Clausewitz and His Treatise On War and Its Relevance to the 21st Century

Clausewitz and His Treatise On War and Its Relevance to the 21st Century
Prepared By: Nizar Abdel-Kader
General (RTD), Researcher, Analyst in strategic matters

I.  Introduction

The American strategic thinker Bernard Brodie has made a bold statement about Karl von Clausewitz’s study On War.  “It is not simply the greatest, but the only great book about war.”[1] It is difficult to disagree with this statement.

Anyone trying to put together a collection of texts on military theory comparable to anthologies on social, political, or economic thought will find it hard to match Clausewitz.

We can’t ignore, of course, the study by Sun Tzu, The Art of War, written in the 4th century B.C.  There are also several chapters written by Jomini, some scattered passages among the works of Liddell A Hart and JFC Fuller, and many insights to be excavated from the writing of Marks, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.  Not to forget – there is also the wisdom we can discover with earlier writers, like Thucydides and Machiavelli.  Nonetheless, there is no systematic study comparable to that of Clausewitz.

Clausewitz expressed a modest hope that his book would not be forgotten after two or three years and that it “might be picked up more than once by those who are interested in the subject.”[2]


Reading Clausewitz after almost two centuries – is it worth it?

Among books we pick to read, we put many of them aside unfinished.  Among the books we skip are usually the classics, especially those which are not purely literary because we tend to assume, first, that however great they were in their own times they are not pertinent to ours, and, second, that whatever wisdom they do contain that is relevant to our times has, no doubt, been absorbed and exploited by later writers.

Coming down to our own era, Clausewitz is probably as pertinent to our times as most of the literature specifically written about nuclear war.  These latter miss the depth and scope which are particularly the hallmark of Clausewitz.  We miss especially his tough-minded pursuit of the idea that war in all its phases must be rationally guided by a meaningful political purpose.

That insight on the political object is quite lost in most contemporary books, to include the one written by Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War.  His argument of US survival was based on technical premises rather than on political assessment and evaluation.

The great work of Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776), is acknowledged to be the fountainhead of modern economics, marking a break with the mercantilist tradition.  This great work has had mighty successors in the two centuries since its publication.  All of Smith’s contribution was fully absorbed and developed by later writers.  Clausewitz, though he easily compares in talent and innovation with Adam Smith, has had no comparable brilliant successors.

Why isn’t Clausewitz’s On War as well known as Smith’s The Wealth of Nations?  The reason is that soldiers are rarely scholars, and civilians are rarely students of war theory or strategy.  Most scholars agree that Clausewitz’s genius is indisputable and he is unique in his field.


II. The Person

The active career of Karl von Clausewitz exactly spanned the course of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792-1815).  He was born in 1780, the son of a lieutenant in the Prussian Army.  At the age of twelve he obtained a commission in the 34th Infantry Regiment.  His father had been bourgeois and academic and had been commissioned by Fredric the Great during the crisis of the Seven Years Wars.

Clausewitz passed his life as a member of the Prussian Officer’s Corps, which gave him the opportunity to gain entry into the entourage of the royal family (the Hohenzollerns). 

He was an autodidact; he devoured literature on any available topic, not only military affairs, but philosophy, politics, art and education.  He was a compulsive writer on all these matters, from the age of 20 until his death in 1831.[3]

Clausewitz was no desk soldier.  He had his baptism of fire at the age of thirteen, when the Prussian army was positioned on the left of the forces of the First Coalition containing and driving back the armies of the First French Republic; he was campaigning first on the Rhine, then in the Vosges.  During the five years after the Vosges campaign, Clausewitz made good use of the excellent library of Fredric the Great’s brother, Prince Henry, which was opened to the officers of his regiment.

In 1801 he was transferred to Berlin to attend the newly opened War College under the direction of Gerd van Scharnhorst. It was now at the age of 19 that his career really began.

