Sunday, July 8, 2007

Book Report Weekend, Part II: On War by Carl Von Clausewitz

Hey, Lithuania!

Hello to the Hungarians!

Today's post is the second part of Book Report Weekend, where I discuss the masterwork of Carl Von Clausewitz, On War. Again, since the author himself is fond of splitting up many of his chapters into lists, I will do the same in this review.

1. Respect for the Enemy or Sympathy for the Devil? Clausewitz lived from 1780 to 1831. He served in several armies that faced Napoleon on Napoleon's drive towards Russia and also on some that fought Napoleon on the long trip back to France. After the wars, from 1818 to 1830 he was the director of the Military Academy of Berlin, where he worked on his five volume masterwork, which his wife had published after his death. While he fought both from Prussia and as a mercenary for the Russians against Napoleon, it is a fair assessment to say that without Napoleon, this book might never had been written.

The level of intensity with which wars has been fought in European history varies widely. Machiavelli writes of a famous defeat at Zagonara in 1424 where there were a total of three casualties, all of them from men falling off their horses and drowning in the mud. Not so with the battles of Napoleon. After him, war is total war, and anything less makes no sense. The French Revolution had many vicious battles, the Royalists being correctly afraid that if the Revolutionaries won, their way of life and their very lives might be over. Here is where Napoleon, a leader of the revolutionary army, learned his first lessons, which he taught subsequently to the rest of Europe.

Clausewitz's main thesis is that nothing less makes any sense.

2. From Clausewitz to Hitler. Many commentators on Clausewitz give his philosophy full credit, or more properly blame, for every battle fought by anyone who speaks German from 1830 until today. Whether it's the battles of 1870 or the First and Second World Wars, even though all sides in modern wars understand that war is total war, Clausewitz is supposed to be the special influence on the German side. The views of total war advocates on our side, like Patton and MacArthur, aren't always laid at the feet of Clausewitz.

To my mind, Clausewitz shouldn't get the blame for the incredibly quick speed of technology from his time to today. In his day, the technology of war is several centuries old, with gradual and mostly minor improvements. Cannons became easier to move and guns easier to load, but the amazing technological advances that would happen in the thirty years from his death to the start of the American Civil War would have been impossible for him to predict. We really don't know how if his love for total war would survive in an era of machine guns, dynamite, tanks, poison gas, aerial bombardment and lastly, of course, nuclear weapons.

3. So who quotes Clausewitz today? In his introduction to the Penguin edition written in the 1960s, Anatol Rapoport discusses the Neo-Clausewitzian philosophers of war. While any public acceptance of total war becomes a daunting task after Hiroshima, a challenge just as difficult is trying to refute the usefulness of game theory, the mathematical invention of John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern published first in 1944. To put the difficult math in its simplest terms, there are a lot of options other than "Throw everything you have into the battle", and some of these options have much higher payoffs than the total war strategy. This message had a receptive audience all around the world, since the Second World War really lived up to its name, showing total war up close and personal to every major industrialized nation. The exceptions are Canada and the United States, who only had to send soldiers off to battle instead of seeing their land and cities crippled by either war on land or war from the air. (To anyone who might ask "What about Pearl Harbor?", I would have them read about Coventry or Dresden or Stalingrad or Tokyo. December 7, 1941 is one very bad day, not unlike September 11, 2001. Modern war is something else entirely.)

One place where knowledge of Clausewitz without shackles is well respected is among serious wargamers, also known as grognards. I am a game player, but not a serious wargame player. Grognards loves them some Clausewitz. Of course, cardboard doesn't bleed.

4. Where Bob Dylan steers me wrong. In his excellent memoir Chronicles, Dylan discusses the influence that the book collection of Ray Gooch had on Dylan when he first came to New York. He flips through many of the large collection of books in Gooch's apartment, knowing full well he doesn't have time to read them all. Here are Dylan's words.

I also looked through Vom Kriege, the Clausewitz book. They called Clausewitz the premier philosopher of war. By the sound of his name you'd think he looked like Von Hindenburg, but he doesn't. In the book's portrait of him, he looks like Robert Burns, the poet, or Montgomery Clift, the actor. The book was published in 1832 and Clausewitz had been in the army since he'd been twelve. His armies were highly trained professionals, not young men who served only for a few years or more. His men were hard to replace and he talks a lot about how to maneuver into position where the other side can see there's no fighting chance and basically lay down their arms.

Flipping through, Dylan read what he might have wanted Clausewitz to be, a pretty and sensitive man who favored bloodless battle, but the real man and his real philosophy are something very different.

In conclusion, I would say Clausewitz is an important read only for those who seriously want to consider all the philosophies of war. He is a ponderous writer, and waffles a lot before making a point. He fought in wars but never lead men into war. His biggest supporters are a minority in the field of study today. If you really wanted to understand the field today, it would be a good idea to know enough math to get through Von Neumann's book.

But I always think it's a good idea to know more math. That's just me.


Karla said...

When I was doing research on that book about murder, I read a very interesting book called "On Killing."

The author looks at data from past wars, including WWs I and II, that show that it was normal for soldiers not to shoot each other, and that they often had to be made to do so.

But training of soldiers for Vietnam took a different tack, and helped the soldiers to see the Vietnamese as inhuman things not worthy of life. It worked very well, and the rate of person-to-person killing skyrocketed. But so did the PTSD.

It's a very compelling and surprising look at the changing techniques we use to get people to kill for us in war, and what we do with them after they've done their job (provided they survive).

Matty Boy said...

Interesting point, Karla. It would seem to me that person-to-person killing would have been the most common mode in wars before the 20th Century. Killing a lot of people from a great distance away was only possible with the technology available in the World Wars. PTSD is such a new idea; I wonder if anything like it can be seen after the Civil War or the Napoleonic battles.

Karla said...

Well, there were certainly shell shocked people in WWI, and Wilfred Owen's poem, Dulce et Decorum est is perhaps the most central to the question of whether PTSD existed before Vietnam (it did).

But in WWI, we saw modern nasty warfare such as the use of gas, bigfat guns, planes, etc. The book "On Killing" talks about that - it's definitely worth a read. The author is a military man and a psychologist.

Ours is such a completely militarized society that it's hard to even see the forest for the trees, but I for one wish that men could say more than simply: War is Hell.

I wish they could say: Up yours, old, rich, powerful men with perfectly clean fingernails and a comfy paunch. If you want the border or the democracy or the power so badly, go put your own fat pasty asses on the line.


FranIAm said...

I love that last line Karla and I don't mean crickets!