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 Dennis Showalter

The following review appeared in History Book Club Review, March1994.
It is displayed here with the permission of the History Book Club.

Clausewitz in English offers far more to readers than its title promises. English-language Clausewitz studies have been dominated for a quarter century by the work—and the personalities—of Michael Howard and Peter Paret. But Christopher Bassford is part of a new generation of scholars who are developing alternative perspectives on this influential military philosopher.

Bassford begins with a chapter, "Clausewitz and His Works," that demands comparison with the best summaries in any language of Clausewitz's ideas. In particular, Bassford's treatment of the dynamic relationship of offense and defense in war casts new light on a crucial aspect of Clausewitz's theories: their alleged emphasis on decisive "battles of annihilation."

Even more important is Bassford's analysis of the ways that complex ideas are transmitted and assimilated. Military thought is like military justice or military music. Each is a means to a wider end rather than an end in itself. Military thought is significant only insofar as it contributes to the effective waging of war. For that reason its patterns of diffusion are at least as important as its patterns of development. Unless armed forces recognize, accept, and institutionalize a particular system of military theory, that system will remain no more than a footnote to the history of war.

"Fog and Friction"

The process is further complicated by the difficulty of extending any system of thought beyond its center of origin. Bassford argues that while soldiers in general may not be particularly interested in the intellectual currents dominating their times, military thinkers are remarkably aware of them. Clausewitz's ideas were strongly influenced by the German reaction against the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and the exact sciences as models for the conduct of warfare. Instead, Clausewitz stressed a theory reflecting the diversity of human reality, emphasizing moral force, individual genius, and the element of chance—"fog and friction." This approach stood in sharp contrast to British and U.S. military cultures still dominated by Enlightenment patterns of thinking. Both armies were—and arguably remain—fundamentally 18th century institutions: relatively small professional forces, at the margins of societies that distrust standing armies as potential instruments of political despotism and social distortion. Advanced military education in both countries was strongly technical rather than theoretical in its emphasis.

Disseminating Clausewitz's ideas

Why and how, then, did Clausewitz's ideas come to permeate the English-speaking military and academic communities? Bassford demonstrates that enthusiasm for Clausewitz has been in large part motivated by embarrassment. The Boer War in Britain and Vietnam in the U.S. generated much the same processes of individual and institutional soul-searching as Jena did in Prussia. Bassford also demonstrates the importance of the "low road" in disseminating Clausewitz's ideas. Inadequate translations by people whose comprehension of the subject was often limited nevertheless formed a major part of the framework for Clausewitz studies in both Britain and the U.S. If such works further increased the opaqueness of the ideas involved, that made Clausewitz paradoxically even more attractive to military communities conditioned by their nature that achievement demands effort.

Bassford also demolishes several longstanding myths. British strategic doctrines in World War I, says the author, were not shaped by Clausewitz's direct influence, though the professional military establishment had been exposed to the theories at least as thoroughly as to Jomini in the years prior to 1914. Also useful is Bassford's demonstration of the fundamental errors in B. H. Liddell Hart's interpretation of Clausewitz as the "Mahdi of mass"—a catchphrase reflecting its author's preconceptions rather than systematic study of On War.

Bassford convincingly argues that Clausewitz's work was neither widely known nor widely studied in the U.S. until just before the Second World War. Immigrant scholars like Alfred Vagts and Herbert Rosinski played a significant role in the process. It was after 1945, however, that Clausewitz studies took off on this side of the Atlantic. One of the particularly strong points in Bassford's book is the analysis of how the prospect of nuclear war and the reality of limited war brought Clausewitz into the intellectual mainstream. Educators and scholars such as Theodore Ropp, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret acted as focal points for the transmission and discussion of Clausewitz's ideas and their implications. That process continues today, in an era where the loss of the cold war's strategic certainties gives Clausewitz's vitalist approach to the study of war an unexpected relevance.

Clausewitz in English is a valuable study of how one man's ideas had such a tremendous impact on the English-speaking world.

About the Reviewer: DENNIS SHOWALTER is Professor of History at Colorado College and president-elect of the Society for Military History.


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