'Clausewitz's On War: A Biography' Oxford professor and author Hew Strachan talks about his book, Clausewitz's On War: A Biography. It's part of the Books that Changed the World series.
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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

On his death in 1830, there was little reason to believe that the world would long remember Carl von Clausewitz. The lifelong soldier played a relatively minor role in the great conflicts of his time, the Napoleonic Wars, and spent the last 10 years of his life as an administrator at a military academy in Berlin.

However, he used that time to write perhaps the most influential book on warfare ever published. In English it's known as "On War." Clausewitz has since been cited favorably by figures as diverse as Adolph Hitler, Vladimir Lenin and General Colin Powell.

In a new biography of the book, British historian Hew Strachan describes "On War" as incomplete, contradictory, controversial, frequently misunderstood, and filled with brilliant insights. "Clausewitz's On War" is part of the Atlantic Monthly Press series of "Books that Changed the World." And author Hew Strachan joins us from a BBC studio in Edinburgh, Scotland. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor HEW STRACHAN (History of War, Oxford University): Thanks very much for asking me.

CONAN: And…

Prof. STRACHAN: It's good to be with you.

CONAN: And if you have questions about the influence, meaning or relevance of the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz, our phone number is 800-989-8255. You can e-mail us, talk@npr.org. And you can also the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

And Hew Strachan, I guess I have to begin by asking, how the same writer can appeal simultaneously to totalitarians and to people who believe in liberal democracies?

Prof. STRACHAN: Well, partly because liberal democracies in totalitarian states have followed since Clausewitz's time, so that, you know, he was writing for a different generation at a different time and didn't have to weigh up those two alternatives. But the other reason is that he's a man who writes by way of debate.

The whole book is constructed through a series of advancing one set of arguments and then responding with another set of arguments to counter the initial proposition. And it's one of the ways of getting closer to the truth, but, of course, it's also one of the ways in which you generate confusion. Because if you quote from that selectively, you will always find a quotation that happens to suit your particular position.

But you do it by suppressing the quotation from the other side of the argument, which is the essential part, of course, of what Clausewitz's is trying to develop. He's trying to get you to understand through engaging in a series of arguments and debates.

CONAN: And that's then the value of the book that seems to have something in it for everybody.

Prof. STRACHAN: Absolutely. And it's, in my view, is to why the book hasn't aged, because it's that open-endedness to discussion and debate which lays it so open to different interpretations and to fresh generations of readers.

CONAN: As you point out, it's easy to pick holes in Clausewitz. There's nothing on Navies, little on economics. The book is massively Eurocentric. He, of course, could not have anticipated air war or nuclear weapons. And he wrote in a time when recourse to war was not regarded in anywhere near the same light that it has been since 1945, in terms of international rules. So is he still relevant to modern times?

Prof. STRACHAN: He is still relevant to modern times. And the reason he's still relevant is all the things that you have described are, in a sense, peripheral to what he would see as central in "On War." And the central nature of war, for him, is the adversarial process. It's the clash of arms. It's the fact that two sides are trying their best to stop the other achieving what it wishes to achieve.

And the nature of war is at the heart of what the book is about. And to that extent, it is dealing with something that is comparatively unchanging. That has an element of continuity. Because, at that very basic level, war is still about a clash of wills. It's still about trying to work through a solution despite the fact that the other side is trying to stop you doing it. And of course, it's a point he makes regularly in a resistant environment, in an environment that tends to make the achievement of your objectives, inherently, very difficult.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Among the many famous sayings of Clausewitz is the famous comment that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

Prof. STRACHAN: Well, indeed. But he, of course - the book is - the book "On War" is divided into eight different books. And the last book is specifically on war plans. And he still felt that you should plan even though you know the plan might not be carried through. You just must be - again, that's an example of the sort of dialectical nature of the discussion. The plan may not survive contact with the enemy, but you still have to plan.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. Again, out guest is military historian Hew Strachan. 800-989-8255, 800-989-talk. We're discussing his latest book, "Clausewitz's On War."

And let's begin with Eli(ph). Eli is calling us from Kansas City, Missouri.

ELI (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ELI: My question is how did this 19th century man and his philosophy lead to the mindset that lead to - that led to the First World War? And I'm calling from the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.

Prof. STRACHAN: Hello. A museum I failed to get to earlier this year I'm afraid.

