24 Sep 2006

And Why Not Go To Staff College, Too?

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Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz (June 1, 1780 — November 16, 1831)

Tony Corn, in Policy Review, waltzes dazzlingly through the Strategy curriculum in the course of a hyper-caffeinated diatribe quarreling with the ascendancy in contemporary American military culture of the viewpoint of that old rascal Carl von Clausewitz.

Some samples:

Strategism is synonymous with “strategy for strategy’s sake,” i.e., a self-referential discourse more interested in theory-building (or is it hair-splitting?) than policy-making. Strategism would be innocuous enough were it not for the fact that, in the media and academia, “realism” today is fast becoming synonymous with “absence of memory, will, and imagination”: in that context, the self-referentiality of the strategic discourse does not exactly improve the quality of the public debate. At its worst, strategism confuses education with indoctrination, and scholarship with scholasticism; in its most extreme form, it comes close to being an “intellectual terrorism” in the name of Clausewitz.


With its unresolved tensions between its theologia speculativa and theologia positiva parts, On War, to be sure, is ideally suited for endless, medieval-like scholastic disputatio. But while Clausewitz-Centered Chatter (ccc) can be entertaining (how many ayatollahs can dance on a Schwerpunkt?), there are undeniable opportunity costs for an officer corps already “too busy to learn.”

A decade ago already, U.S. Army War College professor Steven Metz remarked: “Like adoration for some family elder, the veneration heaped on Clausewitz seems to grow even as his power to explain the world declines. He remains an icon at all U.S. war colleges (figuratively and literally) while his writings are bent, twisted, and stretched to explain everything from guerilla insurgency (Summers) through nuclear strategy (Cimbala) to counternarcotrafficking (Sharpe). On War is treated like holy script from which quotations are plucked to legitimize all sorts of policies and programs. But enough! It is time to hold a wake so that strategists can pay their respects to Clausewitz and move on, leaving him to rest among the historians.”


For the neutral observer, then, the problem with the “neocon chickenhawks” is not so much that they lacked an understanding of irregular warfare13 as that they seriously underestimated the sterilizing effect, on the American military mind and over a generation, of three dozen Clausewitzian cicadas for whom counterinsurgency was synonymous with “derisive battle.” A contrario, the intellectual agility since the end of the Cold War of a Marine Corps largely exempt from the Clausewitz regimen (from General Krulak to General Mattis) would tend to prove that the problem is not with the officer corps itself, but with the (largely civilian) Clausewitzian educators. If the Clausewitzian text is indeed so filled with fog and friction, if On War is so hard to teach from that even most educators can’t teach it properly, then surely thought should be given to retiring Clausewitz, or the educators — or both.

The “cognitive dissonance” among Clausewitizians consists in maintaining the most dogmatic approach concerning Clausewitz as the True North, while deploring — like Gray — that “American military power has been as awesome tactically as it has rarely been impressive operationally or strategically…. the German armed forces in both world wars suffered from the same malady” (as if the two were somehow unrelated). If, as Gray rightly points out, “strategy is — or should be, the bridge that connects military power with policy,” what kind of a bridge is On War, which devotes 600 pages to military power and next to nothing to policy? Between the “strategy for strategy’s sake” of the Clausewitzians, and the “tacticisation of strategy” of Network-Centric Warriors, genuine strategic thinking seems to be forever elusive — missing in action as much as in reflection.

Why such an irrational “resistance” (in the Freudian sense) on the part of military educators? After all, it does not take an Einstein to realize that, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon, the greatest generals for 20 centuries had one thing in common: They have never read Clausewitz. And conversely, in the bloodiest century known to man, the greatest admirers of Clausewitz also have had one thing in common: They may have won a battle here and there, but they have all invariably lost all their wars. One suspects that the Prussian Party is in fact not so much interested in meditating Clausewitz (their endless exegeses of Clausewitz in the past 30 years has yielded no new insight beyond the interpretations of a Raymond Aron and a Carl Schmitt) as such, as in maintaining a “Prussian folklore” in the U.S. military. One can understand their hostilite de principe to the idea of teaching irregular warfare: from Marshall Bugeaud to General Beaufre, from Marshall Gallieni to Marshall Lyautey, from Colonel Trinquier to Lieutenant Galula, the majority of the leading theoreticians on the subject happen to be, not Prussian but — horresco referens — French. And as is well-known by anyone who gets his military history from Hollywood rather than Harvard, the French, since 1918 at least, have proven utterly incapable of fighting.1

Ironically, and Prussian fantasies notwithstanding, what the post-Gulf War American Army has come to resemble is the post-World War i French Army: In both cases, victory breeds complacency, and this in turn can lead to a solid but unimaginative army capable of holding its own against an equally solid but unimaginative opponent — but is not necessarily a match for an innovative military, be it in the form of the German “blitzkrieg” yesterday or Chinese “unrestricted warfare” tomorrow. No wonder that a particularly bold usmc colonel felt compelled recently to argue that the “Shock and Awe” doctrine could prove to be America’s twenty-first-century Maginot Line.

Read, and savor, the whole thing.


Hat tip to Karen Myers.


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