Clausewitz after 9/11

The Prussian master's brilliant analytical method in On War provides richer insights into the contemporary wars against terrorism than anything his glib critics have come up with.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Books

Throughout the twentieth century, and especially since the end of the Cold War in 1989-91, the military thought of Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) has come under attack. Modern conflict, the new thinking goes, is no longer state-to-state, which is what Clausewitz is said to have believed. It has changed fundamentally.

As early as 1991, in his book On Future War: the Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz, the Jerusalem military historian Martin van Creveld proclaimed that low intensity conflict was now the name of the game (1). Clausewitz had been superseded. Wars would henceforth no longer be based on governments, armies and peoples, but upon ethnic and religious groups.

The old Prussian officer, van Creveld said, had missed stuff. He had ignored religion in wars before him; he could not account for the struggle merely to exist; he had paid no attention to law, or morals. Significantly, too, van Creveld challenged Clausewitz on the issue of gender. The real reason why women are excluded from war, he argued, ‘is not military but cultural and social…. The military are social organisations. As with other social organisations, but to a much greater extent, their ability to function depends on their cohesion…. Among the issues which the strategic view of war cannot encompass, perhaps the most important one, is the role of women and everything pertaining to them. Throughout the 863 pages of the modern German edition of Vom Kriege [Clausewitz’s On War], women are not mentioned even once.’ (2)

Van Creveld’s view of war as gender-specific might surprise a little today, given the prominent role of US Army women at Abu Ghraib and the other 9,000 American women active in US military service in Iraq in roles that include forward combat support and piloting attack helicopters. Yet in the years after it was published, On Future War had a persuasive impact on US army leaders. It showed how much post-modern views had, after the demise of the Soviet Union, infected the mainstream of Western military thinking. It also signalled the start of major efforts, on the part of some Western militarists, to exorcise the continuing ghost of Clausewitz.

Clausewitz revisionists and their scholarship

We might describe those who think Clausewitz wrong and/or irrelevant to today’s War on Terror as Clausewitz revisionists. The books reviewed here, however, hail from the opposite school. They represent a revival of Clausewitzian thinking not seen since 1976, when the West’s need to draw lessons from the Vietnam experience supplied a favourable climate for two major books on him and a massive retranslation of Vom Kriege into English (3).

Today, despite the fact that the essays in it are varied, the great merit of Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century is broadly to set the record straight on Clausewitz as a genius, what he actually said, when he said it, and the Napoleonic context for and real meaning of his remarks. Take the journalistic summary of Clausewitz, or what Cold War France’s Raymond Aron called his ‘formula’: that war is merely the continuation of politics by other means. Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century is rightly caustic about those who would conflate into this one aphorism Clausewitz’s monumental Vom Kriege of 1832-4, let alone the voluminous rest of his life’s work. ‘Shamelessly inaccurate misreading’ and ‘intellectual ignorance’ of Clausewitz’s writings are two of the charges that the book levels at Clausewitz’s critics.

Clausewitz thought of war in a framework that included his formula, but went way beyond it. That framework, known as the trinity, is usefully re-translated in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century by Christopher Bassford, editor of the Clausewitz Home Page (4). In Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, Bassford has Clausewitz, in the famous final section of chapter one of book one of On War, keeping his theory ‘floating among’ three ‘tendencies’, as ‘among three points of attraction’. The three tendencies from which war is composed are:

  1. the blind natural force of primordial violence, hatred and enmity
  2. the play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam
  3. the element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to pure reason.

Bassford’s direct translation of Clausewitz goes on: ‘The first of these three aspects concerns more the people; the second, more the commander and his army; the third, more the government.’ (5)

This passage is vital. Andreas Herberg-Rothe treats his formula’s nuances – war as both a continuation of politics and as involving other means – with the careful thought they deserve in the prologue to Clausewitz’s Puzzle (6). But Clausewitz revisionists do not stop their vulgarisation of the man with his formula. No: Clausewitz revisionists reveal a much wider crisis in bourgeois thought about war.

