Clausewitz Essay History Military Power Understanding War

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This review originally appeared in The International History Review, vol.XVI, no.3 (August 1994). It is displayed here with the permission of .



Paret, Peter. Understanding War: Essays on Clausewitz and the History of Military Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Pp. x, 229. $24.95 (US).

Peter Paret, now at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, requires little introduction to serious students of military history or--particularly--to readers familiar with the study of Clausewitz. Since the early 1960s, no other single scholar writing in the English language has matched Paret's contribution to the field of Clausewitz studies. Each of the sixteen rather uneven essays contained in this collection has already appeared elsewhere, some as early as 1964, though several of the most interesting are quite recent. None the less, Paret has skillfully assembled them into an unusually coherent anthology very much relevant to current interests.

Carl von Clausewitz has long been the most influential of the classical military theorists, and remains the most frequently abused. Paret's insightful and informed analyses are always a helpful antidote to such shallow popular treatments as John Keegan's determinedly obtuse interpretation (provided most recently in A History of Warfare, 1993) or Martin van Creveld's amusing but unsophisticated attempts to take the Prussian philosopher's place. Perhaps Paret's choice of title is meant as a direct rebuke to Colonel T.N. Dupuy, whose 1987 Understanding War: History and Theory of Combat cited Clausewitz profusely while pursuing a mathematics-based theoretical approach that would have doubled the Prussian writer over in laughter.

Paret has organized his collection into three unequal parts. The first six essays examine the nature and role of military power in European history, largely in the period between the end of the Middle Ages and World War I, with a strong focus on the transformation of war which centered on the French Revolution. Paret's analysis is itself highly Clausewitzian in character while serving to explain the sources of the Prussian writer's own world view. The essay `Napoleon as Enemy' is a true classic, offering a viewpoint that remains too seldom utilized in the continuing flood of literature on Napoleonic warfare. The essay comparing Clausewitz to Alexis de Tocqueville is not only interesting in itself but contains an intriguing analysis of continuities and discontinuities between l'emperor and his quasi-predecessor, Frederick the Great.

The next section, consisting of nine essays, focuses on Clausewitz himself. Of these, the most interesting to Clausewitz aficionados will be Chapter Thirteen, `"A Proposition Not a Solution"--Clausewitz's Attempt to Become Prussian Minister at the Court of St. James.' Based on new research, this lays out in some detail the difficult situation in which the philosopher found himself after the onset of conservative reaction following the coalition victories in which he had played so energetic a role. More important for the general historian will be the essays on `Clausewitz as Historian' and `Clausewitz's Politics.' These might do a lot by themselves to put the arguments of the philosopher's current detractors into proper perspective. Intrinsically the most interesting, however, although largely irrelevant in military historical terms, is Paret's comparison of the strangely parallel lives of Clausewitz and his contemporary, the literary figure Heinrich von Kleist. Here, Paret demonstrates the value of his odd mixture of interests in military and aesthetic history. For readers whose view of Clausewitz's personality has been swayed by Hans Rothfels's doleful view of the man as a sad, embittered outsider, Kleist's tragedy will serve as a reminder of just how bad things can get, and thus demonstrate the essential success of Clausewitz's own life.

The last part of this anthology consists of but one essay, `The History of War and the New Military History.' There is nothing particularly new or interesting here, which is hardly surprising given the topic and the fact that this essay is based on one which first appeared in 1971. On the other hand, it serves as a healthy reminder that it was Paret, as much as any historian now living, who helped to shape the `new military history' and to bring it into consonance with the broader academic discipline of which it is so rightly a part.

Paret's writing is always fascinating; on the other hand, like Clausewitz's own, it is also quite demanding on the reader. Paret offers little in the way of narrative continuity or background information. His essays here are almost pure, distilled analysis. This is rather ironic, given his prominent complaint about the historical profession's habit of `making historical writing incomprehensible to many nonacademic readers and limiting its public to other scholars.' (p.40) It is also unfortunate, because what Paret has to say, whether original or derived from the great German military philosopher into whose ideas he has done so much to breathe new life, is of lasting value.

Christopher Bassford
USMC Command & Staff College

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