Tuesday, September 23, 2014
On War by Carl von Clausewitz (Book Review #92 of 2014)
Read a free version of an earlier translation here.
I was inspired to read this after it was cited heavily in Gaddis' biography of George Kennan and Thomas Ricks' The Generals. As the U.S. embarks on a quasi-war against the Islamic State, I was eager to compare Clausewitz's thoughts on war to the modern, limited conflicts we currently seem to wage with unclear political ends.
Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian general and military theorist. On War was part of Clausewitz's writings from 1816 to 1830 and appear to be Clausewitz's attempts to form a general theory and philosophy on war, based primarily on the historical conflicts fought by Frederick the Great and Napoleon, although he does also cite the Punic Wars, Alexander's conquests, and other minor European conflicts.
Clausewitz's most enduring legacy is his statement that "war is a mere continuation of policy by other means." (Book 1, 24). Generals and analysts must remember that war cannot be divorced from the political realm. He continues this theme in Book VIII, Chapter 6:
"(W)ar is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with a mixture of other means...the chief lines on which the events of the war progress, and to which they are attached, are only the general features of policy which run all through the war until peace takes place...Does the cessation of diplomatic notes stop the political relations between different nations and Governments? Is not war merely another kind of writing and language for political thoughts? It has certainly a grammar of its own, but its logic is not peculiar to itself."
Therefore, "war can never be separated from political intercourse."
"If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form."
"The subordination of the political point of view to the military would be contrary to common sense, for policy has declared the war; it is the intelligent faculty, war only the instrument, and not the reverse. The subordination of the military point of view to the political is, therefore, the only thing which is possible."
"In one word, the art of war in its highest point of view is policy, but, no doubt, a policy which fights battles, instead of writing notes."
Compare all this with the strategy Secretary of STate John Kerry laid out against ISIL in Senate testimony last week:
" this is more than just a military coalition, and I want to emphasize that. In some ways, some of the most important aspects of what we will be doing are not military. This mission isn’t just about taking out an enemy on the battlefield; it’s about taking out a network, decimating and discrediting a militant cult masquerading as a religious movement. It’s similar to what we’ve been doing to al-Qaida these last years. The bottom line is we will not be successful with a military campaign alone, and we know it."
Likewise, Clausewitz has some warnings about forming coalitions to fight an enemy, which the U.S. is trying to cobble together against ISIL.
Book VIII Chapter 6:
"We never find that a State joining in the cause of another State, takes it up with the same earnestness as its own...even if two States go to war with a third, they do not always both look in like measure upon this common enemy as one that they must destroy or be destroyed by themselves, the business is often settled like a commercial transaction."
Clausewitz makes many observations about important characteristics of commanders, the psychological ("moral") effects of war, and various details that must be remembered about conflicts. Much of the book is dry observation, but there are a few enduring gems.
Book I, Chapter 1: What is War?
"(R)esult in war is never absolute: Lastly, even the final decision of a whole war is not always to be regarded as absolute. The conquered state often sees in it only a passing evil, which may be repaired in after times by means of political combinations. How much this also must modify the degree of tension and the vigour of the efforts made is evident in itself."
Chapter 2: Ends and Means in War:
The goal of war is that "The military power must be destroyed, that is, reduced to such a state as not to be able to prosecute the war," although later Clausewitz deals with limited conflicts where that is not the case, or is impossible. But achieving total victory may be fantasy:
"But if even both these things are done, still the war, that is, the hostile feeling and action of hostile agencies, cannot be considered as at an end as long as the will of the enemy is not subdued also; that is, its Government and its allies forced into signing a peace, or the people into submission; for whilst we are in full occupation of the country the war may break out afresh, either in the interior or through assistance given by allies. No doubt this may also take place after a peace, but that shows nothing more than that every war does not carry in itself the elements for a complete decision and final settlement."
Chapter 3: genius for war
"War is the province of danger, and therefore courage above all things is the first quality of a warrior...Courage is of two kinds; first, physical courage, or courage in presence of danger to the person: and next, moral courage, or courage before responsibility; whether it be before the judgment-seat of external authority, or of the inner power, the conscience..."
Generals must have strong force of will and moral fortitude:
"(A)s soon as difficulties arise—and that must always happen when great results are at stake—then things no longer move on of themselves like a well-oiled machine, the machine itself then begins to offer resistance, and to overcome this, the commander must have a great force of will."
Clausewitz coined the term "fog of war."
Chapter 6: Information in war
"A great part of the information obtained in war is contradictory, a still greater part is false, and by far the greatest part is of a doubtful character. The law of probability must be (the officer's) guide... In a few words, most reports are false, and the timidity of men acts as a multiplier of lies and untruths. As a general rule every one is more inclined to lend credence to the bad than the good."
7: Friction in War
Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction, which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.
Clausewitz writes elsewhere that a General, once he gains the power of statehood (like Napoleon or Eisenhower) must never forget the affairs of state matter most, while remembering also to use all of his strategic skill as a general to get things done. I also enjoyed his differentiation of strategy (implementation of proper tactics) with strategem (the use of deceit in employing strategy).
It's a classic, influential book so it's 5 stars.