Astore starts by describing his own adolescent fascination he had building models of German WWII tanks and aircraft and reading accounts of German military prowess. He relates how as a US Air Force cadet he participated on "Project X" type exercises which he was told had been first used by the Germans. He then attempts to make his own fascination general and then add to this a whole series of concepts or personalities which he sees as constituting a menacing "Cult of Clausewitz" which has led to the US military wanting to recreate the German magic and winning decisive victories, thinking due to their Clausewitzian pipe dreams that they can somehow mold war like clay. Along the way he ticks off a list of buzzwords which seemingly in his own mind constitute a rational argument.
This is simply the latest in a long history of such attempts to trash Clausewitz, but what makes it interesting is that it is by far the weakest and what it says about the state of strategic thinking in the US today. In my opinion it is a poster example of the confusion of US strategic thought common both among "progressives" and radical "conservatives", which essentially constitute the two political options available in the US today.
To start my critique of Astore's essay, let me isolate the comments he makes in regards to Carl von Clausewitz. This will indicate both the blatant irrationality of his argument and his highly questionable linking of specific concepts. While Mr. Astore is free to express his views and interpretations, his status as a teacher and former military instructor add unwarranted weight (in my view) to his conclusions and for that reason I feel obligated to speak out. The self-defeating confusion that such views could cause at this time in our nation's history is something best avoided.
Astore mentions Clausewitz on four occasions in the essay. By dealing with each in turn as they are presented in the essay I hope to indicate the weak and confused nature of his entire argument.
As I began teaching military history to cadets at the Air Force Academy in 1990, I quickly became familiar with a flourishing “Cult of Clausewitz.” So ubiquitous was Carl von Clausewitz and his book On War that it seemed as if we Americans had never produced our own military theorists. I grew familiar with the way Auftragstaktik (the idea of maximizing flexibility and initiative at the lowest tactical levels) was regularly extolled. So prevalent did Clausewitz and Auftragstaktik become that, in the 1980s and 1990s, American military thinking seemed reducible to the idea that “war is a continuation of politics” and a belief that victory went to the side that empowered its “strategic corporals.”
Several points here. First, Astore links Clausewitz with the concept of Auftragstaktik. Which on the surface seems obvious enough, Clausewitz was a Prussian officer who spoke German and Auftragstaktik is a German word, the connection is clear, right? Not really, since the term never comes up in On War. In fact as the German military historian Robert M. Citino has written, the Auftragestaktik used by the Prussian/German Army is based on their feudal system and is quite different from the concept of Auftragstaktik used by the US military today:
In fact, defined in that way [the definition used by the US military] Auftragstaktik is completely mythological. The Germans hardly ever used the term when discussing issues of command. Rather, they spoke of the "independence of subordinate commanders" which is a very different thing.
Citino, The German Way of War, page 308.
So, two completely different concepts going under the same term, but obviously not connected with Clausewitz, since On War was very much a result of/reaction to the collapse of feudalism in the early modern period. It is interesting to note that the actual German concept allows for more discretion concerning subordinates than the current US one, which is something we did not pick up from the Germans.
Second, Astore mentions the "Cult of Clausewitz" without ever defining what exactly he means. Is it the non-influence of Clausewitz on Auftragstaktik? Rather it is simply guilt by association. Clausewitz the Prussian was German and German influence is something negative, thus "Cult of Clausewitz" without any substance of even an argument, let alone a cult.
The third point I wish to make here is a bit embarrassing for Astore since it indicates a stunning lack of knowledge in regards to what he is talking about. This concerns his comment, "as if we Americans had never produced our own military theorists." Two paragraphs down from this quote he denigrates "the so-called OODA loop -- the Air Force's version of Auftragstaktik". The OODA loop is the product of an American theorist, John Boyd, who had also hopelessly misunderstood Clausewitz, but that story will have to wait for now. Instead Astore (in his second mention of Clausewitz) consigns the OODA loop to
the Clausewitzian/German notion of war as a dialectical or creative art, one in which well-trained and highly-motivated leaders can impose their will on events. In this notional construct, war became not destructive, but constructive. It became not the last resort of kings, but the preferred recourse of “creative” warlords who demonstrated their mastery of it by cultivating such qualities as flexibility, adaptability, and quickness. One aimed to get inside the enemy’s “decision cycle,” the so-called OODA loop . . .
