Of the war (in German : Vom Kriegelisten)) is a treatise on military strategy written by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. Written for the most part after the Napoleonic Wars, between 1816 and 1830, and left unfinished when he died in 1831, the work was compiled and published posthumously between 1832 and 1835 through the care of his wife, Marie von Brühl.

Of the war is still the subject of periodic rediscoveries: French and German strategists before the First World War; Lenin and Mao Zedong meditating on the revolutionary war; Raymond Aron looking at strategy in the nuclear age; at each new strategic era, the teachings of the Prussian writer shed light on military theory.

Clausewitz forcefully demonstrated the intertwining of politics and the military in the act of war. Its second key idea is that of “absolute war”: the dialectic specific to military struggle implies the “ascent to extremes” and the search for the annihilation of the adversary. Ideas that do not exhaust the richness of a work, Of the warwhich stands out as one of the most influential treatises on military strategy ever written.

Before being considered the highest figure in world military thought, Carl von Clausewitz was a soldier. A cadet during the Rhine campaign in 1793–1795, it was as a young officer that he witnessed the military collapse of Prussia in Jena in 1806, devastated by modern warfare. Deeply wounded in his patriotism, he designs and organizes with Gerhard von Scharnhorst and August von Gneisenau the reform of the Prussian army. From 1812 to 1815, first in the service of the Tsar as long as Prussia was neutral, he took part in the war in Russia and then in the campaigns which led to Napoleon’s final defeat.

After the war, he became director of studies at the Military Academy in Berlin and began to write Of the war. Writing this book occupied Clausewitz for 16 years, during which he devoted himself to the thought of war with passionate rigor. Perceiving the need to consider war in a global way and to establish the link between military events (the Napoleonic campaigns) and politics (the French Revolution), he makes the rigorous conceptualization of this relationship the basis of his theory.

To analyse[modifier | modifier le code]

The conceptual analysis of war is the subject of Book I. Book II exposes the scope and limits of a theory of war. Books III to VII offer a rational examination of strategic problems.

Reduced to its abstract essence, war is comparable to a duel, an act of violence intended to compel the adversary to carry out his will.

The means par excellence of attaining this objective is the disarmament of the enemy, and the dialectic of the struggle leads irresistibly to the “ascent to extremes”. But experience, that is to say history, rarely offers the example of wars waged in the Napoleonic way, that is to say “absolute wars”, where violence is unleashed in accordance with the concept . In reality, the duel is the act of states, which proportion military objectives to political goals; for instruments they use armies, complex machinery of which Von Clausewitz designates the constraints of use by the notion of “friction”. War does not consist of a single blow without duration, but takes place in time and space; the intrinsic superiority of defense over attack favors the frequent suspension of the act of war.

Real war is not an autonomous reality, but a fragment of politics. Politics designates, on the one hand, the objective set of institutions, social and economic forms which give their general style to conflicts and, on the other hand, the subjective set of intentions that governments pursue in giving battle. Finally, each war is absolutely unique and reveals the variable play of three principles: a political principle, a military principle, a popular principle. At the time of Of the warthe political and social movement of the French Revolution prodigiously amplified the popular and passionate element of the war, bringing it closer to its absolute form.

In Book II, the author rejects any claim to build a positive doctrine of war. This would be, according to him, to neglect the moral greatness with which war is entirely imbued: the talents of the warlord, the warlike virtues of the army, the state of mind of the population, any psychological element that comes into play. and cannot be measured in numbers. Moreover, the face-to-face with an intelligent adversary who reacts, the uncertainty of all the data, the “fog of war”, make it very difficult to constitute a theory which would like to teach a method of action. It is in the tactical domain that it is possible and necessary to codify, to produce procedures and regulations. In fact, in matters of strategy, theory exists to direct and advise the intellectual development of the warlord rather than to actually guide him on the battlefield.

From Book III to Book VII, Von Clausewitz successively addresses strategy in general, engagement, military forces, defense, attack. The concern for conceptual rigor that he shows is balanced by the permanent concern for the real, for the true fact, for the technical detail. The long considerations, now outdated, on the marches, the supply, the fortresses, the defense of the marshes, etc which show the constraints exerted on the strategy by the geography and the nature of the military tool of the time, also illustrate the realism of the author.

Tactics and strategy are distinguished in terms of means and ends: the means of tactics is combat, its end victory; the means of strategy is the result of fighting, with the military objective of war as its end (Ziel)which is not necessarily confused with the political goal (Zweck). At the end of the Napoleonic era, the armed forces being approximately of the same level for the organization and the means of combat, it is with the numerical superiority that returns the decisive role on the strategic plan.

