My man Clausewitz

Some weeks ago, I described my admiration for the mid-Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. I fall way outside Trollope’s target demographic, which was conservative, Church-of-England-style Christians. But I find myself re-reading him often, and learning from him. It’s been a lesson in the limited importance of literary intentions, both authors’ and readers’. We don’t know what books are going to matter to us, just as authors don’t know whom they’re going to reach, or how.

Today, I want to discuss another literary enthusiasm I’ve recently developed, which has surprised me just as much: it’s for Carl von Clausewitz, the early nineteenth-century Prussian military philosopher.

Clausewitz was a theorist who also walked the walk. He joined the Prussian army at age twelve, and for the next twenty years he fought in all its wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France– the biggest, bloodiest wars Europe had seen up to that time. But he made his superiors jumpy, and they eventually parked him in the Prussian military academy, where he taught future officers, honed his theories, and worked away at his enormous book On War. It still wasn’t done when he died, but his devoted widow assembled the pieces, and it became an instant classic. It’s still taught at military colleges around the world, including our own West Point.

Even if you haven’t read Clausewitz, you’ve probably heard some of the snappy phrases he invented, like “the fog of war” and “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” There are dozens of other one-liners that aren’t as well known but ought to be. In fact he was something of a literary genius– he carries you along as you read, and you find yourself reading longer stretches of the text than you’d planned. Like other great writers, he forces you to look at the world in new ways.

That literary oomph turns out to be more common than you might expect among history’s great generals, and Clausewitz himself explains why: war “may appear to be uncomplicated,” he tells us, but actually it “cannot be waged with distinction except by men of outstanding intellect.” To make his point, he tosses in some startling comparisons. In some ways, he says, the good commander resembles the poets, painters, scholars, and intellectuals. Like them, he has to use imagination and insight into the human condition, as well as the specific skills and disciplines of his art.

Clausewitz’s reasons get to the heart of his ideas about war– namely, that it’s a really, really complicated business, which even the geniuses can’t fully master. The mediocrities don’t stand a chance.

Sure, he tells us, from a distance “everything looks simple: the knowledge required does not look remarkable,” the strategic options look obvious; anyone with a good map can figure out how best to encircle a city or cut off opposing troops. But the reality is unimaginably complex, because it involves thousands or millions of individual human beings, all acting on the basis of their own emotions and will, all enduring maximum stress. The physical environment poses its own difficulties. Simple acts become complicated in the smoke, mud, dust, and exhaustion of combat; geography takes on strange new shapes; chance events assume enormous importance. As he puts it in another of his sharp formulations: “War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder.”    (The quotations come from On War, in the spectacular translation put together by Michael Howard and Peter Paret.)

In these circumstances, Clausewitz’s commander is on a quest for knowledge, trying to find the truth when “all information and assumptions are open to doubt, and with chance at work everywhere.” Courage amidst dangers, training, equipment, faith in the mission– in war all those count, but the indispensable qualities are intellectual: “first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light which leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow this faint light wherever it may lead.” For Clausewitz, truth about situations and the people involved in them is the ultimate war-making tool.  That’s why the commander needs elements of the humanist’s mindset.

There’s lots more to Clausewitz, of course, some of which maybe I’ll write about in the next few weeks. But for now let’s stop and think a minute about how his vision of military knowledge fits with what we encounter here today, in twenty-first-century America.

Because we also have lots of ideas about war. We ought to, because over the last generation war has been the main constant in American life. The War in Afghanistan has now lasted longer than the Trojan War, and twice as long as World War II. Some retired general pops up on TV pretty much every night, and most weeks you can find op-eds by thoughtful experts pushing for American military intervention somewhere in the world. Most of us don’t go to war ourselves, but we’ve come to view war-making as a normal part of American political life.

We can do that partly because our American ideas about war differ so wildly from Clausewitz’s. He talked about chance, uncertainty, inadequate information, and the need for imaginative brilliance to get at the reality of any military situation. We describe war instead as knowable, predictable, and manageable. Our favorite war terminology is medical– we speak of surgical strikes and interventions; we describe our enemies as cancerous growths that need to be excised; we call many of our interventions humanitarian acts, life-saving missions. And in modern war as in modern medicine, we’ve got technologies that Clausewitz never dreamed of; drones, night vision goggles, computers– these allow our soldiers to overcome war’s information gaps. Of course technology doesn’t eliminate all uncertainty. Unexpected problems still arise on the battlefield, as they do at the hospital– but now we can address them effectively.

So given that we live in a different technological world, is Clausewitz basically a museum piece, or is he someone we should be listening to?  How seriously should we take a voice from the horse-drawn, muzzle-loading era?

One reason for listening is that Clausewitz gives us the voice of a hardened Prussian officer, who’d fought in high-level battles, both victories and defeats, without losing his faith in either war or the army. When he tells us about the unknowability of war, he’s talking as a believer, not a pacifist dreamer or bleeding-heart do-gooder. He doesn’t doubt the value of war– he just wants us to know what it really is.

The other reason concerns us, not Clausewitz. The brutal fact is, American conventional wisdom about war doesn’t look so good these days. We’ve got the biggest, best-equipped army in the world, but we’re on a fifty-year losing streak– against a series of much weaker enemies. (Ok, we looked impressive against Grenada and Panama, but you get the point.)  Our humanitarian interventions have typically made situations worse, not better.

Maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to this most serious of human activities– and we could do worse than starting with Clausewitz.