James Holmes

Everything You Know About Clausewitz Is Wrong

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James Holmes

Everything You Know About Clausewitz Is Wrong

A botched translation of Clausewitz has had an enduring impact on our thinking on warfare.

Everything You Know About Clausewitz Is Wrong
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As Mark Twain reputedly quipped, it’s not so much what we know that gets us in trouble; it’s what we know that just ain’t so. How much of what we know about martial ventures is wrong? In the naval sphere, for instance, it’s common knowledge that Alfred Thayer Mahan instructs commanders never to divide the fleet. Except he doesn’t. Once upon a time, it turns out, historians took to quoting other historians quoting Mahan to that effect. Over time the quotation — in reality, someone’s bowdlerized version of his ideas about concentrating naval strength — took on an air of authenticity and authority. “Never divide the fleet” endured as a truism despite its flimsy provenance. And it drowned out Mahan’s real ideas through constant repetition.

This is about more than salvaging a long-dead maritime strategist’s reputation. Faulty or outdated ideas can carry real-world repercussions. Acting on them creates a garbage-in/garbage-out effect that bedevils strategic endeavors. Nor is the problem confined to one apocryphal maxim from Mahan. We all know, don’t we, that strategic grand master Carl von Clausewitz defines war as “the continuation of policy by other means” (italics in original). Except he doesn’t. Read in the original German (insert favorite Hitler joke here), Clausewitz’s masterwork On War proclaims — uniformly — that war is a mere continuation of policy “with other means” (mit anderen Mitteln), or sometimes “with the addition of other means” (mit Einmischung anderer Mitteln). Nowhere in On War or his prefatory notes does the Prussian write “by” other means.

Yet this false quotation refuses to die. “By,” “with,” who cares? Well, any student or practitioner of warfare should. Substituting a two-letter for a four-letter word makes a big difference in how Westerners conceive of war. And as Clausewitz teaches, grasping the nature of war in general — and of the particular war we’re contemplating — constitutes the first, most fundamental, most crucial act of statecraft. Get the basics wrong and grim consequences follow.

Take the misquoted passage first. Declaring that war is a mere continuation of policy “by” other means implies that diplomatic, economic, and ideological interaction between the combatants screeches to a halt when the shooting starts. Statesmen set nonviolent policy implements aside while armies, navies, and air forces batter away at one another. In wartime, then, violent force is the one implement whereby military commanders and their political overseers seek strategic and political aims. Combatants cross a kind of event horizon, passing from routine peacetime politics into a dark realm ruled by violent interaction. A discontinuity separates war from peace.

Such an interpretation turns the concept Clausewitz wants to convey on its head. Now consider the proper translation. Pursuing political objectives “with” other means connotes adding a new implement — namely armed force — to a mix of diplomatic, economic, and informational implements rather than dropping them to pick up the sword. War operates under a distinctive martial grammar, in other words, but the logic of policy remains in charge even after combat is joined. In this Clausewitzian view, strategic competition falls somewhere along a continuum from peacetime diplomacy to high-end armed conflict. The divide between war and peace can get blurry.

As it turns out, then, a seemingly trivial word choice matters a great deal. Clausewitz foresaw that his words might mislead in this manner. That’s why he stresses that diplomatic congress continues amid a violent clash of arms:

“We maintain…that war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. We deliberately use the phrase ‘with the addition of other means’ because we also want to make it clear that war in itself does not suspend political intercourse or change it into something entirely different [my italics]. In essentials that intercourse continues, irrespective of the means it employs.”

Whence does this misunderstanding of On War arise? In part from the classic treatise itself. Or, more precisely, from its translators. The standard English translation appeared in 1976, courtesy of Peter Paret and Michael Howard. They discharged their duties with aplomb, but few books are perfect. This one is no exception.

Where did Paret and Howard go awry? Let’s do some sleuthing. First of all, they use “by other means” just once in the text of On War, and only in the title of one section of one chapter of one book. Specifically, Paret and Howard entitle Book One, Chapter One, Section 24 (page 87 if you have your copy handy) “War Is Merely the Continuation of Policy by Other Means.” That’s how they render “Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln” into English. Properly translated, however, the title reads “War Is a Mere Continuation of Policy with Other Means.” “With,” not “by.” There is zero ambiguity in the German. The translators, or perhaps their publisher, flub this one.

More problems find their way into the commentaries on Clausewitz. In his introductory essay (pages 27-44), for example, Howard gets the wording wrong. He does so while discussing an introductory note written by Clausewitz in July 1827. In the note, which is reprinted on pages 69-70, Clausewitz spells out his plans for revising his work (a task that, alas, he never lived to complete). On page 69 he hammers home a point he insists “must be made absolutely clear, namely that war is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means” (his italics).

Note the wording: “with other means.” But in his essay, on page 28, Howard references that same passage yet substitutes the telltale “by” for “with.” And he does so while referring the reader to the original, correct version on page 69! Curiouser and curiouser.

Howard himself shows how misquoting On War deforms strategic thinking. He recounts how interwar theorist B. H. Liddell Hart censured Clausewitz for propounding a doctrine of “absolute war,” pure violence decoupled from rational control. And Liddell Hart proffers — you guessed it — the passage we’re parsing as proof of Clausewitz’s perfidy. On page 40 of his essay, Howard quotes Liddell Hart as writing that Clausewitz was “the source of the doctrine of ‘absolute war,’ the fight to a finish theory which, beginning with the argument that ‘war is only a continuation of state policy by other means,’ ended by making policy the slave of strategy…” (my italics).

Howard takes Liddell Hart to task for painting a “distorted, inaccurate, and unfair” picture of Clausewitz’s work. No argument here. Liddell Hart was also exceedingly influential despite his faulty reading of On War.

But I digress (not for the first time). Why the uncharacteristic error on Sir Michael’s part? Occam’s Razor supplies little help ferreting out the truth. Maybe Howard was guilty of nothing more than a typo. You may slip and repeat “by other means” if you hear it enough times. A truism rolls from your fingers onto the page. Or maybe an overzealous copy editor changed the quotation to what he or she knew, in Mark Twain’s sense, was the right wording. It happens. I’ve repulsed misbegotten edits from a publisher more than once myself — and, likely as not, missed one or two. Maybe the same thing befell Howard.

And indeed, one suspects it did, if only because the commentaries on On War are so consistently wrong on this point while the text proper is nearly right. The passage appears again in Bernard Brodie’s postlude, back on page 642. Again it incorrectly cites Clausewitz’s correctly worded 1827 note. On page 645, moreover, Brodie approvingly repeats the mistranslated title of Book One, Chapter One, Section 24, as belabored above. Mangled yet again — and the same way — the passage pops up a final time on page 705 of Brodie’s commentary. Quite a pattern.

So is the Naval Diplomat indulging in idle speculation, like a medieval scholar pondering how many angels fit on the head of a pin? I hope so. It would be nice to believe practitioners and scholars of war aren’t misconstruing Clausewitz’s worldview when they misquote him. But this is far from a one-off problem. I daresay misquotations outnumber accurate ones in the halls of government, in the press, and even in the military schoolhouse. That’s less than heartening.

Battling truisms feels like battling the walking dead of strategic ideas. Nevertheless, it’s incumbent on those of us who teach strategic theory to make the effort. Let’s shoot this zombie in the brain — once and for all.