on 5 November 2002
Without going into the details and virtues of Clusewitz's work (suffice to say that whether you agree with what he says or not, this is compulsory reading for anyone interested in war and strategy) I think it's important to point out that this particular translation (by Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret) is widely acclaimed as far and away the best English language translation available. If you are considering getting hold of On War (especially if you are going to be studying it formally), put your hand in your pocket and get this version.
on 6 October 2007
This is not an easy book to read nor understand. It takes several readings. A large investment in time will allow the reader to understand Clausewitz's system and the remarkable way that it stills aides in understanding the phenomenon of war. The text is adorned with many historical examples. Continuously emphasizing that war is 'a continuity of policy by other means. He has defined perfectly the theory of war, its tactical and strategic purposes. A must for an military or political leader.
on 23 December 2011
This Penguin Edition of On War should be avoided at all costs. This is a weirdly edited and seriously misleading edition, put together by Anatol Rapoport in 1968. Rapoport was a biologist and musician--indeed, he was something of a renaissance man and later made some interesting contributions to game theory. However, he was outraged by the Vietnam War and extremely hostile to the state system and to the alleged "neo-Clausewitzian," Henry Kissinger. He severely and misleadingly abridged Clausewitz's own writings, partly, of course, for reasons of space in a small paperback. Nonetheless--for reasons that surpasseth understanding--he retained Maude's extraneous introduction, commentary, and notes, then used Maude's errors to condemn Clausewitzian theory. Between Graham's awkward and obsolete translation, Maude's sometimes bizarre intrusions, and Rapoport's hostility (aimed more at the world in general, and at Kissinger in particular, than at Clausewitz personally), the Penguin edition is badly misleading as to Clausewitz's own ideas. The influential modern military journalist/historian John Keegan apparently derives much of his otherwise unique misunderstanding of Clausewitz from Rapoport's long, hostile introduction--necessarily so, since he has obviously never read Clausewitz's own writings, not even the rest of the text of this strange edition. I would recommend the Graham or Graham/Maude translation. I if you do own this twisted Penguin version put it in a glass case, get it bronzed, or burn it--but READ something else.
Clausewitz treats war as a natural, social organism, which can best be understood by practical experience. In reaction to the attempts by Jomini and other strategists to rationalize the theory and practice of war into discernible, scientific laws, Clausewitz emphasizes the capriciousness of warfare. As in all human endeavors, chance is a random variable in the conduct of war. Implicit in Clausewitzian thought is a distinction between strategy and tactics. While certain principles are useful for tactical calculations, Clausewitz asserts that no "laws" for strategy exist; experience, though, can prove of great use to the military commander. Another Clausewitzian innovation is the idea that defense is a stronger form of war than offense. In defensive warfare, a greater degree of the state's internal resources (including her citizen-soldiers) are brought to bear on the military effort. Clearly, Clausewitz warns that offensive advantage, once it has lost its initial momentum or has seen its concentration of force weakened or divided, can quickly be transmuted into a defensive orientation. Thus, a good defense is necessary for good offense (even if only during momentary pauses).
The main contribution of Clausewitz is represented by his maxim that "war is merely the continuation of policy by other means." In other words, war is basically an extension of politics. The initial motive for warfare is encapsulated by a political objective; war is a means to a political end. Clausewitz argues that policy permeates and essentially determines the character and extent of all military operations; the authority of the military commander is circumscribed by the political aims of the state. Thus, Clausewitz essentially maintains that the public sector (the state) must exercise authority over military operations. Although he has no use for military formulae, Clausewitz does offer one postulate: when the costs of the military effort exceed (in relative terms) the positive good of the political objective, then the state should seek a peaceful settlement. The good of the state depends on knowing when to stop fighting as well as when to start.
The most important message conveyed by Clausewitz is that war is not an isolated phenomenon. Any considerations for waging war (offensive or defensive) must be based on the political situation at home, in the adversarial state, and in the world community of potential allies and enemies. Military strength in and of itself is not an adequate gauge for success. A defensive war can be a victorious effort, should the assailant overextend himself. Beyond this, the desire to maintain the balance of power is a strong stimulus for foreign involvement. All in all, Clausewitz portrays war as a human endeavor, involving chance (or "friction") as well as skill. War is not a game involving the maneuverability of human instruments; victory can only be secured on the battlefield. On War is a realistic, pragmatic approach to warfare in all its facets--skill and luck, offense and defense, battle and statecraft, etc. The subservience of the armed forces to political control remains a strong source of friction in today's states--this is only one aspect of the timelessness of Clausewitz's work.
Certainly, On War is a long, difficult read. For those, both citizens and soldiers, who wish to truly understand warfare, however, it is required reading which will ultimately richly reward the diligent reader with much insight and knowledge.
on 8 December 2004
Technology has made the details of Clausewitz's work obsolescent -- for example night attacks by US forces are highly effective. And strategic nuclear war approaches what Von Clausewitz thought merely an abstraction: "absolute war." Nonetheless, "On War" remains the definitive text on the unchanging fundamentals of military strategy and the relationship of force and policy.
"On War" will always be a dense and difficult work to read; it has so much information in so (comparatively) little space, and the concepts are frequently new to modern eyes. Nonetheless, a great translation makes the book far more accessible than does a poor one (such as the Wordsworth edition uses). The Howard/Paret translation is the definitive English language version. Any student of war, or even of politics, should read this book in this translation.
on 16 October 2011
It is an extensive work, since it fits with the epoch, in which writing little was a sign of inconsistency, little importance and scanty reflection. The books or parts that compose it were finished in variable degree by the author, whose premature death did not allow its conclusion. I am more interested in the first chapters on "the theory and the philosophy of the war".
The other books or parts treat on the tactics of a period in which the enemy deployment was staying at the sights of the enemy command and his HHQQ and auxiliary, placed in a nearby height.
In an age of masses armies, inaugurated by Napoleon (also called "the nation at arms"), soon was clear that it was not possible to win a war between full armed nations, in an alone great battle.
It was necessary a campaign with successive victorious operations, looking for the achievement of the military goals of the campaign (theatre of operations, Europe, Pacific Ocean, Africa) or the strategy. In addition, already there did not exist a genius advanced to his epoch as Napoleon.
According to general André Beaufré, 3 fundamental principles exists for Clausewitz: the concentration of efforts, the action of the strong upon the weak and the war decision by the battle in the principal theatre of operations.
Nevertheless, the reading of the book "On War" allows to extract at least other nine conclusions, milestones or advices of his great work. And they have the character of principles of the war. These would be: Simplicity in the plans and executions. Concentration on the enemy and relative economy of forces in other sectors, to help to get it. Establishment of a principal effort and the reserves to guarantee it in the time. The surprise, as multiplier of the own military capacities. Superiority of the defense, which must be active, as a form of fight. The need of the offensive, to obtain positive and/or decisive results in the operational and strategic levels of action.
He praises Liddell Hart's opposite strategy: a decisive battle using the maximum own concentration and power on the enemy army.