Amazing is it not? Astore chides the US military for ignoring American theorists, who he then goes on to ignore himself and then to link Boyd's work with the noxious "Cult of Clausewitz", the dubious and non-existent cult that Astore re-created and Boyd's theories were in fact suppose to be a response to. Boyd followed the interpretations of Basil Liddell Hart, who will come up again below.
But that is not all in connection with this second quote. Astore says that Clausewitz maintains that leaders "can impose their will on events", make history bend to their iron wills. I have studied On War for the last ten years, have read and re-read the book and have written papers on On War, but nowhere have I ever seen such a claim. In fact Clausewitz's whole approach is contrary to this crude interpretation.
Astore's third mention of Clausewitz begins:
Busts of Clausewitz reside in places of honor today at both the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and the National War College in Washington, D.C. Clausewitz was a complex writer, and his vision of war was both dense and rich, defying easy simplification. But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. military from simplifying him. Ask the average officer about Clausewitz, and he’ll mention “war as the continuation of politics” and maybe something about “the fog and friction of war” -- and that’s about it. What’s really meant by this rendition of Clausewitz for Dummies is that, though warfare may seem extreme, it’s really a perfectly sensible form of violent political discourse between nation-states.
Here he has changed track. Clausewitz is "both dense and rich, defying easy simplification", although he has just finished providing a misleading simplification himself, the same error he attempts to pin on the US military. So is Clausewitz "dense and rich" or a "cult"? Astore never tells us, although he does provide a link to Professor Christopher Bassford's Clausewitz website, to a page showing various busts of Clausewitz. Let me emphasize this - Astor provides not one example by a Clausewitzian scholar or theorist portraying or supporting the "cult" as he describes it, there's nothing in the essay, only Astore's rhetoric. At the same time, but linking directly to Bassford's site he implicates every current Clausewitzian scholar and theorist of note in his noxious cult.
He does go on to mention George S. Patton, the "warrior leader" which he links with the "idolization of the German military" and the "slow strangulation of the citizen-soldier ideal".
Had Astore actually read Clausewitz carefully, say, in Chapter 1 of Book 1 of On War, where he writes:
If wars between civilized nations are far less cruel and destructive than wars between savages, the reason lies in the social conditions of the states themselves and in their relationships to one another. These are the forces that give rise to war; the same forces circumscribe and moderate it. They themselves however are not part of war; they already exist before fighting starts. To introduce the principle of moderation into the theory of war itself would always led to logical absurdity.
he might have realized that political conditions influence wars and the military, not the other way around. The character of a political elite influences the types of wars they undertake along with the character of the war itself and the goals the military is forced to carry out. Blaming radical political decisions and irrational policies on the military, which is in effect what Astore is doing, lets the political elite in question off the hook. Notice also how the last sentence removes whatever bit of credibility to Astore's argument that Clausewitz thought that military leaders could control war. Once the war begins, the dynamic of interacting hostile wills takes over. The idea that Clausewitz thought that one side could control this interaction is ludicrous.
At this point, perhaps I should mention the one US general in World War II who was most influenced by Clausewitz. It is not the "warrior-leader" Patton or the "reluctant soldier-citizen" Omar Bradley, but Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, later President of the US and issuer of the "military-industrial complex" warning. In his book, Clausewitz in English, Christopher Bassford records Eisenhower's comment as to influences:
My immediate reaction is that I have had two definitely different lives, one military, the other political. From the military side, if I had to select one book, I think it would be On War by Clausewitz. On the civil government side, I think the most significant publication would be The History of the United States by George Bancroft.
