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On War by Carl von Clausewitz

On War (1832)

by Carl von Clausewitz, Anatol Raroport (Editor)

Other authors: Colonel J. J. Graham (Translator), Col. F. N. Maude (Introduction), Colonel F. N. Maude (Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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My first full reading of Clausewitz (accepting that the Penguin volume does not include several books on early nineteenth-century military operations) impressed upon me the essence of philosophy and theory as it applies to the social sciences. This Penguin volume is interesting in that it includes an introduction from the editor of the 1908 version used by the US military (Colonel F.N. Maude) and a later introduction from the time of the Cold War (1966 and the early stages of the Vietnam War) by Professor Anatol Rapoport. I have long viewed On War much the same as one might Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: the quote “war is the continuation of policy by other means” proving to be as similarly unhelpful “as if by an invisible hand” in comprehending the extent of the philosophical grounding in store for the avid reader of classic literature. Reading Clausewitz is like reading John Stuart Mill: almost every lesson is so ingrained in the education of political scientists (or in this case, from my training as an army officer) that it seems like nothing new. From morale being one third of combat power (p. 424) to the implied role of the infantry (which I memorised years ago and can still recite), to the essence of war and the changes heralded by the Napoleonic period to the future of absolute or total war that would arrive in 1914, these things I mostly knew. But the references to philosophy (the Stoic’s negative visualisation gets a run), to how to develop a theory, to the social scientific view of the world that is largely inductive (and unfalsifiable if one is a fan of Karl Popper) astounded me. That I could learn so much unexpectedly was a blessing. Some ideas are worth noting. First, in the introduction, Rapoport writes of Clausewitz (p. 72):Those without specialized mathematical knowledge (e.g. political scientists, administrators, military men) tend to conceive of their expertise as that of the artist rather than of a scientist. Rapoport explains (p. 431):In the exact sciences, theory is used precisely in the sense rejected by Clausewitz, namely, in the sense of a collection of theorems deduced rigorously from postulates formulated in ‘if so… then so” terms, i.e. as formulas. Clausewitz here uses ‘theory’ in the sense often used in the social sciences, namely, as a synthesis of concepts which illuminate the subject matter without necessarily enabling us to make specific predictions or to control specific situations.This was illuminating, given that only today I was rummaging through the inductive nature of my own theories developed from research and then reading of Popper’s critique of historicism (another discussion that is new to me). An interesting reference from the notes is one of what was probably the most outdated books of the twentieth century even before it was published: Cavalry in Future Wars written in 1908. Rapoport argues that by then, cavalry in its traditional form had no future (Henry Chauvel aside). Finally, Clausewitz subordinates the military to the political without diminishing what he considered to be its noble qualities:In one word, the Art of War in its highest point of view is policy, but, no doubt, a policy which fights battles instead of writing notes.Clausewitz frequently argues that the Art of War can only be learnt through practice. While policy-makers might best be suited to determining the aim of war (as policy) from book-learning, military commanders could never attain the artistic qualities necessary for successful military campaigning without direct experience of the fog of war. As I have recently moved into research that involves practitioners, Clausewitz gives me some hope for my theoretical aspirations and the use of induction in my work. This was a wonderful surprise, a circumstance that often repeats itself when I embark on a cover to cover reading of books that I thought I knew. I must admit that this is the second volume of this work I have purchased. When the first arrived and I discovered it was an abridged version, I donated it to my local library. When this book arrived (Penguin classics are ‘unabridged’ – this version is unabridged from the 1908 abridged version), I was disappointed but pushed on out of frustration. I must say it was worth it and I will be recommending this as a reading project for others in my field who, like me, might also think they know Clausewitz. ( )
1 vote madepercy | Oct 10, 2018 |
The ultimate classic on strategy, which is timeless, and tactics, which may be for the 19th-century but contain elements that are eternal..
  librisissimo | Oct 15, 2016 |
Brilliant strategist. Was ahead of his time, yet, subsequent strategies at war colleges would not develop for fear of orthodoxy. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
The study of military history is the only means of supplying the place of actual experience, by giving a clear idea of that which we have termed the friction of the whole machine. To this end we must not confine ourselves to the leading events, much less keep to the reasoning of historians, but study details as much as is possible. For historians rarely make perfect fidelity of representation their object: in general, they desire to embellish the deeds of their Army, or to prove a consonance between actual events and some imaginary rules. They invent history, instead of writing it. If we cast a glance at military history in general, we find so much the opposite of an incessant advance toward the aim, that standing still and doing nothing is quite plainly the normal condition of an Army in the midst of War, acting, the exception.

