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Even More Clausewitzian Red Flags

(A note before we begin: The Infinity Journal issue extensively cited and quoted below does have one article by Professor Beatrice Heuser that--in line with an intellectual tradition of B.H. Liddell Hart, John Keegan and Hew Strachan among others--describes how many of Clausewitz’ original ideas are borrowed, incomplete or wrong. Heuser specifically says Clausewitz shouldn’t be considered a prophet, but one voice among many.


Yesterday, I described self-labeled “Clausewitzians” as an intellectual movement that verges on cultish. When a leader’s work only makes sense when it is “read properly”, well, that sounds more religious than intellectual.

My worries about Clausewitz don’t end there, though. Reading The Infinity Journal special issue dedicated to Clausewitz, I couldn’t help but spot several intellectual “red flags”, giant warning signs that say, “These Clausewitzians aren’t analyzing so much as adhering to Clausewitz at all costs.”

Red Flag 1: Clausewitz Is Never Wrong

Many intellectuals and historians blamed Clausewitz, in part, for World War I. (Specifically, On Violence favorite, John Keegan.) The thinking went, since the belligerents on all sides, especially the Germans, read Clausewitz, would have called themselves Clausewitzians, and tried to apply his ideas, the tremendous waste of life and energy that was World War I rests partly on his shoulders. I mean, if a Chief of Staff of the German Army writes a foreword to the fifth edition of Von Kriege, can he safely be called a Clausewitzian?

Not according to Clausewitzians. One author in the Infinity Journal specifically claims that German officers followed Clausewitz but misunderstood his key points. So again, “read properly” Clausewitz explains why even though avowed Clausewitzians acted as they believed Clausewitz would have advised, it isn’t actually Clausewitz’ fault. This same hindsight allows his followers to assert that every war adheres to his dictums. In the words of William F. Owen, “Clausewitzians are not confused about war, warfare and strategy because they read a book that explained about 90% of what could be usefully explained.”
Except for the German leaders who read his book? Time and time again Clausewitzians refuse to accept the limits of On War, and instead blame the readers. If a book tends to mislead it readers, it’s the books fault, not the readers.

Red Flag 2: You Can’t Criticize Clausewitz Unless You Agree with Clausewitz

William F. Owen’s article in the Infinity Journal, “To Be Clausewitzian”, has this delicious counter-intuitive:

“Additionally, and perhaps ironically, you can really only understand where Clausewitz fell short when you understand the real genius in what he got right.”

It isn’t ironic; it’s stifling. It means Clausewitz is impervious to criticism. Clausewitzians love this logic, like J Wolfsberger commenting on the SWJ council:

"I agree, he can't possibly be picking on CvC, since he either never read him, or didn't comprehend what he read."

If only those who agree with Clausewitz can understand Clausewitz, it isn’t an intellectually robust theory.

Red Flag 3: On War in Hindsight Explains Every War Perfectly

In hindsight, On War is 100% accurate. [Emphasis mine]

“Additionally On War more than adequately explains Israel’s lack of success in the 2006 Lebanon War, as does his work for the outcome in any conflict. Various analysts may pontificate, and argue, but Clausewitzians will not be confused.”

Apparently, Clausewitz works perfectly in hindsight. Though, as the German Army in World War I and U.S. Army in the 1980s examples show, it hardly ever works out before the war.

Red Flag 4: If You Don’t Accept Clausewitz, You Are Wrong

“Indeed one can be rightly suspicious of anyone who indulges in military or strategic thought who is not well grounded in On War.

Interpretation: Be suspicious of George C. Marshall, who didn’t read Clausewitz. (He also prepared the U.S. for war in Europe and the Pacific fairly well, without reading Clausewitz.)

Red Flag 5: On War Has Huge Problems

As William F. Owen himself admits this; something better can exist. He describes Clausewitz’ masterpiece as too long, deliberately confusing, and unfinished at the time of his death. This shows the rather obvious counter to Clausewitz worship: a simpler, better work explaining war could exist.

Does that sound like a writer who has “90% of all war” figured out?

