John Keegan on a remarkable history of Clausewitz
Clausewitz by Michael Howard
79 pp. (Oxford University Press, Past Masters Series, 1983)
The Past Masters Series is an ambitious project. It aims to epitomise in volumes of a hundred pages the thoughts of the makers of the modern world. General Karl von Clausewitz is unquestionably one of them. His dissection of the nature of war, interpreted and applied by his pupil Moltke, supplied the Prussian army with the formula for its nineteenth century victories. The sensation they created sold Clausewitz to the armies of Europe. Their staff colleges transmitted a version of his teaching to the war planners of 1914 and 1939. In our own times his relentless rationality has hallowed the logic by which the high priests of nuclear strategy have argued their way to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
He remains, nevertheless, a difficult and obscure writer, both in his native German and in translation. Michael Howard, with Peter Paret, has already earned our thanks by putting him, for the first time, into clear and readable English. In this tiny book he completes his labours – and labours they were, for Vom Kriege is long and disorganised, as well as difficult – by systematising the substance with force and precision.
It is difficult in a short review, and to readers who have not perhaps struggled with the original, to demonstrate how remarkable Professor Howard's achievement is. What he has done is to show that Clausewitz's thought, scattered through 118 chapters, may be arranged under three main heads. The first concerns the relationship between practice and theory – to which, though a theorist himself, the writer allotted a value subordinate to moral and perceptual qualities. The second concerns the relationship between ends and means, under which Clausewitz argues the reader into accepting the inescapable utility of force. The third examines the relationship between the need for espousing force and the purpose to which it is put, in his famous distinction between limited and absolute war. In three steps, as it were, Clausewitz demonstrates that the real battlefield is in the mind of men, that moral forces predominate there, but that intellect must adjust the degree of force used, against the passions it arouses, to the proportions of the purpose for which it was first invoked.
Howard's Clausewitz is destined to become an essential companion to Howard's and Paret's translation of On War. It will be the book to which the despairing student turns whenever he loses his way in the labyrinth of the original. He will turn back invigorated and reassured most of all by the great interpreter's implicit admission that some of the philospher's most important ideas are fugitives in the forests of his denser prose. Now that they have been netted and pinned under glass, we really do have what every staff college candidate of the last hundred years has sighed for in vain – a vade mecum to Vom Kriege.
- John Keegan's most recent book is Six Armies in Normandy (1982)
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology