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Clausewitz: Master of War
The American Interest ^ | May 17, 2011 | Walter Russell Mead

Posted on 05/21/2011 8:13:10 PM PDT by neverdem

I’m busy reading final papers for the grand strategy seminar at Bard this spring, and the students are finishing up their exams and thinking about summer. It’s already time to start reading and thinking about the syllabus for the fall course in Anglo-American grand strategy. British and American strategic thinkers and policy makers developed a new form of global strategy in the last 300 years that enabled the two English speaking powers to build a global political and security order resting on a foundation of liberal capitalism. Understanding the grand strategy that shaped the modern world is surely something that students everywhere should learn about, but I think the Bard course is one of only a handful that tries to prepare students to think systematically about these power realities in the contemporary world.

But the reading that looms over these final weeks of the spring course comes out of European rather than Atlantic grand strategy. We’ve been reading and reflecting on Carl Phillipp Gottfried von Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s unfinished masterpiece On War stands out as perhaps the greatest work of strategic thought human reflection has yet produced. Coming as it does in both the Yale and the Bard curricula after a series of other classics going back to Sun Tzu, Clausewitz’s treatment, even in its somewhat muddled state, stands out as the most comprehensive and clear cut statement on a host of vital topics connected to power and to war.


Carl von Clausewitz (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It belongs on that short list of classics that serious people should read and reread during their lives, but it is one of many classics that our culture neglects. Our somewhat PC and namby-pamby age generally puts works like On War somewhere back in the stacks hoping perhaps that if nobody thinks about war there won’t be any. There is also a certain feeling that a book this blunt and power focused should not be part of a liberal arts curriculum.

This is idiocy. War is in some ways the most human of activities: it is about defining and achieving objectives in cooperation with some people, all-out opposition from others, in a contest that draws on every talent and tests every virtue that we have. Even those of us whose life plans do not involve storming up a hillside under enemy fire can learn from the way Clausewitz analyzes leadership and war. More, to ignore war in an education is to leave students ignorant about one of the central features of civilization and human life.

Clausewitz wrote at a golden moment in western history. The Enlightenment and the burgeoning scientific revolution had created an ability to think systematically about complex phenomena. From Karl von Linnaeus’ creation of an orderly system for reducing the chaos of the animal kingdom into something comprehensible to Isaac Newton’s analysis of celestial mechanics, as well as Adam Smith’s study of political economy and even Napoleon’s creation of a legal code that reduced two thousand years of western legal practice into a system that could serve the needs of a vastly more complex society, the last 100 years had been an age of powerful analytical breakthroughs based on painstaking observation.

By Clausewitz’s time there was also a new sophistication in the way westerners thought about history. A series of epochal changes — the French Revolution, the Reformation, the Renaissance — stretching back into classical antiquity offered rich food for reflection and analysis. The drama and upheaval of the Napoleonic wars meant that these historical questions were personal and urgent for a generation whose governments had been overturned, lives disrupted and traditional social arrangements destroyed by one of history’s great storms. Clausewitz was part of a generation driven to wield the new tools of scientific thought to analyze social change.

The chaos of his times shaped Clausewitz’s life. He fought through the Napoleonic Wars as a Prussian officer — defecting briefly to Russian service when Prussia was obliged by the terms of its treaty with France to support Napoleon in the ill-fated Russian invasion of 1812 — and the energy that drives the book comes out of Clausewitz’s reflections on the two military geniuses that dominated his life (Frederick the Great and Napoleon) and his quarrel with the stale Prussian military bureaucracy that, by reducing Frederick’s legacy to a system, left Prussia exposed to Napoleon.

On War is shaped by Clausewitz’s encounter with the history and ideas of his times; it is also shaped by his experience in one of the first truly modern bureaucracies. (One of the achievements of Frederick the Great that so impressed contemporaries was the meticulous organization of the Prussian army and state.) The relationship of individual genius and vision to bureaucratic routine is a serious strategic problem in the modern world. The virtues that make a great military commander are, as Clausewitz notes, intensely personal: imagination and moral courage being perhaps the rarest and most valuable. These are perhaps the worst qualities for an aspiring bureaucrat to have.

