Reading Clausewitz, On War

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker’s Weblog, with picture of Clausewitz, not just the link!

Clausewitz is pictured above.

I’m continuing my reading of Carl von Clausewitz’ On War (I last posted on this n 12th July), certainly one of the greatest books written about military strategy, in a style of interaction between part and whole (a dialectical approach), which matches the constant unstable interaction between tactics and strategy which Clausewitz refers to as a characteristic of war. Cluausewitz famously refers to war as the continuation of politics, and like Michel Foucault we might to want to turn that back and understand politics as a form of war.

Clausewitz surprisingly emphasises something that appears absurdly obvious, that is the importance of numbers in war, that it is important for an army to have more soldiers than the opposing army, Clausewitz recognises that this might seem to be a truism, but assures the reader that until quite recently in history, right into the Eighteenth Century, that this issues was ignored. Earlier accounts of war fail to mention numbers or pay little attention to the idea of using superior numbers as an advantage against the enemy. Looking at the background to Clausewitz’ remark, we can remember that a lot of cultured references to war go back to the Ancient Greeks, and the defeat of a vast Persian army, including the resistance of just 300 Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae known through The Histories of Herodotus. Expanding on that, we might also note that the history of war used to be the history of heroes, reflecting an attitude that monarchs and aristocrats were the only memorable people in war, or any other aspect of history.

In the Eighteenth Century, Giambattista Vico noted in The New Science the mythical aspects of historical writing about ancient wars, in what must have been a battle between large armies is sometimes reduced to the story of battle between a few heroes. What Vico says can be seen as part of an Enlightenment shift towards a greater interest in the equal status of all humans, so that war can be taken as essentially a conflict between masses of men in which the vulgar issue of numerical supremacy may be more important that the leadership of aristocratic generals.

In his usual dialectical style, Clausewitz suggests that surprise as a means of gaining an advantage in war must be in a trade off with the general efficiency of military action. Surprise can only be achieved by doing something that is costly in terms of time and organisation and which loses some kinds of military advantage. The point of a surprise is to do something costly and inefficient because that is what the enemy does not expect. Surprise becomes generally less useful the higher the level of war, so surprise may often work as an improvised tact at a low level in the military command in the heat of battle, it is much less likely to have success at the general or commander-in-chief level in planning strategy for a whole battle or a whole campaign. Surprise therefore belongs more to tactics than strategy, though if it does work at a higher level there could be enormous benefits.

Despite his great respect for Napoleon Bonaparte, Clausewtiz is very critical of claims that Napolean used surprise with great success. Where he did have success it was early in his wars, when it the opposing generals and monarchs became very demoralised by defeat in one battle, where Bonaparte used strategy that was new to them. The early reaction of opposing countries (Prussia, Austria and Russia being the most important) was to agree to a peace favourable to Napoleon after losing an apparently major battle. Later on opposing powers kept fighting after losing a battle and found they could wear down Bonaparte’s armies and particularly after they were able to join forces. This partly relates to Clausewitz’ remark that war is the continuation of politics by other means and also suggests that a dramatic victory involving surprise may not be a truly strategic victory. Clausewitz suggests that the brilliant use of surprise attributed to Napoleon’s victories in his first great campaign, in Italy, overlooks what might have been achieved if Napoleon had done something else; and overlooks the tendency of the Habsburg Empire to withdraw and give in to easily which may explain what look like the brilliant victories of an emergent genius. He also suggests that Napoleon’s genius as he fought off the opposing coalition in 1813 may have been exaggerated. His battle plans of that period have often been praised for genius though he inevitably lost to such a huge and strong opposing coalition. Clausewitz, suggests that what looks like military genius as Napoleon moved his armies rapidly between the armies of different powers, so that he could defeat them in isolation, was an error since Napoleon was exhausting his resources through such manoeuvres and that preparation for a decisive battle with the coalition would have been better. So in general Clausewitz is sceptical of the value of surprise and suggests that the value of Napoleon’s surprise strategies has been greatly exaggerated.

Clausewitz’ remarks in surprise are remarks about trade-offs cost and benefits, hidden costs. The significance of this and its relations with dialectic in Clausewitz is something I will deal with in tomorrow’s post.

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