Carl Von Clausewitz’s On War is widely considered the peak of books on military theory. That is certainly my take away after reading series of books that make up On War. Clausewitz is pre-eminently qualified to write a book like this. At the age of 12 he joined the war against Revolutionary France. His young adult life was spent in service in the Prussian army, and was one of the minds behind rebuilding the army in the wake of its dissolution by Napoleon. Thereafter, at the age of 30, he entered the service of the Russian army as Prussia, a subject of France at that time, was a part of the invading force. During the Waterloo campaign, Clausewitz served as chief of staff to the Prussian Third Corps. After the Napoleonic wars, he served as head of the Prussian War College.
However, Clausewitz died an untimely death due to cholera, and left behind an uncompleted work. Much of On War is made up of lists, summaries and outlines of the work that was to follow. The work that was clearly well-polished, like the book on Defense, stands out above the rest in its quality.
Clausewitz’s mode of philosophy struck me as very inspired by contemporary trends in German philosophy. His book seeks an idealistic representation of war, describing it in its most abstract forms, and building from that starting point. This makes the book feel well organized and structured. One of the things Clausewitz lacked was the mathematical theory to describe some of the ideas he had on probability. He clearly is trying to make points about the Bayeseian nature of the various factors of war. Each factor influences probabilities, but nothing forms any certainties.
Clausewitz often finds himself pre-empting critics who will look to his general principles for understanding war and look for exceptions to try and prove him wrong. This is generally known as the “Not all X are like that” argument, which is supposed to contradict generalizations. As Clausewitz repeatedly points out, if you cannot make imperfect generalizations about the world, it is impossible to interpret it in any useful way. Just because one in ten times something doesn’t match a pattern doesn’t mean that one should ignore the fact that nine out of ten times it does match that pattern.
While Clausewitz is a brilliant writer who has many fine things to share, I think reading the book isn’t something people should undertake lightly or is particularly necessary to a well-rounded education. Clausewitz’s examples are almost always drawn from the Napoleonic Wars or the campaigns of Fredrick The Great. These are the sorts of things that I’m sure aspiring Prussian generals were quite familiar with, but to even a history buff like myself, I found myself constantly reference Infogalactic to read about the battles he draws his examples from.
Ultimately, I’m glad I read Clausewitz, and I fully understand why he is so revered, but unless you’re a serious military historian, theorist or aspiring combat leader, this is a work you could let pass.