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My (Actual) Issue with Carl von Clausewitz

I’ve been accused by some people of hating Carl von Clausewitz (specifically for “slaying Clausewitzian strawmen”). Let’s go to the tape to see what I originally wrote about CvC:

"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 don’t hate CvC; I merely believe that military strategy and the study of war rely much too heavily on one thinker. And have no doubt, American military science/strategic studies relies too much on Clausewitz. Some have called it a “German fetish”, and I can’t disagree. Take Dr. Colin Gray writing about military theory [pdf] in the Strategic Studies Quarterly :

“A true glory of the three preeminent classics of strategic thought—Clausewitz’s On War, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War—is that they tell us all that we need to know about war’s unchanging nature. Read properly, they explain the nature of all war in all periods, among all belligerents, employing all weapons, and deploying an endless array of declared motives."

The Infinity Journal dedicated an entire article to Clausewitz, with pretty much the same thesis:   

“When it comes to the study of war and strategy--and despite the vast array of writings penned by brilliant men and women, both historical and contemporary--at the center of it all we still find Clausewitz...The result was success in the formulation of the foundations of a theory of war and strategy that no other theorist has before or since been able to rival...as far as observing, comprehending, and demonstrating via writings the fundamentals of war, Clausewitz is as close to a level of perfection as any theorist of war and strategy has so far been able to reach.”

At first, this seems reasonable. One thinker (Clausewitz), or three (Thucydides and Sun Tzu as well), have completely understood, defined and explained military strategy to their readers. But stop for a moment to really ponder this sentiment. Has one person ever dominated a field as thoroughly as Carl von Clausewitz? The Infinity Journal’s A.E. Stahl says they have:

“When we reflect on other areas of complex interests and activities, we can confidently...point to a number of intellectual giants that have conquered a wide array of vital subjects. They have graced posterity with considerable understanding and guidance that we rarely question.”

Except that’s entirely not true.

Take this list of the founders or kings of various academic disciplines:

Evolutionary biology                  Darwin

Genetics                                  Mendel

Psychology                               Freud

Behavioral Psychology               Pavlov

Realist Political Philosophy        Machiavelli

Liberal Political Philosophy        Locke

Economics                                Adam Smith

Physics                                     Copernicus then Newton then Einstein

Chemistry                                 Lavosier and Dalton

Philosophy                                Socrates and Plato

Each of the founders of these fields--I could call them the “one namers”--while still read, glorified and occasionally worshipped, no longer dominates their field, having been replaced by other theories, schools of thought and thinkers. Many of their original ideas have since been debunked or completely reworked.

Let’s start with the best example, Darwin. He literally created the theory of evolution, found evidence proving it, and popularized it. But biologists are not Darwinists. I’ll let John Rennie, editor in chief at Scientific American, rebuking the documentary No Intelligence Allowed, explain:

“The term [Darwinism] is a curious throwback, because in modern biology almost no one relies solely on Darwin's original ideas—most researchers would call themselves neo-Darwinian if they bothered to make the historical connection at all because evolutionary science now encompasses concepts as diverse as symbiosis, kin selection and developmental genetics."

Darwin didn’t know about or describe bottleneck evolution, gene flow, punctuated equilibrium, and so on. You won’t find On The Origin of Species assigned in a biology class as a textbook. And all of this ignores Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed a theory of natural selection contemporaneously to Darwin.

Or take Freud, who Wikipedia calls “the father of psychoanalysis”, and who most Americans call the founder of modern psychology. Many, if not most, of his ideas have been completely disavowed.

Think about non-science fields. Contemporary textbooks explain every topic from anthropology to sociology. You don’t read writing manuals from the 15th century, you read The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. (And now modern writing teachers disavow that text.) So far, in my economics course at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, I haven’t seen a copy of The Wealth of Nations. However will I learn modern economics?

This applies to the humanities as well. One couldn’t overturn, say, the work of Herodotus, the first historian. His history still stands. Agreed, except that the study of history has evolved dramatically since the time of ancient Greece. Few history professors would recommend their students emulate his work habits or cite his history as fact; he’s been surpassed. So science, social science and the humanities have all evolved beyond what their preeminent founders believed.

Except the study of strategy. Doesn’t that seem...wrong? Did one 18th century philosopher really get it all completely right, and everyone else just pales in comparison?

Probably not. Clausewitz wrote important things about strategy that modern officers could use. But self-proclaimed “Clausewitzians” hold up Carl von Clausewitz to a level of religious zealotry that I will address tomorrow.

fourteen comments

As an avowed socialist, I especially want to chime in on the abuse of Adam Smith’s legacy. He didn’t coin the phrase “supply and demand” , only used the phrase “invisible hand” three times, and was actually discussing trade tariffs and protectionism, not the market.

Odd, too, since Adam Smith, just like Clausewitz, has been taken over by ideologues.

To close, two quotes from the first chapter of the fifth book from “The Wealth of Nations”, which endorse a progressive tax system:

“The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. They find it difficult to get food, and the greater part of their little revenue is spent in getting it. The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion”


“The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state. The expense of government to the individuals of a great nation is like the expense of management to the joint tenants of a great estate, who are all obliged to contribute in proportion to their respective interests in the estate. In the observation or neglect of this maxim consists what is called the equality or inequality of taxation.”

On writing manuals, the one namers are Strunk and White, maybe Fowler, though I’d recommend Writing with Style by Trimble. It’s a much better writing guide.

But self-proclaimed “Clausewitzians” hold up Carl von Clausewitz to a level of religious zealotry that I will address tomorrow.

Some people just do not know the difference between an axiom and a theory.

yep Mateo.

