First Thoughts on Reading Clausewitz

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog (with picture of Clausewtiz!)

I’ve got through the first book of Carl von Clausewitz’ On War (uncompleted at the time of his death in 1831) and started the second book. There are some obvious dangers in commenting on a book before finishing the reading of it, but there are some advantages as well at getting thoughts down on the early parts of a book before that perspective is affected by reading the later parts.

Reading a book itself involves a tension between grasping the perspective of the parts and grasping the perspective of the whole. There are always conflicts and there is always something artificial about a unified reading, and there is always something undeveloped about the reading of a part on its own. Clausewitz was very aware of how war itself must be grasped through this kind of contradictory unity. He emphasises that tactics and strategy are understood as the opposite of each other, and that no clear dividing line can be drawn between them.

He suggests that the achievement of the Commander in Chief is to grasp the different aspects of war and the tensions between them. Clausewitz says that the parts of war are not complicated in themselves but the interactions between them are, so that it takes exceptional intellect to handle them well and exceptional moral courage to stick to that vision in the ebb and flow of battle and campaign. That is why the good Commander in Chief is a genius.

The discussion of the character of war as a whole, and of the successful Commander in Chief, is very much in the language of German Idealist philosophy (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel). I’m not sure at present about his level of awarness of this work, but it is widely accepted that Clausewitz took an interest in Fichte. Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (1807, 1808) is a major text in German Idealist political thought and in German nationalism, in reaction to the Bonapartist transformation of Germany into occupied territories or satellite ‘allies’. Fichte and Clausewitz also had a shared interest in Machiavelli, though a perhaps one sided interest in Machiavelli as the theorist of power politics. More on this in a later post, I hope.

Fichte talks about command and war in terms of critique and judgement, very reminiscent of Kant’s account of aesthetic judgement. I couldn’t say right now how far the comparison could be taken but I’m sure it would be worth working out. Clausetitz keeps emphasising polarities and unities of an unstable kind. War as the conflict of two parties is itself such a unity. Within war there is also the polarity/unity of defence and attack, routine and surprise. Clausewitz gives importance to routine, the learned and repeated parts of military life: from how to march to the normal tactical reactions officers in a particular army have to the events of a battle. Routine itself exists in unified polarity with friction, the way that command may be dissipated by the material and psychological difficulties of moving masses of individual soldiers according to a general plan. Routine minimises friction but leaves an army vulnerable to surprise in the battle.

Clausewitz also seems close to German Idealist philosophy in his view that war emerges in a more and more complete way over history. Early war is just sieges, then more movement enters, then war appears as a complex unity under Frederick the Great (King Fredrick II of Prussia) and an even more complex unity under Naplolean Bonaparte who was able to destroy German armies which still followed Frederick the Great’s tactics). Bonaparte is the shadowing hero or anti-hero of On War, the enemy who must be admired and imitated. There might be a parallel with the role of Hannibal (the Carthaginian general who invaded Italy before his eventual defeat) in the history of the Roman Republic, the most important account coming centuries later in Livy’s History of Rome. Clausewitz’ emphasis on the historical emergence of war means he has no reason to discuss Hannibal, his Roman antagonist Scipio Africanus, or any other great general of antiquity or any great general before Frederick the Great, or texts such as Thucydides Peloponnesian War. Maybe there are good reasons for this, but I don’t think Clausewtiz’ account of the teleological emergence of war is a good reason. Evidently Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were not purely engaged in siege warfare.

Clausewitz’ most famous phrase is that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. I have deliberately left this to the end of the post to avoid looking at Clausewtiz through clichés. The idea that war is the continuation of politics seems to be understood at the level of cliché as a commitment to pure power politics. The point in Clausewitz is that war depends on political will, that political will suffuses the army as political will is more than a formal decision by government but also refers to the capacity of government to mobilise popular feeling, including amongst soldiers. In some sense this is a democratic idea, war cannot succeed unless it has popular support whatever the nature of the government. It leaves a big role for the charismatic leader, but as I suggested in an earlier post on Weber and Charisma (check archive), the idea of a charismatic leader is not an essentially anti-democratic or illiberal idea. Clausewitz’ political thinking, like that of the great Prussian generals Scharnhosrt and Gneisenau, mixes liberal and conservative thinking. The development of the Prussian and German army into a bulwark of traditionalist, conservative, nationalist, authoritarian thinking should not lead us to ignore the reformist role of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who were allied with the great liberal political thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt in reforming the Prussian state after the losses to Bonaparte. Clausewitz’ famous definition of war should not just be seen as saying that war is something the state normally resorts to in politics. It also suggests that military victory rests on political legitimacy and popular support. Finally it also suggests that we might learn something about the state, by looking at how its military side works. The military aspect of the state has seemed like it most essential aspect along with enforcing laws, for most political thinkers, that suggests a need to look at military organisation as part of political history, military theory as part of political theory.

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