Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On War: Napoleon was God in Funny Pants

[Keep in mind, this post has footnotes on the bottom. Every military treatise has footnotes.]

Oooh, what a big book. Hefty. Almost as big as the latest Harry Potter novel. It’s the unabridged text of Carl von Clausewitz’s “On War.”

Damn thing scares me half to death. It’s been edited, translated and indexed, and includes a commentary, a preface, introductory essays and a reading guide.

Published in 1832, its lessons have guided Karl Marx, Otto von Bismark and French political theorist Raymond Aron. (I didn’t know who Aron was either; I had to look him up. His most popular picture shows him with a pipe and a big nose.)

I skipped the editor’s note (who reads those anyway) and headed straight to the first introductory essay. I plowed through Clause’s Prussian military career, yawning mightily. But then I hit a section about his contemporary theorists – generally, why Clause was right and they were idiots.

The biggest idiot, apparently, was a Swiss-French staff officer named Antoine Jomini. According to Tony Jomini, Napoleon was God in funny pants, and he set the standard for all future conflicts. Clause thought that was ridiculous.

The interesting thing was Jomini’s obsession with Napoleon, and his remark, “Methods change, but principles remain the same.” (1) Jomini was followed by both sides during the American civil war. I liked that. I liked that these military writings could influence events far into the future, although Jomini’s principles didn’t help the Civil War much.

So I turned to the first chapter, which asked “What is War?” That reminded me of my old geology textbooks: “The scientist must first consider, what is erosion?” I liked the chapter. It was filled with nice, simple paragraphs headed by titles in all caps.

Clause liked to talk about the element of chance: “Guesswork and luck play a great part in war.” He thought strict formulas were nutty because you never knew what was going to happen when you marched your little army over the ridge. Commanders rolled the dice on everything, including the weather, although Clause didn’t care much about weather. (2)

He also emphasized that war isn’t just a bunch of battles, but an instrument of policy. You can kill a bunch of guys, capture their hill and blow up their supply dump, but unless all this actually advanced the policy, or purpose of the war, it was all for nothing. Too bad that great military minds forgot this simple fact during the Civil War and World War I.

So basically, although this book still freaks me out, Clause is a guy I can do business with. He doesn’t read like a typical military historian – he actually sounds like a lawyer. He’s the kind of guy that if you asked him, “Is it raining outside?” He wouldn’t answer. He’d run to his pen (or quill, or whatever) and write this:

ON RAIN By Clause

Before we answer the query “Is it raining,” we must ask ourselves, “What is rain?” One might assert that rain is liquid precipitation from the clouds, but things are rarely so simple. The careless observer might spy water on the windowpane and thus answer the query. But such an action is little more than rank folly; it fails to take into account that someone may be dumping bathwater from the second story, or the moisture may stem from the wild and reckless use of a watering can, or finally, although unlikely, that an elephant may be standing in the daffodils and spraying from its tusk. Therefore …

Well, you see what I’m up against here. Perhaps I should just give up and watch “The Apprentice.”



(1) The snooty historian called this remark “endlessly quoted.” I agree. Why just the other day, when I was pushing Benny through Meijer, I heard a cashier refer to the phrase.

CASHIER: You gotta make sure they swipe the card right on the new machines. You remember what military historian Antoine Jomini always said.

TRAINEE: Oh yes. It’s endlessly quoted.

(2) Except fog, Clause had this weird obsession with fog. To hear him tell it, there’s a 19th century army still wandering around some foggy lowlands, wondering where Boney is.



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