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The Relationship of History and Theory in On War

The Clausewitzian Ideal and Its Implications

Jon Sumida

Reproduced by The Clausewitz Homepage with permission of the Journal of Military History and the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission. Jon Tetsuro Sumida is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology, and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914 (1989) and Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command: The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered (1997).

Abstract: Jon Sumida presents a detailed analysis of Carl von Clausewitz's On War and relates it to 20th-century studies of linguistics, philosophy, history and psychology. The main argument is that Clausewitz believed that the imagination of the psychological circumstances of supreme command in war was the prerequisite to the proper consideration of strategic concepts.

Clausewitz's work stands out among those very few older books which have presented profound and original insights that have not been adequately absorbed in later literature.

-Bernard Brodie (1976)*2

Where more than twenty interpretations hold the field, the addition of one more cannot be deemed an impertinence.

-Isaiah Berlin (1971)*3

THE following essay employs a fundamentally different approach to Carl von Clausewitz's On War. This work is widely thought to be a compendium of perceptive observation,*4 suggestive imagery,*5 and provocative contention*6 about armed conflict between modern nation states. In war colleges around the world, these forms of Clausewitzian discourse have served as focal points for discussions about statecraft and strategy. Such activity is useful and even important, but fails to engage Clausewitz's classic volume in the manner intended by the author. It was not Clausewitz's main purpose to put forward propositions or conjure up images about the nature and uses of military power in war that could stand on their own. The presentation of such ideas or word pictures, Clausewitz believed, was either inherently prescriptive, no matter how qualified by admission of exceptions to the rule, or merely evocative.*7 Neither ideas nor metaphors were capable of representing accurately certain aspects of supreme command of an army in war, which was his central concern. To mitigate if not eliminate this problem, Clausewitz invented a novel method of combining history and theory as the basis for the study of critical decision making at the highest military level.

Clausewitz's special synthesis of history and theory constituted a system, but of learning not of war. He explained it in order to give the general reader a sense of the capabilities required of an effective commander in chief He recommended deploying it to enable a military professional who had never served as the leader of an army in war to grapple with the moral dilemmas that accompanied critical operational decision making, and thus improve that person's ability to learn from actual experience. Clausewitz's approach embodied the following four propositions. First, language should be kept simple and straightforward, which meant minimal recourse to technical terms or other jargon. Second, deployment of sophisticated philosophical reasoning was essential in order to grapple with the moral dimensions of critical command decision making during a real campaign. Third, understanding an historical event with proximate authenticity by means of a written text required a reenactment of the event in the mind of the reader. And fourth, the unconscious mind, always a key player in human decision making, cannot be programmed by ideas, but must be shaped by perceptions of reality, or of its closest possible equivalent.

Clausewitz's presentation of what he regarded as the proper relationship of history and theory occurs in book two of On War. Previous major treatments of the history and theory question have been compromised by inadequate comprehension of book two.*8 Peter Paret explored Clausewitz's use of history and theory in an essay of 1992, but he conceded that "the relationship between history and theory in Clausewitz's thought has been barely studied."*9 This article will present a detailed analysis of On War, book two, summarize this analysis, and relate it to twentieth-century studies of linguistics, philosophy, history, and psychology. It was conceived in response to the author's dissatisfaction with existing explanations of the nature and purpose of On War, and is offered to readers in the hope that detailed and rigorous consideration of a critical section of this classic study will facilitate more confident comprehension of the whole. The main argument is that Clausewitz believed that the imagination of the psychological circumstances of supreme command in war was the prerequisite to the proper consideration of strategic concepts. The underlying argument is that strategic theory has been disconnected from significant thinking about the use of words, human nature, the recollection of the past, and the dynamics of human learning, which has prevented military historians from recognizing aspects of their subject that are crucial to understanding On War.

In a note thought to have been written in 1830, the year before his death, Clausewitz stated that only the first chapter of On War was in its final form, and he indicated deep dissatisfaction with the balance of the text. Thus for many years, the incomprehensibility of On War has been blamed on the fact that it was an unfinished work that the author would have recast completely had he lived longer. Recent scholarship, however, has demonstrated that the note in question was produced at a much earlier date, and that On War was closer to completion than has been supposed.*10 This being so, the text as it stands cannot be dismissed as an artifact of provisional thinking whose content would have changed fundamentally had the author lived to revise the manuscript. In particular, the privileging of the first chapter of book one as representing the clearest statement of Clausewitz's ideas on the grounds that it was the only portion of the manuscript that reflected his considered views can no longer be accepted as sound practice. And it is significant that Clausewitz wrote in 1827 that an open-minded person would be capable of comprehending the main argument of what was probably an earlier draft of the text of On War.*11 Much of the author's faith in the power of his words to enable a receptive reader to divine his intentions was based upon the exposition presented in book two.

Book two of On War is entitled "On Theory." In the first chapter, Clausewitz divided the phenomenon of war into two parts, fighting and preparation for fighting. The latter, he argued, was essentially a matter of administrative technique, and thus excluded from further serious consideration. The former was divided into two subjects: tactics, which was "the use of armed forces in the engagement" and strategy, which was "the use of engagements for the object of the war."*12 Clausewitz characterized tactics as amounting to little more than fighting technique, which did not pose a serious problem for the theorist because it could be represented accurately by positive doctrine—that is, a prescriptive code. He noted that early attempts to formulate systematic theory about war were concerned mainly with tactics,*13 and later, in chapter four, he observed that method and routine were useful and even essential at this level.*14 But when it came to strategic decision making, which involved questions of broad purpose as well as immediate method, the much greater complexity, contingency, and difficulty of the task meant that viable positive doctrine was unattainable.*15 And in the absence of "an intelligent analysis of the conduct of war," Clausewitz warned, decision making at the strategic level was likely to be taken over by method and routine, with potentially disastrous results.*16 He thus defined the task of writing an original and significant contribution to the study of war in terms of the creation of valid strategic theory that was nonprescriptive.