Just as advocates of the War Against Global Warming so often fail to read founding texts of their movement (the Stern Report, or the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC)), so Clausewitz revisionists can’t be bothered to read what he had to say. In particular, they reduce Clausewitz’s dynamic trinity to his quite secondary reference to government (or state), army and people. Instead of Clausewitz’s rich and contradictory trinity of hatred and violence, chance, and politik, war is reduced to its agents, or what management-speak would cheerfully describe as its one-way ‘drivers’.

Some years after the Vietnam war ended, an American Clausewitzian, Colonel Harry Summers, anticipated the later, ‘decisive force, clear aims’ doctrines of US defence heavyweights like Casper Weinberger, Colin Powell and Tommy Franks by calling for more attention to be paid to the US Army, as military means to political ends (7). But in his general focus on the US electorate, the US Army and the US government, Summers also anticipated the fundamental mistake of Clausewitz revisionists from van Creveld, through Daily Telegraph war correspondent John Keegan and Tel Aviv national security professor Azar Gat, to Mary Kaldor, who today co-directs the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics (8). The mistake, once more, was to reduce Clausewitzian war to what Kaldor called three ‘levels’: state, army and people (9).

Clausewitz’s dialectical method

Clausewitz’s method in relation to military affairs will always remain relevant because of his grasp of the importance of polar opposites, and of change, to the totality of interactions that comprise war. Thus Clausewitz both hated and admired Napoleon. His famous concept of friction defined it as ‘the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult’ (10). As the British historian Michael Howard likewise pointed out in 1983, Clausewitzian dialectics embraced the relations between means and ends; moral factors and physical forces; historical knowledge and critical judgments made in the field; absolute, or ideal, war and real war; attack and defence, and tactics and strategy (11). In their different books, Herberg-Rothe and Beatrice Heuser fret, as Germans tend to, that Clausewitzian theory inevitably leads to militarism à la Adolf. But they make an even bigger mistake, again in the manner of modern Germans, when they dismiss the way in which Clausewitz’s theory is underpinned by the dialectical philosophy of Georg Hegel (1770-1831).

Thus, even for Clausewitz’s admirers to pick the right trinity, as thought through by Clausewitz, does not do full justice to the man, for his approach to the object of his enquiry was, like that of Karl Marx to society, open-ended (12). And yet the revisionists err more. In flaunting their modernity by casting Clausewitz as out-of-date, they reveal only how static and one-sided are their own conceptions.

In his admirable opening chapter to Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, ‘Clausewitz and the dialectics of war’, Hew Strachan points out that the vitality and longevity of On War derive ‘in large part from its refusal to embrace fixed conclusions’. In this chapter too, and in the editors’ joint introduction, a long-needed counter-attack is mounted on Mary Kaldor. Back in 1999, her New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era used the Yugoslav conflicts of the 1990s, as well as war in Rwanda, to distinguish between ‘old’ wars, involving nation states and political motives, and ‘new’ ones, which also involved organised crime and large-scale violations of human rights. In Strachan and Herberg-Rothe’s indictment, then, New and Old Wars turned Clausewitz into ‘not the analyst of war, but the representative fall guy for “old wars”’.

Kaldor’s new book Oil Wars continues in her wretched, if now only implicit, attempt to revise Clausewitz. For her, the old wars around oil meant the direct military control of oil-producing governments and oil-producing territory by Western nation states. By contrast, the new Oil Wars mean weak and sometimes ungovernable states such as Iraq, or Nigeria. Because they reap massive rents from petroleum, such states are authoritarian: they don’t need a contract with the people. When times grow hard, their access to oil rents comes through oil-financed military campaigns. In the process, a ‘culture’ of ‘rent-seeking’ co-opts civil society into what Kaldor calls ‘predatory war’, conducted by non-state actors, both local and foreign.

In 1999, then, Kaldor traduced Clausewitz into an outdated apologist for mere state interest in wars. Today, in Oil Wars, she and her collaborators once more try to portray themselves as up-to-the-minute. Her purpose is to argue that oil companies and other rogue actors around oil should subject themselves to close inspection by the United Nations, as well as by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (13). On top of that, ‘civil society’ – in practice, other NGOs – should take charge of the basic issues of oil organisation, ownership, governance and revenues.

