On War

Michael Howard, Clausewitz, A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002 (first published as OU paperback press, 1983).

Sir Michael Howard, who co-edited a translation of Clausewitz’s On War in the 1970s, has been a professor of war studies and a military historian in England and the United States. His short introduction is a slightly altered version off a piece he published thirty years ago. Howard offers a brief biography on Karl von Clausewitz as well as extended commentary on the military man’s legacy. Ultimately what makes this slim volume appealing is that Howard successfully combines discussion of Clausewitz’s career as a professional soldier with explanations about his ideas in the context of other intellectual ideas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

As Howard points out clearly, one cannot put together an argument or historiography about military theory without including Clausewitz. His one major work, On War, has done more than merely not been forgotten as Clausewitz hoped. The book helped not only his Prussian comrades in dealing with their traditional enemy the French, but also served as a fine example as one expert professional writing for others.

Born just prior to the French Revolution, Karl von Clausewitz began his military career at age 12, eventually attending a war college in Berlin under the direction of Gerd von Scharnhorst. Always an eager student, Clausewitz proved himself to be both an intellectual and a field officer. He was fiercely loyal to Prussia and its people, even protesting his king’s decision to ally the nation with France by resigning his commission and joining Czar Alexander I’s Russian army.

Howard clearly and concisely explains Clausewitz’s intellectual journey, the background of European military organizations in the late 1700s/early 1800s, and the politics of the period. Additionally, Howard spends time discussing the difficulties Clausewitz has in completing On War. A seeming perfectionist, Clausewitz drafted and re-drafted editions of the book centering on his idea that war was a trinity of the way in which government directed policies, the professional qualities of the army, and, not to be ignored, the attitude of the nation’s population.

Howard provides the uninitiated with an excellent and readable overview of war’s practice, the means and ends of war, and the difference between limited and absolute warfare. For someone like myself, who knows Clausewitz by reputation, but has never studied the man’s work, this book is a great place to begin. If there remained any doubt about the strategist’s legacy, Howard identifies the ways in which Clausewitz influenced future generations in the final chapter. The book would serve as a great text for an undergraduate course on military history.

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