Friday, July 26, 2013

The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz

On Small Wars Journal, NDU Professor William Olson has written an article called  "The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz."

Although some will think this article is heresy, I think Clausewitz might very well approve.  After all On War was Clausewitz' personal duel or wrestling match to try to understand the nature war.   However, one thing that Professor Olson also does not mention was the possibility that Clausewitz' work was also a contribution to help us develop coup d'oeil or military genius which can only be attained through education and experience.  I think Clausewitz would approve of Professor Olson's analytic critique of On War and say that he has achieved his purpose which is to make military officers think and more importantly to think critically and I think Professor Olson has demonstrated some important critical thinking.  You can agree or disagree with Professor Olson (and Clausewitz) (and we should do both to both) but I would offer that Professor Olson's essay makes the kind of contribution to thinking about and trying to understand war that Clausewitz intended by writing On War.  So while On War is Clausewitz' personal quest to explain war to himself based on his education and experience it was also a contribution to military thought with the intention of helping future generations wrestle with the nature of war as more than a true chameleon.  And so I think that Professor Olson actually makes the case that studying On War continues to be relevant.

The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz

Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.
David Hume
The study of war, or peace, remains relevant.  But does the study of On War?  Is it any more useful than reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a nice read, for those so inclined, but hardly useful to analytical insight.[1]  Given all the ink spilled for and against Clausewitz in the last 170 odd years, intensifying since Vietnam in this country, and more generally with the publication of the seminal translation of Vom Kriegeby Michael Howard and Peter Paret in 1976, one might be excused for concluding that there is a great deal less here than meets the eye.[2]
As generally presented--based largely on the contentions of Michael Howard and Peter Paret and a generation of scholars that they have influenced, including such acolytes as Harry Summers--On War is argued to be the most serious study, perhaps the only serious study, of war; not as a series of battles or maneuvers to battle, or a set of axioms to inform doctrine and instruction with mathematical certainty on the principles of war, but a deeply philosophical and theoretical introspection on the nature of war itself as a distinctive and distinguishable human activity.  In this sense, it is not a hypothesis but a full-blown theory. 
What shortcomings it is reputed to have as an overall theory--for an older generation like Martin van Creveld or John Keegan, to a newer crop of critics like Mary Kaldor and the 'new war' crowd--are generally dismissed as the result of the fact that Clausewitz died before he could complete an in-depth revision of his masterwork based on his evolving thinking, which a close enough reading of the existing text reveals at various points his true vision to put to rest any doubts about the seminal nature of his work.  Thus his obscurity on certain points is a defense against doubt on any point.
In some hands, this sort of argumentation on Clausewitz's behalf has the smell of incense about it and the feel of liturgical mysteries revealed by an inner light known only to true initiates who know how to derive meaning where others only find muddle.  Clausewitz as prophet.  The result is in some cases, particularly in military circles, Clausewitz taught as a catechism.  For the moment, I leave aside comment on some of his best points, many of which are fairly banal--war is politics by other means, the fog of war, friction--and commonplace, that is true but not uniquely so.  Instead I suggest the following summary of ways to interpret the text that relieve it of some of its burden as sacred mystery. 
In essence, there are several ways to understand On War and Clausewitz's contribution:
--it is a theory of war itself, war as war, and is, therefore, equally valid in describing the phenomenon of war and violence both forward and backward in time, for all time.  Universal and continuingly relevant.
--it is a theory of war based on the major evolution of war with Napoleon and the wars of organized states, that is, it is to be read forward to cover all wars since the changes resulting from the French Revolution and the emergence of strong nation-states.  It is not just a product of its time and place but is not useful for 'pre-history'--that is BN, Before Napoleon.
--it is a theory of war based on the nation-state model, thus it covers only one category of possible conflicts, its notions of friction and politics, etc., being features of human activity in general.  It is limited but useful on this narrow front.
