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Reading Clausewitz (Pimlico) by Heuser, Beatrice (2002)

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Review Text

  • By D. J. Leedham on January 31, 2014

    I struggled with Clausewitz, decades ago. Not an easy read. Reading a lot of war diary material over the summer prompted me to want to go back and try again. The blurb for this book looked promising. A somewhat predigested easing into the material.It wasn't.At least I understand some of the reasons Clausewitz was so difficult to read, all those years ago. Having written the bulk of On War he had some kind of change of heart and went back to revise it. But died before he could complete it. Hence the contradictions. Another interpretation is that he sometimes used an Hegelian dialectical approach to working out his theories. (Apparently Engels and Mao seem to have thought so) Another is that he would state his main contention or thesis and then add rider after rider of exceptions to the rule or principle he was arguing for. Mmm.I had a couple of specific problems with Heuser's account. The first 25% of the book was not very interesting and decidedly lacked any kind of narrative drive. In trying to explain the dichotomy between Clausewitz's first and subsequently revised theory of war, she proposes that Clausewitz began as an idealist but then became a realist. Without satisfactorily defining how she means to use these terms as they apply to his theory. She vaguely waves her hands at Plato to define "Idealist" But her version of "idealist" has very little to do with Plato's theory of forms. (Granted he shifted the goal posts throughout the Socratic dialogs. Not a place, here, to get into that, but just to say that without dealing with the concept of contingency, in the real world, Heuser's use of the term, "idealist" especially linked to Plato lacks any analytical force.Just as the book starts to get interesting she takes on Clausewitz's definition of genius. It is not clear whether it is Clausewitz who has a very primitive and inarticulate notion of genius or Heuser. Genius is variously an attribute of intuition or instinct, or native predisposition. - "obviously, only an instinctive reaction made with the intuition of military genius could replace (the mathematical calculations requiring the genius of a Newton or an Euler.)" Or "Statistically, as we have seen, Clausewitz expected to find military genius more frequently in peoples who combined sophistication with a war like spirit..." Later she remarks that "Somewhat unjustly, political scientist Stephen Cimbala has accused Clausewitz of not having developed the concept of 'military genius' rigorously." I fail to see, from her account how this criticism is unjust.There are interesting nuggets in this book.- Jomini comes across as a more insightful reader of Napoleon's tactics than Clausewitz.- Foch seems to get to the point more readily than Clausewitz. And has more interesting and decisive things to say about war fighting and morale.- Joseph Compte de Maistre had already pointed out that " A battle lost is a battle that one thinks one has lost"There's more.But, this feels more like a gathering of notes of other people's commentaries on various features of some of Clausewitz's writing rather than any kind of analytical appreciation of Clausewitz the great military genius. Her point seems to be that throughout the history of contributions to war theory, whoever said something interesting, Clausewitz had said it first. So this feels less like secondary reading than tertiary reading. And not very helpful at that.John Keegan has been (probably reasonably correctly) criticized for his critical dismissal of Clausewitz. But on this present reading I'm not so sure.

  • By Seneca on April 7, 2016

    Books on Clausewitz threaten to become as numerous as stars in the sky. This one starts a bit slowly; but readers who press on will be rewarded by a multifaceted, nuanced, discussion of what the two-hundred-year old German soldier/philosopher was really about. I found the discussion of Clausewitz's continued relevance particularly interesting and particularly useful.Well done, Clausewitz. And well done, Prof. Heuser.

  • By R. W. Levesque on October 4, 2006

    Noting that Clausewitz is often misunderstood, Heuser's goal is to present a methodology for reading and therefore properly understanding Clausewitz. A large factor that has led to misunderstandings is the fact that Clausewitz himself learned more as life went on, and in 1827 he realized he had to totally realign his thinking to include the significant fact that war is a tool of politics/policy.At the same time he realized that any theory of war had to account for the fact that the majority of wars were limited in nature, and not the total "ideal" wars about which he had been writing. Heuser's book does an excellent job of summarizing and accounting for the major arguments for and against Clausewitz today, and then she analyzes On War and his other writings to draw her own conclusions, which, for the most part, are pro-Clausewitz.

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