Carl von Clausewitz’s On War requires a patient reader. It is disjoined, unfinished, conceptually outdated and even contradictory at times. But it remains the single most important book in the study of war and this is not only because of its penetrating and sobering insights on the nature and character of war and warfare, but also because of its capacity to determine diverging paths of understanding conflict as a socio-political phenomenon. However, much of the ink Clausewitz has been written in, draws deceptive and theoretically void hagiographies that either mislead “or do not fully convey the complexity of his arguments” (p.1). Thomas Waldman’s new book, War, Clausewitz and the Trinity, challenges this pattern of thinking and articulates an intellectually refreshing and novel understanding of the core elements of Clausewitz’s theory of war, the trinity.
Analysing the interplay of passion, chance and policy, Waldman maps the Clausewitzian mind firstly, not as an author, but as a careful and avid reader. As a modern lector belli, Waldman starts his analysis by clarifying that “the trinity is a framework that is intended to convey dynamism, flexibility, change and complexity” (p. 185). Waldman further emphasises that it is fundamental to understand the idea of trinity as encompassing not the people, the commander and the government, but rather a triptych of tendencies that has “been variously condensed into short-hand versions such as ‘violence, chance and politics’, ‘hostility, change and purpose’ or even ‘irrational, non-rational and rational factors’” (p. 6). Moreover, as “the idea of change is thus integral to the concept” (p. 56) of war, Waldman, sets his study of the three tendencies in the debate surrounding the contemporary relevance of Clausewitz.
With Enlightened rationality, and while stressing the importance of Clausewitz’s work for the current security environment, Waldman proposes the less radical approach of integrating the arguments as opposed to deepening the academic schism. Against this background, Waldman deconstructs the trinity by making use of a methodology that remains consistent throughout the entire book. The analysis of the trinity is clear and comprehensive, and captures the theoretical complexity of passion, chance and policy. For example, Waldman masterfully examines the role of chance and observes the process through which Clausewitz integrated chance in the analysis of war by developing its military explanatory capacity. Furthermore, the comparison of war with a chameleon, friction, the role of the context, as well as the idea of the fog of war are Clausewitzian concepts which are also examined by Waldman in his book, a truly ground-breaking study of strategic thinking.
An extended version of this review will be published with Political Studies Review in 2014
Vladimir Rauta is the Editor of ‘Conflict & Security‘. He is a second year doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on the phenomenon of contemporary forms of warfare, namely proxy warfare.
Follow Vladimir on Twitter on @VladimirRauta