- Clausewitz & Contemporary War, and: Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography
The American banker J. P. Morgan is supposed to have said that he always worried about the economy whenever the business news made the front page of the paper. It is hard to resist a similar suspicion that the stream of new work on Clausewitz that has followed the onset of America's "war on terror," and the invasion of Iraq that has been linked to it, is likewise an indicator that hard times have come once more. This is not to suggest that the works above represent anything less than the best sort of disinterested scholarship; yet one feels sure that both of the authors, like the present writer, would be glad to be living at a time when Clausewitz's ideas were of less pressing interest than they are just now.
Antulio Echevarria's volume announces itself as an attempt to relate Clausewitz's theories to current conditions, but readers in search of a sustained analysis along those lines will not find it. Echevarria concludes a number of chapters with illustrative discussions of recent events, but he offers no general explanation of how "contemporary war" differs from other kinds. His treatment of Clausewitz's work suggests that, however much war's tactical manifestation may change, its essential nature remains the same; and in any event, as he says in his introduction, a work "that stands or falls principally on the notion of relevance is likely to have a brief shelf life" (p. 2). His real project is thus a thoroughly traditional one: to provide an account of On War that clarifies its obscurities and states its conclusions more clearly than Clausewitz managed to do.
Echevarria's book seeks to correct the tendency, apparent in other recent work, to interpret Clausewitz's ideas mainly in political terms, an approach that takes its cue from Clausewitz's famous claim that war is "merely a political instrument." While not disputing the significance of this insight, Echevarria argues that On War is most readily understood once its "combat-centric" (p. 6) nature is recognized. This is a reasonable approach—Clausewitz declares plainly and repeatedly that the essence of war is violence, and that its only means is combat—yet it is also true that there are not many actual accounts of combat in On War. It seems certain that Clausewitz intended to write a book that would be useful to fighting soldiers, however, and Echevarria's analysis is basically a demonstration of how On War stacks up when this ambition is taken seriously. Echevarria is impatient with those who interpret Clausewitz as the great modernist of strategic theory, more concerned with how to think about war than with how to fight it; and he offers by way of antidote an extensive and concrete set of strategic principles (pp. 154-76) which he [End Page 627] finds clearly set forth in On War, and no less significant today than they ever were.
Hew Strachan approaches Clausewitz's masterwork from another direction entirely. Echevarria is not concerned with the intellectual genesis of On War, nor with its relationship to anything else Clausewitz wrote. His discussion is shaped primarily by his critical engagement with modern scholarship, which is well surveyed in his notes. Strachan is more willing to look to Clausewitz's life and times, and to his other historical and theoretical works, to contextualize and shed light on his most seminal text. Like Echevarria, Strachan reads On War as a book about fighting, written by a man in pursuit of a systematic and objectively valid understanding of war. Yet he also considers that the book's incompleteness and inconsistency may be less a problem to be overcome than a source of its enormous refractive power, and an explanation...