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The True Religion of Carl von Clausewitz

Yesterday two words in my quote of Dr. Colin Gray stood out, “read properly”.

“Read improperly”, the writings of Clausewitz are incomprehensible garbage; “Read properly” On War reveals the inexorable truth behind all war and strategy for all of time.

Sorry, I don’t buy it.

“Read (or interpreted) properly” is the same refrain mystics, seers, prophets and oracles have used for millennia when their predictions don’t come true. They are what true believers say to defend the indefensible. Which is why, looking at the slavish attachment of some Clausewitz devotees, I think Clausewitzians are true believers.

“Read properly” isn’t the only red flag. Take this quote by William F. Owen writing in an Infinity Journal issue dedicated solely to the greatest German soldier-turned-philosopher:

On War stands tall because no other work of military thought gives such correct and useful guidance. Beyond anything else, ‘Clausewitzians’ do not just study Clausewitz’s On War out of academic interest. They use it as the basis of their thinking.”

Yikes, two more giant intellectual red flags. First, ‘Clausewitzians’ have their own moniker that distinguishes them from other military strategists. Sure, other fields have categories. International relations, for instance, has “realists”, “constructivists”, “neo-cons” and “liberals”. International relations, though, doesn’t depend solely on one thinker who’s been dead for a hundred and fifty years. Even more worrying is the last sentence, the cultish sounding, “They use it as the basis for their thinking.”


I don’t use the word “cult” lightly. Clausewitzians don’t just follow Clausewitz,...they adhere to him. They believe he has all the answers...when he doesn’t. They insist he is infallible...except when he isn’t, when they blame it on not “reading him properly”. While cults are normally religious organizations, the same fanaticism can apply to intellectual endeavors.

Take Ayn Rand’s objectivists. The reverent tones which Rand’s followers use to describe her ideas mirror those of the Clausewitzians. The most penetrating analysis comes from Michael Shermer writing in Skeptic magazine about Ayn Rand. He has written about multiple cultish movements--like holocaust denial, scientology, climate change denial and creationism--but this article about Ayn Rand’s followers has a quote that applies equally well to “Clausewitzians”:

“[Objectivism] is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important than the search for truth, when final results of inquiry become more important than the process of inquiry, and especially when reason leads to an absolute certainty about one’s beliefs such that those who are not for the group are against it.”

While Clausewitz’ doesn’t have an organization dedicated solely to his beliefs, “Clausewitzians” practice the worship, veneration and belief in the inerrancy of their intellectual leader that cults demand. Reading the Clausewitzian adherents, its hard not to come away with the feeling that Clausewitz has it all figured out. What do you think, William F. Owen?

“Just because stupid people mis-quote Clausewitz and do not understand him, does not make CvC not incredibly useful - and no one has ever done better!”

As Michael Shermer points out in his article about cults, the search for truth is more about the process, not about the answers. Clausewitzians have all the answers. I advocate reading Clausewitz as a starting point on the road to intellectual discovery, not the end point. Clausewitzians don’t. That’s where we disagree.

Tomorrow I’ll revel in some other quotes that should make you question anyone who calls themselves a “Clausewitzian”.


To respond to some comments on the Doctrine man page, remember: we’re talking about people who wrote, in all seriousness, “90% of war can be explained by one thinker.”

We’re not talking about all strategists, we’re discussing the true believers.

This second article is also an unnecessary and useless bashing in my opinion.

The original “Vom Kriege” is actually an incomplete manuscript. You can even estimate how his ideas evolved between chapters and it’s obvious that the work was left unfinished. There was no polishing at all; some sentences span five or more lines and the language is incredibly difficult to follow.

The English translations are inaccurate because they didn’t attempt to be identical to this original.

Some of Clausewitz’ concepts are badly mistaken in the English world, some of his thoughts were always badly mistaken (such as his idea of what a physical centre of gravity is).

He admitted somewhere in writing that he had to do more work on the topic of people’s wars similar to the Spanish resistance to Napoleon and he didn’t even attempt to cover naval warfare of tribal warfare well. He knew nothing about the coming air warfare.

