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ON WAR 2000
A MODEST PROPOSAL

Christopher Bassford

 

Congressman: You say ''to paraphrase Clausewitz.'' What is that? What is Clausewitz?

DoD Undersecretary: I apologize for the analogy, which is obscure. The book, I have to say, is impenetrable, and I think the only part of it that is—that anybody mostly has ever read is the one line that ''war is the continuation of policy by other means.''

HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE,
THURSDAY, MARCH 13, 1997

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Of all the "great books" in the Western canon, only two address the fundamental problems of war. One is by the Athenian writer Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (c.400 B.C.). The other is by the Prussian military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz: On War (1832). Following the debacle in Vietnam, American military thinkers turned to the ideas expounded by Clausewitz. Those ideas played a significant role in the resurrection of American military power and remain deeply ingrained in American military doctrine and professional military education (PME) programs. Unfortunately, those ideas are largely inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. Even for national security professionals, weaknesses in the existing book and in the vast supporting literature are making it increasingly difficult to draw on Clausewitz's wisdom as we enter a radically different historical era. This paper proposes the development of a new version of On War, to be called On War 2000. The goal is to recast Clausewitz's book in a form that citizens and soldiers alike will find both readable and perceptibly relevant to the emergent world of the twenty-first century. Described here is the character of such a project and a methodology for conducting it. This proposal was first put forward, only partly tongue-in-cheek, in 1999. It has been slightly updated (2006, 2010).

CONTENTS:

Executive Summary
The Importance of Clausewitz's Book, On War
Problems with On War
A Workable Solution: On War 2000
Notes

THE IMPORTANCE OF CLAUSEWITZ'S BOOK, ON WAR

Carl von Clausewitz's magnum opus, On War (Berlin, 1832), is unquestionably the most important single work ever written on the theory of warfare. The principal importance of Clausewitz's approach to theory is its realism. By this I do not mean "realism" in its usual sense of mere cynicism about politics and naked power, although this is not lacking in On War. Nor do I use it in the frequently delusional sense of political-science "Realism." Rather, Clausewitz's approach is profoundly realistic in that it describes the complex and uncertain manner in which real-world events unfold, taking into account both the frailties of human nature and the complexity of the physical and psychological world. After more than a century and a half, Clausewitz's work remains the most comprehensive, perceptive, and modern contribution to political-military thought.

Clausewitz's writings are of fundamental importance both for their actual content and because they have done so much to influence almost all subsequent Western (and many nonWestern) military thinkers. Even Antoine-Henri Jomini, often improperly understood as Clausewitz's "opposite," read On War. His own Summary of the Art of War (1838) contains not only several personal insults to Clausewitz but also a great many practical adjustments to his arguments. The Marxist-Leninists, Mao, and Giap incorporated a version of his theory into their approaches to war. Navalists like Sir Julian Stafford Corbett, and later the airpower theorists, adapted his thoughts to their special interests. Cold War nuclear strategists took his thinking in yet another direction. It is therefore hard to understand or appreciate the ways in which important military thinkers diverge without a solid understanding of this central influence.

Perhaps because of the widely noted difficulty of Clausewitz's book, the pattern of On War's rise and fall in influence closely follows the military fortunes of its readers. Only a serious military reverse, it seems, can force governmental and military institutions to wrestle with the complex realities Clausewitz describes. The book's origins lie in Prussia's own devastating defeat by Napoleon, and it found popularity in Germany following the military embarrassments (on all sides) of 1848. In France, it first developed a serious audience following France's humiliation by Prussia in 1870-71. In Britain, it drew a large audience immediately following the inglorious Boer War. Despite the intense interest of individuals like Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, American military institutions became interested in On War only in the wake of Vietnam. Clausewitzian arguments are prominent in the two most authoritative American statements of the lessons of Vietnam: the Weinberger Doctrine and Harry Summers' seminal On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context (first published in 1981). On War was adopted as a key text at the Naval War College in 1976, the Air War College in 1978, and the Army War College in 1981. It is absolutely central to the curriculum at my own institution, the National War College. It has always been central at the U.S. Army's School for Advanced Military Studies at Leavenworth (founded in 1983). The U.S. Marine Corps's brilliant little philosophical field manual FMFM 1: Warfighting (1989) is essentially a distillation, and the MCDP series of USMC publications is thoroughly permeated with Clausewitzian concepts. It would be very difficult to understand the evolution and meaning of US service and joint doctrine since the 1970s without reference to Clausewitz's influence, however poorly his actual ideas may be reflected therein.