In its multilateral and liberal imperialism, this conclusion is even less democratic in spirit than Clausewitz. In the 1980s, as a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Kaldor’s one-sided dislikes – nuclear weapons, ‘baroque’ conventional ones – made her the advocate of Precision Guided Munitions, or what turned out to be Cruise missiles with conventional warheads (14). In the 1990s, during Bill Clinton’s presidency alone, her wishes came true: the US fired more than 900 Cruise missiles in anger, or an average of one every three days (15). Today, therefore, when Kaldor calls for a multilateral, ‘cooperative’ and muscular approach to conflict in the Sudan, as well as to energy worldwide, we have plenty of evidence of where her politics leads.

In rubbishing Clausewitz and making the point that George W Bush’s actions have failed to assure US oil security in Iraq, Kaldor upholds humanitarian intervention by the UN as the proper, more subtle alternative course of action – one that suits today’s new, non-Clausewitzian realities of armed bands. Yet as Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century contributor Christopher Daase makes clear in his chapter on Clausewitz and small wars, revisionists who rely on insurgents, secessionists and al-Qaeda for their case miss the point. Daase underlines how Clausewitz, both in and beyond On War, was no stranger to popular uprisings, people’s wars and non-state actors. Indeed, Heuser notes that, at Berlin’s general school of war (Allgemeine Kriegsschule), Clausewitz was in charge of lectures on small wars involving between 20 and 400 men. Obviously al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq today are not the same as the Spanish guerrillas whom, as Clausewitz’s Puzzle makes clear, were one of Clausewitz’s models for Prussian liberation from Napoleon. Nevertheless, as we shall shortly show, the War on Terror is more susceptible to Clausewitzian analysis than the man’s detractors allow.

Before moving on to that war, let’s briefly close off one principal objection raised by the revisionists: that Clausewitz was oblivious to certain aspects of military affairs in his day, and certainly unable to anticipate important developments after he died.

Even Howard, a sympathiser of Clausewitz, made something of the Prussian’s indifference to economics, technology, and naval matters (16). Strachan’s essay adds that, despite the weight that commentaries ascribe to his ‘continuation’ formula, Clausewitz himself devoted little attention to the actual links between politics and war, preferring to write extensively on strategy and tactics. Yet in his own commendably succinct book (despite its overlaps with his chapter in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century), Strachan rightly observes that ‘picking holes in On War is an easy game’. As with Marx and the issues of women, the environment or consumption, critics are obsessed with what Clausewitz underplayed or left out. Again as with Marx, critics first portray Clausewitz as a futurologist, then point to technological advances he failed successfully to forecast (robots and IT for Karl, nuclear weapons for Carl), and imagine that winning this easy game gives them the whole tennis match.

What the critics themselves miss out is that Clausewitz, like Marx, pretended to be neither an encyclopaedist nor a Nostradamus. Both men, rather, encouraged people to think carefully, creatively and self-critically about laws of motion, whether they pertained to capital or to war. Indeed Marx himself, so often written off as an economic determinist, had this to say about ‘economics’ and war. War, Marx wrote in his economic notebooks, ‘developed earlier than peace; the way in which certain economic relations such as wage labour, machinery etc develop earlier, owing to war and in the armies etc, than in the interior of bourgeois society. The relation of productive forces and the relations of exchange also especially vivid in the army.’ (17)

Although war generally grows out of the dull relations of peaceful political economy, Marx knew that it could have its own effect precisely on those relations. Clausewitz, as Strachan’s book reminds us, was invigorated by the ideas of the German Enlightenment; he ‘knew full well that policy can expand war as well as limit it’. For both men, the dialectical relations of society were the key thing. No picking of holes, or told-you-so reference to posthumous events, can take away from the insights that still follow from applying their method.

