What Would Clausewitz Do?
For a growing number of military officers, combatting ISIS is a test of national resolve
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Several years ago, during a visit to the U.S. Army War College, I was invited to have lunch with some of its instructors. The school teaches Army officers about strategy and its course offerings (“Civil-Military Relations,” “Peace and Stability Operations,” “Irregular Warfare”) reflect that mandate. So, naturally, the lunch discussion focused on strategy, and how to teach it. While I don’t now recall the exact details of that conversation, a statement by one of the war college’s professors has stayed with me. It brought immediate laughter — and unanimous assent. “Just remember,” he said, “that no matter what the question, the answer is always Clausewitz.”
A Prussian army officer with impressive combat experience, Carl von Clausewitz was still young when the Napoleonic wars ended — and with them opportunities for battlefield glory. Even so, and despite his origins as a junior officer from the provinces, Clausewitz had won the esteem of Prussia’s key military leaders, became the military tutor to Prussia’s royal princes, and married one of the highest-ranking noblewoman in Prussia. Throwing his formidable energies into a quest for understanding the lessons of the long, grueling wars that had just ended, Clausewitz evolved into “the Philosopher of War.”
His papers were gathered by his widow, Marie, into ten volumes and published in 1832, the year following his death. The first three volumes of that compilation constitute the famous tome Vom Kriege — On War. After an initial splash in Prussia, Clausewitz’s work seemed to fade into obscurity, before gaining steadily in reputation. A recent biography, Clausewitz, His Life and Work by U.S. Naval War College professor Donald Stoker, catalogues this growing popularity. By the late 1870s On War was required reading even for French military officers. It was translated into English (1873), Japanese (1903), Russian (1905), and Chinese (in 1910). Marx, Engels, and Lenin readOn War, as did Mao; Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, the victor at Dien Bien Phu, kept a copy at his bedside.
It took the American military much longer to appreciate Clausewitz.George Patton read Clausewitz in 1910 and Dwight Eisenhower was introduced to him in the early 1920s by U.S. General Fox Conner, who made Ike read him three times. But American military institutions resisted Clausewitz’s key messages until the debacle in Vietnam. It was only in 1981, after U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers, Jr., published On Strategy, A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, that he became required reading for the Army.
On War’s belated discovery has been compensated for by its universal acclaim: it now has the same status among military officers as St. Paul’s letters do among Christians — with the caveat that, at least in the military, Clausewitz is more widely read. “On War is the greatest work on the subject ever written,” Stoker told me last week. “There really isn’t anything to compare. His contribution is not that he taught us how to wage war, but that he taught us how to think about it. His was an enormous, a revolutionary, contribution.”
Historian and Clausewitz scholar Christopher Bassford agrees, but argues that “while there was a sustained effort in the decade following Vietnam to get a handle on Clausewitz, I don’t think we’ve really done it.” One of the challenges, Bassford notes, is that most military officers lack a broad knowledge of history, and particularly of the era in which Clausewitz wrote. “Clausewitz is often described as a mere ‘staff officer,’” Bassford notes, “which is looked down on in U.S. military culture — a ‘staff puke’ as we say. The German military tradition is quite different. In the year of Napoleon’s defeat, any Prussian who followed the news would have known who he was, even though he had been a mere major in 1812. He was not at all an “ivory-tower” military academic. He not only led troops in battle, but was a brilliant military planner. In many ways, we actually underestimate him.”
To help correct this, the Pentagon has undertaken a series of seminars on Clausewitz for younger officers. The sessions, which were the brainchild of Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Brad Carson, were inaugurated on September 25 with a presentation (“Why Study Clausewitz?”) by Lt. General H.R. McMaster, one of the military’s leading strategists. Included in the sessions are some of America’s preeminent Clausewitz thinkers: Ohio State historian Alan Beyerchen, the Army War College’s Antulio “Tony” Echevarria, the University of Maryland’s Jon Sumida, and Bassford.
So, if Clausewitz is so important, if he’s “always the answer” — what would he recommend we do about ISIS?
Oddly, those most familiar with Clausewitz’s thinking issue nearly identical responses to this question. “Clausewitz would start by asking us what it is that we want to accomplish,” the Rand Corporation’s David Johnson, a retired U.S. Army Colonel says. Johnson, who has read On War “from cover to cover numerous times” notes that, for Clausewitz, finding answers to fundamental questions is the key to shaping a military strategy. “You have to understand the war you’re in, and I would bet that, with ISIS, Clausewitz would say that we haven’t done that. We’re too enthralled with trying to figure out who ISIS is — instead of focusing on what they do. In truth, I don’t think it’s much of a mystery. If you go to Istanbul and look south the Caliphate is right there. You can point to it. It’s a state that views us as an enemy. What’s the mystery?”
Bassford agrees. “I think the first thing ‘Chuck’ Clausewitz would do is wonder why the U.S. government, and the West in general, is reluctant to acknowledge ISIS as a ‘state,’” he wrote to me in an email. “ISIS controls territory, has a capital city in Raqaa, and for the most part practices a fundamentally conventional, though particularly vicious, kind of warfare. It uses terrorism, but it’s not just a terrorist group. And I also think Clausewitz would wonder why the French say they’re surprised to find themselves ‘at war’ after the Paris attack. They have been bombing ISIS for months.” While Clausewitz’s ideas are not restricted to state-on-state warfare, Bassford argues that we should accept that, for practical purposes, ISIS is a state. Indeed, in a strategy he calls “Let-the-Wookiee-Win,” we should do what we can to make ISIS more state-like. “After all, we know how to destroy states — we’re very good at it,” he argues.