There are desk generals and battle generals, and the unequal struggle between them is a recurring problem — and not just in military organizations. Desk generals excel in the arts of bureaucratic warfare, stick close to the conventional wisdom in all ways, and were brilliantly described in two unforgettable Gilbert and Sullivan songs: Modern Major General and The First Lord’s Song. In times of peace these timeserving mediocrities rise inexorably to the top; wars usually begin with a painful shakeout while the beribboned and bemedaled lunkheads demonstrate their hopeless incapacity at the true military art. Then and only then do the unclubbable and unconventional officers whose only virtue is their ability to somehow win battles gradually edge to the fore and the Grants and the Shermans elbow past the Popes and the McClellans.

Yet it is not, in the modern world, enough to be a lone visionary. Under modern conditions, strategic genius must necessarily be linked with bureaucracy. The greatest genius needs a military machine and a state structure. More, as Henry Kissinger discovered to his frustration, a hostile bureaucracy can frustrate and sabotage a brilliant leader’s initiatives in many ways. Commands given by a great general or initiatives envisioned by a great diplomat must under modern conditions be executed by great throngs of non-genius employees and functionaries. There is no other way.

Clausewitz wrote On War during a period when many writers were struggling to reduce the lessons of military history to some kind of system. (His great rival Antoine-Henri Jomini dominated American military thought during and after the Civil War.) Such manuals are ultimately attempts to square the circle: to reduce genius to a set of precepts which can be taught in an orderly fashion to lesser minds. They are necessary but futile; at the end of the day, that which most needs to be taught is that which cannot be communicated.

Clausewitz is a great writer on strategy for at least two reasons. First, his orderly and insightful presentation of the elements of military strategy focuses relentlessly on the critical factors in military contests, providing readers with a clear and comprehensive view of the subject. Second, he never loses sight of the dual character of a military manual. On the one hand, he is writing a guide for the ordinary officer to increase his professionalism and his usefulness to a great commander. On the other hand, he is also writing to inspire and instruct the intellect that will leap beyond classroom maxims and rules of war to grasp new possibilities and write new rules. He can be read with profit by both career civil servants and a new Napoleon.

Statue of Frederick the Great in Berlin (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Clausewitz wrote in the aftermath of the terrible disasters brought on by the Prussian military staff’s reduction of the genius of Frederick the Great into a sterile and closed system. They believed that the art of war had been perfected, that all they had to do to beat the French was to follow the infallible methods that the great Frederick had laid down. Their successors would make the same mistake with Clausewitz; the younger von Moltke’s botched execution of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 was a textbook case of the disasters that result when a commander lacks the genius and courage necessary for greatness.

It is a testimony to Clausewitz’s insight that On War pointed this problem out when Clausewitz describes the characteristics a great commander needs. It is a testimony to the enduring difficulty of strategy and war that his warnings failed to protect a military bureaucracy that was fanatically determined to follow his teaching.

In many ways Sun Tzu, the mystical and elliptical founder of strategic thought, and the methodical and systematic Clausewitz are opposites. Yet the work of both leads the observant reader back to the paradoxical nature of strategic thought. Victory demands thorough and systematic preparation, but all systems of thought lead in the end to sterile formulae — and defeat.


TOPICS: Editorial; Foreign Affairs; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: clausewitz; diplomacywar; godsgravesglyphs; grandstrategy; strategy; vonclausewitz; wardiplomacy

1 posted on 05/21/2011 8:13:11 PM PDT by neverdem
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To: neverdem
It's been years (ok, closer to two decades) since I've read On War. I'm going to have to pick it up again and re-read it.
2 posted on 05/21/2011 8:16:21 PM PDT by Joe 6-pack (Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
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Comment #3 Removed by Moderator

To: Joe 6-pack

There is more profit to be had in studying Sun Szu rather than Clauswitz.


4 posted on 05/21/2011 8:31:48 PM PDT by arrogantsob (Why do They hate her so much?)
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To: arrogantsob

I agree.


