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

Thursday, October 06, 2005

On War: The Thrill of Victory

Barney Brodie, author of the reading guide to Clausewitz’s “On War,” said it best: “With Book Eight we are back in the realm of pure gold.”

“Book Seven was not exactly wandering in the wilderness,” he continued, “but ... Clausewitz himself seemed to be eager to hurry through it.”

I agree, except I thought all three middle chapters were wandering in the wilderness, and I nearly didn’t make it.

Clause pounds home a familiar maxim: “Destruction of the enemy is what always matters most.” If he repeats this, it’s because war leaders get distracted so much. They want to strut around, or scare the enemy or capture some sexy fortress – none of which destroys the enemy.

With “War Plans,” Clause says, we will put all the influential factors in war in a nice tidy, order. (Insert maniac Prussian cackle here.)

But Clause knows we’re scared, so he says: “When we contemplate all this, we are overcome by the fear that we shall be irresistibly dragged down to a state of dreary pendantry, and grub around the underworld of ponderous concepts.” (Exactly, Clause, where the hell was this fear in Book Six?)

In the end, he says, theory isn’t a bunch of formulas for solving problems, “nor can it mark a narrow path on which the sole solution is supposed to lie by planting a hedge of principles on either side.”

And so we begin the last sprint to the finish line. Clause talks about the gap between “absolute war” where people go to war for sound, logical reasons and conduct the war in a focused, efficient manner; and “real war” where everything goes weird and incoherent and nobody knows what’s going on.

He tries to explain why this happens, generally because people love to take the easy way out when they can. He crabs sniffily about the wimpy wars before Napoleon, where nobody went and laid waste to the enemy’s land.

War back then was instead conducted by separate, clearly defined forces and nobody was hurt too much, least of all the people in the countries engaged. It was easy to figure out what the enemy had, so a general knew exactly how many guys to send to tussle over a useless supply depot.

But once Europe became a happy land of plunder and carnage, generals could identify the enemy’s center of gravity (the army, or the capitol, or both) and destroy it.

And don’t divide your main force, for god’s sake. Clause just won’t let that go. When a “trained” general staff scatter their forces like chess pieces, when the leaders use “self-styled” expertise to get all devious for no reason, when armies separate to show “consummate skill” by reuniting two weeks later at utmost risk, well, Clause says, that’s just “idiocy.”

Clause wraps things up with one of his favorite examples, Napoleon’s doomed advance into Russia in 1812. Napoleon entered Russia with half a million men and returned to France with about 50,000. Most people think he just advanced too quickly and too far, that he took Moscow and found himself over his head. Clause doesn’t think so. He thinks Napoleon basically did things well (although he definitely could have started sooner and saved more men). Napolean thought taking Moscow would topple Russia, but he miscalculated. Czar Alexander and his people were tougher than that. So it was the PLAN that was wrong, not the execution.

And on that happy note, I closed “On War,” the first book on my terrifying military history reading list, adopted simply to get me through an awful TV season. I finished it (more or less), but it still scares me. The benefits remain to be seen.

So what’s up for book two? Nothing less than the “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” by Paul Kennedy, which I borrowed from Andy. I really have no choice, you know. Anything’s better than Kelly Ripa in “Hope & Faith.”


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