Red Flag 6: Clausewitz Might Encourage War

In this long essay which kicked off one of the Small Wars Journal discussion threads I relied on for these posts, William Astore bemoans what might be the biggest problem with Clausewitz:

“Unlike a devastated and demoralized Germany after its defeats, we decided not to devalue war as an instrument of policy after our defeat, but rather to embrace it. Clasping Clausewitz to our collective breasts, we marched forward seeking new decisive victories."

This might be the most damning problem of Clausewitz. Try as they might to claim that everyone from current generals to the post-Vietnam generals to John Keegan to the German military before 1914 was simply misreading Clausewitz, Clausewitizians should admit that Carl von Clausewitz lends himself to misinterpretation. Tragically (maybe horrifically), this misinterpretation encourages nations to see war as a simple extension of policy, not a moral or ethical dilemma of the largest measure.

To reiterate a final time: those studying strategy, international relations and military history should, nee must, read Carl von Clausewitz. However, Clausewitz is not the alpha and omega, not the be all end all, not the beginning and ending of strategic thought. So-called “Clausewitzians” should not forget that.

fourteen comments

I’m guessing, based on the response we’ve received so far, that this post will receive more of the same.

Some points:
1. This post started out as one, long post. We don’t like posts over a thousand words, so we divided it up.

2. For this reason, many of the arguments made yesterday may actually be better supported by quotes we reference today.

3. We hashed out point 1 in the comments section of yesterday’s post, but I think some of the points in it stand: Clausewitzians believe that Clausewitz is prescriptivist, and that he explains “every conflict”. When he doesn’t, they say he was mis-read.

4. Finally, we’re going to write up a post this weekend responding to many of the comments. I actually think the discussion came around well on this whole series.

- Eric

I know very little about Clausewitz but the intellectual attitude described by the first red flag strongly reminds me of the more cultish defenses of Zižek & Lacan: if you don’t understand their work, you’ve either not spent enough time interpreting it, or you’ve not read enough of it. the difference being that Clausewitz has made valuable contributions to his field.

Clausewitzians believe that Clausewitz is prescriptivist, and that he explains “every conflict”. When he doesn’t, they say he was mis-read.

To state “When he doesn’t” requires a thorough knowledge of his work.
Now this thorough knowledge should suffice to offer accurate examples of “when he doesn’t”. It should also be possible to provide quotes of more than one “Clausewitzian” claiming ‘he was misread’ and also to provide matching quotes for “every conflict”.

The general accusations are not helpful.
I personally remember the pro-CvC stuff of the last decade rather as claiming that CvC got to the core of the nature of war (which Master Tzu clearly did not; he described symptoms), rather than claiming he covered the art of war by “90%” or that his output fits to “every conflict”.
Also keep in mind “conflict” has a much wider definition than “violent conflict”.

I wish there was another way to say it, because I fear you’re going to dismiss this as mere contentiousness. But I mean these words quite literally: you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Thanks Gulliver.

Will you posting any new articles on ink spots anytime soon? I know Frtiz plans on doing more book reviews—which I think is a great idea—but I was wondering if you had anything new coming up?

I know you hate pretty much everything we write, but I think you guys do some good work; I’d like to see more of it.

@ Sven – The key other passage comes from Stephen Metz in the first post, where he writes that CvC, Thucydides and Sun Tzu explained most of what needed to be explained by war. Please read that pdf. I might do some more research this weekend of quotes for you, but again its there. I’d go to the SWJ, go to the comments sections of most articles, and find how often it is that Clausewitz is brought up to say, “Npoe, CvC already did it and did it better.”

To Gulliver’s points and the larger discussion:
The genesis for this articles is an immense dissatisfaction I have with military science and strategy studies. This might be another straw man, but i feel like everyone hates the strategic direction of the US. I feel like I read tons of articles on the lack of strategic thinking of the US. If Clausewitz is so useful (say the way tons of economics is useful) then why isn’t he more widely read and understood? Could a much simpler explanation of war exist, a more elegant definition? Strategic thought sucks, and if you have a better explanation for why, then give it to me. I think better strategic thought should exist, maybe not reinventing the wheel, but a clear, elegant and efficient definition could exist. That would be progress, and any academic field should strive towards that.