5 posted on 05/21/2011 8:35:30 PM PDT by unkus
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To: arrogantsob
Read Michael Handel's, "Masters Of War." He compares Clausewitz and Sun Tzu and makes the case that they were not too far apart in strategic thought.

A great thought Clausewitz had:

Woe to the government, which, relying on half-hearted politics and a shackled military policy, meets a foe who, like the untamed elements, knows no law other than his own power!

6 posted on 05/21/2011 8:43:55 PM PDT by Sawdring
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To: Sawdring

Woe to the government, which, relying on half-hearted politics and a shackled military policy, meets a foe who, like the untamed elements, knows no law other than his own power!


I think George Patton understood this. That’s why he got in trouble. Bradley and Ike used him as a warrior and then basically Ike threw him away.


7 posted on 05/21/2011 8:50:47 PM PDT by unkus
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To: neverdem

Oh, my. This brings back memories.

I was thirteen years old when I joined the Military Book club. It has been a very long time since I read On War, and it’s sitting on the bookshelves right now, between The Two-Ocean War and the Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Probably should crack On War open, again, for a refresher.

Another of the books I bought long ago was, Lincoln and His Generals. Very enlightening from an historical and political point; Lincoln was quite frustrated, his letters indicate. He had difficulties in getting his generals to do things, like fight battles (McClellan comes to mind!).

Another good read was B.H.Liddel Hart’s book, The German Generals Talk. It was derived from post WWII interviews with German field generals.

I spent a summer outlining that book for an English class - extra credit! The teacher was a naturalized citizen originally from Austria. He found my work interesting and told me about being forced into the Hitler Youth. His youth group was left in Vienna by the retreating Germans and they moved before the advancing Russian Army, destroying bridges and other infrastructure! He said he was 12-years old; some of his friends were as young as 9 and 10 years old. (And they were using explosives?!) The Russians, when they caught and of them would kill them. Still, they were brave young chaps to my thinking.


8 posted on 05/21/2011 8:53:03 PM PDT by SatinDoll (NOT FOREIGN NATIONALS AS OUR PRESIDENT)
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To: Joe 6-pack

BTT


9 posted on 05/21/2011 8:54:40 PM PDT by Tzfat
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To: Joe 6-pack

http://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/TOC.htm


10 posted on 05/21/2011 8:57:35 PM PDT by iowamark
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To: neverdem

For later


11 posted on 05/21/2011 9:04:08 PM PDT by Lurker (The avalanche has begun. The pebbles no longer have a vote.)
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To: iowamark

Thanks for the link....got my own copy somewhere here with my highlights and marginalia from years gone by :-)


12 posted on 05/21/2011 9:29:45 PM PDT by Joe 6-pack (Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
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To: unkus
"Woe to the government, which, relying on half-hearted politics and a shackled military policy, meets a foe who, like the untamed elements, knows no law other than his own power."

Sherman reiterated this sentiment somewhat more succinctly when he said, "Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster".

13 posted on 05/21/2011 9:32:06 PM PDT by Joe 6-pack (Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
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To: Joe 6-pack

I keep a copy in the book case over my desk. I aught to buy an epub copy for my electronic readers.


14 posted on 05/21/2011 9:41:15 PM PDT by MrEdd (Heck? Geewhiz Cripes, thats the place where people who don't believe in Gosh think they aint going.)
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To: arrogantsob
There is little covered in The Art Of War that is not elaborated on in On War.

None the less, I always reccomend studying both.

15 posted on 05/21/2011 9:45:21 PM PDT by MrEdd (Heck? Geewhiz Cripes, thats the place where people who don't believe in Gosh think they aint going.)
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To: SatinDoll
I'm currently most of the way through B.H. Liddel-Hart's Strategy. The dust jacket is interesting: it has praise for the author from Patton, Rommel, and Gudderian. Liddel-Hart was really the inventor of blitzkrieg, but his own country's General Staff was too dim to adopt his ideas.
16 posted on 05/21/2011 9:45:59 PM PDT by The_Reader_David (And when they behead your own people in the wars which are to come, then you will know. . .)
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To: The_Reader_David

As we look back at those forward thinkers ignored to the loss of their nations, one must wonder about thinking men here, in China, or in Russia etc.


