Clausewitz in English: The Reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America 1815–1945. By Christopher Bassford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 293 pages. $45.00.
Reviewed by Colonel Richard M. Swain (Ph.D.), USA Retired, Leavenworth, Kansas
The following review appeared in Military Review, July 1994. It is displayed here with the permission of the author, Richard M. Swain, and of Military Review
Why would a nonspecialist want to spend forty-five dollars on a book by a young scholar whose subject is Englishmen and Americans writing about the work of Germany's most well known soldier-philosopher? The Clausewitz "phenomenon" of the eighties seems to have passed its culmination point. Martin van Creveld and, lately, John Keegan, have announced the irrelevance of Clausewitz for contemporary security problems in The Transformation of War and The History of Warfare respectively. One might conclude from the title of this book that the thinking public had run out of things to write about Clausewitz himself, and had now had to settle for writing about those who write about Clausewitz. To dismiss this splendid book on that basis would be an unfortunate mistake.
Clausewitz in English is an outstanding book on many levels. To begin with, it is a reworked doctoral dissertation that has been written with a grace and clarity that belies its formal academic origin. The book belongs on the shelf alongside Peter Paret's Clausewitz and the State, Raymond Aron's Clausewitz, Philosopher of War, and Charles White's Enlightened Soldier. (White's book is a biography of Scharnhorst that explains for the layman the intellectual context in which Clausewitz moved.) Bassford's research is as intense as Paret's and the clarity of his writing better than all three. Aside from possessing the imagination to recognize that there could be great value in examining a great and complex corpus of theoretical propositions through the eyes of others, Bassford's own analysis of Clausewitz establishes him as one of the three or four authoritative living commentators on the Prussian's works. His second chapter, "Clausewitz and His Works," is likely the best single-chapter summary of On War to be found anywhere.
A well written book should be a compendium of authors and ideas, and this is a very well written book. Bassford revises the view that Clausewitz was unknown to English speaking authors in the nineteenth century. He demonstrates, for example that the Duke of Wellington wrote a respectful and well considered critique of Clausewitz's analysis of the Waterloo campaign and that the Duke's essay was well known at the time. Bassford points out frequent references to On War, some as early as 1835, and references to the Prussian's ideas made long before there were English language editions of his work. He does not commit the error, however, of trying to argue that anyone who says something which appears to be Clausewitzian does so under the influence of Scharnhorst's most brilliant student. Rather, writing early in the book about the unlikely possibility that Lincoln was a student of Clausewitz, Bassford observes that "the statement that `war is a continuation of politics by other means' is important not because Clausewitz said it but because it reflects a fundamental reality. That reality would have been obvious to a professional politician in the throes of a political crisis that had led to war." (pp. 52-53) In short, the author does not allow his revisionist thesis to lead him into the equal and opposite error of finding influence under every sentence.
This is a must-read book for anyone with pretensions to an understanding of Clausewitz and the major movements in modern western military thought. It is published by Oxford, apparently in succession to Azar Gat's two recent volumes on modern military theory. One hopes that the expensive hardbound version will be followed soon by a less dear paper edition. The market is there, for this is a book which will stand the test of time and become a true classic. Christopher Bassford, currently a Professor of National Security Affairs and Director of Studies in the Theory and Nature of War at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College at Quantico, has established himself in the front rank in the small field of military-intellectual history.
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