A Question About Clausewitz

Everyone who writes about Civil War military history, especially on the level of strategy and policy, is bound sooner or later to mention Carl von Clausewitz and his work, On War (1832).  People invoke Clausewitz and his maxims on a periodic basis, especially the notion of the relation between military means and policy ends and the oft-quoted (if perhaps misunderstood and not precisely quoted) “war is politics by other means.”  Surely it would have helped Mark Neely in his continuing crusade to declare that the Civil War was not a total war to check into what exactly Clausewitz meant by that term (as opposed to seeking insight from the writings of Emilio Douhet, who, after all, was writing about air power in the twentieth century).

In fact, Clausewitz spoke of “absolute” war as a conflict waged to eliminate the enemy’s political independence, so, yes, the Union fought such a war … from the beginning.  The issue of escalation is separate from the issue of the end for which the Union waged war: by choosing as his preferred definition the scope of the conduct of the conflict (who’s a combatant, who isn’t, what’s fair game), Neely sets up a straw man (although he is doubtless correct in how historians tossed around the term “total” [and, for that matter, “modern”] rather carelessly).  But it seems more appropriate to discard the application of a twentieth-century concept to a nineteenth-century conflict and focus instead on nineteenth-century thought.

Now it is true that a translation of Clausewitz’s volume was not available in English until after the American Civil War, and there’s some debate over which translation is best.  I would also like to point readers to Christopher Bassford’s chapter about Clausewitz and the American Civil War here; I am particularly fond of the material just before footnote 16, for obvious reasons.  Bassford offers a telling discussion of the introduction of Clausewitz into interwar thinking in the United States here, and that might help in understanding the use of the term “total war” in the mid-twentieth century … a discussion that shaped how T. Harry Williams employed it in Lincoln and His Generals (1952).  More interesting to me would be the degree to which Henry W. Halleck and Dennis Hart Mahan were aware of Clausewitz (given their interest in Jomini, who was aware of Clausewitz, it would be odd if either of them knew nothing of Clausewitz’s thinking, even if they had not been avid readers of On War; in Halleck’s case, he cited Clausewitz’s work).

But here’s where I get to the heart of today’s inquiry.  Historians of the Civil War invoke Clausewitz’s name freely.  How many of them have actually read Clausewitz?  And no, I don’t mean a few choice passages … I mean the entire book.  I have, and I know of a few colleagues who have.  But how can we claim to apply someone’s thinking to an analysis of a historical event if we haven’t read the book in question?


10 thoughts on “A Question About Clausewitz

  1. Ethan Rafuse June 1, 2012 / 5:09 pm

    Actually, translated selections from On War appeared in (I believe) Army and Navy Journal in the 1830s.

  2. wgdavis June 1, 2012 / 6:56 pm

    You are quite correct. It seems to me that though they may have been aware of Clausewitz, they were educated in Jomini.

    Clausewitz seems to have covered it all, logically, succinctly and without too much in the way of specificity, unlike Jomini, who extolled the Napoleonic way.

    Neither man paid much heed to naval power or to combined arms, although Europe was not as geared to either geographically as the US was.

    In retrospect I have always felt that much of Clausewitz is still applicable now, and some of Jomini, but Clausewitz provides a greater umbrella from start to finish…top to bottom.

    • wgdavis June 1, 2012 / 7:01 pm

      And no, you cannot apply military philosophy of of anyone to a particular historical event unless you have become thoroughly familiar with that philosophy, just like the categorization of modern works in the framework of the classical philosophers…one cannot with complete confidence and accuracy do so unless one has read Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, etc.

  3. Al Mackey June 1, 2012 / 8:41 pm

    My hat’s off to anyone who can slog their way through the entire Clausewitz and keep everything straight. That Hegelian analysis is tough going.

  4. wgdavis June 2, 2012 / 12:46 am

    Slog is the apropriate word. Between the three, reading without help at hand to answer questions is slow going, much as the campaigns they were designing would have been. I was frequently bogged down [although the poorly bound but exquisitely illustrated edition of Sun Tzu was a bit more palatable].

    There are a lot of variables, and therefore, many choices, or options depending on the circumstances and it would be interesting to see all three graphed out in linear fashion in something like a flow chart in Visio. Comparisons would be a bit easier using the visual flow.

  5. TF Smith June 3, 2012 / 1:41 pm

    Clausewitz is not an easy read, in the original or English, but one element I think holds up well, both from the post-Napoleonic era and in light of the “absolute” vis a vis the “total war” concepts is his idea of the holy trinity of government, people, and army being united in terms of a combatant being able to sustain either an absolute or total war.

    Applying that idea to the combatants (or potential combatants) in the ACW era makes for some interesting assesments; certainly, the US had the trinity in place, in comparison to the CSA – both from the standpoint of the boots on the ground measurement of the USCTs and the USVs recruited in the rebel states, and the counterpoint in terms of the loyal states for the CSA.

    Likewise, the Mexican Nationalists vs. the Conservatives and French in the 1860s, and even the Dominican nationalsts vs the Spanish in the same period, provides evidence to make Clausewitz’s case. The above two examples also make an interesting foundation for the impact of European intervenmion in the ACW (British or otherwise).

    The Prussian wars in the 1860s and 1870s against Denmark, Austria, and France show the same effects, I think.

  6. Tony Gunter June 4, 2012 / 7:38 am

    My favorite misquote of Clausewitz was by an African politician in Richard Wright’s Native Son:

    “Politics is war by other means.”

    Sadly, this is often true!

  7. Mark June 4, 2012 / 11:41 am

    I’ve not read Clausewitz yet, but I know it’s a difficult read and I also know from experience in philosophy that a direct read of such books without sufficient background can sometimes be worse than nothing. They can be so different and other that one tends to read into it one’s own ideas and gains only a pretense of knowledge with misconceptions. You see this in spades when students read Descartes’ Meditations, one of the most opaque and unusual (to the point of bizarre) works in Western culture. For such books I seek out reviews of these books written by experts first. I haven’t read it yet so I can’t vouch for it, but I’ve read some masterful books in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series and this one is on my reading list. http://www.amazon.com/Clausewitz-A-Very-Short-Introduction/dp/0192802577

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