(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.