On War

On War

Carl von Clausewitz's On War has been called, "not simply the greatest, but the only truly great book on war." It is an extraordinary attempt to construct an all-embracing theory of how war works. Its coherence and ambition are unmatched by other military literature. On War is full of sharp observation, biting irony, and memorable phrases, the most famous being, "War is a...

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Title:On War
Author:Carl von Clausewitz
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Edition Language:English

On War Reviews

  • Mike Edwards

    Almost 200 years later, this masterpiece is still misunderstood and ignored.

    Clausewitz argues that the purpose of war is to disarm your opponent and thereby force him to give you want you want. Based on this premise, he concludes that wars are essentially unwinnable on the battlefield: it is virtually impossible to completely disarm your opponent through might alone. Instead, your opponent at some point has to decide to give you want you want--and getting your opponent to come to that decision m

    Almost 200 years later, this masterpiece is still misunderstood and ignored.

    Clausewitz argues that the purpose of war is to disarm your opponent and thereby force him to give you want you want. Based on this premise, he concludes that wars are essentially unwinnable on the battlefield: it is virtually impossible to completely disarm your opponent through might alone. Instead, your opponent at some point has to decide to give you want you want--and getting your opponent to come to that decision means that a war must be fought as part of a larger political strategy. Moreover, the goals of battle must always be subservient to the political context in which the war is being fought; if winning the war becomes the end and not the means to a greater goal, the aggressor will find himself bogged down in an ceaseless conflict.

  • Ivana

    Without doubt the best book about war ever written!

    Even after all this time (how long has it been since it was written? centuries!) it is not dated. Really, it is not dated.

    Carl Von Clausewitz is the first theorist of war (and he remains the best). Moreover, he is the first to write and understand war fully. There are other great books on this subject such as those written by Machiavelli and Sun Tzu but this is a theory, a great theory of war. Just like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, the author creat

    Without doubt the best book about war ever written!

    Even after all this time (how long has it been since it was written? centuries!) it is not dated. Really, it is not dated.

    Carl Von Clausewitz is the first theorist of war (and he remains the best). Moreover, he is the first to write and understand war fully. There are other great books on this subject such as those written by Machiavelli and Sun Tzu but this is a theory, a great theory of war. Just like Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, the author created something that can be applicable not just to a specific situation, but to life in general.

    Now, what are the down sides to this book? It is not easy to read, that fact probably couldn't be avoided due to its broadness. For most readers, it's going to be a tough read. Don't get discouraged, I for one didn’t find it as difficult as people say it is. To be honest, it wasn't that difficult at all, now when I think of it, I just needed a lot of time to read it.

    If you're not interested in the subject or you're not willing to put in some time (and maybe effort) into reading this one, skip it ...but alas you'll have to live with the fact that you've missed a great book.

  • Michael Burnam-Fink

    "War is simply the continuation of politics by other means."

    Far too many people quote Clausewitz without reading him, but after reading this edition of

    , there is no excuse not to read Clausewitz, and perhaps understand him.

    I will speak first to the translation: This is how it should be done. Howard, Paret, and Brodie produce an accurate and highly readable text, with invaluable supplementary essays on the historical impact of Clausewitz and his key points. Accept no other translations.

    Se

    "War is simply the continuation of politics by other means."

    Far too many people quote Clausewitz without reading him, but after reading this edition of

    , there is no excuse not to read Clausewitz, and perhaps understand him.

    I will speak first to the translation: This is how it should be done. Howard, Paret, and Brodie produce an accurate and highly readable text, with invaluable supplementary essays on the historical impact of Clausewitz and his key points. Accept no other translations.

    Second, the text itself. I'm a war nerd, and this is one of the best books on strategy that I've read. Compared to

    or Liddell Hart's

    , Clausewitz is clear and direct. War is violence used to disarm and enemy and compel him to your will. The best way to achieve this end is to concentrate your forces and destroy the enemy in a decisive battle. But this reading is also simplistic and unfair. Clausewitz has the utmost respect for friction, uncertainty and confusion in war, and the impact of psychological and political factors. He does not advocate for war, merely for clarity in the process of conducting a war. If there is one aphorism that is not in the text but should be, it is "The object of war is to secure a better peace." If more political leaders had a conception of the better peace they aimed at, and the cost and limitations of military means in securing that end, we would have a safer and more secure world.

    The philosophy is timeless, but much of the specific detail is tied up in the tactics of Napoleonic arms and armies, and may be of limited interest to anyone aside from the most dedicated history buffs. After reading this book, I just wish that we had a thinker of similar ability and breadth today to clarify the use of modern combined arms, the problems of counter-insurgency warfare, and the features of Cold War style economic, political, and cultural competition. Clausewitz has moved to the top of my post-Singularity Resurrection list.

