On War by Carl von Clausewitz – because everyone needs a hobby

This year, my big podcasting project is On war by Carl von Clausewitz. The preceeding link goes to our catalogue, where members can order a copy of the abridged version or a commentary on the book’s impact by Hew Strachan.

On war was the key text for the study of military tactics for a century, and I’ve always meant to read it, so when someone on LibriVox suggested one of us should go for it I thought “Well, I was going to do Pliny, but its full of Greek names I can’t pronounce, so I should volunteer for a chapter.” and then I thought “No…volunteer for a stupidly big amount. You are always saying to yourself it would be nice to record something people like enough to review. Go big on Clausewitz.”

My goal is to read, record, edit and podcast -almost- the entirety of an unabridged translation of on On war, all 56 sections, by 1 January 2011. I’m doing this as part of LibriVox, which is a collective of equally mad people, all doing similar things, to other books which deserve it. The basic text is coming from Project Gutenberg, which is a marvellous site for people interested in older literature.

So far its going rather well. I’ve done most of the fluffy forward materials, except the Introduction. As it happens the introduction to the best known handbook for the practice of war was written by a woman and she refers to her femininity in the first line. My wife, Linda, has agreed to record that bit for me. I may pop in to record the bits where Marie von Clausewitz quotes her husband.

Clausewitz never completed On war. His papers were found after his death of cholera, with a note saying Book 1 chapter 1 was the only bit he was really pleased with and considered finished. The rest is just to paraphrase him, a mass from which he hoped to draw out the themes he wished to explore. A track that he had cut through the underbrush in preparation for the building of a road, and not the road itself. So, I was keen to come to grips with Book 1 Chapter 1.

I’ve just finished it (although by the time you read this post, that will be like, a week ago, I’m delaying posting a little).  Book 1 Chapter 1 of Clausewitz is surprisingly modern, which makes it interesting. I particularly found fascinating his theory, as demonstrated by the current commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, that war is never won in a single blow, and that victory is never total, and that planning on either of these premises is a failure caused by ignoring the practicalities of war. He also has some excellent stuff about how theorising about war drives armchair generals to extremes, but that if you look at the actual conduct of war, you find that field officers do precisely the opposite of what theory predicts, and for excellent and perfectly explicable reasons.

That’s his basic style: he makes a strong point, makes a strong but completely contrary point, and then works out a synthesis of the two strong points. Dialectical writing’s not in vogue anymore, but it’s very convincing when done well, because if you agree with the thesis or the antithesis, it gives you the impression he’s given this more thought that you.

My only regret, so far, is that when I was recording I allowed my headphone cord to lie down the front of my body, along the line of my arm, and so whenever I leaned or gestured it added crackle to the recording. I’ve cleaned it up a lot, and will know better for next time.