on November 20, 2000
"On War" is essential reading for the professional military and for historians, and is of great value to those with an interest in public policy.
That said, it is not easy to read. There are three primary reasons for this:
First, it is unfinished. The first chapter ("book" as Clausewitz called it) is sharp, well-organized and focused, other chapters are so-so, and still others are almost formless collections of notes.
Second, Clausewitz is thinking philosophically. Most people, including many or most in his target audience, are unaccustomed to thinking this way, and find it difficult to re-orient themselves.
Third, parts of it are firmly locked in a particular time and place. The reader must work to determine what (if any) lessons in those parts are of enduring value and must understand references that, however clear they would have been to his contemporaries, are today obscure.
So, given all of the above, it is fair for the reader to ask why he should bother. The reason is the power of Clausewitz's answers to:
(1) What is the nature of war itself?
(2) What is war's relation to the larger world in which it exists?
(3) How can success in war be achieved?
Clausewitz's answer to question (1) is that war in itself is a duel on a large scale, which unless acted on from the outside, tends towards the maximum possible amount of violence. This discussion of "pure war" has probably been responsible for more mis-interpretations of Clausewitz than anything else he wrote. He is writing philosophically - trying to understand the nature of the thing, and some readers mis-read him as writing prescriptively - that because "pure war" (or "ideal war") tends towards maximum violence, that those conducting war should employ maximum violence.
Clausewitz's answer to question (2) is one of the major reasons why "pure war" doesn't, can't, and shouldn't exist in the real world. First, real war occurs over time - not as a single event but as a series of events. This provides the opportunity for other forces to act upon it. The most important outside force acting upon it is political - war it is only a means - and the end is the political purposes which the war serves. The means cannot and must not trump the end. This is his famous dictum "War is a continuation of policy by other means". The level of effort is conditioned by the end which the war serves as well as all the other ends the state is pursuing which may or may not be compatible with the war.
It is in his answer to (3), how success in war can be achieved, that Clausewitz is at his most period-bound. He draws heavily from examples that would have been as familiar to his contemporaries as the Gulf War is to us, but time has rendered them often obscure. Further, many of his recommendations are completely tied to how war was conducted on land in the early 19th century. Those who say that they got little out of Clausewitz are often referring to this subject area.* There is quite a bit of value here, but it is obtained at effort - the reader must back up to the principals that govern Clausewitz's thinking, and re-apply them to the current technical means. Because of this, there is the irony that Clausewitz would have contributed much more here if he had written much less. Of course, he might have done so if he had finished his manuscript, but on this we can only guess.
It is in the sum of (1), (2) and (3) that the value of Clausewitz is felt. The reader who makes the effort will find that he has acquired a systematic approach for thinking about war, a unified framework that includes the public policy perspective of when, whether, and how to employ it, as well as the military perspective of how to fight it.
* For at least topic (3), ideally the modern reader should have read at least short military histories of the Seven Years War (in Europe - not North America) as well as the Napoleonic Wars, as these two conflicts dominate Clausewitz's references. What you want to know is the names of the major battles, the sides, and the outcomes. Maps are invaluable.
Having a somewhat more in-depth reference handy can also be beneficial, though not necessary. If I had to recommend in-depth references, I would suggest, for the Napoleonic Wars, David Chandler's "The Campaigns of Napoleon" or Esposito and Elting's "A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars". Both are readily available and well worth having. For the Seven Years War, I don't know of anything that is good and in-print, although Christopher Duffy's "The Military Life of Frederick the Great" is just what you want if you can find a copy.
on May 15, 2000
This is not an easy book to understand. It takes sustained attention, several readings of the most important parts, guidance from supplementary articles, time and interest. After the required investment, the diligent reader will come to understand Clausewitz's system and the remarkable way that it stills aides in understanding the phenomenon of war. Readers who know of what I speak will agree that the results of the recent NATO war against Serbia over Kosova can be explained very accurately in Clausewitzian terms. Much has been made of the fact that Clausewitz died before he could complete the work. We will never know what added insights the Prussian philosopher may have been able to come up with or the additional nuances that he may have added to the framework that he had established. While true, this attitude detracts from what he was able to accomplish. The only finished portion of the book, Part 1 of Book 1 is also the most important. The rest of Book 1, Book 2, Book 3 and Book 8 (the last) are in Bernard Brodie's words, "pure gold". The other books have relevant information for our times too, but one must shift through much which belongs to the past. Clausewitz's theory of war considered war to be "a remarkable trinity" of rational action (policy), irrational action (passion) and the play of chance (friction versus genius). These three points act as poles above which "theory" itself is suspended like a magnet. Alan D. Beyerchen has pointed out that Clausewitz was talking about a non-linear system in that the course the magnet will take as it hovers above and in and out of the three fields of attraction produces an irreproducible trajectory highly sensitive to the initial conditions which set it in motion. In addition we have other important concepts such as the duel nature of war, the importance and uses of theory, friction, war's psychological element, tactical and strategic centers of gravity, and of course the primacy of policy over purely military concerns in strategic planning. All of these are still of interest today. Not bad for a work that was published initially in 1832!