Clausewitz's presentation of his solution to the problem was preceded by a detailed critique of existing theory. Such work, he observed, dealt only with "physical matters and unilateral activity."*17 The former referred primarily to troop deployments and dispositions, the latter to recommended actions that took no account of the fact that real war was highly dynamic and contingent. Clausewitz believed that the will of the commander to make decisions in the face of incomplete and misleading information, fear of failure, and the unpredictable major and minor difficulties that could arise in any military operation, was no less important than troop strength and movement. And the fact that action by one's own forces could prompt a reaction by the enemy that might change the basic conditions of the engagement in highly favorable or unfavorable ways meant that uncertainty, and unanticipated opportunity or adversity, were inherent to the war environment. Clausewitz argued, therefore, that the problem with past theorizing about war was that it "did not yet include the use of force under conditions of danger, subject to constant interaction with an adversary, nor the efforts of spirit and courage to achieve a desired end."*18

In effect, the exclusion of the moral—that is, the nonphysical—dimension of war and the factoring out of enemy response made a complex phenomenon much simpler and eliminated the need to address the problem of contingency. This facilitated the development of theory that codified supreme war command through rules, principles, and even systems. Clausewitz conceded that the order produced by these was useful as a counter to a "maelstrom of opinion" whose chaotic effects were "intellectually repugnant."*19 But because this approach "failed to take adequate account of the endless complexities involved," it set up an "irreconcilable conflict" between theory and practice.*20 "It is only analytically," Clausewitz argued,

that these attempts at theory can be called advances in the realm of truth; synthetically, in the rules and regulations they offer, they are absolutely useless. They aim at fixed values; but in war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities. They direct the inquiry exclusively toward physical quantities, whereas all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects. They consider only unilateral action, whereas war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites.*21
Following his critique of conventional theorizing, Clausewitz analyzed systematically the three fundamental factors whose unquantifiability made the construction of any code of directives an invalid approach to the problem of decision making by the high command. The first was the critical role of moral force—that is, emotion. Clausewitz considered the most important element of emotion to be courage, a quality that not only varied from person to person, but could be different in the same person at one time as opposed to another, and in any case was something difficult to measure. The second critical factor was that war consisted of a series of actions and reactions by two or more adversaries, whose course was inherently unpredictable. And the third was the fact that the information upon which both sides based action was bound to be uncertain, and the degree of uncertainty was yet another value difficult to quantify.*22

As an alternative to "positive doctrine," Clausewitz maintained that the function of proper war theory at the strategic level was to examine what others called "genius"—that is, whatever it was that constituted effective supreme command capability under the most difficult circumstances. The phenomenon of genius, he was convinced, by its very nature "rises above all rules."*23 Clausewitz's description of the major characteristics of genius in book one, chapter three, must be recalled in order to explain why he held this to be the case. "Action," he had there observed, "can never be based on anything firmer than instinct, a sensing of the truth."*24 Thus "the man responsible for evaluating the whole must bring to his task the quality of intuition that perceives the truth at every point."*25 But because "truth in itself is rarely sufficient to make men act," the commander had to amplify the prompting of intuition with an emotional impulse.*26 The combination of intuition and determination, —that is, a synthesis of subrational intelligence and emotion—, constituted the basis of effective supreme command that could be called the product of genius. The dynamics of such forces, it should be obvious, are not susceptible to systematic analysis. It was for this reason that Clausewitz declared in book two that what "genius does is the best rule, and that theory can do no better than show how and why this should be the case."*27

But showing what genius did and why was easier said than done. By identifying the moral domain as the venue of genius, Clausewitz assumed the very great burden of having to discuss a kind of subject that was difficult to encompass through language. "Theory," he recognized

becomes infinitely more difficult as soon as it touches the realm of moral values. Architects and painters know precisely what they are about as long as they deal with material phenomena. Mechanical and optical structures are not subject to dispute. But when they come to the aesthetics of their work, when they aim at a particular effect on the mind or on the senses, the rules dissolve into nothing but vague ideas.*28
In place of direct explanation through words and ideas, Clausewitz resorted to an indirect approach of prescribing a system of learning, which he defined as something that was "meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield."*29 Clausewitz's distinction between theory as a teacher and theory as a guide to self-education is important because it defined a facilitating role for theory in a larger process of learning in which other things external to theory were the main matter. Theory, in other words, did not contain its whole meaning within itself, but only through conjunction—and indeed only after being transmuted through combination—with something else (later shown to be history). It was this process of connection and transformation that insured that the gap between theory and practice that other theoreticians regarded as unavoidable, but which Clausewitz deplored,*30 was never allowed to come into being.

