Clausewitz's On War: A Biography

Clausewitz's On War: A Biography

by Hew Strachan
     
 

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Perhaps the most important book on military strategy ever written, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War has influenced generations of generals and politicians, has been blamed for the unprecedented death tolls in the First and Second World Wars, and is required reading at military academies to this day. But On War, which was never finished and was

Overview


Perhaps the most important book on military strategy ever written, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War has influenced generations of generals and politicians, has been blamed for the unprecedented death tolls in the First and Second World Wars, and is required reading at military academies to this day. But On War, which was never finished and was published posthumously, is obscure and fundamentally contradictory. What Clausewitz declares in book 1, he discounts in book 8. The language is confusing and the relevance not always clear. It is an extremely difficult book for the general reader to approach, to reconcile with itself, and to place in context. Hew Strachan, one of the world’s foremost military historians answers these problems. He explains how and why On War was written, elucidates what Clausewitz meant, and offers insight into the book’s continuing significance. This is a must read for fans of military history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In contributing to a series that aims to publish short, readable books that illuminate long, unreadable ones, historian Strachan (The First World War) takes on the Prussian masterwork On Warand emerges victorious, but at great cost. Only the first third of the book can be described as a biography, and that's the most accessible part. Clausewitz (1780–1831) rose to major general and fought Napoleon, but never reached the highest command. Appointed head of Prussia's Military Academy in 1818, he spent the rest of his life writing and rewriting his massive work, which remained unfinished and was published posthumously. Few outside the country paid attention until Prussia's astonishing victory over France in 1870. (The first English translation was in 1873). Readers who know Clausewitz's maxim that "war is politics carried on by other means" will yearn for more insights, and the author provides a few. Though generals often proclaim wars must end in absolute victory, Clausewitz asserted that in the real world annihilating the enemy is rarely possible and often a bad idea. Strachan works hard at defining what Clausewitz meant, comparing various writings, discussing precise meanings of German words, filling in textual gaps and quarreling with other interpretations. Scholars may approve, but even dedicated military buffs will find it hard going. (July)

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Kirkus Reviews
Latest entry in the Books That Changed the World series, this one summarizing and analyzing what is arguably the most influential treatise on warfare ever written. Strachan (History of War/Oxford; The First World War, 2004, etc.) spends as much time agonizing over the difficulty of his task as he does executing it. The textual difficulties with Clausewitz are indeed formidable. As Strachan-a persistent and imaginative scholar-ably shows, On War is a work in progress: unfinished, self-contradictory, tentative in places, dogmatic in others, grounded firmly in its author's battle experiences during the Napoleonic wars. Strachan also notes that there are no great English translations of the multi-volume work, which first appeared in Berlin between 1832 and 1834, and that translators have disagreed on how to render some of Clausewitz's key terms. Unfortunately, this sort of close textual analysis and attendant hand-wringing go on far too long for the general reader. Some 30 pages in, Strachan finally introduces us to Clausewitz and swiftly summarizes his career. (He'd served in the Prussian army and even appeared at the margins of Waterloo.) This is interesting, but it's followed by more pages devoted to Clausewitz's style, diction and dialectics; these will no doubt appeal to fellow historians of war but will send many other readers to the Land of Nod. Once Strachan finally begins to conduct his tour of On War, interest once again revives. He explores the differences between strategy and tactics, considers Clausewitz's concept of absolute victory, examines the notions of escalation and balance of power. Although the author resists facile contemporary applications of the principles in On War,he does allude to Colin Powell's admiration for Clausewitz, and some later sentences about insurgencies seem pregnant with present relevance. Too often obfuscates rather than illuminates its celebrated subject.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802143631
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
04/11/2008
Series:
Books That Changed the World Series
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
1,229,828
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 7.60(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Simon Vance has recorded over four hundred audiobooks and has earned over twenty AudioFile Earphones Awards, including for his narration of Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. He is also the recipient of five coveted Audie Awards, including one for The King's Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, and he was named an AudioFile Best Voice of 2009.

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