One additional note. I recommend the Everyman's Library Edition of On War. First it is the Michael Howard / Peter Paret translation which is the best in English. Second it contains four interesting and enlightening articles by Howard, Paret and Bernard Brodie and last it is a hard cover book printed and bound in Germany and of excellent quality.
on December 30, 2003
Clausewitz's ON WAR is certainly the greatest exploration of the subject, but we are often misled by sloppy or hostile summaries--especially those by British military historians, who have evolved a truly sophisticated culture of misrepresenting it. E.g., Clausewitz supposedly preaches "total war." In fact, that phrase appears only twice in the book, once while discussing the "total war area," i.e., the geographic theater of war, and once noting that "total war, the pure element of enmity unleashed," would be "pointless and devoid of sense." Most such misconceptions would be cleared up if writers would bother to read past the abstract first half of the first chapter to see what Clausewitz, an immensely experienced practical soldier, really thought. And forget the absurd distinctions between Jomini's "chivalrous" wars and Clausewitz's alleged war on civilians--the two men experienced and described exactly the same wars.
Likewise, to say that Asian warfare differs in some fundamental way from Western war, or from war in general, is nonsense, as is the idea that Sun Tzu--whose all-knowing general controls events far more than either Clausewitz or historical experience would suggest is possible--somehow represents a "decentralized" approach. Sun Tzu is extremely valuable, but he and Clausewitz are best understood together. Read Michael Handel on that.
There are several English translations of ON WAR, in many editions, and these vary greatly in value. Amazon's listings often confuse the different versions, so be careful. The version edited by biologist/musician Anatol Rapoport is particularly worthless. His lengthy, lunatic, 1968 introduction is actually about Kissinger, not Clausewitz. He used the hoary old 1873 Graham translation and severely abridged Clausewitz's own text, but weirdly retained the anachronistic Social Darwinist insertions of an earlier editor. The best and standard translation is Howard and Paret's, Princeton U. Press, 1976 (rev.1984). Knopf's elegant "Everyman's Library" hardcover (ISBN 0-679-42043-6) is the same translation with some useful added appendices and sidebars--and a better buy as well. Get more background at "The Clausewitz Homepage."
on July 13, 1999
A word of caution to anyone ordering the paperback edition of this work. It is incomplete with some of the books missing. If you are genuinely interested in strategy, buy the hardcover Everyman's edition rather than the Penguin edition.
on April 26, 2001
On War is an essential work but this is an abridgement first published in the late 1960s and based on a poor translation dating from around 1908. The editor, Anatol Rapoport, is a scientist, not an historian, and the commentary is something of a hatchet job.
Much better to get the 1976 translation with commentary edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.
on August 12, 2003
Carl von Clausewitz is required reading at the War Colleges of the United States Armed Forces because his precepts are timeless. Trying to understand why man makes war, especially in the extremely destructive era in which he lived, he explores all aspects of warfare. This work is written for military officers, and exemplifies the aphorism of a classic: it's a book people want to have read, but don't want to read. This antipathy is understandable. Clausewitz was a staff officer in the army of a state which no longer exists, and he wrote in 19th century German. Still, this book is essential to all who wish to understand war and its place in statecraft.
Rather than this Penguin edition, I recommend the Princeton University Press edition, translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. That version includes very helpful essays and introductions by those two academics, as well as Bernard Brodie. Together, these three help the reader understand what Clausewitz was writing, and gently remind the reader that he should be somewhat forgiving of the author. After all, he had only just begun a major renovation of his entire work when he was felled by the cholera epidemic that struck Europe.
If you are interested in Clausewitz, READ HIM. Do not join the illiterati who quote and misquote him without ever reading On War. While it is not an easy read, the Princeton University edition is readable, and On War is the most important book on the most serious of political subjects.
on March 15, 2005
On War is an incredible work, but the Penguin Classics edition is terrible - the translation was done by an editor who was openly hostile to Clausewitz, something to do with Kissinger (whom our editor detested) being a Clausewitz fan. There are entire sections that are specifically translated in ways that make Clausewitz look bad, and edits to the same effect.
I highly suggest that you read this book - but read the Everyman's or Princeton version - those editions have the Peter Paret translation and are far superior in every way. The Everyman's edition in particular is fantastic - hardcover, elegant, and only a few dollars more than Penguin's steaming pile of excrement.
on September 5, 2005
Clausewitz's aphorisms have been treated and mistreated for a century and a half, but On War remains a timeless classic. It is one of those very few works one can read at different times in life and get more and more out of.
Much of what Clausewitz concludes is intuitively obvious, and this above all things is what makes On War timeless. It is of the greatest importance, however, to read ALL of On War, and not merely Books One, Two, and Eight. Clausewitz wrote in the context of a military and geopolitical environment that still prized fortresses, depended on pitched battle, celebrated mobile artillery as a modern refinement, and lacked the techno-logistic sophistication to support expeditionary warfare on the scale envisioned by Napoleon.
