Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?

By Fleming, Bruce | Parameters, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Can Reading Clausewitz Save Us from Future Mistakes?


Fleming, Bruce, Parameters


Answering the question: No, though to read the commentators, we'd never know it.

An Author for All Seasons

Some works are so broad in scope, so inclusive, even of contradictions internal to themselves, that they can be used to justify almost anything. One such book is that patchwork written over many centuries and by many hands that we call the Bible. For the Renaissance, it was Virgil's Aeneid, opened at random to provide divination (Sortes Virgilinae). For the Victorian era, it was the works of Shakespeare, a mine of quotable quotes removed from their contexts. For theorists of war in the last several decades, it has been Carl von Clausewitz's On War.

The Weinberger Doctrine of 1984, for example, considered by many strategists the template of the first Gulf War, is both drawn from and cites Clausewitz. (1) Widely held to have summarized the lessons of the Vietnam War, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's six points for committing troops called for broad public support before engagement and a clear definition of objectives, things that were presumably lacking in the case of Vietnam. Weinberger invoked Clausewitz to justify the necessity of defining objectives clearly: "No one starts a war--or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so--without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it."

Clausewitz's most celebrated assertion, however, as almost all commentators point out, is that "war is a continuation of policy [or politics: the German is Politik] by other means." This is linked to his equally famous "trinity" of violence, chance, and subordination, which is commonly represented as the people, the military, and the government. In recent years this trinity has typically been invoked to justify the necessity of achieving the backing of the people. Weinberger refers to this in the fifth of his points. And his final point, that "the commitment of US forces to combat should be a last resort," seems a reasonable conclusion from Clausewitz's insistence that war is not separate from politics, but a continuation of it.

In the Second Gulf War as in the first, the (second) Bush Administration was clearly acting with an eye to this reading of Clausewitz. After all, the Administration achieved widespread domestic if not international support precisely by defining its reasons for war. To be sure, these have changed over time. Initially the Administration beat a largely one-note drum of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify the invasion. More recently, absent any such weapons found to date, the justifications given have been those of removing a dictator and establishing a democracy in Iraq. (2)

Much post-Vietnam theory is like Weinberger's in invoking Clausewitz as the patron philosopher of decisive, well-supported, and purposeful action. Usually it tries to show us in hindsight what went wrong, and how paying attention to Clausewitz could have steered us right from the start. The problem is that what counts as decisive action for one viewer may count as a colossal misreading of the situation for another. Those who disagreed with the Administration invoked Clausewitz as well. Randolf T. Holhut quotes Clausewitz's most famous phrase and then goes on to propose that the real reason the Administration went to war was because Iraq was a "test case for using bombs to accelerate the privatization of a nation's economy." (3)

Administration critic William S. Lind, in an article titled "A Warning from Clausewitz," quotes Clausewitz to warn that statesmen and commanders must be clear about what sort of war they are fighting. (4) The Administration might with justification have responded that they were very clear about this. According to Lind, the Administration was trying to fight a "second generation" (nation against nation) war, when in fact what it should have been embarked upon was the much less well defined "fourth generation" war involving irregular forces, fifth column fighters, and guerilla actions.

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