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Resurrecting the "Icon": The Enduring Relevance of Clausewitz's "On War"

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For students of strategy, Carl von Clausewitz has long been a polarizing figure. Notwithstanding their rather different interpretations of On War, soldiers, statesmen, and scholars such as Moltke the Elder, General Colin Powell, and Sir Michael Howard have praised its insights and elevated it to the forefront of the strategic canon. Their enthusiasm has been matched by the hostility of writers like Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart, Sir John Keegan, and Martin van Creveld, who have condemned Clausewitz as bloodthirsty, misguided, and obsolete. Phillip S. Meilinger sides emphatically with the latter school in his article, Busting the Icon Restoring Balance to the Influence of Clausewitz, in the premiere issue of this journal. Meilinger argues that the current predicament of the U.S. military in Iraq stems from its cultural ignorance and its obsession with bloody, decisive land battles, conditions that he attributes directly to its fascination with the Prussian theorist. The extent to which such shortcomings actually afflict American forces in Iraq is debatable. What is clear, however, is that neither recent scholarship on Clausewitz nor a careful reading of On War itself supports Meilingers diatribe. For Meilinger, like many other detractors, a sound grasp of Clausewitzs arguments is apparently not a prerequisite for attacking them. His condemnation of On War is particularly unfortunate at a time when the book is inspiring insightful and creative attempts to address the strategic challenges facing the United States in Iraq and elsewhere. This essay evaluates Meilingers principal criticisms of Clausewitzs ideas before turning to consider briefly the real influence Clausewitz has had on the U.S. military and the broader strategic studies community. More than any other work, On War provides a foundation for understanding the nature of war, which is an essential first step in the process of devising sound strategy.

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  • Military Forces and Organizations
  • Military Operations, Strategy and Tactics
  • Humanities and History

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