Read an Excerpt
By Carl Von Clausewitz
Penguin Books Copyright © 1982 Carl Von Clausewitz
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Genesis of On War
Despite its comprehensiveness, systematic approach, and precise style, On War is not a finished work. That it was never completed to its author's satisfaction is largely explained by his ways of thinking and writing. Clausewitz was in his early twenties when he jotted down his first thoughts on the nature of military, processes and on the place of war in social and political life. A pronounced sense of reality, skeptical of contemporary assumptions and theories, and an equally undoctrinaire fascination with the past, marked these observations and aphorisms and lent them a measure of internal consistency; but it would not be inappropriate to regard his writings before 1806 as essentially isolated insights-building-blocks for a structure that had not yet been designed.
The presence of a few of his earliest ideas in On War suggests the consequentiality with which his theories evolved, though in the mature work these ideas appear as components of a dialectical process that Clausewitz had mastered in the course of two decades and adapted to his own purposes. An example is his concept of the role genius plays in war, which lies near the source of his entire theoretical effort. Survivors of a somewhat different kind arehis definitions of strategy and tactics, which he first formulated when he was twenty-four, or the characteristically unromantic comparison of war to commercial transactions, dating from the same time. Most of his early thoughts, however, expanded and acquired new facets in the years between Napoleon's defeat of Prussia and the Russian campaign. Clausewitz was a member of the loose alliance of reform-minded civilians and soldiers who attempted with some success to modernize Prussian institutions at this time, and his manifold activities as staff officer, administrator, and teacher further stimulated his intellectual interests and his creativity. Numerous passages from memoranda, lectures, and essays written during the reform era reappear, barely changed, in On War. After 1815, by which time his manuscripts on politics, history, philosophy, strategy, and tactics ran into thousands of pages, Clausewitz set to work on a collection of essays analyzing various aspects of war, which gradually coalesced into a comprehensive theory that sought to define universal, permanent elements in war on the basis of a realistic interpretation of the present and the past. In the course of a decade, he wrote six of eight planned parts, and drafted the remaining two. By 1827, however, he had developed a new hypothesis on what he called the "dual" nature of war, the systematic exploration of which demanded a far-reaching revision of the entire manuscript. He died before he could rewrite more than the first chapters of Book One.
On War thus presents its author's thoughts in various stages of completion. They range from the magnificent opening sequence of logically unfolding propositions to the rich but at times one-sided or contradictory discussions of Books Two through Six, to the essayistic chapters of the last two books, which suggest with brilliant strokes what a final version might have contained. Nothing can take the place of this unwritten version; but we should remember that Clausewitz's decision in 1827 to revise his manuscript had not implied a rejection of earlier theories-he only meant to expand and refine them. As we read the present text of On War, we can at least approximate Clausewitz's intention by keeping his closely related hypotheses of the dual nature of war and of its political character clearly in mind. It will be useful, at the end of this discussion, to return to his ultimate hypotheses and outline their most significant aspects, the more so since he never fully developed their implications to theory.
That, despite the unevenness of its execution, On War offers an essentially consistent theory of conflict is indicative of the creative power of Clausewitz's method and ideas. Anyone prepared to enter into his manner of reasoning will grasp his thoughts on the timeless aspects of war. But our reading of On War can only benefit from an awareness of its genesis and intellectual context. What political and military experiences influenced its author? What were the assumptions and theories he reacted against? What, in his view, were the methodological requirements of sound analysis? Even a brief consideration of these questions will cast light on the development of Clausewitz's ideas and on the forms his ideas assumed in the various strata of On War.
Clausewitz, the son of a retired lieutenant who held a minor post in the Prussian internal revenue service, first encountered war in 1793 as a twelve-year-old lance corporal. In the previous year the French legislative assembly had declared war on Austria, with whom Prussia had recently concluded a defensive alliance. The French action was caused less by considerations of national interest than by internal politics, but it opened twenty-three years of conflict between revolutionary and later imperial France and the rest of Europe. Aside from the Duke of Brunswick's initial invasion, which came to a halt at Valmy, the Prussians did reasonably well in a war to which they never committed more than part of their military resources. They defeated the French repeatedly in Alsace and the Saar, and captured thousands of prisoners; when the fighting ended in 1795, they controlled the line of the Rhine. But these achievements brought no political returns. As might be expected, the war with its exertions, bloodshed, and unspectacular outcome made a strong impression on the young Clausewitz; he himself later wrote of its impact on his emotions and thought. In the following years, while stationed in a small provincial garrison, he drew some tentative conclusions from these early experiences, three of which in particular were to have a lasting influence: There was no single standard of excellence in war. The rhetoric and policies of the French Republic, which proclaimed the coming of a new age, by no means overpowered the armies of the ancien rigime. Mercenaries and forcibly enrolled peasants, led by officers whose effectiveness still rested as much on aristocratic self-esteem as on professional expertise, proved a match for the levie en masse. On the other hand, Prussian drill failed to sweep away the revolutionary, armies. As the Republic gained in stability and experience, it would have much to teach its opponents, whose ability to learn and to respond effectively remained in doubt. These events and his first readings in history suggested to Clausewitz that no one system was right to the exclusion of all others. Military institutions and the manner in which they employed violence depended on the economic, social, and political conditions of their respective states. Furthermore, political structures, like wars, could not be measured by a single standard. States were shaped by their particular past and present circumstances; very different forms had validity, and all were subject to continuing change.