Astore's next quote, although not containing Clausewitz by name, is clearly referring to his "cult":
No wonder that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld were so eager to go to war in Iraq in 2003. They saw themselves as the new masters of Blitzkrieg, the new warlords (or “Vulcans” to use a term popular back then), the inheritors of the best methods of German military efficiency.
Notice how effortlessly the "Clausewitz cult" merges with the radical Neo-conservative ("Vulcan") agenda, to the point that one wonders which is driving the other. This view, unfortunately for Astore, would require a quite different reality than what we have experienced. Clausewitzian theorists would be sought after to formulate neo-con policy and provide the intellectual planning weight to their imperial designs. So where exactly are these Clausewitzian think-tanks and institutes, along with the corresponding theorists pulling in the big $$$ associated with being the war-making cult of choice? The Global War on Terror is big money, so where's the beef?
The sad truth is that most Clasewitzian scholars or theorists are in a few military academic positions or in education, not formulating policy papers in well-connected think tanks. In fact I'm unaware of any think tank with a specifically Clausewitzian orientation - so much for the cult. The actual strategy notions popular presently are mostly anti-Clausewitzian, or mildly so, be they Boyd's followers, 4th Generation Warfare, Network Centric Warfare, or COIN. In fact Clausewitz's influence peeked in 1991 with the First Gulf War. With the publishing of Martin van Creveld's The Transformation of War, in 1991, Clausewitz lost most of his influence in the miltary, being dismissed as too "state-centric" or "Trinitarian Warfare". It was Creveld's book which was essentially "Clausewitz for dummies" while at the same time trashing Clausewitz.
During the run up to the actual invasion of Iraq all the talk was of Sun Tzu and John Boyd, whereas Clausewitz was equated with the defeated Iraq. Amazing how all of that has been so quickly forgotten, and Clausewitz emerges once again, only to be trashed.
On the other hand, and much more significantly Andrew Bacevich, Paul Yingling, HR MacMaster and Gian Gentile, who are either highly critical of US policy or military dissidents are all Clausewitzians or write approvingly of Clausewitz.
Back to Astore's essay and the next quote:
Reeling from a seemingly inexplicable and unimaginable defeat in Vietnam, the officer corps used Clausewitz to crawl out of its collective fog. By reading him selectively and reaffirming our own faith in military professionalism and precision weaponry, we tricked ourselves into believing that we had attained mastery over warfare. We believed we had tamed the dogs of war; we believed we had conquered Bellona, that we could make the goddess of war do our bidding.
We forgot that Clausewitz compared war not only to politics but to a game of cards. Call it the ultimate high-stakes poker match. Even the player with the best cards, the highest stack of chips, doesn’t always win. Guile and endurance matter. So too does nerve, even luck. And having a home-table advantage doesn’t hurt either.
Confusing once again, who is at fault? Was Clausewitz the problem, as in "cult" or the cure? Clausewitz provides many definitions for war including likening it to a game of cards, due to the universality of chance in war, but if that is the case, how could we have thought we had "tamed the dogs of war"? Was it not the responsibility of military instructors like Astore to make sure this mistake did not happen? Still his presentation of Clausewitz is selective and shows Clausewitz seeing war as a game that generals play, but that is not the case. Rather than comparing war to politics, Clausewitz has war's subordination to politics as one of the fundamental elements of his remarkable trinity of war, that is the elements that all wars in history share in common. Astore's inclusion of "precision weaponry" in the mix is also hard to explain since Clausewitz had very little to say about technological innovation and considering that On War was first published in 1832. The actual reason for the reemergence of Clausewitz after the Vietnam War is due to a variety of factors of which Harry Sommers's analysis of that defeat is but one. Perhaps the main reason is the work of certain anti-Nazi German exiles (Alfred Vagts, Otto Jolles, Hans Rothfels and Herbert Rosinski) who developed Clausewitz's ideas during the 1920s-50s, but that would hardly fit in Astore's scheme of things.
Finally there is this last quote:
Unlike a devastated and demoralized Germany after its defeats, we decided not to devalue war as an instrument of policy after our defeat, but rather to embrace it. Clasping Clausewitz to our collective breasts, we marched forward seeking new decisive victories. Yet, like our role models the Germans of World War II, we found victory to be both elusive and illusive.