PROBLEMS WITH ON WAR

Despite the continuing value of Clausewitz's ideas, there are serious problems standing in the way of anyone seeking to make effective use of his major work. As a result, Clausewitz is much more often quoted than read or understood, and his ideas have been influential in ways often diametrically opposite to his intentions.

First of all, On War is an exceedingly difficult book to read and understand. It is very long (about 600 pages) and densely written in an unfamiliar style. It contains innumerable digressions of limited interest to most potential audiences. The existing book is based on an unfinished set of draft papers and incorporates ideas that reflect several different—and often contradictory—stages of Clausewitz's intellectual evolution. Various translation problems muddy many of its broad concepts. For example, Clausewitz's use of the German word Politik, which embodies the two very different concepts English-speakers distinguish as "politics" and "policy," leads to conflicting and incompatible understandings of his most famous line, "War is merely the continuation of [Politik] by other means."

Second, the existing version suffers from its age in ways that cannot be corrected in any direct translation. For example, it uses scientific examples and metaphors that, while usually the best available at the time Clausewitz wrote, are now misleading in terms of Clausewitz's underlying analysis of the character of real-world events. This scientific issue is perhaps the most important difficulty with On War, for it relates directly to Clausewitz's understanding of the nature of reality. Most readers find Clausewitz's reasoning very difficult to follow because he understands the world in terms that are alien to the rationalist Western scientific tradition as it has been popularly understood over the last few centuries. However, his world view is readily understood by readers familiar with the scientific approach that characterizes modern science, which has been popularized under the headings of Chaos Theory, Complexity Science, and Nonlinearity. The emergence of nonlinear science has been driven by the availability of new scientific tools—most notably the computer—that allow us to study "real-world" phenomena that long eluded Western science.*1 It is no exaggeration to say that there is a near-perfect fit between this emerging nonlinear world-view and Clausewitz's conceptions.*2 Two of the most important points of agreement between Clausewitz and modern nonlinear theorists concern, first, the character of real-world phenomena like politics, economics, and war, and second, the nature and role of theory. The key phenomena of war are by their nature unpredictable: The reason the International Relations theorists failed in their efforts to create a "science" of international politics is not because they did not "know enough," but because the kind of predictability they sought is impossible. Attempts to achieve it are inherently self-defeating.*3 Accordingly, the role of science and of theory regarding such phenomena is not to reliably predict and thereby permit well tailored preparations before the fact. Rather, it is to insightfully describe and explain, and thereby to permit effective adaptation to inevitable changes and surprises.

Most of the new generation of scholarly writers on Clausewitz—particularly Alan Beyerchen, Antulio Echevarria, and Barry Watts—have sought to explain his ideas in nonlinear terms.*4 United States Marine Corps doctrine writers have sought to capitalize on this conjunction of classical Clausewitzian theory and the emerging direction of modern science.*5 Their work offers real hopes that we can develop a more realistic, comprehensive, and comprehensible body of theory concerning political-military phenomena—embracing the whole range from politics and policy to operations and tactics—and the writing of political-military history. Such a body of theory would be valuable in helping to inform not only military leaders and educators but scholars, policy makers, and the general public as to the role of organized force in politics and the pervasive role of politics at every level in the use of armed force.

Another problem related to On War's age is that it employs a profusion of historical examples, contemporary to Clausewitz himself, that are instructive to specialists on 18th and 19th-century Europe but generally unfamiliar to modern American readers. Its lack of reference to sea- and aerospace power forces modern readers to use more imagination than is commonly required—or available—when seeking to grasp its modern implications. These older, exclusively European examples leave many readers with a false impression that the ideas they illustrate are themselves obsolete, culturally circumscribed, exclusively oriented on the state, and thus irrelevant to the modern world.

Third, Clausewitz limited the scope of his study in order to focus on military problems at what we would call the operational and tactical levels of war. He therefore did not deal fully with some of the important issues he raised concerning the nature of history, politics, and policy. His ideas on those matters are crucial to understanding but are often implicit, understandable only to specialists.