ELI: We want you here, Hew.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. STRACHAN: I'd still wish to come. Sorry, it didn't work out. The - it's a very good question, because, actually, it highlights exactly the elements of Clausewitz, which we would now tend to disregard. The bits of Clausewitz that pre-1914 readers read were the central bits of "On War," the books at the heart of "On War," which actually described the nature of the Napoleonic warfare. That is the section that's most obviously out of date for us.

But in 1914, Napoleonic warfare was the model. That was what was studied at staff colleges throughout Europe in the 19th century. And that is the point which they would logically turn to Clausewitz, because here was the man who had written most fully - Jomini being, I suppose, the other contender for that title, but here was a man who had written most fully about that.

So, it's not these people misread Clausewitz, but they read different bits from the bits we would not read to the bits that we would now read, tend to be more concerned with the relationship between war and policy, and the issues of war planning and so on.

CONAN: The strategic thinker who emerged out of the First World War - very influential on the second - was of course Sir Basil Little-Hart who took great issue with the tactical ideas of Clausewitz, which he thought contributed to the slaughter in the Western Front.

Prof. STRACHAN: Absolutely. And one significant question I - certainly go through my head when I read Little-Hart on Clausewitz is whether he actually ever read Clausewitz. He found it very easy to condemn without a great deal of reflection.

Although, ironically, in some ways, after 1945, as opposed to after 1918, Little-Hart came a little closer to appreciating and being less quick to criticize Clausewitz and more aware that what he was criticizing was how some people had read Clausewitz rather than what Clausewitz himself had written.

Little-Hart's concern, I think, in - was above all, was this notion of absolute war. It's an area of contention anyway, among Clausewitz's scholars, where Clausewitz describes what he calls absolute war. And in part of the book, it seems as though he's talking about something he had really experienced, which was the awfulness of the Napoleonic Wars.

Elsewhere in the book, he implies that this is an ideal, something which war will never actually achieve in practice, but which philosophically you need because it become the benchmark against which you can judge other wars, real wars, and how they should be assessed in a scale of absoluteness. And of course for Little-Hart, after 1945, there was the issue of the nuclear weapon and whether this was the absolute weapon, which had indeed enabled absolute war now to become a reality.

So, whereas after 1918, he thought, you know, this is a man who's preach absolute war and enforce it. After 1945, he realized that even his own experience in the First World War hadn't quite plumbed how awful war could be.

CONAN: As horrific as that experience was. Eli, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

ELI: Thank you.

CONAN: And let me ask you, Hew Strachan, about another of Clausewitz's principles, what's his - what's been described as his holy trinity, that the government, the Army and people need to be united if a war is to be successful.

Prof. STRACHAN: Well, of course, that is not the trinity. Colin Powell and various others believed it is. That the people, the Army, and the government make up the trinity. And it has been very easy to criticize Clausewitz when we live in an era where non-state actors seemed to be so important in war, because those three components are the three components of a state, not the three components of war.

Clausewitz's trinity actually was made up of passion, which he associates with the people; with what he called the play of probability in chance, in other words, the business of actually dealing with warfare for real on the battlefield, which he saw are the problems of armies and their commanders; and the role of reason, which was the role the policy of government, and that was the third element. And it's those three qualities: passion, probability, if you like, and rationality, which are the three elements in Clausewitz's trinity. And that he would see as three equal elements.

We have tended to emphasize the role of policy to see that as the overarching idea, which unites what Clausewitz writes. I'm personally not persuaded at that. And particularly, when he's discussing the trinity, it is absolutely clear that he realizes that policy can be overturned by popular passions. That the people can decide to behave irrationally and carry on fighting, which of course we see arguably today in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, in defiance, it would seem, of what we would regard as politically sensible.

And which he himself had experienced in 1812 when, rather than simply accept Prussia's subordination to France and the humiliation of that involved, he argued it is better to fight and to go down fighting than to accept what rationality tells you, which is to say the French is superior to us, and therefore, we should simply (unintelligible) them.

CONAN: And yet, people look at that and say, Gotterdammerung, and the end of Nazi Germany in 1945.

Prof. STRACHAN: Absolutely. I mean, the Clausewitz of 1812 is the Clausewitz that Hitler liked.

CONAN: We're talking with Hew Strachan, a military historian. His most recent book is "Clausewitz's On War." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is John(ph), John's with us from Mount Prospect in Illinois.

JOHN (Caller): Good afternoon. Just wanted to mention that most people don't seem to realize that the first individual that ever conducted a war in accordance to Clausewitz's principle was Abraham Lincoln. Destroying the south's ability to wage war, what Clausewitz referred to as the sinews of war.