Many of his contributions to military theory are timeless, though. Timeless, basic and almost self-evident once you read them. Some generals have heeded his advice and achieved outstanding successes, while others clearly ignored it and failed miserably. There are exceptions to both but those cannot be traced to CvC having been wrong; the cause of failure was usually different.

You cannot find all that’s important in military theory in “Vom Kriege”, but you can trace very much of what’s important in military theory to it.

Bashing followers is pointless. Keep in mind that in the grand picture, devotees contribute to the whole with their specific field of view and their specific reasoning.
Several modern military theory fashions deserve a more thorough critique than the CvC line. For starters, one could address the industry-driven overestimation of the importance of expensive tools in warfare. Incidentally, one could do so really well by pointing at CvC’s emphasis on political will.

Honestly, if that’s the case, why don’t you title these posts “What I Don’t Like About Wilf’s Attitude Toward Clausewitz”?

@ Gulliver, Sven – If you don’t think many, many people—not just WIlf—feel this way, just read the comments section response to yesterday’s post or to Doctrine Man’s link to us.

I listen to the Philosophy Bites podcast, and it seems like most philosophers delight in tearing down or updating other thinks.

@ Sven – “one could address the industry-driven overestimation of the importance of expensive tools in warfare” We do. A lot.

I was looking forward to this post since yesterday. But it appears you have nothing to say about why or how Clausewitz is wrong. Only that you have a gut feeling he is wrong – because other philosophers have been wrong.

If you really want to make a respectable argument, show us where or how he is wrong. Otherwise, the self-evident fact is, you haven’t read him. If you have, then you evidently cant demonstrate where or how he needs correction, which means you’re just wasting time.

Clausewitz may well be wrong somewhere of course, he was human, and obviously he couldn’t have thought of everything. But so far the only thing you’ve proved is that you have a grudge, not a point. My fault for expecting more I guess…

Just so I’m clear here, your issue isn’t actually with Clausewitz (in spite of the title “My (Actual) Issue with Carl von Clausewitz”). It’s with people who believe he most effectively captured the essence of military strategic thinking (even though, as Sven points out, he had the temerity to die before finishing his work, and On War was edited and published by his wife). And further, you believe that because these people refer to themselves as ‘Clausewitzians,’ (much as you hear some people referring to themselves as Marxists or Keynesians or Christians, based on the philosophies they have interpreted as being the most true), they are close-minded, intellectually shallow, and might even be a menace to strategic thinking.

Is this correct?

@ Kumali – In yesterday’s post, I linked to several authors who have done much more thorough analysis of CvC’s work, and the misinterpretation of his larger points. I haven’t read CvC in about 6 years. Since I am attending business school right now, I don’t have the time to read him in the original German and break down his thoughts. (Though I know I could find things to criticize.)

However this post, with yesterdays, and some more to come, have a lot to say about the state of military strategy and theory. Basically, the topics of research related to business—marketing, operations research, economics, finance—are vibrant fields. None rely so heavily on one thinker. The only field that relies so heavily on the writings of long dead people is philosophy.

As to Gulliver’s point, the Infinity Journal devoted an entire issue to CvC, and that is where most of these quotes from…and it is at least three people. The comments on Doctrine man echo the timelessness nature of CvC, and that even though German military leaders followed his advice to disastrous results, it is never CvC’s fault, or his ideas.

I recently read The Signal and the Noise. Its core thesis is that predictions are hard. Lots of CvC followers claim that following his maxims will help people predict success. Since they clearly don’t, I would argue much better, stronger academic texts could exist. Until military strategy as a field moves past one thinker, then we are stuck.

@ F – Absolutely. I said twice in the article that every single military strategist should read CvC. I’m gonna say that again:

Every single military strategist should read Clausewitz.

However, he isn’t the beginning and ending of military thought. He is the beginning. I think adherence to one thinker does limit progress in an academic field. Too many SWJ articles are dismissed very quickly in the comments section, and CvC is often the reason why. This stifles thinking unneccesarily. And I wouldn’t say “intellectually shallow” because that is too insulting. I would just say that adhering to one man above all else does close you off to other ways of thinking.