The goal of the kind of self-education proposed was the development of a sensibility about reality rather than knowledge of concepts. What Clausewitz called for was the achievement of "close acquaintance" and "thorough familiarity" with the nature of supreme command.*31 An important part of this process was the acquisition of a highly subjective kind of knowledge: grasp of the higher affairs of state and associated policies; the ability to judge issues and leading personalities; understanding of the abilities of subordinates; and comprehension of the performance capabilities of the army to be commanded. "This type of knowledge," Clausewitz observed, "cannot be forcibly produced by an apparatus of scientific formulas and mechanics; it can only be gained through a talent for judgment, and by the application of accurate judgment to the observation of man and matter."*32 "Natural talent" was schooled by actual war, but in the absence of such, Clausewitz believed that the talent of a senior commander could be enhanced artificially "through the medium of reflection, study and thought."*33 The formulation of rules and principles was allowable, but only after the creation of a sensibility that then generated such a systematic understanding "automatically" and "spontaneously."*34

Clausewitz intended his discussion of the creation of supreme command capability by a particular individual as a device to clarify the nature of the problem of theory.*35 He did not exclude persons who were not commanders-in-chief-in-waiting from his audience,*36 but asked them to understand that any proper theory of war had to make the conscious and unconscious cogitation of the human executor of high command and human relations its focal points. Clausewitz believed that war was not just an activity performed by humans, but a purely human activity, which meant that it was essential to understand the nature of the agents of action as well as to deal with the actions themselves. Thus he observed that war existed not in the realms of science or art but rather as a "part of man's social existence."*37 This being the case, Clausewitz argued that the human dynamics of war could accurately be compared to those of commerce and especially politics,*38 which was to say that certain aspects of ordinary life could serve as a starting point for understanding the nature of armed conflict.*39

But Clausewitz believed that for those who lacked first-hand experience of war, the study of the past was the main stimulus to the development of understanding about the moral basis of human behavior in a real conflict as it was affected by a host of external as well as internal factors.*40 Knowledge of history was to be achieved through "critical analysis," which had three aspects. These were establishing a truthful basic narrative, explaining causation, and evaluating the soundness of actions, or as Clausewitz put it, historical research, critical analysis proper, and criticism proper.*41 Historical research was essential to exclude falsehood, because error would skew all subsequent deliberations.*42 But Clausewitz was acutely aware that crucial information about military operations often did not exist. In war, he wrote, "facts are seldom fully known and the underlying motive even less so" because they may have been "intentionally concealed by those in command, or, if they happen to be transitory and accidental, history may not have recorded them at all."*43

Incomplete evidence was a fundamental obstacle, but by no means the only one to an accurate comprehension of past events and their meaning. "Effects in war," Clausewitz maintained, "seldom result from a single cause; there are usually several concurrent causes."*44 In addition to multiple causation, establishing the relationship between cause and effect was not easy for three reasons. In the first place, actions had unintended as well as intended effects.*45 In the second place, Clausewitz recognized that circumstances could multiply the force of trivial initial happenings. In war, he observed, "as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations and modify their final outcome to some degree, however slight."*46 And in the third place, the assessment of causation became increasingly difficult as the level of analysis was shifted from battle to campaign, and from campaign to war, because the number of influential factors and their possible interactions increased with each expansion of scale and complexity.*47

Clausewitz knew that the difficulty of supreme command was in large part a matter of the dilemmas of choosing the right course at the right time. Sound evaluation of particular decisions, therefore, required the consideration of a range of alternative options and the reasons for their rejection as well as the rationale for the action actually taken. "A great many assumptions," Clausewitz thus argued, "have to be made about things that did not actually happen but seemed possible, and that, therefore, cannot be left out of account."*48 "Critical analysis is not just an evaluation of the means actually employed," he added later, "but of all possible means—which first have to be formulated, that is, invented."*49 Once the various command possibilities were identified and described, criticism proper would assess their relative worthiness by "taking each of the means and assessing and comparing the particular merits of each in relation to the objective."*50

The mixture of surmise and fact, and the multitude of issues that had to be taken into account, exposed the approach recommended by Clausewitz to charges of either arbitrariness or incompleteness. He thus insisted that a strong claim to intellectual legitimacy be established by the rigor of the theory that governed the process of reasoning. "We must never stop at an arbitrary assumption that others may not accept," Clausewitz wrote, "lest different propositions, equally valid perhaps, be advanced against them; leading to an unending argument, reaching no conclusions, and resulting in no lesson."*51 He insisted, moreover, on similar grounds upon the need for what all would recognize as an appropriate critical method. "A working theory," Clausewitz maintained, "is an essential basis for criticism. Without such a theory it is generally impossible for criticism to reach that point at which it becomes truly instructive—when its arguments are convincing and cannot be refuted."*52

Systematic examination of a military problem as it presented itself to the leader of an army in all its complexity and difficulty did not mean adopting completely his perspective. While Clausewitz expected the critic to "reduce to factual knowledge" the "essential interconnections of genius [of the commander],"*53 he also held that the external event—that is, the success or nonsuccess of the operational occurrences resulting from the commander's decisions—was germane to the proper assessment of decision making, however unquantifiable this aspect of evaluation might be. Clausewitz noted that

the critic, then, having analyzed everything within the range of human calculation and belief, will let the outcome speak for that part whose deep, mysterious operation is never visible. The critic must protect this unspoken result of the workings of higher laws against the stream of uninformed opinion on the one hand, and against the gross abuses to which it may be subjected on the other. Success enables us to understand much that the workings of human intelligence alone would not be able to discover. That means that it will be useful mainly in revealing intellectual and psychological forces and effects, because these are least subject to reliable evaluation, and also because they are so closely involved with the will that they may easily control it.*54
Clausewitz's approach to self-education thus had two distinct modes. On the one hand, there was the precise use of language to establish clearly the relationship of many things in proper proportion. This was, in his own words, supposed "to illuminate the connections which link things together and to determine which among the countless concatenations of events are the essential ones."*55 On the other hand, there was a more allusive approach that took account of the critically important role of the commander's mindset—that is, the conscious and especially unconscious mentality that reacted to events. The second mode was no less important than the first, and had to be based on clear description of reality rather than elaborately stated theory. It is, Clausewitz insisted, "never necessary or even permissible to use scientific guidelines in order to judge a given problem in war, if the truth never appears in systematic form, if it is not acquired deductively but always directly through the natural perception of the mind, then that is the way it must also be in critical analysis."*56 Clausewitz insisted that "natural" and "direct" perception by the reader could be accomplished only with "simple terms and straightforward observation."*57 He regarded "jargon, technicalities, and metaphors" as "a lawless rabble of camp followers" at worst, and "nothing more than ornamental flourishes of the critical narrative" at best.*58 His ideal was "plain speech," which minimized the opportunities for misunderstanding on the part of the author or the reader.*59

