Clausewitz: Lessons in Social Scientific Inductive Theory from On War

Prussian Army during battle of Mollwitz 1741, anonymous plate circa 19th century [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

On WarOn War by Carl von Clausewitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first full reading of Clausewitz (accepting that the Penguin volume does not include several books on early nineteenth-century military operations) impressed upon me the essence of philosophy and theory as it applies to the social sciences. 

This Penguin volume is interesting in that it includes an introduction from the editor of the 1908 version used by the US military (Colonel F.N. Maude) and a later introduction from the time of the Cold War (1966 and the early stages of the Vietnam War) by Professor Anatol Rapoport. I have long viewed On War much the same as one might Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations: the quote “war is the continuation of policy by other means” proving to be as similarly unhelpful “as if by an invisible hand” in comprehending the extent of the philosophical grounding in store for the avid reader of classic literature. 

Reading Clausewitz is like reading John Stuart Mill: almost every lesson is so ingrained in the education of political scientists (or in this case, from my training as an army officer) that it seems like nothing new. From morale being one third of combat power (p. 424) to the implied role of the infantry (which I memorised years ago and can still recite), to the essence of war and the changes heralded by the Napoleonic period to the future of absolute or total war that would arrive in 1914, these things I mostly knew. 

But the references to philosophy (the Stoic’s negative visualisation gets a run), to how to develop a theory, to the social scientific view of the world that is largely inductive (and unfalsifiable if one is a fan of Karl Popper) astounded me. That I could learn so much unexpectedly was a blessing. Some ideas are worth noting. First, in the introduction, Rapoport writes of Clausewitz (p. 72):
Those without specialized mathematical knowledge (e.g. political scientists, administrators, military men) tend to conceive of their expertise as that of the artist rather than of a scientist.
Rapoport explains (p. 431):
In the exact sciences, theory is used precisely in the sense rejected by Clausewitz, namely, in the sense of a collection of theorems deduced rigorously from postulates formulated in ‘if so… then so” terms, i.e. as formulas. Clausewitz here uses ‘theory’ in the sense often used in the social sciences, namely, as a synthesis of concepts which illuminate the subject matter without necessarily enabling us to make specific predictions or to control specific situations.
This was illuminating, given that only today I was rummaging through the inductive nature of my own theories developed from research and then reading of Popper’s critique of historicism (another discussion that is new to me). 

An interesting reference from the notes is one of what was probably the most outdated books of the twentieth century even before it was published: Cavalry in Future Wars written in 1908. Rapoport argues that by then, cavalry in its traditional form had no future (Henry Chauvel aside). Finally, Clausewitz subordinates the military to the political without diminishing what he considered to be its noble qualities:
In one word, the Art of War in its highest point of view is policy, but, no doubt, a policy which fights battles instead of writing notes.
Clausewitz frequently argues that the Art of War can only be learnt through practice. While policy-makers might best be suited to determining the aim of war (as policy) from book-learning, military commanders could never attain the artistic qualities necessary for successful military campaigning without direct experience of the fog of war. 

As I have recently moved into research that involves practitioners, Clausewitz gives me some hope for my theoretical aspirations and the use of induction in my work. This was a wonderful surprise, a circumstance that often repeats itself when I embark on a cover to cover reading of books that I thought I knew. 

I must admit that this is the second volume of this work I have purchased. When the first arrived and I discovered it was an abridged version, I donated it to my local library. When this book arrived (Penguin classics are ‘unabridged’ – this version is unabridged from the 1908 abridged version), I was disappointed but pushed on out of frustration. 

I must say it was worth it and I will be recommending this as a reading project for others in my field who, like me, might also think they know Clausewitz.