Causes of the War on Terror

Mainstream analyses suggest that 9/11 originated in Islam and the question of Palestine; the invasion of Afghanistan a month later arose because of a failed state used as a base for terrorists; and the 2003 invasion of Iraq was rooted in America’s desire for oil, its need for a base in central Asia, the greed of Dick Cheney and the Halliburton Corporation, etc. Still, at the 2006 conference of the British Association, held just before the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Kent university professor Mark van Vugt and others put forward something rather different. They held that, by contrast with women, men are not just aggressive but also find, in wars, a chance to show off as warriors, heroes and, in a group context, as exemplars of cooperation, altruism and self-sacrifice. After experiments with a grand total of about 300 students, van Vugt concluded that men do not usually cooperate – except in war, where they exhibit similar behaviour to chimpanzees: ‘They go out on raids into neighbouring communities and kill off members of rival groups.’ (18)

Broadly, all the explanations for the recent, media-saturated wars focus on factors that are imagined to be outside what van Creveld called the Clausewitzian universe. They focus on religion, ideology, multinational rip-offs, or male culture. As for Palestine or Halliburton/oil as the source of hostilities, these too can be presented as reproofs for Clausewitz, since Palestine approximates to a non-state actor or a failed state, and the economics of oil or of the US military-industrial complex could never have been part of Clausewitz’s early nineteenth-century brief.

Clausewitz deserves to be defended from the neophytes; yet we should also recognise that war can change not just its characteristics but also its very nature. Thus, in a brilliant unpublished paper, Josie Appleton contends that, in America’s War on Terror, ends are unclear, and means themselves are brandished to create the appearance of having political ends and to display personal conviction – to an American people who are reduced to the role of spectators. While al-Qaeda embodies the West’s internal political and moral collapse, America’s War on Terror aims to stem that collapse by recovering a sense of purpose. In the event, however, a war without ends or end looks aimless to people, and further hastens the West’s disorientation (19).

All these new developments must be taken into account. But as George Lukacs famously observed of Marx, though his individual theses might all be disproved, once and for all, by new research, his method would not need to be renounced (20). It is the same with Clausewitz. The ‘non-Clausewitzian’ aspects of the Iraq war do not invalidate Clausewitz’s overall approach.

In fact, though they are too credulous about the stated ends of those prosecuting the War on Terror, the editors of Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century have an excellent rejoinder to post 9/11 Clausewitz revisionists. What they write is worth quoting at length:

‘The 9/11 attacks may have changed the character and even the nature of war. However, much of what happened thereafter, and especially the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, does not support that proposition. Armed forces were used by the United States and Britain in the pursuit of political objectives: the actions of both governments were Clausewitzian in the most hackneyed sense. Since the attacks, not least thanks to the length, bloodiness and persistence of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the growing belief that war may not have delivered on the political objectives of the United States, strategic studies have become fixated with those wars – and especially in Iraq – as though they were the exclusive templates for war in the coming century. Striking here is the lack of perspective, which fails to look at other wars going on elsewhere in the world at the same time, or neglects to look at current events in historical context, and so does not distinguish what is really new from what seems to be new.’

Aside from the gloss on Washington and Westminster’s political objectives (removal of Saddam, ending of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, bringing democracy to Iraq), it is hard to quarrel with this commendably sober refusal to indulge in impressionism. Inspired by Clausewitz, the specificity of the War on Terror is what must detain us.

The war in Iraq is by no means typical of today’s wars, and may not be typical of tomorrow’s (21). But the war is both non-Clausewitzian in the sense described by Appleton, and Clausewitzian ‘in the most hackneyed sense’. After all, in the wake of 9/11, it was quickly obvious that Bush’s centralisation of state power in the White House and his ignoring of Congress were, in the words of Cornell University historian Walter LaFeber, ‘breathtaking’. The subsequent decision that the US should go nation-building in Iraq also spoke of the continuing significance of the state (22).

Nevertheless, in a post-9/11 world, the game for Clausewitzians appeared to be up. To understand this point, let’s now start with the example of George Donald Rumsfeld, US defence secretary from 2001 to 2006, before going on to look at the views of top US academics specialising in security matters.

Reactions to 9/11: vulnerability

In ‘cultural’ mood, Rumsfeld wrote a famous article for Foreign Affairs in 2002. It was designed to transform the military by learning from US Special Forces in Afghanistan, who ‘sported beards and traditional scarves and rode horses trained to run into machine gun fire’. Rumsfeld’s botched ‘revolution in military affairs’, however, was not just about combining old technologies with new, but about being adaptable, ‘encouraging a culture of creativity and intelligent risk-taking… a more entrepreneurial approach: one that encourages people… to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists’. Because it was ‘not possible to defend against every threat, in every place, at every conceivable time’, there was also a need for America to engage in pre-emptive strikes (23).

