Monday, September 28, 2015

A Clausewitz for Every Season by Hew Strachan

Although this is from 2007 it is still very much worth reading today as this is probably the best essay that exposes those who read Clausewitz for the pithy quotes and not for On War's true and deep meaning.  It is the best explanation of why the Trinity is not simply the people, government, and army but passion, reasons, and chance.


The Clausewitz so readily condemned by commentators of today, such as Martin van Creveld, John Keegan and Mary Kaldor, is the Clausewitz who was fashionable in the 1970s. The fact that the rationality of the “formula” of war’s relationship to policy looks less clear in 2007 does not invalidate it as an interpretative tool. The problem has arisen from its artificial exclusivity, from its being taken so very much out of context. There is much more to On War than one hackneyed catchphrase, and the tragedy for the armed forces of the United States and their allies today is that greater attention to rather more of the text would have provided the intellectual underpinnings for greater self-awareness and strategic sensitivity than has been evident over the last half decade. We need not to ditchOn War but to read more of it, and to read it with greater care.

Appeared in: Volume 2, Number 6
Published on: July 1, 2007

A Clausewitz for Every SeasonHEW STRACHAN
On misreading On War.
In 1975, Colin Powell entered the National War College in Washington, DC. Once there, Powell, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam, read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War for the first time. He was bowled over. On War was, Powell recalled in My American Journey, “like a beam of light from the past, still illuminating present-day military quandaries.” What particularly impressed him was Clausewitz’s view that the military itself formed only “one leg in a triad” whose other two elements were the government and the people. All three elements had to be engaged for war to be sustainable. In the Vietnam War, America’s had not been.
Powell may have been right about the Vietnam War, but not about Clausewitz. Like many others before him, Powell misread the final section of On War’s opening chapter—that which describes war as “a strange trinity.” Its three elements are not the people, the army and the government, but hate, chance and reason. Clausewitz went on to associate each of these three elements more particularly with the passions of the people, with the commander and his army, and with the political direction of the government. But in doing so he moved from the “trinity” itself to its application. The people, the army and the government are elements of the state, not elements of war. The distinction is crucial to the relevance of On War today.
Powell is not the only American soldier to have misinterpreted Clausewitz’s trinity. In 1982, Army Colonel Harry Summers wrote one of the most influential analyses of the U.S. failure in Vietnam, On Strategy. He, too, had Clausewitz saying that war consisted of the people, the army and the government. After the end of the Cold War, with wars allegedly being waged to an increasing extent by non-state actors such as guerrillas, terrorists and warlords, who in turn funded their efforts through crime and drug-trafficking, neither Powell’s nor Summers’ definitions were of much help. As they became less helpful, so too, it seemed, did Clausewitz. Their take on the trinity tied On War indissolubly to the interstate wars of Clausewitz’s own lifetime. If the so-called Westphalian order waned, so too would the applicability of Clausewitz’s insights. This was the thesis which sustained Martin van Creveld’s The Transformation of War (1991). By erroneously identifying Clausewitz’s understanding of war with the people, the army and the government—the “Clausewitzian universe”, as he termed it—van Creveld could invent in order to reject what he called “trinitarian war.”
Like the others, van Creveld had not read the original text with sufficient care. He had also not thought sufficiently about Clausewitz’s use of language—in this case, German. Scholars during the Cold War, determined to use On War as a mirror for their own times, cherry-picked the text for readings and quotations which sustained their views rather than reflected Clausewitz’s. Van Creveld was responding to them, not to Clausewitz, but in the process ditched On War as well.
Where did Clausewitz’s trinity come from in the first place? Clausewitz, like some other military theorists—most obviously British Major General J.F.C. Fuller—had a penchant for thinking in threes (a point to which we shall return). But the significance of Clausewitz’s triad is that it is not a triad but a trinity: not just three related elements, but three parts of one whole. The Christian connotations are self-evident and could not be anything other than deliberate for an author whose family came from a long line of Lutheran pastors. Therefore, the first issue posed by the trinity in On War is not the identity of its three constituent elements but that of its mystical unit: What is the god in which the father, son and holy ghost are united?
Once the question is posed, the answer is self-evident: It is war itself, whose essential element, as Clausewitz makes clear in the opening paragraph of the section, is violence. Remember Clausewitz’s opening definition of war in the same chapter: “War is an act of force to compel our adversary to do our will.” Even if war can change its outer character like a chameleon (the analogy Clausewitz uses in the section on the trinity), its inner nature must, according to this simple description, be unchanging.

Carl von Clausewitz
What war is not, or at least not by its inner nature, is a political instrument. Reason and its extrapolation, the political objects of government, make up a single subordinate element of the trinity, not the trinity itself. Clausewitz likened each of the three elements of the trinity to magnets, so that reason, hate and chance alternately attracted and rejected each other, so never forming a fixed relationship. “A theory, which insisted in leaving one of them out of account, or on fixing an arbitrary relationship between them”, wrote Clausewitz, “would immediately fall into such contradiction with reality that through this alone it would forthwith necessarily be regarded as destroyed.”
Arbitrary and Fixed
One theory has formed an arbitrary and fixed relationship between war and policy, and we are living with the unfortunate consequences. When Powell went to the National War College, strategic thought had a vested interest in elevating and exaggerating Clausewitz’s interest in the relationship between war and policy. And that was why Clausewitz’s axiom, stated in the heading to another section in the opening chapter of On War, that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means”, became the thesis statement that presumably summed up Clausewitz’s very essence. This enabled the searching inhabitants of the second half of the 20th century to place Clausewitz on the side of the angels. Even the great French thinker Raymond Aron, in his 1976 book on Clausewitz, called it simply the “formula.”
The Cold War gave Aron little choice. The possession of nuclear weapons, and their incorporation into a system of international relations that pivoted on deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction, meant that war had to be avoided, not waged. War had to be subordinated to policy if mankind was to survive. Clausewitz could therefore be associated with notions of limited war, with the need to moderate and even avoid war. According to this interpretation, those who linked Clausewitz to Prussian militarism, to the brutality of battle and to wars of annihilation, had misjudged him. That was not “Clausewitzian”; this was.
Aron’s work notwithstanding, the “liberal” Clausewitz we think we know today was the work of two of the most distinguished scholars of modern war, Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Their fluent and readable translation of On War, which appeared in 1976, became a bestseller in a way the original German never has. Most students, particularly in the English-speaking world, cite Howard and Paret when they refer to On War, not Clausewitz himself. In so many ways both Clausewitz and we have benefited: The text has a grace that early 19th-century German, with its predilection for passive constructions, does not have. Its English version also possesses a greater coherence than is immediately evident in the German. Indeed, Howard and Paret gave the world not so much a translation of Clausewitz as an interpretation of him.
Howard and Paret gave consistency to On War through their choice of English words and, occasionally, by their glosses on the text itself. As a result they do not always translate the same German word with the same English word, instead preferring the English most consonant with its immediate context, or with their interpretation of the text. A significant exception is the German noun Politik, which they tend to translate as “policy” rather than use the equally acceptable alternative of “politics.” This is not just a matter of semantics, and it helps to explain how “Clausewitzian” today expresses a supposed whole that is no more than a lesser part. After all, “policy” conveys an impression of direction and clear intent; politics, like war, is an adversarial business, whose implementation, also like war, is messy and confused.

(Continued at the link below)

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