Clausewitz: The Fighting Soldier
Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford University Press, 2014)
“One of the glories of history is that it can never be definitive; good history is history on which others can build.” So wrote Peter Paret — the dean of American Clausewitz studies — in the preface to the 1985 second edition of his exhaustively researched Clausewitz and the State. That book, first published in 1976, is the best biographical treatment of the Prussian theorist by some distance. Paret was modest enough to concede that a single volume “could not take the place of the many detailed studies that were lacking,” such as a thorough exploration of Clausewitz’s politics or an analysis of his historical method; the structure and argument of his book accommodated and indeed aided such deeper engagement by later scholars with the Prussian’s ideas. Notwithstanding the possibility of new archival discoveries, though, Paret’s 1985 preface declared that “the essential facts of Clausewitz’s life are now as firmly established as they are ever likely to be.”
The intervening three decades have validated this surmise. Perhaps the most interesting new document to emerge in that period is one that Paret himself brought to light in 1991: A mere page-and-a-half of pitched, even script penned just four days before Clausewitz’s death. (Paret surely exaggerates when he describes these 150 words — a characteristically deferential if not exactly content-rich covering note for a manuscript he was forwarding to a Prussian royal — as addressing Clausewitz’s own historical and theoretical corpus “in the nature of an intellectual testament.”) That such a discovery should have so thrilled the world’s most prominent Clausewitz specialist while offering next to nothing by way of new facts illustrates the truth of Paret’s proposition: The challenge for today’s scholar is less reconstruction of the historical narrative than it is reinterpretation.
A great many books have been written over the last three decades purporting to elucidate Clausewitz’s theories; to explain their relevance to the modern world; to demonstrate their application (or not) to small wars, nuclear wars, Cold War, “special war,” “New Wars,” “non-trinitarian war,” and… business. Many are authored by political scientists, professors of strategic studies, or students of military thought. Very few indeed have been written by historians of the time and place in which Clausewitz lived. There’s no great mystery as to why that should be the case: Clausewitz’s military career — successful by any standard, if not wildly so — lacked the world-historical significance of a Napoléon or a Wellington, a Blücher, Scharnhorst, or Gneisenau.
His theoretical work, on the other hand, may have changed the way people think about and fight wars. On War has been lauded as “the most profound, comprehensive, and systematic examination of war that has appeared to the present day.” Bernard Brodie isn’t satisfied with that; he says it’s “not simply the greatest book on war, but the one truly great book on that subject yet written.” And yet the book has often been published in heavily edited and abridged formats, stripped of the purportedly “outdated” middle books, treated as a grab bag of timeless military wisdom and made to serve contemporary policy agendas. Far less often has it been studied as a historical artifact — a literary object that can only begin to be understood in the context of its creator and his times… MORE