Is Clausewitz irrelevant?

July 26, 2013
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Over at Small Wars Journal, NDU Professor William Olson has written an article called. “The Continuing Irrelevance of Clausewitz.”  I can already hear the drumbeats as Clausewitzians gather to brand Olson a heretic, but I think Carl von Clausewitz might approve of the article.  And a better title might have been “Why Clausewitz is relevant, but not in the way you think.” On War was Clausewitz’ personal struggle to try to understand the nature war.  Olson states:

His real relevance does not lie in how he can be used, operationalized, codified, mummified but in his insistence that what was involved in his own time and vital for all who follow was the need to grasp the significance of war as a very human phenomenon requiring serious, constant attention to understand. 

Clausewitz is valuable for study because On War is useful as a start point for trying to understand the nature of war.  At the U.S. Army School for Advanced Military Studies (SAMS), Clausewitz was not taught as the Gospel but as a text from which to develop the ability to make an argument and think our way through our understanding of war. It was probably the biggest source of debate because each of us interprets it in different ways.  The culmination of SAMS included oral exam question of describing each student’s personal theory of war.  And we could not parrot Clausewitz.  Similarly, at the National War College (NWC), we focused on each student developing his framework for strategy so that in the end he or she can “do” strategy.  Neither SAMS nor NWC taught Clausewitz as the Holy Grail but as a tool for learning and critical thinking.

On War, then, is relevant in that sense and indeed can help us develop coup d’oeil or military genius which can only be attained through education and experience.  I think Clausewitz would approve of Professor Olson’s analytic critique of On War and say that he has achieved his purpose which is to make military officers think and more importantly to think critically.

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5 thoughts on “Is Clausewitz irrelevant?

  1. With something as dynamic as war how could any book or author actually write “The Gospel of War”? I spent a number of years in the USAF reading books on strategy and tactics (I worked as an operations planner in the JAOC) and never found the ‘perfect plan’ in any book. I always viewed these books as guidelines. Like you said in your closing, “…he has achieved his purpose which is to make military officers think and more importantly to think critically.” Sadly critical thinking in the military is a lost art and not encouraged at any level.

  2. Read Olson’s piece. Sad and typical is all I can say. Essentially his argument is that there is no such thing as strategic theory, in fact there is no such thing as theory in any of the social sciences . . . Rather you must listen to wise academics (like Olson obviously) and don’t go worrying your little heads about a general theory of war, since that would only indicate the actual ramshackle state of what passes for strategic thought in the US today . . .

    Forget Olson, read instead Michael I. Handel’s “Appendix D: On War As a Gestalt” in his classic Masters of War. That’s a nice start and as Handel states all the elements of the general theory are present in On War, so the unfinished nature of the work dues not offer an impediment.

    Two other points. The existence of the general theory of war was not obvious at first, in fact it was not until after the First World War that it become apparent. Why? Because too many used On War as a cookbook as Olson says Harry Summers did. It only became clear after the work of Rosinski and Svechin in the 1920s demonstrated what Clausewitz had in fact achieved. That is the beginning of strategic theory as Clausewitz had intended.

    Second, “ideal types” are not expected to be “real”, they are extreme articulations of traits and tendencies in actual phenomenon used as “yardsticks” to compare with observation. Clausewitz anticipates Max Weber’s use of ideal types which is a fundamental part of Weber’s whole approach which forms a basis of Weberian sociology . . . which is doing fine. So Clausewitz fits within a very versatile and useful school of social science . . . imagine that!

  3. Hmmmmmmm. Can you write a Gospel of War?

    Thucydides and Sun Tzu come to mind. Many of those truths remain relevant over time. Again, two authors who should be read as a starting point for understanding that most human of all activities: war.

    Combine those two books with Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS and you are well on your wary to understanding the human condition and conflict/war.

  4. When I read the title, I was prepping the torches and pitchforks. After reading the article, I found it thought provoking albeit not perfect. Frankly, I continued thinking about his interpretation of Clausewitz over the weekend, which is a sign of a good article.

  5. Seems that Dr Olson was one of Paul Bremer’s chief staffers at the CPA during the Iraq occupation . . . so a lot of hands on experience regarding strategic disasters . . .

    Which explains this comment from his article so clearly: “the feel of liturgical mysteries revealed by an inner light known only to true initiates who know how to derive meaning where others only find muddle ” . . . the whole Bush “crusade” in Iraq in a nutshell spoken by one of the true believers?