The object to be perceived through "natural perception of the mind" in order to achieve "close acquaintance" and "thorough familiarity," as opposed to an understanding of theory, was past events. "Historical examples clarify everything," Clausewitz wrote, "and also provide the best kind of proof in the empirical sciences."*60 That being said, he then warned that "historical examples are, however, seldom used to such good effect"; indeed, Clausewitz complained, "the use of them by theorists normally not only leaves the reader dissatisfied but even irritates his intelligence."*61 Historical example was an appropriate instrument when dealing with the explanation of an idea or the application of an idea, or in support of the possible—as opposed to certain—validity of a statement. But the kind of simple narratives or anecdotes that were the usual form of historical evidence were almost always incapable of providing a complete proof of a major theoretical conclusion. "The sheer range to be covered," Clausewitz wrote, "would often rule this out; and, apart from that, it might be difficult to point to actual experience on every detail."*62

The complex authenticity required to demonstrate the validity of a general truth could be achieved only through the examination of a single case about which a great deal was known and whose nature could be further explicated through the application of the critical analytical techniques that compensated for what could not be established unequivocally from the historical record. Clausewitz was open to the use of several cases when knowledge of a single one was inadequate, but warned that "this is clearly a dangerous expedient, and is frequently misused."*63 He saw little value and even pernicious effect in examining an event about which information was sparse, such as a battle or campaign in the distant past.*64 "An event that is lightly touched upon, instead of being carefully detailed," Clausewitz wrote, "is like an object seen at a great distance: it is impossible to distinguish any detail, and it looks the same from every angle."*65

From the standpoint of methodological tactics, Clausewitz's ideal was to use a properly conceived theory to redress certain unavoidable gaps in the historical record in a way that amplified with minimal distortion the practical instructional value of an extensive body of detailed information about a past event. From the standpoint of pedagogical strategy, the Clausewitzian ideal was to teach supreme command in war using only a body of work produced by correct methodological tactics. Such an approach, he wrote in the words of the Code Napole6n, would amount to the presentation of nothing less than "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."*66 Clausewitz believed the first was not only achievable, but in fact obligatory though extremely challenging. He was less sanguine about the immediate attainability of the second. It would take time to create the literature required, and without it his pedagogical ideal would remain no more than its name—a distant beacon rather than a practical source of illumination.

Clausewitz suspended labor on On War in 1827 and turned his attention to writing the kind of analytical historical studies called for in book two. These concerned the Italian campaigns of 1796 and 1799, and the campaign of 1815. In 1830, Clausewitz was recalled to active service in the field when Prussia mobilized in response to the French Revolution of that year. In 1831, shortly after resuming light administrative duties that would have allowed him to carry on his literary endeavors, Clausewitz died from the effects of cholera. When published posthumously, his historical writings of 1827-30 came to fifteen hundred printed pages, which took up four out of the ten volumes of his collected works. They have yet to be translated into English.*67

Nearly all major treatises On War have either derived theory from history, or used historical examples to illustrate aspects of theory. In book two of On War, Clausewitz presented a different approach. His own extensive experience as an officer in the wars of the French Revolution and Empire*68 made him an eyewitness to the difficulty and complexity of supreme command, and no less importantly, made him aware of the inherent incompleteness of the historical record with respect to its operation in the past. He thus formulated a body of significant considerations and dynamics for which no hard evidence could exist, and insisted that these factors had to be imagined and related to known historical facts in order to comprehend the moral aspect of supreme command. In other words, a critical component of the larger theoretical edifice presented in On War defined the terms of synthesis of that for which there was no record, and thus neither summarized nor distilled history, but complemented it.

This aspect of Clausewitzian theory consisted of instructions to deal with the following issues, which were described fully in the preceding section and here summarized. First, the fundamental psychological factors of emotion, contingency, and uncertainty affected the state of mind of the commander. Second, the commander's judgment was informed by subjective factors, including his knowledge of policy and politics, assessments of people and issues, and comprehension of the quality of the forces commanded. Third was the multitude of operational facts and motives for action of many individuals that were either never known or, if known, never recorded or even intentionally obscured. Fourth was the peculiar nature of the relationship between cause and effect in war, whose character was affected by the play of unintended consequences and complexity. Fifth, in war, commanders were confronted by a range of choices, and assessment of the quality of the decision actually made, required consideration of the alternatives. And sixth, the success or failure of the operation had to be given a measure of significance when considering the rightness or wrongness of decision making by way of acknowledging the effects of unknown and perhaps even unknowable factors.

The high degree of subjectivity and surmise introduced by Clausewitz's theoretical complement to the historical record was counterbalanced by two injunctions. The first was that the execution of the theoretical instructions be intellectually rigorous, and second, that the historical cases investigated be ones about which a very great deal was known in order to reduce to a minimum the play of surmise about matters of objective and subjective fact. For Clausewitz, the end product of the creation of that which was called for by theory and integration of it with what was known from history was, if not truth, something much closer to the truth than history alone. This constructed truth, moreover, was a thing that had to be felt as much as thought—it was addressed to the subconscious as well as conscious mind. The goal of intensive engagement through study and reflection with a combination of fact and surmise, in other words, was not erudition, but the experience of replicating certain aspects of actual experience. Possession of the resulting sensibility was intended by Clausewitz to be, among other things, the prerequisite to the consideration of strategic concepts.

