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  • Writer's pictureJohn H Keess

How to Read Clausewitz: an informal primer

Essays about the applicability (either enduring or not) of Clausewitz are a cottage industry of sorts. This post means in no way to compete with any of the many, many works out there arguing one way or another. This is merely a guide to getting the most out of what will be a significant investment of time. As this is a general guideline, it is not referenced or footnoted; it is, however, meant to be mercifully short. You’re going to have a lot of fairly dense reading ahead of you.

Why Clausewitz?

This is an interesting topic. Merely mentioning the name “Clausewitz” seems to have a bizarre ability to instantly lend credibility to whatever argument is at hand, especially if it is combined with a swipe at one of his contemporary theorists, Baron Anitone de Jomini. If you’re a military professional, this is laughable – the vast majority of your doctrine owes far more to Jomini, with his emphasis on firm principles and an eye to direct application, than to Clausewitz, who was aiming for a more comprehensive description of war. The doctrine I have read quotes Clausewitz selectively and out of context – laughably so. The saying goes that Clausewitz is “oft quoted and never read.” Reading his work will help you break through many of the intellectual holes that have been dug for you.

Like many intellectual fads, flirtations with Clausewitizan theory have tended to obscure both the true insights in his arguments while papering over the limitations of his thinking. The poor dead Prussian is usually trotted out to explain the complexity of military operations whenever current doctrine seems to fall short. He was popular in Germany from the 1830s onward, in the wake of the hand-wringing that occurred after French domination during the Napleonic wars; but his meaning was warped basically beyond recognition there after victories in 1866 Austro-Prussian War and 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War. Along this vein, he was “discovered” in France after they had suffered a catastrophic defeat in the latter conflict. He became a go-to theorist in American circles in 1950s to explain both (somewhat mythical) German operational superiority in the Second World War and the strategic problems of nuclear weapons. Another resurgence followed after Vietnam, and he is often quoted today as a way of explaining the ongoing difficulty of waging war on abstract nouns. In short, you should read Clausewitz so you can understand the many interesting things he has to say; moreover, you cannot really trust most of the people quoting him.

Will the real Clausewitz please stand up?

At some level, this makes a lot of sense. Clausewitz provides a very deep discussion of the interaction between the state, larger political movements, and war itself. On the other hand, it will inevitably lead to a cycle of oversimplification.

This oversimplification occurs for two main reasons. First, Clausewitz wrote in a form of dialectic, meaning that his work should be seen as imparting lessons that are really hard to express in slides and to large audiences. There are no good “take-aways”, but audiences at staff colleges and other fora have gotten this sort of treatment consistently. So while “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means” a great line to drop at a cocktail party, it was balanced by a definition of war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” – not a lot of room for diplomats here. Further, one of his central ideas is that pushed far enough along, war itself has its own logic, shaping politics around it. This is one amongst many, many examples.

Second is that there are three Clausewitzes. The first was Carl, pre-1827. This Clausewitz wrote the entirety of On War, along with many other works. His experiences serving in both the Prussian and Russian armies during the Napoleonic Wars led him conceive a theory of conflict based around unlimited war, as practiced by Napoleon. People will tell you that Clausewitz was not prescriptive and wrote about “how to think about war, and not how to fight it.” This is nonsense. Utter nonsense. The “first Clausewitz” devoted chapters on defending forests, swamps, posting sentries, establishing cordons, and the like. You can learn a lot from this guy, but in no way is a he prophet carrying eternal truths. You have to understand his context.

Second was Carl, post-1827. He had undergone a significant change of mind as he matured politically, abandoning a romantic radicalism while taking part in the reforms of the Prussian army in the early 19th century. He incorporated ideas about limited war, and much of his finesse came out in this time period. After being hunted into an administrative post at the kreigsakademie, he was put back into military service in 1830 and died in 1831, meaning that the Second Clasuewitz did not get time to revise the work fully. Books I, VII and VIII reflect the influence of this Clausewitz.

The third was Marie von Clausewitz. Marie married Carl in 1810 and had to put up with his long absences; however, she was hardly waited idle at home. Their marriage had deep intellectual roots, and she made important contributions to the development of the ideas in On War . Letters between these two form an important part of Clausewitz scholarship, and she ultimately edited his very dense, sometimes confusingly written work after his death, as well as preserving and disseminating On War. She deserves more recognition than she gets. I, for one, am guilty of not having read Vanya Eftimova Bellinger's recent book on Marie , but it is on the list.

The Limits of Clausewitizan Theory (and its critics)

The most strident recent critic of Clausewitz is military historian John Keegan. Without getting into technical detail, Keegan attacks, in my view, a poorly-built strawman of On War in his seminal book, A History of Warfare. Strawman aside, he has a powerful idea that provides an expansion to many of Cluasewitz’ ideas, namely, that war is a cultural activity, not merely a political one. One of the key limits of On War is that it struggles to describe conflict outside of state boundaries. It also assumes that the state will be the primary focus of war-making efforts, which grows a bit thin as technology became a decisive factor in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It is much easier to explain, say, the creation of deployment of nuclear weapons on a cultural level than a merely political one. The same goes for Da’esh.

It is my view that Keegan and Clausewitz, are, like the much overused movie line, "not so different." Keeping in mind the problems with Keegan’s criticism, it is A History of Warfare is an excellent follow-up after reading Clausewitz.

How to read Clausewitz

There are many ways of doing so. I recommend reading the Paret-Howard translation. Start with the excellent introductory essays. Then read Books I, II and VIII. If you would like, Book III as well. When this is done, read Keegan. By this point, if you’re looking for more depth, there are excellent chapters on Clausewitz in Makers of Modern Strategy and Azar Gat’s superb A History of Military Thought . I too, am broadening my knowledge on this topic. Next on my reading list will be Bellinger’s book, mentioned above, as well as the two volumes on Clausewitz by Raymond Aron. I am, however, in no rush. This sort of thing can’t be.

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