The Answer is Always Clausewitz

Mark Perry

Bitter Lemons, April 30, 2009

The wry and oft-repeated saying among senior American military officers is always good for a laugh: "no matter what the question," they claim, "the answer is always Clausewitz." Unlike many war theoreticians, Prussian Major General Carl von Clausewitz actually served in the military--fighting Napoleon and spending time in a French prison. He was released in time to witness Wellington's British squares crush Bonaparte's Imperial Guard at Waterloo. His "On War" was published posthumously. For nearly two hundred years, Clausewitz's work has retained its power. It was studied by Mao, was carried in the knapsacks of Vietnamese soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, was required reading among Saddam Hussein's senior commanders.

We have Clausewitz to thank for German militarism: the Prussian army wasn't really an army until he came along--its officer corps took pride in the length of their ponytails and scoffed at the notion that they should actually command troops. The Germans have since discarded Clausewitz's most trenchant lessons: surveying the ruins of their cities in the wake of the last European war, they relegated "On War" to the dustbin of German history. Not so with America's officers, for whom "On War" is viewed with the same awed faith that believing Christians reserve for the Nicene Creed. America's commanders talk of war's "fog", its "friction" and the "strategic center of gravity"--all from the lexicon of the Clausewitz catechism.

Clausewitz's most famous Te Deum--that "war is a continuation of politics by other means"--is celebrated for good reason: it is a reflection of his belief that military commanders can practice and perfect their craft, much as Beethoven or Goethe practiced and perfected theirs. That war takes lives is not pertinent; organized killing is a specious fact undampened by good intentions. Even so, at the heart of the Clausewitz dictum is the unswerving belief that war is the result of failed diplomacy and not the other way around. That Clausewitz's descendents got this so terribly wrong was obvious in 1945. Having seen their military utterly destroyed, German diplomats had nothing left to talk about. What were they going to do: use harsh language?

Clausewitz is taught at nearly all of America's military colleges; it is as central to the study of war as Cicero is to the humanities. Yet, while "On War" is required reading for military officers, it is ignored by American politicians. Thus, Clausewitz's seminal lesson remains unlearned: that diplomacy is best practiced under a threat of certain pain-to-come. Yet, the not-so-secret truth about America's military is that it is exhausted, its army victimized by multiple deployments in an unnecessary war, the cream of its combat officer corps seeking employment elsewhere, its newest recruits dredged from the un-and-under employed. We can threaten to let loose the dogs of war, but we will not be believed.

We Americans now celebrate our willingness to talk, to grasp the hand of those who unclench their fist. That the world, and most especially the Iranian leadership, remains skeptical of this offer should not be a surprise. For we have gotten Clausewitz exactly wrong: we are talking not to prevent conflict, but because we have no choice. Which is why the Iranian leadership is insisting that any talks with America focus on a host of regional and international issues, and not simply on their nuclear program. Their insistence on this is a test of our good intentions--as it should be. Are we really interested in regional stability? Do we really want to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? They will undoubtedly tell us (if they have not already) that the road to peace and stability in the region does not run through Tehran (as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insists), but through Jerusalem.

We dismiss this view at our peril, for it is the one thing that every state in the region--from Iran to Saudi Arabia to Jordan--believes. That is to say: if the United States is truly interested in forging a new era of stability in the Middle East, and a new understanding with Iran, then President Obama can begin by telling Netanyahu that we expect Israel to be as good a friend to us as we have been to them. Netanyahu can confirm this by shifting Israel's policy on settlements in the West Bank. The United States, President Obama should say, does not want Israel's settlements frozen, it wants them removed. That can start now. The reward for this act of friendship will be our continuing commitment to Israel's defense. This message need not be confrontational, but it must be clear. Then too, the message has a certain elegance. It will convince Iran that we intend to follow our words with actions. At the same time it meets that other central tenet of the Clausewitz canon: a nation's strength is defined not by the size of its army, but by whether it means what it says.

Mark Perry is a director of Conflicts Forum and the author of Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace.



5 Comments

  1. […] via Conflicts Forum » The answer is always Clausewitz. […]

  2. […] The answer is always Clausewitz. The wry and oft-repeated saying among senior American military officers is always good for a laugh: “no matter what the question,” they claim, “the answer is always Clausewitz.” Unlike many war theoreticians, Prussian Major General Carl von Clausewitz actually served in the military–fighting Napoleon and spending time in a French prison. He was released in time to witness Wellington’s British squares crush Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard at Waterloo. His “On War” was published posthumously. For nearly two hundred years, Clausewitz’s work has retained its power. It was studied by Mao, was carried in the knapsacks of Vietnamese soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, was required reading among Saddam Hussein’s senior commanders. (Conflicts Forum) […]

  3. mat windrum wrote:

    America is trapped in a relationship with Israel – against her self interest. We have been here before when America supported Chaing Kai-shek and now Taiwan. A. Tuchman in – Stiwell and the American experience in China 1911 – 1945 – ” But a status quo power, as the United States, the once brave young republic, had now become, tends to stay with another incumbent even if bankrupt.

  4. jobarker wrote:

    Wow! coming here is like a fresh rain on one’s face on a hot summer situation!! Kudos on this refreshing, again, precient & to the point of the
    ridiculous hesitation re: all things Hamas…because aipac wants them cremated & hung upside down..Obama had to go to Congress to ask them to take Hamas off the list of “terrorist” status so he can give some financial aid…Too bad he doesn’t look closer..Alastair needs to send him a signed copy of “Resistance”..itissadtobeanamerican!!

  5. Skysoldier Recon wrote:

    The greatest threat to US security, and that of Europe is islamic fundamentalism. You cannot kill an ideaology. It can be contained, but in a war of attrition the West will lose. Iran, is led by apocalyptic old men, who will lead a young populace down the road to ruin. It does not matter how much land Israel gives up, the call for the annihilation of the Jewish state is etched in stone. This refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist will trigger some kind of military action, and Iran won’t have a nuke program much longer.