Rumsfeld’s guerrilla approach to dealing with al-Qaeda looked anti-Clausewitzian – although as we have seen, Clausewitz himself was keener on guerrilla struggle and wars of attrition than his critics allow. Rumsfeld also presented himself as the big risk-taker, and as an innovator willing to use IT in the quest for a travel-light, long-reach, high-tech, low-manpower agility. In fact, however, Rumsfeld was scared stiff. Arguing that there was a need ‘to examine our vulnerabilities’, he wrote: ‘Our challenge in this new century is a difficult one: to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen and the unexpected.’ (24)

Rumsfeld might well have added that the biggest challenge facing America was to defend it from itself.

Clausewitz himself understood the importance of uncertainty in war. But Rumsfeld’s stress on ‘unknown unknowns’ marked the abandonment of Clausewitz and his Enlightenment approach to war. Indeed, the geography of America’s military disposition itself was planned with uncertainty in mind. As the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America put it: ‘To contend with uncertainty and to meet the many security challenges we face, the United States will require bases and stations within and beyond Western Europe and Northeast Asia, as well as temporary access arrangements for the long-distance deployment of US forces.’ (25)

Rumsfeld was not alone. At Johns Hopkins University, strategist Eliot Cohen announced that al-Qaeda and the military contractor Brown & Root were each ‘manifestations of the dispersal of war beyond the exclusive precincts of the state’: he proclaimed a ‘Welcome to the Middle Ages’, in which personal ambition, religious fanaticism or sheer banditry ‘ebbed and flowed over decades’. (26)

Clausewitz had taken the view that defence, conducted by a judicious mix of waiting – attrition, in fact – and well-directed blows, is a stronger form of war than attack. But 9/11 had apparently rendered that view useless by the advent of what Samuel Huntingdon, way back during the historically intriguing apogee of the Cold War and the start of Vietnam War, had described as ‘asymmetric’ warfare – wars of attrition conducted by tiny but disproportionately powerful revolutionary opponents (27). For Columbia University’s Richard Betts, previously a member of the US National Commission on Terrorism, the panic surrounding the October 2001 discovery of anthrax in the US postal system confirmed that advantage, in war, lay not with those who defend, but with those who attack. Even trying to deter al-Qaeda looked impossible; despite their political dangers, Betts agreed with Rumsfeld that pre-emptive strikes were the only alternative (28).

Looking at the personal fallout that followed the destruction of the Twin Towers, Betts’ Columbia colleague, international affairs professor Robert Jervis, felt that it underlined how Western societies might be ‘uniquely psychologically vulnerable’ – ironically, more vulnerable than Western armed forces. And while even empathy with the terrorist’s feelings might be useful, sometimes understanding a problem could ‘push solutions beyond reach’. Jervis concluded that diplomats, lawyers and spies were more vital than soldiers:

‘The label “war” implies the primary use of military force. Other instruments like diplomacy and intelligence may be used, but they are in service of the deployment of armed force. I believe this conceptual frame is unfortunate when it comes to dealing with terrorism. Here diplomacy, the international criminal justice system, and especially intelligence are primary.’ (29)

Altogether, American academic reaction to 9/11, like that of Rumsfeld, was anti-Clausewitzian. The stress was on non-state actors, offence not defence, law, intelligence and – bizarrely, given the centrality ascribed to intelligence after the CIA’s poor conduct ahead of 9/11 – on ignorance being bliss (30). Above all, the stress was on America’s vulnerability.

