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Everything You Know About Clausewitz Is Wrong


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Well maybe not everything, but this article argues that a common mistranslation has seriously affected how "we" in the West understand both Clausewitz and how we apply his ideas to warfare:


Everything You Know About Clausewitz Is Wrong
A botched translation of Clausewitz has had an enduring impact on our thinking on warfare.
By James R. Holmes
November 12, 2014

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 Faulty or outdated ideas can carry real-world repercussions.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.”

While we have moved away from seeing armed conflict as a sort of "event horizon" with ideas like "Whole of government approach" and "DIME" (Diplomacy Information Military Economic) gaining ascendency, these are still relatively new (I don't recall hearing any discussion about them until the 1990's and in context of Former Yugoslavia), and a lot of military thinking still exists in silos isolated from the larger world outside (I'm very guilty of that myself). Other ideas like Russian "Hybrid War" and Chinese "Unrestricted Warfare" seem to conceptualize this much better than we do.

It's funny how very simple things have the potential to lead to profound consequences.
The title is somewhat silly except to those who like to dwell on every noun and article, especially when its understood that On War was, save books 1 and 8, an unfinished manuscript published posthumously by Clausewitz's widow.  The Howard and Paret edition is just fine to understand the essential aspects of the Master's thinking.

However, over at Clausewitz.com, the Jolles translation is recommended as the most accurate rendition in the English language.  Read 'em both I guess....

Thucydides said:
ideas like "Whole of government approach" and "DIME" (Diplomacy Information Military Economic) gaining ascendency, these are still relatively new (I don't recall hearing any discussion about them until the 1990's and in context of Former Yugoslavia),

Albert Wiedermeyer's ends his memoires with a description of using DIME as an approach to confronting communism - written in the 1950s, I'm convinced he may of actually coined the term, and he ascribes his thinking to his experience as a student at Germany's Kriegsakademie in the 1930s.