60 in 60: #35 – Von Clausewitz’s On the Nature of War (Penguin’s Great Ideas)


This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series–the Guardian’s book site of the week and mentioned on the Penguin blog. (Their latest post comments on the first 20.) From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.

On the Nature of War
by Carl von Clausewitz (1780 to 1831)

Memorable Line
“We say therefore that War belongs not to the province of Arts and Sciences, but to the province of social life. It is a conflict of great interests which is settled by bloodshed, and only in that is it different from others. It would be better, instead of comparing it to any Art, to liken it to business competition, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities… ”

The Skinny
An excerpt from On War, these classic thoughts on warfare still inform military theory and opinion.

Relevance? Argument?
Reading von Clausewitz is like reading the crunchy, vines-and-ruins version of Sun-tzu. The text is more practical than The Art of War and it’s also more eccentric in its teachings on strategy than something like Machiavelli’s The Prince. I first encountered his work through another book (which I highly recommend as one of the finest military accounts ever written):

In The Campaigns of Napoleon,* David G. Chandler writes, “[another] contemporary authority, the Prussian von Clausewitz, incorporated a great deal of the essence of Napoleonic warfare into his famous three-volume work On War…although he completely misunderstood the significance of the crucial manoeuvre sur les derrieres,” or action against an enemy’s communications. (p. 134) And later: “As Clausewitz wrote soon after the Berezina [a decisive battle in the Russian campaign], ‘Bonaparte had escaped with about 40,000 men, as if some higher power had decreed not to destroy him on this occasion. He had been forced into a situation in which it appeared he must be lost.'” (p. 847)

I bought On War, then, as additional context on Napoleon. But I soon came to appreciate von Clausewitz for his own sake, and in much the same way as I appreciate Edward Gibbon. Von Clausewitz seems to me to be a kind of eccentric, mixed in with much that has a practical application. Thus, you get curt dismissals of subjects such as the effect of weather on warfare: “Still more rarely has the weather any decisive influence, and it is mostly only by fogs that it plays a part.” Unless, of course, if you’re Spanish, you have an Armada, and there’s a sudden storm.** (It must be noted that Sun-tzu, discussing types of terrain, often includes the effects of weather in his assessments–and, indeed, on the very next page of On the Nature of War, von Clausewitz includes “frost” and other such elements of “weather” in his own thoughts on terrain.)

The reader also receives such rough elegance as:

War is, therefore, not only chameleon-like in character, because it changes its colour in some degree in each particular case, but it is also, as a whole, in relation to the predominant tendencies which are in it, a wonderful trinity, composed of the original violence of its elements, hatred and animosity, which may be looked upon as blind instinct; of the play of probabilities and chance, which make it a free activity of the soul…

You won’t find anything like that in Machiavelli or Sun-tzu. There’s a real enthusiasm for war in von Clausewitz that is bracing and genuine–even more so when he’s dispassionate (which strangely reads here like a form of passion rather than its negation). The text may at times seem blood-thirsty to a modern reader, but to me it seems appropriate. If you are going to enter into something as devastating as war, then you should prosecute that war with the enthusiasm that comes from wanting to do something well. Half-measures and regrets only kill more people.

However, von Clausewitz does also contain echoes of Sun-tzu, and some of the same subtle qualities–for example, when he discusses causes of suspension of action on one side or another. “A complete equilibrium of forces can never produce a suspension of action,” von Clausewitz writes, “for during this suspension he who has the positive object (that is, the assailant) must continue progressing; for if we should imagine an equilibrium in this way, that he who has the positive object, therefore the strongest motive, can at the same time only command the lesser means…” In his continuing description of forces teetering on the edge of conflict, and a kind of push-me pull-me idea of shared momentum, he begins to evoke The Art of War‘s chapter “Empty and Full,” in which Sun-tzu writes, “The Skilful Warrior stirs and is not stirred. He lures his enemy into coming or obstructs him from coming.”

Von Clausewitz can also be deathly dry, as in the section on “Criticism,” where he writes, “The influence of theoretical principles upon real life is produced more through criticism than through doctrine, for as criticism is an application of abstract truth to real events, therefore it not only brings truth of this description nearer to life, but also accustoms the understanding more to such truths by the constant repetition of their application.”

I suppose pointing out the different tones and emphases running through On the Nature of War is another way of telling you that von Clausewitz is well-rounded–an admittedly charitable interpretation.*** Even in the dry sections, I find him fascinating to read.

“War,” writes Chandler, “has always been one of the most unpleasant and least rewarding forms of human activity.” “War,” writes von Clausewitz, “is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will…This is the way in which the matter must be viewed, and it is to no purpose, it is even against one’s own interest, to turn away from the consideration of the real nature of the affair because the horror of its elements excites repugnance.”

* The Campaigns of Napoleon isn’t just comprehensive–it is exhaustive, and yet Chandler manages to make that exhaustive quality a plus. The book never feels slow or ponderous. You can always fully visualize the battles, and he provides plenty of context off the field of battle as well.

** To be fair, von Clausewitz is mostly talking about land warfare here.

***von Clausewitz calls his own book “seemingly weakly bound-together,” preferring to “give in small ingots of fine metal his impressions and convictions.”

War, like boxing, excites passion as much by the beauty of its strategic and tactical structure as by the immediacy of its reality.

Question for Readers
Have you ever had to conduct a manoeuvre sur les derrieres? How’d that go for you?

Next up, Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling


  1. says

    One of the elements that I am enjoying most in your reviews is your increasing ability to compare and contrast each successive work to the previous ones you have read. This contextualizing is most fascinating.