George Bush’s own emphases followed those of the academics. Made afraid by 9/11, he sought to aggrandise the threat represented by al-Qaeda, and in the process relativise, in an anti-Clausewitzian manner, the merits of military force. ‘To defeat this threat’, he wrote in his foreword to the 2002 National Security Strategy, ‘we must make use of every tool in our arsenal — military power, better homeland defenses, law enforcement, intelligence, and vigorous efforts to cut off terrorist financing. The war against terrorists of global reach is a global enterprise of uncertain duration.’ (30)

The biggest triumph of anti-Clausewitzian thinking took place during the invasion of Iraq. During that time, the book that the US gave out in thousands to its soldiers was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a mystical antecedent of Clausewitz written several centuries BC (31). The Tzuian talk was of mentally disarming the enemy beforehand. In practice, the postmodern tactics of Shock and Awe were aimed at doing this (32). However, the real dynamic of Gulf War 2 was also very Clausewitzian in one crucial sense: the war against Saddam was the extension of fearful politics by other means (33).

On the Clausewitz Home Page, Herberg-Rothe has argued that the total mobilisation planned by Rumsfeld was a departure from Clausewitz (34). Similarly, Bush’s preference for making use of ‘every tool’ against al-Qaeda looked new. Back in 1950, United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, which emerged out of fear of and uncertainty about Soviet intentions, also proposed a pretty total mobilisation (35). So what is new about today is not so much total mobilisation, or even fear or uncertainty, but the intrinsic weakness that Western society now feels on its own account, the lack of ends that goes along with this, and the way Western society projects its vulnerability on to foreign targets (36). This is a new kind of fear – a species that makes it seem right to go to war out of a sense of precaution.

Deterrence, pre-emption and Precautionary War

As Michael Howard pointed out more than 20 years ago, the rise of state power by the beginning of the twentieth century recalled the famous analysis of Thucydides, and his aphorism that what made war ‘inevitable’ in ancient Greece was ‘the growth of Athenian power and the fear this caused in Sparta’ (37). The politics of fear, then, has been important as a wellspring of wars for centuries. Therefore to begin to understand today’s War on Terror, we must understand today’s politics of fear.

After the Second World War, in the war crimes trials of Nuremberg and Tokyo, the concept of individual guilt for crimes against humanity was established. That seemed like a challenge to Clausewitzian ideas of war (38). However, it was the advent of the atomic era and of Cold War deterrence, through Mutually Assured Destruction, that appeared to do most to subvert Clausewitz. Whereas Clausewitz had, through practical experience, decided that military strategy was ‘nothing without fighting’, deterrence was based on the idea of avoiding war. ‘Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment’, wrote a key American militarist in 1945, ‘has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have no other useful purpose.’ (39)

The roots of today’s wars based on America’s sense of vulnerability, however, derive neither from the era of nuclear deterrence nor, simply, from the events of 11 September 2001. Rather, like so many political developments since the end of the Cold War, they derive from patterns set in the 1980s.

During the Ronald Reagan years, US military doctrine moved, to a certain degree, away from deterrence toward a strategy of being ready actually to fight – indeed, to initiate – a nuclear war. The growth of the Soviet Union’s SS-20 missiles led, in US military circles, to serious discussion about the possibility (it was no more than that) of conducting a first strike on Moscow. In this respect, the determination of George W Bush and the ageing Reaganites Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to unleash pre-emptive attacks on al-Qaeda is nothing new.

What is new about today is that the 1980s talk about hitting the Soviet Union first has been buttressed by a much wider fear that war must be initiated as a precaution against unlimited catastrophe. Of course, a nuclear exchange between America and Russia would have been an unlimited catastrophe. But today there is something else. The Precautionary Principle, which suggests that it is always worth taking precautions given even the remotest possibility that one’s actions might lead to danger, was endorsed in environmental matters by the United Nations General Assembly in 1982 and, more generally, adopted by the European Commission in 2000 (40). Over more than 20 years, unknown but universal threats to the survival of mankind – in a phrase, worst case scenarios – have dominated the Western imagination, and not only in military matters.

Ironically, it was two Europeans, former UK chancellor of the exchequer Denis Healey and West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who did most to talk up the threat from SS-20s in the 1980s. Altogether, Europe has played at least as big a part as America in moving public discussion of the future from specific threats to limitless menace, whether from al-Qaeda, the demographic time-bomb or obesity. From this perspective, Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for the War on Terror is perfectly explicable.

Today’s War on Terror differs from the pre-emptions of the past in that it is suffused with a sense of impending doom more pervasive than existed even in the frostiest years of the Cold War. The War on Terror is a Precautionary War. It grows out of the politics and, yes, even the culture of our times.

