Reading “On War” for the First Time

Where to begin? Authors felled forests in pursuit of analyzing On War, the seminal work of Carl von Clausewitz. Renowned strategic thinkers in the ages since its publication expanded on, clarified, or critiqued its insights into the conduct of war. In this light, the vast collections of materials associated with On War hardly seem to call for another addition to their midst. What else is there to say? As it turns out, there is a great deal to discuss with one particular group – first-time readers of the classic.

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C.E. Callwell, Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (1896)

The roots of modern counterinsurgency strategy are deep. As far back as Roman times historians like Tacitus recorded accounts of regular forces battling local guerrillas, and from these origins a long tradition of studying these peculiar types of conflicts was born. One of the most historically significant efforts to encapsulate lessons from irregular wars, or “small wars,” comes from the pen of British officer C. E. Callwell. Caldwell’s exploration of this type of warfare that yielded what remains one of the most insightful treatments of insurgency and counterinsurgency. While his work is a far cry from modern population-centric visions of counterinsurgency, it represents an important starting point in the development of modern counterinsurgency strategy and tactics.

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Tacitus, Agricola (circa 98 AD)

The Agricola (On the Life and Character of Julius Agricola) is a riveting read. A classic work crafted by the Roman politician and historian Cornelius Tacitus at the very end of the first century AD, modern students of strategy and diplomacy continue to find the account of Roman general and politician Agricola’s exploits in Britain timely and relevant. Part eulogy, part history, part anthropological study, and part military analysis, among other things, the short work explores diverse topics while ostensibly being Tacitus’s way of honoring his father-in-law. Three topics stand out – Agricola as a study of leadership, politics, and counterinsurgency strategy.

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Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 (1957)

A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problem of Peace, 1812-1822, Kissinger's first book, was written in the early 1950s while Kissinger was a young doctoral student at Harvard. The book was initially not as famous or as influential as his later books. Its focus on diplomatic negotiations following the fall of Napoleon was seen by his peers as esoteric and out of tune with the times. In a world featuring nuclear weapons, why dissect the diplomatic wrangling of the 19th century? This view may have characterized the dissertation turned book at the time of its writing, but today Restored is widely regarded as essential reading for the student of strategy and diplomacy.

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B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (1954)

The origins of Liddell Hart’s indirect approach are twofold. From a theoretical perspective, he is writing in response to military and political leaders who he claims misread and misapplied the theory of 19th century Prussian military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. From an empirical perspective, he is digesting the experiences of the World Wars, especially the stalemated trench warfare of the Great War and the mechanized and aerial battles of the fight against Hitler. Liddell Hart argues vigorously that the application of poorly understood Clausewitizian strategy fueled the bloodbath that was World War I and the slow adaptation of alternatives during World War II, all of which called into question the validity of the old theory and demanded reformulating how military force might be applied to achieve political aims.

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David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (1964)

While great power war defined the first half of the twentieth century, insurgencies defined its latter half. Given present trends, these types of conflicts will rage for the foreseeable future, and students of strategy and diplomacy will want to consider classic counterinsurgency (COIN) writings as they face this future. Central among these is Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice by David Galula. This book written in 1964 was in many ways a forgotten work; however, it quickly grew in prominence as the United States and its allies found themselves facing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan during the opening years of the twenty-first century.

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U.S. Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (1940)

The American military and the U.S. Marine Corps in particular had been fighting and analyzing counterinsurgency operations decades before their boots marked the sands of the Middle East and South Asia. Sadly, many of the lessons from these experiences languished on the shelfs of war colleges even as they became vitally important in the field. A handful of forward thinking officers cried for their reconsideration and modernization, and these efforts ultimately led to The U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual No. 3-24. However, long before General David Petraeus blended the wisdom of soldiers and scholars to produce his manual, an earlier effort already chronicled many of the central considerations for fighting against insurgencies. The Marine Corps Small Wars Manual, published in 1936 and updated in 1940, remains an important document for understanding the historical development of American counterinsurgency strategy and tactics.

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John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919)

In 2014, a slew of new books examining the “war to end all wars” appeared on the shelves of libraries and booksellers around the world. The centennial of that bloody conflict seemed an appropriate time to revisit its causes and consequences. While some of these efforts offered genuinely new insights, most did not. Beyond these freshly bound attempts to encapsulate one of the most destructive events of human history, there is a rich, much older set of works that any serious student of strategy and diplomacy should consider. Among these, The Economic Consequences of the Peace holds a special place.

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