Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Carl von Clausewitz's "On War"

On War is one of the most important books ever written on the subject of war. Clausewitz, a Prussian officer who fought against the French during the Napoleonic Wars, sought to understand and analyze the phenomenon of war so that future leaders could conduct and win conflicts more effectively. He studied the human and social factors that affect outcomes, as well as the tactical and technological ones. He understood that war was a weapon of government, and that political purpose, chance, and enmity combine to shape its dynamics. On War continues to be read by military strategists, politicians, and others for its timeless insights.

Beatrice Heuser, Professor at the University of the German Federal Armed Forces, Munich, and editor of the new abridged edition of On War in the Oxford World Classics series, applied the "Page 99 Test" to Clausewitz's classic and reported the following:
Opening Clausewitz's On War (Oxford University Press abridged edition, translation by Michael Howard and Peter Paret) on p. 99 we stumble upon the old and controversial debate whether the conduct of war is an art or a science.

The French and English word ‘art’ (German ‘Kunst’) of course hails from the Latin ‘ars’, meaning skill, ability to do something (as in the French and English word ‘artisan’ or skilled craftsman). Originally, the ‘Arts’ subjects required practical skills, like the ability to speak a foreign language, or to paint a picture (hence ‘fine art’). The French and English word ‘science’ (German ‘Wissenschaft’), by contrast, originally implied abstract knowledge and reflection upon a subject, the theory (as opposed to the practice). It is derived from the Latin scientia, wisdom. Abstract logic, mathematics, theoretical reflections upon the laws of nature (i.e. physics) were all sciences, standing in clear contrast to applied subjects such as engineering, or indeed, conducting war, the skill expected from a general.

Clausewitz, however, spoke out against this separation (p.99f): “No matter how obvious and palpable the difference between knowledge [science] and ability [art] may be …, it is still extremely difficult to separate them entirely in the individual. … [I]f it is impossible to imagine a human being capable of perception but not of judgement or vice versa, it is likewise impossible to separate art and knowledge altogether.’ He conceded, ‘creation and production lie in the realm of art; science will dominate where the object is inquiry and knowledge. It follows that the term ‘art of war’ is more suitable than ‘science of war’. … But we must go on to say that strictly speaking war is neither an art nor a science. … [W]ar … is part of man’s social existence. War is a clash between major interests, which is resolved by bloodshed – that is the only way in which it differs from other conflicts. Rather than comparing it to art we could more accurately compare it to commerce, which is also a conflict of human interests and activities, and it is still closer to politics, which in turn may be considered as a kind of commerce on a larger scale. Politics, moreover, is the womb in which war develops…”

And this is of course where we encounter the idea about the relationship between politics and war for which Clausewitz is most famous!
For further reading, see Beatrice Heuser (ed): Carl von Clausewitz, On War, in the Oxford World’s Classics series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) , and Beatrice Heuser, Reading Clausewitz (London: Pimlico, 2002).

--Marshal Zeringue