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.

Reviewed by James J. Schneider, School of Advanced Military Studies,
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

The following review appeared in The American Historical Review, December 1995. It is displayed here with the permission of AHR. Individuals should contact the American Historical Association about classroom or other copyright usage, at [email protected]. See also the AHA's homepage at URL:

Christopher Bassford's new book, as the subtitle suggests, is about the intellectual reception in Great Britain and the United States of the work of the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. At first glance one is struck by Bassford's insistent differentiation between Clausewitz's reception and his influence. One might readily assume the distinction is an attempt to downplay the intellectual substance of the Prussian's work in favor of its form. Such an assumption would force the reader to conclude that the reception of Clausewitz's On War (1832) is somehow like the reception of the New York City telephone directory: useful but devoid of intellectual significance. The assumption would, however, be wrong. Bassford, a careful reader of Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (1988), recognizes the impossibility of demonstrating a law-like connection between the eternal ideas of Clausewitz and the internal thoughts of his readers. At best one can only infer some loose causal association between them.

Bassford makes three contributions as a consequence of this judicious approach to intellectual history. First, his book says as much about the readers of Clausewitz as it does about the great military theorist himself. The careful intellectual sketches of Clausewitz's readers are a special strength of the book. The most notable treatments are of John McCauley Palmer, B. H. Liddell Hart, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and J. F. C. Fuller. They typify two unique styles of reception and represent the second contribution of Bassford's book.

Bassford's discussion suggests a kind of duality in the reception of the ideas of others. Palmer, Liddell Hart, and the early Fuller represent what might be termed an analytic reception of Clausewitz: a search for specific answers about the nature of war. Readers such as Liddell Hart rejected the truth that Clausewitz seemed to offer or, like Palmer, recast the Prussian's message to fit their own institutional image. Eisenhower and the later Fuller typify the synthetic reception of Clausewitz: the movement beyond the immediately given fact toward a quest for enduring solutions to problems concerning war. For both the study of Clausewitz became a rite of passage that readers like Liddell Hart never completed.

The duality between analytic and synthetic forms of reception, not fully developed by Bassford as a unifying theme, emerges in greater relief when confronting his central question: does military theory have any real utility? This challenge has never been adequately addressed, especially among military and civilian academics for whom Clausewitz still exerts a major influence. The book generally seeks to answer this question by examining the reception of Clausewitz's theories among those readers who presumably would have found value and utility in military theory. The third contribution of this volume is to present a clear articulation of the question and suggest a possible solution.

Bassford himself is ambivalent and sometimes even skeptical about a resolution to the challenge. This is a natural consequence of the ambivalent and ambiguous character of Clausewitz's work itself. On War is an emerging synthesis frozen in the temporal ice of the written word. Subjecting it to the torch of analysis simply destroys its delicate and complex structure. The work is ineffable in the full sense of the word: unanalyzable. It is first and foremost a work of art, and as such it must be grasped and apprehended as a complete, organic whole. It is not possible, as one retired major general urged me to do, to "reduce On War to an equation." Nor is it possible, as J. F. C. Fuller understood, to find a complete statement about the nature of modern war; Clausewitz stands on the wrong side of the Industrial Revolution. Instead, the power of On War is that the work itself is an extended metaphor about war. To understand it in its fullness is to know war in its essence. The reader is thus brought into a dialogue with Clausewitz.

It is the ensuing dialogue that offers a possible solution to Bassford's question on the utility of military theory. One must, however, make a distinction between military theory as a written product and as a metaphorical process. This book reinforces the distinction. Some readers received Clausewitz's work as a product to be analyzed and scrutinized. Others came to view the Prussian's work as an unfinished puzzle that had to be completed. The latter reception demanded the kind of intellectual engagement and struggle that strengthened minds. The development of a special theoretical acuity made them military practitioners and theorists in their own right. Thus, military theory has value and utility only to the extent that it engages the mind in creating a new synthesis that is both personally and practically meaningful. Bassford recounts in his book the successes and failures of Clausewitz's readers to create just such a personal synthesis. He does so in a fashion that is at once judicious, prudent, and thoughtful.


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