Carl von Clausewitz can sleep easy. He has been enriched, not invalidated.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University. Visit his website at He is speaking at the session London 2012 at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Hew Strachan and Andreas Herberg-Rothe, is published by Oxford University Press, 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Clausewitz’s Puzzle: the political theory of war, by Andreas Herberg-Rothe, is published by Oxford University Press, 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Reading Clausewitz, by Beatrice Heuser, is published by Pimlico, 2002. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: a biography, by Hew Strachan, is published by Atlantic Books, 2007. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) On Future War: the Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict since Clausewitz, Martin van Creveld, Brassey’s, 1991.

(2) On Future War: the Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict since Clausewitz, Martin van Creveld, Brassey’s, 1991, pp181, 186, 189.

(3) See Penser la guerre: Clausewitz, Raymond Aron, Gallimard, 1976; Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories and His Times, Peter Paret, Princeton University Press, 2007, and On war, Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, 1989.


(5) Compare the translation in On War, Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, 1989, p89.

(6) As Clausewitz put it, ‘What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means’. On War, Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, 1989, p87.

(7) On Strategy: a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, Harry Summers, Presidio Press, 1982.

(8) Keegan popularised van Creveld’s idea that the pre-Clausewitzian wars, of the Middle Ages and before, had always made Clausewitz inadequate. Keegan argued that Clausewitz had been bounded by nation states; he had missed Polynesians on Easter Island, Aztecs, Cossacks, Marmelukes and Zulus, each of which had proved that war was actually about regiments, ritual, regalia, anthropology and genetics. Psychoanalysis, Keegan contended, suggested that ‘the savage in all of us lurks not far below the skin’. A History of Warfare, John Keegan, Hutchinson, 1993, p3. Later, Gat endorsed Keegan’s portrait of Clausewitz as state-centred, as well as Keegan’s preference for cultural explanations of war over political ones. He held that Clausewitz ‘was constrained by his historical horizon during the apogee of the European state system and of state-run warfare’. War in Human Civilization, Azar Gat, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp670, 408.

(9) New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era, Mary Kaldor, Stanford University Press, 1999, p21.

(10) On War, Carl von Clausewitz, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, 1989, p121.

(11) ‘Ends and means in war’ in Clausewitz, Michael Howard, Oxford University Press, 1983.

(12) On Marx’s open-endedness, see Frank Furedi’s opening essay in Ideology and superstructure in historical materialism, Franz Jakubowski, Pluto Press, 1990. It is striking how Herberg-Rothe’s book talks up contrasts between the ‘early’, allegedly extremist Clausewitz and the ‘late’, allegedly restrained one. While Clausewitz’s thought clearly developed in the light of the reversals eventually suffered by Napoleon, counterposing the early and late Clausewitz is no more useful than is counterpoising the ‘early’, allegedly humanistic Marx with the ‘late’, allegedly deterministic one. It is the same with translating Clausewitz. In Clausewitz in the 21st century, the wunderliche in Clausewitz’s wunderliche trinity is discussed as ‘strange’ or ‘wondrous’ (early translations) ‘remarkable’ (Howard and Paret), ‘amazing’, (Howard today), ‘fascinating’ and ‘miraculous’ (Bassford), and also ‘paradoxical’. This is all fascinating in itself; but once more it is the unity and totality of Clausewitz’s logic that should detain us more than even this so fertile an adjective.

(13) Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative

(14) For a critique of The baroque arsenal, Mary Kaldor, Andre Deutsch, 1982, see ‘The “alternative war” game’, James Wood, the next step, October 1982.

(15) Military Exploits: Of Men and Money, And How the Pentagon Often Wastes Both, Wall Street Journal, 22 September 1999.

(16) Clausewitz, Michael Howard, Oxford University Press, 1983, Chapter 3, ‘Ends and means in war’.

(17) Grundrisse (Outline of the Critique of Political Economy), Karl Marx, 1857-61.

(18) Quoted in Why do men need war? It’s male bonding, Daily Telegraph, 9 September 2006

(19) Josie Appleton, War on terror, unpublished paper, 2004.