Here Clausewitz finally emerges as the problem once again. Clausewitz being associated with the idea that war can be an instrument of policy. This is one of the most common misreadings of Clausewitz. For instance, we learn in Chapter 2 of Book II that war begins when the defenders resists. The aggressor as Clausewitz tells us is more than willing to take what he wants without war. Since there are always two sides in war, for the defender war remains a legitimate policy choice, or is Astore going to preclude that?
The last point I wish to bring up is the concept of "decisive battle". Clausewitz is equated with this for a reason, he writes approvingly of seeking decisive battle numerous times in On War. One reason for this is that he is in a sort of dialogue with other theorists of his time, Heinrich von Bülow for one, who wrote that maneuver and the establishment of a "base of operations" were the essence of battle - actual combat could be avoided. For Clausewitz, war is organized violence and fighting is the very essence of war, so at times he feels the need to stress this point, to make it clear what war is in fact about. This along with the fact that Napoleon had been able to achieve decisive results, although Clausewitz doubted this would be true for all future wars.
Still, our focus on decisive battle has little to do with Clausewitz and much to do with history and the way it is taught. Starting in the Victorian age, British historians focused on "decisive battles" as explaining how history was formed by great leaders or "captains". This emphasis on "great captains" was also favored by Basil Liddell Hart, who also claimed authorship of the concept of Blitzkrieg, claiming to have influenced the Germans during the 1930s with his writings extolling the military methods of the Mongols. True to form, Hart attacked Clausewitz in simplistic terms attempting to pin on him the guilt for the bloodbaths of the First World War. In fact due to its sinmplicity, it would be hard to believe that Hart's book on strategy wasn't more widely read and understood by US military officers than On War.
In Conclusion, Astor's essay is but the latest in a long line of attempts to trash Clausewitz. That it is so crudely formulated and emotional in its presentation indicates to me that it is addressed at an audience who is either prone to think negatively of the military, of Clausewitz, of foreign influences or a combination of the three. It is not meant to inform in my opinion, but to appeal to prejudices and only serves to reinforce negative and self-defeating divisions in American society. The changes that have taken place in the US military since the 1980s reflect not the negative influence of Clausewitz, or German military history, but rather the changes that have taken place in American society as a whole.
Contrary to Astore's view, Clauewitzian strategic theory has been a basis for our civilian control of the military. The operation of our own National Security Council is based on the Clausewitzian concept of strategy formulation. The problem began, as Professor Hew Strachan has argued, when we allowed these instututions to become subverted by the previous administration. This would include the willful subversion of our intelligence services to provide the executive with excuses for policies that had already been decided upon.
Contrary to Astore's view, Clausewitzian strategic theory provides a basis for useful analysis in regards to what has been carried out in the name of the American people for the last nine years. While it may be in the interests of the imperial or war party to dismiss Clausewitz based on crude arguments, it is surely not in the interest of progressive and traditional conservative interests to do so.
Our current political reality in the US comes down to very basic political questions as to what sort of society we wish to be. We focus on distractions in order to avoid these questions, which we do at our own peril.
The only thing I wish to add is an emphasis on John Boyd, who surprisingly is not mentioned in connection with the OODA Loop, instead that being associated with the "Clausewitz cult". So is there, or has there been a cult? I would point out that in the distant past - all the way back in 2003, if anybody can dimly remember back that far, the cult if any was associated with John Boyd, who according to the hagiography of Robert Coram had "changed the art of war" itself. Boyd's ideas where seen everywhere in 2003:
In all that time, in all that glut of information, I've yet to hear any coherent explanation of U.S. fighting doctrine, strategy, or tactics, especially with any reference whatsoever to the man who very clearly (to my mind) laid out that doctrine and those tactics, just as he did in Gulf War I. That would be John Boyd.