Linked to this individualizing, antirationalist view of history and of social and military institutions was a second conclusion, which placed the young officer in opposition to prevailing opinion in Prussia and, indeed, Europe. He thought it was a mistake to believe that war could be mastered by observing this or that set of rules. The variety and constant change in war could never be fully caught by a system. Any dogmatic simplification-that victory depended on the control of key points, for instance, or on the disruption of the opponent's lines of communication -only falsified reality. Possibly Clausewitz already distrusted the conviction, held by most military theorists of his day, that the scope of chance in war should and could be reduced to a minimum by the employment of the correct operational and tactical doctrine. For someone who passionately wanted to understand war in a systematic and objectively verifiable manner it was particularly hard to accept the power of chance; but by the time he was in his mid-twenties his realism and the logic of his view of historical change had brought him to the point of regarding chance not only as inevitable but even as a positive element in war.
Finally, the campaigns of 1793 and 1794 set Clausewitz on the path of recognizing war as a political phenomenon. Wars, as everyone knew, were fought for a purpose that was political, or at least always had political consequences. Not as readily apparent was the implication that followed. If war was meant to achieve a political purpose, everything that entered into war-social and economic preparation, strategic planning, the conduct of operations, the use of violence on all levels-should be determined by this purpose, or at least accord with it. Even though soldiers had to acquire special expertise, and function in what in some respects was a separate world, it would be a denial of reality to allow them to carry on their bloody work undisturbed until an armistice brought their political employer back into the equation. Just as war and its institutions reflected their social environment, so every aspect of fighting should be suffused by its political impulse, whether this impulse was intense or moderate. The appropriate relationship between politics and war occupied Clausewitz throughout his life, but even his earliest manuscripts and letters show his awareness of their interaction.
The ease with which this link-always acknowledged in the abstract-can be forgotten in specific cases, and Clausewitz's insistence that it must never be overlooked, are illustrated by his polite rejection toward the end of his life of a strategic problem set by the chief of the Prussian General Staff, in which every military detail of the opposing sides was spelled out, but no mention made of their political purpose. To a friend who had sent him the problem for comment, Clausewitz replied that it was not possible to draft a sensible plan of operations without indicating the political condition of the states involved, and their relationship to each other: "War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means. Consequently, the main lines of every. major strategic plan are largely political in nature, and their political character increases the more the plan applies to the entire campaign and to the whole state. A war plan results directly from the political conditions of the two warring states, as well as from their relations to third powers. A plan of campaign results from the war plan, and frequently-if there is only one theater of operations-may even be identical with it. But the political element even enters the separate components of a campaign; rarely will it be without influence on such major episodes of warfare as a battle, etc. According to this point of view, there can be no question of a purely military evaluation of a great strategic issue, nor of a purely military scheme to solve it."
In the second half of the 1790's, the young Clausewitz had taken only the first steps on the intellectual journey that was to lead to this conclusion; but, as I suggested earlier, from the outset he traveled a straight road, with few tangents or interruptions. The five years he spent as sub-altern in the small town of Neuruppin have commonly been dismissed as a time of stagnation, but it seems that biographers have been too literal in their interpretation of a characteristically critical and self-critical comment on the period that he made years later. In reality his situation was not without advantages. Far from serving in an undistinguished provincial unit, he belonged to a regiment that had a member of the royal family, Prince Ferdinand, as honorary colonel and patron. Near the town lay the residence of another Hohenzollern, Prince Henry, Frederick the Great's most gifted brother, whose library, opera, and theater were open to the officer corps. Most important, the regiment was known throughout the army for its innovative educational policies, financed largely by the officers themselves. On its return from France the regiment had organized a primary and trade school for the children of the rank and file, and a more advanced school for its cadets and ensigns, which also admitted sons of the local gentry. It is probable though not certain that like other lieutenants, Clausewitz taught classes in the latter institution; and there can be no doubt that his exposure to a serious teaching program deepened the interest he already felt in education. As a fifteen-year-old, he later wrote, he had been captivated by the idea that the acquisition of knowledge could lead to human perfectibility. Soon the goal of improving society reinforced that of self-improvement, and his desire to learn was joined by concern with the methodology of education. The ways in which abstractions might accurately reflect and convey reality, the manner in which men can be taught to understand the truth, and the ultimate purpose of education-which, he held, consisted not in the transmission of technical expertise but in the development of independent judgment-all came to be major considerations in Clausewitz's theoretical work.
In 1801 Clausewitz gained admission to the new War College that Scharnhorst, recently transferred from the Hanoverian service, had organized in Berlin. Clausewitz graduated at the head of the class in 1803, and was appointed adjutant to a young prince, son of his former commander Prince Ferdinand, an assignment that enabled him to remain in the capital, in close contact with his teacher Scharnhorst. The impact that Scharnhorst exerted on Clausewitz's life and on the development of his ideas cannot be emphasized enough. Scharnhorst was an exceptionally energetic, daring soldier, as well as a scholar and a gifted politician-a harmonious combination of seeming opposites that his favorite pupil was never to equal. This is not the place to discuss his opinions on strategy, on conscription, and on command- and staff-organization, which constituted a pragmatic reconciliation of the old and the new; important for our purpose is the intellectual independence with which he approached the fundamental military issues of the age, as well as his sympathy with the aims of humanistic education, and his conviction that the study of history must be at the center of any advanced study of war. Clausewitz's tentative attitudes on military theory and on education were confirmed and guided further by Scharnhorst, who also deepened Clausewitz's awareness of the social forces that determined the military style and energies of states. Scharnhorst, the son of a free peasant who had risen to the rank of squadron sergeant-major, had had a difficult career in the Hanoverian army, where he had been repeatedly slighted in favor of well-connected noble comrades.
Excerpted from On War by Carl Von Clausewitz Copyright © 1982 by Carl Von Clausewitz. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.