@ Sven, also, I have railed against unneccesary military spending. I think both are bad influences for the military.

Got it, and I agree that adherence to one thinker (if it’s at the exclusion of others) is stifling. But I also agree we need some foundation. I work in a training institution and I won’t tolerate instructors glancing over their shoulders and then whispering “ok, forget this doctrine crap – here’s how we did it in [insert operational theatre]”. We use doctrine as a start state for a reason, just as we start with theory for a reason. And so I agree that Clausewitz is the start of the conversation, not the end.

So now my next question is this: are business writers like Porter and Stiglitz and Mintzberg really revolutionizing the marketplace, or are they the analogues of, say, Kilkullen, Sepp, and Krepinevich? They’re interesting thinkers with important and relevant things to say in a particular aspect of their field of expertise, but they aren’t writing, or re-writing the foundation documents for their particular disciplines.

And I suppose the follow on questions concern the fundamental nature of war: has it changed so much that we need to replace Clausewitz, and if not, are attempts at supplanting Clausewitz simply dangerous fads?

One more question, concerning the apparent paucity of strategic writing in the last 180 years. Has the field of strategy fallen behind all the fields mentioned in yesterday’s post due to a lack of incentives? Endowments, grants and prestige are lavished on academics and business writers who break ground in fields with marketable results. Grand strategy, on the other hand, is the government’s domain, and while governments spend lots of money on the tools of war, they don’t spend a lot on thinking about war. Moreover, the practitioners of war don’t tend to be particularly deep intellectuals. For every Rupert Smith writing The Utility of Force, there are a dozen retired generals writing name-dropping memoirs complaining about not making that last star. The establishment is conservative by nature and so comfortable with the old texts and suspicious of new ideas, and so unsupportive of any Young Turks with bright theories. Finally, the ultimate disincentive – being conquered and subjugated (as opposed to being conquered and vaporized, which comes a close second), hasn’t been a real threat in the bulk of the west in the living memory of any serving soldiers. Without that external competitive threat, what reason has there been to develop new, robust theories?

A lot of money is spent on thinking about war(fare). The U.S. military produces lots of master’s thesises every year on military theory topics.

A problem is that the vast majority of writing about military theory is uninspired, and much of the writing by professionals was done because they were told to write (see the master’s thesis thing), and it shows.
Very much is also kept confidential; very few treatises were really kept secret during the 19th century and we know about today about the few that were kept secret.

The low-hanging fruits were picked already, including the timeless facets of warfare.
Just look at how Moltke the Elder became obsessed with encirclements after studying Cannae ~2,000 years after the battle. This led to a German ground forces emphasis on encirclements for three generations.

The technology-driven theories are usually either early ones and exaggerating (see the early overemphasis on and tanks, bombers, nukes, missiles, PGMs, now drones and malware) or already invalidated by further advances of technology.

@ F, Sven – I think you nailed exactly what we’re trying to get at. The post’s this week are setting up the basis for another series we’ll be running in a few weeks.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, your most most ridiculous example of a straw man here (seriously, this entire post could be used as an dictionary example of the straw man fallacy). And that you compare Clausewitzians to Holocaust deniers (!). Or that you have not in any way grappled with any of the theories that Clausewitz writes about. We’ll put that all aside for the moment.

Among many things, one you miss is that Clausewitz is essential a political and historical philosopher (except for three books on tactics that are incongruous with the rest of On War and were more appropriate for his earlier treatise Principles of War). The idea that difficult books, of philosophy or not, require no differentiation between “correct” and “incorrect” readings is anti-intellectual in the extreme. This is the same as blaming Nietzsche for Nazi misreading of the Superman (really best translated as “Overman”) when he did, in reality, provide significant theory to our understanding of the human condition in the modern world. Clausewitz, like Nietzsche, expected his work to be considered within changing contexts, unlike both your treatment here and the treatment of the extreme Clausewitzians you deride.