(20) Lukacs, ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’, in History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, 1971, p1.

(21) In 1950, the average armed conflict killed 38,000 people; in 2002, 600. While tens of thousands have been killed in the Iraqi urban insurgency, initial hostilities were typical of today’s wars in their quickness and relatively low death count. See Human Security Report 2005: War and Peace in the 21st century, Human Security Centre, Overview, pp2, 5.

(22) ‘The post September 11 debate over empire, globalization, and fragmentation’, Walter LaFeber, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 117, No 1, Spring 2002, pp14-17.

(23) ‘Transforming the military’, Donald Rumsfeld, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002, pp20, 29, 31.

(24) ‘Transforming the military’, Donald Rumsfeld, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002, pp20, p23.

(25) The national security strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, p29.

(26) ‘A tale of two secretaries’, Eliot A Cohen, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2002, pp45-46.

(27) ‘Patterns of violence in world politics’, Samuel Huntingdon, in Huntingdon, ed, Changing Patterns of Military Politics, Free Press, 1962, cited in ‘The soft underbelly of American primacy: tactical advantages of terror’, Richard K Betts, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 117, No 1, Spring 2002.

(28) ‘The soft underbelly of American primacy: tactical advantages of terror’, Richard K Betts, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 117, No 1, Spring 2002, pp27, 31, 33.

(29) ‘An interim assessment of September 11: what has changed and what has not?’, Robert Jervis, Political Science Quarterly, Vol 117, No 1, Spring 2002, pp38-40, 42, 43, 47. After the Fall of France in 1940, Jervis pointed out, Churchill rejected peace talks with Hitler; but this stance, though proper, was taken on the basis of ‘wildly incorrect information and misleading analysis’.

(30) Foreword to The national security strategy of the United States of America, George W Bush, September 2002, p29.

(31) They fought by the book, and it was Sun Tzu wot won it, Ben Macintyre, The Times, 23 April 2003.

(32) Back to Baudrillard, by Josie Appleton, 10 April 2003 and Post-modernity goes to war, by Phil Hammond, 1 June 2004.

(33) The dangers of a risk-averse war, Mick Hume, 23 March 2003.

(34) A Prussian in the United States, Andreas Herberg-Rothe, Europäische Sicherheit, October 2003.

(35) NSC-68

(36) The Politics of Fear, by Frank Furedi, 28 October 2004.

(37) Quoted in The Causes of War, Michael Howard, Temple Smith, 1983, p9

(38) The State, War, and the State of War, Kalevi Holsti, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p5.

(39) ‘The atomic bomb and American security’, Bernard Brodie, in Brodie, ed, The Absolute Weapon, Harcourt, 1946. There were perhaps four reasons why Cold War deterrence made Clausewitz look redundant to those who misunderstand. The distinction between combatants and non-combatants, severely blurred by the bombing of Guernica (1936) and the Second World War, appeared wholly erased by the use of weapons of mass destruction. A single ‘finger on the nuclear button’ likewise seemed to end the historical involvement of the People in wars. Third, for many Cold Warriors, technology, not the pre-Industrial Revolution manpower beloved by Clausewitz, had become what Harvard’s Michael Mandelbaum called the ‘crucial component’ of physical force. For Clausewitz, absolute war – war as intrinsically and ideally ‘an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will’ – was worth aspiring to, but unachievable, owing to the limits to war found in the nature of international relations, terrain, long periods of inactivity on the battlefield, etc. But war would, in the nuclear era, no longer be fragmented and, in a nuclear exchange, little Clausewitzian ‘friction’ would be around to impede a complete disaster. Finally, with the advent of ‘countercity’ nuclear weapons on top of the ‘counterforce’ variety, one could destroy the will to resist without first defeating an opponent’s armed forces. Absolute war, Michael Howard felt, was now a real possibility – because of technology, which Clausewitz had ignored. See The Nuclear Question: the United States and Nuclear Weapons: 1946-1976, Michael Mandelbaum, CUP, 1979, pp9, 97, and Clausewitz, Michael Howard, Oxford University Press, 1983, Chapter 4.

(40) Communication from the commission: on the precautionary principle

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today