17 posted on 05/21/2011 9:54:00 PM PDT by Eyes Unclouded ("The word bipartisan means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out." -George Carlin)
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To: The_Reader_David

The inventor of Blitzkrieg was Chingghis Quan. The chap who introduced it to the modern world was William Tecumseh Sherman. The guy who wrote about was B. H Liddel Hart.


18 posted on 05/21/2011 9:58:18 PM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: wardaddy; Joe Brower; Cannoneer No. 4; Criminal Number 18F; Dan from Michigan; Eaker; Jeff Head; ...
Obama Embraces His Inner Bush

Cornel)West: Obama 'a black mascot' and 'black puppet'

Mark Steyn: Yes They Kahn! - Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the other elevated souls of the governing class are above your bourgeois standards.

When a Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words - At last, bin Laden meets his end.

Some noteworthy articles about politics, foreign or military affairs, IMHO, FReepmail me if you want on or off my list.

19 posted on 05/21/2011 10:08:45 PM PDT by neverdem (Xin loi minh oi)
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To: neverdem
Clausewitz is one of my personal favorites for general military philosophy. There are many others that I would recommend reading. Sun Tzu's Art of War is a good read for some of the most basic general strategy that was so well conceived that it is still true today.

Others would include Antoine-Henri Jomini who's work is also titled The Art of War when translated into English. His philosophies on logistics are particularly important.

Command of the Air by Giulio Douhet despite some flawed initial thoughts on the use of air power, outlines some of the original strategies on air superiority that we still accept as a standard today for air operations.

I could go on and on going into theorists and strategists for different time frames and arenas of warfare but I wont. The last suggestion for strategy that's worth reading and is definitely current would be Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula. It's well worth the read.

20 posted on 05/21/2011 10:12:18 PM PDT by CougarGA7
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To: neverdem

THX THX


21 posted on 05/21/2011 10:42:04 PM PDT by Quix (Times are a changin' INSURE you have believed in your heart & confessed Jesus as Lord Come NtheFlesh)
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To: PzLdr

Correct. Liddll Hart was a proponent of the indirect approach.


22 posted on 05/21/2011 10:43:45 PM PDT by Mr. Peabody
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To: neverdem

Finding the “center of gravity” aint too easy when you’re dealing with homicidal/suicidal dingbats; unless you’re willing to get medieval on they ass.


23 posted on 05/21/2011 11:12:41 PM PDT by pawdoggie
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To: neverdem

Which military genius recognized withering ambush’s efficacy from behind rocks and trees instead of set brigades marching across a field firing at each other? Just curious. Anyone? (Night!) ;-)


24 posted on 05/21/2011 11:51:42 PM PDT by Tunehead54 (Nothing funny here ;-)
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To: neverdem

bookmark


25 posted on 05/22/2011 1:11:38 AM PDT by DarthVader (That which supports Barack Hussein Obama must be sterilized and there are NO exceptions!)
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To: arrogantsob

I agree. Clausewitz is stale.


26 posted on 05/22/2011 5:41:02 AM PDT by 1010RD (First, Do No Harm)
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To: SatinDoll

Excellent story and amazing that today we infantilize children to such a degree, no?


27 posted on 05/22/2011 5:42:54 AM PDT by 1010RD (First, Do No Harm)
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To: neverdem

Good article.


28 posted on 05/22/2011 6:23:58 AM PDT by RoadTest (Organized religion is no substitute for the relationship the living God wants with you.)
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To: neverdem

Thanks for the ping!


29 posted on 05/22/2011 8:22:13 AM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: Sawdring
Woe to the government, which, relying on half-hearted politics and a shackled military policy, meets a foe who, like the untamed elements, knows no law other than his own power!

Whew. Lucky we're not that country, huh?

