Book Review: On War


“On War”, “Vom Kriege” in the original German, is regarded by many as the pre-eminent work on the philosophy of war. Written by Prussian Major General of Artillery Carl von Clausewitz after the Napoleonic wars in which he had fought with and against the Frenchman, it was still unfinished at the time of his death in 1831. His widow, Marie, took from the manuscript and published it the next year.

We are in her debt for doing so, but taking from an unfinished the manuscript has its dangers. Wilhelm Rüstow wrote in 1867 that “On War” was “well-known but little read”, something his translator, Michael Howard, noted is “an aphorism which has lost none of its accuracy with the passage of time.” The problem is Clausewitz died while redrafting and rewriting the text. The manuscript was therefore a jumble of ideas at various stages of maturity. Clarity of thought should translate into clear writing. But as this was a work in progress, and as Clausewitz was still wrestling with some of his ideas, the language is often dense and obscure. Reading was heavy going – something not made easier by early translators. To misquote Churchill: the language protected the book from reading.

Onto the stage steps Howard, then at Oxford University and Peter Paret, then at Stanford University. Writing in the 1976 Editor’s Note to their translation they aver the two translations then available suffered “a large number of inaccuracies and obscurities or were based on texts that contained alterations from the 1832 original. They thus returned to the base text and clear English. As such, this translation is the only this reviewer will recommend.

Noteworthy is that Clausewitz himself was only satisfied with the first chapter of Book One, considering it complete. Fortunately, this is the bit that really matters. One can venture to say that if one read that chapter only it would amount to a critical education. I would encourage the reader to continue. What will the reader learn? War is organised violence. It is part art, part science and part luck. The purpose of war is to bend the enemy to your will. “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” wrote Clausewitz. But the enemy is trying to do the same to you, so war, becomes a “dynamic interaction of opposing human wills”, a lot like wrestling.
“War is nothing but a duel on a larger scale. Countless duels go to make up war, but a picture of it as a whole can be formed by imagining a pair of wrestlers. Each tries through physical force to compel the other to do his will.” Clausewitz adds “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” Politics may seem irrelevant at the company level, but it is not. “The political object – the original motive for the war – will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.” Politics and ideology – and ore broadly ethics and morality – has a direct impact on the morale and will of soldiers to fight, the rules they apply while doing so and how they treat the enemy, prisoners and civilians.
“On War” is, in a nutshell, “the most significant attempt in Western history to understand war, both in its internal dynamics and as an instrument of policy.” As a soldier, leave it unread at your peril.

Carl von Clausewitz, translated by Michael Howard & Peter Paret

On War

Princeton University Press,