The problem is that von Clausewitz lays down a conceptual model of war in the abstract sense (“absolute war”), and they proceeds to demolish that model and build a construct based on how reality shapes war (“limited”). This is all well and good, except that most readers don’t distinguish between the two, and sometimes mix and mismatch elements of the two. Then really bad things happen.

You’re mistaking genuine respect for zealotry. There are a great many charlatans out there abusing Clausewitz by misquoting or misrepresenting his ideas, but those who understand the dualism of On War also understand no other work captures the complexity of the phenomenon of war the way he does it with this literary technique.

However, your argument is itself a straw man. While Carl has a good following (and one that has grown in an era of “limited war”), Jomini’s fingerprints are much easier to find when examining the American way of war. Linearity, simplicity, and logistical superiority are what we prefer … we want to make a science, not the impressionistic rendition Clausewitz gave us.

As someone who’s not well versed in the study of strategy—I’m the non-soldier writer here on the blog—from the outside perspective, the field feels rather thin, compared to others.

I think most lay people would be hard pressed to name another strategist outside of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. Not sure that’s the same for other sciences.

@ Van – Excellent point. There is a lot of great Clausewitz analysis out there, and it is much more nuanced than most give him credit for.

@ TC – Again though, I really hate it when people say, “Its not Clausewitz’ fault people misquote or misinterpret him!” Yes, it is his fault. His work is precisely flawed because it lends itself to such common misinterpretation. We’ll tackle that later in the week.

You show me a man who completely understands how to wage a war, and I’ll show you the ruler of the world.

Two questions:

1. Has the conduct of war changed as much as the other disciplines you mention? Certainly the technology has changed, but the helicopter has simply added another dimension to Cannae, while the ICBM is an incremental improvement on the ballistae for the same purposes.

2. Is Clausewitz really an analogue for those other ‘one namers’? He wasn’t the inventor of a discipline, like Darwin or Freud, nor the first to record the practice of war. He wrote about a mature subject that had been practiced for millennia, in much the same way as Adam Smith, but while economics has enjoyed considerable experimentation with varying degrees of government control, war hasn’t seen the same novel experimentation. I suppose the closest war has come to the clash of Keynes/Hayek/Marx theories is with the advent of the bomber, and the claims of the likes of Douhet and Trenchard against the more traditional land and sea theorists, but the latter were just adding a layer of complexity to war, rather than reinventing it.

I maintain that war hasn’t really changed since the first people took up arms to either take something that belonged to someone else, or to settle a score. There have been any number of people who have written on the subject in the intervening years, some well, most badly, but ultimately the three you mention, plus others such as Jomini, Machiavelli, the great captains, the classical Greeks and Romans etc all have very similar things to say about war: It’s political, it’s emotional, and it’s expensive.

I agree that Clausewitz may be held in overly high esteem (in my opinion I actually compare him to Thomas Kuhn: Clausewitz did for the word ‘friction’ what Kuhn did for the word ‘paradigm’), but I’m not sure that’s due to a lack of intellectual rigour among theorists and practitioners. I think it’s more due to the unchanging nature of war.

I’ve not read CvC, but the references to “normal science” made me curious. Here is how I understand the debate. Maybe I am wrong.

“On War” is a humanities. Its purpose to to understand, explain, and improve success in war. It is not scientific. It is not capable of falsification through empirical means, nor can it be used to predict (in the sense of, “country X has a 80% chance of winning,” or “A .8 standard deviation improvement in ___ produces a 1.0 standard deviation change in ___”), but that is besides the point.

“On War” is thus not a strategy, but a book in the humanities tradition that can be useful for those who create strategy.

The criticism that “On War” is not a “normal science” is besides the point, it is not a science. There are room for scientific investigations of war, and “On War” might be used to help generate scientific research programs about war, but “On War” is not one of them.

Likewise, it is besides the point to say that “On War” prevents progress, because progress is an attribute of normal science. The humanities are not capable of progress in the same way, though they are capable of change as judgements about what is reasonable, sensible, or sensible change. For an extended period of time thinkers and strategists have found “On War” to be reasonable, coherent, and sensible. Hence the lasting influence of CvC.

First @ F – Was has changed exactly as much as any field. Couldn’t I write? Has politics really changed much in the last 200 years? Isn’t it still people making decisions about power? Has economics changed? Isn’t it still people buying and selling things? Moreover, has biology really changed? Or physics? So really, none of the fields have changed, but their theory and experimentation have progressed monumentally, but strategy hasn’t.

Second, Darwin and Freud didn’t invent their fields. Biology had been studied since Aristotle, but Darwin overturned the study. Same with Freud.

@ Tdaxp – I just feel that saying that studying military affairs is less rigorous than economics, political science or other social sciences does sell it short.

@Michael C, the Humanities aren’t necessarily less rigorous than the Sciences. But certainly less scientific, less falsifiable, and less precise.

This is a fascinating direction for the comments thread, it inspired a quick story.

Basically, if this were a blog on literary theory, not the military (it’d be a good argument to figure out what would get less traffic) our target wouldn’t be Clausewitz, it’d be Freud.

I took a class by a professor in college who was a Freudian. It was the single worst class I ever took. The professor had the worst, most illogical lectures I’ve ever heard, just rambling and non-sensical. I got an A in the class because, for the final, I just wrote a whole string of non-sense sentences mimicking the professor’s style of speaking. Like I said, I got an A.

The sciences have abandoned Freud. Some pockets in the humanities haven’t.

That said, outside of works of fiction (ie the canon), the greats of literary criticism are regularly being overthrown. I think an English grad student who self-described as an Aristotelian—or who wrote things like, “Aristotle explained 90% of what anyone needs to know about literary/dramatic criticism” would be laughed out of the room. Apply any of the above quotes about CVC to Aristotle or Freud and literary criticism, and serious academics would mock you. (To be fair, I’ve read some new writers who do say things like this.)