And by the way, I want Adam Elkus, Gulliver or Jason Fritz to point to me to the sentence where I say I hate Clausewitz or that no one should read him. I’ll wait.

I hate to quote Bambi, but I’ve really got nothing nice to say. Stewing on these guys and what they said on twitter, I feel like blasting back, but I don’t see the point in it.

Still probably going to write something next week about it.

There are gazillions of alternative possible explanations for the wanting strategic brilliance of the U.S. – no need to blame a dead philosopher.

Look at Vietnam; it was basically a misunderstanding. The U.S. believed it was a domino for the communist world revolution, while the Vietnamese were really in a war of unification. The U.S. was fighting a fantasy conflict and lost the actual one.

Much of the troubles with extremist Arab Muslims in general can be traced to unconditional support for Israel post-‘67 (which began as a sideshow of the Cold War, with both superpowers supporting opposing proxies) and the tolerance for Saudi Wahhabism ideology export in face of one’s own thirst for crude. Neither is about the art of war.

The ’83 Lebanon thing was about stumbling into a civil war ignorantly, learning about the nature of the beast and wisely running away once its nature was somewhat understood.

The ’83 invasion was unnecessary, driven by a president’s ‘character’ and the obvious ease of pulling the invasion off.

The ’89 invasion was actually done relatively well, aided by the fact that the invaders only had to withdraw by a few miles and could be kept ready for intervention while garrisoned outside of the invaded country.

The ’91 war was prepared really well and finished convincingly.
It was only the more ambitious warmongers who insisted it was unfinished, playing down the near-total crash of Saddam’s heavy weaponry arsenal within a few weeks and ignoring his de facto loss of MRBM and chemical weapon capability and BC-programs till ’96 through successful involvement of the international community.

The ’96 SFOR thing was all about cultivating an alliance which had lost its primary raison d‘être recently. The theatre in question (Bosnia) was almost irrelevant by comparison.

The ’99 Kosovo Air War was a strategically primitive campaign, but it was in the first place entirely based on ‘us’ getting fooled into believing there was genocide going on (a concerted scamming effort by indigenous guerrillas/pols and our warmongers).

The ’02 decision to stay in Afghanistan was driven by overoptimism, arrogance and mission creep fuelled by the easy initial success. Basic human fallibility at work. Nothing thereafter made any sense, or could have made much sense. It was in large part a demonstration of the sunk costs fallacy and of the importance of political prestige.

The ’03 Iraq War was a domestic failure; warmongers had it their way. That should never happen. Who cares about what was done in the war when the war as a whole was a folly?

I see primarily political culture problems and human fallibility as roots of the less-than-stellar strategies of the U.S.. A dead philosopher was not getting involved.

Thanks Sven. I’m backing out of any more comments because of the personal attacks.

Re the genesis for this set of articles, and to riff off of Sven’s latest comment, I recall someone years ago making the point that once elected (or appointed), politicians (or appointees) no longer had time for reading and reflection, and were basically making decisions based on their learning up to the point when they started campaigning. Once someone is making decisions about strategic policy (and in most of the developed world those politicians assigned defence or foreign affairs or intelligence portfolios are more likely to have backgrounds in finance or law or agriculture than in defence matters, and are fuzzy on the nuances of tied aid, limited sanctions, effects of mechanized brigade, and the consequences of Diplock courts) he or she doesn’t have time to start studying the matter in great depth. They respond to crises based on advice presented in bullet points and executive summaries, and typically with short term political interests (the next news cycle, the next budget, the next international conference, the next election). Senior officers are rarely better, often treating academics as something to check off for promotion. Then people like me (and some of you) spend time prosecuting sunk costs or cultivating alliances (Sven is much more polite than I ever was in those theatres) for nebulous aims. Maybe deeper strategic thought would have saved us all time, blood and money, though possibly at the expense of the next elections or contributions cycle.

