- Reading Clausewitz
The avowed purpose of Beatrice Heuser's book is to provide guidance for the reader who intends to tackle Carl von Clausewitz's On War, and also to describe the way in which his ideas have had an impact on the development of strategic theory. This is no easy task, particularly as Clausewitz died before he could revise On War to his satisfaction. Moreover, the complex and seemingly contradictory nature of Clausewitz's thought is best understood if one appreciates the milieu within which he lived, particularly the intellectual climate in which the Enlightenment gave way to the age of Romanticism. This context has been lost on many of Clausewitz's readers, and they have tended to see in selective elements of his work the confirmation of their own prejudices and concerns. As Heuser comments, many of Clausewitz's readers have looked for a telling quote when in fact he "mainly supplies philosophical reflections on the nature of war that are difficult to translate into simple, memorable prescriptions for action" (p. 12).
Heuser has sensibly structured her book. First, she takes the reader through the writing of On War and its reception during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There then follow sound analyses of Clausewitz's most important ideas: the primacy of policy, the paradoxical trinity, genius, the center of gravity, friction, and the nature of defense and offense. Heuser then examines two of the most important strategic theorists of the twentieth century, Sir Julian Corbett and Mao Zedong, describing Clausewitz's impact on their thinking. Finally, there is an analysis of Clausewitz's thought as applied to nuclear strategy, the Cold War, and the strategic problems of the twenty-first century.
One area in which Heuser's analysis falls short is in her interpretation of an earlier, "idealistic" Clausewitz writing about absolute war and a later, "realistic" Clausewitz writing about real war. In fact, Clausewitz's mature thought emphasized the absolute variant of war, which permits a rise to extremes in the abstract, to illustrate that war in reality has the opposite effect as it is the servant of policy. Real wars vary by degree, ranging in intensity from those of extermination to simple armed observation. Therefore, contrary to Heuser's view, the concepts of absolute war and real war are "mutually exclusive" (p. 43) in that one has no bounds while the other is constrained by political circumstance. The distinction between absolute war and real war should be clear but Heuser, like many before her, unnecessarily confuses the issue. This is unfortunate, particularly for the reader who is unfamiliar with Clausewitz.
Overall, however, Beatrice Heuser has done a fine job in producing a concise, well-written book that should be read in conjunction with the work of other Clausewitzian scholars, notably Peter Paret, Christopher Bassford, Azar Gat, and Antulio Echevarria. In this way, Reading Clausewitz will help to further the reader's understanding of a very complex, but also very rewarding, subject.
Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom