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Letter to the Editor

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CMJ Vol. 10, No. 3I would like to respond to a few issues raised by Andrew Godefroy in his recent article in the Journal, entitled: “Letting Clausewitz Go: The Lesson the Canadian Army Must Learn from Afghanistan.” (Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer 2010) At the beginning of the article, he makes the statement: “Nearly two decades of war in the Balkans and Southwest Asia has shown us repeatedly and quite plainly that no matter how hard one rubs this imposed Clausewitzian intellectual touchstone (here he is referring to On War), there is in reality very little to be gained from trying to re-invent ourselves as 19th Century Prussian philosophers and general staff officers.” In point of fact, carefully read, studied, and understood, Carl von Clausewitz has a very great deal to say to us today on the subject of war and conflict at all levels – tactical, operational, strategic, and political.

In 1995, in his book Philosophers of Peace and War, the British political philosopher (and Second World War infantry major) W. B. Gallie wrote that On War was the first, and, to date, the only book of outstanding intellectual eminence published on the subject of war. The noted American international relations theorist, Richard Lebow, comments in The Tragic Vision of Politics that Clausewitz addresses some of the same questions as his illustrious predecessor, Thucydides, and has interesting and original things to say about them. Many of his insights, substantive and epistemological, Lebow maintains, remain relevant to the contemporary world. And in Fighting Talk: Forty Maxims on War, Peace and Strategy (2007), the renowned strategic theorist Colin S. Gray opined that with regard to strategy, if Thucydides, Sun Szu and Clausewitz did not say it, it probably is not worth saying. These testimonials reflect the belief of their authors that On War provides a brilliant account of the nature of any war, and many valuable insights on the inter-relationships among politics (policy), strategy, operational art, and tactics. They all agree with Clausewitz that the specific character of war may change, but its nature does not.

Clausewitz repeatedly advised his readers, in On War and in other works, that he was not writing a prescriptive or predictive treatise that could be used as military doctrine. Rather, he sought to encourage reflection and a deep understanding of the phenomenon of war. He had created a work that within limits, he hoped, would be timeless. In this, I believe, Clausewitz succeeded. His penetrating and trenchant observations concerning war and conflict often equals or even exceeds those of many of today’s international relations and military theorists, and most doctrine writers.

Clausewitz’s On War is suffused with the understanding that war is an inherently complex, non-linear phenomenon. In a profoundly unconfused way, he understood that seeking exact analytical solutions does not fit the reality of the problems posed by war. Unlike a number of his contemporaries, influenced by the desiccated rationalism of much of the philosophy of the late-Enlightenment, Clausewitz was not seeking ‘laws’ governing war. He stood in direct opposition, for example, to the contention of Baron de Jomini that all strategy is controlled by invariable principles only awaiting discovery by the positivistic mind. As he put it: “In war everything is uncertain and calculations have to be made with variable quantities. Other theorists direct their inquiry toward physical quantities, whereas, all military action is intertwined with psychological forces and effects. They consider only unilateral action, whereas, war consists of a continuous interaction of opposites.” This assessment applies with ever greater effect as one ascends the hierarchy of the general system of war and conflict, from the tactical to the political. Today, this assessment applies with even greater force to the complex nature of tactical operations in conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan than it did in Clausewitz’s era.

Further on in his article, Andrew maintains that Clausewitz advocated decisive war-ending battles of annihilation – a strategy, Andrew argues, neither politically acceptable nor operationally useful for modern democratic governments and armies. In fact, Clausewitz clearly identified two kinds of war and the logically associated strategy, depending upon the political objective set. If the objective was extreme or very ambitious, he indeed did outline the strategy of annihilation to achieve the desired end-state. But if the objective was more limited or nuanced, Clausewitz advocated a bipolar strategy, combining battle with non-battle methods, including diplomacy, economic means, and political dialogue. This two-pillared paradigm was further elaborated upon in the late 19th Century by the German military historian Hans Delbruk. Furthermore, it directly inspired post-1945 scholars such as Bernard Brodie (Strategy in the Missile Age), Charles Osgood (Limited War), and Hans Morgenthau (Politics among Nations). A careful reading of this dimension of On War may have better informed Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks in ‘Gulf War Two,’ and certainly shaped NATO’s thinking with regard to operations in Afghanistan. A very good and succinct description and explanation of these two ‘kinds’ of strategy can be found in a 2009 book by two Greek professors: Thucydides On Strategy: Grand Strategies in the Peloponnesian War and Their Relevance Today.

Toward the end of the article, Dr. Godefroy quotes a passage taken from the British historian Hew Strachan’s Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: a Biography. It should be noted that this book is one of a short list of books in a series entitled “Books That Shook the World.” Other titles include Plato’s Republic, Darwin’s Origin of Species, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Machiavelli’s The Prince. To be included in this company surely speaks volumes about the enduring value of Clausewitz’s On War.

Unlike Andrew, after 44 years in the CF and DND, I have encountered very few officers who have actually read Clausewitz – and fewer still who have studied him. Since we began sending students to the US Army’s and US Marine Corps’ Schools of Advanced Military Studies, the situation has changed marginally. However, the proper study of Clausewitz has not been adequately introduced into the CF’s professional development system by any means. I conclude by asserting that the problem is not too much Clausewitz, but rather, far too little Clausewitz.

~L. William Bentley, PhD.

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Lieutenant-Colonel (ret’d) Bill Bentley, MSM, CD, PhD, is Director of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute in the Canadian Defence Academy, Kingston

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