Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On Clausewitz

Perhaps the ultimate state on state violence visionary was none other than the late great General Carl von Clausewitz. His book pubbed after his death (by his wife Maria - must have been quite a guy!) is the essential Vom Kriege.

Xlated into English as "On War" this ancient tome codifies all the power, hot desires and abilities of the state into one aim - decisively defeating an enemy state and her forces in war.

Almost from the start - generals or field marshalls that dissed von Clausewitz and failed to heed the mojo also rued the day.

Yet is the dead Prussian maybe more bigger than bona fides allow?

Unfortunately for Clausewitz, the realities that make much of his work relevant, to him and his contemporaries—a study of the new way of war—is lost in an age that perfected this particular form of endeavor and has turned much of Clausewitz’s reality into a curiosity shop of bits and pieces. No less unfortunate, his masterwork fails on the two substantive grounds that remain of interest to later explorers and formed so much of his effort to comprehend his world.

On War, for all its metaphysical and philosophical highwire acts, does not have a safety net, and the attempt falls to the ground. Nor does the work do much better on its other undertaking: it fails as theory, not just in the sense of theory in the hard sciences but even as one in the squishier terms of the so-called social sciences. It is a brilliant failure, which is why so many have labored so hard to try to rescue the work and Clausewitz from it, but it is still a failure. One does not have to journey for long or far in all the literature, both that of admirers and detractors, to realize this or why. Only Clausewitz’s irrelevance saves him from insignificance.

Given the industrial-strength nature of Clausewitz studies today, no doubt he will remain irrelevant, spawning articles, PhD dissertations, learned conferences, career-enhancing books, and endless discussion, or is that discourse. Through it all Clausewitz will remain irrelevant, either because what he said, or what he meant but did not quite say, is obscure enough to invite endless, irresolvable wrangling; or because he will be useful as unread, to be deployed as a foil for some favored position. No hope in asking people to leave off these efforts and try to discover relevance in Clausewitz.

His real relevance does not lie in how he can be used, operationalized, codified, mummified but in his insistence that what was involved in his own time and vital for all who follow was the need to grasp the significance of war as a very human phenomenon requiring serious, constant attention to understand. On its own terms and in relation to all else, from which it cannot be separated without doing violence to the subject and to understanding.

While On War fails as philosophy, on its own terms, it does not have to be read as a philosophical treatise. The underlying question it attempts remains: is there something in the nature of war, as war, that is unique, universal, and comprehendible, that is subject to analysis and not, as with mysteries or art, the province of prophets and geniuses? A question without an answer but that must be asked. On War also fails as theory, but it does not have to be read as such. What it assays to do is to think systematically, to constantly challenge conclusions, or at least not to become too enamored of and comfortable with them. By a resort to facts and ideas it seeks to consider and on that basis to do what these require even if, especially if, they demand change.

What Clausewitz, if he is to be relevant, requires of us is to be researchers and thinkers not acolytes. To bring our analytical minds to bear on the subject that he found so compelling. It is the subject that matters that remains relevant and it is that that Clausewitz bids us study.

Pic - "The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take warmore seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharper sword and hack off our heads."


Leif said...

That's a terrible article by a guy who doesn't know sh*t. Worse still, the scholarship cited is so out-dated as to cause readers to be embarrassed for the author.

There's only one article that people must read on Chuck C:

GrEaT sAtAn'S gIrLfRiEnD said...

Hi Leif,

Yeah prett much my tho'ts - tho to be fair - a few cats at Tiny Battles Gazette have often given me a STFU cos my vom Kriege is like the 1848 edition which is about as cool as claiming "Ticket To Ride" is your fave Stones tune in combat circles...