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Here is an unpublished letter to the editor criticizing Nial Ferguson's article, WAR NAMES: Random War, Remote War, Absolute War, Do-It-Yourself War--New Weapons and New Enemies Are Making War New Too, New York Times Magazine, December 15, 2002, p.39.

Dear Editor of the New York Times Magazine:

In “War Names” (12/15), Niall Ferguson makes three comments about Karl von Clausewitz’s On War:  1) “total war (1914-1945) . . . did much to discredit Clausewitz,” 2) the “Cold War (1947-1987) ... seemed to render [Clausewitz] irrelevant,” and 3) “[Clausewitz’s] 19th-century categories bear little relation to the new forms of war that characterize the 21st century.”

These comments should be viewed skeptically for two reasons.  First, the author relied on the obsolete (1908) Graham/Maude translation of On War --  complete with awkward syntax and Germanic capitalization -- instead of the standard translation by Howard and Paret (Princeton University Press, 1976, 1984). Moreover, the Graham/Maude translation is seriously misleading on Clausewitz’s ideas.

Second, the author’s comments are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Clausewitz meant by “real” and “absolute” war.  “Real” war, according to Ferguson, is “small armies” fighting “skirmishes according to genteel laws of war.”  In fact, Clausewitz defined it as war as actually fought in the real world governed by the “vast array of factors, forces, and conditions in national affairs” (Howard and Paret, 579).

“Absolute” war, said Ferguson, is one “in which nationalism enlarged and motivated European armies.”  In reality, Clausewitz stated, “absolute war has never in fact been achieved” (ibid, 582) because it is a “complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence” (87).  Consequently, as Michael I. Handel explained, “absolute” war is useful as “a logical point of reference, but not as a description of reality itself” (Masters of War, third edition, 330, emphasis in original).

Perhaps, when the nation-state disappears, war dies out, and politics comes to an end, we can reevaluate Clausewitz’s relevance.  Until that day comes, however, wise historians and others would be well advised to avoid outdated translations of On War and to refrain from declaring Clausewitz irrelevant. Especially when they conclude their articles with a total surrender to his fundamental argument.


Carlos Mejia

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