  • Al

    Five stars for the translation which is simply the best on the market, and includes a superb commentary by Bernard Brodie. This is my fourth time reading this in the context of a class (Naval War College) and it is not any easier to navigate or understand, however, it is never a waste of time.

    Clausewitz himself gives the best summary of this work on p. 89: "First, therefore, it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous, but always as an instrument of policy; otherwise

    Five stars for the translation which is simply the best on the market, and includes a superb commentary by Bernard Brodie. This is my fourth time reading this in the context of a class (Naval War College) and it is not any easier to navigate or understand, however, it is never a waste of time.

    Clausewitz himself gives the best summary of this work on p. 89: "First, therefore, it is clear that war should never be thought of as something autonomous, but always as an instrument of policy; otherwise the entire history of war would contradict us. Only this approach will enable us to penetrate the problem intelligently. Second, this way of looking at it will show us how wars must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situations which give rise to them."

    The best tool that I have found to help navigate this work is "Who is Afraid of Carl Von Clausewitz: A Guide to the Perplexed" by Michael Handel, who used to teach here. His advice on reading Book 2, Chapter 2, "On the theory of war", provides a solid foundation before proceeding to the most important part of the book, which is Book 1, Chapter 1, "On the nature of war." This chapter should be read multiple times, because each reading gives new layers of understanding Clausewitz's underlying theory.

    Still, I'm glad I'm done, this time :).

  • James

    This book stands as an important and modern classic about the nature of war. Clausewitz applies rigorous analysis to almost all the factors that influence war, not least of which are social and political aspects. Indeed, for him, war is part of man's social existence, and politics the womb in which war develops. This is encapsulated in his famous comment: "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means."

    There are a number of intriguing and developed insights within this book: how defens

    This book stands as an important and modern classic about the nature of war. Clausewitz applies rigorous analysis to almost all the factors that influence war, not least of which are social and political aspects. Indeed, for him, war is part of man's social existence, and politics the womb in which war develops. This is encapsulated in his famous comment: "War is merely the continuation of policy by other means."

    There are a number of intriguing and developed insights within this book: how defense is the stronger form of waging war, how military talent does not necessarily scale, how the object of attack is not fighting but possession, how strategy belongs to art and tactics to science, and so on.

    Unfortunately, this book was never completed, so some chapters are frustratingly brief and some parts are missing. Nevertheless, these fragmentary musings on war have the power of deeply felt and considered thought: they are in every sense splendid and timeless.

  • Silvana

    One of the most difficult books I've ever read (so far). Took me a month just to read it, and sadly not 100% able to understand the whole thing. This one needs a re-read someday. Some parts are just so indigestible and make me want to pull my hair due to frustration.

    Having said that, why I gave this book four stars? Well, first it is a challenging read and I like challenges. Secondly, the contents are unbelievable. Yes, some explanations may be outdated, but the gist is still relevant. If one co

    One of the most difficult books I've ever read (so far). Took me a month just to read it, and sadly not 100% able to understand the whole thing. This one needs a re-read someday. Some parts are just so indigestible and make me want to pull my hair due to frustration.

    Having said that, why I gave this book four stars? Well, first it is a challenging read and I like challenges. Secondly, the contents are unbelievable. Yes, some explanations may be outdated, but the gist is still relevant. If one could get pass through the Book I-II of this book, then he/she is able to continue, that's my guarantee. Book III is where the fun starts, down right to the end. The examples taken from the Napoleonic and Prussian wars were quite helpful.

    Strategies, combats, relation of power, defense vs offense and plan of war, a military enthusiast should make this book his/her bible. Or even politicians, yes, they are obliged to read this book. Besides, as Clausewitz pointed out, the only source of war is politics.

    I will not make a thorough review due to my need to re-read this enigmatic book to have a full grasp on its notions and philosophies (which are many).

    Come to think of it... reading this book

    like waging a war with the aim to compel our opponents (in this case our laziness, ignorance, lack of understanding) to fulfill our will.

  • Michael

    This is the classic work of military strategy, written by a Prussian general in the nineteenth century, which has been often discussed but little understood. It is often held up as the ultimate example of “Prussianism,” of stifling military correctness, or as the champion of “absolute war” and the use of brutality and abandonment of rules in order to annihilate the enemy. It is blamed for the outbreak of both World Wars and for the horrors which those and subsequent conflicts loosed on the world

    This is the classic work of military strategy, written by a Prussian general in the nineteenth century, which has been often discussed but little understood. It is often held up as the ultimate example of “Prussianism,” of stifling military correctness, or as the champion of “absolute war” and the use of brutality and abandonment of rules in order to annihilate the enemy. It is blamed for the outbreak of both World Wars and for the horrors which those and subsequent conflicts loosed on the world.

