Bi­og­ra­phy of a book: Why Clause­witz’s ‘On War’ still mat­ters

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This work by Hew Stra­chan, a pro­fes­sor at Ox­ford Univer­sity and a lead­ing scholar of mil­i­tary his­tory, is a rare phe­nom­e­non: A bi­og­ra­phy of a book, or rather of the clas­sic mas­ter­piece and other writ­ings of Carl von Clause­witz (1780-1831), who served as an of­fi­cer of mid­dle rank in the Prus­sian army dur­ing the wars of Napoleon.

Clause­witz’s “On War” is widely re­garded as the most au­thor­i­ta­tive anal­y­sis of war in any lan­guage, and Mr. Stra­chan pro­vides a thor­ough evo­lu­tion­ary treat­ment of it, am­ply de­tail­ing its growth, its sev­eral in­con­sis­ten­cies, the for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence and fierce pa­tri­o­tism of Clause­witz, and his pro­found cha­grin at Prus­sia’s early fail­ure to re­sist Napoleon Bon­a­parte on the bat­tle­field.

Clause­witz was born too late to serve Fred­er­ick the Great and too early to serve Bis­marck, both of them Prus­sian masters of con­trolled war as a finely tuned in­stru­ment of pol­icy. But Clause­witz was caught up in the ex­plo­sion of revo­lu­tion­ary France, which changed the en­tire na­ture of war, mak­ing it an in­stru­ment of a pop­u­la­tion that had be­come a zeal­ous mob un­der arms. The hu­mil­i­a­tion of Prus­sia by Napoleon at Jena (1806) left Clause­witz with a pro­found re­sent­ment and sense of shame.

Clause­witz fought at Ligny, three days be­fore Water­loo, when Napoleon broke the Prus­sians once more. Yet the de­feated Prus­sians re­grouped un­der Gneise­nau and Blucher, took the of­fen­sive and joined Welling­ton’s army to in­flict not just a de­feat, but a to­tal de­struc­tion of the French army. From this ex­pe­ri­ence Clause­witz de­voted him­self to ex­am­in­ing the why and how of such re­ver­sals of for­tune.

Revo­lu­tion and lev­ees en masse had changed war, as prac­tised by France, from a rel­a­tively tidy pro­fes­sional un­der­tak­ing in which the cit­i­zenry was not deeply en­gaged to a vi­o­lent re­flec­tion of the suc­cess­ful class strug­gle and its claim on a new or­der of things in Europe. Both in fe­roc­ity and in num­bers, Prus­sia could not match the new, ag­gres­sive gi­ant.

Prus­sia still con­ducted war as a mat­ter for the ruler and the mil­i­tary. From his ex­pe­ri­ence in this trans­for­ma­tion of war, Clause­witz ex­pounded his prin­ci­ple that war can­not suc­ceed un­less the gov­ern­ment, the mil­i­tary and the pop­u­la­tion are all com­mit­ted.

If this prin­ci­ple is to be ap­plied rig­or­ously, the whole idea of a vol­un­teer army works to negate the re­quire­ment of pop­u­lar sup­port, be­cause re­cruit­ment of vol­un­teers does not reach suf­fi­ciently deeply into the pop­u­la­tion.

What is gained by the po­lit­i­cal con­ve­nience of a vol­un­teer force and avoid­ance of a draft is off­set by the fact that the bulk of the pop­u­la­tion has lit­tle or no con­cern for the en­ter­prise. We are see­ing this to­day in the con­text of Iraq, as grow­ing man­power re­quire­ments are met by ex­ten­sions of de­ploy- ments and fall heav­ily on the same, rel­a­tively few, peo­ple.

Clause­witz found ba­sic fault with the 18th-cen­tury con­cept of strate­gic ma­neu­ver as a means to out­wit the en­emy, be­liev­ing that this tra­di­tion was a sig­nif­i­cant cause of Prus­sia’s de­feat in the early cam­paigns. At the end of the day, he wrote in 1811, “war is noth­ing but fight­ing.” Leipzig and Water­loo proved his point.

