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Clausewitz's 'On War': A Biography

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Perhaps the most important book on military strategy ever written, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War has influenced generations of generals and politicians, has been blamed for the unprecedented death tolls in the First and Second World Wars, and is required reading at military academies to this day. But On War , which was never finished and was published posthumously, is obscu Perhaps the most important book on military strategy ever written, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War has influenced generations of generals and politicians, has been blamed for the unprecedented death tolls in the First and Second World Wars, and is required reading at military academies to this day. But On War , which was never finished and was published posthumously, is obscure and fundamentally contradictory. What Clausewitz declares in book 1, he discounts in book 8. The language is confusing and the relevance not always clear. For a book that has truly changed the world, On War is extremely difficult for the general reader to approach, to reconcile with itself, and to place in context. Hew Strachan, one of the world’s foremost military historians answers these problems in this fascinating book. He explains how and why On War was written, elucidates what Clausewitz meant, and offers insight into the impact it made on conflict and its continued significance in our world today. This is a must read for fans of military history.


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Perhaps the most important book on military strategy ever written, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War has influenced generations of generals and politicians, has been blamed for the unprecedented death tolls in the First and Second World Wars, and is required reading at military academies to this day. But On War , which was never finished and was published posthumously, is obscu Perhaps the most important book on military strategy ever written, Carl von Clausewitz’s On War has influenced generations of generals and politicians, has been blamed for the unprecedented death tolls in the First and Second World Wars, and is required reading at military academies to this day. But On War , which was never finished and was published posthumously, is obscure and fundamentally contradictory. What Clausewitz declares in book 1, he discounts in book 8. The language is confusing and the relevance not always clear. For a book that has truly changed the world, On War is extremely difficult for the general reader to approach, to reconcile with itself, and to place in context. Hew Strachan, one of the world’s foremost military historians answers these problems in this fascinating book. He explains how and why On War was written, elucidates what Clausewitz meant, and offers insight into the impact it made on conflict and its continued significance in our world today. This is a must read for fans of military history.

30 review for Clausewitz's 'On War': A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    This is, to put it quite simply, the best book-length analysis of Clausewitz that I've ever read (and I've read nearly all of them). Strachan's approach is thorough and even-handed: he recounts the major analytical themes of Clausewitz's earlier interpreters (writing in English, German, and French) alongside those of what might be called the second- and third-wave revisionists of the 1970s and the 2000s. He's able to synthesize what's come before into a complete, fair-minded, and nuanced apprecia This is, to put it quite simply, the best book-length analysis of Clausewitz that I've ever read (and I've read nearly all of them). Strachan's approach is thorough and even-handed: he recounts the major analytical themes of Clausewitz's earlier interpreters (writing in English, German, and French) alongside those of what might be called the second- and third-wave revisionists of the 1970s and the 2000s. He's able to synthesize what's come before into a complete, fair-minded, and nuanced appreciation of the varied theoretical threads that appear in On War. Strachan concludes the book by noting that "Clausewitz's maturation was marked not by his making up his mind on" the many questions he'd considered in his quarter-century of serious thought and writing, "but by his growing commitment to the methodology of dialectics": his commitment to working through the differences between theory and lived experience to arrive at something true. A similar thing can be said about this book: Strachan's analytically mature approach is far less concerned with passing interpretive judgment than with arriving at a fair and accurate – if complicated and often contradictory – understanding of Clausewitz's evolving thought. It's probably worth caveating this to say that Strachan's book is not really one for the beginner. It's not really an introduction to On War, and it can only very loosely be called a distillation of its major ideas. The book is best read by those who are already familiar both with Clausewitz's text and with the various interpretive schools, commentaries, and controversies. Which isn't to say that such background is essential, only that it will be very helpful to the reader as he tries not to uncritically adopt as his own every element of Strachan's very persuasive analysis.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Rich

