Clausewitz.com header/logo

Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America 1815—1945. By Christopher Bassford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 293 pages. $45.00 (Oxford); $32.50 (History Book Club).

Reviewed by Christopher Bassford

Ho hum, another book on another dead—and, one can safely assume, evil—German. Well, not actually about the dead German, but rather about those misguided Anglo-Saxons who, over the past 160 years, have wasted their time and ours by discussing his ideas. Author Christopher Bassford purports to be a professor at—of all things—the U.S. Marine Corps's Command and Staff "College" (and, no doubt, has "an advanced degree from a major midwestern university"). He tries to convince us that the tiresome Kantian theories of the Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) still offer us insight into both the nature of war and the process by which theoretical ideas are transmitted (and distorted). He cites the interest in Clausewitz of figures like the Duke of Wellington, Lawrence of Arabia, Dwight Eisenhower, even of such odd characters as George Orwell and writers in the Washington Post's "Style" section, as evidence for the significance of Clausewitz and his ideas.

Oh, please. The man has been dead for 163 years and cannot possibly have anything of interest to say to us. Which is probably why his ideas continue to appear in boring and irrelevant government documents like the Weinberger Doctrine. One need only read John Keegan's brilliant if generally erroneous A History of Warfare (Knopf, 1993) to know all that one needs to know about Herr von Clausewitz: A flop in his military career, never rising above the rank of general, Clausewitz was an intellectual apologist for the ruthless conquests of Napoleon—whom, in a typically Germanic sort of treachery, he spent his professional life violently opposing both in print and on the battlefield. It was Clausewitz, of course, who caused World War I, urged us all into thermonuclear suicide during the Cold War, and misled the Easter Islanders into ecological self-destruction sometime in the 16th or 17th centuries. Clausewitz's single real claim to fame is his absurd notion that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." Why people draw inspiration from this ruthless dictum is somewhat mystifying: A moment's reflection would convince any right thinker that politicians, the only group amongst us that stoops so low as to engage in politics, and whose goal is always the rational improvement of society, can have little to do with the insane phenomenon of war. Nor would our selfless soldiers, utterly unfamiliar with any kind of politics, allow themselves to be so used.

If Keegan's observations are not enough, surely Israeli professor Martin van Creveld's perceptive arguments will suffice to quench any lingering interest in Clausewitz's primitive ideas. Written shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, Creveld's The Transformation of War (Free Press, 1991) demonstrated conclusively that the old paradigm of wars fought between uniformed militaries is defunct. This is largely because the Clausewitzian nation-states that waged such war are no longer players. Who can deny that the Gulf War, fought as it was by the uniformed militaries of several such states, proved Creveld's amazing prescience? It is, of course, a bit awkward for this view that Clausewitz's own world involved few such nation-states either: The Germany of his era was a bizarre collection of heterogeneous dynastic states united only under a "Holy Roman Empire" (the empire and the various confederations which succeeded it being trans-state, if not exactly "trans-national," entities that looked and behaved remarkably like certain truly modern creations such as NATO, the EC, and the UN).

No, we should not delude ourselves that, simply because Clausewitz's approach survived the revolutionary transitions of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, it can transcend the arrival of CNN. It would certainly be unreasonable to assume that Clausewitz—who, incidentally, coined the terms "people's war" and "limited war," advocated the raising of popular militia forces, and was approvingly quoted by Engels, Lenin, and Mao—actually knew anything about such phenomena. In any case, accepting Creveld's rewriting of On War is far preferable to reading the original book. Fortunately, this is no great challenge. As generations of my own institution's students have observed, On War is "only a lot of reading if you do it."

Clearly, as Creveld shows, Clausewitz's "paradoxical trinity" of people, army, and government no longer holds sway. It is, of course, a bit awkward that Clausewitz's trinity did not actually consist of "people, army, and government," but of three entirely different elements (i.e., violent emotion; the interaction of fighting forces with chance and probability, and rational calculation). Neither trinity has any relevance today, of course. Clausewitz's analytical scheme must therefore be equally inapplicable to the recent conflict in the Balkans. After all, the Bosnian War is hardly being fought by both uniformed and irregular armies of territorial states and state-wannabees squabbling over the possession of territory, inflamed by ethnic hatreds, and dragging in the political calculations of other powers. Surely we've made more progress than that!

Worse than the mere obsolescence and tedium of his subject is Bassford's lack of balance and respect for the rudiments of historical fair play. Every time a respectable writer gives a hostile description of Clausewitz, his arguments, or the attitudes of his disciples, Bassford insists on comparing it to what Clausewitz or his alleged followers actually did and said. In truth, the philosopher's critics are entirely within their rights to insist upon his responsibility for a war occurring nearly a century after his own death: Of what possible relevance is it that the proponents of total war and of 1914's ideology of the offensive explicitly condemned Clausewitz's ideas on the rational limitation of war, the primacy of policy over purely military considerations, and the innate superiority of the defense?

Even more unacceptable is Bassford's clear implication that mere soldiers have often better understood the notoriously difficult concepts of On War than have some among the last few generations of military historians. We can be quite certain that, had these historians actually read the book, they would have understood it just as well.

Regretfully, we can only suggest that readers who desire to possess the most contemporary understanding of war look elsewhere. This Clausewitz fellow is all too depressingly eternal.

Chris Bassford

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christopher Bassford was, at the time of this writing, director of studies in the theory and nature of war at the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College, in Quantico, Virginia. He holds an advanced degree from a major midwestern university. [Purdue.]

Home

Return to top