It is easy to attack theories and theorists according to analysis of the lowest common denominator (a category which, by the way, Wilf does not fall in), too easy in fact (see again: definition of straw man fallacy). This is the most unserious critique of Clausewitz I have ever read, and I assure you that is saying something. I suggest before your next post on this topic, you do one or more of the following: a) read and consider On War in some depth, b) read any number of real Clausewitz scholars (specifically Bassford, Paret, or Strachan), c) actually address the theories of Clausewitz instead of constructing limpid straw men and how they are wrong (as one does with straw men), and d) propose a differing philosophy of the nature of war that proves Clausewitz wrong. Until at least one of these of these conditions are met (really (a) and one of the following), this series will continue to the be the quasi-intellectual exercise it has been.

Hey Fritz,

You wrote, “This is the most unserious critique of Clausewitz I have ever read”.

Did you read the post? We didn’t critique Clausewitz in this post or yesterday’s. (I mean, you also wrote, “you have not in any way grappled with any of the theories that Clausewitz writes about”. If someone hasn’t grappled with a thinker’s ideas, they haven’t criticized that thinker.)

What we actually wrote was, “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.” and “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.”

We’re not critiquing Clausewitz; we’re critiquing “Clausewitzians” as they call themselves. (Like people who freak out about blog posts they think are critical of Clausewitz.)

I don’t know if you just wrote your comment to make an ironic comment on being misread, but I thought I’d point that out.

No, I’m not being ironic, but maybe I erroneously expected too much here. I saw that paragraph in Monday’s post that you quoted here. And I also saw the paragraph before it: “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?” We’ll have to ignore your placement of Clausewitz in time, his writing certainly of the post-Napoleonic era and 19th Century, and wonder why you did not answer these questions (or at least the second question, the first being a question of opinion). You’ll have to excuse me for taking some umbrage at your calling respected members of the strategy field cultists without at all exploring the validity of their Clausewitzian approach and mindset.

In the typology used by Sherman and others of the skeptical movement, claims and groups are evaluated on the verifiability and falsifiability of their arguments. Your argument that mainstream strategists, even if they associate with a particular school, are cultists accuses them of abjuring reason. Yet you have not shown that they do lack reason. One quote from Wilf where he says that Clausewitz is the basis of his thinking negates the reams of paper he has written to cogently argue why that is the case. Is Wilf often doctrinaire? Yes he is, but that is a far cry from cultish. Your use of the term is incorrect and inappropriate unless you can show, like Sherman did of objectivism in the linked article, that Clausewitzianism rejects reason. You have not done this.

And before I end this, I’m going to re-lay the guns and fire again: the anti-intellectualism of saying that the requirement to read things properly is cultish. On the contrary, it’s a fundamental aspect of academia: understanding the meaning of ideas in time and place. Especially if those ideas were written in a different language than your own and in a different time. Especially if that different time and language were prone to writing in aphorisms that require the context of the rest of the book, something that we don’t quite understand an ocean and 150 years later. Maybe, just maybe, understanding all of this puts someone like Clausewitz and his writing in context. If we don’t do that, we run into the problem you gentlemen have previous called “quotes behaving badly”.

Jason – We’ll address your response tonight, when we post today’s article, specifically the inconsistency in when “read properly” matters or doesn’t, and the actual effect Clausewitzians have on Nat Sec. debates.

If you’d like to read Jason’s most recent writing, please check out his book review of “The Violent Image” at Ink Spots: http://tachesdhuile.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-revolution-in-insurgent-military.html

David Galula is my favorite military theorist, partly because I lack familiarity with and interest in military theorists who had no connection to the First Indochina War and/or the Algerian War. However, even I have heard of von Clausewitz. Galula quoted him in the opening pages of Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, and von Clausewitz is von Clausewitz: anyone with an interest in military history has heard of him. Soldiers of war’s best victories have read him. So have soldiers of war’s worst defeats. Soldiers died in both cases. Tell me, Fritz: what did von Clausewitz do for those soldiers? Were they ‘incorrect’ in their interpretation? I guess so.