Finally, there is a great deal of hostility to Clausewitzian theory. This hostility is largely irrational, based not on On War's actual content but on its historical origins in Germany and its imagined association with the European military disasters of the 20th century. It is also based, to a remarkable and depressing degree, on the personal irritation of writers who feel that their own genius has been unfairly eclipsed by Clausewitz's stellar reputation. This problem is exacerbated by Clausewitz's philosophical method, which leads many sloppy readers to conclude—erroneously—that Clausewitz was an advocate of "total war" and of policies of military conquest. Resentment towards Clausewitz largely originated after World War One and was given coherent (though disingenuous) form by military historian B.H. Liddell Hart. It was amplified later by biologist and musician Anatol Rapoport, whose antagonisms were directed primarily towards Henry Kissinger and the Westphalian international system; Clausewitz was a secondary target. This tradition has been given new life by writers like Briton John Keegan and Israeli Martin van Creveld, who have planted a powerful but almost entirely false image of Clausewitz in Western military literature. In particular, van Creveld and Keegan have sought to entomb Clausewitz's theories in a vanished world in which war is exclusively the province of all-powerful Weberian-style states in purely conventional military struggles with one another. That world is an ahistorical delusion, largely based on an early-20th century European system that Clausewitz never saw, much less described, and one that even in the 20th century never reflected reality. Such distortions often interfere with attempts to discuss Clausewitz's ideas sensily, particularly when communicating with nonmilitary institutions or a popular audience.

The accusations against Clausewitz and "the Clausewitzians" are hard to explain. In truth, the phrase "total war" appears only twice in On War—once where the juxtaposition of the two words is incidental and once in the context of Clausewitz's doubts that any such variety of war exists in the real world. As to policies of conquest, Clausewitz emphasized the workings of the European balance-of-power system and argued that the defense is inherently the stronger form of war—hardly the ideology of a would-be conqueror. But then, the entire structure of Creveld's "non-trinitarian" assault on Clausewitzian theory is based on a gross misreading of two short paragraphs in On War—and not even his own misreading, but rather that of U.S. Army COL Harry Sumers, Jr., who was an enthusiastic proponent for the study of Clausewitz.*6 Even if Creveld's description of Clausewitz's argument were accurate, his criticism of it would remain absurd: the state is hardly going away; wars between a state and its non-state opponents are hardly "non-state" wars; and those few "non-state" fighters who actually win their wars invariably go on to establish new and usually rather formidable states (e.g., Cuba, China, Vietnam, the Taliban—and, for that matter, let's not forget the North American revolutionaries who founded the United States).

As a result of all these factors, the tremendous amount of attention paid to Clausewitz in professional military education and in military doctrine has come to have a very limited payoff. To a great degree, Clausewitz's impact is becoming limited to a small number of discrete concepts that have individually found their way, in dumbed-down form, into service or joint military doctrine: the "center of gravity," the "culminating point of the offensive," and the "remarkable trinity." (The first and last of these, in particular, have become sources of much confusion.) The connections between these concepts, their larger context, and even the meaning of Clausewitz's links between policy, politics, and war, are frequently lost. Moreover, the difficulty of reading On War is so great, and so notorious, that students and faculty alike tend to await the mandatory class on Clausewitz with dread. The content of those classes tends increasingly to be abbreviated and shallow.

Especially since 1991, when victory in the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union removed much of the emotional drive behind US military education, the serious study of Clausewitz in the PME schools has fallen into decay. Because much of the existing literature on Clausewitz explains his significance within one obsolete context or another (the all-embracing state system of the early-20th century West; the Cold War; nuclear strategy), few educators are able to forcefully demonstrate his relevance in the post-Cold War world. Consequently, as one commentator notes, "The US Army War College's bust of Clausewitz has been moved from a prominent, shrine-like alcove to an off-center auditorium entrance, where it has a status somewhere between that of a Hummel figurine and a hat-rack."*7 As the counterinsurgency problem has reemerged, so has the Clausewitz of "peoples' war" and the difficulty of hostile occupations, but this may simply lead to another round of false obsolescence when the strategic environment takes its next swerve.

Coming at a time when the apparent complexity of military-political events has skyrocketed and Clausewitz's fundamental ideas are more relevant than ever, this state of affairs is most unfortunate. It is difficult to pin any blame on educators, however, when the existing version of On War is so difficult to read and to teach from.

