• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Carl von Clausewitz - On War - Preface to Podcast

Si vis pacem, para bellum –If you want peace, prepare for war.


So enjoins the Latin adage, out of which the theory of deterrence was born. But how, exactly, is one to go about preparing for war? Sure, we’re all in agreement that peace is a desirable and a proper thing, if not the ultimate end toward which all human behavior should be directed. We know, from the time of our childhood and without being taught, that to coexist with our neighbors, to live side-by-side in harmonious relations with those from whom we differ, to whom we’re not by nature favorably inclined, is quite near to the essence of being human.


And yet, to ascend to this summit of mankind’s perfection, to drink from the high fount of equanimity and peace, we’re told we must prepare for war. What a strange precondition for the attainment of peace! What an unexpected deviation from the gentle curves of amity’s path! How then, peace-seeking children that we are, should we go about readying ourselves for such a horrible trek? How are we to equip ourselves for the gruesomeness of battle, for the raids, bombardments, and assaults, when the only thing for which we yearn is peace?


This difficult question, on which the wellbeing of our species hinges, remains unaddressed by the ancient maxim with which this little essay of mine began. Its eloquent Latin, written by some nameless, yet no doubt wise fellow who lived many centuries ago, is silent on the matter. To whom, then, should we turn, before which acclaimed master should we sit, in our pursuit of such dangerous yet vital wisdom, in our thirst to acquire such terrifying yet necessary instruction on how to go about preserving our peace?


Of truly great military strategists and historians, there isn’t a large number. Indeed, in counting them, one hardly exceeds the digits of a single hand. There is, of course, Sun Tzu, the sixth-century Chinese legend. About the historicity of this Oriental sage, this Eastern philosopher and army general, there remain serious doubts. If he existed—and there are many reasons to believe that he did not—Sun Tzu’s said to have lived in the Eastern Zhou Period, just prior to era of the Warring States. Had the man and the age coincided, nothing would be more fitting, for his name has become all but synonymous with war.


For the rest of the great writers on military tactics and history, strategy and maneuvers, we turn to the West. There, springing forth from the rocky soil of Greece, we meet Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. The first, Herodotus, focused his attention on his country’s multiple wars against Persia. Twice, within the fraught span of a single decade, the Persians loaded their vessels and conscripted their men in an attempt to subjugate Greece. And twice, to the shock of an empire convinced of its insuperable force and its providential right, they were repulsed.


Enraged by the Athenians’ involvement in the revolts of Ionia, in which, with their timely shipments of arms, hoplites, and cash, those lovers of democracy and the theater had played a significant role, Persia decided to punish Pallas’ namesake city. First Darius, and then Xerxes sent a flotilla to subdue the country. Of the astonishing results of their ill-fated campaigns, no educated schoolboy or girl is ignorant. Nevertheless, in brief, I’ll repeat them here. Darius, for his efforts, was defeated at Marathon, while Xerxes proved unequal to the genius of Themistocles at the island of Salamis.


Thus, concluded Persia’s twin campaigns in Greece. The country, if only for a little while, now enjoyed a respite from foreign invasions, and domestic tumult.


After Herodotus, we encounter Thucydides, whose preeminence among military historians is, and will forever be, uncontested. He wrote rather of the Peloponnesian than the Persian War, the great internal conflict in which all of Greece, and just about every corner of the Mediterranean world, was embroiled. The animating cause of this war, the casus belli by which this twenty-seven-year engagement was enflamed, remains something of a puzzle. It’s a question over which even the most dispassionate of scholars continue heatedly to debate and, for this reason, I’m careful to withhold my finger from that dangerous flame.


If I dared to add my two cents, I’d say that a little squabble in far-off Corcyra seems to have lit the match. Corinth declared the northern island a colony, but Corcyra, tired of being the possession of another, sought its liberation. In the process, it found a willing ally in democratic Athens, whose renowned navy was the only in the ancient world to which their own impressive fleet was inferior. Corinth, a prosperous city nestled on the isthmus between Attica and the Peloponnese, was irate at Athens, and found succor from its southern neighbor, Sparta. It perceived Athens’ involvement as a sign of aggression, and, before long, war was underway.


By birth, an Athenian, by predilection, a Spartan, Xenophon continued where Thucydides left off. His famous work, the Anabasis tells the story of his campaign in Persia at about 401 BC. In command of a Greek mercenary legion, Xenophon was recruited and hired by the pouting Iranian prince, Cyrus the Younger. Unfortunately, Young Cyrus was overlooked in the royal line of succession, and his older brother, Artaxerxes II, acceded to the throne. Cyrus, miffed by his brother’s regal boon, and embarrassed by the thought of living out his days as a measly satrap, attempted to usurp that to which he had no legal right. In the middle of a battle, into which he thrust himself full force, he was killed. Xenophon was there to capture the story, and to lead the remnants of his forces to the sea.


Rome, successor to Greece, produced a few of her own notable military strategists and writers: first, Appian of Alexandria, and then Julius Caesar. Appian wrote Roman History, The Civil Wars, and The Foreign Wars—the last focusing on the Latin empire’s conflict with Carthage. He wrote as both strategist and historian, describing the various movements of Hannibal, Hasdrubal, Fabius Maximus, and Scipio. Julius Caesar, one of the most formidable and successful military commanders of all time, passed his hours of leisure as an author. Inspired by his grueling campaigns north of the Alps, he set out to write The Conquest of Gaul, by which the genius of his tactics could be preserved, and the bravery of his conduct, remembered.


That said, none of those men, despite their historical importance and timeless renown, contributed more to our understanding of war than did Carl von Clausewitz. In our quest to understand how one should go about preparing for and carrying out a war, especially in a modern setting, we turn to him, more than we do any other. From China, to Greece, to Rome, we look now to Germany, that rugged and pugnacious land of Teutons and Goths, from which this brilliant strategist hails.


Born in 1780, Clausewitz first tasted war at the age of thirteen. Like his father, who attained to the rank of lieutenant, Clausewitz served with distinction in the Prussian army for much of his life. When, as a young lance corporal, he first stepped out onto the battlefield, he gazed at an enemy with whom he’d spend the next two decades fighting: the detested French. First the Revolutionary, then the Imperial army of that Gallic nation took on the combined forces of the European continent, and very nearly defeated them. Had it not been for the dallying of Grouchy, the endurance of Wellington, and Napoleon’s bad luck, we might all be speaking French, and adorning our lapels with a vibrant cockade.


Clausewitz realized that military tactics were undergoing an immense and thoroughgoing change. Every settled opinion about the battlefield called for a fresh assessment. His esteemed Prussian units, famed for their professionalism, their bravery, and their insistence on drilling, failed to sweep away the more unconventional armies of Revolutionary France, and the much more competently commanded Napoleonic forces. The latter had inaugurated a new type of war, a devastating approach to his employment of arms, for which his Prussian comrades simply weren’t ready. It was a sobering experience for him and his nation, and it forced him to reconsider that which he had accepted as dogma.


Chief among his insights, to whose subtlety and brilliance, we continue to be indebted, is that war is, by its very nature, a political phenomenon. Clausewitz arrived at this conclusion after much deliberation, and after having suffered no small number of defeats. It was because of his early exposure to war that he was able to detect with more acuity than his predecessors this simple truth. Unlike them, he realized that “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means” and, as such, it must be re-examined in this light.


Here, we examine a few excerpts from his magnum opus, On War.

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