There’s a reason why people read Clausewitz in the abridged version. Anybody tempted to read the middle sections of his book “On War” should lie down until the feeling goes away.
I felt rather smug as I marched steadily through Book One, nodding sagely at Clause’s big concept, “Friction in War.” “Everything in war is very simple,” Clause said, “but the simplest thing is difficult.”
Nice work, Clause. You’re a regular Oscar Wilde. (1)
But I did like that basic idea, how difficulties accumulate in war until they make victory nearly impossible. Let’s say you’re driving to Kalamazoo on Interstate 94 and decide not to stop for lunch at the Albion A&W, although you love A&Ws. You’ll be in Kazoo in an hour, you’ve got a Snickers bar under the passenger seat, you’ll make it. Easy.
But then you hit some road construction, and then traffic slows down for an accident, and then you’re stuck behind two halves of a modular home that blocks both lanes. A funny light starts blinking on your dashboard, and you instinctively slow some more. Finally, after two hours and many difficulties, you arrive in Kalamazoo and scarf down two scary hot dogs at a 7-Eleven. Austria’s defeat at Austerlitz couldn’t be more tragic.
Or, to illustrate this idea more poetically (Clause is the genius after all, not me):
“Each war is an uncharted sea, full of reefs. The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without ever having seen them; now he has to steer past them in the dark.”
Nice. Then I strode confidently into Book Two (“The Theory of War”), full of dishy stuff about tactics and strategies and sniggering comments about geniuses. (2)
Book Three (“Strategy in General”), while not a rollicking good time, had neat stuff about boldness, perseverance, surprise, cunning and the science-fiction-sounding “Unification of Forces in Time.”
In his chapter on the strategic reserve, Clause talked about a reserve’s two purposes: to prolong and renew the action and to counter unforeseen threats. What he didn’t like was maintaining a strategic reserve for the hell of it. He mentions the Prussian loss at Jena in 1806, where the Prussians had 20,000-man reserve just over the river, but couldn’t get it to the battle in time. Meanwhile, another 25,000 men were in east and south Prussia, just sitting around, acting as another reserve. Stuff like that makes Clause crazy.
All good stuff. But then I turned to Book Four (“The Engagement”) and began an unhappy relationship that sapped my confidence and broke my heart.
(1) That’s no compliment really, since I dislike the playwright Oscar Wilde. His stuff sounds witty on the surface:
“Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow.”
“Whenever people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong. “
“I can resist anything but temptation.”
But Oscar’s a big phony; anybody can write like that. Just take an idea and turn it upside down. Here’s two from me:
“My faults are my only virtues.”
“Nothing is cleaner than a dirty mind.”
Go on. Try it.
(2) Here’s a real footnote with a nice Clause quote. He was sneering at his fellow military theorists. If something couldn’t be addressed by their fancy rules, his fellows said the issue was the stuff of genius and defied all rules. Here’s Clause’s response:
“Pity the soldier who is supposed to crawl among these scraps of rules, not good enough for genius, which genius can ignore or laugh at.”
Go get ‘em, Clause.