Book cover

On Clausewitz: A Study of Military and Political Ideas by Hugh Smith New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005 272 pp. $29.95 ISBN 1–4039–3586–6

Book Review by Barry Watts
Joint Forces Quarterly, issue 42, 3rd quarter 2006.

See also the review by Ian Garrick Mason, TLS, April 1, 2005

Reproduced here because JFQ's method of archiving past issues will drive you crazy.

Hugh Smith’s On Clausewitz repackages On War, by Carl von Clausewitz, for the general reader while striving to do the least violence to the understanding of war that Clausewitz achieved in his final years. Given the difficulties Clausewitz’s unfinished manuscript have presented to generations of readers since his widow published On War in the early 1830s, Smith’s endeavor is laudable.

Smith, however, does not intend On Clausewitz to replace On War. Because the “lucidity of Clausewitz’s mind can only be appreciated at first hand,” and because Clausewitz intended his opus to stimulate readers to reach their own judgments about the problems war presents, Smith rightly insists that there is no substitute for reading Clausewitz directly (p. xi).

What Smith offers, then, is a fairly comprehensive companion volume to On War. In 23 short, readable chapters, he summarizes what scholars and military men have thought about such things as Clausewitz’s life and personality, warfare during his era, On War’s intellectual and political context, Clausewitz’s approach to war’s theory and practice, and his relevance (or the lack thereof) to warfare in later times down to the present. The result is a generally reliable supplement for any reader, whether tackling Clausewitz’s unfinished manuscript for the first time or revisiting it for the twentieth. Having scrutinized sympathetic interpretations of Clausewitz by scholars such as Peter Paret, Michael Howard, Bernard Brodie, Michael Handel, and Chris Bassford, as well as critics of On War, from B. H. Liddell Hart to Martin van Creveld and John Keegan, little escapes Smith’s mention. His volume may therefore become a standard reference for students of Clausewitz.

Nevertheless, reluctance to depart even slightly from Clausewitz’s understanding of land warfare at the time of his death is both Smith’s greatest virtue and weakness. On the one hand, the theorist was a soldier from the age of 12 until his death at 51 in 1831; by the time he was 35, he had fought in 5 land campaigns against France; and from 1790 to 1820, continental Europe witnessed some 713 battles (p. 27). On the other hand, On War contains virtually no mention of war at sea during this period, or of technology’s potential to transform war’s conduct even if its underlying nature remains unchanged. Following Clausewitz, Smith presents war fundamentally as armies fighting armies (p. 264). In doing so, he is true to the text of On War, but his exegesis also devalues seapower (even in Clausewitz’s day) and gives short shrift to truly revolutionary developments in the means of warfare after 1820 (for example, machineguns, mechanization, airpower, and both thermonuclear and nonnuclear precision weapons).

Clausewitz, though not Smith, can be forgiven for neglecting the technological dimension. During Clausewitz’s time, technological changes in the means of war were modest compared to those of the 20th century. As for seapower, Clausewitz was a soldier, not a sailor. Still, neglect of the sea was a major oversight. Britain’s attainment of naval dominance in European waters during Clausewitz’s lifetime was the culmination of “the largest, longest, most complex, and expensive project ever undertaken by the British state and society” (N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815, W.W. Norton, 2005, p. lxv). And while many 20th-century historians, even in Britain, have downplayed the significance of Admiral Nelson’s triumph at Trafalgar in October 1805, his victory ensured Britain’s survival in a war “which no other nation survived unscathed,” left Napoleon in a strategic box from which he futilely struggled to escape for the rest of his reign, and guaranteed Britain’s economic prosperity (Rodger, p. 543).

Smith’s dogged adherence to Clausewitz’s understanding of war as fundamentally armies fighting armies has other consequences for appreciating On War’s relevance to modern conflict. The most serious is Smith’s treatment of the Prussian’s unified concept of a general friction. While the author acknowledges Clausewitz’s view that general friction constitutes the “only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 119), he clings to the traditional reading that separates chance from general friction rather than seeing chance as merely one of friction’s sources. Smith’s “trinity of trinities” diagram (p. 121) documents his refusal to push Clausewitz’s unfinished text beyond where the Prussian left matters in 1831.

In discussing another source of general friction—intelligence—Clausewitz observed that the “difficulty of accurate recognition constitutes one of the most serious sources of friction in war” (Howard and Paret, p. 117). The modern term for what Clausewitz was talking about is situation awareness, which, for commanders and combatants, necessarily includes their belief systems and experience. Consequently, the social phenomenon of war becomes nonergodic in Douglass North’s sense that future states (or outcomes) cannot be confidently predicted based on averages calculated from past states (Douglass C. North, Understanding the Process of Economic Change, Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 19, 49–50, 167). The upshot is friction with a vengeance, but Smith’s insistence on halting interpretation of On War at Clausewitz’s untimely death ignores such important insights. JFQ