    At the revelation of my reading a couple books about Clausewitz's tome On War a trusted friend rebuked me. Perhaps my friend was correct that there are problems with reading a secondary source before the primary source. Derivative thinking does have the risks of limiting the true, if original, lessons conveyed by the trusted primary source that one could learn directly. This is particularly true for On War, given Wilhem Rustow's oft-repeated proclamation that Clausewitz "has become well known, b At the revelation of my reading a couple books about Clausewitz's tome On War a trusted friend rebuked me. Perhaps my friend was correct that there are problems with reading a secondary source before the primary source. Derivative thinking does have the risks of limiting the true, if original, lessons conveyed by the trusted primary source that one could learn directly. This is particularly true for On War, given Wilhem Rustow's oft-repeated proclamation that Clausewitz "has become well known, but is very little read." However, my friend could be wrong for two reasons. First, I wholely intend (and likely will be expected) to read On War. Second, it does not take a military genius to recognize that On War is going to be a difficult enough read, with consideration of the first reason, why solely rely upon my first and perhaps weak reflections when On War requires the whole discernment and cross-attribution of The Bible? "The ponderous tomes of Clausewitz are so solid as to cause mental indigestion to any student who swallows them," according to B.H. Liddell Hart, "without a long course of preparation." Liddell Hart, a critic of Clausewitz, does provide me some vindication from my skeptical friend; and Hew Strachan's does not disappoint in this purpose. Strachan's brief book titled Clausewitz's On War has all of the pitfalls that my friend warned me of: there is commentary, judgment, and speculation upon Clausewitz's work - these may tend to create an impediment to learning directly from 'Dead Karl.' So there is reason to remain guarded as you read this book. However, similarly to Michael Howard's Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction , Strachan's work also attempts to build context for the reader. The difference from Howard is that Strachan hones in with laser focus upon what On War was implying for its readers within Clausewitz's time not of that of the reader's: 'On War' is a book about war in the present and the immediate past - both of them Clausewitz's, not ours. It is not overtly a book about the future of war. Yet this is how it is often read, and not without reason.... Every generation has tended to look at what Clausewitz wrote in light of its own preoccupations, but in using his thoughts in this way is always in danger of treating the text selectively. That in itself is neither illegitimate nor inappropriate, but by the same token no one school can claim the monopoly of wisdom in its interpretation of Clausewitz's work. Strachan, not without acknowledgement of the irony of doing so, even quotes Clausewitz directly (from Book 8, Chapter 3 of On War): Every age has had its own peculiar forms of war, its own restrictive conditions and its own prejudices.... The events of each age must, therefore, be judged with due regard to the peculiarities of the time, and only he who, less by an anxious study of minute details than by a shrewd glance at the main features, can place himself in each particular age is able to understand and appreciate its generals. "To comprehend On War, it too has to be placed in the context in which it was written," Strachan explains to his readers as "[it] is first and foremost a response to one man's experience and to the wars through which he lived and in which he served." To wit, and apologies to my friend, Strachan's introduction has clouded my expectations of Clausewitz to the context of his time; but upon reading On War I also anticipate my interpretations of Clausewitz to be expanded by my own judgment and distilled against my own knowledge for application in the present or near-future. I highly recommend Hew Strachan's Clausewitz's On War, and I will be keeping both it and Howard's Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction at reference-reach while reading Clausewitz's classic tome.

  3. 4 out of 5

    J Scott

    Exceptionally well done and recommended. Strachan's book is a good primer on Clausewitz's On War is an invaluable resource. Exceptionally well done and recommended. Strachan's book is a good primer on Clausewitz's On War is an invaluable resource.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Sebastian Reyn