Clausewitz's method of combining history and theory was capable of accomplishing what maneuvers, wargaming, and consideration of hypothetical cases could not. The latter activities could provide verisimilitude with regard to specific military circumstances, and maneuvers and wargaming in addition had the advantage of incorporating the dynamics of a reacting opponent. On the other hand, the circumstantial realism of maneuvers, wargaming, and the consideration of hypothetical cases was not attached to responsibility for outcomes that mattered, and thus did not incorporate the factor of critically debilitating fear generated by genuine moral dilemma.*69 An actual event in the past provided a better point of departure for the imagination of these factors because empathy with real persons offered a more direct path to the realm of emotions than the invention or pretense of fictional sentiments. History deployed in conjunction with sound theory insured that the student of supreme command was not merely a detached witness to a mental reenactment of the past, but virtually a participant in its moral as well as physical performance. The objective of such authentic involvement was to induce understanding that command at the strategic level was not so much asserted or exercised as expressed.

For Clausewitz, engagement with a single properly presented historical case was preferable to the study of multiple conventional accounts of past campaigns. By the same token, Clausewitz probably believed that his pedagogical objectives could be achieved through the study of only a few events—he did not require, in other words, a comprehensive survey of recent major military happenings; a selection would do. And because ordinary life also involved contention with complexity, uncertainty, and risk of negative consequences in the event of decision-making error that was sufficient to prompt performance-degrading apprehension, Clausewitz observed that it too could serve similarly as a source of insight into the nature of command in war. Of course, the critical difference between decision making in war and ordinary life lay in the far greater magnitude of responsibility in the case of the former, which meant that military crisis was bound to generate commensurately higher levels of fear. War, Clausewitz thus might have said, was like ordinary life, only much more so.

In book one of On War, Clausewitz defined major terms and introduced important concepts, including the famous aphorism, but it was essentially a taxonomic prelude to book two. It was in book two that Clausewitz dealt with the problematical nature of armed conflict between nation-states presented in book one, by inventing the means by which such a subject had to be engaged in the absence of actual experience. Having presented his method of study, Clausewitz then devoted the remainder of his treatise to the investigation of important issues that needed to be taken into account after at least comprehending, if not deploying, the instrument of instruction given in book two. These were strategy in general, the nature of an engagement, the nature of military forces, the nature of defense, the nature of offense, and finally war planning. When considered as a whole and in terms of book order, there can be little doubt that book two—whose title "On Theory" named Clausewitz's creative objective—is the synthetic pivot of On War.

In his conclusions to the first chapter of On War, Clausewitz asserted that the concept that "all wars can be considered acts of policy" had to be a major component of the "foundations of theory."*70 Clausewitz's conception of the relationship of theory to history, however, conditioned the function of his dictum. The concept served as the most important of the subjective factors—the second category of his theoretical instructions—that shaped the judgment of army leaders but which was too often overlooked for want of evidence or understanding of its significance in accounts of past wars. It was less a recommendation to statesmen and generals, for whom it could hardly come as news,*71 than a tip among several to laymen or officers who lacked experience and were studying history, or would-be analysts who were writing it.

The famous phrase may legitimately provoke thoughts about important questions without regard for its intended role, but nothing could be more misleading than to distill Clausewitz's thought down to a single sentence about war and politics as is so frequently the case.*72 The term "Clausewitzian," if used at all, should refer to the German author's most important and distinctive contribution to the consideration of the phenomenon of war. This was the invention of a way of attenuating the very serious drawbacks of reductionist theorizing and incomplete history by combining theory and history in such a way that each performed functions that the other could or should not. It was this conception that Clausewitz probably had in mind when he wrote that his "basic ideas" would perhaps bring about "a revolution in the theory of war."*73 The term "Clausewitzian," should refer to a particular way of perceiving, imagining, and learning, not the relationship of phenomena. It does not make sense, therefore, to criticize On War as an incomplete analysis of the total phenomenon of armed conflict,*74 which was not its purpose and which, if attempted, would have defeated Clausewitz's determination to lay bare "the hidden processes of intuitive judgment."*75

Clausewitz's insistence upon avoidance of jargon, recognition of the difficulties of coming to terms with the moral dynamics of critical decision making in war by leaders of armies, and formulation of a method of mentally reenacting the psychological circumstances of an historical event, are remarkably similar to ideas put forward by R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943), the distinguished British philosopher and historian.*76 Collingwood, a man of broad erudition, may have read On War and been influenced by its contents, but there is no evidence of this. Whether a causal relationship between the thought of Clausewitz and Collingwood exists, however, is not the issue here. What matters is that the congruence of attitudes is so strong that consideration of Collingwood's writing can be used to clarify and amplify our understanding of that of Clausewitz. Collingwood believed that ordinary language was the best medium of communication about matters that were not strictly technical, such as those that were the subject of historical or philosophical inquiry. "The business of language," he wrote in his Essay on Philosophical Method (1933),

is to express or explain; if language cannot explain itself, nothing else can explain it; and a technical term in so far as it calls for explanation, is to that extent not language but something else which resembles language in being significant, but differs from it in not being expressive or self-explanatory.*77
A writer about things philosophical, Collingwood argued, thus had to avoid technical language and adopt only terminology that possessed "that expressiveness, that flexibility, that dependence upon context, which are the hall-marks of a literary use of words as opposed to a technical use of symbols."*78 The attitude of a philosopher, Collingwood knew, was essential when dealing with the behavior of human beings in the past, which constituted much of what is called history, because of certain shortcomings in the common forms of historical discourse.