Galula must have been a military theorist of some merit if he quoted von Clausewitz. I called Galula ‘my favorite military theorist’ after all. In addition the man whom you called an ‘essential a [sic] political and historical philosopher,’ Galula cited impressive statistics to prove his impressive points. In the Algeria-specific book Pacification in Algeria: 1956-1958, he cited personal experience and more impressive stats. ‘Why,’ I wondered, ‘have I heard of Galula only now? Why has the Western world ignored him when it listens to military theorists such as‘—guess who—‘von Clausewitz?’ I am reading a modern critique of Galula, Grégor Mathias’ Galula in Algeria: Counterinsurgency Practice versus Theory, whose Amazon description reads:

Given the centrality of David Galula’s theory to U.S. Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is striking that there has been no independent evaluation of Galula’s recollection of his COIN operations in Algeria. Galula in Algeria: Counterinsurgency Practice versus Theory delivers just such an analysis, exploring the colonial French counter-insurrectionary theoretical milieu of which Galula’s COIN theory was a part, the influence of Galula’s theory on U.S. COIN doctrine, and the current views of Galula’s theory in France and other NATO countries.
French defense researcher Grégor Mathias compares each of the eight steps of Galula’s theory set out in Counterinsurgency Warfare against his practice of them as described in his writings and now, for the first time, against the SAS archives and those of Galula’s infantry company and battalion. The study shows that Galula systematically inflated his operational successes to match his theoretical scheme and that he left problems unresolved, causing his work to unravel quickly after he left his command. Mathias concludes that, however heuristically fruitful Galula’s theory might prove for U.S. COIN doctrine, it must be interpreted and implemented under the caveat that it was not successfully field-tested by its author.

How wrong I was about Galula’s success and his Western recognition. Other historians have written books about Galula, such as A. A. Cohen’s Galula: The Life and Writings of the French Officer Who Defined the Art of Counterinsurgency and Ann Marlowe’s David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context, but I hope that you see my point. By the way, it’s a little absurd to take such offense from criticism (not real criticism as Eric C. mentioned) of a military theorist who has been dead for two hundred years.

Keep in mind that military theorists are ‘theorists.’ They make theories, which can be wrong. I’d say that depending on theories rather than analysis of concrete details and the situation is asking for failure. Bonaparte failed to teach graduates of West Point how to wade through a Vietnamese swamp, and the Vietnam War failed to teach them how to win the Iraq War. I doubt that von Clausewitz and Galula would have done better.

Austin – I think you are attributing qualities to my complaints above, Clausewitz, and Galula that are attributed in error. First, Clausewitz was quite clear that his theories of strategy are descriptive, not prescriptive. He was a political and historical philosopher (at least in the primary sections of On War). As such, no serious Clausewitz scholar would ever say “If only you’d followed our boy Carl you’d have won!” He can be used to understand the relationship between war and the human condition, to analyze historical occcurances, and to analyze and inform the process of strategy development. Not, as you suggest, to develop strategies themselves. People who do so or say you can are wrong and not, in fact, true ‘Clausewitzians.’

It is also difficult to compare Galula and Clausewitz. We’ve already discussed the latter, but the former was a theorist of tactics and the operational art. Galula did not deal with such issues as when to go to war, what should your policy and political objectives be, that sort of thing. He examined how to best fight a particular type of war and its military objects and activities. It is useful within its context, but Galula and Clausewitz are not competing theorists. In fact Galula is a good example of a thinker who furthered Clausewitz’s ideas beyond Carl’s intent and in a productive way – he was certainly Trinitarian. I should note that of course Clausewitz wrote on operational and tactical matters. This is extremely outdated and, in my opinion, has little utility for us today outside of historical analysis.

You’re right: theory in lieu of reality does lead to failure. You won’t find me arguing otherwise. My complaint with the Brothers C here was not that they attacked Clausewitz but rather that they didn’t.

Tangent begins.

On the topic of trinitarians, I’ve spent the past decade or so wondering if one of the weaknesses of counterinsurgent theorists and practitioners has been their adherence to the people-army-government trinity, rather than viewing the problem of insurgency through a political and legal lens, using a trinity of people-police (or judicial system comprising of cops, courts and incarceration)-government.

I’ve come to a decisive answer: It depends on the situation.

Tangent ends.