A POSSIBLE SOLUTION: On War 2000

There are at least three existing English translations of On War. The 1976 translation by Michael Howard and Peter Paret is now the standard version. Despite increasing dissatisfaction among various scholars over specific passages in the book, it is doubtful that any likely emendation of the Howard/Paret version would substantially increase the book's utility.

While an improved direct translation would be useful, what may be needed is a translation in a very different sense, that is, a translation of Clausewitz's concepts and discussion into a form more readily accessible to the modern reader. This does not mean an abridgement or a "dumbing down" of the original. Clausewitz's subject and his ideas about it are inherently and necessarily difficult. The difficulties of the existing book, however, can be substantially eased by taking a radical new approach to the problem. Although the concepts, broad structure, and intent of the present book can and must be preserved, we must be willing to deviate from the existing text whenever it suits our purposes. The guiding principle must be the search for truth and clarity, rather than any artificial adherence to the original's form or specific wording.

The legitimacy of such an interpretive effort will seem doubtful to many. However, as On War's most influential translator, Peter Paret, has often pointed out, any translation is of necessity an interpretation. Moreover, the original book itself required substantial editorial interpretation of its deceased author's intentions. Although the specific interpretation I might personally propose would quite properly—and healthily, I think—be the subject of debate, the need for and legitimacy of the attempt should not be. Indeed, the very existence of such a project might help to restore vitality to contemporary Clausewitzian thinking.

Any useful new approach requires several key recognitions. First of all, we must acknowledge that, while Clausewitz's approach and fundamental concepts are—or were at least intended to be—universally valid, the existing book is significantly limited by the historical and political context within which it was written. This is inevitably so and hardly a criticism of its author. A new book must not, however, be written to further any particular agenda or to sustain any particular illusions. Its goal should be to provide a theoretical framework within which any war, within any particular historical, political, or strategic context, can be usefully and honestly analyzed and compared to others.

Second, we know that Clausewitz's historical and scientific illustrations are obsolete. We must replace them with a rich range of more modern, more comprehensive, and more familiar examples. If the ideas themselves have any general validity, it should not be difficult to find examples to which the modern audience can relate. Modern nonlinear scientific concepts are in perfect accord with Clausewitz's world-view and afford many useful illustrations.

Third, we know from the long history of Clausewitz's reception that there are aspects to his approach that consistently and unnecessarily confuse, offend, and mislead readers. For example, the dialectical discussion of "absolute war," which is present for important conceptual reasons, has consistently been misinterpreted both by Clausewitz's critics and by some of his admirers as a prescription for "total war." Such problems must be forthrightly addressed. This will require not only enhanced discussion in some areas but substantial reorganization.

Fourth, certain vital aspects of Clausewitz's very latest thinking are insufficiently developed in the existing book. In particular, his discussion concerning the fundamental dichotomies between limited and more ambitious political and military objectives requires substantial evolution and expansion. Older discussions in the existing book, many of which contradict these ideas in tone or wording, if not in substance, must be adjusted for consistency.

Fifth, Clausewitz's discussions of policy, politics, and the historical process were compressed and truncated, in part to prevent the book, already large, from expanding out of control. On War is about the conduct of war, not about the making of policy. While addressing the imperfections of military strategy, he largely assumed away the imperfections of policy.*8 These matters require substantial expansion. Therefore the focus of the book must inevitably shift upwards, with a greater emphasis on issues concerning politics and policy and a corresponding deemphasis on the tactical level of war, except where the latter relates directly to political and policy issues. This should not be a problem, given that much of On War's tactical discussion is irrelevant to modern military operations. Care must be taken, however, to preserve the underlying theoretical points, which remain of value.

CONCLUSIONS

Any effort to update On War necessarily represents an outrageous act of intellectual effrontery, justifiable only because it is so necessary. Especially since the events of 11 September 2001, there has been a need to accurately incorporate basic Clausewitzian concepts into a widely recognized comparative strategic analytical framework. Such a framework would obviate the confusion posed by allegedly "non-Clausewitzian" forms of war, variously labeled "nonTrinitarian," "Fourth-Generation" warfare, etc. Any useful product will inevitably be dependent on inputs from a great many sources. I have received a number of offers to fund me in pursuing this work myself, but these have come with unacceptable strings attached—e.g., "The new work will demonstrate that Clausewitz supported the concept of NetCentric Warfare...." And, in any case, I am otherwise engaged.

