I’m busy reading final papers for the grand strategy seminar at Bard this spring, and the students are finishing up their exams and thinking about summer. It’s already time to start reading and thinking about the syllabus for the fall course in Anglo-American grand strategy. British and American strategic thinkers and policy makers developed a new form of global strategy in the last 300 years that enabled the two English speaking powers to build a global political and security order resting on a foundation of liberal capitalism. Understanding the grand strategy that shaped the modern world is surely something that students everywhere should learn about, but I think the Bard course is one of only a handful that tries to prepare students to think systematically about these power realities in the contemporary world.
But the reading that looms over these final weeks of the spring course comes out of European rather than Atlantic grand strategy. We’ve been reading and reflecting on Carl Phillipp Gottfried von Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s unfinished masterpiece On War stands out as perhaps the greatest work of strategic thought human reflection has yet produced. Coming as it does in both the Yale and the Bard curricula after a series of other classics going back to Sun Tzu, Clausewitz’s treatment, even in its somewhat muddled state, stands out as the most comprehensive and clear cut statement on a host of vital topics connected to power and to war.
Carl von Clausewitz (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
It belongs on that short list of classics that serious people should read and reread during their lives, but it is one of many classics that our culture neglects. Our somewhat PC and namby-pamby age generally puts works like On War somewhere back in the stacks hoping perhaps that if nobody thinks about war there won’t be any. There is also a certain feeling that a book this blunt and power focused should not be part of a liberal arts curriculum.
This is idiocy. War is in some ways the most human of activities: it is about defining and achieving objectives in cooperation with some people, all-out opposition from others, in a contest that draws on every talent and tests every virtue that we have. Even those of us whose life plans do not involve storming up a hillside under enemy fire can learn from the way Clausewitz analyzes leadership and war. More, to ignore war in an education is to leave students ignorant about one of the central features of civilization and human life.
Clausewitz wrote at a golden moment in western history. The Enlightenment and the burgeoning scientific revolution had created an ability to think systematically about complex phenomena. From Karl von Linnaeus’ creation of an orderly system for reducing the chaos of the animal kingdom into something comprehensible to Isaac Newton’s analysis of celestial mechanics, as well as Adam Smith’s study of political economy and even Napoleon’s creation of a legal code that reduced two thousand years of western legal practice into a system that could serve the needs of a vastly more complex society, the last 100 years had been an age of powerful analytical breakthroughs based on painstaking observation.
By Clausewitz’s time there was also a new sophistication in the way westerners thought about history. A series of epochal changes — the French Revolution, the Reformation, the Renaissance — stretching back into classical antiquity offered rich food for reflection and analysis. The drama and upheaval of the Napoleonic wars meant that these historical questions were personal and urgent for a generation whose governments had been overturned, lives disrupted and traditional social arrangements destroyed by one of history’s great storms. Clausewitz was part of a generation driven to wield the new tools of scientific thought to analyze social change.
The chaos of his times shaped Clausewitz’s life. He fought through the Napoleonic Wars as a Prussian officer — defecting briefly to Russian service when Prussia was obliged by the terms of its treaty with France to support Napoleon in the ill-fated Russian invasion of 1812 — and the energy that drives the book comes out of Clausewitz’s reflections on the two military geniuses that dominated his life (Frederick the Great and Napoleon) and his quarrel with the stale Prussian military bureaucracy that, by reducing Frederick’s legacy to a system, left Prussia exposed to Napoleon.
On War is shaped by Clausewitz’s encounter with the history and ideas of his times; it is also shaped by his experience in one of the first truly modern bureaucracies. (One of the achievements of Frederick the Great that so impressed contemporaries was the meticulous organization of the Prussian army and state.) The relationship of individual genius and vision to bureaucratic routine is a serious strategic problem in the modern world. The virtues that make a great military commander are, as Clausewitz notes, intensely personal: imagination and moral courage being perhaps the rarest and most valuable. These are perhaps the worst qualities for an aspiring bureaucrat to have.
There are desk generals and battle generals, and the unequal struggle between them is a recurring problem — and not just in military organizations. Desk generals excel in the arts of bureaucratic warfare, stick close to the conventional wisdom in all ways, and were brilliantly described in two unforgettable Gilbert and Sullivan songs: Modern Major General and The First Lord’s Song. In times of peace these timeserving mediocrities rise inexorably to the top; wars usually begin with a painful shakeout while the beribboned and bemedaled lunkheads demonstrate their hopeless incapacity at the true military art. Then and only then do the unclubbable and unconventional officers whose only virtue is their ability to somehow win battles gradually edge to the fore and the Grants and the Shermans elbow past the Popes and the McClellans.
Yet it is not, in the modern world, enough to be a lone visionary. Under modern conditions, strategic genius must necessarily be linked with bureaucracy. The greatest genius needs a military machine and a state structure. More, as Henry Kissinger discovered to his frustration, a hostile bureaucracy can frustrate and sabotage a brilliant leader’s initiatives in many ways. Commands given by a great general or initiatives envisioned by a great diplomat must under modern conditions be executed by great throngs of non-genius employees and functionaries. There is no other way.
Clausewitz wrote On War during a period when many writers were struggling to reduce the lessons of military history to some kind of system. (His great rival Antoine-Henri Jomini dominated American military thought during and after the Civil War.) Such manuals are ultimately attempts to square the circle: to reduce genius to a set of precepts which can be taught in an orderly fashion to lesser minds. They are necessary but futile; at the end of the day, that which most needs to be taught is that which cannot be communicated.
Clausewitz is a great writer on strategy for at least two reasons. First, his orderly and insightful presentation of the elements of military strategy focuses relentlessly on the critical factors in military contests, providing readers with a clear and comprehensive view of the subject. Second, he never loses sight of the dual character of a military manual. On the one hand, he is writing a guide for the ordinary officer to increase his professionalism and his usefulness to a great commander. On the other hand, he is also writing to inspire and instruct the intellect that will leap beyond classroom maxims and rules of war to grasp new possibilities and write new rules. He can be read with profit by both career civil servants and a new Napoleon.
Clausewitz wrote in the aftermath of the terrible disasters brought on by the Prussian military staff’s reduction of the genius of Frederick the Great into a sterile and closed system. They believed that the art of war had been perfected, that all they had to do to beat the French was to follow the infallible methods that the great Frederick had laid down. Their successors would make the same mistake with Clausewitz; the younger von Moltke’s botched execution of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 was a textbook case of the disasters that result when a commander lacks the genius and courage necessary for greatness.
It is a testimony to Clausewitz’s insight that On War pointed this problem out when Clausewitz describes the characteristics a great commander needs. It is a testimony to the enduring difficulty of strategy and war that his warnings failed to protect a military bureaucracy that was fanatically determined to follow his teaching.
In many ways Sun Tzu, the mystical and elliptical founder of strategic thought, and the methodical and systematic Clausewitz are opposites. Yet the work of both leads the observant reader back to the paradoxical nature of strategic thought. Victory demands thorough and systematic preparation, but all systems of thought lead in the end to sterile formulae — and defeat.