30 posted on 05/22/2011 8:25:37 AM PDT by Texas Eagle (If it wasn't for double-standards, Liberals would have no standards at all -- Texas Eagle)
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To: PzLdr

Well, if you want to generalize, and read a notion backward into history, but it was Liddel-Hart whose vision of how to accomplish a Sherman-style operational plan by the use of massed armor was studied by the German General Staff and given the name Blitzkrieg when they implemented it.


31 posted on 05/22/2011 10:25:26 AM PDT by The_Reader_David (And when they behead your own people in the wars which are to come, then you will know. . .)
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To: arrogantsob

32 posted on 05/22/2011 10:30:09 AM PDT by ctdonath2
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To: 1010RD

“...we infantilize children to such a degree,..”

I agree.


33 posted on 05/22/2011 11:25:30 AM PDT by SatinDoll (NOT FOREIGN NATIONALS AS OUR PRESIDENT)
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To: pawdoggie
Finding the “center of gravity” aint too easy when you’re dealing with homicidal/suicidal dingbats; unless you’re willing to get medieval on they ass.

The center of gravity of the jihadis is easy to find. We're just unwilling to touch it at the moment.

The center of gravity is their source of finance for Jihad. The money from Jihad comes from Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Arab oil states, plus Iran. Make that money source go away, and the rest will have to find paying jobs, and be too busy trying to keep themselves fed to think of Jihad.

34 posted on 05/22/2011 12:36:47 PM PDT by PapaBear3625 ("It is only when we've lost everything, that we are free to do anything" -- Fight Club)
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To: The_Reader_David

Fuller was much more than an influence than Liddel- Hart. And there is the unfortunate problem of Liddel- Hart’s [according to Guderian’s family] ‘leaning’ on Guderian to magnify his influence on German theory [and Guderian] in the post-war era.

And noting that ‘blitzkrieg’ originated much before Liddel-Hart is not “read[ing] a notion back in history”. The history existed before the notion. And one wonders why the Soviet doctrine of deep penetration [Tuchachevsky et al], which was developed when the Germans and Soviets were working together before the ascent of Hitler, is not given any credit for influencing the Germans.


35 posted on 05/22/2011 1:05:43 PM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: ctdonath2

She must have heard the story of Sun Szu and the concubines of the Emperor.


36 posted on 05/22/2011 1:31:14 PM PDT by arrogantsob (Why do They hate her so much?)
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To: MrEdd
There are some major differences relating to the backgrounds of the authors. Clausewitz seems to view war as a continuum of politics whereas Szu sees it as an exception to be avoided whenever possible.

In addition, what takes C a page to uncover S does in a couple of sentences. If a general had to read ONLY one there is no reason to read Clausewitz.

37 posted on 05/22/2011 1:36:57 PM PDT by arrogantsob (Why do They hate her so much?)
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To: Tunehead54

A guy named Arminius (Armin or Hermann) in Germania’s Teutoberg Forest used these tactics against three legions of Roman regulars led by a guy named Varus.
Julius Caesar wrote about this Roman defeat in De Bello Gallico a little more than 2000 years ago.


38 posted on 05/22/2011 4:54:29 PM PDT by rogator
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To: rogator

I take that back. Caesar did not write about this battle, since it happened about fifty years after he died. Tacitus, Suetoneus and others, however, did.
Amazing how rusty folks’ memory can get when they are almost fifty years out of college.


39 posted on 05/22/2011 5:30:34 PM PDT by rogator
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40 posted on 05/23/2011 7:27:59 AM PDT by SunkenCiv (Thanks Cincinna for this link -- http://www.friendsofitamar.org)
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To: rogator

Sorry. The Teutoburg massacre occurred in approximately 9 A.D, during the reign of the emperor Augustus. Caesar’s De BELLO GALLICO was largely written by 44 A.D, some 50 years earlier.


41 posted on 05/23/2011 10:45:01 AM PDT by PzLdr ("The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am" - Darth Vader)
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To: PzLdr

Yup.
I corrected that in Post #39..


42 posted on 05/23/2011 1:29:44 PM PDT by rogator
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