Some great sentiment must stimulate great abilities in the General. Open your heart to a feeling of this kind. Be bold and astute in your designs, firm and preserving in executing them, determined to find a glorious end, and destiny will press on your youthful brow a radiant crown – fit emblem of a Prince, the rays of which will carry your image into the bosom of your latest descendants. No battle in the world has more thoroughly convinced me that in War we should not despair of success up to the last moment, and that the effects of good principles, which can never manifest themselves in such a regular manner as we suppose, will unexpectedly make their appearance, even in the most desperate case, when we believe any such influences are completely lost.

Theory can give no formulas with which to solve problems; it cannot confine the mind’s course to the narrow line of necessity by Principle set up on both sides. It lets the mind take a look at the mass of objects and their relations, and then allows it to go free to the higher regions of action, there to act according to the measure of its natural forces, with the energy of the whole of those forces combined, and to grasp the True and the Right, as one single clear idea, which, shooting forth from under the united pressure of all these forces, would seems to be rather a product of feeling than of reflection.

In strategy there is no victory. On the one hand, the strategic success is the successful preparation of the tactical victory; the greater his strategic success, the more probable becomes the victory in battle. On the other hand, strategic success lies in the making use of the victory gained. In tactics, a surprise seldom rises to the level of a great victory, while in Strategy it often finishes the war at one stroke. But at the same time we must observe that the advantageous use of this means supposes some great and uncommon, as well as decisive error committed by the adversary, therefore it does not alter the balance much in favour of the offensive.

One of the parties must of necessity be assumed politically to be the aggressor, because no War could take place from defensive intentions on both sides. A War in which victories are merely used to ward off blows, and where there is no attempt to return the blow, would be just as absurd as a battle in which the most absolute defence (passivity) should everywhere prevail in all measures. What is the object of defence? To preserve. To preserve is easier than to acquire; from which follows at once that the means of both sides being supposed equal, the defensive is easier than the offensive. ( )
  8982874 | Feb 8, 2013 |
Overall, it was really great, but I'm uncomfortable with the way he slights logistics, and I think his ideas could have been communicated a lot more concisely (although that's probably a fault due to the work being an unfinished draft, he never had the chance to go over it and pare out the redundancies).

I read it without any preparation and feel like I didn't miss too much. Historical references are used mostly in the form of, after discussing a point thoroughly, being dropped to say "and here are examples of what I was talking about". So you don't need to be able to parse them to follow the theory. You would need a pretty detailed grounding in the Silesian and Napoleonic wars to follow them if you wanted to, though, since for Clausewitz these campaigns were very recent history so he assumes any student of military theory would be so familiar with them that a mere place name ("Borodino") would be sufficient to conjure to mind the context, details, aftermath and implications of a battle. ( )
  jhudsui | Sep 1, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (48 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Carl von Clausewitzprimary authorall editionscalculated
Raroport, AnatolEditormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Graham, Colonel J. J.Translatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maude, Col. F. N.Introductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Maude, Colonel F. N.Introductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Brodie, BernardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Graham, James JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Howard, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Howard, Michael EliotEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paret, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paret, PeterEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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We propose to consider first the single elements of our subject, then each branch or part, and, last of all, the whole, in all its relations—therefore to advance from the simple to the complex. But it is necessary for us to commence with a glance at the nature of the whole, because it is particularly necessary that in the consideration of any of the parts their relation to the whole should be kept constantly in view.
It is even better to act quickly and err than to hesitate until the time of action is past.
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Abridged editions such as the Penguin, Oxford, Einaudi, Voltaire, Dodo, Wordsworth, and others should not be combined with the unabridged editions.
Abridged edition; do not combine with complete editons.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691018545, Paperback)

On War is the most significant attempt in Western history to understand war, both in its internal dynamics and as an instrument of policy. Since the work's first appearance in 1832, it has been read throughout the world, and has stimulated generations of soldiers, statesmen, and intellectuals.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:14 -0400)

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On War is the most significant attempt in Western history to understand war, both in its internal dynamics and as an instrument of policy. Since the work's first appearance in 1832, it has been read throughout the world, and has stimulated generations of soldiers, statesmen, and intellectuals. The most significant attempt in Western history to understand war, both in its internal dynamics and as an instrument of policy, Carl von Clausewitz's book stands as one of the world's great classic works on the subject.… (more)

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