(To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)
As I started diving into the precisely vague wording of “war is war”, I found a clear connection: the intellectuals who admonish us to understand that “war is war” love Clausewitz. If I didn’t know any better, I would think the phrase “war is war” and Clausewitz were dating, or at least getting some on the side. This isn’t only an issue with the “war-is-war”-ior; military strategists have obsessed over Carl since he first published On War.
You may not know this, but Carl von Clausewitz is God.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Clausewitz is God, nor should he dominate American thinking on military strategy and theory the way hideous haircuts dominate the heads of Rangers. He has a place in military philosophy, there is no doubt about that, but the emphasis on Clausewitz today is out-of-control.
To make sure I wasn’t misrepresenting the “war is war” crowd, I asked the folks over at the SWJ discussion board what they thought of my first two posts. Sure enough, about eight comments down someone started using Clausewitz to clarify the definition of war, that’s how popular he is.
But Clausewitzian love goes further than interweb forums; academics use him all the time too. Colin Grey, who declares “war is war” in his Strategic Studies paper, writes “there is no need for us to devote attention to the nature of war; that vital task has been performed more than adequately by Carl von Clausewitz.” Colonel David Maxwell argrees that all we need to do is study more Clausewitz; he said it in two different papers for The Small Wars Journal.
I have a few issues with Clausewitz’s domination of military thought:
1. Is Clausewitz all there is? To go back to my “politics is politics” analogy, how many political theorists are there? One could argue Machievelli dominates the field, but not more than Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau, not to mention the ancients like Plato, Aristotle, and the Christian scholars of the Middle Ages. But military strategy has, in the terms of Professor Grey, only three: Clausewitz, Thucydides and Sun Tzu. I think one of the reasons the nature of warfare is disputed so frequently is that military theory rests almost primarily on the shoulders of one thinker. No other field or discipline is so narrow.
I appreciate his definition of war, but as the overarching father of all military thought, I don’t love reading him the way I loved reading, for example, the foundational thought in the theory of politics. Frankly, Clausewitz’s writing doesn’t sparkle like the writing of Plato, Machiavelli and Locke, not to mention the writing of our founding fathers.
2. Clausewitz is on the wrong end of my philosophical spectrum. Now this doesn’t mean conservative or liberal, realist or idealist, it means complicated and verbose. Long ago, I developed my own personal spectrum of philosophy: on one end are Kant and Derrida competing for the claim of the most incomprehensible philosopher, on the other is Plato’s “Crito” and Jesus’ parables, both examples of philosophy that can be read on several levels, but understood without taking a college class. (A friend of mine took a class on Kant at UCLA, and they were only able to work through forty pages. Forty.)
Clausewitz falls over the complicated German philosopher cliff. I mean, his work encompasses several volumes, was never finished, and was written in the Hegelian style--which means frequently you argue a point just to refute it later (thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis).
3. The most parroted assumptions are ridiculously vague. From what I can tell, the most significant achievement of Clausewitz was his definition of war--warfare is politics through other means (depending on the translation). Second to that was his classification of the three parts of warfare: 1. Violence, hatred and enmity (really two topics, violence and enmity) 2. chance or probability and 3. each opponent is subordinate to rational policy. It just seems that every human endeavor is the interaction of emotion, chance and rationality, be it diplomacy, economics, politics or war.
This simplification is probably more due to people simplifying philosophy as opposed to the philosopher himself. Philosophy, in general, suffers when it is simplified. Clausewitz equals “war is politics by other means”, Machiavelli is “rule at all costs”, Neitzsche believed in “the super man”. Nuance? Fuhgetaboutit. These quick snap definitions lose the subtlety of hundreds of pages of philosophy--and I think that simplification is magnified in Clausewitz’s case when it comes to “war is war”.
I don’t mean to slander Carl von Clausewitz here, nor do I intend to imply no one should read him. I advocate a middle ground: military officers should definitely read Clausewitz, but keep an open mind that he probably doesn’t have all the answers, or even most of them. No other intellectual field relies so heavily on one single thinker; I think it also does military theory and the philosophy of violence a disservice to assume Clausewitz has war all figured out when Hannah Arendt wrote a brilliant treatise, On Violence, that few military officers have read.