With two teeny, tiny exceptions. Last week the Navy League sponsored its annual Sea-Air-Space Exposition at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. On April 16, Army Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the exposition's luncheon gathering (I didn't go, but I heard it that evening on C-SPAN radio driving home from Pax). In the course of his talk Myers mentioned how we had gotten "inside Iraq's decision cycle." That's Army-speak for the OODA Loop. And he mentioned "maneuver warfare."
The next day, April 17, the luncheon speaker was Adm. Vern Clark, the CNO himself. In his talk I actually heard him say the "O" words, "OODA Loop."
Not only do I think it is quite clear John Boyd's theories and tactics "designed" the conduct of GWII, I also think a great deal of the criticism of the war's tactics, especially in its early days, stemmed from the fact that few people understood Boyd's (and the Pentagon's) doctrine, and nobody bothered to explain it after it was over, when it would do no harm to say, "Look, this is what we did and why we did it."
The most famous point of contention occurred when critics (some "armchair" critics and some former and current Army generals) blasted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for "not sending enough troops" to Iraq. Close behind was all the brou-ha-ha over the ballyhooed "Shock and Awe" campaign that never happened.
Boyd's theories spend a good deal of time talking about using psychological weapons ?"psy-ops" in the modern parlance ? to break the enemy's morale even before the battle begins. In retrospect it now seems reasonably clear that all the pre-war talk about launching a Shock-and-Awe campaign that would bomb Baghdad "back to the Stone Age" (to use a Vietnam-ism) using 5,000 Tomahawk missiles and "smart-bombs" was pure psy-ops.
How was this possible? As everyone knew who had followed Boyd's thought at time, Boyd had powerful people among his closest followers. As Coram explained in an interview:
Boyd met all of the above when he was the leader, the spiritual leader, if you will, of the reform movement. Dick Cheney, then a young congressman from Wyoming, heard his briefing, then had a number of one-on-one sessions with Boyd. When Cheney became secretary of defense, he was rare in that he knew more about strategy than most of his generals did. He called Boyd out of retirement in the early days of the Gulf war, and from him got an updating, if you will. And it was Boyd`s strategy, not Schwarzkopf`s, that led to our swift and decisive victory in the Gulf war.
The vice president, Cheney, gave me about 30 minutes to talk about Boyd. And on television, he seems very reserved and controlled, but when he talked to me about John Boyd, he was enthusiastic, and I could tell he had great respect for this man.
Cheney knew more about strategy than most of his generals. That was the view among the war party in 2003, that being based on his close association with John Boyd who "had changed the art of war". Cheney of course had his own followers within the military who were also praising Boyd:
"John Boyd was a thinker ahead of his time," said retired Gen. Michael Dugan, who was chief of staff of the Air Force during the buildup to the first Persian Gulf war. "Without giving him a lot of credit, the U.S. military is following his ideas."
The Marine Corps was also heavily influenced by Boyd:
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf had presented Cheney with a plan for a head-on offensive. "Not only did Cheney reject it, he used Boyd's colorful language to do so," wrote Boyd's biographer, Robert Coram.
As vice president, Cheney exerts considerable influence on strategy in Iraq as one of President Bush's inner circle of war advisers. But the most significant convert may have been Gray, who first heard Boyd's briefings as a colonel. Later, as commander of the Second Marine Division, and later still as commandant of the Marine Corps, Gray was in a position to implement Boyd's ideas about "maneuver warfare."
Their first combat test came in Grenada in 1983. They passed.
"We've got two companies of Marines running all over the island, and thousands of Army troops doing nothing," an Army general was quoted as saying at the time. "What the hell is going on?"
Pentagon analyst Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, Boyd's closest associate for many years, said, "The Marines [later] used Boyd's tactics in the first Gulf war, and they worked like gangbusters."
My point is if there is "a cult" associated with the military adventures of the Bush administration, it has nothing to do with Clauewitz. Rather, the most influential theorist in the period of US military history Astore is talking about is probably John Boyd. Boyd of course followed Liddell Hart's flawed interpretation of Clausewitz and never really was able to link political purpose to military strategic effect. His emphasis was on tactics and technique, which has remained the case up to now.