Clausewitz’s classic On War is long and difficult, and it truly requires many years of study to assimilate, but the reader gradually realizes that certain fundamental principles, as well as a few specific questions, pervade it. Many people know his concept of “friction” and the “fog of war,” which makes battles so devilishly hard to understand and requires extraordinary qualities of mind and spirit for generals on the scene to unravel. This is an insight that has survived modern technology, as the repeated attempts to kill Saddam Hussein with air strikes—none of which, we now know, actually aimed at one of his many real hiding places—recently proved. A battle is like a football game, and just as difficult to predict. Generations of military historians—most notably those unhappy partisans of the Confederate States of America—have tried to stand this principle on its head by rewriting the outcome of every critical battle of the civil war to show how it could (or should) have turned out differently.
Again and again in On War Clausewitz analyzes the various campaigns of Napoleon, whom he fought against in
History, of course, is riddled with such examples. One of the closest parallels to our recent Iraq war occurred in 1914, when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, provoked by a spectacular act of state-sponsored terrorism—the assassination of its heir apparent by Serbian military intelligence—decided that Serbia had to be crushed once and for all. The initial Austrian attack on
In retrospect it has been very easy to suggest that the
In retrospect we can see numerous danger signs in
To wise leaders, the inescapable uncertainty of war should militate against embarking upon it unless it is absolutely necessary—which neither