Musings on Bruce Fleming

by Christopher Bassford

This is's response to Bruce Fleming, "Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?" Parameters, Spring 2004, pp. 62-76. [local backup]

Periodically, some pundit decides to blow the whistle on Clausewitz and the Clausewitzians. Bruce Fleming, Professor of English at the US Naval Academy, offers the latest effort to demonstrate that the Emperor has no clothes. Ultimately, Fleming's critique is not of Clausewitz but of the misuse of Clausewitz's descriptive, explanatory theory in a prescriptive manner by charlatans and ideologues. Unfortunately, the net effect is a sophomoric rejection of ugly, concrete reality and the friction it imposes on those who would think, write, advocate, and act.

Illustration: Clausewitz as DunceAs Clausewitz's self-appointed American PR flack, I feel obliged to respond to such efforts. I try to do so with good humor, but I let the attacker set the asperity level. I must admit that I find Fleming's method and tone insulting and condescending, starting with a strawman question that leads nowhere and concluding with an attempt to shut down thought: We "can’t use [Clausewitzian theory] as a stick to beat anyone with—unless we are prepared to have it used on us in turn." Of course we're going to use ideas (including Clausewitz's) as weapons in our disagreements over policy and strategy: A strategic debate is not a dinner party. And there is no guarantee the right ideas will win. Welcome to the real world.

Nonetheless, much of Fleming's analysis of Clausewitz's argument is very good. Unlike the current leader of the Clausewitz-bashers, he appears actually to have read the book he criticizes, or large parts thereof. For this, at least, we must congratulate him. There are some important weirdities, however, as for instance his reference to Clausewitz’s “distaste for ‘irregular’ wars.” I wonder: Does anyone sane have a "taste" for such wars? But Clausewitz, unlike Jomini (with whom Fleming appears to be confusing him), insisted that such conflicts were in fact a valid form of warfare and had to be dealt with in any useful military theory. That error, like many others in Fleming's essay, reflects the popular British tradition of misrepresenting Clausewitz. (As does Fleming's adoption of B.H. Liddell Hart's insistent refusal to acknowledge the gulf between Clausewitz and those who like to quote him.)

In the end, one must admit, Fleming's main contribution is appropriate to the interests of an English professor: He proposes that we teach On War as poetry. The book's key passages do indeed have poetry's power to invoke a rich universe of ideas and possible meanings in a few short lines. But it sounds as if he doesn't really much care for such poetry.

The opening question: "Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?

Obvious answer: Why yes, of course reading Clausewitz can save us from future mistakes, especially mistakes on exam questions about Clausewitz—a lesson writers like Martin van Creveld and John Keegan might well ponder to their own benefit. And reading Clausewitz can save us from future errors in actually waging war, as could reading the New York Times. The possibility is certainly present.

It seems that the question Fleming is really asking, however, is “Will reading Clausewitz necessarily and in and of itself save us from military mistakes?” To which the equally obvious answer is No. We must also think about both what we are reading and what we are doing, and get them right—or, at least, more right than our opponents. And even then, sheer bloody chance may intervene to negate our brilliance. It happens.

Even the question “Has reading Clausewitz ever saved anybody from making a military mistake?” is pretty uninformative. I am very confident the answer is Yes, but I would be hard-pressed to offer an incontrovertible example. That is simply the nature of writing intellectual history, which, as somebody said, “is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.” Certainly the elder Moltke, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, and Colin Powell, all successful military commanders, would have said yes.

The sad fact is that there is no reading that will in itself save us from future mistakes. Fleming no doubt knows this, so why has he wasted our time with this inane query? Does he have a better reading suggestion to offer? Personally, I know of no better theoretical basis for debate and analysis than On War, though I feel free to modify, quibble over, and challenge any element of it as I see fit. There is no contradiction in praising Clausewitz for providing the theoretical basis while holding him unresponsible for the outcome. He’s dead, you know, and knows nothing of our specific situation. Our errors are our own, and when we get it right—well, I for one am prepared to share a little credit with my mentors.

Problems in Detail

Fleming’s analysis of Clausewitz is sophisticated but surprisingly anti-intellectual. His complaint about Clausewitz's "metaphysical" approach applies only to one 14-page chapter and ignores the other 500+ pages, mostly devoted to quite practical issues. This first chapter is indeed abstract, but then, the very notion of "war" as a phenomenon (vice specific wars) is an abstraction. Clausewitz's overall approach is ruthlessly empirical—it rejects the normative, predictive approach to theory because that approach consistently fails in the real world. Fleming complains, quite rightly, of the misuse of individual "nuggets" from Clausewitzian theory, but he rejects the effort required to get what Clausewitz truly offers: sustained and intimate contact with one of the great minds of history as it confronts the crucial but confusing phenomenon of war.