Jason, quick question, which line did I question CvC or challenge his theories? Second, do you really think someone could, honestly, debunk all of Clausewitz in a 1000 word blog post? Third, can you challenge my writings on Clausewitz (or Gulliver whose real name I don’t know) without personally attacking my character?

Jason, forgive my mistake. It seems that I did misread your post. I agree with you on many points. However, you wrote, ‘Clausewitz was quite clear that his theories of strategy are descriptive, not prescriptive’: Eric and Michael addressed ‘Clausewitzians,’ who walk a prescriptive path by Eric and Michael’s definition (They addressed this issue on the 28th.). If you disagree, disagree with their definition of ‘Clausewitzians,’ not with Eric and Michael’s argument against ‘Clausewitzians.’

I wondered why you kept referencing one and only one of von Clausewitz’s works, On War. Research on my part seemed necessary. Perhaps my inability to read German has crippled me, for the only other translated work by von Clausewitz—that I could find—was The Russian Campaign of 1812 (AKA The Campaign of 1812 in Russia). I would think this title self-explanatory, and the Amazon description should explain just in case (You’ll also have to forgive my overuse of quotations.):

On June 23, 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, over 500,000 men strong, poured over the Russian border. An equally massive Russian army faced them. […] Although the battle of Borodino, which resulted in heavy losses on both sides, allowed Napoleon to enter Moscow, his stay in that empty and decimated city was disastrous. […] In this book, Clausewitz analyzes all the significant players with sharp and enlightening characterizations, and provides perhaps the best eyewitness accounts of the battle of Borodino and the Convention of Tauroggen. The Campaign of 1812 in Russia is a brilliantly observed study of one of the major turning points of history.

Poor historical summary aside, the description makes me think that a perhaps expert on von Clausewitz (or closet ‘Clausewitzian’) would have read The Russian Campaign of 1812 and referenced it at least once. It looks an excellent primary source after all.

Then, I found myself grappling with a second question (or third or fourth). You referenced only one of von Clausewitz’s works… He wrote two as far as I can tell… ‘Why,’ I wondered, ‘pay such attention to only one man and to only one book—especially when only two of his books have translations?’ It took me a moment to realize that I had faced this issue before. Galula wrote only two books, mentioned in my previous post, and only one is famous. Another veteran of the Algerian War famous among Western military theorists is Constantin Melnik, who wrote only The French Campaign against the FLN and Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Algeria (He assisted in writing Attitudes of the French Parliament and Government toward Atomic Weapons, unrelated to our discussion.). The United-States Armed Forces have been lazy about translations, so luck had it that Galula and Melnik spoke English. Roger Trinquier, veteran of the First Indochina War, Korean War, and Algerian War, spoke no English, so the US Armed Forces translated only one of his books, Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency (La Guerre Moderne in France). He also wrote Le Coup d’État du 13 Mai (The Coup d’État of May 13), Notre Guerre au Katanga (Our War in Katanga), L’État Nouveau (The New State), La Bataille pour l’Élection du Président de la République (Battle to Elect the President of the Republic), Guerre, Subversion, Révolution (War, Subversion, Revolution), Les Maquis d’Indochine: Les Missions Spéciales du Service Action (Maquis of Indochina: Special Missions of the Action Service [i.e. the Mixed Airborne Commando Group]), Le Premier Bataillon des Bérets Rouges: Indochine 1947-1949 (The First Battalion of Red Berets: Indochina 1947-1949), and La Guerre (War). I had to translate the titles myself as you can tell, for the US Armed Forces considered those books ‘descriptive, not prescriptive.’ I’m reading Notre Guerre au Katanga at the moment, wondering why the Armed Forces considered it unnecessary despite the CIA’s involvement in the Congo Crisis.

Before I lose track, Jason, I agree with you on matters such as comparing the theories of Galula and von Clausewitz, but you should avoid the perils of mentioning only one military theorist and only one of his books. Machiavellians (scholars of Machiavelli, not princes ‘attempting to achieve their goals by cunning, scheming, and unscrupulous methods’ as Wiktionary states) read Discourses on Livy and The Prince along with Machiavelli’s other works.

F., it surprises me to see decisive in a post of yours. By the way, your tangents are shorter than mine.