On War by Carl von ClausewitzCarl von Clausewitzs On War has been called, not simply the greatest, but the only truly great book on war. It is an extraordinary attempt to construct an all-embracing theory of how war works. Its coherence and ambition are unmatched by other military literature. On War is full of sharp observation, biting irony, and memorable phrases, the most famous being, War is a continuation of politics by other means.
About the Author
Except for a brief stint in 1812 when he served in the Russian army, Clausewitz spent his whole career, from the age of twelve until his death in 1831, in the Prussian army. He fought in all the major Prussian campaigns against France, and his most fateful experience - the 1806 Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, in which Napoleon destroyed the Prussian army - inspired him to write On War.
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His most notable work, Vom Kriege On War , was unfinished at his death. Clausewitz was a realist in many different senses and, while in some respects a romantic, also drew heavily on the rationalist ideas of the European Enlightenment. Clausewitz's thinking is often described as Hegelian because of his dialectical method; but, although he was probably personally acquainted with Hegel, there remains debate as to whether or not Clausewitz was in fact influenced by him. He saw history as a vital check on erudite abstractions that did not accord with experience. In contrast to the early work of Antoine-Henri Jomini , he argued that war could not be quantified or reduced to mapwork, geometry, and graphs. Clausewitz had many aphorisms, of which the most famous is "War is the continuation of politics by other means.
Anyone trying to put together a collection of texts on military theory comparable to anthologies on social, political, or economic thought will find it hard to match Clausewitz. Not to forget — there is also the wisdom we can discover with earlier writers, like Thucydides and Machiavelli. Nonetheless, there is no systematic study comparable to that of Clausewitz. Among books we pick to read, we put many of them aside unfinished. Among the books we skip are usually the classics, especially those which are not purely literary because we tend to assume, first , that however great they were in their own times they are not pertinent to ours, and, second, that whatever wisdom they do contain that is relevant to our times has, no doubt, been absorbed and exploited by later writers.
First published in Germany in , On War, consisting of eight books numbering more than seven hundred pages, is still widely read. It is a standard source for those interested in the phenomenon of war and armed conflict. The work is based on rigorous analysis of the wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, all being wars between nation-states. With the rise of intrastate conflicts, civil wars and, in particular, terrorism in the last two decades, some thinkers consider On War as a relic from the past. This premise is why the work is often considered to be applicable only to larger interstate wars. According to this school violent conflicts emerge less between states; the lines between state and non-state actors are blurred.
Strategy and planning are not the same thing.
On War Vom Kriege is one of the great works of military strategy and theory in history, standing among such great works as The Art of War. Clausewitz had been stunned by how totally Napoleon had dominated Europe and how he had appeared to change the nature of modern warfare, creating a larger scale war than Europe had arguably ever seen. Thus, one purpose of On War is to break war down into its constituent elements so that a comprehensive theory of war can be developed. Clausewitz wrote during the age of the great imperial Nation-States in the West, prior to widespread democratic government and following the medieval period. Thus On War concerns military conflicts between states.