    Strachan, Hew, Vom Kriege van Clausewitz. Een biografie (2007; gepubliceerd in het Nederlands in 2009). Boeiende en belangrijke verhandeling over het leven van de militaire theoreticus Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) en vooral de ontstaansgeschiedenis van het postuum gepubliceerde Vom Kriege. Beide staan in het teken van de Napoleontische oorlogen. De tijdloosheid van Clausewitz' werk wordt veroorzaakt door zijn filosofische behandeling van het fenomeen oorlog en het onaffe karakter ervan. Kantt Strachan, Hew, Vom Kriege van Clausewitz. Een biografie (2007; gepubliceerd in het Nederlands in 2009). Boeiende en belangrijke verhandeling over het leven van de militaire theoreticus Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) en vooral de ontstaansgeschiedenis van het postuum gepubliceerde Vom Kriege. Beide staan in het teken van de Napoleontische oorlogen. De tijdloosheid van Clausewitz' werk wordt veroorzaakt door zijn filosofische behandeling van het fenomeen oorlog en het onaffe karakter ervan. Kanttekeningen bij dit werk zijn gemakkelijk te plaatsen. Zo is het euro- en landcentrisch. Maar Clausewitz brengt ook inzichten te berde die aan actualiteit weinig hebben ingeboet, zoals over de verhouding tussen politici en militairen. Clausewitz 'kleine oorlog' waarin niet-geüniformeerde strijders optreden, doet denken aan de Afghanistan-oorlog tegen de Taliban. Strachan's behandeling is deskundig en redelijk toegankelijk, al wordt de leesbaarheid gehinderd door talrijke verwijzingen naar boeken en hoofdstukken van Clausewitz's oeuvre. Een aansporing om 'the real thing' te gaan lezen. Cijfer: 8. Gelezen: 2009.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Haesaerts

    Hew Strachan probeert één van de meest invloedrijke boeken in de geschiedenis, dat tegelijk verre van onbekritiseerd is, te analyseren met aandacht voor context, impact en de veranderende fases in het leven van de beroemde Pruisische generaal zelf. Hoewel bij momenten onvermijdelijk technisch van aard, is de uiteenzetting globaal zeker de moeite voor wie de strategische én filosofische gedachten van Clausewitz beter wenst te begrijpen.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jurrit

    Dit boek dat inzicht geeft over Vom Kriege van Clausewitz leest lekker weg. Inhoudelijk is het goed, vanwege het belichten van het werk van Clausewitz van verschillende perspectieven. Wat het kracht van zijn werk zou moeten zijn en ook wat het in feite min of meer betekend. Een visie die in balans is over Clausewitz is het beeld wat je krijgt.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Brian Mikołajczyk

    Strachan pens a biography of Carl von Clausewitz as well as how his seminal work "On War" has been used and applied in his time as well as in subsequent generations. On War is used by many generals and politicians. Often called the Bible of war, it is indeed used like the Bible in that readers cherry-pick what they want to get out of it. Strachan pens a biography of Carl von Clausewitz as well as how his seminal work "On War" has been used and applied in his time as well as in subsequent generations. On War is used by many generals and politicians. Often called the Bible of war, it is indeed used like the Bible in that readers cherry-pick what they want to get out of it.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Russ

    Great balance of coverage on the background of the man and his writings.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    Professor Sir Hew Strachen is an acquaintance of mine and served as my thesis advisor. I have the utmost respect for him as a scholar and a writer. This book is brilliant at one level, but-that level is a rather advanced one. This is not an introductory work. It is not for the casual reader. It is a comprehensive and very deep analysis of On War and some of Clausewitzs’ other writings. It is NOT an introduction, so be warned. It primarily uses the Howard/ Parat translation ( who doesn’t these da Professor Sir Hew Strachen is an acquaintance of mine and served as my thesis advisor. I have the utmost respect for him as a scholar and a writer. This book is brilliant at one level, but-that level is a rather advanced one. This is not an introductory work. It is not for the casual reader. It is a comprehensive and very deep analysis of On War and some of Clausewitzs’ other writings. It is NOT an introduction, so be warned. It primarily uses the Howard/ Parat translation ( who doesn’t these days?) and goes into great depth on various themes, theoretical contradictions and language used etc.. A typical sentence goes thusly:“ this inherent contradiction in the use and misuse of the weight of defense, which gives the defender the advantage of time, is advocated in book six, but in book eight we can see an entirely different theoretical use thereof” . Strachens’ work is impressively comprehensive, but best read with On War open next to it.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jan Chlapowski Söderlund

