Instructions for losing a war .Lesson one, page one: ignore Karl Maria von Clausewitz…
…even his statement that war is a continuation of policy has been twisted into meaning that war is the most effective of political instruments, or that war is policy. No wonder “liberals” have so appalled by Clausewitz’s apparent immorality and brutality that they have rarely bothered to read him through. The garbling of Clausewitz’s thought by fire-eating military disciples has been compunded by similarly selective reading of his discussions of strategy and the conduct of war. His balancing qualifications and fundamental belief in the relationship of military means to political ends have been ignored.
In Germany the swift victories over Austria and France in 1866 and 1870 seemed to prove that the general staff’s reading of Clausewitz was correct. However, those wars had been carefully prepared for by Bismark’s diplomacy, and Moltke subordinated military strategy to the Iron Chancellors policies. It was Moltke’s successors as chief of general staff, Waldersee and Schlieffen, and military writers like Bernhardi and Von der Goltz, who catastrophically misinterpreted Clausewitz and preached offensive war by a mobilized nation as the solution of all Germany’s foreign problems.
Clausewitz exercised a hardly less disastrous influence on the French army. He was discovered by the French in the 1880’s, in the guise of the theorist who had deduced an infallible doctrine from the great Napoleon’s victories. Congenial extracts from Clausewitz married well with hero worship of the emperor and shaped French military thinking before 1914. The french, like the Germans, were mesmerized by the decisive victory, won with all forces united. Like other admirers of Napoleon, they failed to note that not one of the Emperor’s victories had been decisive, instead of leading to lasting peace on French terms, but instead had led ineluctably to the one decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars-Waterloo. Late nineteenth-century French military thinkers, in evlving their own Clauswitzian caricature, garbled another of Clausewitz’s insights, that of the importance of moral forces in war:
Moral forces…form the spirit which permeates the whole being of war…and therefore most of the subjects… in this book are composed of half physical, half of moral causes and effects, and we might say the physical forces are almost no more than the wooden handle, whilst the moral are the noble metal, the real bright polished weapon.
A succession of idealistic and rhetorical French soldiers, from Ardant du Picque to Foch, evolved from this the lunatic doctrine that an attack, if pressed bravely enough, could prevail over machine guns and quick firing artillery by its sheer moral effect. In 1914 the French army attempted to win a decisive victory in Lorraine in obedience to such doctrines. The result was total failure, with such appalling losses that the French army-especially the officer corps- was weakened for the rest of the war. Foch admitted later, “At the beginning of the last war, we believed that morale alone counted, which is an infantile notion.”