Scharnhorst is revered as one of the giants in the creation of Germany – a distinguished thinker and a statesman as he was a soldier.[4]

To learn how to defeat the French, it was not enough just to study their military techniques.  One had to consider the political context as well and the historical background against which these techniques had emerged.  The syllabus adopted in the War College under Scharnhorst was thus liberal as well as technical, with discussion groups, where no limit was observed in considering the implications of the military revolution of the time.

This was the ideal setting for the young Clausewitz and he quickly attached himself to Scharnhorst as a deeply admiring disciple.  Scharnhorst reciprocated with an equal affection for the brilliant and receptive young officer.  The foundation was laid for a partnership that was to end only with Scharnhorst’s premature death in 1813, and it was to bring Clausewitz into the heart of the group of military reformers.

During the next two years 1803-1805, Clausewitz wrote a lot, developing ideas that were to receive their final form twenty years later when he came to write his treatise –On War.[5]

In 1806, Clausewitz accompanied Prince August who was given a command to the battle field of Auestadt.  There he participated in his great Napoleonic battle and in the catastrophic retreat that followed, where he and Prince August were cut off and taken as prisoners.

He resigned his commission in the Prussian army and took service with Emperor Alexander I of Russia just as the French and their satellite armies were invading Russia.

When the King of Prussia abandoned Napoleon in 1813, Clausewitz returned to Berlin and rejoined Scharnhorst and again helped him to raise new armies.

After the death of Scharnhorst, Clausewitz joined August von Gneisenau, who was appointed Commander in Chief of the Prussian Army, and became his Chief of Staff.  They were recalled shortly to Berlin for their radical and patriotic thinking.  Clausewitz became director of the War College.  His ideas for reform were rebuffed.  For twelve years he devoted his time on writing studies of the Napoleonic campaigns and drafts for the comprehensive study on war that he projected as early as 1816.[6] 

In 1830, Clausewitz was posted to the command of a major artillery formation, and then when the simultaneous rising in Paris and in Poland made a new war seem probable, he served as Chief of Staff to his old commander Gneisenau.  He died on November 16, 1831 after catching cholera.  His wife published On War a year after his death.[7]


III.  On War and the Theory

The work is divided into eight books:[8]

Book One: on the nature of war – the object of war, total and limited wars, genius of  of the commander, characteristics of war and friction, danger of war,the fog of war.

Book Two:deals with the theory of war – the art of war, on the theory of war(definitions), art of war or science of war methods, criticalanalysis, historical examples.

Book Three:on strategy in general – strategy, and its elements, moral factors in war,military virtues of boldness, perseverance, superiority of numbers,surprise, concentration of forces, economy of forces, suspension ofaction.

Book Four: deals with engagement, to include won and lost battles – it is a shift fromstrategy to tactics, but it is obvious that Clausewitz does not sharplyseparate the two.

Book Five: talks about military forces, theatre of operations, order of battle, marches,maintenance and supply, terrain, and lines of communications.

Book Six: focuses on defense.

Book Seven: focuses on the attack.

Book Eight: talks of war plans – absolute and real war, interdependence of various elements, scale of objective, the defeat of the enemy, political aim, limited aim and offensive war, war plan for total defeat.

As can be seen, books One, Two and Eight make up the whole body of theory.


IV.  Theoretical Framework and Practice

The first problem Clausewitz had to solve was how to have a theory of war at all.  It was not simple to combat the crude pragmatism to which all soldiers are temperamentally prone – the belief that theorizing is a lot of nonsense and that all military problems which are not purely technical ones can be solved by courage and common sense.  Clausewitz had great sympathy for this thinking, and his writing provided some justification for it.
At that time, the writers on war would have fallen into three categories.

First, a great majority of writers had dealt with purely technical questions of armament, supply, drill, and deployment.  An analogy can be drawn between practical knowledge as compared to the art of generalship and the craft of sword smith as compared to the art of fencing.

The second category of writers rejected all belief in theory and postulated that war was a natural function of man which he performed as well as his aptitude permitted.  There could be no “principles of war” according to this school of thought; everything was a matter of individual genius that could neither be initiated nor analyzed.  The appearance of Fredric or of Napoleon was as unpredictable a