One of the things that Stoker, Bassford, Johnson and many in the military find compelling about Clausewitz is that he views war as a subject that can be studied, understood and that, like engineering (say) or architecture, or any other discipline, improved on. It is possible to get good at killing, and if you’re better at it than your enemy — if you break your enemy’s will to resist (as he would say) — you’ll win. On War provides a slew of these undiluted but axiomatic understandings. Though Clausewitz was a civilized man who recognized war’s horrors, he issued these axioms with a stern warning: “Kind-hearted people might think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed,” he writes, “and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed: war is such a most dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst . . . This is how the matter must be seen. It would be futile — even wrong — to try and shut one’s eyes to what war really is from sheer distress at its brutality.”
It is this unblinking ability to call war what it is that has given Clausewitz such a dedicated following that large numbers of military officers have worked to grasp his thinking, and vocabulary. “Clausewitz says that the purpose of war is to achieve a particular political end,” Stoker says. “He argues that the best route to doing this is to attack the enemy’s center of gravity, the center of his strength. That might seem obvious now, but many of the most important parts of our current military thinking were first identified by him.”
Of course much of what Clausewitz tapped into in On War was a reflection of what professional soldiers already knew, and know. Thus, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued his famously Clausewitzian statement on war without, apparently, ever having read him. “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it,” he said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Sherman’s unflinching calculus (that true humanity consists in waging war unrelentingly, so as to end it sooner) is, in many ways, a perfect distillation of the U.S. military’s traditional mistrust of the narrative propounded by counterinsurgency advocates that the “center of gravity in a counterinsurgency is the protection of the population that hosts it.” That might have been true in western Iraq, but few would argue that it’s the case with ISIS — particularly after the attacks in Paris. “The Germans and Japanese were held in a vice grip by their leaders in World War Two,” Christopher Bassford says, “but that didn’t stop us from burning down their cities. If it’s safer to be with ISIS than against it, ISIS will retain its hold on the population it now controls.”
In fact, Bassford’s views reflect a growing consensus inside the U.S. military’s upper echelons that a cruel war against ISIS now, no matter how distasteful, will save the lives of many decent people — including many Americans — later.
The view was most recently propounded by retired Air Force Lt. General David Deptula, during an interview on Fox News. Deptula characterized the American air offensive against ISIS as anemic and ineffective. “The ‘mother may I?’ request chain to be able to engage is inducing delay in actually being effective,” he said. Deptula argues for a more intensive and relentless air campaign, of the kind used during Operation Desert Storm, when the U.S. flew upwards of 1200 sorties each day. The difficulty with the Deptula thesis is that the U.S. would be forced to weather the international condemnation that will follow from the inevitable, perhaps substantial, increase in civilian casualties. But without such a campaign, Deptula argues, an ISIS attack on the U.S. is nearly inevitable. And, he argues, “what is the logic of a policy that restricts the application of airpower to prevent the potential of collateral damage while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes against humanity?”
While David Johnson disagrees with Deptula’s view that unleashing an air offensive would be enough to destroy ISIS (“I’ve talked with him about this,” he says), he agrees that the danger of maintaining the current course could be far worse. “This is the Steve Jobs problem,” he explains. “You go to the doctor and he says you need a major operation to take care of your cancer or it will spread. You shrug him off and try your homemade remedies, thinking you can always head back to the doctor. The problem is that by the time you decide to try the surgery the doctor says ‘sorry, it’s too late.’ That’s the fear among many in the military: that by the time we get around to it, ISIS will be stronger and tougher to dislodge. I’d feel a lot better if there were two plotters hanging out in a cave, instead of thousands streaming into a caliphate.”
Clausewitz, Johnson notes, understood this problem. “To win you have to seize the initiative and keep it,” he says, “and right now we’re not doing that. Right now the tail is wagging the dog. ISIS kills and we respond. But you know, the dog’s supposed to be in charge, not the tail.”
Bassford too is skeptical of airpower alone. “These ISIS guys ultimately will have to be dug out of their holes and slaughtered to a man by fighters on the ground,” he says, then adds that it would be far better if those fighters were Muslim: “We need to help them wipe out the stain on Islam that ISIS represents, but it really has to be their fight.”
While neither Stoker, Bassford or Johnson cited the passage from On War that best reflects this view, it is well known to both military strategists and Clausewitz scholars, and is one of his earliest and most crucial maxims: “If one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains,” Clausewitz wrote, “the first will gain the upper hand.” For a growing number of senior U.S. military officers, and particularly for those devotees of the Prussian’s masterpiece, the escalation marked by the Paris attacks requires a shift in U.S. strategy to seize the initiative: to hit them, and relentlessly, before they hit us. Inevitably, and ultimately, such a decision will test not only ISIS’s will to resist — it will test ours.
Mark Perry is an author, writer and foreign policy analyst living in Arlington, Virginia. His most recent book is The Most Dangerous Man In America, The Making of Douglas MacArthur. His work appears regularly in Politico and Foreign Policy.