Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

Times Literary Supplement -- April 1, 2005

On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas

Hugh Smith
Palgrave MacMillan, 303pp

by Ian Garrick Mason

Napoleon Bonaparte inaugurated the nineteenth century by giving Europe a lesson in the potential of warfare. Abjuring traditional campaign strategies of maneuver and position, in which risk-averse commanders jousted for possession of a province here or a fortress there, the French emperor channeled the popular energies unleashed by the Revolution into wars of unlimited ambition and unprecedented decisiveness. Armed conflict would never be the same again.

The Prussians learned this lesson in 1806, when Napoleon routed their armies at Jena and Auerstädt, and went on to annex and occupy much of the country. The political shock was immense, and one of the most profoundly affected by it was a young staff officer of independent mind named Carl von Clausewitz. After Napoleon’s defeat, Clausewitz set out to analyze the nature of war itself, grappling with concepts like friction (“Just as the simplest and most natural of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results.”), political supremacy (“war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means”), and the contrast between limited and absolute war. The resulting work, On War, contains eight books in varying states of completion; Clausewitz died in 1831 before having a chance to revise them all.

At first, Clausewitz’s work was received with polite posthumous respect, outshone as it was by the writings of rival military theorist Antoine-Henri Jomini, whose prescriptive rules of strategy appealed to military officers desperate for practical guidance. Even as his influence grew in the latter part of the century, his incomplete work proved, as he himself had feared, “liable to endless misinterpretation”: German commanders and theorists used On War selectively to justify their doctrines of total war and massive offensives. Though General Gunther Blumentritt later observed that giving Clausewitz to the military is like “allowing a child to play with a razor blade”, the writer's reputation suffered greatly by association with the carnage of WWI.

Clausewitz was given another chance, however, after limited but frustrating wars in Korea and Vietnam prompted American generals to seek a more sophisticated approach to questions of politics and war. Thinkers like Raymond Aron, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret translated and interpreted Clausewitz for a newly attentive Cold War audience. Yet the dangers of simplification and misinterpretation always remain, and Australian defence academic Hugh Smith’s new book, On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas, is in part an attempt to forestall this. Since his predecessors’ scholarship was intended for specialist audiences, Smith points out, a “straight-forward and extended exposition of Clausewitz’s ideas” is required.

This is exactly what Smith provides. On Clausewitz is a thorough survey of all of Clausewitz’s most important insights, drawn not only from On War but also from his voluminous writings on military history and international politics. Smith is particularly good at outlining the intellectual influences on Clausewitz, noting both his Enlightenment emphasis on reason and analysis, and his Counter-Enlightenment sensitivity toward human psychology and the role of chance. Far from being the bloody-minded apostle of total war portrayed by his detractors, Smith’s Clausewitz is a complex and fully-rounded thinker.

To better consolidate Clausewitz’s ideas, Smith reworks the activity-focused structure of On War (“the engagement”, “attack”, “defense”, “war plans”, etc.) into horizontal layers of expanding scope: war as fighting, as strategic contest, and as instrument of state policy. Though logically sound, it gives the book a distinctly un-Clausewitzian tenor, which is abetted by paragraphs packed too full of short quotes and by an over-cautious “on the one hand, on the other hand” approach. What Smith himself thinks about a particular controversy is too often unclear.

In his final chapters, Smith mounts a convincing defence of the continued relevance of Clausewitz against those who claim that evolution at the upper bounds (nuclear war) and lower bounds (revolutionary war and insurgency) of traditional warfare have made his work redundant: “[War] is a chameleon”, he concludes, “and the means employed can be seen as simply changes in colour -- dramatic but not so far altering its fundamental nature”.

But Clausewitz remains relevant in another sense. Though perhaps half of On War consists of thoughts about Napoleonic-era military operations, few of which are useful today, Clausewitz’s aim was to rigorously analyze all such operations -- to demonstrate that nothing is simple, that variables are many, and that wisdom does not lie in the use of abstract rules. Smith provides a fascinating section on Clausewitz’s engagement with “fundamental epistemological problems”, and observes that that Clausewitz hoped to identify “the factors in the equation; he does not necessarily offer the solution for all time.” Strategists and commanders should read Clausewitz because many of his fundamental observations remain true -- but they should read him even more to learn how to think.

I would go even further. Like choreographers who feel free to adapt the work of past masters to the needs of today’s audiences, strategists should treat On War as a template, not a bible. Once every twenty-five years, “a pragmatic military man with a remarkable analytical ability, considerable breadth of mind and an unusual openness to ideas” (as Smith describes Clausewitz) should be asked to update and rework On War for a new generation of commanders. Smith is absolutely right to declare that “there is no substitute for Clausewitz” -- but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to improve on him.

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