NOTES

1. One of the best overall introductions to nonlinearity can be found in physicist M. Mitchell Waldrop's book, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992). Nonlinearity's range of relevance to military affairs is capably explored by physicist Andrew Ilachinsky in Land Warfare and Complexity, Part II: An Assessment of the Applicability of Nonlinear Dynamic and Complex Systems Theory to the Study of Land Warfare (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, July 1996). Ilachinsky's study, clearly applicable to the broad range of military concerns despite its putative limitation to land warfare, identifies eight "tiers" of applicability. The first four of these tiers relate to the subject matter of this proposal.

2. See particularlarly Alan D. Beyerchen, Alan D. "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War." International Security, Winter 1992/93, pp.59-90.

3. John Lewis Gaddis, "International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War." International Security, Winter 1992/93, pp.5- 58; "Chaos, Complexity, and Contemporary History," Think Piece Series N0.30, Athens, OH: Contemporary History Institute, May 1994; The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

4. Alan D. Beyerchen, "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War." Antulio Joseph Echevarria II [USA], "Clausewitz: Toward a Theory of Applied Strategy," Defense Analysis, Vol 11, No. 3, (1995), pp.229- 240; "A Wake for Clausewitz? Not Yet!" Special Warfare, Vol 9, No. 3 (August 1996), pp.30-35; Barry D. Watts, Clausewitzian Friction and Future War (Washington, DC: Institute for National Strategic Studies, 1996). See also my own works—Christopher Bassford, Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America, 1815-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); "John Keegan and the Grand Tradition of Trashing Clausewitz," War in History, November 1994, pp.319- 336; "Reclaiming the Clausewitzian Trinity," Parameters, Autumn 1995; and Teaching the Clausewitzian Trinity (a teaching note), January 2003; "Tiptoe Through the Trinity, or The Strange Persistance of Trinitarian Warfare," working draft.

5. Marine Corps Doctrinal Publications MCDP 1: Warfighting, MCDP 5: Command and Control, MCDP 6: Planning, MCDP 1-1: Strategy (see full original draft), and MCDP 1-2: Campaigning all reflect the influence of nonlinear theory. The predecessor to MCDP 1 was published in 1989 as FMFM 1: Warfighting. The new manual retains the Clausewitzian core of FMFM 1 but amplifies it with nonlinear concepts. Some problems of inserting nonlinear concepts into USMC doctrine are described in Christopher Bassford, "Doctrinal Complexity: Nonlinearity in Marine Corps Doctrine," in F.G. Hoffman and Gary Horne, eds., Maneuver Warfare Science (United States Marine Corps Combat Development Command, 1998). Concern over these problems was widely expressed at the New Sciences Symposium I organized at Quantico, Va, on 1 August 1997, under the auspices of General P.K. Van Riper, then the Commander, Marine Corps Combat Developments Command. The subject of the conference was "How do we incorporate nonlinear concepts into the various Professional Military Education curricula at the Marine Corps University?"

6. Summers, van Creveld, and Keegan have insisted that Clausewitz's approach to theory is obsolete because his "remarkable trinity" of "the People, the Army, and the Government" is a relic of a defunct state system that is irrelevant to modern war, in which non-state, "non-trinitarian" actors are the key warfighters. Personally, I wonder how many warfighting political entities are out that do not have a population base, a fighting organization, and some leadership. And I wonder how a war between a state and some non-state group that is out to overthrow it can be characterized as "non-state war." But all of this is irrelevant to the main issue. Here is Clausewitz's rather unambiguous enumeration of the elements of his trinity: "As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a paradoxical trinity—composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone." [This wording is from page 89 of the Howard/Paret translation (Princeton University Press edition) and contains some signficant errors, but these are irrelevant to the issue at hand. For a discussion of the translation issues, see Christopher Bassford, "The Strange Persistance of Trinitarian Warfare," working draft.]

7. Ralph Peters, review of Bassford, Clausewitz in English, in Parameters, Winter 1994-95.

8.  "That [policy] can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor there.... here we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community." Clausewitz, On War, trans. by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1976/1984), 606.

 

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