--it is a theory so vague and flexible as to describe anything and thus describes nothing except what the beholder most wants to behold. 
The current state of literature on Clausewitz and his insights, or lack thereof, argues all of these points of view, making one wonder if there is more than one Clausewitz and if so, which one is definitive.  Or is any?  Whether for or against, it seems that the starting point to lend credibility to any argument is to invoke His Name and some orphaned quotes, or cite their absence, to ‘prove’ the argument.  Clausewitz’s relevance does not reside in whether what he has to say is true but that it is useful.[3]  Thus articles on Clausewitz and the revolution in military affairs; on peacekeeping; on counterinsurgency; or insurgency; or terrorism; or logistics; or information war; or space war; or future war.  Articles on things Clausewitz did not write about but should have or meant to, such as Just War or naval warfare or economic and other non-military warfighting.  Air Power?  Or articles demonstrating that Clausewitz has nothing to say about ‘new war’.  Or what he had to say on any war but the wars of Napoleon and the Prussian response are of no continuing use beyond historical interest. Or arguments that, if he had lived to finish his great work, he would have said this or that supporting whatever argument this or that wish to make. Or, Clausewitz was the evil genius of total war in all its brutality, he endorsing German militarism and thus implicated in war guilt for WWI and WWII.  Clausewitz seems perplexed by this scholarly fog of interpretation.  Like some modern version of What’s My Line, will the real Clausewitz please stand up. 
The military, at least the US military, on the other hand, does not seem so troubled.  He is taught in most war colleges and staff colleges as virtually holy writ, endowing his argument that war is politics by other means with a special significance.  His appearance figures prominently in the current strategic lexicon with words or phrases like the Trinity, friction, fog of war, uncertainty, center of gravity, and the culminating point of battle.[4]  Clausewitz appears most supportive of what Russell Weigley and others have called the ‘American Way of War’: the notion that war has its own logic, its own grammar, and once politics and politicians have invoked war—implying the failure of politics—these should stand aside to let the professionals fight to success and thus restore circumstances to politicians and politics.  And this fighting, based on its own rules, must be given a freehand or else it will fail or muddle up success, which must be fought on time-honored principles of war, which Clausewitz’s writ suggests are eternal and necessary.  All things that Clausewitz strongly argues the opposite of.  Again, one is tempted to conclude that there is more than one Clausewitz, or, at least, he wrote two, perhaps three of four, different books for different audiences.
In these circumstances, one might be forgiven for concluding that Clausewitz did not really exist but is a figment of necessity, conjured up to prove any and all points currently in or out of fashion.  Clausewitz as a committee-designed camel.  Or Clausewitz has something useful to feed any appetite.  On War as smorgasbord.   Or that given this contradictory array that Clausewitz is irrelevant to any discussion of war and peace since any source that can lend aid and comfort to such a range of arguments really argues nothing worthwhile at all.  Clausewitz as fashion statement.
My purpose in what follows is not to show that Clausewitz’s argument, whatever that turns out to be, or the many interpretations of it about a theory of war are right or wrong on this point or that, but to dispute the approach of theorizing as such at its source.  The project itself is mistaken and everything that starts from the premise goes awry of necessity.  Clausewitz himself invites much of this.  He wrote with two purposes in mind:  One to inform his German colleagues in a how-to-do manual the things that were needed to reform the Prussian military to face the challenge of Napoleon and the style of warfare that he and the French Revolution made.  This necessitated a change in thinking as much as in organization, maneuver, troop management, and such like.  And two, as part of the encouragement to break out of an older, now failed model for fighting, he invited his colleagues to think metaphysically, philosophically about the nature of war itself and its deeply troubling and at points contradictory nature, which any purely historical account or set of rote ‘principles’ of war simply could not encompass.  The first approach generally appeals to military men, the second to scholars.  On War is both deceptively practical and obscurely metaphorical.
In following this purpose to a conclusion, I will borrow a leaf from Clausewitz and employ a dialectic argument, thesis, antithesis, synthesis, making the strongest case to start for Clausewitz’s irrelevance and then showing, not his relevance but the failure of any argument to prove this point, the synthesis being, but that’s to get ahead of the tale.
Into the Labyrinth
(Continued at the link below)

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