Another book that changed the world

24 May 2009


Strachan - front

At present I am listening to Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography, by Hew Strachan. Earlier in this forum I commented on two other volumes in the series “Books that Changed the World” published by Grove/Atlantic and released as a book on CD by Tantor Audio. The other two books were Francis Wheen’s book on Marx’s Das Kapital and Christopher Hitchens book on Paine’s The Rights of Man.

Of these three works, I definitely like this Strachan book on Clausewitz best, and it is the most scholarly and the most carefully focused on the eponymous book that is the pretext of the task of the series. Strachan discusses the textual history of On War and also goes into the details of some of Clausewitz’s terminology and its translation in English, which is both problematic and, because it is problematic, interesting. The above-mentioned books on Paine and Marx did not tightly focus on the textual history and terminology of the works in question but primarily sought to place the books in historical context.

Recently in Unintended consequences of Enlightenment universalism I said that the industrial revolution came relatively late to war. It could also be said that the Enlightenment came relatively late to war, and Clausewitz is the representative of the Enlightenment for war. Clausewitz stands in relation to bringing the Enlightenment conception of scientific knowledge to war as before him Newton stood in relation to physics, Adam Smith stood in relation to economics, and Gibbon stood in relation to history. After Clausewitz, Darwin similarly stood in relation to biology and Freud to psychiatry.

Strachan - spine

It has been instructive to listen to this book about Clausewitz not long after having listened several times through to Caleb Carr’s The Lessons of Terror. I praised Carr’s book for its thoughtfulness, though I disagreed with much of it (cf. Terrorism and the evolution of technology and Mass War and Mass Man). Carr was highly critical of Clausewitz, and the portrait of Clausewitz painted by Strachan truly brings out many of the features that Carr most strongly criticized, especially Clausewitz’s emphasis upon a “strategy of annihiliation” in war. For Carr, this stigmatizes Clausewitz as “non-progressive.”

I had assumed, when listening to Carr’s book, that there had to be another side to Clausewitz than that criticized by Carr, and now it appears to me that Clausewitz’s “strategy of annihilation” can be interpreted as an aspect of his Enlightenment outlook. Forcing a war or campaign to a decisive battle that settles the outcome of the conflict could be considered the military equivalent of the experimentum crusis in science.

Moreover, Clausewitz rightly observes that if battle is reduced to maneuver, eventually someone will come along and cut off our arms with a sharp sword. The message here, as I understand it, is that war is thoroughly integral with human social organization (I’ll come back to this in a later post), and as such over time it becomes civilized and refined. War becomes just another social technology of organization. But this can only happen in a relatively closed system in which certain social conventions are rigorously observed. When some force comes in from the outside — Mongols or barbarians or what have you — and they do not choose to observe the social niceties that have evolved within the closed civilized system in question, the sheer brutality of the onslaught in likely to crush all before it.

This is also what I take to be the idea behind a famous passage from W. T. Sherman’s letter to the City Council of Atlanta of 12 September 1864 (if my memory serves, Carr quoted this passage with disapprobation, noting its consonance with Clausewitz):

“You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country. If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war.”

Thus a nation-state that cultivates war as anything less than a strategy of annihilation courts its own annihilation. Anything so forthright must inevitably be controversial today, and Clausewitz’s concept of a “strategy of annihilation” may sound little different from a “war of extermination.” Indeed Strachan explicitly addresses the terminology that Clausewitz employed for this conception and the possibility of translating Clausewitz in terms of “extermination” instead of “annihilation.” I recommend this discussion to the interested reader.

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Strachan - back

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Grand Strategy Annex

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