Historians, Collingwood maintained, preserved narrative cohesion and the authority of the narrator's voice at the cost of introducing serious distortions in the presentation of the past as a human experience. Historians, he observed,

try to steer clear of doubts and problems, and stick to what is certain. This division of what we know into what we know for certain and what we know in a doubtful or problematic way, the first being narrated and the second suppressed, gives every historical writer an air of knowing more than he says, and addressing himself to a reader who knows less than he.... The writer, however conscientiously he cites authorities, never lays bare the processes of thought which have led him to his conclusions.*79
Philosophers, on the other hand, wrote about those things omitted by the historian. The philosopher's purpose, Collingwood noted,
is not to select from among his thoughts those of which he is certain and to express those, but the very opposite: to fasten upon the difficulties and obscurities in which he finds himself involved, and try, if not to solve or remove them, at least to understand them better.... The philosopher therefore, in the course of his business, must always be confessing his difficulties, whereas the historian is always to some extent concealing them.*80
Identifying the author of a text as essentially philosophical as opposed to historical in the sense described by Collingwood had serious implications for the reader. "In reading the philosophers," Collingwood wrote,
we "follow" them: that is, we understand what they think, and reconstruct in ourselves, so far as we can, the processes by which they have come to think it. There is an intimacy in the latter relation which can never exist in the former. What we demand of the historian is a product of his thought; what we demand of the philosopher is his thought itself."*81
Thus a philosophical work was not a form of prose, but rather what Collingwood called "a poem of the intellect."*82 What this poem expressed was "not emotions, desires, feelings, as such, but those which a thinking mind experiences in its search for knowledge; and it expresses these only because the experience of them is an integral part of the search, and that search is thought itself."*83 "The reader, on his side," Collingwood went on to state later,
must approach his philosophical author precisely as if he were a poet, in the sense that he must seek in his work the expression of an individual experience, something which the writer has actually lived through, and something which the reader must live through in his turn by entering into the writer's mind with his own.*84
Collingwood's insistence upon the critical importance of experience, and the experience of inquiry into experience, as the source and measure of any presentation of human affairs, including those of the distant past, informed his writing on the philosophy of history. In an essay on the nature and aims of the philosophy of history (1924-25), he rejected in principle the notion that history could be used to construct general laws and specifically ruled out the legitimacy of doing so with regard to the conduct of warfare.*85 Collingwood also maintained that knowledge of past events was always incomplete in significant ways, observing of the Battle of Hastings that "no one knows, no one ever has known, and no one ever will know what exactly it was that happened."*86 In his classic study, The Idea of History (1946), he considered the question "of what can there be historical knowledge[?]," and answered "that which can be re-enacted in the historian's mind," which "must be experience."*87 The purpose of this kind of historical inquiry was practical. "We study history," Collingwood maintained in his autobiography (1939), "in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act."*88 Collingwood's focus on deliberative intelligence, his equivocal attitude toward much of the writing of his day about psychology, and his belief that science had little to contribute to his inquiries, precluded searching or otherwise productive consideration of the unconscious.*89 The illumination of this aspect of Clausewitz's work, therefore, must be accomplished by describing recent findings of cognitive science.

Over the past thirty years, the nature and function of the human mind have been the subject of new forms of rigorous experimental research. Some of the implications of this field have been summarized by Guy Claxton in Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less (1997) as follows. When confronted by problematical data and danger that produces uncertainty, the subconscious is superior to the conscious mind as a decision-making mechanism because of its capacity to "record and use information that is of a degree of subtlety greater than we can talk or think about."*90 And reciprocally, "because consciousness demands information that is tidy and unequivocal, it can never be as richly informed as intuition."*91 Enlarging the cognitive capability of the unconscious cannot be achieved "through earnest manipulation of abstraction" [i.e., theory] but requires "leisurely contemplation of the particular" [i.e., recollection of reality or study of a detailed account of reality, in a word, experience of history]."*92 In the latter case, a person must "extract patterns from experience, without necessarily being able to say what they are."*93 The technique of doing so, moreover,

cannot successfully be taught directly, and that any benefits that do accrue tend not to transfer from explicit learning into spontaneous use. Learning power ... cannot be reduced to formulae and transmitted into someone's head by instruction.*94
Claxton's last point—that learning is improved by doing learning, not following an instruction about how to do learning—was never stated by Clausewitz, but may be implicit in his conception of a text-induced substitute for experience. That is to say, the objective of gaining experience through the study of a properly constituted account of strategic decision making in war was not just a generalized impression of real command, but included familiarity at the conscious and unconscious level with a particular form of learning. Experience in this sense was about the learning procedures that would face the supreme commander in war, not decision making in war as such. Appropriate preparation with respect to learning would enable otherwise inexperienced persons to perform better in a real war. This was because they would be able to develop effective faculties of supreme command faster than would have been the case than if they had had to assimilate both a difficult and unfamiliar form of learning and at the same time use it to make sense of the immediate circumstances of the war. The ability to acquire new methods of learning is a facet of an inquisitive intellect.*95 It is thus surely significant that even though Clausewitz regarded strategy as a form of "creative intellectual activity,"*96 he insisted that the qualities of military genius were most likely to be displayed by "the inquiring rather than the creative mind."*97

B. H. Liddell Hart (1895-1970), the British military theorist, maintained that Clausewitz "acquired a philosophical mode of expression without developing a truly philosophical mind."*98 Raymond Aron (1905-83), the French political scientist, argued in response that although Clausewitz's premature death left many major problems unsolved, even the incomplete and thus imperfect attempt to provide a comprehensive view of the nature of major armed conflict between modern nations made him a "philosopher of war."*99 Peter Paret and Azar Gat, among others, have sought to identify the sources of those aspects of Clausewitz's thinking that are philosophical in writing by thinkers of his day or earlier.*100 The discussion of Collingwood and Claxton provides the basis for views that differ or otherwise depart from all three positions. Clausewitz possessed a "truly philosophical mind" pace Liddell Hart, but in Collingwood's terms, not Aron's. That is, Clausewitz in book two demanded that his readers follow his method of imagining the psychological circumstances of critical decision making by the supreme commander—in effect asking the reader to replicate his own experience of observing the direction of armies in war—rather than receive a systematic description of the phenomenon of war as a whole. And while portions of Clausewitz's approach to writing about war were undoubtedly influenced by the philosophical literature available to him, he also appears to have fashioned attitudes and instruments that were original. Clausewitz, in other words, was not merely an applicator of the philosophy of others, but was creative in his own right in a way so substantial that he anticipated important work of the twentieth century.