    "Clausewitz's On War" by Hew Strachan is a kind of biography of Carl von Clausewitz, although the book concentrates on the literary work for which he is known. In a sense, it becomes a biography of this book in fact. H.S. first outlines von Clausewitz's origins and personal development, the wars in which he fought and other major events which might have influenced his writing. In a slightly hodge-podge way, he goes through the different books which build up 'On War'. Rightly, quite a few pages a "Clausewitz's On War" by Hew Strachan is a kind of biography of Carl von Clausewitz, although the book concentrates on the literary work for which he is known. In a sense, it becomes a biography of this book in fact. H.S. first outlines von Clausewitz's origins and personal development, the wars in which he fought and other major events which might have influenced his writing. In a slightly hodge-podge way, he goes through the different books which build up 'On War'. Rightly, quite a few pages are devoted to the Napoleonic wars, which definitely seem to be the foundation of von Clausewitz's analysis of war. I am not very familiar with this era, and therefore got lost in the chain of events and various personalities. This made it a slightly difficult read for me, but did not lessen the feeling that this is a high-quality book. Recommendable to anyone interested in military history in general and also people interested in the military events underpinning the 1800s.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mike Harbert

    A wonderful companion work to understanding Clausewitz's "On War." If you are reading and studying Clausewitz, then this may be one of the best companion books for that study. If you are not studying Clausewitz, but are seeking a sort of "Cliff Notes" or "Clausewitz for Dummies" then this might suffice. But seriously, if you want to understand Clausewitz, you have to read "On War" and a variety of companion works or commentaries - there are no short cuts. Over an excellent book that helps to put A wonderful companion work to understanding Clausewitz's "On War." If you are reading and studying Clausewitz, then this may be one of the best companion books for that study. If you are not studying Clausewitz, but are seeking a sort of "Cliff Notes" or "Clausewitz for Dummies" then this might suffice. But seriously, if you want to understand Clausewitz, you have to read "On War" and a variety of companion works or commentaries - there are no short cuts. Over an excellent book that helps to put Clausewitz's masterpiece in perspective. I read it with the Peter Pater translation of "On War" and found it very useful.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Rob

    An often-times interesting commentary on an interesting, and very influential book: I have some frustrations, nonetheless. I felt that Mr Strachan's book lacked a coherency, and, while containing insights and background, lacked an overall structure. Although, perhaps, this is due to the nature in which I consumed the book--namely, via audiobook, in small chunks. I'm going to give this book another chance in dead-tree format, probably around the time that I next read Clausewitz himself and am ope An often-times interesting commentary on an interesting, and very influential book: I have some frustrations, nonetheless. I felt that Mr Strachan's book lacked a coherency, and, while containing insights and background, lacked an overall structure. Although, perhaps, this is due to the nature in which I consumed the book--namely, via audiobook, in small chunks. I'm going to give this book another chance in dead-tree format, probably around the time that I next read Clausewitz himself and am open to revising my judgement at that time.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Shad

    This was a good introduction to On War and a helpful overview of issues addressed therein and their relevance over the past couple of centuries. It was effective in motivating me to want to take on On War (which is 8 books long), although it was disappointing to learn that the author does not find any of the English translations up to his standards.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Monaco

    This was a great read. I dove into the actual On War before reading this biography, and I think that's the best order to do it. Strachan does a great job of granting perspective on who Clausewitz was and his main points throughout the books. Definitely value-added in continuing a study of Uncle Carl. This was a great read. I dove into the actual On War before reading this biography, and I think that's the best order to do it. Strachan does a great job of granting perspective on who Clausewitz was and his main points throughout the books. Definitely value-added in continuing a study of Uncle Carl.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Sky

    Despite not being the most well-read student of Clausewitz, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It does an outstanding job of highlighting and giving context to several of the obscure or even contradictory aspects of On War.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Karlo Mikhail

    While Strachan jumps all over the place in offering his arguments, the book serves as an accessible and fairly comprehensive overview of Clausewitz's On War. While Strachan jumps all over the place in offering his arguments, the book serves as an accessible and fairly comprehensive overview of Clausewitz's On War.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mick

    A very good summation of the genesis and theories in On War.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    I think Clausewitz is a fascinating character. The book has some very good parts, however, it does not flow well.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jason Hughes

  20. 5 out of 5

    Paul Hill

  21. 4 out of 5

    Phillip Jones

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sander Berghmans

  23. 4 out of 5

    Marcin Karkut

  24. 5 out of 5

    Akshat Upadhyay

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jennica

  26. 4 out of 5

    James

  27. 5 out of 5

    Todd Larsen

  28. 5 out of 5

    Matt

  29. 5 out of 5

    Vlad Jecan

  30. 4 out of 5

    Wayne

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