As elementary material of the act of war, the fight, even if it is not fought and one is satisfied to calculate its probable result, is the ultimate reference, and the destruction of the enemy forces the touchstone of any action of war. This is why the Prussian strategist insists on the decisive character of the main battle: “center of gravity (in) of the war “.

Finally, the act of war takes two fundamental forms which, despite what intuition may suggest, are not symmetrical to each other. Conceptually, the purpose of attack is to conquer, that of defense is to retain. All other things being equal, defense is an inherently superior form, as evidenced by the fact that it is always used by the weaker. This superiority is due to the fact that it benefits from the advantage of the terrain, and that time works to its advantage: the offensive, when it has not succeeded in knocking down the opponent immediately, always ends up reaching a climax. beyond which the attacker’s vulnerability increases and allows the defense to turn into a counter-attack.

Structure[modifier | modifier le code]

Of the war was to consist of a total of eight volumes, but only seven have reached us. These volumes are organized as follows:

Book I: On the Nature of War

Book II: On The Theory of War

Book III: Strategy in general

Book IV: The Commitment

Book V: Military Forces

Book VI: The defensive

Book VII: The Attack (incomplete)

Book VIII: The Plan of War (in draft form)

Book I, about the nature of war :

“War is the continuation of politics by other means. »

“War is an act of violence whose objective is to compel the adversary to carry out our will. »

Book I, about “friction” :

“In war everything is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. »

Book I, about the political-military-popular “trinity” :

“War is therefore not only a veritable chameleon which modifies its nature somewhat in each concrete case, but it is also, as a phenomenon as a whole and in relation to the tendencies which predominate in it, an astonishing trinity in which we find first the original violence of its element, hatred and animosity, which must be considered as a natural and blind impulse, then the game of probability and chance which make it a free activity of the soul, and its subordinate nature as an instrument of politics, by which it belongs to the pure understanding. »

Book II, about the “fog of war” :

“The great uncertainty of the data of war is a particular difficulty, because all action must, to some extent, be planned in a semi-darkness which, more often than not, in the manner of fog or lightning moon, gives things exaggerated or abnormal dimensions. »

Book III, about strategy in general :

“The first and largest strategic question is to correctly judge the kind of warfare in which one is engaging. »

“The best strategy is to always be very strong, first in general, then at the decisive point. Apart from the effort necessary for the creation of armies, which does not always depend on the general, the supreme and simplest law consists in concentrating one’s forces. »

“Any defence, within the limits of its forces, aims to go on the offensive as soon as it has borne fruit. »

The interpretation made in France of Of the warin particular by Ferdinand Foch, led to the strategy of the “outrageous offensive” in 1914[1].

An annotated copy of Of the war was found in an al-Qaeda cache in Tora Bora[2].

Translations[modifier | modifier le code]

  • Carl von Clausewitz, Essential Principles for the Conduct of War: Clausewitz interpreted by General Dragomiroff, translated from Russian and GermanParis, Military Library of L. Baudoin, 104 p. (read online)
  • Of the wartranslation by Denise Naville, “Arguments” collection, Minuit editions, 1955.
  • Of the wartranslation by Lieutenant-Colonel De Vatry, edition completed and revised by Jean-Pierre Baudet, bound volume, Champ libre, 1989.
  • Of the war, translation by Laurent Murawiec (abridged edition by Gérard Chaliand), “Tempus” collection, ed. Academic library Perrin, 448 p., 2006. (ISBN 2-262-02458-8)
  • Of the wartranslation by Jean-Baptiste Neuens, Paris, Astrée, 2014. (ISBN 979-10-91815-04-8)
  • Of the war, translation by Nicolas Waquet, Petite Bibliothèque collection, Rivages poche edition, 2014. Edition for scientific preparation. (ISBN 978-2-7436-1516-1)

Studies[modifier | modifier le code]

  • René Girard (afterword Benoît Chantre), Completing Clausewitz: Interviews with Benoît ChantreParis, Flammarion, coll. “Test fields”, 414 p. (online presentation)
  • Raymond Aaron, Clausewitz and our time », International studies, flight. 43, notoh 3.‎ , p. 339–370 (read online)
  • Paul Nicole, Problems of War: A Commentary by Lenin on Clausewitz », Annals. Economies, Societies, Civilizations, flight. 1st year, notoh 2.‎ , p. 183-185.
  • Michel Dobry, Clausewitz and “the in-between”, or some difficulties of a search for legitimate paternity », French journal of sociology, flight. 17, notoh 4.‎ , p. 652-664 (read online)
  • Eric Weil, War and politics according to Clausewitz », French journal of political science, flight. 5ᵉ year, notoh 2.‎ , p. 291-314 (read online)
  • Emmanuel Terray, Violence and calculation: Raymond Aron reader of Clausewitz », French journal of political science, flight. 36ᵉ year, notoh 2.‎ , p. 248-268 (read online)

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