On War is widely admired as the most intelligent and comprehensive treatment of major armed conflict in existence. But the failure to appreciate the nature of Clausewitz's inventive achievements in spite of—or perhaps even because of—their resemblance to twentieth-century theoretical thinking, is probably the main reason why so much of his most well-known book has remained obscure to nearly all readers. Ironically, the considerable virtues that have given On War its reputation as a classic—perceptive observation, provocative contention, and suggestive imagery—have diverted attention from an even greater attribute. This was Clausewitz's formulation of a method of imparting comprehension of a phenomenon that could not be directly described in words—namely the moral nature of supreme command in war—using insights about the processes of human communication, inquiry, remembrance of things past, and decision-making that were not to be discovered and articulated by linguistic philosophy, philosophy, philosophy of history, and cognitive science until long after his death. For this reason, even though nearly two centuries have elapsed since its near completion, On War as a work of military theory remains in advance of the current state of the art. Which is to say that Clausewitz's magnum opus has retained the capacity to provoke major changes in the way in which military history that is considered appropriate to the education of senior officers should be written and taught. More generally, the issues addressed in On War set a standard for serious military history that have yet to be recognized and applied. It remains to be seen whether academic scholarship or professional military education will accept these challenges, and take the difficult steps to meet them.


1. This is a longer and much revised version of a paper, "History and Theory: the Clausewitzian Ideal and Its Implications," which was given at the King Hall Naval History Conference: "History, Strategy and the Rise of Australian Naval Power," Australian War Memorial, 22-24 July 1999, and published in the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute of Australia 21 (May 2000): 63-73. I am indebted to George Baer, Christopher Bassford, Arthur Eckstein, Nicholas Lambert, John Reese, and Brian Sullivan for their meticulous readings of numerous earlier redactions of the present article; to James Goldrick, John Hattendorf, Sir Michael Howard, and David Rosenberg for many years of charitable encouragement and critical discussion; to Bruce Vandervort for his open-minded and intelligent consideration of my original draft article; and to my students at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the National War College, Washington, D.C., for their forbearance as their instructor worked out his thoughts.

2. Bernard Brodie, "The Continuing Relevance of On War," in Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976), 50, italics in the original [henceforth cited as On War, then book, chapter, and page].

3. Isaiah Berlin, "The Originality of Machiavelli" [originally published as "The Question of Machiavelli" in New York Review of Books, 4 November 1971, 20-31] in Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (1979; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1982), 79.

4. "War, therefore, is an act of policy," On War, bk. 1, ch. 1, 87.

5. Trinity of opposed forces of violence, chance, and politics, and "Friction in War," On War, bk. 1, ch. 1, 89, and eh. 7, 119-21.

6. "Defense is the stronger form of waging war," On War, bk. 6, ch. 1, 359.

7. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 168-69.

8. Raymond Aron, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, trans. Christine Booker and Norman Stone (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 196-213; Azar Gat, Origins of Military Thought from the Enlightenment to Clausewitz (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 187-89, 197, 210-12; Alan Beyerchen, "Clausewitz, Nonlinearity, and the Unpredictability of War," International Security 17 (Winter 1992-93): 59-90; and Michael 1. Handel, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, 2d rev. ed. (London: Frank Cass, 1996).

9. Peter Paret, "Clausewitz as Historian," in Understanding War: Essays on Clausewitz and the History of Military Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), 130.

10. Gat, Origins of Military Thought, 255-63.

11. "Note of 10 July 1827," in On War, 70.

12. On War, bk. 2, eh. 1, 128, italics in the original.

13. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 133.

14. On War, bk. 2, ch. 4, 153.

15. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 140.

16. On War, bk. 2, eh. 4, 154-55.

17. On War, bk. 2, eh. 2, 134.

18. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 133.

19. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 134.

20. Ibid.

21. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 136.

22. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 137-40.

23. On War, bk. 2, eh. 2, 136, italics in the original. Clausewitz explained that "genius" was a term reserved to describe capability at the highest level of military command, for which see On War, bk. 1, ch. 3, 111. For the source of the concept, see Gat, Origins of Military Thought, 175-76.

24. On War, bk. 1, eh. 3, 108.

25. On War, bk. 1, ch. 3, 112.

26. Ibid. See also bk. 3, eh. 7, 193 (long experience of war creates a knack of rapidly assessing these phenomena).

27. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 136.

28. Ibid

29. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 141; see also bk. 2, ch. 5 (theory as a guide to a commander's education), 168.

30. On War, bk. 2, eh. 2, 142.

31. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 141.

32. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 146.

33. Ibid.

34. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 141.

35. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 147.

36. Carl von Clausewitz, "On the Genesis of his Early Manuscript on the Theory of War, Written around 1818," in On War, 63.

37. On War, bk. 2, ch. 3, 149.

38. See also ibid.

39. On War, bk. 3, eh. 7, 193.

40. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 142-43.

41. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 156.

42. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 157.

43. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 156; see also bk. 1, ch. 3 (clashes of opinion that precede major operations are deliberately concealed because they touch political interests, or are forgotten), 112, and eh. 7 (effects of friction cannot be measured), 120; bk. 2, ch. 5 (mass of influential minor circumstances and many subjective motives unknowable), 164; bk. 6, ch. 8 (counterweights that weaken elemental force of war concealed from rest of world and even from commander), 388; bk. 8, ch. 4 (moral factors that never come to light), 595.

44. On War, bk. 2, eh. 5, 157.

45. Ibid.

46. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 158. See also bk. 8, eh. 4 (particular factors can often be decisive), 595.

47. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 159.

48. Ibid.

49. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5,161.

50. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 163.

51. On War, bk. 2, eh. 5, 157.

52. Ibid.

53. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 165.

54. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 167. See also bk. 1, ch. 5 (feelings act as higher judgment), 116, and bk. 3, ch. 1 (accurate fulfillment of unspoken assumptions only become evident in final success), 177-78.

55. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 161.

56. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 168, italics in the original.

57. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 169.

58. On War, bk. 2, eh. 5, 168-69, italics in the original.

59. On War, bk. 2, ch. 5, 169; see also bk. 3, ch. 7 (instead of denizens of the scientific world, the reader finds himself encountering only creatures of everyday life), 193.

60. On War, bk. 2, ch. 6, 170.

61. Ibid.

62. On War, bk. 2, ch. 6, 171.

63. On War, bk. 2, ch. 6, 172.

64. On War, bk. 2, ch. 6, 174.

65. On War, bk. 2, eh. 6, 172.

66. On War, bk. 2, eh. 6, 174, italics in the original.


67. Paret, "Genesis," in On War, 24. For Clausewitz's study of the campaign of 1815, see Christopher Bassford and Gregory W. Pedlow, eds., On Waterloo: The Exchange Between Wellington and Clausewitz, which is unpublished but surely will appear with the completion of the editorial effort. I am indebted to Christopher Bassford for allowing me to examine Clausewitz's revealing work and the no less valuable commentary of Wellington.

68. Roger Parkinson, Clausewitz: A Biography (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), and Peter Paret, Clausewitz and the State (Oxford: Clarendon, 1976).

69. On War, bk. 1, ch. 8 (peacetime maneuvers are a feeble substitute for the real thing), 122.

70. On War, bk. 1, ch. 1, 88-89.

71. Bernard Brodie, "The Continuing Relevance of On War," in On War, 45.

72. Anatol Rapoport, "Introduction" to Carl von Clausewitz, On War (Harmondsworth, UX: Penguin, 1968), 13; Jehuda L. Wallach, The Dogma of the Battle of Annihilation: The Theories of Clausewitz and Schlieffen and Their Impact on the German Conduct of Two World Wars (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985), 12; and John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 3-24.

73. "Note of 10 July 1827," in On War, 70.

74. See especially B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 2d rev. ed. (1954; reprint, New York: Meridian, 1991), ch. 21. For a description of this general approach, and a critique of its shortcomings, see Peter Paret, "Clausewitz," in Peter Paret et al., eds., Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986), 208-9.

75. On War, bk. 8, ch. 8, 389, italics in the original.

76. E. W. F. Tomlin, R. G. Collingwood (London: Longmans, Green, for the British Council and the National Book League, 1953); and Peter Johnson, FL G. Collingwood: An Introduction (Bristol, U.K.: Thoemmes Press, 1998).

77. R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Philosophical Method (Bristol, UX: Thoemmes Press, 1995; first published in 1933), 204.

78. Ibid., 207.

79. Ibid., 209-10.

80. Ibid., 210.

81. Ibid., 211.

82. Ibid., 212.

83. Ibid.

84. Ibid., 215.

85. R. G. Collingwood, "The Nature and Aims of a Philosophy of History" (1924-25) in William Debbins, ed., Essays in the Philosophy of History (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 34.

86. "Nature and Aims," 43. See also William H. Dray, History as Re-Enactment: R G. Collingwood's Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 233-39; and R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of History and Other Writings in Philosophy of History, ed. W. H. Dray and W. J. van der Dussen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), lxii-lxviii.

87. R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (1946; reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 302.

88. R. G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 114. For Collingwood's explicit inclusion of command in war as one of the situations he had in mind, see pp. 110, 112-14.

89. Alan Donagan, The Later Philosophy of R. G. Collingwood (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), 166-72, 272-73; Ray Monk's Preface in Johnson, Collingwood: An Introduction, x; and Dray's Introduction in Collingwood, Principles of History, Ixvii-lxviii. For Collingwood's championship of deliberative intelligence and antipathy to psychology, see R. G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), chs. 10-13. For Collingwood's brief engagement with the unconscious sources of artistic creativity, see R. G. Collingwood, Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925; reprint, Bristol, UX: Thoemmes Press, 1994), 47-49.

90. Guy Claxton, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less (1997; reprint, New York: Ecco, 1999), 144.

91. Ibid., 211.

92. Ibid., 173.

93. Ibid., 220-21.

94. Ibid., 221-22.

95. Ibid., 19.

96. On War, bk. 2, ch. 2, 133.

97. On War, bk. 1, ch. 3, 112. See also bk. 2, ch. 3, 150 (this subject [war theory] can be elucidated by an inquiring mind, and its internal structure can to some degree be revealed).

98. Liddell Hart, Strategy, 339-40.

99. Aron, Clausewitz: Philosopher of War, 234-38.

100. Gat, Origins of Military Thought, ch. 6; Paret, Clausewitz and the State, 150-208; and Paret, "Clausewitz: Life and Thought," in Understanding War, 95-122.

Sumida, Jon T. "“The Relationship between History and Theory in On War: the Clausewitzian Ideal and Its Implications." ” Journal of Military History, 65 (April 2001), pp.333-54.


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