Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We ask an expert on a particular subject to recommend five books on that topic and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
For this edition, we’re bringing back a popular contribution from Joe Byerly and Nathan K. Finney, first published in 2019. In it, the two explain that the most influential military theorist among US Army officers is Carl von Clausewitz, but with little time given to formal instruction on the Prussian’s ideas and his most famous work, On War, it is left to individuals to develop an understanding of the ideas and their modern application independently. Byerly and Finney offer a series of books and other resources for military professionals seeking a better, more detailed, and more nuanced understanding of Clausewitz’s work.
If running a rifle range is a critical gate in the development of company-grade officers, understanding On War should share a similar importance for field grades (regardless of career field). Clausewitz’s treatise is important because he introduces several theories and themes that illuminate and inform our modern-day outlooks on war, leadership, and strategy.
The problem, however, is that most field grades do not tackle the theorist until they get to their intermediate leader education (ILE) and are rushed through the material, barely taking the time to absorb it. For example, when the Naval War College and the Command and General Staff College introduced Clausewitz, we had to read him within a week, along with several other articles and chapters of other books. Additionally, the portions of the book foisted on intellectually saturated ILE students are dense, are devoid of any context, and really only cover the highlights that anyone can get by simply Googling “On War.”
If leaders try to read Clausewitz on their own, most are unaware of supplemental material to support their understanding, the best translations to use, or which sections (or “books”) within On War are most relevant today.
The intent of edition of War Books is to provide some minimal guidance to those who wish to read Clausewitz on their own or supplement the basic familiarity they gained in ILE.
Clausewitz is One of Us
When we first heard leaders quote Clausewitz, we pictured him as some wise old sage from history who sat in high tower writing about war. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As Sir Hew Strachan wrote, “[Carl von Clausewitz] would have rather exercised high command than written about it.” He was a young, ambitious combat arms officer who experienced war for the first time at the age of twelve. When Prussia returned to a peacetime posture he became disgruntled. Throughout his twenties he wrestled with the fact that his day-to-day life in garrison looked nothing like what he experienced in combat. War was messy, and “home station” training was mechanistic and too scripted. Meanwhile, Napoleonic France, Prussia’s neighbor, was in the midst of forcefully changing the rules of war. They were doing things so differently that leaders of nations (civilian and military) couldn’t keep up. Eventually France steamrolled Prussia, and Clausewitz was forced to reflect on the defeat. This failure is what drove Clausewitz to write.
Having seen war firsthand, he writes about friction in war, an element that is still present today. He examines leadership and decision-making in war. He teaches us that experience is not enough and that we must bring together self-study, reflection, and our experiences to enhance our decision-making in war.
So, how does a leader penetrate the dense language and focus on the key issues of On War as just described?
First, Context is King
We often recommend those dipping their toes into the dense theory found in On War start by getting a little contextual primer. You can’t go wrong with Sir Michael Howard’s Clausewitz: A Very Short Introduction. A leader can finish this (literally) tiny book in a short afternoon, while setting a solid foundation for On War itself.
Second, Translation Matters
Read the translation by Sir Michael Howard and Peter Paret. It is not only the most clear translation for the practitioner, but also the version all military leaders—inside and outside the United States—reference. Moreover, the Howard and Paret translation includes great introductory essays that offer another way to ease into the big ideas of the book. Finally, at the end of the book theorist Bernard Brodie provides a lucid and useful commentary that readers can reference as they go through the book.
Third, Focus is Key
On War is divided into eight books. It was written over many years and some books are more complete and integrated than others. Also, although Clausewitz attempted to write a timeless treatise, most of the technologies and tactics mentioned in On War are now obviously obsolete. Therefore, readers should focus principally on books one through three and book eight. These are the most complete and applicable to war as we see it today.
Finally, Understand Context
It is easier to understand On War when you understand its context, whether its place in theory or its applicability today. These books are great to have alongside On War to help readers better understand the nineteenth-century Prussian:
Clausewitz and Contemporary War, by Antulio Echevarria
In this book, Echevarria does an amazing job of explaining On War in words that modern readers can understand, as well as tying Clausewitz’s more enduring ideas to today’s character of war.
Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, by Michael I. Handel
This volume of collected works provides an analysis of On War alongside those of by Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and other strategists. This book will help leaders place Clausewitz’s ideas in context with the other leading theorists of war.
The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice, by Colin S. Gray
This book by Colin Gray complements On War, expanding from Clausewitz’s “theory of war” to formulate a “theory of strategy.” This is a dense work that should only be undertaken once a leader has a firm foundation in Clausewitz and other theorists of war, but is critical to understanding how senior military leaders must transition from practitioners of tactical art to a bridge between policy and those tactics.
And of course, there are a host of other resources a leader can use to build a foundation in Clausewitz’s theory, understand the context of his life and work, or expand beyond On War.
There are a few podcasts that we recommend readers listen to for background, insights, and to gain a better understanding of Clausewitz and his writings.
Before reading On War, I recommend listening to this podcast. In this episode, Donald Stoker discusses Clausewitz the soldier.
Another great summary and history of Clausewitz!
This episode provides a history of Clausewitz, as it relates to On War.
Some More History on Clausewitz
If you take a sip of the Clausewitz Kool-Aid and want more, we recommend these books.
Clausewitz and the State, by Peter Paret
Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography, by Sir Hew Strachan
Clausewitz and Contemporary War, by Antulio Echevarria
Clausewitz: His Life and Work, by Donald Stoker
Marie Von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War, by Vanya Bellinger
The Enlightened Soldier, by Charles Edward White
Finally, the ultimate (and free) resource on all things Clausewitz is The Clausewitz Homepage. This website is a one-stop shop for everything relating to Clausewitz and On War.
Lt. Col. Joe Byerly is a US Army armor officer who currently commands 4th Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment. A former nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute, he founded the leader development website From the Green Notebook.
Lt. Col. Nathan K. Finney is a US Army strategist currently serving as a special assistant to the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command in the commander’s action group. He earned a PhD in history at Duke University in 2022. You can find him on Twitter @NKFinney.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.