A behind-the-scenes discussion of Ralph Peters' article,

"The New Strategic Trinity," Parameters, Winter 1998

Ralph Peters
Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters (USA, Ret.) left the Army shortly after his last promotion. In addition to lecturing on the future of conflict, he provides commentaries to media outlets as diverse as Army Times and National Public Radio. He is the author of eight novels, including the recent The Devil's Garden and the forthcoming Traitor. A collection of his strategic and military essays, Fighting for the Future, will be published in March 1999. The "New Strategic Trinity" is his 11th article for Parameters

Dear Ralph:

I'm receiving outraged e-mail concerning your new article in Parameters, " The New Strategic Trinity." I just got one with the subject heading, "Blasphemy!!!" Personally, I liked the piece.

On the other hand, don't you think you're using Clausewitz as a strawman, a la mode van Creveld/John Keegan? (Ooohh, a low blow!) After all, Clausewitz's core trinity, as you point out, is NOT "people, army, and government," but reason, chance, and emotion--he doesn't predict the relative proportions in which they will be present. Indeed, his point is that the mix constantly changes.

Also, Clausewitz never said that governments act rationally (which would have contradicted all of his own experience), only that they should.

The line about his underestimating the importance of information in war is truly a cheap shot: he insisted throughout On War that we need to know as much as possible about our specific enemy and the specific situation--in short, good information/intelligence is vital. His caustic observations about the ACCURACY of most immediate battlefield intelligence hardly contradicts that basic thrust—and I'm not at all sure those observations are obsolete, either.

Still, a good piece.

Chris Bassford

Dear Chris,

You are, of course, correct on all counts. And yes—I was using Clausewitz as a strawman of sorts. You know how endlessly fascinating I find Clausewitz... yet who actually reads him now, to say nothing of understanding him? I wanted to write about the crucial role of information in military, economic, societal and cultural success now and, even more so, in the future. But, as with pop music, ya gotta have a hook. The hook which I knew would grab plentiful attention was Clausewitz.

Clausewitz, like Shakespeare, is robust enough to withstand any amateurism or assaults, by either admirers or detractors. In a way, he's like the Hydra, growing more heads every time you think you've lopped one off. And I like to tease the pompous and self-righteous, who often have spent far more time citing Clausewitz than they have reading him or thinking about him.

Recently, Jack Madigan [editor, Parameters] and I had one of our "God and the world" discussions and got onto Clausewitz. I said that you are the only American I know who, in my view, genuinely understands him, front to back and top to bottom. I still think your work, Clausewitz in English, is a classic.

You also know, though, that I view Clausewitz as a High Romantic--that part of the essay is heartfelt vis-a-vis old Karl. I do believe that, on a subconscious level, he resisted finishing the work, having set himself a task so Promeathean it was ultimately unrealizable. Recall that he was a contemporary of Novalis and Co. While Novalis died young, he set the intellectual tone—the love of the failed attempt, of the gorgeous fragment, of the beauty of what might have been. I do believe that analysts of Clausewitz have failed to place him in the greater context of his times—they set him against the wars of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, but fail to venture beyond the military realm. [Ed.: I'd suggest that Peter Paret did a marvelous job of doing what Ralph suggests, in his book Clausewitz and the State: The Man, His Theories, and His Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976). Unfortunately, Paret is just as hard to read as Clausewitz is.] Even the narrowest martinet cannot escape the influence of his times (and Clausewitz, though focused to the point of obsession, was no narrow intellect). And in the early Biedermeier period during which Clausewitz did his mature writing, Prussia—and Berlin—dominated the not-yet-united Germanies culturally. I am not trying to set C. up as a lover of morbid poetry, graveyards, and tubercular romances, only suggesting that he was of his age as we are of ours.

Ah, well. Whether my thoughts are right, wrong, or only muddled, I have been fascinated by Clausewitz for two decades now. He is complex, and even contradictory. But none before or since has risen to the richness of his vision of warfare. We are all dwarves stumbling in the footsteps of a giant. As for the charge of blasphemy, I fear I'm just a heretic by nature. My heroes include Jan Hus, Martin Luther, and Thomas Muentzer, as well as Swedenborg. So, depending upon your religious orientation, I may seem a blasphemer indeed.

"Not farewell, but fare forward, voyager!"


Dear Ralph:

Good answer. Can I post our exchange to our link to your article and as a note to the bibliography entry on the Clausewitz Homepage?


Dear Chris:

1. You are free to post the exchange on the website.

2. I had not seen either the web site or your "modest proposal." I try to minimize my time and focus on the web, due to the seductive nature of the beast and the ferocious time constraints of my daily life (if one supports oneself by writing, one must write). I must say that, having checked both out, I am extremely impressed with the home-page and will come back for a longer visit. Also, I will actively look about for a potential backer for your proposal. I think it's a super idea. I wish I could free you up to do your chosen work—but my books don't sell quite that well!

Best regards, Ralph Peters

Return to The Clausewitz Homepage