Perhaps most important, the only experience of living Europeans at that time with rule by political terror was the brief "Reign of Terror" in post-Revolution France. Predatory Marxism and fascism of the kind that menaced millions in the 20th century, both politically and militarily, across national borders, was simply not a factor in Clausewitz's vision. War was a phenomenon bounded by time and place; battles were tactical events between like opponents that began and ended; decision could be achieved, with varying degrees of definiteness, by the deployment of military power combined with negotiation -- because all parties agreed as to how decisions were to be reached, and more fundamentally, as to what constituted decision.
Finally, the cost of losing, or failing to win decisively, in Clausewitz's European world was much lower for the average citizen than it became in the era of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. Clausewitz's Prussia lost decisively to Napoleon during his career, with Prussia's king succumbing to Napoleon's Contintental System until the debacle of 1812, and the conditions of life for the average citizen of Prussia changed hardly at all, when compared with the impact on citizens of losing national sovereignty to Marxist and fascist regimes in the next century.
Clausewitz wrote extensively of warfare waged by guerrillas in mountainous or other difficult terrain, for example, and concluded that such fighting was useful on the defensive, but insufficient for achieving a decisive outcome -- it merely wore an invader out. This analysis was excellent for Spain and Russia after they were invaded by Napoleon, but only indirectly valid for the guerrilla wars of the 20th century, which were often started against the insurgents' own countrymen, provoking the involvement of outside (usually post-colonial) forces in opposition. To the extent that outside patronage supported or even sparked the guerrilla efforts, the element of outside involvement was always present, but in no case was it similar to Napoleon's politically straightfoward, unequivocal invasions of Spain and Russia. The political consequences of this difference were more definitive than the military similarities of guerrilla operations over time.
That Clausewitz's principal conclusions have still, in the main, stood the test of time testifies to how exactly he echoes the intuitive suppositions about war held by most Westerners. Interestingly, he was claimed by both sides in the West's Cold War debate over whether to "engage" the Soviet Union with concessions and negotiation, or with confrontation. A military officer (myself, for example) reading Clausewitz finds him to be an accomplished staff officer, and finds his arguments and conclusions rather obviously consonant with the military disposition to get things done, and achieve decision. Academics reading him, on the other hand, find much material for philosophical speculation, often interpreting his best-known dicta in an opposite manner from their military counterparts.
On War is indispensable, but don't neglect the "boring parts" on military operations as conceived in the Napoleonic era. Anatole Rappaport did a generation of college students a great disservice by editing these parts out of the Penguin paperback edition. Clausewitz wrote for conditions that no longer obtain in the world, and ought to be understood in that sense.
Any general reader who wants to undertake a more comprehensive study of human thinking on war ought also to read Sun Tzu's Art of War, B.H. Liddell-Hart's Strategy, Machiavelli's Art of War, and Hans Delbruck's History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History (multi-volume; the Germans and The Modern Era are the key ones to start with, in my view). For a wonderful comparison of "Eastern" vs "Western" thinking on the meaning and place of war in society, I recommend reading the passages on war, defense, and internal security from the Arthashastra, a treatise on effective government by a 2nd century AD Indian strategist (Kautilya), as well as Herodotus' Histories and, of course, Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War.
Bottom line: On War is a must-read classic, but should not be the only volume on war one reads.
on January 26, 2003
Not really a relaxing bedtime read. On War is challenging, and not to be undertaken lightly. Still, its concepts are eminently more utile than Sun Tzu's, when all is said and done.
I would have given it five stars, but for the 72 pages of nonsensical introductory ranting by Anatol Rapoport, included with this volume. If you can find a volume without Rapoport's introduction, buy that one instead and save a tree.
(Honestly, I will never understand why modern publishers insist on pre-forming the reader's reactions to classic works by adding an introduction from some third-rate aging socialist. If I wanted to read Anatol Rapoport, I would have looked him up in "Great Irrelevant Figures of the 20th Century").
on January 16, 2003
Clausewitz's ON WAR is truly one of the Great Books of Western thought. Unfortunately, THIS edition is NOT the one to buy. This is the weirdly edited and seriously misleading Penguin edition put together by Anatol Rapoport in 1968. Rapoport was a biologist and musician -- indeed, something of a renaissance man and later a brilliant game theorist. However, he was extremely hostile to the state system and to the alleged "neo-Clausewitzian," Henry Kissinger. He severely and misleadingly abridged an old but respectable translation (done by JJ Graham in 1873) but -- for reasons that surpasseth understanding -- he retained the often bizaare introduction, commentary, and notes inserted in 1908 by an imperialist and social-Darwinist editor (COL FN Maude) -- and then used Maude's errors to condemn Clausewitzian theory. Between Graham's awkward and obsolete translation, Maude's anachronistic intrusions, and Rapoport's hostility (aimed more at the world in general, and at Kissinger in particular, than at Clausewitz personally), the Penguin edition is badly misleading as to Clausewitz's own ideas. If you have any version of the Graham or Graham/Maude translation, but especially this twisted Penguin version, I'd advise you to get the modern Howard/Paret edition [ISBN 0691018545 for paperback; in hardcover 0679420436 (recommended) or 0679420436].