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Saturday, September 25, 2010

On the perils of not knowing your philosophy

"A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight." - Robertson Davies

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On misinterpreting Clausewitz and the Dialectical Method:

"Clausewitz used a dialectical method to construct his argument, leading to frequent misinterpretation of his ideas. British military theorist B. H. Liddell Hart contends that the enthusiastic acceptance of the Prussian military establishment – especially Moltke the Elder – of what they believed to be Clausewitz's ideas, and the subsequent widespread adoption of the Prussian military system worldwide, had a deleterious effect on military theory and practice, due to their egregious misinterpretation of his ideas:

As so often happens, Clausewitz's disciples carried his teaching to an extreme which their master had not intended. ... [Clauswitz's] theory of war was expounded in a way too abstract and involved for ordinary soldier-minds, essentially concrete, to follow the course of his argument – which often turned back from the direction in which it was apparently leading. Impressed yet befogged, they grasped at his vivid leading phrases, seeing only their surface meaning, and missing the deeper current of his thought.

As described by Christopher Bassford, professor of strategy at the National War College of the United States:

One of the main sources of confusion about Clausewitz's approach lies in his dialectical method of presentation. For example, Clausewitz's famous line that "War is a mere continuation of politics by other means," ("Der Krieg ist eine bloße Fortsetzung der Politik mit anderen Mitteln") while accurate as far as it goes, was not intended as a statement of fact. It is the antithesis in a dialectical argument whose thesis is the point – made earlier in the analysis – that "war is nothing but a duel [or wrestling match, a better translation of the German Zweikampf] on a larger scale." His synthesis, which resolves the deficiencies of these two bold statements, says that war is neither "nothing but" an act of brute force nor "merely" a rational act of politics or policy. This synthesis lies in his "fascinating trinity" [wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit]: a dynamic, inherently unstable interaction of the forces of violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation.

Another example of this confusion is the idea that Clausewitz was a proponent of total war as used in the Third Reich's propaganda in the 1940s. He did not coin the phrase as an ideological ideal – indeed, Clausewitz did not use the term "total war" at all. Rather, he discussed "absolute war" or "ideal war" as the purely logical result of the forces underlying a "pure," Platonic "ideal" of war. In what Clausewitz called a "logical fantasy," war cannot be waged in a limited way: the rules of competition will force participants to use all means at their disposal to achieve victory. But in the real world, such rigid logic is unrealistic and dangerous. As a practical matter, the military objectives in real war that support one's political objectives generally fall into two broad types: "war to achieve limited aims" and war to "disarm" the enemy, that is, "to render [him] politically helpless or militarily impotent." Thus the complete defeat of one's enemies may be neither necessary, desirable, nor even possible."


And the reasons for this:

"It's hardly surprising that so much controversy is thrown up by "On War" when one considers that many who oppose its thoughts and ideas, and indeed those who accede to them have never read the whole work.

That the original German version is inherently difficult in itself to understand.

That there have been countless translations over the years - and many of these probably fail to interpret certain terms and ideas accurately from the original.

That at his death Clausewitz himself had yet to finish "On War".

That the unfinished pages were still in draft form when he died and compiled and published by his wife"

--- The History Network: Clausewitz
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