What is most puzzling in Fleming’s critique, however, is that he understands Clausewitz’s dialectical method yet seems to deny that Clausewitz also understood it. Clausewitz stands with one foot in the Enlightenment and one foot in Romanticism, not because he was confused or a victim of poor choice in birth and death dates, but because war has both rational and irrational roots and characteristics. “Absolute” or "ideal" war was never meant as a practical description or prescription. It is part of the initial thesis statement, which Clausewitz then goes on to challenge and demolish. And the blunt statement that “war is merely an expression of policy,” when Clausewitz first offers it, is his antithesis—which he also goes on to challenge and demolish. His synthesis and final assessment of the nature of war, expressed as the wunderliche dreifaltigkeit, or “Fascinating Trinity,” is one of the aspects of On War that Fleming fails to understand. While he acknowledges that this trinity does not consist of “people, army, and government,” he conducts the rest of his argument as if it did. And Clausewitz made no effort to prescribe the "proper mix" of those elements he actually listed, because his point was that they—and the relationships among them—are not under our control. Evidently, Fleming took his own advice on this issue (i.e., “Don’t try to figure it out”).

The reason Clausewitz uses this complex dialectical approach is that the subject itself is complex and internally contradictory, and because our understanding of it is clouded by many faulty preconceptions that have to be dispelled along the way to enlightenment. No human mind can grasp, let alone express, the physical and psychological complexity of politics and war in one bold stroke. Fleming’s complaint, like those of many others, essentially boils down to whining that Clausewitz fails to convey the full scope and implications of this complexity in a single catchy phrase. I realize that there is a great deal of intellectual distance covered in Clausewitz’s famously difficult but nonetheless short dialectical analysis of the nature of war. There is little excuse for not bothering to read, digest, and critique it as a whole. I suspect that Fleming actually does understand much of it. If so, that makes his entire essay an academic exercise in literary deconstruction rather than a practical exercise in strategic analysis.

One of the great problems with On War, of course, is that it defines war as an expression of something else, but never defines that second term. One can argue for many different translations of Politik, and translators may correctly use different terms—primarily "policy" or "politics"—depending on the specific context in which it appears in Clausewitz's writing. Fleming wastes a fair amount of time noting that people differ greatly in their ideas as to what constitutes policy, and particularly what constitutes good policy. But Clausewitz's book is about the making of war, not about the making of policy, and he opted to save us from reading an additional 500+ pages of his prose by making a simple assumption: "That it [policy] can err, subserve the ambitions, private interests, and vanity of those in power, is neither here nor there.... here we can only treat policy as representative of all interests of the community." (On War, 606.) In the end and overall, however, the proper English translation of his definition of war must use “politics,” not “policy” (policy being the conscious, rational, and unilateral effort of one side in the passionate, multilateral, interactive fur-ball of politics):

[W]ar is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase "with the addition of other means" because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs. The main lines along which military events progress, and to which they are restricted, are political lines that continue throughout the war into the subsequent peace. How could it be otherwise? Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged? Is war not just another expression of their thoughts, another form of speech or writing? (On War, 605.)

Fleming is correct that Brodie's argument on this issue—that Clausewitz meant, prescriptively, that war “should be” a continuation of  policy—is confused. That "war" is a continuation or expression of politics, however, is simply a description of reality: war grows out of the conflicts among the various players on the political gameboard. But war on the one hand, and policy/strategy on the other, are different things. If war is to be used as a rational tool of one side's policy, then it is military strategy that "should" reflect, support, and further that policy. This is indeed a prescription, but hardly a prediction. Clausewitz himself experienced enough bad policy and bad strategy to know that. And if policy itself is stupid, criminal, or simply wrong, it is hard to see how military strategy is going to rescue it.

It is undeniably true, as Fleming puts it, that both the Bible and On War are "so broad in scope, so inclusive, even of contradictions internal to themselves, that they can be used to justify almost anything." That's why we should judge practical proposals by their likely impact, not by their footnotes. And it is undeniably true that both books are routinely abused by little minds, desperate to find certainty in arbitrary rules and eager to impose them on everyone else. Nonetheless, I doubt that we would be able to conduct a truly penetrating discussion of war without reference to the one or of ethics without reference to the other. Clausewitz said that a stategy is a good one if, given the real-world circumstances, we can do nothing better. If Fleming is correct that Clausewitz’s approach to fundamental military theory is not a good one, then he must be able to offer us—or at least point to—something better. Please alert us when he does.

REPLIES by Tony Echevarria, Chris Bassford, and David Rohr, plus Fleming's final word, appeared in Parameters vol. 34, Number 2 (Summer 2004). [local backup]

The editor of The Clausewitz Homepage nyah-nyahs back HERE.

SEE ANOTHER response to Fleming, entitled "Confusion? Or Willful Misreading?" HERE. [local backup]

BOTTOM LINE: I'm sorry that Fleming feels so abused by the reponses from Tony Echevarria, David Rohr, and myself. I always find it odd how folks like Fleming and John Keegan feel free to describe "the Clausewitzians" in condescending and childishly insulting terms, to sloppily ascribe to us beliefs few if any of us hold, and to suggest that we've never read (or assigned) another book—and then express wounded bewilderment when they experience return fire. If he wants to ignore Clausewitz, fine. If he wants to seriously challenge Clausewitzian theory, he might well achieve something if he works harder. But if he simply wants to flip off people who find Clausewitz interesting and useful, he needs to drive a faster car.


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