book-reviews

On War

by Carl von Clausewitz

Rating: ★★★

Perhaps an unusually pragmatic entry in the 'philosophy' category, On War is nonetheless best described as such, being neither identifiable as a book of science nor, as some have labelled it, a history book -- Clausewitz's use of (primarily contemporary) historical examples is not critical to the aim of the book, and nor does it make up the majority of his analysis, which for the most part is rational deduction from some grounding principles of war which Clausewitz establishes in example and appeals to experience and common sense.

Excluding the introductory chapters which deal with the nature of war, and which carry some quotable observations about the various qualities desirable of a general, the first half of the book is largely establishing negative space. Clausewitz works to define the edge of the areas he is aiming to cover, criticises what would appear to have been prevailing attitudes towards constructing military theory, and sets up how he believes a framework should be approached, while deferring actual construction. This bit can get quite tiresome -- Clauswitz's obvious clearheadedness is being put to no use in destroying rather than building.

As the book progresses, Clauswitz does eventually start to offer actionable advice, the structure of the book being one of gradual refinement of scope until actual on-the-ground topics emerge. Covering decisions regarding target selection, offence and defence, Clauswitz argues based on the grounding principles of war being tied to overcoming the enemy's ability to fight, centralisation of forces, and the effectiveness of other attributes such as surprise, while at the same time refusing to ignore all the many mitigating factors which may modify advice, most notably the political aim of a war.

Unfortunately, the work was beyond the completion of the man, and it is in these later chapters, where more positive specifics are visible, that we find the most fragmentation of the writing, with short notes having to stand in for what were no doubt intended to be long chapters. The eighth and final book acts as a summary for the whole theory, covering (along with an odd slice of military history) the key points of the book without the detailed reasoning that led Clauswitz to the conclusions, and a casual reader might be best served by reading this eighth book alone, and then turning back to the larger text to find the grounding wherever he finds the conclusion in error.