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Clausewitz Condensed


Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian soldier and scholar during and after the Napoleonic wars, an age in which Clausewitz said, "War itself...had been lecturing." 1/ Despite the fact that his writings remained unfinished at the time of his death, his study On War is "the first" to grapple with "the fundamentals of its subject, and the first to evolve a pattern of thought adaptable to every stage of military history and practice." 2/ The extent to which Clausewitz endures today, in an era of nuclear weaponry and "Star Wars" defense projects, attests to the success of his systematic attempt to describe war's universal dynamics. Indeed, American strategist Bernard Brodie, like many other military authorities, believes that On War "is not simply the greatest but the only truly great book on war." 3/

What explains the durability of Clausewitzian thought? The key lies in the fundamentally persistent nature of war, for it is the fundamentally timeless aspect of war that most strikes the modern reader of On War. Clausewitz views war more as an art than a science. One can no more establish a rigid manual for combat, Clausewitz thinks, than one can define strict principles for great painting.

War, like art, is essentially creative, not imitative. A sound theory of war, therefore, has to accommodate change and flexibility. This Clausewitz attempts to do by distilling basic elements and broad patterns of war from the record of great Napoleonic battles and commanders in ways that will be applicable, despite future changes in the political, economic, social, legal, and technological landscape.

The purpose of this paper is to extract from On War the principal thoughts of Clausewitz still relevant to contemporary strategists, present them with minimal editorial comment, then list a few caveats concerning interpretation. 4/


1/ Quoted by H. Rothfels, "Clausewitz," in Makers of Modern Strategy, edited by Edward Earl Meade (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 96.

2/ Ibid., p. 93.

3/ Bernard Brodie, "The Continuing Relevance of On War ," in Clausewitz, Carl von, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter (Princeton, N.J.:

Princeton University Press, 1976), p. 53.

4/ Quotations for this paper are followed by the page number(s) of the Howard and Paret translation of On War.