Howard, Michael Eliot. Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction.

NY: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Karl von Clausewitz is not much read these days, except by specialists in military history of the modern era — and by cadets at military academies in all Western nations. In On War (Howard is himself the translator and editor of the standard English edition), Clausewitz is one of the great universal, systematic, theorists on war, right up there with Sun Tzu, in that he was able to transcend the political and technological limitations of his own times.

He was a professional soldier, a member of the Prussian officer corps in the post-Napoleonic world of the early 19th century, and he was writing for his colleagues, not for academics. His analyses were meant to be of use to the battlefield commander, so he always tried to link theory to recommended action. He ignored political theory, and economic systems, and administrative matters, and arms manufacturing, concentrating instead on pragmatic simplicity. Warfare in the 20th century, of course, is very much concerned with economics, but that’s a criticism from hindsight. He also ignored naval matters, because Prussia had no navy worth mentioning. And while he certainly was aware, like his contemporaries, that the burgeoning Industrial Revolution was likely to have a major impact on the future of war, he can’t be faulted for failing to foresee just how great those changes would be — especially in matters of logistics. But when it comes to the successful conduct of operations on land and the design and prosecution of an army’s campaigns, Clausewitz arguably has no peer, even today.

I read On War as a grad student in a military history colloquium forty years ago, and his straightforward style stuck with me, even in translation. I was also struck by how much of what he had to say was still relevant, even though railroads and breechloaders were just beginning to be developed when he died in 1831, and that his views are applicable far outside Napoleonic-era Prussia.

Howard begins with a biographical chapter that focuses on Clausewitz’s own military experiences (he was at both Borodino and Waterloo), followed by a survey of the intellectual and military climate at the time. Kant and his contemporaries were searching for a way to remove war from human affairs entirely, but this notion did not survive the nationalist resurgence in Europe caused (in both England and France) by the French Revolution. Clausewitz, who both read and wrote very widely, saw the conduct of war as simply another art, and Howard shows how this affected his approach. Then he outlines the theory of war-as-maneuver, which Clausewitz set out to demolish and replace. Maneuver, he said, was pointless unless it was designed to bring the enemy to battle — and engaging in battle was only useful if it furthered the ultimate aims of the war.

The author then embarks on a full-dress examination of Clausewitz’s theories which also manages to be remarkably concise, in line with the schema for this series. Clausewitz gave surprising importance to moral factors (by which he meant individual courage) and emphasized the principle of uncertainty, including sheer luck. Perhaps most important, he introduced the concept of “friction” — the recognition that the environment in which war takes place includes countless minor incidents, all of them unforeseeable, which degrade performance. Every military writer and instructor since has adopted this idea — and which every infantry grunt has been aware of since the Roman legions.

Subsequent sections consider means and ends in war, the differences in theory and practice between limited and absolute war, and the proper places of offense and defense. The final chapter covers Clausewitz’s effect on later military theorists and strategists, especially during the World Wars. And there’s a brief annotated bibliography. All in all, this is a first-rate introduction to one of the most influential thinkers in modern European history.

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Published in: on 8 May 2015 at 7:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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