Clausewitz lived in a time where battles were fought in columns and lines, with soldiers using muskets and solid-shot cannon; when states were the exclusive actors in war; when technological change occurred over decades, if not centuries. What relevance could his work therefore have for the strategic problems of the 21st century?
Clausewitz was not a cookbook writer. He was not looking for hard and fast rules for conducting war, which he eschews. Indeed, Clausewitzian theories elaborated at different periods of time are in close conjunction with the prevalent political, strategic, and military context, which is completely consonant with Clausewitz’s original conception of his own work:
‘Theory should be study, not doctrine […] It is an analytical investigation leading to a close acquaintance with the subject; applied to experience – in our case, to military history – it leads to thorough familiarity with it. The closer it comes to that goal, the more it proceeds from the objective form of a science to a subjective form of a skill, the more effective it will prove in areas where the nature of the case admits no arbiter but talent.’
‘Theory is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield.’
If ‘the absurd difference between theory and practice’ is to be ended, then the correspondence between theory and practice implies the correspondence between the military commander and military thinker. Therefore, ‘self-education’ is important and useful to the military thinker too. He must not be bounded by a single theory of war but with the means to develop his own ideas (objective knowledge of war), fuelled by his talent (subjective capacity and application). The phenomena of war are more diverse than ever: from terrorism to inter-state war, from information war to riots in rural areas, from air strikes to intifada. Loose networks of limited wars have replaced the expectation of a nuclear apocalypse that characterized the Cold War. The differences and contradictions between the various conclusions and corresponding analyses regarding a strategic situation are but a reflection of the variety of military conflicts and the diversity of perspectives from which these conflicts are observed. These perspectives depend on time, culture, and political context. This phenomenon has been analyzed through the concept of strategic culture, that is ‘a distinctive and lasting set of beliefs, values and habits regarding the threat and use of force, which have their roots in such fundamental influences as the geographical setting, history and political culture’. States (e.g. Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Iranians, Indians etc.) tend to have different perspectives on strategic problems, and the reason for these divergences probably goes beyond the defense of short-term interests. The extremely heterogeneous situation of the phenomena of war is analyzed from very different lenses of different strategic cultures, and hence makes states’ theories of war difficult to critique. Moreover, it is difficult to validate the doctrines that reflect these different theories by the use of examples of operational success or failure. Therefore, the need for a theory-of-theories of war remains valid. An overarching theory of war will take into account the influence of the interaction between the thinker and his object and can form the framework required to analyze the strategic debate. Clausewitz thus continues to remain relevant to analyze strategic problems of the 21st century as he had developed a theory about the theory of war.
Clausewitz recognized that Napoleon had overreached himself and the theoretical significance that a consistent, single military strategy could have different historical outcomes. In his own realization – evident in his note of 1827 – that any theory of war had to accommodate two sorts of...
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