Clausewitz: Master of War
Walter Russell MeadI’m busy reading final papers for the grand strategy seminar at Bard this spring, and the students are finishing up their exams and thinking about summer. It’s already time to start reading and thinking about the syllabus for the fall course in Anglo-American grand strategy. British and American strategic thinkers and policy makers developed a new form of global strategy in the last 300 years that enabled the two English speaking powers to build a global political and security order resting on a foundation of liberal capitalism. Understanding the grand strategy that shaped the modern world is surely something that students everywhere should learn about, but I think the Bard course is one of only a handful that tries to prepare students to think systematically about these power realities in the contemporary world.
But the reading that looms over these final weeks of the spring course comes out of European rather than Atlantic grand strategy. We’ve been reading and reflecting on Carl Phillipp Gottfried von Clausewitz. Clausewitz’s unfinished masterpiece On War stands out as perhaps the greatest work of strategic thought human reflection has yet produced. Coming as it does in both the Yale and the Bard curricula after a series of other classics going back to Sun Tzu, Clausewitz’s treatment, even in its somewhat muddled state, stands out as the most comprehensive and clear cut statement on a host of vital topics connected to power and to war.
It belongs on that short list of classics that serious people should read and reread during their lives, but it is one of many classics that our culture neglects. Our somewhat PC and namby-pamby age generally puts works like On War somewhere back in the stacks hoping perhaps that if nobody thinks about war there won’t be any. There is also a certain feeling that a book this blunt and power focused should not be part of a liberal arts curriculum.
This is idiocy. War is in some ways the most human of activities: it is about defining and achieving objectives in cooperation with some people, all-out opposition from others, in a contest that draws on every talent and tests every virtue that we have. Even those of us whose life plans do not involve storming up a hillside under enemy fire can learn from the way Clausewitz analyzes leadership and war. More, to ignore war in an education is to leave students ignorant about one of the central features of civilization and human life.
Clausewitz wrote at a golden moment in western history. The Enlightenment and the burgeoning scientific revolution had created an ability to think systematically about complex phenomena. From Karl von Linnaeus’ creation of an orderly system for reducing the chaos of the animal kingdom into something comprehensible to Isaac Newton’s analysis of celestial mechanics, as well as Adam Smith’s study of political economy and even Napoleon’s creation of a legal code that reduced two thousand years of western legal practice into a system that could serve the needs of a vastly more complex society, the last 100 years had been an age of powerful analytical breakthroughs based on painstaking observation.