Who knows, maybe the problem is that not enough people read Clausewitz.

Our sophisticated societies use professional full-time specialist decision-makers BECAUSE average Joe cannot spend enough time on learning and reasoning for all the details.

Would you want to need to read on the problems in the OECD template for a double taxation treaty in order to have a well-founded opinion and be able to vote on its well in a basic democratic decision-making process? Almost nobody would want.
That’s why we delegate to specialists, who are supposed to spend enough time on the subjects to make informed decisions.

Now journalists and non-specialised politicians (which includes most whose names we recognise) are basically universal dilettantes because they opine or decide on a range of topics so wide that they cannot prepare their mind properly for decision-making.
This should not be tolerable in the case of generals.

I recall how Manstein once wrote in a memoir about IIRC v.Rundstedt and how v.Rundstedt often left the army group HQ for extended leisure walks outside. This man took the time off that he needed. It IS possible.
(Research has shown that the best level of productivity and quality of work can be sustained with a 40 hr work week!)
I recently read that Gen. Marshall was supposedly calling it a day at 1700 or so all the while managing the huge U.S. military waging war on three continents.

Some human fallibilities can be kept in check or exacerbated by organisational culture. Maybe decision-makers are overworked and cannot really think enough any more to avoid stupid mistakes. This would justify a call for a change of said culture.
Again, no dead philosopher need be involved.

I think you’re trying to make a basically reasonable point here, but have chosen your words and arguments recklessly. You paint all “Clausewitzians” with the same brush and imply (though I suspect not intentionally) that Fritz and Gulliver are close-minded religious zealots. Also, the casual way your argument shifts from attacking “Clausewitzians” to “your worries about Clausewitz” makes it seem like you have a problem with the man himself, not simply the reflexive veneration of some of his followers. That distracts from your point, because then people that disagree with you expect a more thorough engagement with his ideas than you provide here.

In other words, you probably shouldn’t take the sharpness of the feedback you’ve been getting as evidence that Clausewitzians are even crazier than you thought. I suspect most of them agree with you that Clausewitz is not infallible.

Eric and Michael, you may find this section of von Clausewitz’s Wikipedia article useful.

This is a series of thoughts that I’m not going to try and tie together.

Prof. Hueser is right, one voice among many.

Nothing is more entertaining than listening to a debate about which person’s acting coach is better at teaching acting. Of course, you can’t teach acting to somebody who doesn’t have acting talent no matter how good the coach. This series of back and forths reminds me of that.

I’ve never read the book though I’ve tried and given up several times. I have read that CvC is so hard to read in English (I’ve read it’s worse in German) that it is no wonder that the people find the wrong thing, the right thing, the right and wrong thing or nothing at all in what he writes. If people get the right thing maybe that is more a testament to their natural feel for the subject than anything else and the opposite if they get the wrong thing out of CvC.

Bill Slim probably read CvC (though I don’t know). In any event he knew exactly what he was about. He said the best thing he ever read about the art of war was this “There is only one principle of war and that’s this. Hit the other fellow, as quick as you can, and as hard as you can, where it hurts him the most, when he ain’t looking.” A sergeant told him that. The sergeant probably hadn’t read CvC.

Military men and statesmen only have so much time in their lives and can only read so many things. Soldiers and statesmen in a maritime power like the US can perhaps be forgiven for not reading a work that says nothing about commanding the sea and not much about logistics.

Personally, I don’t think it makes much difference what works of great strategy you read or don’t read. My civilian self (I can hear the supercilious sniffing now) figures though that you had better read a lot, a lot of history. That is helpful. Of course when you do that, you realize that you might run into a Forrest or an Obregon who never read any of that stuff and may still beat your brains out if you ain’t careful.

I am always a bit skeptical about lamentations about the lack of any real breakthroughs in strategic thinking. It reminds me of the search for a unified field theory or the revealed word; something that will make us ooh and ah at the shining brilliance of the thing. Men have been warring for a long time so maybe there ain’t anything really new out there.