If a show­down bat­tle is the nec­es­sary endgame, the Water­loo al­lies were for­tu­nate in their com­man­ders. Welling­ton and Blucher were per­fectly type­cast to com­mand a show­down bat­tle, yet to com­ple­ment each other. Blucher: Though aged, he was en­er­getic, im­pul­sive, fear­less, mo­ti­vated by a pas­sion­ate ha­tred of the French and a thirst for aveng­ing Jena. Welling­ton: Cool, as­tute, iron­nerved, sea­soned by vic­to­ries in Por­tu­gal and Spain over some of Napoleon’s bet­ter mar­shals (Massena, Vic­tor, Mar­mont, Junot and Soult), unim­pressed by the Bon­a­parte mys­tique.

With the United States and Bri­tain in­volved in a war in Iraq that was con­ceived in er­ror and in- com­pe­tently planned, jus­ti­fied and car­ried out — there could be a valu­able role for a book that mea­sured those de­fi­cien­cies against the prin­ci­ples de­vel­oped by Clause­witz.

Mr. Stra­chan’s book, how­ever, is not that book, nor would it be fair to sug­gest that it should have been. Clause­witz is an old spe­cialty of Mr. Stra­chan, and he deals with Clause­witz in the con­text of rather dry schol­ar­ship and the test­ing of in­tel­lec­tual con­sis­tency. But it is done with el­e­gance and im­pres­sive com­mand of the un­der­ly­ing ma­te­rial.

One can­not help but spec­u­late on what Clause­witz’s think­ing might have been, had he been pre­scient, about two forms of war that pre­oc­cupy us to­day: Ter­ror­ism and nu­clear war or its threat.

A hint of what he might say about ter­ror­ism is pro­vided by his com­ments about the bal­ance be­tween of­fense and de­fense, and his al­lu­sion to the role of the Span­ish gueril­las in re­sist­ing Napoleon’s in­va­sion of their coun­try. Clause­witz re­marked that the more deeply the of­fense pen­e­trates en­emy ter­ri­tory, the more the bal­ance shifts to de­fense, as the lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion of de­fense be­come shorter and those of of­fense longer, as in the Span­ish case.

In Napier’s “His­tory of the Penin­su­lar War” it is re­ported that Mar­shal Massena com­plained that it re­quired a bat­tal­ion of cavalry to send a dis­patch from Spain to Paris. The Span­ish gueril­las were, of course, ter­ror­ists to the French and were treated that way, but that did not al­ter the ba­sic ge­om­e­try of Clause­witz’s point.

One may rea­son­ably con­sider that Clause­witz would view in a sim­i­lar light the ef­fort of U.S. and al­lied forces to pur­sue the gueril­las of to­day — the ter­ror­ists — into their own ter­ri­tory in Afghanistan and Iraq where the bal­ance ap­pears to have shifted in fa­vor of the forces with the shorter lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

As to nu­clear war we have no hint of what Clause­witz might have thought. But, as Mr. Stra­chan points out, Clause­witz did con­sider the re­la­tion­ship be­tween pol­icy and mil­i­tary ac­tion. He sen­si­bly viewed pol­icy — or diplo­macy — as the pre­ferred course when no fa­vor­able out­come could be pre­dicted from mil­i­tary ac­tion.

Clause­witz was a re­al­ist and prob­a­bly would have seen that nu­clear, or even con­ven­tional, pre­emp­tion would only work when one party’s at­tack could elim­i­nate with cer­tainty any pos­si­bil­ity of nu­clear re­sponse. That cer­tainty fades and even dis­ap­pears as the nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties on each side mul­ti­ply. Then carrots, not sticks, be­come the pre­ferred course.

Clause­witz’s in­tel­lec­tual heirs have a for­mi­da­ble task in putting their minds to work on ter­ror­ism and the threat of nu­clear war.

David C. Ach­e­son is a re­tired lawyer and for­eign pol­icy an­a­lyst and an avid reader of books on the wars of Napoleon.

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