    None of this is true.

    What we really have here is an unfinished text, since Clausewitz died before he could complete it, and I suspect that the complete version would have actually been shorter, as he cut out repetition and some of the less relevant digressions. Still, there is plenty here to chew on, and more than enough to disprove most of the above assertions.

    Clausewitz is, of course, both Prussian and a military man, and his subject is war, but he is not uncompassionate. In fact, he takes into consideration the difficulties suffered by men in the field, not least because he has been one himself. He is aware that, at the time he was writing, disease was responsible for the loss of more soldiers than combat, and he does not advocate prolonged forced marches or other cruel methods. He is very much aware that the spirit of the men has an impact on the outcome of battle, and the terrible responsibility a commander has in making choices that will minimize the destruction and suffering of those under his command. He is also aware that vacillating and over-cautiousness can lead to worse catastrophes than boldness, in some circumstances.

    So far as “absolute war” goes, yes, he does use the term. But he doesn’t necessarily advocate it as a “better” way to fight. There are two reasons for his use of it. The first is theoretical, in line with the idealist philosophy predominant in his time, he tries to use an idealized picture of war as a theoretical basis, from which particulars can be derived and adapted to real world conditions. This may or may not be the best approach, but it is not a matter of preferring war in its absolute state. The other reason he speaks of it is that as a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, he had witnessed the escalation of war much closer to its “absolute” state than had previously been considered possible. And he learned from Napoleon’s successes that where one side is willing to go to such an extreme while the other holds back, the more ruthless side will be at a distinct advantage. The other side is forced to adapt itself in order to survive.

    So far as his influence is concerned, there is no doubt that Alfred von Schlieffen, who planned the German attack that started World War One, had read Clausewitz. But, Schlieffen didn’t start the war by himself, and had he used some other source in his planning, it wouldn’t have made the war any pleasanter. Hitler never read anything as long as this book (he boasted that he could learn all he needed to know by reading just the beginning and end of any book), and wouldn’t have cared for a lot of what Clausewitz had to say anyway.

    The phrase that is best known from this book is translated here as “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” I have seen arguments that this translation misses the true meaning of this statement, and I can’t comment on that. It is true that Clausewitz also defines war as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” I have seen it argued that the earlier statement is meant as a dialectical antithesis to this one. If that is true either a) Clausewitz was a very poor dialectician or b) there is something wrong in the translation of both statements. They do not negate one another. One could easily synthesize them by stating that “war is a continuation of policy by means of force, in order to compel a foreign nation to do the will expressed by our nation’s policy.” No new concept arises from this.

    In all, the book is worthwhile, certainly from a historical standpoint, and maybe from a military science standpoint as well, but it is too long and too flawed to hold the interest of most readers. The best chapters are at the beginning and end of the book, while Books six and seven are the worst – book six because of too much repetition and book seven because of lack of analysis. The final chapters are where Clausewitz finally puts his theory to work by giving detailed historical analysis, and to me they would have been better if they had been placed earlier.

    This edition includes a large amount of contextual prefatory matter, and a bloated summarizing essay at the end. Most of this could be dispensed with, though it is interesting to see the commenter apply Clausewitz’s concepts to the wars of the Twentieth Century. I would recommend this book primarily to specialists.

  • Aaron Crofut

    It's hard to write a review of such a disjointed work. The important points he hits on are indeed extremely important, but wading through 750 pages of repetitive and wordy abstract run on sentences gets old pretty quickly. Two most important points:

    1) Why don't nations fight wars of annihilation (remember, this is the early 19th Century, he doesn't know about the World Wars)? Well, why don't school children carry on their fights to the death? Answer: doing so isn't anywhere near worth the cost.

    It's hard to write a review of such a disjointed work. The important points he hits on are indeed extremely important, but wading through 750 pages of repetitive and wordy abstract run on sentences gets old pretty quickly. Two most important points:

    1) Why don't nations fight wars of annihilation (remember, this is the early 19th Century, he doesn't know about the World Wars)? Well, why don't school children carry on their fights to the death? Answer: doing so isn't anywhere near worth the cost. Wars are fought by different nations over disagreements on policy; while that disagreement may be worth fighting over in their mind, it may not be worth risking national obliteration. The idea is to drive up the cost of war (deaths, wounded, money, political support) for the enemy higher than the worth of the thing being fought over is to them. What that thing is worth will be different for the different parties. While Clausewitz doesn't focus much on this, or at least not clearly, this asymmetric valuation is of extreme importance. The United States inflicted far more damage on our Vietnamese enemies than they did on us, but the value of victory for them approached infinity whereas most in the United States had only so much patience for supporting a corrupt regime in some country most couldn't find on a map. If both sides see victory as worth any cost, we get closer to the "pure theory of war", which is a bad thing.