CONAN: Is that an accurate reading do you think, Hew Strachan?

Prof. STRACHAN: I'm sorry. I didn't quite catch the last bit about Clausewitz described as the sinews of war, do you say?

CONAN: Yes.

JOHN: Yes.

CONAN: To destroy the south's capacity to make war.

JOHN: Classic war. Yes.

Prof. STRACHAN: Yes. Absolutely. Sorry, I miss that. He - I think one of the difficulties here is what exactly do we take from Clausewitz as a reflection of something Clausewitz said as opposed to something that is indirectly derived from Clausewitz. Because Clausewitz describes the nature of war - there are plenty of people, of course, who've acted in ways that we would see as in event as almost Clausewitzian, who probably have never read Clausewitz, and who are simply doing it because they're behaving according to the dictates of common sense. And I would put Lincoln very firmly in that category.

He - here his strategy as a practical business that has to be done. Lincoln gets it right for the Union in the Civil War and, indeed, exploits both the economic strength of the Union and economic weakness of the south. But whether or not he is following a Clausewitzian principle, I would have my doubts. Just because I don't think he will have read "On War" rather than - yup.

CONAN: Because to me, the Union generals have unusually cited him as opposed to Clausewitz.

Prof. STRACHAN: Absolutely. And of course this is a man whom Clausewitz memorably rubbished. Clausewitz had a pretty sharp pen and if he wanted to be nasty to people he could be nasty to people. He did - nothing much "On War" praises other military theories, but he's very - so doesn't mention those whom he likes, and there were some, but he certainly is rude about Jomini whom he decided he didn't like, despite the fact that there's quite a lot the unites them.

Clausewitz died before "On War" was published, but Jomini lived on to a ripe old age and, therefore, had the chance to read what Clausewitz had written about him and of course to answer back, which Clausewitz couldn't do. So, that was a battle that Clausewitz was likely to lose in the 19th century because Jomini was going to have the last word.

CONAN: He was, of course, the famous Swiss writer on military - on warfare. So, anyway, let's see if we can see another caller on the line. This is Cliff(ph), Cliff with us from Garner in North Carolina.

CLIFF (Caller): Thank you. Yes. My question or comment is this, given that fact that he seems to be the - Clausewitz's seems to be the definitive authority on ground war, and given that the United States is involved in an embroiled ground war in the Middle East right now, if George W. were to read his book, what word of wisdom could he pick up from the book to get our actions - to extract ourselves from where we are today? Or conversely, how should we prosecute this war to a successful finish in a short period of time using the principles of his book?

CONAN: And we're going to give Hew Strachan all of two minutes to respond to that.

Prof. STRACHAN: Well, there's a very quick answer. And that is that Clausewitz says that strategy needs to be responsive to policy, but if policy itself is wrong then the policy itself has to be addressed. And the real challenges seems to be that General Petraeus confronts today is that he's being given a strategy without a clear sense of what the policy is. And it is no good asking him to adjust his policy or get the surge right if that isn't brought into harmony with the policy. And the policy may be what has to be addressed. War can change policy just as much as policy directs war, and Clausewitz is very clear about that.

CONAN: Thank very much for the call, Cliff.

And finally, the non-state actors, the sort of al-Qaida's of that time, there was no direct equivalent, but he did write a lot and think a lot about the insurrection by the Spaniards to - in resistance to Napoleon's invasion.

Prof. STRACHAN: Yes. And some people have speculated, not unreasonably I think, that Clausewitz would have written another book on small war. He begins the book "On War" by saying this is a book on major war, implying that small war, in his understanding, Guerilla warfare, was something to which he would devote attention in the future. It was the subject in which he had lectured at the War Academy.

And he, inspired by Spain, he thought the pressure itself could use a people's uprising to throw the French out, that the great national popular uprising will be a way of dealing with Bonaparte and establishing precious national identity. That's a pure - there's a clearly revolutionary implication in what he's saying when he argues that.

CONAN: Hew Strachan, thanks so much for your time.

Prof. STRACHAN: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Hew Strachan, a professor at Oxford University. His new book is "Clausewitz's On War: A Biography." It's part of the "Books that Changed the World" series. For more on the not-quite-conquering hero Carl Von Clausewitz, you can read an excerpt of "Clausewitz's On War: A Biography" by guest Hew Strachan at npr.org/talk.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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