon; was not naïve about the upheavals characteristic of revolutionary situations—how could he be writing about the wars of Napoleon; was not blind to ethnic conflict; was not uniformed on ‘limited’ wars or guerrilla conflicts; did not view war in isolation from peace or from politics. He was only too aware of the 19th century version of globalization, having been involved in the worldwide war to defeat France, and the international coalition necessary to that success. This is not clear in On War itself and only emerges from the subsequent scholarship on all his other writings and correspondence, which means the text of On War is not just unfinished but is also only an archipelago in the chain of Clausewitz’s emerging thought. Clausewitz does not consider war in isolation, recognizes that it is not just a struggle of kings and their followers, at least after Napoleon, but of societies at the dawn of ‘total war’. He studies these things and in doing so, he does not invite us to be students of Clausewitz. He wanted his colleagues to stop thinking less about how and more about why, to go to the heart of a phenomenon and not just treat it as a how-to manual, if for no other reason so that if another God of War came along and transformed the world his fellows would not be blinded by their focus on all the hows and miss the need to change and adapt. In that sense, much of On War is an aide memoir. It seems to have failed on this front as well.
While On War fails as philosophy, on its own terms, it does not have to be read as a philosophical treatise. The underlying question it attempts remains: is there something in the nature of war, as war, that is unique, universal, and comprehendible, that is subject to analysis and not, as with mysteries or art, the province of prophets and geniuses? A question without an answer but that must be asked. On War also fails as theory, but it does not have to be read as such. What it assays to do is to think systematically, to constantly challenge conclusions, or at least not to become too enamored of and comfortable with them. By a resort to facts and ideas it seeks to consider and on that basis to do what these require even if, especially if, they demand change. What Clausewitz, if he is to be relevant, requires of us is to be researchers and thinkers not acolytes. To bring our analytical minds to bear on the subject that he found so compelling. It is the subject that matters that remains relevant and it is that that Clausewitz bids us study.
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 be 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.
 Although the picture of Napoleon and the confusion of battle have merit as described in Book Three.
 As Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe note, today, when most people discuss On War, they are really discussing the Howard/Paret translation, which is not free of their particular interpretation of Clausewitz, or of the views of Bernard Brodie, who was intimately involved in producing the 1976 edition and whose principal interest lay in ideas related to limited war, which, in his view, Clausewitz’s notion of the relation of war to politics argued most clearly. See Strachan and Herberg-Rothe, “Introduction”, Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 1-13. With its recognized limitations, the Howard/Paret translation is that used here for quotes and references. On War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1976). Also see John Shephard, Jr., “On War: Is Clausewitz Still Relevant” Parameters (September, 1990), pp. 85-99.
 See Christopher Bassford, “The Primacy of Policy and the ‘Trinity’ in Clausewitz’s Mature Thought”, in Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds., Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, p. 76.
 As always, I greatly benefit from the insights from Prof. Joe Collins, who is not only thoughtful but has the annoying habit of being right all too often.
 At least from a Prussian perspective. The Seven Years’ War as fought by Britain and conceived by William Pitt was a very different affair, worldwide in scope and in its way as revolutionary as anything attempted by Napoleon. See the altogether delightful Crucible of War (NY: Vintage Books, 2000) by Fred Anderson for this, particularly on making a reality of the idea that war is politics by other means.
 One reason for including a guide is that their On War was part of a larger translation project aimed at making Clausewitz’s whole opus available. That proved impossible and so it became necessary to try to put Clausewitz in context, not in his time, but in his own words, testament to not only the unfinished nature of On War but of the fact that it cannot be read reliably on its own.
 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (NY: Harmony Books, 1991), pp. 36-37
 This is surmise as no direct evidence exists to prove the point, but as Paret notes in Clausewitz and the State, also quoting Andreas Herberg-Rothe, “But identifying these sources is less important than recognizing that Clausewitz’s methodology, his dialectic, was ‘in a variety of forms and with a variety of purposes…standard equipment of German idealism and Romantic philosophy.’” p. viii.
 This may be true in Clausewitz’s case, if Paret is to be accepted, (p. 438) in that he did not believe in a teleology, in the idea that things and people have a goal to which they are bound and headed, thus his views break free of a whole branch of philosophy on this point to which Plato’s views are linked. Clausewitz’s methodology becomes unmoored. It is less clear that he then rushes to embrace deontology, in the spirit of Kant, that duty is the primary determinant that compels and therefore liberates us. Fun but conjecture.
 Raymond Aron, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, translated by Christine Booker and Norman Stone (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 106.
 Michael Howard, Clausewitz (NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 1983), p. 63.
 Provocatively, Aron argues that one reason for this, at least on the question of whether war as war tended to search for extremes and resist limits, is that Clausewitz did not come to a full appreciation on the need to establish limits, to subject the grammar of war to a political syntax, until 1827-1830 when he was too busy to fully revise his views and then died without the chance to do more than hint at the thought. Aron, pp 102ff.
 Heuser, Carl von Clausewitz (NY: Oxford Univ Press, 2008).
 On this see the altogether fascinating study by Brian Holden Reid, “Michael Howard and the Evolution of Modern War Studies”, The Journal of Military History Vol. 73, No. 3 (July, 2009), pp. 869-904.
 Raymond Aron actually pioneered this reinterpretation, arguing most elegantly for how Clausewitz was misread and misused by his own colleagues and thus misread by Western analysts. See Clausewitz above. Hew Strachan carries the story further, noting that Clausewitz’s notes and manuscripts needed considerable work by others to make them more coherent than they were as he left them, not simply unfinished but untidy. Tidying up by wife, friends, and publishers continued into successive editions. In this sense, there is no real definitive text to refer to, thus the text drifted and was open to or invited interpretation. Strachan, “Clausewitz and the Dialectics of War”, Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 14-44.
 Or maybe not. Jon Sumida, Decoding Clausewitz: A New Approach to On War (Lawrence, KS: Univ. of Kansas Press, 2008), argues that everyone’s got it wrong. Clausewitz did finish his masterwork, mostly. If so, this makes much of his text even more problematic because of its unfinished feel. Clausewitz allowed as how Book One, Chapter One was finished. Maybe. But there is much in Clausewitz’s correspondence and notes to indicate that he remained unsettled on numerous points and intended to revisit a number of issues as his thinking evolved.
 As one of numerous examples, “Unfortunately, indirect transmissions of Clausewitz's theory, however much more convenient they may be to read than his own complex writings, have proved to be unreliable if not downright dangerous. Historians, political scientists, military analysts, and doctrinal compilers seem to have little trouble understanding Clausewitz's arguments when they read them for themselves. No matter how devoted they may be to transmitting his insights in their own works, however, they unavoidably simplify, rephrase, "clarify," and select among them.” Or this, again from Bassford: “To say that readers accept (or even perceive) only what they are able to recognize as restatements of their own views or experiences is almost certainly going too far, but not by much. On War is often less a window into reality than a mirror for its reader, perhaps necessarily so. This has been my own experience with it. When I first read it as an undergraduate at the College of William and Mary, it was the abstract discussion of "absolute war" and the idea of war as a rational continuation of policy that seemed to me to be its essence. When I read it during my military service, it was the discussion of friction, chance, and moral factors that most struck me. Today, when I work as a historian, it is Clausewitz's historicist philosophy that provides the key to understanding. Every time I have read it, it has seemed a different book, but it is only myself who has changed.” Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and American, 1815-1945. NY: Oxford, 1994.
 Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 1999).
 Many of these responses are raised in Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, eds., Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century.
 On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1982).
 On War, pp. 592-594.