    2) The concept of friction. Pushing flags on a board: easy. Getting the 10,000 men that flag represents to the actual location indicated on the board in the face of enemy opposition, incomplete knowledge of roads and terrain, and feeding them all: not so easy. The more complex the plan, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong.

    I found these ideas, along with most of Clausewitz's theory, were better illustrated in Shelby Foote's The Civil War. Clausewitz himself is at his best when using historical examples to show his ideas in action, rather than pondering about "theory" and it's relation to practice and whether war is a science or art.

  • Stephanie

    No one can actually enjoy reading Clausewitz - it simply must be done.

  • Matt

    Reviewing classics can be humbling. Some books have passed through so many generations and have been analyzed so thoroughly that they've reached mythic proportions. Only the arrogant or ignorant would criticize them.

    is just such a book.

    First the disclaimer. I have an amateur interest in military history but do not have the depth to fully appreciate mid-19th century military theory. Regardless, I know enough to appreciate Clausewitz's rejection of formulated tactics and movement.

    Now for

    Reviewing classics can be humbling. Some books have passed through so many generations and have been analyzed so thoroughly that they've reached mythic proportions. Only the arrogant or ignorant would criticize them.

    is just such a book.

    First the disclaimer. I have an amateur interest in military history but do not have the depth to fully appreciate mid-19th century military theory. Regardless, I know enough to appreciate Clausewitz's rejection of formulated tactics and movement.

    Now for the arrogant and ignorant part.

    Clausewitz was a Prussian officer who saw action when he was younger and in the Napoleonic campaigns. As an older staff officer he never seemed to hold significant command. His later career was devoted almost entirely to theory. Despite this (or due to this), he is very self-aware as to the distinction between theorist and practitioner:

    Even though Clausewitz's speaks to the uselessness of theorists expounding well-understood concepts, slightly reworded to sound insightful, he does the same. For example: "The only means of destroying the enemy's armed force is by combat, but this may be done in two ways: 1) directly, 2) indirectly, through a combination of combats."

    or "The best strategy is always to be very strong, first generally then at the decisive point."

    Granted, any book can be dissected and sentences taken out of context to give absurd impressions. However, these types of assertions are presented at frustratingly tiring length and repetitiously. Again, to be fair, Clausewitz was a soldier, not a writer. But precisely because of that, I expected Clausewitz to present his ideas with greater clarity and precision.

    Clausewitz's devotion to articulating simple points may be a rejection of the esoteric theorists of his time. He places great importance on plain meaning.

    The "hollow kernels" he rejects in the language of others unfortunately feels similar in his own writing. Simple ideas excessively elaborated upon to chapter long expositions don't make them any more insightful.

    But

    is a classic for a reason. His core ideas, which have given the work its timeless nature, display his modern savviness. Clausewitz, a career soldier, surprisingly supports the subordination of pure military campaign planning to the judgments of political (though martially competent) statesmen. He portrays the military machine as a political tool. The objectives of any combat are either total annihilation of the opponent's fighting force, or more realistically, fighting will. His chapters on defensive combat and protracted campaigns resonate well in the post-Vietnam era as well the current era of fighting ideological groups which may not be defined in geo-political terms.

    Clausewitz is most compelling in his stress on the intangibles. As he mentions at the end:

    Stochastic efforts such as war require fluidity and brilliance that Clausewitz places front and center. The "moral force" of an army is given considerable discussion as is its leader's character. The combination of cleverness and courage is given considerable importance "(a)s we admire presence of mind in a pithy answer to anything said unexpectedly, so we admire it in a ready expedient on sudden danger."

    Clausewitz recognizes that maintenance of intellectual acuity distinguishes the leader from the "...subordinate general grown grey in the service, and in whom constant discharge of routine duties has produced a decided poverty of mind, as a man of failing intellect, and, with all respect for his bravery, to laugh at his simplicity."

    has been a military studies staple for generations. Its impact cannot be ignored. But, frankly, the book suffers stylistically and most of the pages are filled with repetitions of straightforward concepts. For the modern reader, who may not be reading it for its pure historical significance,

    (much like this review) is more tedious than enlightening.

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