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 Major Ralph Peters, author of Flames of Heaven.
The following review appeared in Parameters, Winter 1994-95. It is displayed here with the permission of Parameters.
The US Army War College's bust of Carl von Clausewitz has been moved from a prominent, shrine-like alcove to an off-center auditorium entrance where it has a status somewhere between that of a Hummel figurine and a hat-rack. Clausewitz, as indestructible as Shakespeare, is apt to survive the slight—just as this lone philosopher of war has survived the peevish jealousies, whopping misinterpretations, and grunting disdain of generation after generation of second-rate soldiers and third-rate intellectuals. Dr. Christopher Bassford's remarkable and startlingly worthwhile book is about Clausewitz's fortunes—or misfortunes—in the English-speaking world, where the author of Vom Kriege has been quoted more often than read and read more often than understood. Bassford genuinely understands and respects Clausewitz, and he possesses the talent of mind and pen to communicate that understanding. Formerly Director of Studies in the Theory and Nature of War at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and currently on the faculty of the US Army War College, Bassford is a treasure, and so is his book.
Bassford warns up front that "the reader who wants to gain a genuine understanding of Clausewitz cannot escape the task of actually reading On War." Then he proceeds to give a 25-page overview of the man and his works that is the best available in English. This is by way of introduction. The body of the book concerns those English and American officers, military writers, and theorists who collided with Clausewitz from the 19th century down to 1945, when the era of German strategic competition that had begun two centuries before with Frederick's invasion of Silesia came to an end in the ruins of Berlin. It is a chronicle of ineptitude.
Bassford is admirably objective, which must have been a challenge. Although both the British and American militaries and those who have surrounded them have had their other glories, those establishments usually showed poorly when confronted with Clausewitz. The problem, more often than not, was the one of which Bassford warns: In order to make something worthwhile of Clausewitz, you really do need to read him—and not just in a few staff college excerpts or in a greatly abridged translation. You not only need to read him, but you need to think about what he says, to let it stew, then to revisit him every few years, reexamining the ideas—for they are genuine ideas—in the light of experience. While Anglophone officers often have had plenty of experience, it has been the thinking part that has been their downfall. Not only are we unused to exploratory thought, we defensively take refuge in the superficially practical. Now a practical approach to war certainly has its advantages. In the realm of military theory, however, it makes us liable to be seduced by lists and sharply drawn formulae, things readily accessible and applicable, while Clausewitz is neither.
Clausewitz, while not so difficult as his reputation—and actually much easier to read in his native German, to my mind—is tough going compared to the work of a Keegan, in which afactual wishing passes for insight. (Keegan, although not touched in this book, may be the most inaccurate critic of Clausewitz ever to put pen to paper.) Clausewitz is the big leagues. In fact, he constitutes the only team in his league. He is a giant, born of the Romanticism that flourished east of the Rhine, a thinker rational on the surface but actually profoundly intuitive and visionary, and a man so psychologically complex that we understand only those aspects of his character he wanted us to get—which is to say we have no understanding of the inner man at all. Having taken him seriously for well over a decade, I believe he purposely did not "finish" his masterwork, building in the ultimate literary defense mechanism: the reader and critic must always suppose what Clausewitz might have written, had he lived, and which weaknesses he might have strengthened or purged. Even his premature death of cholera was exactly right. Vast, unfinished works of superhuman ambition were an aspect of the high culture of his age, and Werther and Faust were as much a part of the Zeitgeist as was Napoleon: Indeed, the fictions survived the fact. Until someone of unfashionable vanity and ambition undertakes an interdisciplinary study of the man behind the work, our understanding of the Clausewitzian vision is unlikely to deepen. In any case, this greatest of Prussians has always had and will always have his detractors, those who fault him for this part or that, but Clausewitz is greater than the sum of his parts. He is Promethean, and readers patient enough to read past the historical detritus are rewarded with insights into the essence of war that put this singular Prussian into the company of Hegel and Marx—men who saw the world so keenly that their visions changed it.
How did Clausewitz change the world? How much can we measure? That is a sub-theme of Bassford's, and the answer is that no keen measurement is possible. Clausewitz's thought, accurately received or misshapen, has become so pervasive even among officers who have not read a word of his work that, at the end of the day, even the smartest researcher can only put down his final period and say that On War's influence is undeniable but inestimable.
Along with the understanding and explication of Clausewitz's ideas, Bassford is marvelously impressive when it comes to the breadth of his research. He seems to have read everything there is to read on his subject, to have understood it, put it in context, and summarized it so well it will not need doing ever again. As the author cuts his clear path through the jungle of Anglophone military theorizing—or just rambling—the reader incidentally gets an overview of who thought what when in the British and American professions of arms. From Wellington—elite, aloof, and criticism-proof—down to Liddell Hart, who was at least as pathetic as syphilitic, crumpled Nietsche sniveling about supermen in his Italian attic, the English had the most to say about Clausewitz, and they said it awkwardly (though with handsome accents, of course). Americans, such as Mahan, found a natural coincidence of views with Clausewitz, although they often failed to realize it. In the US Army, thinking was something that happened intermittently at dusty, sun-swept posts far from the intellectual centers of civilian society, and the thread of how a handful of largely unacknowledged officers prodded peers and fortunate students to think about war weaves an admirable tapestry. Bassford tells a great story of dutiful struggle and pigheadedness, of petty revenge and epiphany, and, ultimately, of how Anglophone armies that reluctantly read Clausewitz beat a German-speaking military that willfully read him wrong.
Read Clausewitz for an encounter with a great mind which, at its best, saw clearly through the fog of war. Read Christopher Bassford's masterful study to understand how lesser men saw only what they wanted to see. Then think about it.